William. F. Buckley Jr. on Humanae Vitae

buckley1Twenty years ago Buckley wrote Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith, sharing his personal thoughts and experiences as a life-long Catholic. Writing in his typical high-brow conversational manner, you might feel as though you were sitting next to him on the panel of Firing Line. And indeed there is a panel; he structured his essays around answers to questions he had posed to his unique “Forum”, a group of intellectuals that had come to the Catholic faith as adults. His insights and outlooks remain relevant and valuable today.

On the subject of contraception (chapter 12), the opinions of his Forum were divided. But Buckley doesn’t bother to engage them; the publication of Humanae Vitae rendered the question pointless. “…[T]he answer, for a Catholic, has got to be: the position of the Pope, as spokesman for the magisterium.” He shifts the conversation to a question he finds more challenging:

“It is that the law against contraception is quite simply ignored. No, not by everyone; but the data suggest that contraceptives are sold in similar quantities to Catholic and to Protestant men and women. There is no way to establish what percentage of Catholic women (or men) who use them confess to having committed a sin. And in any case, if absolution is not valid in the absence of the penitent’s subjective determination not to sin again, one must assume—simply from one’s view of crowded communion rails—either that the sin is not being confessed or else that the determination not-to-sin-again is widely irresolute.”

He calls this a “sociological problem”, attributing it to the dissenters of Humanae Vitae: “The Catholic seeking to understand is not always the Catholic bound to observe.” He quotes moral theologian Richard McCormick, S.J. from 1966 on the subject of contraception, “The effect of repeated authoritative Church pronouncements on a matter of this importance is a presumptive certitude of their correctness.” Yet, after the publication of the encyclical two years later Buckley notes that McCormick took the side of the dissenters.

Buckley does not fault the Church or Pope Paul VI in particular, wisely noting that there are strictures of the Church that are easily enforceable and those that are not. Enforcing the male-only priesthood is accomplished simply by not ordaining women, while “…there is no mechanical means to measure faith, hope, and charity. …When the Pope says that it is sinful to use contraceptives, he is left without visible means of enforcing his ordinance.” To Buckley, this was worrisome:

…[T]he Church has much to ponder when, after pronouncing a practice anathema, the flock ceases even to wince. A sense of the sinfulness of an act is hugely important to the moral order. In its absence, there is a terrible void.”

The outcome of this, he notes, will probably be “…that at some point in the future a Pope will modify the reasoning of Pope Paul, …or else that the principal being urged captures the moral imagination of the next generation of men and women, who will then abide by it.”

I have my doubts about either possibility. He was writing over twenty years ago and the next generation is here and its moral imagination hasn’t been captured. In the first block quote above he mentions that not everyone ignores the law against contraception. Why might that be other than that their moral imagination is to follow the will of God?

In a previous post I discussed the rapid fall in Catholic birth rates since the publication of Humanae Vitae, demonstrating that it follows non-Catholic rates. But within Catholicism there would have been and continues to be a strong divergence in rates between those who follow the teaching of the Church on contraception and those who don’t. By simple demographics the future of Catholicism belongs to the former.

Buckley quotes priest and author Fr. George Rutler, one of the Forum members (a convert from the Anglican Church), who agrees that with the encyclical the matter of contraception was closed:

“It does pertain to natural law and the Church cannot undo nature. The level of commentary on this issue indicates the theological impoverishment of these days. Paul VI was a hapless and even tragic figure, but Humanae Vitae will be his one claim to heaven and the prophet’s mantle.”

Pope Blessed Paul VI


3 thoughts on “William. F. Buckley Jr. on Humanae Vitae

  1. Unfortunately, Paul VI condemned HV to failure 4 years earlier, when upon expanding the original 7 member commission to 72 members and then said this:

    “We say frankly that so far we do not have sufficient reason to consider the norms given by Pope Pius XII on this matter [of contraception] as out of date and therefore as not binding. They must be considered as valid, at least until We feel obliged in conscience to change them.” – Paul VI Acta apostolicae sedis (AAS) 56 (1964) 588-59, 1964 address to the special papal commission on the use of contraceptives.

    And then again in his introductory paragraphs to HV where he gave his first reason for not accepting the commission nearly unanimous decision as not being unanimous:

    In paragraph 6, the pope writes:
    “…the conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain…because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed.”

    This gave the sense that the unchangeable could be changed by a vote, albeit unanimous.

    That said, we continue to do ourselves and God a grave disservice by continually making P6 out to be a prophet and a saint. He screwed up badly. There never should have been a commission to look into changing what could not be changed. That’s on J23, since founded the original 7 member commission , but the onus of the mess is in P6 for greatly expanding it, giving the Catholic world the thought that it could be changed. And then following up that act with what is already stated above.


    1. With respect to the appeal to personal conscience as a moral guide, you might be right; Paul IV may have let the cat out of the bag. Nevertheless, Humanae Vitae is still a Papal Encyclical reaffirming the magisterial teaching prohibiting contraception. And now Paul’s been canonized.

      I think it is relevant that by the time the encyclical was published, the birth control pill had been approved by the FDA for 7 years in the U.S. A response should have come sooner.

      This is a big year for celebrating anniversaries (Fatima, Reformation). I’m more interested in next year’s, the 50th of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that was ignored.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s