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: Opinion: There is cause for hope amid dire reports of clergy sexual abuse of minors

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By Vincent Carroll

This Dec. 13, 2019 opinion column was originally published by the Denver Post.

When will it end, many Catholics must wearily wonder. And not only Catholics. Anyone who reads or listens to the news must wonder when the Catholic church sex scandals will ever be over.

But in one major sense, the crisis already has passed and what we’re witnessing — and will continue to witness for years — is the aftermath.

To see what I mean, go to Appendix 4 in the report on sexual abuse of minors by clergy in Colorado issued in October by investigators led by former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer. There’s a bar graph highlighting the “number of victims by decade the abuse or misconduct began.” Towering above all other decades for the archdiocese of Denver is the bar for the 1960s, representing 74 victims. In second place is the 1970s with 25 victims, and the 1950s is third with 14. The 1990s had 11 victims and the 1980s three.

As the report observes, “Roman Catholic clergy child sex abuse in Colorado peaked in the 1960s and appears to have declined since. In fact, the last of the Colorado child sex abuse incidents we saw in the files were 1 in July 1990 and 4 in May 1998.”

In other words, nearly 70 percent of all the abuse documented in the attorney general’s report within the Denver archdiocese occurred a half-century or more ago.

Denver’s history differs somewhat from the national experience, but not wildly so. Researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded in 2004 after examining the national data on accusations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2002 that “more abuse occurred in the 1970s than any other decade.” The 1960s were also atrocious years for Catholic youth and so was the first half or so of the 1980s.

It appears that accusations in the years since have held to the same chronological profile. Mark Gray, a survey researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, reported recently that CARA has analyzed 8,694 accusations of abuse made between 2004 and 2017 (compared to 10,667 earlier allegations studied by John Jay researchers). The result: The distribution of cases is “nearly identical to the distribution of cases, over time, in John Jay’s results.”

In other words, a large majority of the accusations of abuse that have surfaced in this century are also dated to the horrible era of 1960 to 1985.

This pattern even holds for incidents in last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, although news coverage often left the impression that it recounted a fresh flood of new incidents. The report’s scope and details were certainly new and devastating, but most (not all) of the incidents and perpetrators were old (or dead). Those accused of abuse in the Pennsylvania report, for example, were on average “ordained as priests in 1961,” according to Gray.

Given this context, it’s hardly surprising that “the most prolific clergy child sex abuser in Colorado history,” according to the special investigator’s report, namely Father Harold Robert White, was also ordained in 1961.  His depredations “continued for at least 21 years,” the heyday of sexual abuse and church complacency, during which time he “sexually abused at least 63 children.”

Chilling.

I am perfectly aware that the Colorado investigation hardly exhausts the number of victims of clergy sexual abuse. It covers diocesan priests but not those who served in religious orders. Records are likely incomplete and some perhaps destroyed. And the actual number of victims certainly exceeds the number who have come forward.

There is also the question of a reporting time lag — the fact that victims often don’t muster the courage to come forward for years. But if this had been a major factor in the reduced number of incidents after 1985 at the time of John Jay College’s 2004 report, that number would surely have seen a disproportionate surge by now. And yet it has not.

The authors of the state investigation emphasize that they are unable to reliably say that “no clergy child sex abuse has occurred in Colorado since 1998,” and warn against concluding that clergy child sexual abuse is “solved” given ongoing weaknesses they outline regarding how the church handles allegations.

Their caution is understandable given the church’s history in the past century (in the report’s words) of “silence, self-protection and secrecy empowered by euphemism,” and their recommendations to strengthen the diocese’s procedures are for the most part on point. But it is also true that child sexual abuse will never be “solved” in the sense of it being eradicated — not in religious denominations, and not in schools, daycare centers, scout troops, youth sports, and juvenile social service and detention facilities, to cite just some of the venues that predators unfortunately exploit and where an accounting for the lax standards of the past has not been undertaken.

John Jay College researchers also released a followup study in 2011 in which they noted, “the available evidence suggests that sexual abuse in institutional settings . . .  is a serious and underestimated problem, although it is substantially understudied.” Meanwhile, “no other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church.”

Early this month, Bishop Richard J. Malone resigned from the Buffalo Diocese over gross mishandling of sexual abuse claims. He likely won’t be the last. Meanwhile, Catholics still await the Vatican’s promised explanation for how defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who allegedly preyed on seminarians for decades, could have been promoted time and again. Is there any credible defense?

So the bad news hasn’t stopped. But behavior in the priestly trenches actually is much improved, and that is surely cause for hope.

Email Vincent Carroll at [email protected]