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She had a story to tell, but few listened

NCR Staff

When Patty Crowley and her husband, Pat, arrived in Rome in 1965 as members of the Papal Birth Control Commission, they were told they would have to live in separate quarters, he at the seminary where commission meetings were being held, she at a convent a mile down the road.

Pat made a much-repeated quip, “I guess that’s one way to solve the problem.”

All joking aside, the incident encapsulated an insight the Crowleys took away from their close encounter with the workings of Rome: The church might write inspiring words about marriage, but it could at times appear hopelessly disconnected from the realities of married life.

Thirty years after Humanae Vitae was issued, Patty Crowley maintains that the encyclical was a mistake. She spoke to NCR by phone just days before 200 family members and friends gathered in Chicago to celebrate her 85th birthday on July 24.

It would be only partially correct to say that Humanae Vitae resulted from the work of the commission to which the Crowleys were summoned. The majority report of that commission recommended that the church abandon the absolute prohibition against artificial birth control.

What finally prevailed was the minority view that was as much the work of powerful Vatican interests who had the ear of the pope and knowledge of the Vatican machinery as it was a matter of theological persuasion.

Indeed, the Crowleys and others left the Rome deliberations assuming, on the basis of the majority report and votes taken during the session, that a change in the teaching was imminent. They would learn two years later, in a 4 a.m. phone call from a reporter in New York, that nothing had changed.

But while they were involved, the Crowleys certainly lent a distinctively new element to Vatican proceedings, according to Robert McClory’s Turning Point, a detailed look at the working of the commission (Crossroad, 1995). The sessions were driven largely by theological questions, but the couple from Chicago, founders of the Catholic Family Movement, were able to inject the voices of real Catholic couples struggling with the church’s teaching that permitted birth control only by methods demanding abstinence during a woman’s fertile periods.

So the hierarchy and theologians assembled heard from folks like the couple who wrote: “As busy parents raising children, we know few moments of complete harmony and personal communion.” Sex, which provides such a moment, “should not be subjected to scientific and metaphysical scrutiny. We do not believe that every time a man and wife feel a need to express their love to each other that it is a ‘call from God’ to raise more kids.”

And Patty, herself, was able to inject what McClory called “an intrusion of common sense” into a somewhat arcane discussion.

A bishop on the commission, considering the prospect of dropping the ban on artificial birth control, asked, “Wouldn’t this mean the gates of hell had in some way prevailed against the church?”

According to Turning Point, Spanish Jesuit Marcelino Zalba, another member, “could not agree more ... ‘What then,’ he asked, ‘with the millions we have sent to hell if these norms were not valid?’ ”

“Patty Crowley could not restrain herself,” McClory writes. “ ‘Father Zalba,’ she interjected, ‘do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?’ ”

There were some chuckles around the room, and then Crowley continued: “On behalf of women in general, I plead that the male church carefully consider the plight of at least one half of its members, who are the real bearers of these burdens. Couples are generous. Christian couples want to have children. It is the very fruit of their love for each other. What is needed is to rid ourselves of this negative outlook on psychological and spiritual values. Couples can be trusted.”

It was one of the last times she was heard publicly on the matter, at least for the next 25 years. For all those years following her work on the commission, she was never asked about her experience, let alone asked to speak about it, by any of her many clergy friends, she said. Until McClory’s book came out, no one in any official capacity in the U.S. Catholic church had ever made even the slightest inquiry about the experience of an eye witness to one of the most significant slices of modern church history.

Today, this birth mother of four, who adopted a fifth child and was foster mother to numerous others and who remains active in prison ministry and ministry to poor women, hasn’t much time for Vatican intrigue. “I just say the only important thing is Jesus’ message, and the rest of the rules are for the birds. So give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, help the sick, visit those in prisons. That’s what I do.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998