Humanae Vitae, What Have You Wrought?

Humanae Vitae, What Have You Wrought? July 28, 2018

This week we mark the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. It is probably the single most divisive document issued by the Church in the last hundred years — arguably more divisive than even the controversial documents of Vatican II or the infamous footnote in Amoris Laetitia. I want to talk a bit, not about its argumentation but rather about the problems of its legacy.

A FaceBook friend posted, a while back, that Humanae Vitae is the litmus test for Catholic orthodoxy because it really is the best way to figure out whether someone actually accepts the authority of the Church or not. This is a common belief of more conservative Catholics — but it’s also a strange sentiment, in that it’s really obvious that it predicts no such thing.

There are plenty of Catholics who embrace Humanae Vitae while simultaneously rejecting large swathes of Church teaching (mostly in the areas of social justice and economics). The right-leaning Catholic press, which is deeply invested in promoting the pro-life movement and defending the teaching on sexuality and marriage, has been at the fore in the consistent attacks against Pope Francis and his Magisterium.

But even before Francis came to the seat of St. Peter there was a worrying double standard among right-leaning Catholics on the subject of Papal authority.

It first came to my notice during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, with the publication of Caritas in Veritate. I remember when the document came out, for whatever reason I was very excited about the new encyclical and I downloaded and read it the moment it was available on

It bowled me over. Mostly because what it proposed did not resemble, at all, the distributism and liberatarianism that I had consistently encountered under the name of “Catholic economic teaching.” Caritas in Veritate was in favour of international regulatory bodies. It rejected free market capitalism as well as socialism. It praised institutional and political forms of charity as ” no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbour directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis.”

It was the first social encyclical that I’d actually read. It literally altered my beliefs about economics and social life overnight. I spent the next months just meditating on its implications. Naturally, I thought “This is going to be a bombshell. It’s so revolutionary.”

Of course I didn’t realize that Benedict was really just reiterating and updating what the Church had been teaching since Rerum Novarum. So I was shocked when it had almost no effect at all. The Catholic press glommed onto a couple of passages that spoke to questions of marriage and sexuality, and otherwise mostly just ignored it.

The only responses to its actual content that I saw from the Catholic right shocked and troubled me. They were all concerned with “prudential judgment,” “ultramontanism” and “the limits of Papal authority.” All of sudden the same folks that treated any disagreement with even a single word or phrase of Humanae Vitae as “dissent” “Cafeteria Catholicism” or “rejection of the Church’s Magisterium” were talking about how important it is to be aware of those cases where dissent is both justified and necessary.

Later, I would learn that this had actually been the position of the Catholic right for a very long time — the Church was infallible on matters of sex and liturgy, but not on matters of social justice and economics. Humanae Vitae was therefore not the litmus test for obedience to Papal authority, but for something else.

As its anniversary has approached, I’ve been thinking about what that “something else” is. Part of it, I think, is simple authoritarianism. Paul VI makes a few statements in the document that are troubling in this respect: “as you know, the pastors of the Church enjoy a special light of the Holy Spirit in teaching the truth. And this, rather than the arguments they put forward, is why you are bound to such obedience. Nor will it escape you that if men’s peace of soul and the unity of the Christian people are to be preserved, then it is of the utmost importance that in moral as well as in dogmatic theology all should obey the magisterium of the Church and should speak as with one voice.”
While it’s put in very nice, measured sounding prose, it’s clear that Paul VI is readying priests for the inevitable storm of questions that are going to come at them from the pews. And that he is prepared to demand obedience, not on the strength of argumentation, but rather on the strength of authority alone. Indeed, the entire document begins by arguing for the Church’s authority to speak on a matter that is never directly addressed Scripture and that is knowable solely on the basis of the natural law.
Why is this a problem? Well, because it basically asserts the right of the Church to proclaim a “truth” concerning practical reasoning which doesn’t require any kind of external verification or evidence. If the arguments fail (and even at the time, there were theologians who supported Humanae Vitae‘s conclusion but admitted that its argumentation was flawed) then a bald appeal to authority is supposed to suffice.
Humanae Vitae, then, was a fresh assertion of Papal authority following on the (perceived) liberalism of Vatican II. It functionally rolls back the emerging appreciation for reason, the competence of the laity, and individual conscience that many found in the writings of the Council, and it establishes a clerical right to pronounce, solely on the basis of Papal fiat, concerning the most intimate aspect of lay people’s lives.
The arguments don’t have to make sense. It doesn’t need to be stated anywhere in Revelation. It need not be confirmed by the actual experience of the people who have to live it. The simple fact that it has been repeated again and again by men in positions of authority means that it must be believed to be true.
But this in itself doesn’t quite explain why Humanae Vitae has proved so popular with the Catholic right. After all, if simple obedience to Papal authority was the fundamental issue then we would expect to see the social encyclicals, and the writings of Pope Francis, defended with the same kind of vigor by the proponents of Humanae Vitae. But they aren’t. On the contrary, it is left to the “liberals” and “dissenters” to defend Papal authority when it comes to the care of the poor.
It is, I think, worth investigating why.


Image credit: pixabay

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