Humanae Vitae 45 Years Later: Is it still relevant?

Dissenters and Living Martyrs

This week marks national NFP Awareness Week as well as the 45th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae. The final installment of this series honors those clergy who stood up in the face of dissent.

History is worth repeating. On the 25th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae, a story[1] of the courage and humility of Archbishop J. Francis Stafford described the surrounding days, weeks, months, and years after Humanae Vitae. On the 40th Anniversary, Cardinal Stafford updated the original story[2]. It is obvious that dissenters are still among us. Acceptance of contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs are the norm among large elements of the clergy and laity within the Catholic Church, and religious freedom can no longer be taken for granted. On this 45th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae, it is worthwhile to re-consider the impact of the dissenters and the charitable response by today’s living martyrs.

Humanae Vitae was issued on July 25, 1968, and on July 30th, rebellious clergy had gathered over 200 signatures from prominent theologians and Catholics on a petition of dissent that was published in the New York Times. It was a “pivotal day in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.”

A week later, Father J. Francis Stafford was invited to attend a meeting in the basement of a rectory in Baltimore with 54 of his fellow priests. “The meeting was led by several priests from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and some local diocesan priests. Each attendee was asked to sign a statement of dissent that would be published the next day in the Baltimore Sun. The leader of the group, a former marine and a master of persuasion and intimidation, ‘minced no words of his expectations’ of the group. There would be no time for discussion. They were to sign on the dotted line. One after another signed. Finally, this young priest was all that stood in the way of a document of unanimity. He stood firm. He didn’t sign. He said to his fellow priests that he didn’t sign for two reasons: (1) he had not read the document (and he also noted that none in the room, including the leaders of the group, had read it), and (2) he agreed with Pope Paul VI.