Revolution within the Church: Humanae Vitae and the birth of dissent

Revolution within the Church: Humanae Vitae and the birth of dissent Pope Paul VI
If no human act is intrinsically wrong, morality is reduced to a calculus of consequences, writes Fr Vincent Twomey SVD


It was 1968. Revolution was in the air. New-found affluence after the austerities of the post World War II era coupled with the sudden, unprecedented burst of scientific and technological creativity in the 1960s (including space exploration) created the impression that human ingenuity could – given the political will – eliminate all pain and create paradise on earth.

The young, disillusioned with the values of their parents, would provide that will and bring utopia into being. They rejected the narrow, restrictive moral values of former generations, and opted for a freer, more spontaneous, ultimately unrestricted lifestyle, in particular in the area of sex. The sexual revolution was unleashed – one of many.

In May 1968, students took to the barricades in Paris for a better world. Civil rights protests erupted in the major cities across the globe, including Belfast. The utopian dream of Marxism was given a human face in the Prague Spring.

The Cultural Revolution in China had caught the imagination of the young. The cry “make love, not war” echoed to the sound of the Beatles from one university campus to another throughout the world, but especially in the US, embroiled at the time in the Vietnam war.


In the Church, the theological and liturgical renewal inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) shattered old certainties. Suddenly everything was in principle considered capable of being changed, including the teaching of the Church. The issue of the moment was birth control.

Technology had, through the television, brought people in Europe and America literally face-to-face with the ravages of famine. Propagandists had convinced the world that humanity was threatened by humanity itself: the ‘population explosion’.

Technology, it seemed, had also provided us with the means of controlling population and eliminating famine in future: ‘the pill’.

The contraceptive pill was also the symbol of the sexual revolution, especially for feminists who saw it as giving women, for the first time since the dawn of history, a truly effective means to liberate themselves from their hated “bondage to their bodies” (Simone de Beauvoir).

But the pill also seemed to offer an ideal solution to the various, excruciatingly difficult moral dilemmas faced by couples who for one reason or another should not have any (further) children. This is the level where moral theology first debated the pill. Did it offer a morally-acceptable means to a morally good end? Did it offer to Christian couples a way to live the new theology of marriage with its emphasis on conjugal love, and the intrinsic value of its sexual expression, as recently proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council?

Many theologians were coming around to an affirmative answer to both questions. Others were encouraged by the news leaked to the press that the majority on the special commission originally set up to examine the question by Pope St John XXIII approved of a change.

Their hopes were dashed when, on July 25, 1968, Blessed Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae to a stunned (Western) world. Within a few days, Charles Curran had organised the collection of hundreds of signatures of theologians who dissented from the teaching. Revolution had erupted within the Church. Dissent was born.

Whereas the press conference in Rome announcing Humanae Vitae was not exactly exemplary, the one held in Dublin is generally judged to have been a public relations disaster. That summer I had just completed Second Divinity, that section of the course in Maynooth which included the tract on conjugal morality.

I too was hoping for a change, as indeed, many of the professors seemed to be. Though their arguments were not always convincing, in the end compassion for the hard cases won out. The news came as a blow. But already during my studies in Donamon, I had picked up the notion that one should ‘read the text’ before forming a judgement based on second-hand information.

I remember vividly the afternoon I read the text of Humanae Vitae in our Divine Word missionaries house in Booterstown (I had to wait for the the Irish Times to print the whole text, some time early in August – there was no Internet and email – or even fax – at the time!), with the summer sun shining on the vast expanse of water that is Dublin Bay. Two things struck me, almost with the force of an inner light: this is the truth and the Pope is the successor of St Peter, the Vicar of Christ.

How many read the document at the time, I do not know. I only know that, at the time, or indeed since, I met few who did. The ‘no change’ at the press conference deadened sensibilities. It was a death knell that marked the end of an era.

In the world at large, the dream of utopia gave way to the nightmare of terrorism, to the tanks in Prague, the terror of the Soviet and Chinese communists, the intensification of the Cold War, the world-wide massacre of the innocents in the womb, the making of babies in laboratories, the spread of divorce, the trivialisation of sex, the horrors of AIDS.

In the Church, it marked the beginning of an intense battle between the so-called liberals and conservatives, where moral theology provided the battlefield.

The core issue, in fact, was not birth control but the nature of morality itself – more precisely, whether or not morality could change. Could what was considered moral by former generations be moral for this or any future generation? To take one example. Is the wrongness of the direct killing an innocent person some culturally-conditioned norm of the past – or is it absolutely forbidden in all circumstances?

