First Published in ‘The Catholic Voice’, Ireland, March 2015
The Story of Humanae Vitae
In returning to the Ireland of 1968 and the encyclical of Pope Paul VI, ‘Humanae Vitae’, we need to once again consider some of the history surrounding this encyclical. In 1963, Pope John XXIII, set up a commission to study the issues of birth control and population. The ‘pill’ had been approved for contraceptive use in America in 1960 and was gaining in popularity and so naturally, the Pope wanted to assess the situation for Catholics. Pope Paul VI, who succeeded Pope John XXIII, expanded the commission increasing its membership over three years from six to seventy two people.
In 1966 the commission produced a report, and there was also a minority report produced both of which were leaked to the press. The effect of this leak was that it created the impression amongst many in the church that the teaching on contraception was about to be liberalised. One English priest recently wrote that, after his own studies he became convinced that there would be a change in Church teaching. He supported his bishop in preparing the clergy of their diocese for such a change and offered pastoral guidance to them. In Ireland too there was a rumour abroad that the church laws on contraception were about to be changed.
July 25th 1968
Then came that fateful day, July 25th 1968, and the publication of the encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae’, which re-stated the Church’s ban on all contraceptive use. The English priest mentioned above says that ‘Humanae Vitae’ came as a great shock to him. He was not the only one in the ranks of the clergy who was shocked and shortly after the release of the encyclical there arose, in many parts of the world, co-ordinated groups of clergy who protested and refused to accept the teachings of the encyclical.
Authority badly exercised, damages the faith
The situation in Ireland was similar and it is very interesting, although painfully difficult to examine what happened here, because there are lessons to be learned, particularly in regard to the exercise of authority. Authority, when badly exercised in the Church, causes huge damage to the faith of ordinary Catholics. It undermines the role and the influence of the bishops, it fails to stop dissent in its tracks with the result that dissent tends to spread to epidemic proportions and the ordinary people no longer know what to believe or where to find the truth. Faith becomes a matter of opinion, the concept of absolute truth is abandoned, and the sheep are scattered and left at the mercy of the wolves.
As I stated in an earlier article, I am not going to mention any names in this series as I want to focus on the deeds of men rather than on the men of deeds. For those who are interested in finding out more, it is not hard in this age of information technology.
St Patrick’s College Maynooth
Let us first look to Ireland’s national seminary, St Patrick’s college Maynooth. In the years following the publication of ‘Humanae Vitae’, at least six professors at the college, all of them priests and two of them moral theologians, publicly dissented from the encyclical. None of them were disciplined and none of them were dismissed. One Archbishop, issued a Pastoral letter on November 25th 1970, which was to be read out in all the churches of his diocese, in an attempt to address the problem. I will quote from it as it gives a good idea of the extent of the problem.
One Archbishop’s response
“In a Diocese there is only one teaching authority, who, under the Pope and in union with him, is competent, by virtue of his sacred office, to declare the authentic and objective moral law, that is binding on all the faithful of his Diocese, both priests and lay people. That authority is the bishop.
Accordingly, to correct the confusion that has been caused in the minds of the Faithful of this Diocese, we hereby formally declare the doctrine of the objective moral law concerning the regulation of birth: every action, which either in the anticipation of the marriage act or in the accomplishment of that act, or in the development of the natural consequences of that act, proposes, either as an end or as a means, to make procreation impossible is unlawful in itself. In other words, any contraceptive act is wrong in itself.
This is the constant teaching of the Church. This is the teaching recently reaffirmed by the Pope, Supreme Teacher of the Law of God in the Church of Christ.”
The Bishop was responding to Dissent
The strong wording of this letter shows how serious the situation had become in Ireland within just two years of the issuing of the encyclical. The bishop was responding to statements made to the Irish Medical Union’s symposium on ‘Family Planning’ by one of the priests of his diocese, who was also a professor at the seminary in Maynooth. The professor’s statements did not uphold Church teaching. The professor was teaching heresy. In January 1972, on reaching the age of 75, this bishop retired and with his retirement, the last strong episcopal voice in Ireland which was willing to robustly defend our Church’s teaching on marriage in the public square against Maynooth’s professors was gone.
Contraception attacks the very Heart and Core of Marriage
In order to grasp the scale of the problem that had now arisen we need to focus on two very important points. The first is, that the primary end of marriage is children. Marriage is designed by God for the procreation and education of children who are destined to inherit the kingdom of God as adoptive sons and daughters. Therefore, contraception, of its very nature, being against conception, attacks the very heart and core of marriage.
Heresy openly taught to the future Priests in the Seminary
The second point that we need to keep in focus is that St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, was Ireland’s primary seminary for the training of men to the priesthood at that time. In this college, in 1968, there were at least six professors (and probably others on the teaching staff), two of them teaching moral theology, who were in open dissent from Church teaching. They all held heretical positions with regard to marriage and family life and yet, these were the men who were allowed to continue in their role of forming our future priests.
The Bishops do not disagree
I have spent many hours wrestling and thinking over this problem and wondering why was nothing concrete and definitive done about it. The only conclusion that I can come to is that many of our bishops at that time, as is probably also the case now, given what we witnessed at the recent synod on the family, do not disagree with the opinions expressed by the Maynooth professors. It seems to me that our Lord’s words spoken through the prophet Isaiah apply
“And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honour me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote…” (Isaias 29:13)
The Irish bishops issued pastoral letters and statements which in their essence upheld the teachings of the Catholic church, but their actions did not conform to those statements. There was a worrying disparity between the two which seemed to indicate a nod and a wink in the direction of a subtle approval of contraception. Another Irish solution to an Irish problem perhaps? We shall see!
© John Lacken 2015
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Author: John Lacken
Founder: Legio Sanctae Familiae – The Legion of the Holy Family