Part 4 Dissent in the Catholic Church – Humanae Vitae

As we have seen previously, dissident theologians introduced doubt about the veracity of the Sacred Scriptures and the validity of the Church, thus planting the seeds of dissent. Vatican II, the council itself, was pregnant with dissent and rebellion. This would, shortly after the council, give birth to open rebellion throughout the Catholic Church. Humanae Vitae proved to be the catalyst for the actual birth process to begin.

The continuous Tradition of Christianity has rejected artificial contraception and abortion as intrinsically moral evils.[i] Not only did the Church Fathers speak out against them, but the original Protestant reformers did as well.[ii] It was not until the 1930 Lambeth Conference that the Anglican Communion allowed artificial contraception in “some circumstances.” Soon the Anglicans were allowing it across the board and most other Protestant denominations followed suit. The Catholic Church alone stood against the growing popularity of artificial contraception.[iii]

When oral contraceptives first became available in 1960, there were voices in the Catholic Church calling for a reconsideration of the Church’s traditional position. In 1963 Pope John XXIII established a commission of six non-theologians to study the issues involved. After the death of John XXIII, Pope Paul VI eventually expanded the commission to 72 members, including theologians, bishops, cardinals, physicians and women.[iv]

In 1966 this expanded commission produced its report, denying that artificial birth control was intrinsically evil and proposing that individual Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves as to the methods employed. This was the opinion of the majority of the commission. However, the minority, which consisted of Cardinal Ottaviani, the commission president, Bishop Colombo, the papal theologian, a second bishop and four theologian priests, wrote a minority opinion for the pope’s consideration. Both reports were supposed to have been confidential and only for the pope’s advisory use, but both found their way into the press in 1967.[v] This press leak and the comments of certain theologians prepared the laity for the Vatican to announce a change of position with regards to Catholic morality, especially regarding artificial birth control. Many among the laity thought the reversal was imminent and began to anticipate the Church’s decision by using contraceptives.

On July 25, 1968 Pope Paul VI promulgated the encyclical Humane Vitae (Of Human Life), subtitled, “On the Regulation of Birth.” It quickly became the most controversial papal encyclical in history, as author George Weigel explains,

“In the highly politicized atmosphere of the immediate post-Vatican II Church, “birth control” became the litmus-test issue between theological “progressives” and “conservatives,” even as the issue got entangled in ongoing arguments about the nature and scope of papal teaching authority. When one adds to this volatile ecclesiastical mix the cultural circumstances of the sixties in the West, including the widespread challenge to all established authority and the breakout into mainstream culture of the sexual revolution, it becomes apparent that a thoughtful public moral discussion of conjugal morality was going to be very difficult at this point. In 1968, Paul VI, who thought himself obliged to give the Church an authoritative answer on such a highly charged question, issued Humanae Vitae, which instantly became the most controversial encyclical in history and the cause of even further disruption in the Church, particularly in North America and Western Europe.”[vi]

In Humanae Vitae the pope reaffirmed the traditional Catholic teaching on the sanctity of marriage and the sanctity of the marital act. The pope asserted that the unitive aspect of human sexuality cannot be validly separated from the procreative aspect.[vii] The pope warned that the widespread use of contraceptives would have devastating effects upon marriage and upon society. Those who assent to the tenets of Humanae Vitae believe that the encyclical contains four prophecies of the results of such widespread use of contraceptives, all of which have come true since that time. These four prophetic predictions are that the widespread use of contraceptives would:

  1. cause an increase in marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards,
  2. cause a loss of reverence for women and their reduction to mere sexual objects,
  3. place a dangerous weapon in the hands of public authorities,
  4. lead people to think they had limitless dominion over the human body and its functions.

Pope Paul VIIt would be difficult to deny that there has not been a general decline in morality over the past 40 years. This has led to the abortion crisis with millions of unborn children dying at the hands of their own mothers. The loss of reverence for the dignity of the person has resulted in men and women taking multiple sexual partners for recreational sex and very short term “relationships” that deny the importance of commitment. The validity of the third “prophecy” is attested to by the history of family planning programs in Third World nations such as forced sterilization and the forced abortion program in China. Belief that we have an unlimited dominion over our bodies has resulted in test tube babies, embryonic stem cell research and euthanasia. Scientists think they have unlimited rights to experiment with human genetics, while long-term use of contraceptives is resulting in declining fertility rates.[viii]

The most important question that can be raised in the aftermath of Humanae Vitae is “Why?”

While the liberal Cardinal Montini/Paul VI was groomed to be the successor of John XXIII, John referred to him as, “our Hamlet” due to Montini’s indecisiveness.[ix] As pope, Paul VI was an enigmatic figure who reversed himself frequently. However, there was no reason to doubt that he would surely go along with the majority opinion of the papal commission. He was certainly an advocate for change during and following the council. Why, then, did he write Humanae Vitae, reaffirming traditional Catholic positions in a time dominated by the perceived need for change?

