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Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.


Writing for Faith & Culture

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Looking Back at the Reactions to the Pope's Encyclical on Contraception

Looking Back at the Reactions to the Pope's Encyclical on Contraception

It is interesting now to look back at the various reactions when the Pope issued his encyclical on contraception. I dug up the following, and I think they pretty much speak for themselves. It is hardly necessary to add any comments at all except to say how little things have changed.

A leader from an association of Protestant mainline denominations called it “the most important encyclical ever promulgated in the entire history of the papal succession.” He said, “I am glad that this pronouncement is so thoroughly clear-cut and uncompromising.” He was glad that everyone had to be either for it or against it. There was no middle ground.

And why did that make him glad?

“It will mark a new era in wide and deep-going revolt against ecclesiastical control. It will bring. . . nearer a revolt within the Roman Catholic Church.” He said this attempt by the Church, with its “autocratic domination,” to interfere with private and intimate matters will push it closer to its own inevitable collapse. This exercise of “hierarchical power” would certainly be met with “indignant repudiation” by Catholics themselves.

In other words, he was glad that the Catholic Church made its position clear, so that Protestants and everyone else could clearly reject it. No middle ground. And he predicted Catholics would reject it, too.

A leading feminist said the Church had set itself “squarely against progress.” She said the message of the encyclical was: “Go ahead and have a child every year, never mind if you are too poor to give them a decent home; never mind if they will be born sick or feeble-minded; never mind if they will be born deformed. Birth control under any and all circumstances is a horrible crime.” She said the Pope's denunciation of contraception would lead to more poverty and more disease. She praised the Protestant and Jewish congregations that had already officially endorsed contraception.

A doctor said the document was “confusing,” especially when it came to the issue of the health and welfare of the mother. He disagreed with the encyclical which claimed that contraception violates nature. And he observed that the declining birth-rate among Catholics indicated that the rule was “being more observed in the breach.”

A pastor of a non-denominational church in New York said the encyclical was an example of “a tenth-century mind at work on twentieth-century problems. We are never going to get anywhere with marriage or anything else by going back to St. Augustine. The Pope's interpretation of marriage is pure mythology. . . his denunciation of birth control is bigotry.”

A spokesman for an atheist organization said that the document was evidence of the Church's failure to recognize that morals change. “Contraception is here to stay, and if the Church refuses to sanction it, so much worse for the Church.” He noted that Catholic women were already practicing contraception in equal numbers to Protestant and Jews.

Strangely, when many Catholic bishops and priests were asked for their comments, they declined. However, a prominent Catholic layman from England agreed to be interviewed. He said the encyclical

“compels us to squarely face the question whether the world would really be happier under the sexual anarchy advocated by the vociferous minority or living in conformity to the rules prescribed the Church.”

He argued that all the problems swirling around the issue of sex were the result of “the neglect of Catholic morality and not because of it.”

When asked about the general impression that the teaching of the Catholic Church authorizes a husband to do whatever he wants and disregards his wife's wishes, he responded: “If any one supposes that, he not only entirely misinterprets Catholic doctrine but the whole spirit of Christianity. St. Paul said, 'Honor all men.' We are under a thousand times greater obligation to honor all women, especially the woman who is your wife.”

To the suggestion that the encyclical was “brutal” to women, he said, “The Church is certainly not being brutal in admonishing women to have due regard for their obligations as wives and mothers, and to refrain from being arrogant and sterile in neglect of Catholic conscientiousness and honor.” But to that mouthful he added rather simply, “The quarrel of the sexes is not occasioned by the Church. It is due to not taking the advice of the Church, which tells the husband, “Honor thy wife,” and the wife, “Honor thy husband.”

He was also asked if the problem might just solve itself, implying that those who practice birth control will do so, and those who won't, won't, and the results will be that the unbelievers will not have children and the believers will. His answer was even more simple: “The meek will inherit the earth.”

Did I mention that this encyclical was issued 38 years before Humanae Vitae? The encyclical was Casti Connubii (“On Christian Marriage”). The pope was Pius XI. The year was 1930.

The layman was G.K. Chesterton.

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