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Reliving the Church's sexual evolution


Paul VI Time Cover 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.

The credibility of Catholic statements about sexuality and authority has been further weakened by debates about the place of women and by the publicity given to clerical abuse and its cover up. Yet people, not only Catholics, still look for authoritative statements on the larger questions that face human society.

Authority used sensitively continues to have an impact. The demeanour and the words of Pope Benedict during World Youth Day led people to reflection. They also set standards for the use of authority and the response to sexual abuse in the local church.

Catholic leaders still struggle to gain a hearing when they speak about sexual morality. At a time when the simple canonisation of personal choice in matters of sexuality has increasingly been seen as thin gruel, they lack a language that can communicate persuasively to young Catholics a rich body of reflection on marriage and relationships.

But there are some signs that more modest and conversational ways of speaking about sexuality are being found. Church agencies have been influential in arousing concern about the sexualisation of children. Young people have led teaching programs for other young people in a frank and enquiring atmosphere and have won a hearing.

In retrospect, however, the main burden of an Encyclical on contraception can be seen paradoxically to have fallen on celibate diocesan priests and religious. They are the local representatives of Catholic authority, under authority themselves, and charged with communicating Catholic teaching.

The effects of the Encyclical, of the later debate whether there is a place in the church for modern women, the revelations of sexual abuse by clergy, and their own diminishing numbers, have forced them to shape a style of ministry as they go.

At its best this style is conversational, modest and encouraging. It is a too rarely recognised gift to the wider Catholic Church.

Humanae Vitae

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, Humanae Vitae, artificial contraception, the pill, John XXIII, Paul VI, sexual evolution



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Existing comments

I recall that at the time the Pope said that to have accepted the commission's recommendation would have confused the faithful as it would imply that the church had been wrong in the past. I see now that this was a case of what I I read in Eureka Street recently, "the dead having a vote". Refusing the recommendation would seem to have confused the faithful even more.

Michael Grounds | 14 August 2008  

The following jumped out at me from Andrew's article:-

"Authority used sensitively continues to have an impact (and) the demeanour of Pope Benedict during World Youth Day led people to reflection.They set standards for the use of authority and the response to sexual abuse in the local church"

"Authority used sensitively" is precisely what's absent from the local church in terms of response to allegations of clerical sexual abuse.

In reality, sensitivity is a stranger in the Australian debate and the Pope himself appeared, to me at least, to suggest that the "process" in Australia needed to be re-examined.

Further,while "standards of authority and the response to sexual abuse in the local church" may indeed have now been set by Pope Benedict, Australian Catholics will have to judge for themselves whether the words prove hollow, or otherwise. The proof of the pudding, as always, remains in the eating.

Brian Haill | 14 August 2008  

In this 40th anniversary year of Humanae Vitae there has been much written about this watershed document in the history of the Church's teaching on sexuality. Almost none of it has talked about the joy experienced by married couples who follow that teaching. For more than 25 years I have been a teacher of the Billings Ovulation Method™ of natural fertility regulation. In all those years I have seen maybe half a dozen unplanned pregnancies, but I would have had one thousand times that many couples tell me what joy and peace the practice of this Method has brought to their marriage.

I was privileged to be present at World Youth Day in Sydney last month and witnessed the crowds of young people hungry for the Good News of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family. The condom wielding protesters stood no chance in the face of these joyful, faithful pilgrims who are never happier than when proclaiming their adherence to Church teaching. They lined up in their thousands to go to Confession, Eucharistic Adoration and daily Mass. They also acknowledge the wonderful example of celibate clergy and religious who prefigure the joys of eternity in their love of Christ.

Joan Clements | 14 August 2008  

Thanks for your wisdom Andrew. At the time the encyclical was issued I was a newly married Anglican with a more than passing interest in the Catholic Church.I saw the encyclical and 'went away sorrowing'.11 years later I came back, still sorrowing..One of your colleagues showed me a wider perspective.4 children, 3 grandchildren and years of involvement with the kind of agencies you describe later...
At the risk of appearing inappropriately flippant...I guess this is a case of "the seed that died"...!

Margaret | 14 August 2008  

Fr Hamilton has given us a most insighful summary of the events and issues surrounding Humanae Vitae. Just some thoughts of my own:

The encyclical was - and is - much criticised because it is based on natural law but let us keep in mind that the natural law is simply human reason as applied to ethics. In other words, the encyclical was based on reason.

