'Humanae Vitae' birth control ban set off a wave of dissent

Pope Paul VI's encyclical 40 years ago transformed Catholic attitudes to authority, writes Patsy McGarry

Pope Paul VI's encyclical 40 years ago transformed Catholic attitudes to authority, writes Patsy McGarry

FORTY YEARS ago today there occurred an event that was to mark a watershed in the history of Irish Catholicism, if not Irish society generally. And it was also to mark a shift in the attitude of many Catholics worldwide to papal authority.

The immediate issue was around the use of artificial means of contraception. The greater issue was authority and its source. Which was to have precedence - conscience or the pope? Very many Catholics chose conscience, thus, some would say, "making Protestants of them all''. A somewhat facile conclusion.

On July 25th, 1968, Pope Paul VI published his encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), which banned the use of artificial means of contraception, while allowing as acceptable in the eyes of the church the use by married couples of the so-called rhythm method as a means of regulating their fertility.


It said that "excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation - whether as an end or as a means". It continued that "the church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles . . ."

And it pointed out that "neither the church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the latter practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process".

The reaction to the encyclical was unprecedented in recent Catholic Church history in that almost immediately there was dissent from prominent theologians of the day, including Fr James Good here in Ireland who was exiled to the Turkana desert in Kenya by his bishop, Dr Cornelius Lucey of Cork, for publicly expressing dissent at the encyclical's content. Abroad, a prominent critic was Fr Charles Curran of the Catholic University of America, who eventually left the Catholic priesthood.

In Europe, one of the most influential critics was the late Cardinal Suenens of Belgium. He wondered "whether moral theology took sufficient account of scientific progress, which can help determine what is according to nature. I beg you, my brothers, let us avoid another Galileo affair. One is enough for the church".

In a 1969 interview he said Pope Paul's decision was in contravention of collegiality in the church, as defined by the Second Vatican Council. The decision was non-collegial or even an anti-collegial act, he said.

In this he was supported by leading Catholic theologians Karl Rahner and Hans Küng, as well as by many bishops. It is said that in March 1969 Pope Paul met Cardinal Suenens to discuss the encyclical and that at the end of the meeting the pope said: "Pray for me. Because of my weaknesses, the church is badly governed." In fact Pope Paul VI remained deeply troubled by it all until his death in 1978.

At the root of much of the dissent was the very simple fact that a commission set up by Pope John XXIII in 1963 to address the issue of the use of artificial means of contraception had recommended, by a significant majority, that they be allowed.

Pope John's commission was made up of six lay people, who were asked to address birth control issues. Shortly after he became pope in 1963, Paul VI expanded the commission to 72, including 16 theologians, 13 doctors or people with medical experience, and five women. It had an executive of nine bishops and seven cardinals.

Its report in 1966 concluded that the use of artificial means of contraception was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to use them or not.

One member of the commission, an American Jesuit theologian Fr John Ford, prepared a minority report, signed also by three other theologians on the commission. It said that the church should not and could not change its teaching on the issue, which banned the use of artificial means of contraception.

This intervention, and a response to it by the majority on the commission, was leaked to the media, which led Catholics to expect the Pope would accept the advice of the majority on the commission. But he did not do so.

Referring to this in the encyclical, he said "the conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by us as definitive and absolutely certain, dispensing us from the duty of examining personally this serious question. This was all the more necessary because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed, and especially because certain approaches and criteria for a solution to this question had emerged which were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the church".

In fact, of the 72 people on the commission, all were in agreement that the use of artificial means of contraception should be allowed except six of its members - the four theologians who signed Fr Ford's minority report (including Fr Ford), the commission president Cardinal Ottaviani and the papal theologian on the commission Bishop Colombo.

What it indicated to the wider church, and as subsequently addressed by Cardinal Suenens, was the first significant rowing back on the part of the papacy from the concept of shared authority (with bishops), ie collegial authority, as developed at the Second Vatican Council.

The dissent of so many leading church figures in the context would generate a significant following among the Catholic laity who, in this and other areas of life, began from then to exercise their own judgments on moral matters.

This applied particularly to women who, here in Ireland as elsewhere, began using the pill regardless of church teaching. In this they were aided by sympathetic clergy who agreed that the use of the pill as a regulator of menstrual cycles was not sinful, where that was the intent. Which it became for very many women, Irish included.

However it would be 11 years before the State would catch up with such thinking, when in 1979 Charles Haughey's "Irish solution to an Irish problem'' allowed for the purchase in pharmacies of artificial means of contraception by married couples but on prescription only. It wasn't until 15 years ago, in 1993, that all restrictions on the sale and supply of contraceptives in the Republic were lifted.

However, the great legacy of Humanae Vitae, though not intended, was that it prompted many lay Catholics to inform and decide for themselves on the big questions. They would no longer be as inclined to accept unquestioningly decisions of popes, bishops or priests.

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times