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Humanae Vitae at Age Twenty

John F. Kippley

The twentieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae provides an excellent opportunity to assess the lived response of Catholics to Humane Vitae and its associated teachings regarding love and sexuality.

There is no question that twenty years ago Father Charles Curran won the opening battle in the war about love and sex within the Church. He knew his troops; he organized them well; they appealed to human weakness and intellectual pride; they appeared to be so numerous as to be invincible; they were essentially unopposed.

The key to their initial success was a new doctrine called the right to dissent. Catholics were told that they could disagree with the traditional teaching both mentally and in practice AND remain Catholics in good standing. Since this false doctrine offered such a sugar-coated way of avoiding the conflict between the real demands of married love and the degraded morality of the times, it was widely accepted by the clergy and even, I think, by some bishops.

However, "dissent" was a Pandora's box with unlimited contents. If married couples would use "dissent" to rationalize their reluctance to accept sexual self-control, unmarried couples would do the same about sex outside of marriage, and priests and nuns would use it to rationalize the notion that celibacy didn't necessarily entail chastity. Homosexuals would use it to excuse their perverse actions because, after all, the whole purpose of contraceptive behaviors is to render the sexual act as sterile as homosexual activity, and some married couples now engage in the same sorts of acts as homosexuals do with no less moral perversity.

If you look at the Church today in terms of statistics, it's a disaster. Surveys have shown that about 94% of American Catholic couples in their fertile years are using unnatural methods of birth control; experience suggests that at least that percentage and perhaps as many as 98% of Catholic newlyweds are starting their marriages that way. The situation among the clergy is such that insurance companies will no longer offer liability insurance to dioceses for the sexual misdeeds of priests and religious with minors. As Father Curran, McCormick, and company survey the carnage of their victories, what satisfaction can they have?

On the other hand, the situation of the defenders of Humanae Vitae is entirely different today. Twenty years ago, for all practical purposes, there was no defense, and those who were the would-be defenders felt completely isolated and wondered if there was anybody else. Today, the orthodox are thriving. Thanks to Catholics United for the Faith which arose as a positive response to Humanae Vitae, thousands of individual Catholics feel a sense of orthodox community within the divided Church in this country. Thanks to the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, orthodox Catholic intellectuals have gained a sense of community and identity within the Catholic Church in the United States for the past eleven years.

Humanae Vitae is also a source of conversions to the Catholic faith. Lapsed Catholics have been brought back to the full faith and practice by a decent explanation of Catholic teaching about love, sex, and marriage. I recently heard from a former Protestant couple, he, a fundamentalist, she, a Baptist, were practicing NFP when a few words in a natural family planning newsletter explaining the why of Humanae Vitae startled them into full union with the Church.

There is no comparison between the level of theological defense of the teaching of Humanae Vitae and its predecessor Casti Connubii today and twenty years ago. There have probably been more articles and books written in defense of the received teaching in the last twenty years than in the previous two hundred, and this has been led by Pope John Paul II himself.

Lastly, there is utterly no comparison between the practical help that is available today and twenty years ago. While all the fundamentals of modern natural family planning had been discovered and tested by 1968, the means for transmitting that information were practically non-existent. Today, natural family planning is readily available in many Church and hospital locations throughout the United States.

Adapted from a published Article in Lay Witness, September/October 1988. Reprinted with permission by Catholics United for the Faith (www.cuf.org).