Affirming and celebrating Humanae Vitae

George Weigel

July 25 is the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical on the integrity of love and the appropriate means of family planning. Issued during the cultural meltdown of the 1960s, and in a year when irrationality stalked the entire Western world, Humanae Vitae instantly became the most vilified act of the papal magisterium in history. And to what should have been their shame, entire national episcopates distanced themselves from Pope Paul’s teaching by a variety of strategems, many of which exhibited some degree of theological confusion and some of which were downright cowardly.

Paul VI came to the judgment he did in Humanae Vitae for two reasons.

First, because he was convinced that using the natural rhythms of fertility to regulate births was the most humanistic means of family planning, and the method most congruent with the dignity of the human person – and especially the unique dignity of women.

And second, because he came to understand that many of those advocating a change in Catholic teaching on the morally acceptable means of family planning were in fact promoting a fundamental change in the Church’s way of moral reasoning: they denied that some acts are simply wrong because of their nature, and they argued that moral judgment is really a calculus of intentions, acts, and consequences. Had that “proportionalism,” as it’s technically known, been enshrined as the official Catholic method of making moral judgments, Catholicism would soon have found itself in the sad condition of liberal Protestantism – another Christian community with utterly porous moral boundaries.

His abandonment by a lot of the world episcopate deeply wounded Paul VI, a sensitive soul who had supported the Second Vatican Council’s affirmation that bishops are something more than local branch managers of Catholic Church, Inc., and who probably thought he was owed a little loyalty in return. So as the Church and the world mark the golden jubilee of Humanae Vitae, and as Catholics around the world prepare to celebrate the canonization of Paul VI in October, perhaps those bishops who understand that a serious breach in episcopal collegiality took place in 1968, when so many of their predecessors failed to defend the Bishop of Rome against his often-vicious critics, might consider making these affirmations about the encyclical, in one form or another:

1. I am deeply grateful to Pope Paul VI for his courageous witness to the truth about love in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. With Pope Francis, I believe that Paul VI “had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a ‘brake’ on culture, [and] to oppose [both] present and future neo-Malthusianism,” which treats the gift of children as a societal and economic burden.

2. I believe that the truths taught by Humanae Vitae on the appropriate means to plan a family are important for human well-being today; that conscious use of artificial means of regulating fertility distorts the truth about human love inscribed into Creation by the Creator; and that conscience must respect these intrinsic truths in family planning.

3. I believe that the truths taught by Humanae Vitae about natural family planning have proven themselves in pastoral situations around the world; that those truths have made significant contributions to family ministry and marriage preparation in various cultures; and that those who deny the human capacity to understand and live the disciplines of natural family planning often engage in racism, new forms of colonialism, or both.

4. I believe that the “contraceptive culture” of which Paul VI prophetically warned in Humanae Vitae is a major factor in the sexual abuse of women that has come to public attention through the #MeToo movement, along with the related abortion license; and I invite feminists to rethink their celebration of artificial contraception and abortion on this fiftieth anniversary.

5. I believe that St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” has given the Catholic Church a compelling tool for explaining both the truths taught by Humanae Vitae and the unhappiness caused by the sexual revolution.

6. I pledge to make this anniversary year an occasion to celebrate the gift of Humanae Vitae and to use my pastoral office to deepen understandings of the Catholic sexual ethic as a celebration of human dignity and the gift of life. 

COMING UP: The Pell case: Developments down under

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In three weeks, a panel of senior judges will hear Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of the unjust verdict rendered against him at his retrial in March, when he was convicted of “historical sexual abuse.” That conviction did not come close to meeting the criterion of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is fundamental to criminal law in any rightly-ordered society. The prosecution offered no corroborating evidence sustaining the complainant’s charge. The defense demolished the prosecution’s case, as witness after witness testified that the alleged abuse simply could not have happened under the circumstances charged — in a busy cathedral after Mass, in a secured space.

Yet the jury, which may have ignored instructions from the trial judge as to how evidence should be construed, returned a unanimous verdict of guilty. At the cardinal’s sentencing, the trial judge never once said that he agreed with the jury’s verdict; he did say, multiple times, that he was simply doing what the law required him to do. Cardinal Pell’s appeal will be just as devastating to the prosecution’s case as was his defense at both his first trial (which ended with a hung jury, believed to have favored acquittal) and the retrial. What friends of the cardinal, friends of Australia, and friends of justice must hope is that the appellate judges will get right what the retrial jury manifestly got wrong.

That will not be easy, for the appellate judges will have been subjected to the same public and media hysteria over Cardinal Pell that was indisputably a factor in his conviction on charges demonstrated to be, literally, incredible. Those appellate judges will also know, however, that the reputation of the Australian criminal justice system is at stake in this appeal. And it may be hoped that those judges will display the courage and grit in the face of incoming fire that the rest of the Anglosphere has associated with “Australia” since the Gallipoli campaign in World War I.

In jail for two months now, the cardinal has displayed a remarkable equanimity and good cheer that can only come from a clear conscience. The Melbourne Assessment Prison allows its distinguished prisoner few visitors, beyond his legal team; but those who have gone to the prison intending to cheer up a friend have, in correspondence with me, testified to having found themselves cheered and consoled by Cardinal Pell — a man whose spiritual life was deeply influenced by the examples of Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More during Henry VIII’s persecution of the Church in 16th-century England. The impact of over a half-century of reflection on those epic figures is now being displayed to Cardinal Pell’s visitors and jailers, during what he describes as his extended “retreat.”

Around the world, and in Australia itself, calmer spirits than those baying for George Pell’s blood (and behaving precisely like the deranged French bigots who cheered when the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus was condemned to a living death on Devil’s Island) have surfaced new oddities — to put it gently — surrounding the Pell Case.

How is it, for example, that the complainant’s description of the sexual assault he alleges Cardinal Pell committed bears a striking resemblance — to put it gently, again — to an incident of clerical sexual abuse described in Rolling Stone in 2011? How is it that edited transcripts of a post-conviction phone conversation between the cardinal and his cathedral master of ceremonies (who had testified to the sheer physical impossibility of the charges against Pell being true) got into the hands (and thence into the newspaper writing) of a reporter with a history of anti-Pell bias and polemic? What is the web of relationships among the virulently anti-Pell sectors of the Australian media, the police in the state of Victoria, and senior Australian political figures with longstanding grievances against the politically incorrect George Pell? What is the relationship between the local Get Pell gang and those with much to lose from his efforts to clean up the Vatican’s finances?

And what is the state of serious investigative journalism in Australia, when these matters are only investigated by small-circulation journals and independent researchers?

An “unsafe” verdict in Australia is one a jury could not rationally have reached. Friends of truth must hope that the appellate judges, tuning out the mob, will begin to restore safety and rationality to public life Down Under in June.

Featured image by CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images