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For Humanae Vitae, Life Begins at 40

Discussion during Pope Benedict's Vvsit suggests better reaction.
by Nona Aguilar | Source:

NEW YORK ( — The 1968 publication of Pope Paul VI’s "Humanae Vitae" (The Regulation of Birth) was greeted by criticism, and dissent has followed ever since.

Kippley should know: He has been “in the trenches” for decades. In 1971 he and his wife, Sheila, launched the Couple to Couple League in response to a suggestion by Pope Paul VI: to launch apostolates where married couples become apostles and guides to other married couples.

Today, just weeks from its 40th anniversary — and given its continued support by Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict XVI (see story, page 5) — can we expect fresh denunciations?

If the reactions to a New York Times blog post published during Pope Benedict’s U.S. visit are any indication, the answer is No.

In “Silence on Contraception,” Rosemary Radford Ruether, described by The Times as a leading Catholic feminist theologian, complained about “the failure of the Catholic Church to credibly reform its teaching.”

She also thumps "Humanae Vitae." Published under a special “Papal Discussion” section, Ruether concludes her article with a warning: “If Catholicism in the U.S. and worldwide presents the appearance of a hierarchical leadership which has lost credibility with much of the laity, the most important cause of this is the failure to rethink its teaching on sexuality and birth control.”

The overwhelming response to Ruether? “Not so fast!”

Of the 59 comments, only two supported Ruether’s observations. Five were genuinely questioning. The remaining 52 commentators revealed that they do not view Humanae Vitae through dissident lenses. Or, to put it another way, the overwhelming majority complained about Ruether’s complaints. Their reasons ran the gamut.

To many, Ruether is out-of-date. “Ever hear of natural family planning?” one commentator wondered. “Ruether’s comments are straight out of the ‘70s,” said another.

Some considered Ruether not only out-of-date but also out-of-touch.

“Hello?” wrote a commentator self-described as Catholic, female and a family physician. “Is she even familiar with the newer literature reaching laypeople on marriage and family issues? ... Or that fertility awareness methods are being taught with great success in the poorest countries?”

Several young spouses — sometimes a husband, sometimes a wife — supported Humanae Vitae and also reported using NFP with success and significant contentment.

Ruether declined to comment on the controversy.

If Ruether’s article was bromidic, most of the comments were not. The likely reason for this difference: Nearly 40 years later, Humanae Vitae has proven prophetic.

To the average 1960s Catholic — and anyone else — Humanae Vitae’s description of the consequences of contraception seemed far-fetched. Widespread marital infidelity? The “general lowering of morality”? Treating women as mere instruments for selfish enjoyment instead of respected, beloved companions? These possibilities (and others) seemed unimaginable 40 years ago. But not today.

Indeed, one commentator decided to read "Humanae Vitae" “to prove it was stupid” after getting into a debate about it. Her reading ended in surprise and tears.

“I could see that [an old man … five years before my birth] diagnosed the problems of my generation: women not valuing themselves, men treating them as disposable things to be used, relationships falling apart and more. I started crying — and that was the moment that I realized that the Catholic Church really knows and teaches the truth.”

Because "Humanae Vitae" was met by a world that had not experienced the consequences of the truly widespread use of contraception — it was the 1960s, after all — it was ridiculed. Today’s climate is different.

Like some of Ruether’s commentators, economist Jennifer Morse has personal experience with the world of unmoored sex.

“I committed just about every sexual sin in the book,” she wrote. As an economist who taught at Yale and George Mason University, she sees the social consequences of unbridled sex. And, like many “been there, done that” former sexual revolutionaries, Morse grasps the wisdom of the Church’s constant teachings, a matter detailed in her book, Smart Sex: Finding Life-Long Love in a Hook-Up World.

Does this mean the tide is turning as we approach the anniversary?

Kippley offered a wise observation: “There are just enough signs to indicate that it might be turning, but comparisons with nature are dangerous: They imply a sort of inevitability — and tidal changes don’t ‘just happen.’ They occur only because there is a great force that causes the change.”

Likewise, a similar force is demanded in the birth control debate, one that has been largely unused for 40 years: the ordinary magisterium exercised by the bishops in union with the Pope, said Kippley. It’s not just ordinary Catholics that will be the beneficiaries of firm pastoral guidance.

“I keep stumbling over Evangelicals who are interested in the Church’s teaching on contraception,” said Morse. “Some embrace it; many more are looking for reasons to give up their pills.”

Nona Aguilar is based in New York.

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