Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the controversial Papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which the Catholic Church hierarchy dug in its heels and refused to regard artificial birth control as anything other than a “grave evil.”
To mark this date, a coalition of dissenting Catholic organizations placed an ad featuring the following letter in a high-circulation Italian newspaper:
An Open Letter to the Pope
Today, July 25, 2008, the Catholic church marks the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae—the foundation stone for the Catholic hierarchy’s anti-contraception policy that has had a catastrophic impact on the poor and powerless around the world, endangering women’s lives and leaving millions at risk of HIV.
When Pope Paul VI cemented the Catholic hierarchy’s ban on contraception in 1968, he over-rode the findings of a group of experts he had himself chosen.
That group, the Birth Control Commission, had voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the church overturn the ban on artificial contraception, saying that it was neither “intrinsically evil” nor were previous teachings on it infallible. Even after Pope Paul brought in 15 bishops to make the final report, they too were swayed by the logic of the case for contraception and voted to change the teaching.
A “minority report” was produced which said that the teaching on contraception could not change—not for any specific reason, but because the Catholic hierarchy could not admit it had been wrong: “The Church cannot change her answer, because this answer is true…It is true because the Catholic Church, instituted by Christ…could not have so wrongly erred during all those centuries of its history.” It went on to say that if the hierarchy was to admit it was wrong on this issue, its authority would be questioned on all “moral matters.”
Humanae Vitae continues to be a source of great conflict and division in the church. Catholics and non-Catholics alike continue to feel the impact of the Catholic hierarchy’s devastating policy.
The impact of the ban has been particularly disastrous in the global south where, because the Catholic hierarchy holds significant sway over many national family planning policies, it obstructs the implementation of good public health policies on family planning and HIV prevention.
However, even in the global north, Humanae Vitae affects public health policy. Earlier this year, lobbying by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in the US Congress resulted in the dropping of vital family planning services that can prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
The evidence is overwhelming that Humanae Vitae has been an utter failure in convincing Catholics to abandon modern methods of contraception. Studies the world over show that Catholics use contraception, and use and support the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV. The ban has, however, prevented many women and men around the world from accessing reliable family planning methods and condoms.
It is clear to us that the Catholic church cannot move forward until it honestly confronts the paradox of Humanae Vitae: Most Catholics use modern contraceptives, believe it is a moral choice to do so and consider themselves Catholics in good standing, yet the Catholic hierarchy completely denies this reality, forcing the clergy into silence on this and most other issues related to sexuality.
The past 40 years have been marked by a hardening of the Vatican’s attitudes at the very time that the world has moved to a different, more comprehensive view of sexuality and women’s role in society. Pope Paul VI did not succeed in turning back the clock 40 years ago and it is unlikely any other pope will succeed to do so in the future. But many people, especially women in poor countries, will continue to suffer as long as the church hierarchy tries to do so.
Pope Benedict, we call on you to use to use this anniversary as an opportunity to start the process of healing by being true to the positive aspects of Catholic teachings on sexuality and lifting the ban on contraception to allow Catholics to plan their families safely and in good conscience.
Complete list of Signatories to the Open Letter to the Pope
Catholics for Choice
A Critical Mass: Women Celebrating Eucharist – USA
Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church – USA
Brothers and Sisters in Christ – Ireland
Call to Action – USA
Catholic Women’s Ordination – UK
Catholics for a Changing Church – United Kingdom
Catholics for a Free Choice – Canada
Catholics for the Spirit of Vatican 2 – USA
Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir – Brasil
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Bolivia
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Buenos Aires
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Chile
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Colombia
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Córdoba
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – El Salvador
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – España
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – México
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Nicaragua
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Paraguay
Centro Bartolomé de las Casas – El Salvador
Chicago Women-Church – USA
Chrétiens sans Frontières de Gironde – France
Colectivo Rebeldía Santa Cruz – Bolivia
Col.lectiu Dones en l’Esglesia – Spain
Comité Oscar Romero – Chile
Comunidad Santo Tomás de Aquino – Spain
CORPUS, National Association for an Inclusive Ministry – USA
David et Jonathan—Association Homosexuelle Chrétienne Ouverte à Tous – France
Demain l’Eglise – France
Droits et Libertés dans les Eglises/Femmes et Hommes en Eglise – France
Espérance 54 en Meurthe et Moselle – France
European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups
European Network Church on the Move
Gehuwd en Ongehuwd Priesterschap – Netherlands
De Graalbeweging – Netherlands
KerkHardop – Netherlands
Landelijk Koördinatie Punt Groepen Kerk en Homoseksualiteit – Netherlands
Mandragora/Netmal – Brazil
Mariënburgvereniging – Netherlands
Movimiento También Somos Iglesia – Chile
National Coalition of American Nuns – USA
New Ways Ministry – USA
Noi Siamo Chiesa – Italy
Nos Somos Igreja – Portugal
Nous Sommes Aussi l’Eglise – France
Pax Christi Maine – USA
Plein Jour – France
Red Latinoamericana de Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir
Réseaux Résistances – Belgium
Roman Catholic Women Priests – Europe-West
Roman Catholic Women Priests – Canada Est
Roman Catholic Women Priests – Canada West
San Francisco Bay Area Women-Church – USA
Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference – USA
Stichting Kerk Hardop – Netherlands
Stichting Magdala—Voor Vrow en Priester – Netherlands
Voice of the Faithful/New Jersey – USA
Werkplaats voor Theologie en Maatschappij – Belgium
Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) – USA
Women’s Ordination Conference – USA
Women-Church Baltimore – USA
Source: Catholics for Choice