In a pastoral letter, titled "On Life and Love," to mark the 30th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae on 24 July 1998, Melbourne's Archbishop George Pell re-stated the Catholic Church's continuing opposition to contraception and called for society to take stock of the costs of the sexual revolution made possible by the pill.
The pastoral letter was issued to all parishes and all Year 11 and 12 students in Catholic secondary schools in the Melbourne Archdiocese.
The Archbishop described Humanae Vitae as "probably the most famous and least understood encyclical in history." The encyclical, he said, "promoted responsible parenthood" teaching "that couples must decide how many children they should have and how they should be spaced, taking into account their own physical, economic, psychological and social circumstances, and their duties to God, themselves, their family and society."
Natural Family Planning
However, the Archbishop added, Pope Paul VI "rejected methods of family planning which involve interventions upon the body or the marriage act, radically separating love-making from life-making." On the other hand, the pastoral letter pointed out the advantages of using Church-approved methods of natural family planning (NFP).
The Pope, said Dr Pell, "foresaw that popular pressure and government authority might be brought to force people into contraception, sterilisation and even abortion: this is very publicly the case in some countries such as China, but even in our own country couples tell me they are constantly urged by friends, family and work circumstances to keep their family size small."
The responses in the Melbourne media to the Archbishop's counter-cultural pastoral letter were predictably negative, although a positive outcome of this was that Dr Pell, in claiming a right of reply, was able, in effect, to produce a supplementary pastoral letter courtesy of The Age newspaper.
Among the critics, Rev Ray Cleary, chairman of the Anglican Church's social responsibilities committee, expressed concern about the impact the Catholic Church's teaching was having on ecumenism. This was a curious claim, given the far greater impact on ecumenism of the Anglican Church's ordination of women. According to Rev Cleary, the pill had given women the opportunity "to reach their potential as mothers and professionals" (Herald-Sun, 28.7.98).
Dr Muriel Porter, an Anglican feminist and regular contributor to the media, described Humanae Vitae as an "infamous encyclical" (Herald-Sun, 27.7.98) and the anniversary as "a day of shame." Archbishop Pell's promotion of natural family planning was, she declared, "hair-splitting legalism of the worst kind" since the "intention" with both contraception and NFP was the same. It was not just married people who had found the pill "such a God-send"; for single people, she added, it "opened the way for responsible sexual activity."
From the Catholic side came an "open letter" to the Archbishop from Ray Cassin, described as the "former editor of Australian Catholics" (The Age, 28.7.98), the Jesuit publication distributed in many Australian parishes.
Mr Cassin said that the Archbishop's pastoral letter had "left many of your flock feeling bemused, some exasperated, and a few very angry." The teaching of Humanae Vitae was now a "dead letter" and likely to become a "historical curio" along with "the medieval Church's condemnation of usury."
The Archbishop's linking of the advent of the pill with the sexual revolution and its pernicious effects represented, said Mr Cassin, "some leaps of logic here that do not make a shaky teaching seem any more persuasive."
The Archbishop, in turn, responded to these and other criticisms in an article in The Age (29.7.98).
While conceding that the pill was not "the only factor" in bringing about "increased unhappiness," it was "the key to unlocking the sexual revolution" which "would not have been possible or sustainable without easy access to artificial contraception."
Natural family planning, he said, was not "contraception by another name." While the pill unbalanced "the chemistry of the body" and had dangerous side-effects including the risk of cancer, natural family planning used "the cycles of a woman's fertility without destroying it." Whereas contraception could make couples "selfish in the demands they make of each other," NFP fostered "a deeper attentiveness and tenderness towards one's spouse."
The Archbishop remarked on the "oddity of an Anglican laywoman [Muriel Porter] speaking of the pill as a God-send and as part of responsible sexual activity for singles." He inquired: "How much Christian morality would my critics like to retain?" For single people, "responsible sexuality is called celibacy. It is still the teaching of all Christian Churches that sex is for marriage. Or has this gone too?"
The Archbishop responded to Ray Cassin that "the teachings of Humanae Vitae are not an optional extra." There was nothing "unusual about Catholics ignoring Church teaching", since the Church's teaching on contraception was "no more unpopular than the traditional Christian teaching against pre-marital and extra-marital sex."
Dr Pell concluded: "People have always sinned; but Christians believe in repentance and forgiveness. The system falls down and human well-being is severely damaged when we start to claim that sins are virtues ... I repeat my question from the pastoral letter: Are families better off today? Are more young people happy? The debate over the pill is a point of entry to the bigger questions of sexuality, marriage and the family. For our well-being, perhaps even our survival, these too must be considered."