'Humanae Vitae' twenty years after

'Humanae Vitae' twenty years after

B.A. Santamaria

Humanae Vitae was signed on 25 July 1968. It was released on 27 July, and presented to the media in Rome on 29 July. The New York morning papers on the 29th reported the Holy Father's confirmation of the traditional teaching.

According to his own account, a copy of the encyclical had been obtained by Fr Charles Curran some days before its presentation to the media and even before its distribution to the bishops. It was therefore possible for him, together with his theological and academic associates, to concoct a plan of operation to destroy the encyclical and the authority on which it rested.

Hence on the following morning, 30 July, by means of a carefully-planned coup de theatre, which proved that the dissident theologians fully understood the role of the media in abetting the religious revolution, the Catholics of the United States were the first to be informed that large numbers of the most distinguished theologians of the West held that the people had the right in conscience to set aside the Pope's teaching on moral questions without calling into question their membership of the Catholic Church.

That the coup de theatre was organised and had a conscious purpose is supported by evidence provided by Fr Curran himself who wrote: "Our quick, purposeful response supported by so many theologians, accomplished its purpose. The day after the encyclical was promulgated, Catholics could read in the morning papers about their right to dissent and the fact that in theory Catholics could disagree with the papal teaching."

From this carefully organised campaign have flown most of the troubles which have disturbed the Church over the past twenty years.

Two decades after these events, where do we stand?

The campaign against Humanae Vitae should not, in my view, be seen purely in a religious or theological context. 1968 was the high water mark of the cultural revolution of the sixties. The sixties were, in fact, revolutionary in the same sense that the 20 years which preceded the French Revolution of 1789 were revolutionary, namely that the masses (more exactly, the middle classes) were habituated to the ideas which made the political revolution inevitable. Cardinal Ratzinger has written that it was the events of 1968 which led him for the first time to understand the implications of the theological teachings of some of his former colleagues.

The crest of the revolutionary wave, i.e., its most visible part, was what was called the student or the youth revolt. Its visible leaders were professional students like Tom Hayden, Danny Cohn-Bendit, Tariq Ali. These were the cult figures, undergraduate parallels to the Beatles. Except in providing the cannon fodder for the student demonstrations, these "leaders" were ultimately to prove insignificant. Several have confessed that as they mouthed revolutionary phrases, they did not know what they were saying, let alone doing.

Far more important than the crest was the actual body of the revolutionary wave. The effective leaders were the more serious intellectuals - Henri Marcuse and Noam Chomsky are only two of the names which come to mind. These names were much less familiar than those of the student leaders, who were as beloved of the media as were the Beatles, but it was they who provided the essential content of ideas, who both represented and led the real revolution.

Out of this turmoil, the real message was born. Its kernel was that the whole of the established order in church and state no longer possessed validity. Claims to authority were fraudulent and must be repudiated. Whether you were a President, a Prime Minister, a University Vice Chancellor, you would be treated with public disrespect, and not infrequently threatened with physical assault - new and calculated methods meant to symbolise the threadbareness of authority's claims to authority.

In almost every Western society, this "cultural revolution" brought to power governments pledged to the humanist agenda, like the Whitlam Government in Australia. In their turn, these governments - and the judges whom they appointed pioneered a number of legal principles, in form constitutional, but in substance, revolutionary.

The Family Law Act transformed permanent marriage into temporary concubinage, thereby dissolving the fabric of the family. Abortion was legalised. The consequent attack on the foetus and embryo paved the way for experiments on both in lVF, brain transplants and similar processes, which have reduced the body of the unborn child into nothing more than a potential assembly of spare parts. New government policies had their impact on the pedagogical principles which first entered the state education system and which extended from the secular to the religious field, constituted one half of the cause of the present catechetical crisis.

In the end, the principles involved in the sixties explain the triumph of what Professor Alan Bloom in his recently-publicised best seller, The Closing of the American Mind, calls the dominant ethical theory of the age, "moral relativism", the belief that there is neither right nor wrong. Australia's most widely-publicised historian, Professor Manning Clark, who in the past has proved to be no enemy of these developments, has recently written: "This is the first generation in history which literally believes in nothing."

