Polling over the last fifty years on Catholics and Humanae vitae sums up in dreary numbers the fateful consequences of Pope Paul VI’s decision to maintain the church’s ban on contraception. But who’s to say that this is the reason for the church’s current disarray? If we turn to another, more humorous account, we will find that the decision did not necessarily make a generation less religious, only more adult. We’re left with a decades-long quandary: Can adults find religion in rule-based Catholicism?
David Lodge’s 1980 novel How Far Can You Go? opens on a Thursday in 1952 with a Dickensian riff on the London weather, “an atmospheric depression…with coal smoke from a million chimneys…. A cold drizzle is falling.” We shiver and quickly enter the cold, dimly lit Church of Our Lady and St. Jude where nine students, wrapped in coats and mufflers, attend a weekday Mass of the New Testament Study Circle. The novel’s title will alert some readers to its themes, jokes, and anxieties (sadly obscured in the U. S. edition by the title Souls and Bodies). The opening pages offer a brief flashback to Lodge’s real-life Salesian school in a London suburb, where “the bolder spirits” among the boys in the religious instruction class press the question: “Father, how far can you go with a girl?” In another Lodge novel, The British Museum Is Falling Down, the question becomes, how far can you go when married?
The students worshipping at Our Lady/Saint Jude have risen early and, still fasting, commute from their “bed-sitters” to a church near the university. Except for one convert, they are cradle Catholics, perhaps more observant than the usual. They have been educated in Catholic schools and their families are working- and middle-class with a dusting of Irish ancestry. The dimness and chill of the early hour evokes the rationing still plaguing post-war England in the early fifties. Lodge captures their inner thoughts focused on the liturgy and, at least among the young men, on fleeting sexual fantasies, which they firmly believe are, if not sin, at least occasions of sin. One of them so tempted refrains from communion while offering a more intellectually acceptable reason: uncertainty about transubstantiation.
Although the students experience guilty thoughts about sex and masturbation, they all respect the church’s teachings, especially the one forbidding sex before marriage. But marriage is a long way off: there are the austerity measures and housing shortages of post-war England; the young men’s required two-year national service; and the young women’s sense of responsibility in resisting sexual enticements. In these circumstances, sixteen years before Humanae vitae, debating contraception hardly troubles their minds.