This month sees the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, that most controversial of encyclicals. It was blamed at the time for causing bitter division in the Church, and subsequently for causing the precipitate decline in mass attendance of the 1970s.
But there is an obvious problem to all this.
Why should the restatement of a perennial doctrine cause division and defection? (HV, after all, was far more accommodating in its language than Casti Connubii of Pius XI, issued as a riposte to the laxity of the Lambeth Conference of 1930). Nothing was different on July 26, 1968 from what it had been on July 24.
The clue to the conundrum is expectation.
Already in 1968 the sexual revolution had gained a sufficient momentum for secularists (and many Catholics) to suppose that change was inevitable, and that the Church must necessarily fall into line. This sense of an irresistible unfolding agenda meant that for many a reaffirmation of the Church’s traditional position was unimaginable. There was bound to be, at the least, a softening of attitudes. After all, the demographics clearly showed that even in Catholic Italy and ultra-Catholic Poland, couples were defiantly using condoms and the pill. Population control in Africa and the developing world demanded easily available birth control. Instead of condemning condoms, Catholics should be giving them out. The Tablet voiced it all.
Paul VI courageously withstood this vox populi, vox dei argument. He stood as a remora against vulgar expectation, and in doing so proved the wisdom of perennial Catholicism. HV did not turn the tide of expectation and inevitability; but it put down a marker. The Church was not obliged to embrace the unfolding agenda of sexual ‘liberation’ and would hold the line against it, upholding its own immemorial values.
Blessed Paul VI did not live to see, as we have seen, that agenda remorselessly unfold. He could not have foreseen the abortion epidemic* (strangely allied to a significant increase in births out of wedlock); or the fragmentation of the family**; or the gender reassignment explosion of recent years***.
Was Pope Paul, then, merely an ecclesiastical Canute?
This anniversary requires modern day Catholics, with their more recent experience, to decide for themselves.
*Total annual abortions in England and Wales have increased 111% since 1969, the first full year that abortion was legal. The total number of annual abortions more than doubled between 1969 and 1971. There were 205,598 abortions reported in 2007, which is the highest total on record.
**There are around two million single parents in Britain today – they make up nearly a quarter of families with dependent children.
***The number of gender reassignment surgeries carried out yearly on the NHS has tripled since 2000.