|Father Walter Schu LC|
In the following article from the National Catholic
Register, Fr Walter Schu, LC, explains why Humanae Vitae caused
a “firestorm” on its publication day. This article is the
first of a series on the topic of Humanae Vitae’s
impact on the world.
BY Legionary Father Walter Schu
July 20-26, 2008 Issue | Posted 7/15/08 at
On July 29, 1968, a crescendo of
suspense was broken and Pope Paul VI publicly issued his
long-awaited encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth).
the encyclical, the Holy Father courageously reaffirmed the Church’s constant
teaching that, in the words of the encyclical, “each and
every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of
new life” (No. 11).
It caused a firestorm.
Within 24 hours, in an event unprecedented in the
history of the Church, more than 200 dissenting theologians signed
a full-page ad in The New York Times in protest.
Not only did they declare their disagreement with encyclical’s teaching;
they went one step further, far beyond their authority as
theologians, and actually encouraged dissent among the lay faithful.
They asserted the following: “Therefore, as Roman Catholic theologians,
conscious of our duty and our limitations, we conclude that
spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial
contraception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to
preserve and foster the values and sacredness of marriage.”
Among Catholic laity, Humanae Vitae was also greeted with consternation.
A Gallup survey done less than a month after the
encyclical was promulgated showed that of those Catholics who had
heard of it, only 28% agreed with the Pope’s teaching.
Fifty-four percent disagreed with the Pope explicitly; others refused to
Even among bishops, the encyclical was often received
with what could hardly be described as an ardent embrace
in obedience and faith. On Sept. 27, 1968, the bishops
of Canada, united in plenary assembly at St. Boniface in
Winnipeg, Manitoba, issued a declaration on Humanae Vitae that has
come to be known as the Winnipeg Statement.
Oddly enough, the statement does not use the term “contraception”
even once, substituting instead the euphemism “any positive intervention that
would prevent the transmission of human life” (No. 8). Still,
the statement seems to be headed in the right direction,
as it acknowledges the magisterium’s right to pronounce itself on
the question of the responsible regulation of births, along with
the duty of the faithful to form their consciences according
to that teaching.
But then, No. 26 makes
its appearance, in which all of the above is thrown
to the winds:
“Counselors may meet others who, accepting
the teaching of the Holy Father, find that because of
particular circumstances they are involved in what seems to them
a clear conflict of duties, e.g., the reconciling of conjugal
love and responsible parenthood with the education of children already
born or with the health of the mother. In accord
with the accepted principles of moral theology, if these persons
have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line
of conduct in keeping with the given directives, they may
be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course that
seems right to him does so in good conscience” (italics
In other words, the Canadian bishops affirmed that
Catholics may in good conscience choose to disregard Humanae’s Vitae’s
teaching on the intrinsic evil of contraception (found in the
Subjectivism of conscience has become the new,
supreme law. Aside from the truth of responsible procreation, what
teaching of the faith at all is capable of standing
against this new norm of unbridled subjectivism?
Paul II’s ardent defense of the truth of married love
rings out in sharp contrast to the Winnipeg Statement: “Contraception
is to be judged so profoundly unlawful as never to
be, for any reason, justified. To think or to say
the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life,
situations may arise in which it is lawful not to
recognize God as God” (L’Osservatore Romano, Oct. 10, 1983, p.
Many groups of Catholic lay faithful have been
urging the Canadian bishops to retract the Winnipeg Statement and
affirm their complete adherence to Humanae Vitae.
bishops had the courage to withdraw their own 1968 statement
on March 29, 1988, and to announce their complete agreement
with Humanae Vitae, as well as John Paul II’s apostolic
exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in
the Modern World).
In 1990, the Philippine bishops issued
an apology to that nation’s Catholics for having failed to
encourage their flock to adhere to Humanae Vitae.
They wrote: “Afflicted with doubts about alternatives to contraceptive technology,
we abandoned you to your confused and lonely consciences with
a lame excuse: ‘Follow what your conscience tells you.’ How
little we realized that it was our consciences that needed
to be formed first.”
How did the U.S. bishops
react to Pope Paul VI’s courageous encyclical?
they rushed to support the Holy Father, asking the lay
faithful to do the same. On July 31, 1968, Archbishop
John Deardon of Detroit, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference
declared: “Recognizing his [Pope Paul VI’s] unique role in the
universal Church, we, the bishops of the Church in the
United States, unite with him in calling upon our priests
and people to receive with sincerity what he has taught,
to study it carefully and to form their consciences in
Still, when the bishops distributed the English
edition of Humane Vitae, attached to it were norms for
How could such a situation have arisen:
theologians, laity, even bishops in a firestorm of dissent from
the definitive, binding teachings of the Holy Father?
To understand the reaction to Humanae Vitae, it is necessary
to consider the drama leading up to the encyclical. A
principal element in that drama was the sexual revolution.
By the summer of 1968, the sexual revolution was in
full swing, both in the United States and Western culture.
What was the dominant ideology of the sexual revolution? It
was the attempt to “liberate” sexuality from the “repressive” confines
It was the effort to truncate
the meaning of sex to personal pleasure through ecstatic release.
The attempt was made to obliterate the transcendent, personal dimension
of sexual intercourse as a free self-giving of the entire
person in love.
What was sought was love
without responsibility, pleasure without the gift of self.
were often swept away with the rest of the population
in this new hedonism and the illusory freedom it proffered.
A national study done in 1955 revealed that
only 30% of Catholic wives were using contraception. A similar
study in 1965 showed the following: “53% of Catholic wives
aged 18 to 39 were either presently using a forbidden
means of contraception or had done so in the past.”
By 1970, fully 68% of Catholic wives in their
childbearing years were limiting their families by a means other
than abstinence or natural family planning.
What was at
stake in the firestorm of dissent with which Humane Vitae
was greeted and in the drama leading up to its
In his 1994 Letter to Families, John
Paul II affirmed that “the family is placed at the
center of the great struggle between good and evil, between
life and death, between love and all that is opposed
Many different forces enter into that
struggle. But at its very core is the ideology of
Next week: The Decades of Silence About Humanae
Legionary Father Walter Schu is
author of The
Splendor of Love on John Paul II’s theology of the
a course for couples of Familia.