Written in the turbulent Year of Our Lord, 1968, the letter concerned birth control. Held illicit by the Church for centuries, some Protestants had begun to go along with secular society in embracing "the pill". Until 1930, all Christian denominations agreed with the Church of Rome. First the Anglicans made allowances to artificial birth control; every other sect followed.
One of the things which is most frustrating to opponents of the Church, and, paradoxically, one which Her flock cherishes, is the seeming torpidity of Her decision making process. Some of the especially silly critics like to claim that the Church is quick to pronounce a miracle, but this runs counter to all of the evidence. Sure, the people will sometimes buy into chicken nuggets in the shape of the Virgin Mary, but the Church moves very slowly even when the news might be good.
The Church had a position on birth control, but by the time 1968 rolled around, the world was ready for the pontiff, Paul VI, to weigh in--just in case Revelation had a change of plans. And weigh in he did, with a bombshell confirming the Church's long held teaching. There is a very good article in First Things which discusses the encyclical, from which I will quote:
“The execration of the world,” in philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe’s phrase, was what Paul VI incurred with that document—to which the years since 1968 have added plenty of just plain ridicule. Hasn’t everyone heard Monty Python’s send-up song “Every Sperm Is Sacred”? Or heard the jokes? “You no play-a the game, you no make-a the rules.” And “What do you call the rhythm method? Vatican roulette.” And “What do you call a woman who uses the rhythm method? Mommy.”
I'm not sure how many Catholics bothered to read the brilliant document; my guess is not many. But many still chose to ignore the Pope and practice birth control anyway. According to Janet Smith, only four percent of Catholic couples in the United States adhere to the teaching promulgated in Humanae Vitae. I'm quoting from memory from a talk she gave, so my numbers could be a little off, but the point remains: millions of Catholics, who usually follow the Church's teaching--or did--have no trouble swallowing committing mortal sin when it comes to the pill.
Thus FOX News host Sean Hannity, for example, describes himself to viewers as a “good” and “devout” Catholic—one who happens to believe, as he has also said on the air, that “contraception is good.” He was challenged on his show in 2007 by Father Tom Euteneuer of Human Life International, who observed that such a position emanating from a public figure technically fulfilled the requirements for something called heresy. And Hannity reacted as many others have when stopped in the cafeteria line. He objected that the issue of contraception was “superfluous” compared to others; he asked what right the priest had to tell him what to do (“judge not lest you be judged,” Hannity instructed); and he expressed shock at the thought that anyone might deprive him of taking Communion just because he was deciding for himself what it means to be Catholic.
A good argument can be made that this has led to further dissent on other issues. Mary Eberstadt, who wrote the article, points out that the first Church's who gave the go ahead on contraception are now having to rethink their position on homosexuality: "once heterosexuals start claiming the right to act as homosexuals, it would not be long before homosexuals start claiming the rights of heterosexuals."
Hannity provides good evidence for her point. He's a hawk who firmly supports our little war in Iraq, despite the fact that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI pointed out that it failed the Just War Doctrine; he's also down with water-boarding, which Catholics denounce as torture. We've come a long way from St. Ignatius of Loyola, that great defender of the Faith during the Reformation, who claimed: "“We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides”. Loyola isn't suggesting that one turns one's brain off and marches lockstep; instead, he recognizes that their is a wisdom that is larger than his own.
The secular world--and, in fact, too much of the Roman Catholic world--seemed content to ignore this wisdom and maintain that they knew more than the Church. Or, to offer a less charitable but probably more accurate explanation, they simply wanted to have "freedom" to do what they wished when it came to their sex lives.
But now forty years have passed; and while the secular world is less likely than ever to re-examine the issue, they would do well to do so. As Eberstadt writes:
Let’s begin by meditating upon what might be called the first of the secular ironies now evident: Humanae Vitae’s specific predictions about what the world would look like if artificial contraception became widespread. The encyclical warned of four resulting trends: a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.
She then goes on to examine the confirmation of these facts, interestingly enough, by secular sources. But then, who could deny them? For all the optimism that greeted the sexual revolution, by almost all accounts, it has been a complete failure. She points out that even feminists are beginning to rethink the revolution; as well they should, since women have been harmed extensively in the process. Yet, apart from in certain Evangelical circles, shelving the pill is not even considered. She writes:
More likely, the fundamental issue is rather what Archbishop Chaput explained ten years ago: “If Paul VI was right about so many of the consequences deriving from contraception, it is because he was right about contraception itself.”
This is exactly the connection few people in 2008 want to make, because contraceptive sex—as commentators from all over, religious or not, agree—is the fundamental social fact of our time. And the fierce and widespread desire to keep it so is responsible for a great many perverse outcomes. Despite an empirical record that is unmistakably on Paul VI’s side by now, there is extraordinary resistance to crediting Catholic moral teaching with having been right about anything, no matter how detailed the record.