Last week was the 45th anniversary of he issuance of Pope Paul VI's (pictured here) encyclical called Humanae Vitae, in which he declared any birth control systems beyond the so-called rhythm method are out of bounds for Catholics.
I thought about doing a post here about that anniversary to remind folks that in this case the pontiff issued a ruling starkly opposed to the advice he was given by a special commission set up to study the issue. But in the past I've written about that sad time in Catholic history and I wasn't sure I had anything new to say about it.
Then just as the July 25 anniversary date was passing I came across this remarkable column by a man who felt he failed in his attempts to get the Vatican then to understand the issue in a new way, a way that could have and should have changed the pope's ruling.
Even many Catholics say that this 1968 encyclical did more to drive people from the church than almost anything else in recent decades. And most of those who stayed simply pay no attention now to the contraception ban the encyclical requires. We all know that an unenforced and unenforcable law is worse than no law because it undermines respect for the law.
What especially struck me about the piece to which I've linked you is that nearly half a century ago someone was trying to tell church officials and the rest of humanity that a pregnancy is not simply the result of the sperm from a male. Reproduction is a complicated process that must be looked at from the perspective of both the male and the female if any rules about engaging in sexual intercourse are to make any sense.
That's exactly what the pope's encyclical missed, even though that wisdom was available then and could have been considered.
And, by the way, the church's more recent failure to protect children from sexual abuse also came about partly because the leadership of the church, being all male, seems not to have approached the problem with the wisdom and insight that women might have brought to the problem. The all-male approach failed in the 1968 encyclical and it failed in the abuse scandal. Isn't that enough for the lesson now to be learned?
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AN EYES-OPEN POPE
Here's one more reason to admire Pope Francis: He looks at the church and calls its problems as he sees them. On his Rio trip, for instance, he spoke to bishops there about why people have been leaving the church and he suggested some ways to stem the tide. You can't fix problems if you don't acknowledge they exist.