It is my view that the planned rebellion against Humanae Vitae would certainly have taken place, but could not have succeeded as completely as it did, had the principle of authority not been under general and successful attack simultaneously in almost every secular institution.

Between the general cultural revolution and the religious revolution there was thus a strong element of cause and effect. The religious revolution cannot be finally explained without the cultural revolution. And I am afraid that unless we can cure the more general malaise of contemporary society as transformed by the cultural revolution of the sixties, it will prove impossible fully to cure that of the Church.


The apparently successful resistance to Humanae Vitae was based on the assertion that there is an explicit right to dissent from the moral teaching of the Church without involving the question of one's membership of that body. That, of course, is a totally different proposition from accepting the Church's teaching but, through normal human frailty, failing to practise it as we fail in so many other areas, beating our breast, acknowledging our frailty and expressing our sorrow.

That assertion of the right to dissent has now been extended from the Church's teaching on the matter of contraception to it teachings over the entire area of sexual morality, with consequences not only for scholars but for the masses of once-believing Catholics. Fr Curran may be regarded as the epitome of dissent in the matter of morals.

In 1968 Fr Curran had simply proposed the legitimacy of contraception for Catholics The principle of "proportionalism" -namely that the rightness or wrongness of an act is not a matter of firm declared law but is to be gauged by measuring the weight of good effects as against bad effects (a teaching which it should be noted is distinct from that of moral relativism, which simply denies the existence of the categories of good and evil) - once extended to the field of sexual morals could not, of course, be confined to contraception.

By applying this principle over the whole field, the Fr Curran of 1988 asserts the moral legitimacy not only of contraception but of pre-marital sex, divorce, abortion, sterilisation and homosexuality. Once one accepts the proportionalist principle in matters of contraception - the Curran proposition of 1968 - how can one say that the Curran of 1988 is wrong?

But if proportionalism is legitimate in matters of sexual morality, how can it be excluded from every other aspect of morality, including that of offences against justice? If nothing is intrinsically right and nothing intrinsically wrong, how can it be wrong for me to practise injustice in business? If it is granted that my over-riding responsibility, as the father of a family, is to ensure the future of my family, how can it be wrong for me, acting in the interests of that family, to set out to accumulate a massive fortune by means of the currently fashionable method of Stock Exchange speculation, even if it involves insider trading, or the general fraudulence of a Boesky on the Stock Exchange?

What becomes of the Church's commitment to justice towards the poor, which to the Catholic liberal progressivist is so much more important than personal chastity?

The question of the limits of the right to dissent involves, of course, the field of doctrine as well as that of morals. That there must be outer parameters of belief beyond which it is not possible to call oneself a Catholic, is logically inescapable.

If he has been correctly reported, Fr Charles Curran agrees with half of this proposition that there must logically be outer parameters in the field of doctrine (with which, of course, he is not primarily concerned), but not apparently in that of sexual morality (with which he is).

An address delivered by Fr Curran at the College of St Rose in Albany, New York State, in which he repeated his familiar thesis concerning the right to dissent from teachings on sexual morality, contained the following somewhat surprising admission.

Teachings on sexual morality he regarded as "peripheral and removed", "non-core" teachings, not subject to the infallible magisterium, needing adaptation to time and place. Of dogma, however, he was reported as saying: "I don't see how you can disagree with core and essential [teachings] and still call yourself a loyal Catholic. There have to be limits to dissent."

Core teachings

It is useful to have this stated by Fr Curran, since it confirms the fact that there are "limits", outer parameters, and that this is not merely a fetish of the defenders of traditional orthodoxy. Fr Curran's statement, however, leaves open several questions: what those outer limits actually are, which are the "core teachings" with which we must all agree on pain of no longer being a Catholic; who has the authority to define them, and whether it is, in fact, true that teachings on morals, as distinct from dogma, are not included.

