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Reliving the Church's sexual evolution

  • 14 August 2008

1968 was a year freighted with symbol. It is usually associated with student protests. In the Catholic Church, it is remembered for the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, which was directed against artificial contraception, and for the turmoil that followed it.

To understand the way in which the Encyclical has shaped the Catholic Church 40 years on, we must recall its background. By the 1960s the overwhelming emphasis in Catholic theology on the place of procreation in sexual relations had been qualified by an equal emphasis on fostering loving relationships. In the 1960s, too, the contraceptive pill became readily available and widely used.

Pope John XXIII appointed a commission to review Catholic teaching on contraception in the light of these developments. His successor, Paul VI, expanded the commission. A majority report recommended that Church teaching permit artificial contraception within marriage. The minority said that it would be wrong to change established teaching.

This report was leaked, creating expectation of change. The Encyclical, which set the question within a rich theology of marriage, decided against contraception on the basis that it contravened natural law.

In the developed world the Encyclical was received with hostility. The response led many Catholics to question more broadly the attitudes of their church to sexuality and to the use of authority. The Encyclical was followed by dissent, disciplinary measures against many priests who protested, and by the resignation of many from ministry.

At a deeper level the response to the Encyclical modified many of the symbols that shape the everyday life of Catholics. The privileged place that Papal statements had in Catholic understanding was eroded. It became common to distinguish between the official teaching of the Church and what was received in the pews. Conscience and Catholic teaching were often seen as in opposition, not as complementary.

The paths by which Catholics incorporated teaching into their daily life also became overgrown. Most priests avoided preaching on controversial questions. Indeed, few spoke of sexual morality at all. Confession, where Catholics could seek guidance on the implications of Catholic teaching for their lives, fell into decline.

Forty years on, it can be seen that the changes that followed the Encyclical were evolutionary rather than revolutionary. They mainly affected the churches of the West. Authority was not overthrown. Sexual morality was not cast aside. But the language and symbols of both have needed to be reshaped.

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