Humanae Vitae and the Sensus Fidelium

humane vitae

Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae was publicly released on Monday, July 29, 1968.

It reiterated the condemnation of artificial contraception for spouses.

Many in the Catholic world had been hoping for a change in the papal teaching based on the newer approaches of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the call to change the teaching that was in the “Majority Report” of the papal commission studying the issue, which had been leaked the year before.

But rumors began circulating in the spring of 1968 that the pope was going to issue an encyclical reaffirming the contraception ban.

Humanae Vitae raised two different issues — the teaching on contraception and sexuality, and how the church goes about its authoritative teaching role.

The second issue is more extensive and important and is the subject matter of this essay.

The authoritative teaching on contraception, as explained at the Vatican press conference releasing the encyclical, involves authoritative, noninfallible church teaching.

Defenders of dissent from such teaching, including myself, proposed three basic reasons to justify such dissent. (The day after Humanae Vitae was released, I was the spokesperson and leader of a group of theologians who issued a public statement saying that Catholics could dissent in theory and in practice from the teaching of Humanae Vitae on artificial contraception and still consider themselves to be loyal Roman Catholics. More than 600 Catholic scholars ultimately signed this statement.)

First, history shows that the church has changed its teaching on a number of significant moral teachings over the years, such as slavery, the right of the defendant to remain silent, democracy, human rights, religious liberty, and the role of love and pleasure in marital sexual relations.

Second, noninfallible teaching by its very nature is fallible.

Noninfallible is a subterfuge to avoid using the word fallible.

Third, the primary teacher in the church is the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Spirit speaks through the hierarchical magisterium, but the role of the Spirit is broader than the role of the hierarchical magisterium.

Through baptism all Christians share in the teaching and prophetic role of Jesus.

The strongest argument against the legitimacy of such dissent insists that the Holy Spirit guides the church and would never allow church teaching to be wrong in a matter affecting so many people in their daily lives.

Instead of helping people live the Christian life, would the Spirit allow the Church to lead them astray?

The strongest rebuttal is that slavery was a much more significant and important issue than contraception for spouses.

Immediately following Humanae Vitae, a firestorm of debate arose over dissent and its legitimacy, but as time went on, the debate has greatly subsided.

Catholic spouses are fundamentally no different from Protestant spouses in their use of artificial contraception in marriage.

The vast majority of Catholic theologians, but by no means all of them, recognize the legitimacy of dissent in the case of contraception.

Popes and bishops have continued to strenuously support the teaching opposing contraception, have never explicitly recognized the legitimacy of dissent and have punished some theologians defending such dissent, but they have not disturbed the consciences of those spouses using contraception.

Fifty years after Humanae Vitae, there is little or no discussion about this issue. Catholic couples long ago have made up their conscience on the issue of contraception.

Priests and confessors have overwhelmingly accepted in practice the legitimacy of such dissent.

Today, one could maintain that the present situation in the total church has justified the legitimacy of such dissent.

But there are problems with this present solution. Continue reading

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