Ethics & Public Policy Center

Afraid of Change? More Myths of 1968


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


In a recent editorial on condoms and AIDS, the London-based Tablet, an influential weekly in the Catholic Anglosphere, argued that “in 1968, the most persuasive reason advanced in favor of retaining the ban on artificial birth control was that to lift it would suggest that the Church could change its mind, and hence undermine its teaching authority.”

That is a distortion of history and the editors of the Tablet  – which played a large role in the Humanae Vitae controversy – should know it.

Pope Paul VI was terrified that the Church, by “changing its mind,” would undermine the authority of its magisterium? Please. Paul VI presided over a Church that “changed its mind” – better, developed its thought, practice, and doctrine – on many once hotly-disputed questions: the validity of concelebrated Masses; the use of the vernacular in the liturgy; the relationship of the Bible and the Church’s tradition as sources of divine revelation; the diaconate; religious freedom and the juridical, limited state. The Tablet‘s take on the bottom-line rationale for Humanae Vitae is a myth. But it’s a myth of a  piece with the journal’s longstanding misconception of the Church’s teachings on marital chastity and family planning: a misconception which holds that these teaching are “policies” or “positions” that can be changed, rather like governments can change the income tax rate or the speed limit.

In 1967, the Tablet (and the National Catholic Reporter) printed a leaked memorandum to Paul VI from members of the papal commission studying the morality of family planning. According to that memorandum, a majority of the commissioners had been persuaded that the morality of conjugal life should be judged by the overall pattern of a couple’s sexual conduct, rather than by the openness of each act of marital love to conception. A close reading of this so-called “Majority Report” suggests, however, that the proponents of the Church “changing its mind” on the question of artificial contraception were after much bigger game: they intended to install proportionalism and the theory of the “fundamental option” – methods of moral reasoning later rejected by John Paul the Great in the 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor – as the official moral theological method of the Catholic Church. Paul VI recognized this, and rejected the proposal accordingly. Pope Paul undoubtedly was told that a “change” of “position” on contraception would undermine the credibility of the magisterium; but that was, at best, a secondary question. The real issue was much graver, and touched virtually every question in the moral life.

If you want to measure the effects of proportionalist moral analysis on a once-great ecclesial community, you need go no farther than the Anglican Communion, which is being torn apart today because proportionalists, insisting that they are the party of progress, have jettisoned both biblical and classical Christian morality to the point where the moral boundaries of the Anglican community are so porous as to be virtually undecipherable. Perhaps the editors of the Tablet imagine this a desirable future for the Catholic Church. Others will find that view hard to comprehend.

Prior to Humanae Vitae, while the self-styled party of progress in the Church agitated the contraception issue in the press (much like a political campaign), classical Catholic moralists tried to construct a responsible theological case for a development of doctrine that would sanction the use of chemical and mechanical means of regulating fertility – and found they couldn’t do so without opening the Pandora’s box of proportionalism, which blunts the edge of moral analysis and drains the moral life of its inherent drama. True, Humanae Vitae might have been better received had it adopted the  richly humanistic defense of natural family planning proposed by then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Cracow, as the approach to marital love and responsibility most congruent with the dignity of women and the dignity of sex. But the Church would have been terribly ill-served if the theologians most responsible for shaping (and likely leaking) the so-called “Majority Report” had had their way.

This myth-making about Humanae Vitae, which falsifies history and distorts theology, should stop. Now.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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