Humanae Vitae - 50 Years Later by Gerry O'Shea : CALL TO ACTION BLOG

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Humanae Vitae - 50 Years Later by Gerry O'Shea

by Call To Action on 02/28/18

1968, 50 years ago, is sometimes described as annus horribilis  - a time of devastating events and awful tragedies. In March Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, and in June Bobby Kennedy suffered the same fate in Los Angeles. In August Soviet tanks shattered a brave and hopeful democratic dawn in Prague, and riots at the July Democratic Convention in Chicago reflected deep societal divisions about the jungle war in Vietnam.

In October in Northern Ireland  civil rights marchers faced the same police thuggery that Martin King and his supporters had to endure in Alabama and Tennessee. The mayhem of the civil rights marches morphed into the Irish "Troubles" that lasted for thirty years.

Then in the summer of 1968 Pope Paul  V1 published his much-anticipated encyclical Humanae Vitae which asserted that the use of contraceptives, even by married couples, was against the laws of nature and thus sinful.

Paul's predecessor, John XX111, had set up a consultative commission to advise him on this vital issue. The Second Vatican Council, in the spirit of the 60's, urged the church to move away from the autocratic model where the man at the top decided and  the people obeyed. This conservative approach was summarized  in church circles as Roma locuta est, causa finita est - Rome has spoken; the discussion is over.

The new mood of openness was supported by many church leaders and indeed the Council documents favored  collegial decision-making over the old hierarchical model. The 72-member advisory commission included 16 theologians, 13 doctors, 5 women and an executive of 9 bishops and 7 cardinals. After extensive deliberations it reported in 1966 to John's successor, Pope Paul. Apart from a minority of six traditionalists who claimed the Church could not change its long-held position of opposition to the use of contraceptives, the vast majority saw no moral  conflict between Catholic beliefs and the use of condoms or the contraceptive pill by married couples.

Unfortunately, Paul sided with the minority and his encyclical Humanae Vitae reflected the narrow scholastic thinking that prevailed among traditionalists. Rome had spoken but this time there was a heated and  bitter debate around what many Catholics  considered the pope's spurious arguments about contraception.

Paul was greatly influenced by the 1930 encyclical  Casti Connubii written by Pius X1. That papal letter espoused a strict ban on the use of contraceptives and branded any deviation from this ruling as a "grave sin." Paul felt - with good reason - that if he sided with the majority on the commission he would be inviting harsh condemnation from traditionalists who would demand an explanation of how sexual acts that Pius called intrinsically evil in 1930 could be morally permissible forty years later.

The pope used Natural Law reasoning which  argues that stymieing the conjugal act by preventing the possibility of pregnancy is unnatural and therefore immoral. Deriving moral imperatives from the purposes of physical acts is problematic for many modern ethicists.

There is another criterion for judging the morality of any human behavior. This involves  Catholics from all backgrounds deciding in good conscience what is right  and what is wrong from an ethical standpoint. This approach is called the Sensus Fidelium and involves ascertaining the sense of the faithful about any issue. In other words, the beliefs and practices of the people in the pews should be seriously considered before making moral pronouncements. Advocates for this democratic approach point out that  the Holy Spirit  is active with the whole community not just with the hierarchy.

Viewed through the prism of the Sensus Fidelium, Paul's  teaching about  the use of contraceptives was rejected by the vast majority of Catholics. Arguing, for instance, that the Natural Law forbids a married couple from using a condom to prevent pregnancy runs  counter to common sense.

 His central conclusion in the encyclical that  the use of contraceptives by married couples is somehow against  the Church's moral code  was rejected and disregarded by most people who agreed with the majority opinion on the papal commission.

Some conservatives still carry the torch for the teaching in Humanae Vitae. Breitbart News  joined the debate by opining that using contraceptives makes women "unattractive and crazy," and the American Catholic Bishops are seriously considering basing their upcoming pastoral letter about the importance of the family on the teaching in Pope Paul's encyclical.

Francis has not repudiated his predecessor's teaching in Humanae Vitae - to do so would almost certainly cause a schism in the church. However he recommended that three children  would be appropriate for most families and he condemned the idea of Catholic families "breeding like rabbits."

Should popes feel bound by previous papal pronouncements on moral matters? Paul couldn't follow the advice of the clear majority of Pope John's commission because of Pius's encyclical, and Francis is tied to the flawed  Natural Law reasoning used by both of his predecessors.

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“Amoris Laetitia”

“Amoris Laetitia” is the result of Pope Francis’ prayerful reflection on the discussions and outcomes of two Synods of Bishops (an Extraordinary Synod in 2014 and an Ordinary Synod in 2015), on the subject of marriage and the family. The Synod of Bishops is an assembly of bishops who assist the Pope by providing counsel on questions facing the Church.

Pope Francis issued “Amoris Laetitia” in 2016 as an apostolic exhortation, a papal teaching on marriage and the family. Amoris Laetitia is Latin for “The Joy of Love”. Apostolic exhortations are used to share the conclusions reached by the Pope after prayerful consideration of the recommendations of a Synod of Bishops. Such documents are a means for the pope to exhort/encourage the faithful to a deeper life of Christian discipleship. The pope has asked the clergy to accompany the faithful in addressing challenges families face today.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have asked that all who care about the future of the family should read this apostolic exhortation and study it in its entirety. In their 2017-2020 Strategic Plan (Encountering the Mercy of Christ and Accompanying His People with Joy), one of the five USCCB priorities is family and marriage -- ways to encourage and heal families.

What is the good news of Amoris Laetitia? No one is condemned forever. The pope has asked us not to put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its meaning and significance.
How should we respond, joining together with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB),
in developing a plan to implement the good news of “Amoris Laetitia”?

We, the Catholics who are the church, are called to action in strengthening and sustaining all families: 
We are called to dialogue with our leaders, who in turn are called to accompany us on this faith journey.
We are called to make moral decisions and life choices, formed by our conscience. The church is called to help form our consciences, not to replace them.
We are called to act, to engage and to support families in all the ways they are living.
We are called to pray, to engage the whole church in the power of intercessory prayer for wisdom and mercy in raising awareness of the message of “Amoris Laetitia”.

Join with the members of Call to Action, Metro NY Chapter, in the dialogue that Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the USCCB called for in his address on November 13, 2017, when he said, “It is the work of the church, the entire body of Christ, to work towards an ever-growing understanding of God’s truth.” Cardinal DiNardo asked us to speak with civility in debating issues of social challenge and social teaching.

Call to Action, Metro NY Chapter, is setting up a virtual study group to read and discuss “Amoris Laetitia”. We will explore our responsibility for the formation of our conscience and discernment. We will study each of the chapters of “Amoris Laetitia” and in doing so, will shape the prayers of the faithful in 2018. Beginning February 14th, we will start the conversation.  

Join us in this prayerful conversation of how we, together with the American bishops, will implement “Amoris Laetitia”. Thus empowered, we will open the hearts and minds of our church to invite those on the margins, to join us in celebrating God’s love for each of us.

Buy a copy of “Amoris Laetitia” which can be purchased locally at Catholic book stores such as Pauline Books & Media (112 E 29 St in Manhattan), the St Francis Book Shop (135 W 31 St in Manhattan), or on Amazon. Start reading Chapter One. Sign up now by sending an email to to receive Study Guide Questions and learn how you can join the conversation.

Follow us on Facebook (CTA Metro NY) and twitter ( @CTA_Metro_NY ) for continuing the conversation.