It’s one of the best known episodes among modern Catholic controversies: On 25 July 1968 Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which confirmed the Church’s historic teaching that any “means which directly prevent conception” was “absolutely excluded” as a lawful method of family planning and that contraception would harm society in various ways.
Inaugurating a practice that has since become all too common, eighty-seven theologians quickly responded by taking out an ad in the New York Times, in which they argued that the encyclical’s reasoning was faulty. They concluded that artificial contraception was permissible and sometimes even necessary, “to preserve and foster the values and sacredness of marriage.”
Susequent history has demonstrated how mistaken those theologians were and how right Paul VI was. The magisterium has continued to affirm the prohibition on contraception, even as the high incidence of abortion, sexual license, out of wedlock births, and general disintegration of sexual mores suggests that Paul was right also about the social effects of contraception. As important as the encyclical is for issues of sexuality, it is perhaps even more important as a guide to understanding contemporary Catholicism, and specifically to the crisis of authority in the Church.
In the encyclical, Paul spelled out why he could issue a normative statement about human sexuality:
No member of the faithful could possibly deny that the Church is competent in her magisterium to interpret the natural moral law. It is in fact indisputable, as Our predecessors have many times declared, that Jesus Christ, when He communicated His divine power to Peter and the other Apostles and sent them to teach all nations His commandments, constituted them as the authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the natural law.
Christ, he added, specifically commissioned Peter and the Apostles to interpret the natural moral law. Their successors, the pope and the college of bishops, have the same authority, which is a necessary and logical provision on God’s part, since Catholics’ salvation depends on knowing what is right and wrong.
His Holiness Paul VI
The eighty-seven theologians took a different view. The encyclical, they said, betrayed “a narrow and positivistic notion of papal authority” and “an inadequate concept of natural law.” They based this grave charge on the simple fact that some “competent philosophers” disagreed with the pope. In other words, they not only rejected Paul’s specific teaching on contraception but also proposed the startling idea that the pope was somehow bound by the opinions of theologians.
If there was a sufficient scholarly weight of opinion about a particular issue, they seemed to be suggesting, then the pope should either stay quiet or bend to that opinion. Clearly, such a view undermined the very nature of the papacy. It would make the pope a sort of arbiter concerned with measuring the strength of various positions rather than the divinely instituted holder of the keys of the kingdom, concerned about truth alone.
As toxic as the legacy of the eighty-seven theologians has been in sexual matters, their undermining of the papacy and the magisterium has been, if anything, even more devastating. The notion that “Catholics may dissent from authoritative, nonfallible [sic] teachings of the magisterium” and that theologians have “a special responsibility of evaluating and interpreting pronouncements of the magisterium” have been as influential as their specific advice about contraception.
After all, many Catholics who contracept know that they are breaking an official Church teaching (many also do not, another confusion spread by dissent). The deeper problem is that they all now believe that there is some sort of “right of dissent” that justifies such disobedience. We thus live in an unbelievable situation in which papal encyclicals, the conciliar documents, and the plain words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church are not enough to convince many Catholics about Church teaching on any number of issues. That teaching, they believe, may simply be ignored.
The result has been four decades of confusion. But broken families, abortion, and pornography are readily identifiable results of contraception, and cannot help but lead eventually to reexamination of the practice; dissent and the corresponding uncertainty among the faithful about what the Church teaches and, incredibly, about whether it is necessary to obey what the Church teaches, are actually more difficult problems to solve.
Those who stress the “right of dissent” are unlikely to attend closely to theological arguments about the nature of obedience. One solution is a return to the documents of Vatican II. Recent popes have stressed the importance and centrality of these documents for our era – at the same, the NYT Eighty-Seven theologians cited these documents in their own defense. Vatican II, then, still represents a common ground for a wide range of contemporary Catholics.
What does Vatican II say about authority? It affirms that the pope has “full, supreme and universal power over the Church” and that he is “always free to exercise this power.” Dissenters usually reply that they are still justified in resisting any doctrine that has not been specifically defined as infallible.
The council has a ready answer: “religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.”
No members of the faithful – least of all those who stake their claims on the Council – could possibly deny the clear words of Vatican II, could they?