Now that 2008 is approaching, Rome will be getting ready to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical promulgated by Pope Paul VI banning artificial birth control.
Celebrate? Not in this corner. I remember in 1968 when Humanae Vitae came out, I was having drinks with one of the most renowned Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, the Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan. He turned to me with incredulity and said, “This decision will set the church back 400 years.”
So what happened? Pope John XXXIII had set up an international commission, including men and women, to consider the use of contraception in marriage. After careful and lengthy deliberations the overwhelming view of the Papal Commission and of the worldwide submissions from the laity favoured the responsible use of contraception in marriage.
But Pope Paul VI, persuaded by a small clique of ultra-conservative bishops, got cold feet and rejected the views coming from both the papal commission and the laity. It is no exaggeration to say that now, almost 40 years later, Humanae Vitae was the most disastrous pronouncement from the papacy in centuries.
The response from most of the laity and theologians during the last four decades has been negative. Inevitably this brings into play a solid theological dictum, the “sensus fidelium.” This means that the faithful, as a whole, have an instinct or “sense” about when a teaching is – or is not – in harmony with true faith.
The fact of the matter is the Catholic faithful, by and large, have not “accepted” this teaching. The Canadian Catholic Bishops espoused this view when, in their famous Winnipeg statement, they advised Canadian Catholics to study Humanae Vitae, then follow their own conscience.
Even local church authorities seem to subscribe to this view. When was the last time you heard a priest or even a Catholic bishop preach on contraception, much less teach that the practice is a mortal sin worthy of eternal damnation unless it is stopped and repented of immediately?
Is there anybody out there who still believes artificial contraception is a mortal sin?
Would you agree that papal authority has been seriously damaged by this ill-considered teaching?