Where do we go from here?
By Douglas Farrow, Catholic Register Special
No encyclical ever created more controversy than Humanae vitae ― no mean feat for a document that reaffirmed traditional teaching. Many Catholics, of course, had hoped that the Pope would wave his staff over that teaching and make it go away; they were quite excited about the new contraceptive Pill. But in July 1968, one week before Humanae vitae was promulgated, the Vatican’s Secretary of State wrote to the presidents of the episcopal conferences warning them that Paul VI could not and would not do that. Contraceptive acts would remain, in the eyes of the church, what they are: “intrinsically disordered, and hence unworthy of the human person, even when the intention is to safeguard or promote individual, family or social well-being.”
“The Holy Father,” the letter confessed, “knows full well the bitterness that this reply may cause many married persons who were expecting a different solution for their difficulties.” Nevertheless, it pleaded with the bishops to back him up. The laity “must be helped to understand all the spiritual enrichment represented by the effort of renunciation which is asked of them; they must be shown what a precious element it is in conjugal and social life, especially in times like ours which are invaded by hedonism, that great obstacle in the fulfilment of the evangelical ideal.”
Bitterness there was. But by September the Canadian bishops (who in 1966 had already signalled to the government their willingness to see a change in the law on contraception) were urging Catholics not to get their knickers in a knot. They issued the Winnipeg Statement, which conceded that persons who “have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives. . . may be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.”
That was hardly what the Holy Father had asked of them through Cardinal Cicognani, who stressed that “both in the confessional and in the pulpit, in the press and by other means of social communication, every necessary pastoral effort be made that no ambiguity exists among the faithful or in public opinion concerning the church’s position in this serious matter.”
The very structure of the Winnipeg Statement set up a contest between “Solidarity with the Pope” and “Solidarity with the Faithful” – meaning, oddly enough, the dissenting faithful. In between these two parties the beleaguered bishops struck their mediating pose, playing off the private conscience against the pope’s public counsel, while inviting the state and its scientists and educators to jump in for a piece of the action. They did.
Forty years on, where are we?
Canada has given itself over, unambiguously, to what John Paul II called the “great lie.” In consequence its birthrate has fallen to around 1.5, for which the state has tried in vain to compensate by allowing wave upon wave of immigration, while the population turns annually a whiter shade of grey.
Marriage meanwhile ― which the bishops hoped would be seen as “unions of love in the service of life,” with “the full recognition of our complementary sexual differences” – has been redefined to accommodate homosexuality. Marriage and parenthood are being divorced in the public mind, at the expense of children. Nearly 40 per cent of Canadian marriages are failing.
As for sex education, which the bishops promised to promote “whenever and wherever possible,” it hasn’t proved quite the blessing they had in mind. Few foresaw that dissent would flourish on all manner of topics, and that Catholic school children would soon be taught all the ins and outs of what the church calls “sterile” sex. Or that they would be told that “families” are not necessarily what their benighted bishops assumed them to be. Or that young girls would be whisked off for secret abortions when sex education failed to achieve its contraceptive goals.
Nor have the scientists, whose research into reproduction the bishops earnestly solicited, failed to do their part: in vitro fertilization, for twosomes and threesomes of either or both sexes; pregnancy screening to eliminate the handicapped; stem-cell harvesting from aborted fetuses; and a raft of new reproductive technologies that would make even Huxley’s hair curl. Paid for, like the burgeoning abortion mills, with Catholic tax dollars.
We mustn’t leave out the theologians either, many of whom ignored the bishops’ ironic request that they “refrain from public opposition to the encyclical” in their search for “greater clarity and depth in the teaching of the church.” Indeed it was some theologians who led the charge down the slippery slope of hedonism into the sea of the contraceptive mentality.
Can’t turn back the clock, you say? Too true! But, God helping us, we can repent. We can learn afresh the meaning of chastity ― that is, of virtue in sex ― and so renew, albeit belatedly, our evangelical vocation. The grace of God, in which we failed to trust in 1968, is still available in 2008.
Which is where we are now. Theologically we¹re in a Hell of a mess. Our preference for the Pill over the Pope is only one reason for that, but it¹s a very big reason.
(Douglas Farrow is associate professor of Christian Thought at McGill University and the author of Nation of Bastards.)