Is the Synod on Marriage & Family Pope Francis’s Humanae Vitae Moment?


Pope Francis is scheduled to beatify Pope Paul VI on October 19, at the conclusion of the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family. The timing is fitting as the two popes’ legacies could be forever associated based on how each dealt with their respective cultural crises: Paul VI and the sexual revolution, and Francis and the collapse of the family. Catholics are called to emulate those who have lived saintly lives, but we can also learn from their failings. While Francis may be inspired by his perception of the personal holiness of Paul VI, a study of his mistakes would benefit Francis the most in relation to the ongoing synod.

Paul VI famously reaffirmed the Church’s traditional teaching on contraception in Humanae Vitae in 1968, and the American Church reacted with widespread opposition. Even before the ink was dry, American theologians voiced their dissent, and many Catholics blatantly ignored the teaching. The negative reception to the encyclical was a low point for the American Church, and many lay and clerical leaders were in open revolt against the authority of Rome.

Given this reaction, it is surprising that Paul VI had actually done nothing new in restating the Church’s long held opposition to contraception. If the pronouncement had been issued ten years earlier, it would have been a non-event. Society had changed drastically from the 1950s to the 1960s, and the Church had changed with it.

Underlining the reaction to Humanae Vitae was a growing expectation of change. The Second Vatican Council had ushered in unprecedented transformations in the Church, and the liturgy — the main religious experience for most Catholics — was in the process of being dramatically altered. Many Catholics were wondering what was next, and whether sexual morality on the table as well.

There were also indications that a change was coming specifically regarding Catholic teaching on contraception. After “the pill” was approved for use, touching off the sexual revolution, Pope John XXIII initiated the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control – a small group designated to investigate the morality of artificial birth control. Later, Pope Paul VI enlarged the size of the commission from six members to seventy-two. The vast majority of the commission recommended rescinding the ban on contraceptives, and when their report was leaked to the press in 1967, the expectation of a reversal on the Church’s position skyrocketed.

In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI surprised many within the Church by going against the recommendation of the commission and soundly reaffirming the orthodox teaching on contraception. But beyond the clarity of the encyclical, the pope’s actions after its promulgation left the door open for dissent. In the press conference for its release, Monsignor Lambruschini declared, “It is not infallible.” Paul VI, in a letter to German Catholics, wrote, “May the lively debate aroused by our encyclical lead to a better knowledge of Gods will.” These ambiguous statements and others like them emboldened dissenters. The story of Father Charles Curran, who led the protest in America, is well known, and in his prepared document, he referenced the commission and challenged the teaching authority of the encyclical. The Canadian bishops in their “Winnipeg Statement” allowed for the use of contraception according to an individual’s conscience. Pope Paul did little to address these challenges; discipline was rare and irregular.

In sum, the revolution over Humanae Vitae was not due to the pope prohibiting the use of artificial birth control. The backlash caused by Humanae Vitae happened because the majority of Catholics expected the ban to be lifted and it was not. The reaction would have been far more muted without the “Spirit of Vatican II,” without the commission, without a long delay, without the irregular enforcement. It was a crisis created within the Church.


Pope Francis is currently treading a similar path to Paul VI. Like Paul VI, Francis is considered a pope of change, and the expectation for reforms under his pontificate is growing exponentially. Up to this point in his papacy, his “changes” have been symbolic: the washing of non-Catholic’s feet, living in more humble setting than the apostolic palace, marrying couples who are already cohabitating, and the like. Progressives are clamoring for more concrete changes. Countless articles are demanding in bold headlines: “Pope Francis Bring Us the Future Church,” and seek for help “getting rid of medieval practices of self-punishment, emotional and sexual denial, and the glorification of suffering as a means to attain Heaven’s blessing.”

Prior to the synod, the pope asked national bishops’ conferences to survey Catholics on Church teachings related to the family, such as contraception, same-sex marriage, and divorce. This push for a more democratic and open Church has only augmented the demand for action. Not only do a majority of Catholics desire change, but now they also expect it. Responding to a recent survey, 51 percent of Catholics believe priests will marry by 2050 and 56 percent think that the Church will allow birth control.

Admittedly, Francis has not altered Church teachings thus far, yet many ambiguous statements can be found in his off-the-cuff comments in interviews and phone calls. Many point to his famous “who am I to judge” remark, which they saw as a shift in the Church’s stance on homosexuality. It was not, but out of context, multiple interpretations could be made of the statement. Beyond the pope, high ranking clerics are pronouncing more directly troubling statements. Cardinal Kasper has repeatedly suggested reversing the Church’s position on the reception of communion for those divorced and remarried outside the Church. He is hardly alone. Bishop Nunzio Galantino, the secretary general of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, publicly supported Kasper’s proposition. Bishop Leonardo Steiner, the secretary general of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference, has made favorable remarks regarding same-sex unions. Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp proposed a host of challenges regarding the morality of contraception, premarital sex, and divorce in a recent open letter on the synod. The list goes on.

The reaction to Humanae Vitae was a disaster, and in part, Paul VI was to blame. I believe Francis is following down the same path. Noted Catholic commentator Damian Thompson, was quite blunt in his recent assessment: “The Vatican Synod of Bishops on the Family begins on Sunday amid a degree of chaos unprecedented in recent Catholic history. And I’m afraid it’s the Pope’s fault.”

Why was there a worldwide survey? Why are Church leaders “studying” these issues? Why is Francis encouraging dissenting sentiments to grow? Why is Cardinal Kasper given the front stage? Why is the question of admitting those living in adulterous relationships to communion even on the table? Especially, if in the end, no doctrinal change will take place? Once again, the current crisis is a product of the pope’s own actions.

I believe, though it is hard to know for certain, that Francis hopes to win wayward Catholics over with process. He wants everyone to know that their voice is being heard, that bishops and cardinals can speak freely, and that every viewpoint will be considered. Yet, this was all tried in the 1960s under Paul VI, and it did not work. It is unlikely mere process will be any more successful today. So far, it seems clear that the synod is dividing the Church, not uniting it.

Pope Paul VI and Francis are not identical. They are different popes in different eras. Francis is considered by many to have unmatched personal charisma, and popularity is beyond question. In terms of orthodoxy, it is arguably the case that the Church hierarchy and laity are more faithful today than they were in the 1960s, particularly the younger generation of Catholics. It is my hope that Francis will learn from the mistakes of Paul VI and curb the wild speculation surrounding the synod.

We need not fear that the Church will change her doctrine. The Holy Spirit would not allow it. But Humanae Vitae showed us that doctrine can be technically reaffirmed while praxis is almost universally changed – simply by allowing the wrong people to sett expectations and control the story. Lacking enforcement, Humanae Vitae never accomplished what it set out to do. It refuted the sexual revolution, but it did not defeat it.

Here we are, forty-six years later, and the damage done to the family being dealt with in Rome this week is largely a product of failing to follow the teachings of that most significant encyclical of Pope Paul VI.  Is the synod a Humanae Vitae moment for Francis? Will poorly-managed expectations result in a return to widespread dissent and the troubled Church of the late 1960s?

Only time will tell.


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