Birth-Control Issue Divides Church
A LARGE number of Catholics long desired an easing of the Church’s ban on artificial methods of birth control. Also hoping for a change were world leaders who are plagued by the problems of poverty and hunger due to ‘exploding’ populations. In addition, the majority of a commission set up by the pope recommended a change.
Yet, in July of 1968 Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), in which he restated the Church’s position. It banned all methods of artificial birth control, including birth-control pills. The encyclical stated that “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.”
The pronouncement came like a bomb. It produced an explosion. A front-page headline in the New York Post declared: “POPE’S EDICT STIRS STORM.” And the San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle commented:
“It was Pope John XXIII who launched the church on the seas of change with the Ecumenical Council. But it was Pope Paul VI who had to hold the helm as the winds grew stormier over the last five years. . . .
“With the pontiff’s birth control encyclical the helm has nearly been wrenched from the . . . Pope’s grasp.
“The Barque of St. Peter, as the Church is often called, is rocking badly in the waves of dissent from priests and laymen.”
Large numbers of Catholics everywhere were shocked and angry. Rarely had so many of them spoken out so strongly. A Catholic mother in the United States said: “Who is the Pope to come into my bedroom?” A Frenchman with four children declared: “I think the Pope is wrong. I shall ignore the Pope’s ban.”
In Argentina a poll taken by the magazine Manchete found that the great majority of women of childbearing age disagreed with the pope. Even 52 percent of the women over 50 years of age said the pope was wrong. And 84 percent felt that family planning was a personal responsibility that should not be dictated by the Church.
It is said that about 70 percent of Catholic women in the United States use birth-control devices. Few of these had their minds changed by the encyclical. This point was noted by priest Robert Fox from Chicago’s Loyola University, who stated bluntly: “There are millions of people to whom the pope seems to be saying, ‘You are in sin.’ . . . They’re answering back, ‘The hell we are.’” This attitude was shown in a manifesto issued by an 800-member layman’s association in Los Angeles. It declared: “We simply reject Pope Paul’s ban on birth control and ask all mature Catholics to do the same.”
The pope’s encyclical also received shocking jolts from many clergymen. Catholic theologian John G. Milhaven told a large crowd assembled at Fordham University in New York: “I cannot accept this teaching as true, nor do most of my colleagues, nor do most Catholics under the age of 45—and many over that age, too.” At this, the audience, which included about 300 priests and nuns, broke into vigorous applause.
Jan Bluyssen, Bishop of Den Bosch in the Netherlands, stated flatly: “I cannot agree with the encyclical.” French bishops showed they could not completely accept it either, for the Houston Chronicle reported: “The Roman Catholic Church of France has ruled artificial birth control among church members ‘not always sinful.’ A declaration from 120 French bishops Friday said Roman Catholics should decide individually whether to use contraceptives in spite of Pope Paul’s ban.”
However, in some places Catholic priests who spoke out against the ban were disciplined by conservative bishops and removed from their posts.
So some Catholic clergymen rejected the ban; others tried to bend it; conservative ones upheld it. These theologians disagreed with one another publicly, and often angrily. The result was to be expected—more confusion. The average churchgoer’s confidence in his church was further shaken. Many thousands, in disgust, joined others leaving the church.
Church authorities admit that the ban has widened the gulf between Catholics and their hierarchy. They also admit that it will encourage many priests and nuns to leave their assignments, as well as discourage young people from entering a religious life.
Not only has great confusion been caused by this division of opinion in the Church, but it has exposed the whole idea of papal authority to fierce criticism. Said the Manchester Guardian Weekly in this regard:
“Undoubtedly a long-term effect of the Pope’s encyclical will be to weaken respect for his moral authority and for the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. When the shock has worn off . . . there will remain the scars of a new wound inflicted on the Church by her leaders. . . .
“For many Catholics at least, this latest pronouncement . . . is painfully reminiscent of the . . . condemnation of Galileo.”
This bitter division over birth control puts the Church far from the unity that God’s Word says must exist in the true Christian congregation.—1 Cor. 1:10.