Today is an odd anniversary in the history of religion.
On this date in 1968 Pope Paul VI published an encyclical called Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) that condemned artificial methods of birth control. Against the wishes of even a pontifical commission appointed in 1963 to study this matter, it sought control in all circumstances over how Catholics went about preventing unwanted births.
It's hard to imagine a religious document with less chance of receiving a warm welcome and with less chance of being followed by adherents.
But it was, from the papal perspective, a determined stand on principle.
Because I am not Catholic, this encyclical has had no effect on how my own family got planned (I was married the year it was published). And, in turn, my inclination to think of the document as misguided means nothing to the Catholic Church, nor should it.
Nonetheless, there are lessons here for religious leaders about human freedom and about efforts to limit that freedom for doctrinal purposes.
In his 1995 book, Sexuality and Catholicism, my friend Tom Fox of The National Catholic Reporter wrote that Humanae Vitae was "a sensitively written expression about the sanctity of marital love and the need to nurture life in marriage. Some said the encyclical was almost poetic and came as a much-needed statement concerning human dignity. Maybe so, but whatever else it stated, it has been remembered for only one thing: upholding of the Catholic Church's ban on artificial birth control."
Fox also notes that "many in the church were deeply disappointed by the encyclical. Among them were Catholic theologians whose only consolation was the fact that the pope, in promulgating the encyclical, had not designated it to be an infallible teaching."
At its core, religion should be about liberating people to live into the freedom (I would call it, paradoxically, "obedient freedom") that God wills for everyone. Yes, people often reject that very freedom because they find it frightening and unpredictable. They find it asks too much of them, gives them too much responsibility. So they opt for rules devised by others. And, yes, religions of all stripe have essential tenets and codes of conduct -- and must.
But when religion seeks to control human behavior primarily as a means of retaining power over people, it has forgotten why it exists. And I think that's part of the reason so few Catholics, especially in the U.S., paid any attention in 1968 or pay any attention now to the ban on artificial birth control promulgated in this encyclical published 49 years ago today.
They saw it as the church seeking to regulate what they did in the bedroom, a very private matter, indeed, even if the church thought it had good doctrinal reasons for doing that.
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RELIGION'S ROLE ON THE TEMPLE MOUNT
What's behind the recent violence and turmoil over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem? This Haaretz analysis suggests that this time it has much more to do with religion than with politics.