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The theologians’ rejection of Humanae Vitae: How it all went down

August 6th, 2010, Promulgated by Mike

In Shaw Says II Dr. K treated us to a little gem from Fr. Denis Shaw.  Commenting on a recent Vatican statement Fr. Shaw wrote,

I’m sure there will be as much and similar attention paid to this statement as there was to Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae.

I have no doubt Fr. Shaw was referring to the near total apathy shown this encyclical by the majority of the American Catholic laity.  But, while that may have been the situation for many years now, it was certainly not the situation when Humanae Vitae first came out in 1968.  Back then many people paid a lot of attention to it.

Sadly, most of them were dissident Catholic theologians, with one of the leading dissenters being DOR’s own Fr. Charles Curran.

Writing in 1988, B. A. Santamaria described the events of those days as follows …

Humanae Vitae was signed on 25 July 1968. It was released on 27 July, and presented to the media in Rome on 29 July. The New York morning papers on the 29th reported the Holy Father’s confirmation of the traditional teaching.

According to his own account, a copy of the encyclical had been obtained by Fr Charles Curran some days before its presentation to the media and even before its distribution to the bishops. It was therefore possible for him, together with his theological and academic associates, to concoct a plan of operation to destroy the encyclical and the authority on which it rested.

Hence on the following morning, 30 July, by means of a carefully-planned coup de theatre, which proved that the dissident theologians fully understood the role of the media in abetting the religious revolution, the Catholics of the United States were the first to be informed that large numbers of the most distinguished theologians of the West held that the people had the right in conscience to set aside the Pope’s teaching on moral questions without calling into question their membership of the Catholic Church.

That the coup de theatre was organised and had a conscious purpose is supported by evidence provided by Fr Curran himself who wrote: “Our quick, purposeful response supported by so many theologians, accomplished its purpose. The day after the encyclical was promulgated, Catholics could read in the morning papers about their right to dissent and the fact that in theory Catholics could disagree with the papal teaching.”

From this carefully organised campaign have flown most of the troubles which have disturbed the Church over the past twenty years.

Baltimore’s Lawrence Cardinal Shehan, quoted by James Francis Cardinal Stafford in “The Year of the Peirasmos – 1968” (an essay I cannot recommend too highly), gave us this take on the revolt …

[A]fter receiving the first news of the publication of the encyclical, the Rev. Charles E. Curran, instructor of moral theology of The Catholic University of America, flew back to Washington from the West where he had been staying. Late [on the afternoon of July 29], he and nine other professors of theology of the Catholic University met, by evident prearrangement, in Caldwell Hall to receive, again by prearrangement with the Washington Post, the encyclical, part by part, as it came from the press. The story further indicated that by nine o’clock that night, they had received the whole encyclical, had read it, had analyzed it, criticized it, and had composed their six-hundred word ‘Statement of Dissent.’ Then they began that long series of telephone calls to ‘theologians’ throughout the East, which went on, according to the Post, until 3:30 A.M., seeking authorization, to attach their names as endorsers (signers was the term used) of the statement, although those to whom they had telephoned could not have had an opportunity to see either the encyclical or their statement. Meanwhile, they had arranged through one of the local television stations to have the statement broadcast that night.

Cardinal Stafford went on to add,

[Cardinal Shehan’s] judgment was scornful. In 1982 he wrote, “The first thing that we have to note about the whole performance is this: so far as I have been able to discern, never in the recorded history of the Church has a solemn proclamation of a Pope been received by any group of Catholic people with so much disrespect and contempt.”

Finally, Gary Dorrien, in his 2008 book Social Ethics in the Making – Interpreting an American Tradition, tells the story this way …

For years Curran told lecture audiences that the mere existence of a papal birth control commission showed that a change in Church teaching was conceivable. In 1968 his hope soared after a majority of the pope’s commission favored a change, until Curran learned that the pope was leaning the other way. Through the media Curran and others appealed to the pope, urging that issuing no encyclical would be better than the catastrophe of reaffirming the contraception ban. On July 27, 1968 Time magazine informed Curran that the pope had answered, showing him an advance copy of Humanae vitae. Two days later it was published; in the meantime, Curran organized an unprecedented protest …

Ten theologians at Catholic University met to formulate a response, drafted by Curran and Daniel Maguire, which emphasized that Catholic doctrine recognized the right to dissent from noninfallible teaching. Releasing their statement to the media on July 30, with endorsements from 87 American Catholic theologians, Curran’s group announced its dissent at a press conference. The statement set off a barrage of condemnations, praise, and puzzled commentary that such a thing was possible. Nothing like an organized public dissent from papal teaching had ever occurred in American Catholicism. Twenty Catholic University professors supported the dissent, including theologians Bernard McGinn, Roland E. Murphy, and David Tracy; eventually more than 600 Catholic scholars signed it …”

And so I believe Fr. Shaw has overlooked the intense, highly organized, negative reception first accorded Humanae Vitae by a sizable number of Catholic theologians.  It is largely because of this attention in 1968 – and its lingering effects on many of our clergy – that so many American Catholics ignore Humanae Vitae today.

Update: A comment below states, “Fr. Curran to this day still claims the dissident response was spontaneous and not organized!”

Fr. Curran seems to have forgotten what he, himself, wrote in his 2006 book, Loyal Dissent:

[In late July, 1968] it was rumored that the pope’s encyclical on the subject [of artificial contraception] was about to be released. I consulted with some of my colleagues, and with others around the country, about how we should respond to the encyclical. It was my view that we theologians should issue a statement disagreeing with the encyclical if it proved to be as negative as we expected.

That sounds a lot more like premeditation than spontaneity.

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3 Responses to “The theologians’ rejection of Humanae Vitae: How it all went down”

  1. avatar Anonymous says:

    Fr. Curran to this day still claims the dissident response was sposntaneous and not organized!

  2. avatar Mike says:

    Anon. 8:24,

    I have to wonder what Fr. Curran’s definition of ‘spontaneous’ is.

  3. avatar Anonymous says:

    Like most of that these progressives do, it’s mostly disingenuous.

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