Teachers of modern moral theology did not predict accurately what would happen if contraception became widely accepted, but Pope Paul VI proved prophetic in this matter when the sexual revolution erupted in the 1960s.
He warned of a general lowering of moral standards throughout society, an increase in marital infidelity, a diminishing of respect for women by men, and the coercive use of contraceptive technologies by governments. All this was encapsulated in his most famous encyclical, Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life).
Let me recount the genesis of this very controversial pontifical document which unfolded during the interesting years of the ecumenical council Vatican II when I was in Rome.
Everything started in 1963 when Pope John XXIII appointed a papal commission to study the morality of using what is vulgarly called "the pill," an anovulant that contains estrogen and progestin to inhibit ovulation and so prevent conception.
Pope Pius XII had already characterized its use as temporary sterilization, and therefore immoral. Pope John's commission was reconstituted twice by Pope Paul to reevaluate the question in light of the universal claim that the world's population was increasing uncontrollably.
The commission was formed of the most enlightened religious and lay minds: cardinals, archbishops, gynecologists, scientists, and married couples. Their report, presented to the Pope in 1968, said that the majority of them were in favour of the pill, but recommended that its use be decided by individual married couples.
After researching the issue the commission concluded the birth control pill did not kill or harm the ovum, which in itself does not bear life, but recommended that married couples use the pill moderately and unselfishly.
Going against their opinion, Paul VI adopted the opposite view and rejected the commission's advice to change the Church's traditional teaching. He said that would blatantly go against conjugal love and responsible parenthood.
He insisted in his pontifical document that marriage itself is a good instituted by God "to realize in mankind His design of love" and to enable spouses "to collaborate with God in the generation and education of new lives."
Responsible parenthood involves respect for the biological laws "which are part of the human person," mastering instinct and passion by rational control, deciding prudently about family size, and adhering to "the objective moral order established by God."
The Pope insisted that the requirement of natural law is that "each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life."
In no uncertain terms he reiterated the rejection of the following birth control techniques: "absolute direct abortion; sterilization of either spouse, whether perpetual or temporary; and any other procedure which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible."
The reaction was bitter controversy, even among Catholics. There were staunch practising lay people, nuns, priests, and bishops who rejected the Pope's decision; the rebellion became virulent.
There was even heated debate about the authority of the encyclical. Some defended Humanae Vitae as infallible; others said it was a teaching of the regular magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church), and others considered it a private opinion of the Pope acting alone and ignoring collegiality: that is, without consulting the world's episcopal conferences.
This latter point was picked up by Pope Paul during the council when he declared that "the episcopate should never be in opposition to the Pope, but work with him and under him for the common good and supreme end of the Church."
Humanae Vitae created perhaps the greatest crisis in the modern Church, especially in the western world. Large numbers of Catholics ignored the teaching of the encyclical, and many priests and some bishops resigned because of it. We are proud that our Archbishop James Carney strongly supported the encyclical.
Ten years later, in 1978, a few days before his death, Paul VI referred to it as "the most painful document of our pontificate." He was grieved and troubled by the negative reaction.