Humanae Vitae and the HHS Mandate

Marsh Fightlin - Humanae Vitae


My perspective on the conflict between the Catholic Church in the U.S. and the Obama administration is a long one.  It goes even further back than the 1930s, but, for purposes of this article I will start the narrative with the years immediately after the conclusion of Vatican II in 1965.

The time of the Council and the years following were heady times—the sixties.  It seemed like everything in the culture was up for grabs.  Everything was being questioned.  This was true, not only in the culture at large, but also in the Church.  Seen through the prism of the secular (and sometimes Catholic) media, the Council appeared to have turned Catholicism on its head.  Traditional elements were out: Latin in the liturgy was gone.  Fish on Friday was gone.  Most of the Lenten fasts were gone.  “The holy sacrifice of the Mass” became “the Eucharistic liturgy”.  “Confession” became “Penance”.  The Last Rites were now “the Anointing of the Sick”.  “Heretics” became “our separated brothers”.  It was inevitable that Catholics would start to wonder if the teaching on contraception might change.

During the Council, Pope John XXIII removed that topic from the Council’s agenda and reserved it to a newly-created Papal Birth Control Commission.  His intent was to study the newly-invented birth control pill to determine whether or not it was a form of contraception, and to advise the Pope on how best to present the Church’s teaching to the faithful.  The news media spun the Pope’s move to suggest the Church’s teaching on contraception might change.

Catholics had been struggling with the Church’s teaching for a generation.  The teaching was clear and was clearly presented in homilies and in the confessional.  I can remember a friend of mine telling me how his wife returned from confession in tears.  The priest had refused her absolution because she couldn’t promise to stop using contraceptives.  That was in 1951.

It was not uncommon for Catholics to “shop” for a confessor who wouldn’t ask too many questions or make too many demands.  One woman who did that told me, “After a while, I stopped confessing it.”  She was silent for a moment, and then added, “But how I wish someone would tell me it’s all right.”

Now, after the Council, Catholics were psyched up to think that there might be a change in teaching.  The Pope’s Birth Control Commission went rogue and leaked to the press that they were going to recommend that the Pope change the Church’s teaching altogether.  Theologians began saying, “The Church is officially in doubt.  You may follow your own conscience.”  The objections of the Pope—now Paul VI—to this landed on deaf ears.

Further, Pope Paul VI, for reasons of his own, did not issue Humanae Vitae until three years after the close of the Council.  During those three critical years, amid all the discordant voices, Catholic couples in vast numbers began using contraception, convinced that they were following their consciences, and that the official teaching would soon “catch up” with them.

Then, in the summer of 1968, came Humanae Vitae.  It was a bombshell.  I was attending a theological conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia at the time, given by theologian Bernard Haering.  Glaring headlines in the local newspaper screamed, “POPE BANS BIRTH CONTROL”.  Father Haering responded, “We must save the Pope from his advisers.”  His response was all too typical.

The American and Canadian bishops’ conferences issued statements that, on the one hand accepted the encyclical, but on the other hand signaled couples that they should follow their consciences.

This theme of follow-your-conscience became a mantra that was repeated again and again in gatherings of Catholic couples.  It never seemed to occur to them that a conscience must first be formed before it can be followed.  It is formed by principles that it receives from outside itself.  For a Catholic, those principles are received from the Magisterium.

At its worse, Catholic agencies began to actually promote contraception.  Engaged couples in Catholic marriage preparation classes were instructed in contraceptive use.  Catholic agencies would pay for oral contraceptive prescriptions for needy women who couldn’t afford them.  I personally witnessed this at a Catholic agency for which I worked.  That was in 1977.

At its best, there was the grand silence.  Priests did not mention the issue in homilies.  Confessions had fallen off dramatically, but, from conversations with Catholic friends, my guess is that it was hardly ever mentioned there.  Bishops didn’t issue statements about it.  Even the pro-life movement avoided the topic.

