Paul VI issued Humanae vitae twenty years ago: on July 25, 1968. The anniversary is being celebrated, in some quarters, as the great dividing line between those who are faithful to the church, and those who are not. The point is well taken, but, in this case, misapplied. Faithfulness to the church—to the Gospel proclaimed and witnessed by Jesus’ disciples, and guided and enlivened by the Spirit—is essential. But faithfulness is not blind assent to assertions of authority.
Who was more faithful a century ago? Those who insisted upon the “doctrine” that the temporal power of the pope and his sovereignty over the papal states was required to assure his independence—or those who questioned it? “Temporal power” was a teaching repeated no less incessantly and vehemently—but with a good deal more bloodletting—than the ban on artificial contraception today. It, too, was invested with papal authority and became a standard of loyalty for advancement to important positions of church leadership. And it was wrong.
Twenty years ago, determination to be faithful to the church led many Catholics to conclude, and to say, that Humanae vitae was one of those tragic errors into which the church of Christ has fallen over the centuries, sometimes with the best of intentions but always with long-run damage to its mission.
A careful rereading of the encyclical, twenty years later, suggests that Paul VI, in speaking with a pastoral voice and with close attention to consequentialist arguments, may have foreseen the furor that was to come and tried to ease it; hard sayings are couched in temperate language.
Despite this, the pope’s words do not add up to a compelling, or even persuasive, argument. Indeed, in a letter that extolled the values of married love, he recognized the need for responsible parenthood, and accepted “recourse to infertile periods” (the rhythm method) as lawful, we find that the prohibition against artificial contraception, especially the pill, seems more arbitrary and ungrounded today than it did in 1968. Furthermore, for all of the pope’s insistence on natural law and the constant teaching of the church, he seems more concerned, at points, with what he saw as the dire consequences of contraception—marital infidelity, a lowering of moral standards, and the lack of incentive for the young to observe the moral law (read: fear of pregnancy).
Paul VI was right to worry, and the terrible human costs of our culture’s disarray in sexual matters is “Exhibit A” of those who currently defend the encyclical. They might be reminded of the logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo, propter hoc, but their argument is more fundamentally flawed, since the so-called sexual revolution was well under way when Humanae vitae appeared.