Cardinal Stafford on Humanae Vitae: how dissenters tore the Church apart

Cardinal Stafford on Humanae Vitae: how dissenters tore the Church apart

Cardinal Francis Stafford

The following are extracts from an article written by Cardinal James Stafford at the request of the Vatican newspaper, 'L'Osservatore Romano' for the 40th anniversary of 'Humanae Vitae'. Cardinal Stafford, formerly Archbishop of Denver, is now a senior Vatican official.

On the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae (1968), I have been asked to reflect on one event of that year, the doctrinal dissent among some priests and theologians in an American archdiocese on the occasion of its publication.

Cardinal Lawrence J. Shehan, the sixth Archbishop of Baltimore, was my ecclesiastical superior at the time. Pope Paul VI had appointed him along with others as additional members to the Papal Commission for the Study of Problems of the Family, Population, and Birth Rates, first established by Blessed Pope John XXIII in 1963 during the Second Vatican Council.

In preparation for its deliberations, the Cardinal sent confidential letters to various persons of the Church of Baltimore seeking their advice. I received such a letter. My response drew upon experience, both personal and pastoral. Family and education had given me a Christian understanding of sex.

My counsel to Cardinal Shehan was very real and specific: the unitive and procreative meanings of marriage cannot be separated. Consequently, to deprive a conjugal act deliberately of its fertility is intrinsically wrong. To encourage or approve such an abuse would lead to the eclipse of fatherhood and to disrespect for women.

Some time later, the Papal Commission sent its recommendations to the Pope. The majority advised that the Church's teaching on contraception be changed in light of new circumstances. Cardinal Shehan was part of that majority.

As we know, the Pope decided otherwise. This sets the scene for the tragic drama following the actual date of the publication of the encyclical letter on 29 July 1968.

In his memoirs, Cardinal Shehan describes the immediate reaction of some priests in Washington to the encyclical: '[A]fter receiving the first news of the publication of the encyclical, the Rev Charles E. Curran, instructor of moral theology of The Catholic University of America, flew back to Washington from the West where he had been staying. Late [on the afternoon of July 29], he and nine other professors of theology of the Catholic University met, by evident prearrangement, in Caldwell Hall to receive, again by prearrangement with the Washington Post, the encyclical, part by part, as it came from the press.

'The story further indicated that by nine o'clock that night, they had received the whole encyclical, had read it, had analysed it, criticised it, and had composed their six-hundred word 'Statement of Dissent.' Then they began that long series of telephone calls to 'theologians' throughout the East, which went on, according to the Post, until 3:30 a.m., seeking authorisation to attach their names as endorsers (signers was the term used) of the statement, although those to whom they had telephoned could not have had an opportunity to see either the encyclical or their statement. Meanwhile, they had arranged through one of the local television stations to have the statement broadcast that night.'

Priests' gathering

A few days after the encyclical's issuance, I received an invitation by telephone from a recently ordained assistant pastor to attend a gathering of some Baltimore priests at the rectory of St William of York parish in southwest Baltimore to discuss the encyclical. The meeting was set for Sunday evening, 4 August. I agreed to come. Eventually a large number of priests were gathered in the rectory's basement. I knew them all.

My expectations of the meeting proved unrealistic. I had hoped that we had been called together to receive copies of the encyclical and to discuss it. I was mistaken. Neither happened. After welcoming us and introducing the leadership, the inner-city pastor came to the point. He expected each of us to subscribe to the Washington 'Statement of Dissent.'

Before our arrival, the conveners had decided that the Baltimore priests' rejection of the papal encyclical would be published the following morning in The Baltimore Sun, one of the daily newspapers.

The Washington statement was read aloud. Then the leader asked each of us to agree to have our names attached to it. No time was allowed for discussion, reflection, or prayer. Each priest was required individually to give a verbal 'yes' or 'no.'

I could not sign it. My earlier letter to Cardinal Shehan came to mind. I remained convinced of the truth of my judgment and conclusions. Noting that my seat was last in the packed basement, I listened to each priest's response, hoping for support. It didn't materialise. Everyone agreed to sign. There were no abstentions.

The leader's reaction to my refusal was predictable and awful. He tried to force me to change. He became visibly angry and verbally abusive.

With surprising coherence, I was eventually able to respond that the Pope's encyclical deserved the courtesy of a reading. None of us had read it. I continued that, as a matter of fact, I agreed with and accepted the Pope's teaching as it had been reported in the public media. That response elicited more ridicule. The leaders then prepared a statement for the next morning's daily paper.

But that night was not a total loss. The test was unexpected and unwelcome. Its unhinging consequences continue. Abusive, coercive dissent has become a reality in the Church and subjects her to violent, debilitating, unproductive, chronic controversies. But I did discover something new. Others also did.

When the moment of Christian witness came, no Christian could be coerced who refused to be. Despite the novelty of being treated as an object of shame and ridicule, I did not become 'ashamed of the Gospel' that night and found 'sweet delight in what is right.' It was not a bad lesson. Ecclesial obedience ran the distance.

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