In July of 1968 Pope Paul VI, by issuing the encyclical Humanae Vitae, unequivocally upheld the Church’s long standing prohibition on contraception. In hindsight, we can see that its publication had created the circumstances for a divergence in birth rates between Catholics and the rest of society. This would have had a major impact on both the Church and the nation. But by means of a well-coordinated effort to discredit the encyclical, its message was disregarded. The expected divergence in birth rates turned out to be a correlation.
While it’s hard to find figures on birth rates for specific groups like Catholics, researchers from CARA have noted that the number of baptisms per 1000 Catholics in a given year is strongly correlated to the overall national birth rate which has been in decline since 1957.
The chart only runs through 2008; the number of baptisms per 1000 Catholics was 36 in 1956 and is currently about 11. The researchers point out that any growth in the Catholic population is primarily due to a net gain from immigration and conversions, otherwise it would be unchanged from 1968. While the drop in births is clearly connected to a rise in female labor participation, more detailed statistical analysis by the researchers demonstrates that Catholics simply followed the same pattern of decision-making with regard to family size as non-Catholics. The dissenters of Humanae Vitae had won the argument; the Church had lost its jurisdiction over the family.
But let’s assume that Humanae Vitae was widely accepted by Catholics in the U.S. and enforced by Church authorities. How would that have affected the population of Catholics in the country today? In 1968, there were approximately 50 million; if the baptism rate had stabilized at 25, then the current population (about 70 million) would be well over 100 million, not including immigrants and converts. Of course, this is just conjecture, people might have left the Church in large numbers.
Whether more numerous or not, the result would likely have been that Catholics today would be less politically divided and speak with a single voice, potentially affecting public policy and precluding laws against nature like abortion and homosexual marriage. Positive things can be expected when the Church remains faithful to God’s expressed will.
The Washington Statement of Dissent
A couple of days before the publication of Humanae Vitae a group of theologians had obtained a copy of it and working through the night produced a statement of response. They had convinced over 80 theologians to include their names as signatories on a dissent they had never read, nor had they read the encyclical. The authors then colluded with the media, specifically the Washington Post, to make sure that on the encyclical’s publication day, the morning papers would proclaim both the news that the Pope had upheld the Church’s proscription of contraception, and news that it could be disregarded. The Letter of Dissent assailed the encyclical, claiming that it was not infallible instruction and personal conscience should guide a couple’s decision-making process with respect to contraception.
James Cardinal Stafford recalls the late meeting that was called the day before the publication to pressure the young priest in the Diocese of Baltimore to sign the Dissent:
“By now it was night. The room was charged with tension. Something epochal was taking place. It became clear that the leaders’ strategy had been carefully mapped out beforehand. It was moving along without a hitch. Their rhetorical skills were having their anticipated effect. They had planned carefully how to exert what amounted to emotional and intellectual coercion. Violence by overt manipulation was new to the Baltimore presbyterate.
The leader’s reaction to my refusal was predictable and awful. …The priest/leader, drawing upon some scatological language from his Marine Corp past in the II World War responded contemptuously to my decision. He tried to force me to change. He became visibly angry and verbally abusive. The underlying, ‘fraternal’ violence became more evident. He questioned and then derided my integrity. He taunted me to risk my ecclesiastical ‘future,’ although his reference was more anatomically specific. The abuse went on.” (Read the rest of the autobiographical essay here).
While the Church has powerful weapons it can use to enforce her laws, this was not Pope Paul’s style. A month after the publication he conceded:
“May the lively debate aroused by our encyclical lead to a better knowledge of Gods will” (Letter to the Congress of German Catholics, Aug. 30, 1968).
In about a year and a half the Church celebrates the encyclical’s 50th anniversary. But is there anything to celebrate?