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Paul VI vindicated, Denver bishop says


Calling it “the most misunderstood papal intervention of this century,” Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver issued a pastoral letter July 22 marking Humanae Vitae’s 30th anniversary.

Arguing that 30 years of history have vindicated Paul VI, Chaput called for an “active and sustained” effort on the part of married Catholics to observe the ban on artificial birth control. Chaput is widely regarded as a leading figure on the Catholic right, and his letter is likely to find an audience beyond the boundaries of his northern Colorado archdiocese.

“If knowingly and freely engaged in, contraception is a grave sin, because it distorts the essence of marriage: the self-giving love which, by its very nature, is life-giving,” Chaput wrote. “It breaks apart what God created to be whole: the person-uniting meaning of love (sex) and the life-giving meaning of sex (procreation).”

Pointing to a social landscape dotted with “rates of abortion, divorce, family breakdown, wife and child abuse, venereal disease and out of wedlock births,” Chaput said “U.S. society is wracked with sexual identity and behavior dysfunctions, family collapse and a general coarsening of attitudes towards the sanctity of human life. It’s obvious to everyone but an addict: We have a problem. It’s killing us as a people.”

Chaput wrote that “contraception has released males -- to a historically unprecedented degree -- from responsibility for their sexual aggression”; that demands from the First World for developing countries to adopt family planning techniques, including contraception, amount to “a thinly disguised form of population warfare and cultural re-engineering”; and that birth control reflects a mentality that regards “fertility as an infection,” leading to an “organic link between contraception and abortion.”

Chaput suggested that support for birth control from advocates for women is self-defeating. He wrote that “an exaggerated feminism has actively colluded in women’s dehumanization,” and that while “many feminists have attacked the Catholic church for her alleged disregard of women ... the church in Humanae Vitae identified and rejected sexual exploitation of women years before that message entered the cultural mainstream.”

Dismissing charges that Catholic doctrine on sexuality is “repressive or anti-carnal,” Chaput wrote that “Catholic marriage -- exactly like Jesus himself -- is not about scarcity but abundance. ... Catholic married love always implies the possibility of new life; and because it does, it drives out loneliness and affirms the future. And because it affirms the future, it becomes a furnace of hope in a world prone to despair.”

In that light, Chaput called for renewed emphasis on natural family planning. “When, for good reasons, a husband and wife limit their intercourse to the wife’s natural periods of infertility during a month, they are simply observing a cycle which God Himself created in the woman,” he said. “They are not subverting it. And so they are living within the law of God’s love.”

While acknowledging that the so-called rhythm method “involves sacrifices and periodic abstinence from intercourse,” Chaput wrote that “when lived prayerfully and unselfishly, natural family planning deepens and enriches marriage and results in greater intimacy -- and greater joy.”

Chaput called on pastors to establish natural family planning coordinators in parishes and directed that all marriage preparation in the archdiocese must involve “adequate instruction” in the technique.

“I especially encourage couples to examine their own consciences regarding contraception,” Chaput wrote. “I ask them to remember that conscience is much more than a matter of personal preference. It requires us to search out and understand church teaching, and to honestly strive to conform our hearts to it.”

Acknowledging that Humanae Vitae prompted “three decades of doubt and dissent among many Catholics,” Chaput suggested that the generations who led that dissent -- his own and that of his teachers -- “are generations still reacting against the American Catholic rigorism of the 1950s. That rigorism, much of it a product of culture and not doctrine, has long since been demolished,” he said.

“In reaching these people, our task is to turn their distrust to where it belongs: toward the lies the world tells us about the meaning of human sexuality and the pathologies those lies conceal.”

Another defense of Humanae Vitae came from Bishop James T. McHugh of the Camden, N.J., diocese in a July 17 newspaper column. McHugh wrote that despite the “barrage of ridicule and rejection and a highly publicized dissent by Catholic theologians” that greeted the document, now “we are beginning to see a new atmosphere of acceptance for faithful, stable and enduring marriages and an openness to childbearing and parenting.”

“It was not that the document’s reasoning was flawed or incomplete,” McHugh wrote. “It was simply that its conclusions were unacceptable, if not unimaginable, to the world of the late 1960s.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998