This coming October, Pope Francis will canonize six new saints for the Catholic Church. Along with the martyred El Salvadorian Archbishop, Oscar Romero (1980), is a favorite of mine, Blessed Pope Paul VI, whom I had the privilege of meeting and speaking with during a small semi-private audience in June 1967. Our group was introduced to him by none other than the (then) new Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland (future Pope St. John Paul II). Paul VI was a humble, scholarly pontiff, a “prophet for his time.” He suffered abuse from fellow Catholic clerics who scoffed at his masterful work of deep theological insight, “Humanae Vitae” (“On Human Life”). The widespread dissent that greeted the encyclical fifty years ago has had a dramatic impact on Catholic life ever since; the reverberations continue to this day. Years later, Pope St. John Paul worked long and hard to correct the false notions that people had of it, but by 1968, it seems that the world already embraced contraception as a “positive social development.” Catholics had expected Blessed Paul VI to accommodate himself to the sexual revolution. So, when he wrote that what had been traditionally taught as true remained true, there was a strong uproar from outside as well as inside the Church.
The dissent was early, organized and formidable. At The Catholic University of America, 77 “theologians” declared that the Holy Father was wrong. Their leader, Rev. Charles Curran and his colleagues declared, “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.” Father Curran was later dismissed from his CUA teaching post, but it was too late to hold back the floodgates of dissent. How was it possible for theologians to deny that the immorality of contraception was settled Catholic teaching? Pope Pius XI had already dealt with this very matter in 1930 (the year that Anglicans had departed from the ancient Christian consensus), making it abundantly clear (he wrote on this subject in his “Casti Conubii” [on Christian marriage]). Why did they think it was possible to argue that modern circumstances made it impossible to abide by the moral law? Pius wrote, “No difficulty can arise that justifies the putting aside of the law of God, which forbids all acts [that are] intrinsically evil. There is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties and preserve in wedlock their chastity unspotted.” The settled teaching was thought to be clear, and Paul VI had not departed from it. So, the best way for dissenting voices to get around that teaching was by erroneously appealing to another principle: “conscience.”
Curran and others argued that conscience could determine that the general moral principle did not apply in this particular circumstance. So, reclaiming a proper understanding of conscience and correcting the damage done by dissent was enormous, was beyond the capacity of Pope Paul alone. He would die 10 years after “Humanae Vitae,” having never written another encyclical. It was St. John Paul II, elected in October 1978 (after the 33-day papacy of Pope John Paul I), who would take up that task. St. John Paul spoke of “Humanae Vitae” as a “prophetic proclamation” and offered an invitation to theologians to develop the “biblical foundations, the ethical grounds and the personalistic reasons behind this doctrine.” To that end, he himself undertook the immense project of the “theology of the body” to provide the deeper foundation on marriage and family life. For several years, his weekly general audiences were devoted to the question of God’s plan for sexuality and the human body. But, like an echo of the organized dissent of 1968, many of the leading theologians of the Church restated that the teaching of “Humanae Vitae” was wrong and that Catholics in good conscience could disregard it. Together with Familiaris Consortio (1981), Veritatis Splendor – issued 25 years after Humanae Vitae – constituted a generational response to the upheavals of 1968. At the heart of “Veritatis Splendor” was that conscience is a witness to moral truth, not an independent interpreter of it. But old errors — let alone recent ones — never fully disappear. Fifty years later, the issues continue to remain in dramatic tension in the life of the Church.
Blessed Paul VI warned that a disregard for the Church’s teaching on contraception, “could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” This is not to say that marital infidelity did not occur prior to widespread contraceptive use, or that everyone was morally perfect before scientists invented “the pill.” Rather, Paul VI here warns that moral issues like infidelity and unchastity would flourish in a culture that approves of contraception. It was his fear that a contraceptive culture would corrupt the young, “who need incentives to keep the moral law.” Without moral standards, such as those proposed by “Humanae Vitae,” young people will not be able to form their consciences, and as a result will violate the moral law. “It is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break the law,” Paul VI writes. Scandal, after all, is a particularly nefarious evil (cf Matt. 18:5-7).
Pope Paul predicted of the coming abuse of women, particularly in the wake of the contraceptive culture. He said: “Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” Just think for a moment about the #MeToo movement.
Blessed Paul VI was not saying that if a woman avoids contraception, she will be safe from sexual abuse. He is saying that men in the contraceptive culture will tend to disregard the dignity of women, treating them as objects for pleasure, rather than as persons. The acceptance of contraception corrodes the conscience of the individual and of society.
While many dissenters scoffed at Blessed Paul VI’s warnings in 1968, fifty years of history have shown that Pope Paul VI’s predictions came true. Just as personal sins negatively affect other aspects of our lives, so also social sins like the contraceptive culture damage human society. Few would argue that moral standards have not lessened since 1968 (those that do doubt at least admit there has been a shift in moral values). Recent statistics reveal that in over 1/3 of all marriages, one or both partners admit to cheating and that “People who have cheated before are 350% more likely to cheat again.” Another study shows that on average only 5% of women getting married today are virgins.
In this moral darkness, there is hope for the Church and society. Catholics who know about “Humanae Vitae” have a special mission to be witnesses to the Church’s beautiful teaching on human sexuality. As we strive to live this teaching in our marriages and in our daily lives, we will not only invite God into our own marriages, but we will also transform our culture, restoring a broken world in Christ. In our work, we have a patron in Blessed, soon to be Saint, Paul VI.