Michael Duggan steps into a time machine that takes him back to Humanae Vitae
The Schism of ‘68 edited by Alana Harris, Palgrave, 400pp, £69
The Schism of ’68 is a European tour of Catholic opinion during the lead up to and aftermath of the publication of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical of Paul VI, which ruled against the use of contraception. Disembarking in the Netherlands to revisit Dutch Catholic attitudes to birth control in the 30 years after World War II, we eventually conclude our travels, 10 more countries later, behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
Our guides are historians mainly, but also among their number are some theologians, an anthropologist and a sociologist. Whatever their discipline, though, the contributors to The Schism of ’68 would, had they been around back then, all have been on the dissenting side of the intellectual barricades. In Dagmar Herzog’s afterword, the “vigour of progressive opinion” within Sixties Catholicism is vigorously celebrated.
The barricades are long dismantled, of course. An uneasy stand-off prevails on Catholic teaching about sex (though the storm clouds gathering in America and Rome may soon alter this). The degree to which the contributors here reveal their hostility towards the teaching of Paul VI varies. Some achieve commendable objectivity. Others, though obviously holding their noses when dealing with defenders of the encyclical, achieve a modicum of balance nevertheless.
Others still, however, do not completely refrain from baring their teeth. For instance, Polish doctors who supported Humanae Vitae are said to have been “masquerading” – hiding, that is – their zeal for Catholic doctrine behind supposedly medical and scientific arguments. No evidence is presented to support this claim of bad faith, however, and the entirely plausible scenario in which doctors might have opposed the Pill on both religious and medical grounds goes unacknowledged. There is even a ludicrous anecdote suggesting that Dr Wanda Półtawska, adviser to Cardinal Wojtyła, once used a tray of sandwiches to silence opposition to Church teaching on contraception in Poland. That said, Agnieszka Kościańska’s essay is one of the most interesting in the book, a rich portrait of a moment in Polish social history.
Peter Murray’s careful sifting of the situation in Ireland is almost hallucinatory in the contrast it provides with modern times, while the chapter on England highlights correspondence received by Cardinal Heenan. The split between letters in support of the encyclical and those expressing disappointment was marginally in favour of the former.
Wannes Dupont, meanwhile, reminds us that in no other north-western European country, save Ireland, did the Catholic Church enjoy such ubiquity and unrivalled influence as it did in Belgium. Nonetheless, it was here that “a new generation of progressive theologians”, with their intellectual headquarters at the Catholic University of Leuven, committed themselves to bringing about change, “inspired by theories of personalism and by the plight of the pious”.
Dupont pans out from a Catholic doctor encountering “the desperation of exhausted mothers in my poor moorland village” who were disillusioned with clergymen “marinated in their own sense of self-worth”, to the campaigning of Cardinal Suenens – campaigning which did not ultimately change papal teaching, but which did produce, amid the brittle semblance of unity, the championing of the “well-informed conscience” found in the formal response of the Belgian bishops.
The Schism of ’68 is a kind of time capsule, therefore. I listened rapt to the voices recorded within it: whether that of the Belgian doctor or of his French counterpart who pined, “I fear that even the most generous and loyal Catholics may not consent to formulations they cannot understand”.
Schism is a scholarly tome that manages to stay on the right side of readability. And, despite its title, and the preponderance of words like “rift” and “rupture”, it contains numerous warnings about seeing Humanae Vitae and its reception as a clear-cut breaking point, when, it is argued, the “detraditionalisation” of marriage had been gathering pace for years, as had the slide from pious, practising, observant faith into “cultural Catholicism”. One French commentator wrote that the real schism would be a “silent one” with young couples leaving the faith “on tiptoe”.
In a neat touch, the text comes with a sprinkling of well-chosen images, redolent of the vanished age. Among them is a cartoon by John Ryan from the Catholic Herald of August 2, 1968. A highbrow, bemused-looking journalist is conducting an interview in the street with a working-class Catholic mother, pregnant, pushing a pram and surrounded by seven or eight children. The mother is speaking. “Encyclical?” she says. “Bless you, I don’t have time to read encyclicals.”