50 Years Later, Lessons from “Humanae Vitae” Debate Readily Applicable to LGBT Issues

Last Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical known primarily for its novel ban on artificial contraception. In the subsequent decades since its promulgation, there have been few magisterial teachings as controversial and as rejected by as many faithful as this document. To mark the anniversary, Catholic publications have published a number of analyses about the encyclical and its ongoing impact (see National Catholic Reporter’s series here and Commonweal’s issue here).

Theologians Michael Lawler and Todd Salzman have written a commentary which while not explicitly addressing LGBT issues is quite insightful and relevant to our discussions. I recommend reading the essay, which you can find here, in its entirety. Today’s post highlights a few key features of their overall argument that Pope Francis has changed the calculus on contraception and invited new conversations that more deeply incorporate human experience in theological ethics. In their opening paragraph, Lawler and Salzman wrote:

“The scars from both these wars [theological and cultural about sexuality in the 1960s] are still evident. They have inserted themselves into the papacy of Pope Francis, oblivious to the fact that he has moved away from the Catholic obsession with sex and birth control toward the beauty of a virtuous, just and loving marriage. His focus is on the complexity of human experience and relationships, which Humanae Vitae failed to adequately consider.”

Michael Lawler, left, and Todd Salzman

Central to these thedologians’ re-appraisal of Humanae Vitae and magisterial teaching on sexuality is the need to incorporate human experience in theological reflection. They argued that “sustained reflection on, and integration of, human experience into Catholic ethical method will lead to the revision of some absolute moral norms.” But human experience must be correctly understood as both one of several sources for ethics and as a communal phenomenon, explored through dialogue:

“In a church that is a communion of believers, the resolution of different construals of experience to attain ethical truth requires, we suggest, the honest and respectful dialogue of charity lauded by Pope John Paul II. Such dialogue, we are convinced, will reveal patterns of experiential meaning and value that are shaped by the Christian tradition but are not yet fully integrated into that tradition. We inquire here about patterns of tradition-shaped meaning that are reflected in the lived experiences of married couples who, for ethically legitimate reasons, use contraceptives to regulate fertility and practice responsible parenthood.”

The need for dialogue about LGBT people’s lives and relationships is a clear parallel. LGBT Catholics have been formed by tradition, and yet their identities and their love are still invalidated. Though dialogue between church leaders and LGBT people is developing, albeit slowly, it is nowhere near the healthy and positive engagement envisioned by Salzman and Lawler. On both contraception and homosexuality, a swath of human experience has been rejected by church leaders unwilling to admit the reality around them.

Salzman and Lawler explored three specific types of experience: cultural, scientific, and theological. Of the first, they acknowledge that the Church is at times called to be countercultural, but is “equally” called to engage dialectically and constructively with culture:

“It is true that the church is called on occasion to be countercultural, to confront cultural theories and actions that do not lead to human flourishing, for example, the rabid individualism rampant in United States culture. It is equally true that reflection on cultural experience has led and can continue to lead to insight into ethical truth and the communication of that truth from that culture to others. The pastoral letters of the U.S. bishops’ conference on the economy and nuclear war are examples of the dialectic between culture and the development of ethical norms. The letters draw on the traditional Catholic principles of justice and fairness, and articulate them in light of the specific cultural experience to which they respond.”

The theologians recognized, too, that in a global Church today “neither social nor sexual norms can be ‘one size fits all'” because of the diverse cultural and social contexts in which Catholics live. They commented, “It is irresponsible and oppressive to teach an absolute ethical norm that can actually damage human dignity within marital relationships, especially the dignity of women.”

When it comes to LGBT equality, acceptance of homosexuality is consistently increasing across the world. But despite advances in cultural acceptance and legal rights, most church leaders treat these cultural “signs of the times” as exclusively negative and dangerous shifts. No credence is afforded to the families, churches, and communities which have recognized equality and inclusion as part of God’s vision for the world. Cultural experience is essentially absent from formal teachings despite being well-received by the faithful in the pews.

Of scientific experience, Salzman and Lawler wrote about the need to incorporate contemporary knowledge into theological reflection:

“New discoveries and new technologies challenge traditional ethical answers based on inaccurate or incomplete scientific knowledge and raise new ethical questions that require new answers. Some answers will be drawn from traditional ethical principles, but in a new, nuanced way that may lead to the revision of an ethical norm. Recent papacies have consistently taught the need to integrate the discoveries of the human sciences in formulating ethical truth, but they have also been selective in actualizing that teaching. This selectivity is exemplified in three distinct ways: first, when the magisterium ignores what the sciences have to contribute to the discernment of ethical truth when such a contribution would challenge a pre-established norm; second, when it allows science, defined in a narrowly biological sense, to disproportionately inform norms; third, when it misrepresents or falsifies scientific evidence.”

