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Humanae Vitae: still controversial at 30

Thirty years ago, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on artificial birth control sent a shudder through the church. Not only were the most intimate aspects of millions of personal lives profoundly influenced by Humanae Vitae, the institutional church was radically shaken by the controversy that followed its publication.

Prominent among those who opposed the papal document was the young Fr. Charles Curran, then a professor of theology at the Catholic University of America. Curran’s own life and teaching have been dramatically affected by the encyclical and its tortured aftermath. In 1986, after years of investigation, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled that Curran was not “suitable or eligible to teach Catholic theology.” As a result, he lost his position at the university.

Below, Curran looks again at the issue of papal authority.


While the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was the most significant Catholic event in the second half of the 20th century, Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae follows close behind it.

This encyclical, released July 29, 1968, reiterating the condemnation of artificial contraception for spouses, was, as Fr. Andrew M. Greeley and his associates have pointed out, “the occasion for massive apostasy and for notable decline in religious devotion and belief.”

Many Catholics were expecting a change in church teaching. The developments at Vatican II seemed to open the door to further changes. Both married couples and theologians were proposing seemingly convincing reasons for a change. The vast majority of the pope’s own commission on the issue favored change.

But Paul VI could not change the teaching, he said, because of “the moral teaching on marriage proposed with constant firmness by the teaching authority of the church.” No matter what the experience of married people and the arguments of theologians and others, the pope could not admit that a past papal teaching was wrong.

Humanae Vitae and its aftermath thus precipitated the most troublesome source of tension in the Catholic church today -- the role and function of papal teaching. In the ensuing 30 years, and especially in the present papacy, the papal position has become even more unbending and authoritarian.

Paul VI never wrote another encyclical in the remaining 10 years of his papacy. He even referred to the “lively discussion” created by Humanae Vitae. The Belgian, German, Austrian, Swiss and Scandinavian bishops all recognized the possibility of legitimate dissent in this case.

The United States bishops, while insisting on a presumption in favor of noninfallible teaching, recognized that the “expression of theological dissent from the magisterium is in order ... if the reasons are serious and well founded, if the manner of dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the church and is such as not to give scandal.”

Many theologians continued to recognize the possible legitimacy of dissent from noninfallible papal teaching. Despite the “massive apostasy” noted by Greeley, many married Catholics stayed in the church and followed their consciences on birth control. Thus, within a few years, birth control was no longer a burning issue for them.

But the authority question has become the major source of tension in Roman Catholicism today. The unwillingness to change on artificial contraception has become symbolic of the fact that papal teaching will not change on any of the controversial issues in today’s church.

A whole litany of Roman documents have been issued reasserting the prerogatives of the papal teaching office and its claims to certitude and truth. The recent apostolic letter of John Paul II and the doctrinal commentary on it by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (NCR, July 17) are the latest in a long series of such Vatican documents.

Papal teaching has never explicitly recognized the legitimacy of dissent from noninfallible teaching. The 1990 “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian” explicitly recognizes no option between private recourse by theologians to the magisterium and public opposition to the church.

In the recent commentary, Ratzinger now claims that the teachings on euthanasia, fornication, the impossibility of ordaining women and the condemnation of Anglican orders are all infallible by reason of having been taught as such by the ordinary universal magisterium, which is all the bishops in communion with the pope throughout the world over time. At best, this is a fallible judgment that something is infallible.

Why has the papal teaching office recently so hardened and exaggerated its claim to teach authoritatively? There is no easy answer.

Many factors seem to contribute to this unfortunate development: a heavily juridical understanding of what it means to teach; an attempt to claim a greater certitude than is warranted; a more authoritarian and hierarchical understanding of the church; a bunker mentality that feels the church must see itself in total opposition to what is happening in the world; an unwillingness to trust the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the life of the total church; and an effort to control all things in a very authoritarian way.

Historical, ecclesiological and ethical considerations justify the possibility of dissent from noninfallible teaching and the impossibility of claiming infallibility on specific moral issues. Historically the church has changed its teaching on such issues as torture, slavery, usury, religious freedom, democracy and the rights of defendants.

Ecclesiologically, the teaching function of the church is broader than the hierarchical teaching office and includes all the people of God. Through baptism we all share in the threefold office of Jesus as priest, teacher and sovereign.

Ethically, one cannot claim absolute certitude on specific moral matters because, as Thomas Aquinas pointed out long ago, the more specific the issue, the harder it is to claim certitude. Many more factors and circumstances now enter into the picture.

With regard to the recent claim by Ratzinger about the infallibility of some church teachings, most theologians agree with the statement of the 1917 Code of Canon Law: “Nothing is understood to be infallibly defined or declared unless this is clearly established.” If there is any doubt, there is no infallibility.

What is required to change the exaggerated understanding of the papal teaching office, which is the source of such great tension for many Catholics today? I suggest three steps.

First, it is important to realize that on specific moral matters and on issues not directly revealed but necessarily connected with revelation (the issues Ratzinger has recently talked about), the papal teaching office learns before it can teach. The papal teaching office has learned from others, even those outside the church, that human rights are important and that rhythm or natural family planning is acceptable.

On those positions that the papal magisterium continues to assert such as the meaning of direct killing, the condemnation of sterilization or the condemnation of artificial insemination, the papal teaching office first “learned these truths” from others. Even on such central truths of the faith as the Trinity and the understanding of the sacraments, the hierarchical magisterium basically learned these truths in the course of time.

The papal teaching office seeks the truth and does not merely possess it from the beginning. The hierarchical magisterium is subject to the word of God and the truth. The assistance of the Holy Spirit helps and does not eliminate all the human and Christian ways of discovering truth. In moral matters, Thomas Aquinas pointed out long ago that something is commanded because it is good and never the other way around. Authority must conform itself to the truth.

Second, the papal teaching office must be willing to admit that some recent papal teachings have been wrong. Statements have recognized errors and mistakes made by members of the church, but official documents refuse to recognize errors and mistakes made by the papal office.

Can it be possible that the Holy Spirit would allow the papal teaching office to be wrong? One can readily understand how people trained in an older theology would have great difficulty admitting such a possibility. Has the church really been hurting people rather than helping them?

The problem comes from the exaggerated claims made by the papal teaching office. Almost all of its teachings fit into the category of fallible teaching. Fallible teaching by definition can be erroneous.

Third, the papal teaching office must recognize in theory and in practice its own limits and its relationship to the whole church. The papacy today operates on a juridical model of teaching authority within an institutional model of the church. We need to move to a model that understands the church as a community of religious and moral discourse with special assistance of the Holy Spirit given to the hierarchical teaching office.

At the present time, the tension is somewhat alleviated on moral issues such as contraception, homosexuality and divorce where the believer makes her own decision in the forum of conscience and is usually not disturbed. However, there is no such solution to questions involving structural change, such as the ordination of women.

In addition, the credibility of the total church and of the papal teaching office itself suffers greatly from current efforts to extend the reach of infallibility. In contrast, we are reminded of the best use of that office when the pope speaks out on behalf of the poor and the marginalized in our world.

Authority issues, especially the role of the papal teaching office, remain the greatest source of tension in the Catholic church today. Humanae Vitae initiated a development that has become more intensified over the years.

On all these matters the Catholic church needs to be governed by the centuries-old axiom: In necessariis, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas -- In necessary matters, unity; in doubtful matters, freedom; in all matters, charity.

Fr. Charles E. Curran is Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University.

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998