Paul VI had no idea what he was setting loose when he published Humanae Vitae.
It was July 29th, 1968. The world seemed to be in turmoil The Paris student riots had happened a month before. I was an army chaplain at Puckapunyal preparing conscripts for Vietnam and, at the same time, an undergraduate at Melbourne University where the Vietnam War was taboo. Those two worlds were a universe apart. As I drove into the university car park the car radio told me that Paul VI had reaffirmed the intrinsic immorality of contraception. I was shocked. His advisory group had advised differently. We now know he went against most of the bishops he had chosen to consult. Little did I know that this was just the start of a journey to sexual common sense for the whole Church.
Five years later I was Parish Priest of a brand-new parish full of baby boomers with growing families. They were enthusiastic Catholics who loved parish involvement. Life was full on. As families grew, so did the parish school. Vatican II was the guiding charter. Liturgy was alive – the source and summit of the life of the parish.
Two things were of interest. Nobody ever mentioned contraception. Very few went to confession.
Fifteen years later the younger generation was courting and moving into partnerships. First, they had sleepovers, then holiday trips together, then they moved in together. Their baby- Eric Hodgens
boomer parents moved gradually from concern, to acceptance and, finally, approval. The younger generation was re-educating the older. Some saw this as an erosion of values; others saw it as the emergence of common sense, replacing a strongly ingrained pre-judgement that sex was bad and dangerous.
Then they started thinking. Was the pill a bad thing because it allowed license, or a good thing because it allowed greater freedom? Was vasectomy a violation of nature, or a newly available option for alleviating anxiety? Were the tortuous arguments of Catholic moralists based on a prejudice that sex somehow suspect, rather than an integral part of a fully human life?
The 80s were dominated by Pope John Paul II’s fightback on the issue. He had a hand in framing the original encyclical. He seemed pre-occupied with sexual morality. Over a five-year period, he lectured on his Theology of the Body at Wednesday Papal Audiences. These cerebral, rationalistic talks moved the focus of discussion of sexuality from human experience to rules and regulations. He was an old-time student of scholastic philosophy which he propounded in the Wednesday talks and in the two encyclicals “Veritatis Splendor” and “Fides et Ratio”. Human sexuality, as a wholistic human experience, got lost in this arid universe. Was he fighting his own inner demons?
John Paul II’s intense pre-occupation with sexual ethics emboldened the law and order wing of the Catholic Church and created a new industry. In 1981 he established the Pontifical Council for the Family. Its chief focus was sexual morality, especially opposition to contraception. Under the 18 years of the controversial Cardinal Trujillo’s presidency, it was renowned for opposition to family planning, use of condoms, even as aids prevention, gay marriage and embryological research.
Another spinoff was the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family. it has developed a heavily ideological course program using the JP II Theology of the Body as its ideological bedrock. Allied to established theology schools, it grants degrees under a moral theology or bioethics rubric. George Pell promoted this institute in Australia first under the leadership of Anthony Fisher and then Peter Elliott.
Moral theologians like Charles Curran, who argued a more nuanced view of Humanae Vitae, were blackballed by the pope. During the 37 years of John Paul II and Benedict XVI a chasm grew between an ever more entrenched, Roman, anti-sex mentality and a Catholic faithful who had adapted to a more wholistic vision of sexuality in human life and love. The Church at large was getting freer while Church officialdom dug in and ossified.
The doubters were not just pleasure seekers. They sensed that integral humanity was at the core of their conviction. A narrow, cerebral path of study had led officialdom away from God’s reality.
Margaret Farley, a leading American moral theologian, backed up this intuitive sense with her book “Just Love”. Justice is the top criterion for loving – including sexual love.
At the same time, something new was crystalizing in this cauldron of ideas. The mind of the church is formulated by the teachers (“magisterium” in Latin), but it needed to be received by the Church at large to receive its final endorsement. Reception theology now had its day. Ask Father Ormond Rush, an Australian theologian in the forefront of this study. The common sense of the faithful was solidly founded after all.
Paul VI was shocked by the response of the Church at large to his encyclical. It caused turmoil for many and departure from the Church for some, including priests. But it prompted others to formulate their conscience for themselves. No longer is the pope’s or bishop’s word law. Make the case or lose the argument.
So, Humanae Vitae turned out to be a watershed moment. Paul VI meant to settle the matter but, instead, began a movement that put conscience, reception and sexual taboo under the microscope. JP II laboured for 27 years to bag the cat again – but lost. What a roller coaster ride it has been! But the church is, consequently, better informed and wiser.
Eric Hodgens is a retired Parish Priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne.