No papal teaching document has ever caused such an earthquake in the Church as the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Reactions around the world in the Italian and American press, for example, are just as sharp as they were at the time of the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX, perhaps even sharper. There is the difference, of course, that this time anti-Catholic feelings have been rarely expressed. The storm has broken over the heads of the curial advisors of the Pope and often of the Pope himself. The document is regarded as a great victory by those groups who opposed the Council from beginning to end. The conservative magazine Triumph is a typical example of the mentality of the far right: of priests who do not believe what the encyclical declares, it demands that they be honest and leave the church since they are automatically schismatics if they do not accept the words of the Pope. The day after the encyclical appeared, a doctor in consultation said: “Your Church has lost two members; both of my Catholic colleagues here have declared that they are leaving the Church, since they find this whole mentality of the Pope unbelievable.” The same day a priest came with the question whether he should not in honesty to his conscience give up his priestly ministry; he could not act in accordance with the encyclical. This traumatic experience, with the great danger of a mass departure from the Church, drove theologians to emphasize strongly the fallible character of the encyclical and to take a courageous stand.
If the Pope deserves admiration for the courage to follow his conscience and to do the most unpopular thing, all responsible men and women must show forth similar honesty and courage of conscience. I am convinced that the subjective and conscious motive of the Pope was love for the Church. Those who contradict him must do it also out of love for the whole Church, out of love for those whose faith is endangered. This also can and must be a service of love for the successor of St. Peter.
Monsignor Lambruschini, the Curia official appointed by the Vatican to explain the encyclical to the press, emphasized that it was not an infallible statement, and that the possibility of a revised statement, if new data appeared, could not be excluded. However, the tone of the encyclical seems to leave little hope that this will happen in Pope Paul’s lifetime—little hope, that is, unless the reaction of the whole Church immediately makes him realize that he has chosen the wrong advisors and that the arguments which these men have recommended as highly suitable for modern thought are simply unacceptable. Non-infallible but very authoritative statements of popes were in the past officially corrected only after a relatively long delay. Even when they were strongly criticized within the Church, this criticism became known only slowly. […]
In the past things were different. It took centuries before the extraordinarily dangerous “teaching” of the direct power of the pope over all temporal matters was rejected. It demanded courage for Friedrich Spee finally to speak out openly and forcefully against the persecution, torture and burning of witches, a practice which had been recommended and doctrinally justified by a very authoritative encyclical of Innocent IV. For a long time the moralists did not dare to explain that the castration of the Vatican choir boys was immoral, since it had strong papal approval. The Council of Vienna explained in 1311 that theologians who tried in any way to justify usury were to be “imprisoned in iron chains” for the rest of their lives. And as late as the eighteenth century, moral theology textbooks published in Italy had to print that warning. Pius IX’s Syllabus lay undigested in the Church’s stomach and in her relationship to the world until the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty and The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The immorality of torture, which was justified for so many centuries by the popes, and practiced in their name, was condemned by a papal statement only after a long period of time. Pius XII declared unequivocally that it was against the natural law. The “Holy Inquisition” and “holy wars” could have been wiped out from the picture of the Church if the prophetic spirit and the courage to speak out openly with Christian freedom had been more highly valued in the Church. When the popes and their curial theologians so frequently and so emphatically defended temporal power and the Vatican States as a divinely commissioned right and a spiritual necessity, this critical Christian frankness should have been more in evidence. […]
[T]he encyclical is quite optimistic about the force of the arguments it proposes and the information provided by the Pope’s advisors, so that “The magisterium could give adequate reply to the expectation not only of the faithful, but also of world opinion” (N. 5). Nevertheless, when the Pope speaks to “his own children” and to his “sons, the priests,” optimism about the force of the arguments diminishes somewhat. He asks for “loyal internal and external obedience to the teaching authority of the Church” and then adds: “That obedience, as you well know, obliges not only because of the reason adduced, but rather because of the light of the Holy Spirit, which is given in a particular way to the pastors of the Church in order that they may illustrate the truth” (N.28). There can be no doubt that our obedience of faith to the Church rests on the confidence that the Church enjoys the special assistance of the Holy Spirit in the explanation of the Gospel and the guidance of the Church. But it is not possible to make the Holy Spirit responsible for everything which in past centuries was loudly asserted in an authoritative tone by men of the Church. However, in Humanae Vitae the central argument is clearly and unambiguously a thesis of the natural moral law, and therefore a truth which is to be proven from human experiences and arguments of reason. […]