As to that point, I wish to move from Fr Curran to a different authority, namely Dr Hans Küng, to seek some guidance on the question of whether the teaching on contraception, which belongs to the subject matter of morals rather than of dogma, ever made any claim to infallibility, apart from Humanae Vitae, or even Casti Connubii if we wish to go back to the thirties.

I do not propose to enter into a discussion of the binding force of encyclicals, including Humanae Vitae. I would rather offer the suggestion that the binding force of the moral teaching on contraception does not in any way depend on whether or not one holds that the document Humanae Vitae is itself infallible. In relation to the binding force of that teaching, the dispute as to whether Humanae Vitae is itself an infallible document is an irrelevance.

The best witness for my position is Dr Hans Küng, who is all the more important because on any question in relation to infallibility - whether of the Pope or of the Church itself - he is an essentially hostile witness. There must therefore be a peculiar force in his observations on this subject.

In the work Infallible? which first placed his name among the headlines, Dr Küng states that it is firm Catholic teaching that:

"A truth of faith or morals is (thus) infallible by the mere fact of being promulgated as binding by the episcopate in universal agreement; it does not have to await promulgation as infallible truth. And who could deny that such a consensus on the birth control issue existed for centuries, and that from the beginning of this century the condemnation of it has been upheld by numerous episcopal conferences and individual bishops whenever controversy about it became acute outside the Catholic Church or isolated Catholic theologians diffidently tried to raise questions about it? Thus the conservative minority of the Papal Commission (on reproduction) was able to point out that history provides the fullest evidence that the answer of the Church has always and everywhere been the same, from the beginning up to the present decade.

Constant teaching

"One can find no period of history", continues Küng, "no document of the Church, no theological school, scarcely one Catholic theologian, who ever denied that contraception was always seriously evil. The teaching of the Church in this matter is absolutely constant. Until the present century this teaching was peacefully possessed by all other Christians, whether Orthodox or Anglican or Protestant. The Orthodox retain this as common teaching today. The theological history of the use of matrimony is very complicated ... On the contrary, the theological history of contraception, comparatively speaking, is sufficiently simple, at least with regard to the central question: Is contraception always seriously evil? For in answer to this question there has never been any variation and scarcely any evolution in the teaching. The ways of formulating and explaining this teaching have evolved, but not the doctrine itself. Therefore it is not a question of a teaching proposed in 1930, which because of new physiological facts and new theological perspectives ought to be changed. It is a question rather of a teaching which until the present decade was constantly and authentically taught by the Church."

That this has been the uniform and universal teaching of the Church for centuries is attested by a much greater authority on history than Dr Kung. I refer to the former Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, Dom David Knowles:

"Attempts have been made to draw parallels between previous declarations of Popes that have either been reversed by their successors, or passed into desuetude as social habits changed. One, who has for the past ten years been engaged in reading and writing the history of the thousand medieval years of the Church's life, would have no difficulty in adding to their number. Some of them are indeed 'motes to trouble the mind's eye', and there were sore eyes enough before the decrees of Vatican I were passed. But I have not seen ... a single example alleged that is within hailing distance of being a parallel to Humanae Vitae."

The conclusion which Dr Kung draws from this recitation of the historical past is of course, fundamental to the position he was to take.

"How is one to respond to this?" asks Dr Küng. "There are only two alternatives. One either accepts it (i.e., the teaching on contraception, regardless of Humanae Vitae) as infallible and unalterable doctrine, as the commission minority and the Pope did, and holds firm to it in spite of all difficulties and criticisms, if necessary to the point of sacrificium intellectus, or one questions the whole theory of infallibility" - that is to say, not merely the infallibility of the Pope, but the infallibility of a General Council, and that of the Church itself.

I do not see how anyone can contradict Dr Küng in his statement that the binding force of the teaching on contraception does not in any way depend on the standing of Humanae Vitae and that as a consequence, these are the only alternatives available.