In my opinion, this was undoubtedly the work of the Holy Spirit protecting Christ’s Church from the gates of hell just as Christ had promised (Matthew 16:18,19). He could not allow Peter’s successor to issue a false teaching and thereby lead the Church into grave error. From later statements made by Pope Paul VI about the devil, I believe he was given divine insight into the real mastermind behind the errors that have led to the dissent we have been discussing.[x] Cardinal Virgilio Noe, the chief Vatican liturgist during the pontificate of Paul VI recently spoke out about the pope’s famous remark about the “smoke of Satan” entering the Catholic Church. Cardinal Noe says it pertained to the widespread liturgical abuse that came about due to the improper implementation of the decisions of Vatican II.[xi]

Dissent against this affirmation of the Church’s traditional teaching came quickly and has not diminished in the forty years since it was promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1968. On July 30, 1968, Fr. Charles Curran held a press conference claiming, along with a significant number of professors from Catholic University and other schools, that Catholics could dissent from and disobey the moral prescriptions in the pope’s encyclical.[xii] Eventually some 600 theologians would endorse this view.[xiii]

The rejection of the moral tenets of Humanae Vitae resulted in Catholics questioning and, in many cases, rejecting other teachings of the Church. They reasoned that if the Catholic Church is wrong about contraception then it is also probably wrong about divorce and remarriage, premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, women priests, etc. And since it was the pope that held this view that all the “experts” say is wrong, then the Church’s teaching on the authority of the pope must also be wrong. All the issues of dissent in the Church today can be traced to the dissent against Humanae Vitae and the entire edifice of Catholicism can be attacked from this stance.

Fr. Curran would continue to advocate open dissent against the Church’s teachings on premarital sex, masturbation, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, euthanasia, and in vitro fertilization. He was stripped of his status as a Catholic theologian by Pope John-Paul II in August of 1986. He was finally hired by Southern Methodist University as an ethics professor in 1991. He is the author of Loyal Dissent, a memoir of his confrontations with Church authorities.

Charles Curran is only one of the theologians who have encouraged dissent in the Church by advocating that the Magisterium of the Church is but “one voice” that speaks for the Church. These theologians have constituted themselves as a separate Magisterium that also speaks with authority. They have attacked the Church by attacking her teachings and undermining her authority from within. As a result, they have destroyed the faith of many ill-informed or uninformed Catholics who have believed them. They operate with a variety of methods from open confrontation to half-truths and innuendo, to outright lies and deception.

In previous times, those who dissented against the teachings of the Catholic Church, left the Church and founded their own ecclesial communities. Today’s dissenters want to remain within the Church, changing it over time to fit their own image of the Church Christ should have built. Next week we will look at examples of some of the types of dissent in the Church with an eye toward what they would like to make of it.



[i] Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2370.

[ii]Birth Control.” Catholic Answers. Imprimatur 2004.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv]Humanae Vitae.” Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia. 2008.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Weigel, George. Witness to Hope. Cliff Street Books/Harper Collins. 1999. The link is to an excerpt from the book entitled, The Humane Vitae Controversy. It contains a fascinating discussion of Archbishop Karol Wojtyla’s (later Pope John-Paul II) involvement with the writing of Humane Vitae.

[vii] Dooley, David. “Pre-history of Humanae Vitae.” Catholic Insight. July/August 1998 issue.

[viii] Smith, Janet E. “Humanae Vitae: A Prophetic Document?” U.S.C.C.B. Secretariat for Pro-Life Activites. 1988

[ix]Paul VI Biography.” Biography article.

[x]Confronting the Devil’s Power.” Address of Pope Paul VI to a General Audience November 15, 1972.

[xi]“Paul VI saw liturgical abuse as “smoke of Satan”.” Catholic World May 16, 2008

[xii] Mazza, Michael J. “Heart Attack: Catholic Academe meets “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” Fidelity Magazine. Feb. 1995 issue. Reprinted on EWTN website.

[xiii]Charles Curran (theologian).” Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia.

  1. June 26, 2008 at 11:57 am

    Those who attack the Church’s doctrines from within are like a cancer. But the result of separation becomes apparent from their fruits. Error leads to more error.

  2. June 26, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    Very true. Next week we will begin to look at specific types of dissent such as those trying to make the Church a democracy, those advocating an inclusive Church including practicing homosexuals, women priests, those advocating birth control and even abortion, etc. etc.

    Then we will take a look at the spiritual implications. Thanks for your comments, hope you will continue to join us.

  3. ds
    April 12, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    i have been studying humane vitae for a talk. I find it so complex and interesting. Thanks.

  4. ds
    April 12, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Sorry cat was on my key board, i love the articles and have been learning so much, cant wait to share it with others

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