Decades of research and knowledge have led scientific and psychological communities to recognize that homosexuality is an innate and healthy part of a person’s identity. But church teaching largely omits this knowledge, preferring instead the harmful language of “intrinsically disordered” that in effect treats homosexuality as unnatural. In worse cases, church leaders and pastoral ministers have relied upon junk science to promote “ex-gay” therapies and potentially harmful pastoral programs such as Courage. The simple act of magisterial teaching reflecting the knowledge of human sexuality possessed today would stir a revolution in the Church.

Finally, Salzman and Lawler turn to theological experience, relying on the concepts of the sensus fidei and reception:

“Sensus fidei is a theological concept that denotes both the instinctive capacity of believers to recognize the truth toward which the Spirit of God is leading them and their spontaneous judgment that such truth has theological weight. Sensus fidei is a charism of discernment, possessed by the whole church, laity, theologians and bishops together, which knows and receives a teaching as truth and, therefore, to be believed (see Lumen Gentium, 12). It derives from the lived experience of Catholic believers and the accumulation of experiential knowledge.

“Reception is an ecclesial process by which virtually the whole church assents to a teaching, thereby assimilating it into the life of the whole church. Reception does not make the teaching true. It is, rather, a prudential judgment from experiential data that the teaching is good for the whole church and is in agreement with the apostolic tradition on which the church is built. It is important to be clear that reception is a judgment, not about the truth of a teaching but about its usefulness in the life of the church. A non-received teaching is not necessarily false; it is simply judged by virtually all believers to be irrelevant to both their own lives and the life of the church.”

The theologians cited extensive social scientific evidence that the faithful have rejected the magisterium’s ban on artificial contraception; similar data reveals this same rejection when it comes to  curch teachin on homosexuality. Salzman and Lawler wrote, “We further argue that 50 years of Humanae Vitae’s growing non-reception is a more than sufficient reason to consider a revision of its contraceptive norm.” Surely, teachings on sexuality and gender more broadly deserve the same reconsideration.

To conclude, Salzman and Lawler raised the question of Pope Francis, which largely centers on conscience and the need for the institutional Church to respect the faithful’s discernment and moral decision-making. They wrote:

“Francis complains [in Amoris Laetitia] that we ‘find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations,’ adding the trenchant judgment that ‘we have been called to form consciences, not to replace them’ (37). . . [H]e is articulating a traditional Catholic principle that applies to all moral judgments, including the judgment about whether to use or not to use artificial contraception: Circumstances and context are factors in every ethical judgment. The church has no comprehensive competence, and therefore no unquestionable authority, for evaluating human experience. It must then fall back on conscientious human judgments and the human sciences.”

Humanae Vitae’s legacy continues to damage not only the Catholic Church, but many people in the world. The process by which it came about is a tragedy and church leaders’ decision to double down despite its non-reception is equally so. What is important for LGBT advocates to remember is how interconnected these issues really are, a point Jamie Manson made in the National Catholic Reporter a few weeks back. Though much less defined as doctrine when Paul VI released his encyclical, gender complementarity has, both then and now, undergirded damaging teachings like those on contraception and homosexuality.

But taking human experience in its varied forms more seriously in theological reflection could readily help develop healthier and more just understandings of sexuality and gender. After fifty years, the question today is how much longer will church leaders  harm to people by clinging to ahistorical, atemporal teachings that are completely out of touch with reality?

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 29, 2018

4 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    This reminds me of a mischievous prank some of us pulled as undergraduate students at Holy Cross. When “Humanae Vitae” was first published, we posted the following message on the bulletin board of WCHC, our campus radio station: “PAUL IS POOPED! SWING WITH THE SWISS! ELECT HANS KUNG POPE!” Hans Kung, of course, was (and I think still is) a preeminent liberal theologian, who stood in strong opposition to the theologically reactionary regime of Pope Paul VI. Curiously, in a recent interview on the CBC’s “Sunday Edition” program, hosted by Michael Enright, Kung mentioned that he knew he was slowly dying, and he might actually consider physician-assisted suicide to expedite his transition from this life to the next. In my opinion, we need many more bold and courageous independent thinkers like Fr. Kung, and decidedly fewer dogmatists who simply repeat the worn-out “party line” theology of bygone centuries.

  2. Father Anthony
    Father Anthony says:

    Two TV shows that have gay people on and publically acknowledge their partners are Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. Cultural advancement at work


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