Humanae vitae: The Last Rebellion of Roman Catholic Priests

If you can’t recall a time when Catholic priests rebelled over anything, cut yourself some slack. A small group of them did, but it’s been 50 years — since the encyclical Humanae vitae, written by Pope Paul VI, banned any artificial forms of contraception. For many practicing Catholics, the ban stood in sharp contrast to what couples knew to be essential to a healthy sex life. It was the first time, at least in the modern era, that Catholics in large numbers realized the Pope, and the Church, could be devastatingly wrong.

A brave band of celibate clergy in the United States went on record supporting the right of sexually active couples to make an informed decision based on their own conscience. This, from Masthead, a subscription service of the Atlantic:

“A contingent of the Association of Washington Priests, a group of clergy in the D.C. area, signed on with the initial group of theologians. Together, the 52 priests asserted that Catholic couples should be able to rely on their own good judgement to decide whether or not to use birth control. The priests’ position was not that the pope lacked the authority to issue an encyclical like Humanae Vitae, or even that birth control was necessarily a good thing. Rather, they argued for “the right of every Catholic to a responsible conscience.” It was a “time-honored principle of Catholic tradition,” they wrote in a subsequent letter, “that the conscience is the proximate norm of morality.” If individuals fundamentally disagreed with the encyclical, they should not have to follow it. The debate, Maguire told me, centered on a question that extended far beyond the issue of contraception: How much authority did the Church have over the daily lives of the laity? Could Catholics be compelled, no matter what, to submit?  

Delaney signed the dissent right away, fully aware that the consequences would be severe. “You knew that if you put your name on that paper, your name was going to be published for everyone to see,” Delaney told me. Growing up in the Catholic enclaves of South Bend, Indiana—home of University of Notre Dame—and the “Irish South Side” of Chicago, Delaney told me, “you couldn’t do anything better than become a priest.” After he was ordained, his mother told him that throughout his childhood, she’d prayed every night that one day he’d join the Church. “So for her, this was a terrible blow.” When The Washington Post printed the name of every dissenting priest on the front page, Delaney’s mother disowned him. Several close friends stopped returning his calls.”

Blowback from the Catholic hierarchy was severe:

“After the dissent was published, Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle, who oversaw the Archdiocese of Washington, reminded all the pastors in the area of their duty to convey and support the Vatican’s position on birth control. At the next mass, Delaney was told he would not be delivering the sermon. As he got changed for the service at the back of the Church, Delaney said, the space “was filled with fear.”

A formal warning soon followed. O’Boyle sent an 11-page letter to every dissenting priest in the diocese. It outlined the failings of the priests’ statement, arguing that the pope’s word should trump any individual’s conscience, “even if [the individual] thinks he has studied the matter more carefully than the Pope and even if he is confident that his experience, or intelligence, or holiness, enable him to know better than the Pope what Christ wants.” For the dissenting priests, that idea was antithetical to the Church as they understood it. In an act of defiance, one of the dissenters read the letter aloud at Sunday mass. O’Boyle expelled him from the clergy and issued a public warning to the remaining 51: Retract the dissent, or receive the same punishment.

What happened next, Maguire told me, permanently changed the nature of Catholic dissent. Instead of complying with the cardinal’s request, the priests gathered for a private mass at the time of the deadline. “A new clergy has emerged,” reported CBS. “A clergy that rebels against autocratic control.” In Washington, D.C., crowds rallied in public support of the Washington 50. Nonetheless, O’Boyle revoked the credentials of 39 priests. They could no longer hear confession or preach at mass. Many were asked to move out of their church-provided housing. “They lost everything,” Delaney said.”

That pretty much put an end to the dissent — priests who could not bend to Humanae vitae and their autocratic bishops were either drummed out of the priesthood or left of their own accord. Catholics, for the first time, began to ignore a papal encyclical in large numbers. For me, the response of the hierarchy was an example of winning the battle but losing the war.

The Guttmacher Institute jumped into the discussion Wednesday with a clarificationthat indicated that, indeed, its study showed that 98 percent of Catholic women ages 15 to 44 who have had sex have used contraceptives.”

These days, men who respond to the call to priestly ministry in the Catholic Church are mostly conservative, and not a rebellious bunch. Parish priests certainly know that the sexually active members of their flock are using birth control; there are no longer Catholic families, or not very many, with a dozen children filling the pews. Sexually active couples do what they do, and parish priests by and large overlook the defiance of Humanae vitae. But the encyclical remains the doctrinal position of the Catholic Church, and its message has not been changed or modified by later Popes.

2 thoughts on “Humanae vitae: The Last Rebellion of Roman Catholic Priests

  1. We lived in the Washington Archdiocese during this time. And we were pretty active in the parish in Bowie, MD. When it was announced that Cardinal O’Boyle had mandated that his letter be read from the pulpit (the young priests in our parish were very liberal) there was a discussion amongst many active parishioners about walking out when the letter was read. This was done in many parishes throughout the archdiocese. We all agreed to do it. But I honestly don’t remember if we did!

  2. for Ada: You’ve certainly been front and center for some of the most decisive Church struggles of our lifetime. Where the Humanae Vitae prohibitions are playing out now is in rural areas where Catholic hospitals are the only ones available. Even non-Catholics who seek treatment there as the only option are often unable to get standard of care because the Church prevents it.

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