Much is made of the encyclical's lack of credibility, but this is to confuse credibility with popularity. The fact that many people do not actually believe something does not mean that they cannot be enabled to believe on the presentation of good reasons.

It is often said that Paul VI made his decision because he feared that he would otherwise damage papal authority by contradicting his predecessors. The real real reason is that he believed decision to be true.

John XXIII set up his commission to investigate the relationship between the Church's moral principles and the new oral contraception technology, not to investigate the principles themselves. Both John and Vatican II reminded mankind that methods of birth control inconsistent with these principles are wrong.

Sylvester | 14 August 2008  

I'm one of the faithful who would have been confused if the Pope had accepted the recommendation. Artificial contraception, to me is unnatural, counter-natural. Even if I thought it was moral I would find the idea distasteful. I've never tried it.

Gavan | 14 August 2008  

Essentially, in my view, it was not so much the decision against contraception that was so disruptive but rather the fact that collegiality was dumped as Pope Paul went against his own hand-picked Vatican Birth Control Commision's overwhelming vote to rescind the ban on articicial contraception.

Its members rightly believed that as the Popes' previous teachings on the issue were not infallible, the teaching could allow people in good conscience to use contraception.

One shocking revelation reportedly came from the Rev. Marcelino Zalba, a church expert on "family limitation" who'd asked in horror what would happen to "the millions we have sent to hell" if the teaching were changed. Commission member Patty Crowley asked "Father Zalba, do you really think God carried out all your orders?"

Pope Paul then appointed 15 bishops to hold the line but they too voted overwhelmingly for change, but were over-ruled.

Brian Haill | 14 August 2008  

As an Anglican I am assessing the effect of the encyclical on other churches and society at large. As a reaction to sexual abuse there is an emphasis on the nature of healthy human relations both inside marriage and outside it. There is an important distinction between touch that is therapeutic as exercised in tactile therapies both by professionals and between friends especially with young children in the bonding process, and any form of touch that is exploitative and destructive. In any form of physical contact there must be respect for self-esteem and integrity.

John Ozanne | 14 August 2008  

The burden of the decision lay, not with the commission, but with the Pope. The commission was merely advisory. The majority report went against the guidelines laid down by Pope John and Vatican II, that methods of birth control not endorsed by the Church's moral tradition were unacceptable. The minority report understood that. Had he lived, Pope John would have made the same decision as Pope Paul.

The ban on contraception is infallible, not because of Human Vitae as such, but because the teaching contained in the encyclical simply repeats what bishops have taught at all times and in all places. This is an exercise of the ordinary and universal magisterium which engages the charism of infallibility.

Sylvester | 14 August 2008  

About two generations ago (the early 60s) young recently married Catholic couples found approval from their mums and dads when they lobbed home with the new-born kiddy. By their committments they had confirmed that they were responsible adults set on life's pathway. All round relief was palpably felt. 'Thank God we've got another one married and settled', was the universal prayer of thanks.

Although such good people had never heard of Jansenism, Janesnists is what they were. What's a Jansenist? A Jansenist is one who plays by all the rules. Chaste, courageous, self-sacrificing, just, hospitable and fierce in the defence of faith were their characteristics. Please excise Vatican II and bring back Jansenism so I can get a few of mine married with kiddies, in that way I could reach that elevated status of being 'Grandpa' before I pass on.

Claude Rigney | 14 August 2008  

Oh come on. The Church's ban on contraception is irrational and unreasonable to most thinking people who are not locked in by a belief in Papal infallibility. Look at the low birth rate in those predominately Catholic European states.

Joan, how can 'natural fertility regulation' be acceptable while other forms of contraception be evil? Those clients of yours who found 'joy and peace' found it in avoiding pregnancy. What makes those who use 'artificial' contraception to achieve the same result any less virtuous?

Warwick | 15 August 2008  

The rightness of the Church's position on contraception does not depend on infallibility but on an analysis of the intrinsic nature of human sexuality. The ban on contraception is, ultimately, based not on the authority of ecclesiastical office but on the authority of reason. The malice of contraception is that intends to destroy the fertility of any given conjugal act thereby nullifying one of the essential meanings of the act - the procreative (life giving). It leaves the unitive meaning (love giving) intact but both meanings are required for authentic human sexual activity.

