By writing Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul showed true compassion

Pope Paul VI blessing the marriage of 16 couples in a public ceremony in St Peter's Basilica (Getty)

This article by Archbishop John Murphy of Cardiff appeared in the Catholic Herald of August 2 1968. We republish it today to mark the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on contraception.

Make no mistake about this encyclical. There may be a contemporary clamour, drowning the quiet relief of many and the heroic acceptance of the disappointed, but when the history of these days comes to be written, this encyclical will be hailed as the Magna Carta, not merely of all women but of all men and all children.

In the furious modern attack on the natural law, which has threatened to sweep away all our moorings, we have waited with trepidation for one cable to hold, knowing that if it went, it would involve not merely the family, but all the People of God. Why did we ever doubt? Why couldn’t we have had more trust?

But who can blame us, when others of greater erudition and theological learning than we possessed seemed to falter. If this encyclical has proved anything, it has proved in these matters of interpreting the natural law that all honesty, all compassion, all erudition, all theological acumen is of little account.

Numbers, majorities, reputations, nothing is sufficient in these delicate matters of interpreting the natural law. We need the Holy Ghost, and we need Him badly. In our lack of faith, we, both crew and passengers, thought Him asleep.

For many months now, the Holy Father, like Christ with the Canaanite woman, has appeared as the least compassionate of mortals. Whilst many other apostles appeared to have the monopoly of concern and authentic compassion, urging the Pope to do something for the woman, listen to her or at least send her away and not insult her, the Pope has appeared to be dilatory, hesitating, turning his back on the problem, refusing to be rushed and even, apparently, rude and rejectful of his advisory commission.

But in the end, like Christ with the Canaanite woman, it is the Pope who is the compassionate one, who elevates her above all the women of Israel.

We were not waiting for a mere encyclical on the Pill, a mere interpretation of the natural law. We were waiting for a new Magna Carta for the whole family, restoring it to its former dignity of love and sacrifice and proving to many troubled souls that God is still in His heaven and “all is right with the world”.

This encyclical, as the Pope says, “will not be received easily by all. Too numerous are those voices, amplified by modern means of propaganda which are contrary to the voice of the Church.”

Within a few hours of the publication of the encyclical, as if prophetically realising the Pope’s words, a reputable organ like the BBC, on The World at One, invited an archbishop notoriously known for his views on contraception, and a woman doctor similarly well-known for her adverse views, to give their comments on the encyclical.

Not exactly a balanced and Catholic reaction, one would say, or was Douglas Brown just speaking as “the prophet for the day”? This we do know, that many with advanced views, honestly held, will prove as loyal in their obedience as they were honest in their convictions.

The Pope has refused to bow to the compassionate plea of those who in a sincere desire to strip woman of her anxieties would strip her of all dignity and status and reduce her to a mere chattel of her lord. He has refused to offer contraceptives to man as a cheap way of controlling his instincts and avoiding his responsibilities.

Let the husband himself be responsible to his wife and by reasonable self-control remove her anxieties. In so doing, he will be assisting the whole family. It is precisely where mother and father are practising self-restraint and self-denial that a mysterious authority and influence over the children is acquired. The parents who can do nothing with their children are frequently the parents who can do nothing with themselves. They have looked at the cost of mastery, found it too high a price to pay and chosen the artificial remedy. Who knows but that the price of this remedy might prove eventually the more costly of the two. The Holy Father himself points out:

“It is to be feared that husbands growing used to contraceptives may eventually lose respect for the wife, and no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment and no longer as his respected and beloved companion… Let us consider … how easy and wide a road would thus be opened up towards conjugal infidelity.”

And again: “Let it be considered also that a dangerous weapon would thus be placed in the hands of public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies.”

Make no mistake about this. Once the parents have ignored God and assumed to themselves the right to decide by artificial means whether children shall be or not be, it is a very short step for the state to ignore the parents and decide for social or economic reasons who will be and who won’t be. This is no idle scaremongering.

We have already had rumblings of it from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Social Security and from Mr Douglas Houghton, in their branding of mothers and fathers of large families as future delinquents. Our liberties are always safe in God’s hands. Take them into our own hands and the government is always ready for a takeover bid. The Holy Father is not merely concerned with the dangers of contraception but with the solid fruits, even though difficult, of true Christian love and sacrifice:

“To dominate instinct by means of one’s reason and free will, will undoubtedly require ascetical practices, so that the effective manifestations of conjugal life may observe the correct order, in particular with regard to the observance of periodic continence.

“Yet this discipline, which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from being harmful to conjugal love rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort yet, thanks to its beneficial influence, husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values.

“Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solutions of other problems. It favours attention for one’s partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love, and deepens their sense of responsibility. By its means, parents acquire the capacity of having a deeper and more efficacious influence on the education of their children.”

These are high ideals and none of it is easy. But one wonders whether we have fully realised the mystery and delicacy of married life and whether in our natural compassion for removing the problems of married life, we are not thereby creating more. Let me end by quoting a layman. Donald Nichol, University College, Keele, had this to say recently: “I wonder whether our age is not wrong headed about it [sex] and perhaps the Catholics more wrong headed about it than any other group in the community… As I listened to advanced Catholics talking in a way that publicised their own intimate relationships, I couldn’t help thinking that in spite of all their claims, they don’t know the first thing about sex.

“For the first thing to know about sex, and without that all other knowledge must be in vain, is that it is a mystery. It is an area of life which has to be approached with reverent discretion, tact and delicacy… whatever words are used one is always pointing to the same truth, that anyone who goes rushing in here feeling he knows all about it, does not know the first thing … that it is a mystery. He may know the second thing, the third or the twentieth thing about sex. But he doesn’t know the first thing.”

Perhaps with all the positions we have been taking up on this matter, it might be better to conclude that the Holy Ghost knows a thing or two and leave it to Him. Certainly let no man say “I told you so.” He could never have been so emphatically certain in such a delicate matter. And now that the Holy Father after much prayer and consultation has spoken, he would be a rash and foolish man to demur.