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Humanae Vitae: A Catholic Time Bomb (Mon Aug 1, 2005 1:12 pm)

In the wake of the Vatican II reforms and Papa John's spirit of aggiornamento, many if not most Catholics expected the priesthood to be opened to married men and the ban on artificial contraception to be lifted. Of those two issues, birth control was obviously closest to the hearts of the laity whose most intimate lives were held hostage to rigid church rules that often appeared to be arbitrary and cruel, especially in cases when pregnancy presented a serious danger to a wife's health. In several European countries (such as France, Germany, and Austria) artificial birth control had actually been widely practiced for over a century, as population statistics indicate. Some couples were fortunate to find understanding parish priests who allowed them to avoid the issue in the confessional. Others became alienated Catholics. In impoverished post-war Europe the need to restrict family size was critical. Now, finally, it seemed that church teaching would be updated to reflect the needs and experiences of ordinary people. Surely Pope Paul VI would listen to the advice of the commission he himself had appointed. He didn't, and in 1968 Humanae Vitae hit the Catholic world like a time bomb that would continue to wreak its destruction over the following decades.

Initially, widespread disappointment with the encyclical turned into a storm of opposition that included clergy and laity, and led to Cardinal Patrick A. O'Boyle of Washington imposing sanctions on openly dissenting priests. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin mediated a settlement which in effect affirmed the right of priests to dissent. However, under Paul's successor, the hard line hardened even more and was turned by Rome into a litmus test of loyalty for bishops' appointments and the distribution of red hats ever since.

At the same time the encyclical was so utterly out of sync with the practice of large proportions of Catholics that it became one of the teachings not "received" by the people (see Jim Coriden's "The Canonical Docrine of Reception" -- http://arcc-catholic-rights.net/doctrine_of_reception.htm Andrew Greeley's sociological research shows a powerful correlation between the date of Humanae Vitae and a mass exodus from the U.S. Church. For those who remained, as a rule that was neither respected nor enforceable, it came to be viewed (possibly unconsciously) as justification to disregard certain other official teachings. Hence, Humanae Vitae seriously damaged the credibility and authority of Rome in addition to having the remote consequence of allowing the promotion of mediocre "company men" to vacant episcopal sees -- men who would turn out both to protect fellow members of the priestly caste who were accused of abusing minors and, as presumed lords in their fiefs, to be unwilling to be financially accountable to those they considered mere ordinary mortals.

Ingrid Shafer

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