A small witness to Catholic teaching was growing slowly, but was still small: The NFP movement.  Since the 1950s new discoveries about the menstrual cycle were making the vagaries of the Rhythm Method a thing of the past.  Couples could now practice periodic abstinence in a way that was challenging but reasonable, and have the same or better assurance of avoiding a surprise pregnancy as a woman using oral contraceptives.  And, to borrow a page from the whole foods people, it’s “all natural, with no additives and nothing bleached out.”  NFP, in spite of its marketability, even in the community at large, remains a Catholic secret.  This is largely because, unlike contraceptives, there is no money to be made by promoting it.

It seemed as though Catholics were living a schizophrenic existence in two churches held together by the thread of Episcopal silence.  One church was the Magisterium with a minority of Catholics.  The other church was the dissenters.  How long could this go on?

Enter Pope John-Paul II.  In 1979, he began giving a series of talks on human sexuality which came to be called “The Theology of the Body”.  The series was a comprehensive and winsome presentation of the teaching of Humanae Vitae.  The seminaries, in the mid to late 1980s began to attract young men who were on fire with this teaching.  Bishops were being appointed who were more forthright in presenting the Theology of the Body and of cleaning up Catholic agencies and marriage preparation programs.

However, the wounds have not been healed overnight.  A whole generation of Catholics has grown up and married, who have never heard of the Catholic teaching, and are totally unaware of the Church’s stand on contraception.  You still find dissenters—aging now—in positions of authority in rectories, Catholic schools and diocesan offices.  It is not unknown that prominent parishioners have signaled pastors that their contribution checks will be affected by sermon topics.

And now comes the HHS Mandate, or, as the media call it, “The Contraceptive Mandate”.  A teaching that has suffered benign neglect for over forty years, a teaching that the vast majority of Catholics have never head presented in an attractive manner, a teaching that many Catholics think is “pre-Vatican II”—this teaching is pushed to the forefront in spades by none other than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  The Catholic Church in the U.S. is being forced to defend and insist on a teaching that it has largely avoided for over forty years.

Catholics who never knew the Church’s teaching, or, if they knew it, rejected it, are now confronted by their bishops, who are not only refusing to provide contraceptive insurance coverage for employees, but are prepared to see their agencies shut down and even to go to prison rather than do so.

Scripture tells us that God often uses the enemies of the Church to purify her.  In my view, what is happening before our eyes is exactly that.  We are being forced to end a generation of silence, and to stand up with courage at last and speak what we know to be true.

© 2013. Marsh Fightlin. All Rights Reserved.

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5 thoughts on “Humanae Vitae and the HHS Mandate”

  1. The “grand silence” was caused by many Catholics turning their backs on the Sacraments altogether, after learning of the Paul VI’s “teaching” via a media communique.

  2. I agree that the Church has dropped the ball on this issue. We were married in 1987 and our Pre Cana presentation on contraception was complete silence. They recommended a book that the couples could purchase – on their own – which dealt with the topic. It was clearly a hot button issue that they didn’t want to address. It took a few years after we were already married for us to even consider NFP, which we ended up using for most of our marriage! My point is, there was a perfectly appropriate opportunity for the Church to present their case, and they gave up without even trying. Without a couple’s individual initiative to learn the truth, I can see how marriages flounder and rely on their own judgement or justify their own position.

  3. Great article and shard it. When I was on my parish RCIA team, this topic came under the morality topic and it was not suprising to hear sponsors tell me that it is not what the church teaches – ban on contraception – and those in the process ask which person is right. Using a host of Church docunments, the Pope’s encyclical on birth control and “theology of the body” as church teachings. Even had nurses try to tell me and others that birthcontrol did not in a way cause abortion of the child but when asking them to give the chemicals and side effects of what was in them, they had trouble backing up their statements – I had already gotten a list of the chemicals and their side effects. One has to be educated on the topic – doing own research – before they can help others learn what the Church teaches. Yes, the Church is having to do catchup for years of being silent.

  4. Pingback: Humanae Vitae and the HHS Mandate | CATHOLIC FEAST

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