But, says Dr Küng, the teaching on contraception is self-evidently absurd. No reasoning can make sensible what the more enlightened modern mind so totally rejects. Therefore it must logically follow that the Church cannot be infallible. In its teaching on contraception, it is wrong and always has been wrong. It therefore flows ineluctably that the Church, while it deserves to have its current teachings treated with respect as the best available application of permanent principles to changing circumstances, cannot be infallible in any other area either.

If the Church's claim to infallibility has thus been fatally damaged on the testing issue of contraception, it cannot claim to teach infallibly on other questions of sexual morality, at the heart of which lie the nature and purpose of the sexual act. The consequences of taking this position have become clearly evident within the Roman, but even more clearly, within the Anglican, communion.

Last year, the Church of England in Britain was disturbed by widespread and persistent discussion, which came to a head at the General Synod, of the phenomenon of homosexuality among a significant proportion of its own clergy; and the consequent controversy as to whether to be a practising homosexual was inconsistent with the active ministry.

The General Secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (Rev Richard Kirker) rested his case on there being no inconsistency between the roles of ordained minister and practising homosexual, on the radical alteration of the Anglican Church's own teaching as to the purposes of the sexual act in its changed teaching on contraception undertaken by the Lambeth Conference of 1938. He pointed out that when, in 1938, the Anglican Church's Lambeth Conference had first supported contraception, it had negated the proposition that procreation had to be the sole or main purpose of sexual relations. The main purpose could be simply defined as sexual pleasure. So, "if sex can be valid for the pleasure it gives heterosexuals, he stated, "gay people enjoy their form of sex in the same way". In other words, he insisted that the logic of that decision must be followed right through, and that what it involved was all the propositions which Fr Curran holds today, including the moral legitimacy of homosexual practices.

The position in which the Church was left when the majority report of the Papal Commission was published and urged a recasting of the original teaching, was stated with great clarity by the then editor of the London Socialist weekly, the New Statesman and Nation, Paul Johnson. At that period Johnson no longer practised the Catholic Faith in which he had been born, but has since thankfully retraced his steps.


"The report," wrote Johnson, "adopts the common-sense line that, granted parents have a responsible attitude towards marriage, the way they plan their families should be left to them. To my mind, however, it goes very much further and says that it's not the Church's business to lay down detailed guides for living the Christian life, but merely to state general moral principles and leave the rest to the individual. This was precisely the central issue of the Reformation. The Roman Catholic has finally turned Protestant."

The point, however, had been clearly foreseen long before, and by none other than St Thomas More, in the matter of Henry's divorce which was also a matter not of dogma but of morals, although More did not speak of infallibility - a word then unknown - but of authority and jurisdiction. As far as his own independent judgement was concerned, More, at least in the early stages, had never been fully convinced that Henry Vlll was validly married to Catherine of Aragon, and that it was therefore impossible for him to enter into marriage with Anne Boleyn.

That question was never, however, the "core" question. The "core" question was "Who had the right to decide?"

St Thomas More, the anniversary of whose death we celebrate on 6 July, was no ignorant peasant. He had been Lord Chancellor of England, and was among the greatest humanists of his time. As he faced the Privy Council which was to condemn him to death because he would not accept the King's claim to have substituted himself for the Pope as the Supreme Head of the Church in England, Thomas Audley, the Lord Chancellor, reminded More that, with the exception of St John Fisher, all the Bishops, most universities and most scholars held the opposite view to his on Papal Supremacy. Not so, replied More:

"I have no doubt that, outside this kingdom, in Christendom at large, among all the learned bishops and men of virtue still living, the majority share my view. But if I count those already dead, among whom many are now saints in heaven, I am quite sure that by far the greater part of them, while living, on the matter, thought as I do now. Am I therefore obliged, my Lord, to conform my conscience to the Council of one kingdom against the general Council of Christendom? For of the holy bishops to whom I have referred, for every bishop of yours, I have more than a hundred, and for one Council or Parliament of yours, I have all the Councils held during a thousand years."

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