Natural family planning is morally licit because it does not intentionally destroy the procreative meaning of a particular conjugal act. To say that both contraception and NFP are acceptable because the intention is the same, the avoidance of the conception of children, is a false move in logic. The desire of married couples to avoid procreation in particular circumstances may be laudable but it does not follow that every method of achieving that objective is morally right. It is a case of the old adage of moral philosophy: the end does not justify the means.

Sylvester | 15 August 2008  

Natural Family Planning (NFP) may well be the answer to so many young couples who now spend their money on IVF treatment after prolonged periods on the contraceptive pill.

Just a pity that the church exerted oppressive authority rather than use some of its financial resources to help research into refining and improving NFP techniques.

Paul W | 15 August 2008  

Warwick, very few of those 'thinking people' have closely examined this teaching. If they haven't examined the opposite viewpoint, then how do they have an intelligent, informed opinion on the matter?

Eric | 15 August 2008  

The rejection of Humanae Vitae by most Catholics has as its root cause a lack of faith. "Following one's Conscience" is the new way of being a Catholic. Notice I did not say informed Conscience. Church teaching is now rejected not only on oncontraception but on abortion, IVF, cloning, ESCR, homosexuality, necessity of going to Mass on Sunday,etc.

The solution is to do as Christ commanded: Preach the Gospel.

Bob Brady | 15 August 2008  

Sincere thanks to those who have responded to my challenge.

Sylvester, I admire your desire to return the debate to reason, but trading one dogma (papal infallibility) for another (the intrinsic nature of human sexuality) as the basis for your reasoning doesn't wash.

Why are both of your meanings (life-giving and love-giving) 'required for authentic human sexual activity'. Where is the reasoning?

You also assert that 'the malice of contraception is that [it] intends to destroy the fertility of any given conjugal act'. Why not also assert that 'the malice of the Billings method is that it intends to avoid the fertility of any given conjugal act'?

Eric, I accept that some people will opt for contraception without considering seriously the 'opposite viewpoint', but I doubt that is the case with the majority of those Catholics who do consider and then reject the Church's teaching. Would you suggest that they are not therefore 'thinking people'?

Bob, what's faith got to do with it? I thought faith was 'the presence of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen'. Where do the Gospels actually condemn 'artificial' contraception?

It seems to me that the real value of Andrew's article is in his notion of an evolution in the Church's understanding of human sexuality.

Warwick | 15 August 2008  

Warwick -

The intrinsic nature of human sexuality is not a dogma - that is to say, a truth revealed directly by God -but rather something that is discoverable by reason. This is the meaning of the natural law, upon which "Humanae Vitae" is based. Human sexual activity is in the natural order ordained to life. Some would say that this is "physicalism" or "biologism" but to deny it is to fragment human being into "physical" and "spiritual" compartments which contradicts the holism of Christian anthropology. That is why the life-giving dimension of human sexuality is no less important than the love-giving. That is the whole point of "Humanae Vitae".

NFP does not avoid or destroy the fertility of a given conjugal act because it limits those acts to times when fertility is not present. There is nothing to avoid or destroy.

The gospels do not condemn artificial contraception but neither do they condemn weapons of mass destruction, abortion, slavery, Nazism or many other evils. In the Catholic understanding of things, Jesus speaks to us, not just in the gospels, but also in the apostolic tradition which is the total teaching of Jesus, oral as well as written, which is entrusted to Peter and the apostles and their successors. When they speak on a matter of faith and morals that is the voice of Jesus.

Sylvester | 16 August 2008  


I am disappointed that in your analysis you didn't address the issue of common intent in all forms of family planning
--- this issue appears to me to be at the heart of a person's inability to empathise with the official position of the Catholic Church to the use of "artifical" means to plan the size of one's family.

Noel Will | 16 August 2008  

Such useful reflections - particularly for those of us who did not live through the events, and have still to make sense of them. I particularly enjoyed your comment about teachings and the 'overgrown paths' into daily life. With due respect to the many chaps commenting here, could I suggest that is in the daily lives of Catholic women in particular where we might find the kind of morality that falls somewhere between the extremes of this argument? I'm struck by the absence of comment about the impact of contraception (or its absence) on the lives of women. Surely this figures somewhere in this conversation? Is this the elephant in the room?

Annmarie | 18 August 2008  

I was not aware Humanae Vitae was a statement of Papal infallibility. My understanding is the Pope is only infallible on matters of infallibility. I believe there are only a few statements of infallibility, Humanae Vitae is not one.

Robert Allen | 05 September 2008