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In September 1988, just five months before his death, Fr. John Ford, SJ revealed a conversation he had had with Pope Paul VI some time in the 1960s. The subject was contraception, on which Pope Paul was expected to give a definitive statement. Within the pope’s commission to study the matter, most members had come to doubt that contraception was intrinsically wrong. But Ford was one of those who defended the Church’s doctrine—both for philosophical reasons and because of the unified force of Catholic teaching on the subject, including Pope Pius XI’s Casti Connubii (1930).

Hence the question Ford put to Pope Paul: “Are you ready to say that Casti Connubii can be changed?” The Jesuit described the response: “Paul came alive and spoke with vehemence: ‘No!’ he said. He reacted exactly as though I was calling him a traitor to his Catholic belief.”

Paul would indeed uphold the traditional doctrine, in Humanae Vitae, issued on July 25, 1968. As its fiftieth anniversary approaches, we will be hearing a lot about that encyclical’s significance: how it asserted a vital truth, how it ensured that the Church would never be at peace with the sexual revolution, how it predicted with such foresight the breakdown in relations between the sexes.

There is, however, one way to exaggerate the importance of Humanae Vitae. That is to see it as a standalone work of a trailblazing pope. Sometimes the document is praised as though Paul were Albert Einstein and the encyclical were the paper on special relativity. In fact, Humanae Vitae was magnificently unoriginal. As that vehement “No!” demonstrates, Paul was holding firmly to what had been given him: through the statements of his immediate predecessors and the consistent judgments of the Vatican’s doctrinal office; further back, through the seventeenth-century Catechism of the Council of Trent, the medieval theologians, the Church Fathers.

Outside the Church, too, Luther, Calvin, and the Protestant world had condemned contraception, if anything, more fiercely than Catholics. Until less than a century ago, it was a commonplace that the use of birth control was in contradiction with following Jesus Christ. Even that puts it too narrowly: Many non-Christians, including Gandhi and George Orwell, agreed on the immorality of contraception. Even D. H. Lawrence—not exactly a propagandist for old-fashioned sexual ethics—recoiled from the idea.

Pope Paul’s “No!,” then, was two millennia of Christian tradition, and the common sense of humanity, speaking. So it would be a pity if Humanae Vitae were remembered merely as one man’s judgment. But today popes have been incorporated into celebrity culture, and papal documents are given a kind of veneration usually reserved for the saints. An icon of the Holy Family, for instance, has been touring Ireland with AMORIS LAETITIA written on it, and the same text has been reworked as a cantata. The papacy—notwithstanding the occasional blunders of the popes—is an indispensable gift from God. But to isolate papal statements from Catholic history, and treat them as individual masterpieces, is to misunderstand them—and very often to weaken them.

That may be precisely why some people want to keep the focus on Humanae Vitae alone. If the teaching can be reduced to a single statement, it will be easier to attack. Even easier when it is pointed out—as doctrinal progressives have been pointing out for five decades—that the pope’s own commission, in its Majority Report, disagreed with him. Perhaps, the progressive will suggest, we should attend to the Report’s reasons, or at least study them more closely.

What such study really suggests, however, is that the commission deserves to be forgotten. For one thing, its half-decade of hesitation itself caused a dramatic loss of confidence in Catholic teaching. As the Australian poet James McAuley observed,

It was during this period that clerical voices were heard discovering that marriage might after all be dissoluble, that abortion might after all be justified, that after all there was a case for homosexuality and masturbation, and that, at least in North America, pre-marital intercourse was all right if it was a nice boy and you loved him. I have not yet heard, but have no doubt that “new insights” in the “ongoing dialogue” of “situation ethics” could plausibly validate connection with animals if we really put our minds to it. There is really no limit to “updating.”

As for the Majority Report itself, it fails to address the arguments for the Church’s teaching. Instead it offers all the theological clichés which, to this day, indicate doctrinal confusion. The references to “concrete situations” and “extreme” circumstances; the lack of realism about how people make decisions (“Well instructed, and prudently educated as Christians, they will prudently and serenely decide”); the reduction of absolute norms to “values” and “proposals”; the euphemistic talk of the “evolution” of doctrine and of how we must seek a “deeper understanding” of previous teachings—while refusing to quote those same teachings; the dodging of plain right-or-wrong judgments in favor of pompous moralizing against ill-defined mental states such as “egoism”; all this written up in bureaucratese and at an unnecessary length, in which obvious questions are ignored and a multitude of irrelevancies are dragged in.

To these confusions, Pope Paul VI said his “No!” Rarely have so much good sense and integrity been contained in a single syllable. I will be thinking of that exchange this July 25—and again in October, when Pope Francis officially declares that Pope Paul is praying for us in Heaven.

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.

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