Should we not say that the norm should, generally speaking, be followed, while allowing for exceptions when the individual alone, weighing up the positive and negative consequences, would judge “according to his or her conscience”?

The majority of theologians, rejecting Humanae Vitae, said ‘Yes’ to these questions. The Magisterium said ‘no’: there are some absolute norms which allow of no exception.

An example would be paedophilia – is it intrinsically wrong, absolutely forbidden? Church teaching says: yes, unequivocally. Proportionalist theologians who deny that there are any human acts that are intrinsically wrong would be unable to answer that question in the affirmative. There are some (few) actions that are ‘intrinsically wrong’, that, whatever the circumstances or external consequences, cannot be chosen by anyone who wants to do the good, to please God. The ability of the theologians who supported the Magisterium to persuade others often left much to be desired.

During the last 50 years, a whole new generation of (mostly lay) thinkers, male and female, has emerged. They have succeeded in providing the philosophical and theological analysis needed to understand (and reject) the dissenting position and to articulate the truth not only of Humanae Vitae, but of the Church’s whole moral tradition, which at root is that of the wisdom of humanity.

Here the contribution of St Pope John Paul II, both in his authoritative teachings and in his theological writings, has been immense. The insight of the Anglican lay theologian, C.S. Lewis, has been vindicated: “There never has been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world.” History changes, humanity does not.


How can one characterise Humanae Vitae? Max Horkheimer, the only thinker of stature in Germany at the time who had a positive word to say about the encyclical, sums it up: contraception is the death of eros.

Love and fertility are inseparable. When man, on his own initiative, separates what God has joined, the result can only spell disaster. But to experience the gift of married love while respecting its creative potential is to acknowledge “that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by God” (HV 13).

Periodic abstinence fuels love. Numerous couples have experienced the truth of this. They know too that God is at work in the conjugal act. In the words of Paul VI, “In love there is more than love”. To protect that truth, among others, the Successor of St Peter promulgated Humanae Vitae 50 years ago. It was, and is, prophetic.

“No prophet is acceptable in his own country” (Luke 4:24; cf. John 4:44). One could add, or in his own time. Like Elijah, the Pope had in fact taken on the world single-handedly. He also warned of the dire consequences of rejecting his teaching. They have all, sadly, come true [see HV 17]. Why?

Underlining modernity is atheism, and its attendant rejection of anything we might call human nature. Jean Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, who stood behind the students at the barricades in the 1960s and stands behind their successors, the terrorists and the liberal reformers, who want to change the world to suit their respective ideologies, said: “There is no such thing as human nature because there exists no God to think it creatively.”

Instead man is condemned to be free, to choose his own values, to make the world in his own image and likeness. Free choice is the only absolute and ‘conscience’ alone decides what is right or wrong. This is the ultimate justification for all the ‘pro-choice’ movements (feminists, gay rights activists, pro-abortionists, advocates of divorce, IVF etc.).

If no human act is intrinsically wrong, morality is reduced to a calculus of consequences. If there is no objective moral truth, relativism rules supreme, the law has no foundation and the result is the rule of the strong over the weak: the poor and oppressed, those in the womb or on the edge of the tomb.

Pope Paul VI had touched the nerve of a whole spectrum of fundamental questions concerning human life and behaviour, as well as the nature of the Church and theology. This is not surprising, considering the fact that the subject of the encyclical was ‘the transmission of human life’, that unique act whereby a new human being, body and soul, comes into existence.


A new human being is a new universe, one that will last for ever. There is nothing greater in the created order. The act whereby this creation may occur is one designed by God himself. To ignore his design written into that act is to reject God, whether one is aware of this or not.

When man, of his own initiative, separates the unitive significance of this act from its procreative significance, he is usurping the place of God. Is it any wonder that our churches are emptying?

God chooses the weak of this world to confound the strong, St Paul said.

A weak, frail, old man, Pope Paul VI stood, almost alone, against the powers of this world. Conscious of his unique responsibility for the teaching of Christ, he carefully listened to every argument and, as the Successor St Peter, obedient in conscience only to God (cf. HV 6), spoke the truth in love to a world clamouring for freedom. But the truth alone can make us free.

Truth is always inopportune.

Fr Vincent Twomey SVD is a lecturer in Moral Theology and former Editor of The Irish Theological Quarterly, Maynooth.