Rome's matter of life and faith: John Wilkins says the Catholic church must resolve its 25-year crisis on birth control

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The Independent Online
WHEN Pope Paul VI published his encyclical Humanae Vitae on 29 July 1968, he provoked a crisis in the Catholic church the effects of which continue today. The letter reaffirmed the traditional ban on artificial methods of birth control, although the papal commission that had been studying the subject since being set up by Pope John XXIII in 1963 had recommended that there should be a change.

The commission's membership had been considerably enlarged during the period of its work. Many of those whose positions had originally been conservative found themselves drawn by the arguments in a reforming direction; Cardinal Heenan, the then Archbishop of Westminster, was among their number. After the commission had sent its report privately to the Pope in 1966, and while Paul VI was agonising over what official pronouncement he should make, Catholics had time to make up their own minds. Many decided that contraception was an acceptable means to responsible parenthood.

The long Christian tradition to the contrary (only abandoned by the Anglican Communion at the 1930 Lambeth Conference) rested to a great extent on biological assumptions that were later shown to be scientifically incorrect. The idea had been that each time a couple made love, nature was trying to make a baby; if that did not happen, it was as though an arrow had missed its target. But the true picture is not like that - and it is precisely because it is not that the Catholic church can sanction the so-called 'safe period' as the acceptable manner of birth control, limiting intercourse to the predictable stages in a woman's sexual cycle when she is infertile.

If natural family planning is permitted, why not contraception? Many Catholics could see no moral difference. The intention in both cases is identical - not to have a child. The encyclical ruled otherwise. 'Each and every marriage act,' it declared, 'must remain open to the transmission of life.' Contraception is always 'inherently wrong'. The Pope warned that if love- making were separated from its procreative potential, moral standards would deteriorate and infidelity increase.

Clearly there was something prophetic in that. The advent of universally available safe contraception in the Sixties made possible a new sexual ethic. Society began an experiment. Twenty-five years later it can be seen that the results have often been exactly what Paul VI predicted, and the advent of Aids has blighted any sense of a new dawn.

The Pope addressed himself not only to the Catholic church but to all people of goodwill. At least the world should have been able to accept that the encyclical is a factor deepening the debate, where so many other influences cheapen it. But the Pope's hope that his arguments about sex and human nature would prove universally persuasive because he based them on the natural law, accessible to all through human reason, has turned out to be vain, and there is often real anger at the Catholic church's position on population issues.

The encyclical also prevents Catholics from taking advantage of new fertility techniques. For in this case the principle 'no physical love-making without procreation' is reversed, to read 'no procreation without physical love-making'. It is ironic to remember the appreciative comment of Albino Luciani, Patriarch of Venice, later Pope John Paul I, when the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born in Oldham in 1978.

Meanwhile, every survey shows that within the church itself many believers continue to find the ban on artificial contraception unconvincing. They have not found that it has deepened them spiritually; on the contrary, in a significant number of cases the teaching has worked against the perceived stability and mood of the marriage, and has been abandoned for that reason.

The crisis of authority sparked off in 1968 therefore continues. Though now quiescent, it could be stirred up again - and the present Pope has been preparing his own encyclical on the question. For the moment, the church authorities reassert every formulation in the encyclical, and state or imply that Catholics who do not follow the teaching have been seduced by the permissiveness of the age. John Paul II has even said that dissenters are denying the sovereignty of God and are, in practice, atheists.

No one suspected of harbouring doubts about Humanae Vitae becomes a bishop; theologians of the same tendency are well advised to be wary; at the synod of bishops on the family in Rome in 1980, only those lay people whose views were known to be in agreement were invited.

There must be another way. It is also possible, Cardinal Martini, the Archbishop of Milan, said in a recent interview, that the teaching has not been well expressed. In the process of expressing it better, it could be revised and modified, for it is not regarded as irreformable. The link between procreation and love-making would be set within the context of the good of the marriage as a whole, and the responsible decisions of the spouses themselves.

In the long run, only the second course will work, and it has already been put into practical effect in the personal lives of many lay people. They have come of age and the genie cannot be put back into the bottle.

ETHER write errorThe implications for authority will have to be faced, and the church will surely be the better for that. Until then, Humanae Vitae will continue to be the Achilles' heel of Catholic moral teaching. It is fortunate indeed, as Cardinal Heenan once remarked, that 'condemnation of contraception is not the central tenet of the Catholic religion'.

The author is editor of the 'Tablet'.

(Photograph omitted)