Humanae Vitae and the Sensus Fidelium


July 6, 2015

“In matters of faith the baptized cannot be passive.”
~ International Theological Commission

“Easter is a big deal at St. John’s,” Doug Barnes observes about his church. “It’s like the second-biggest deal behind Christmas.”

If you remember your Catechism, you’ll know that Barnes is dead wrong—at least from a theological and liturgical perspective. Easter (Alleluia! He is risen indeed!) is the high holy day for Christians, which is why it’s stretched out into an eight-day feast that blossoms into an additional six weeks of Easter “season.” Moreover, the Resurrection permanently altered the Christian calendar by shifting the Church’s Sabbatarian observance to Sunday, thus making every Sunday a mini-Easter.

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Yes, Barnes is way off—and just who is this Barnes guy anyway?

Barnes is no theologian. Rather, he’s the youthful narrator of Dave Barry’s Christmas book, The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. In other words, he’s just a kid, and a fictional one at that, but he has a point: Liturgical theology notwithstanding, Christmas cleans Easter’s clock.

You know it, I know it—there’s no getting around it. The clergy can clamor, catechists can cajole, and liturgists can lament, yet Easter simply can’t compete in popular terms. It seems that, on every front—culturally, commercially, even spiritually—Christmas has captured the imagination of the masses. By comparison, Easter finds itself relegated to a relative liturgical backwater, and has become for many merely a super-charged Sunday with bunnies, bonnets, and extra chocolate.

Alright then, the people have spoken: Christmas is #1, right? Chalk one up for the sensus fidei fidelium—the “faithful’s sense of the faith”—and let’s swap that paltry “twelve days of Christmas” for Easter’s full-on fifty-day revelry so that yuletide gets the attention it deserves!

Needless to say, that’s not how it works. “It is clear that there can be no simple identification between the sensus fidei and public or majority opinion,” the International Theological Commission wrote. “These are by no means the same thing.”

To begin with, what is embraced in society at large has no prescriptive bearing on what the Church ought to be teaching. “Opinion is often just an expression, frequently changeable and transient,” the Commission wrote, “of the mood or desires of a certain group or culture.” Faith, on the other hand, is about truth, and truth is not democratic, especially with reference to the caprice of social trends, political movements, and the latest hot-topic band-wagons.

And what applies to society in general applies to the Church as well, for just because somebody identifies as Catholic doesn’t mean he or she thinks with the Church on controversial matters of doctrine and morals. “In the history of the people of God,” noted the Commission, “it has often been not the majority but rather a minority which has truly lived and witnessed to the faith.” The sensus fidelium is not a poll, but rather a plumb line that confirms a direction already established.

Recall St. Athanasius, for instance, who held firm to orthodoxy when it seemed like all of Christendom was going over to the Arian heresy. Having endured persecution from emperors and episcopate alike—including five different exiles totaling 17 years—Athanasius saw orthodoxy triumph at the Council of Nicea, and afterwards he acquired the nickname Contra Mundum, “against the world.”

Athanasius’ perspective on faith and truth—that dogma is not a popularity contest—flies in the face of today’s rampant raw relativism, and not just among those formed by Western, Christian values. Here’s a notable example from NPR that caught my attention: “No religion, whether it’s Islam, Christianity or any idea based on scripture or texts, is a religion of anything, really,” asserted Muslim scholar Maajid Nawaz on NPR. “It’s—you know, Islam will be what Muslims make of it.”

Catholicism, however, is well known for rejecting religion by the numbers, and there’s no better illustration of this than Humanae Vitae and Pope Paul VI—a latter-day Contra Mundum duo. It was 1968 when the Holy Father issued his encyclical describing the inseparable connection between sexuality’s unitive and procreative meanings, and reiterating ancient Christian proscriptions against birth control—right when the West was in the throes of the Sexual Revolution. Everyone but everyone was expecting the Catholic Church to finally “get with it” and dump the old rules—pretty much every other branch of Christianity already had. Besides, married Catholics had taken to birth control in the same numbers as the general public by that point, and even their pastors seemed to be ambivalent about the practice, both in the confessional and outside it.

Nonetheless, Paul VI was unequivocal in his affirmation of the Church’s teaching on marital intimacy and openness to life, and he did it without apology. To be sure, Humanae Vitae acknowledged the hardships and challenges that some might experience in order to stay true to the teaching, but there was no attempt to rationalize self-destructive rebellion. “He looked to the peoples beyond,” Pope Francis said of Paul VI. “He saw the lack and the problem that it could cause families in the future.” Speaking in the Philippines, where a majority of Catholics embraced birth control, Pope Francis went on to say that Paul VI had been “courageous. He was a good pastor, and he warned his sheep about the wolves that were approaching.”

It’s noteworthy, then, that Pope Francis follows Paul VI’s lead in his new encyclical, Laudato Si’, and refuses to kowtow to the contracepting majority—a majority that sees birth control as both essential and eminently responsible. The Holy Father strongly affirms the necessity of caring for the environment, but he links concern for the earth to a sane concern for humanity. “Everything is connected,” he repeatedly asserts throughout the encyclical, and that means an ecological consistency that respects natural law when it comes to human life. Quoting John Paul II, Francis points to the consequences of ecological inconsistency:

Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature” (#117).

Despite suggestions to the contrary, the Church isn’t going to change her teaching on birth control. At the same time, Catholics in huge numbers still either don’t know that teaching, don’t understand it, or simply choose to ignore it. Of course, this isn’t a new problem—remember that Humanae Vitae came out in 1968, almost 50 years ago. Nonetheless, there’s a sudden urgency today because of rapid shifts in public opinion regarding the nature of marriage itself. The Church sides with history in affirming marriage in both its meanings: a couple’s love for each other and the potential for loving others into existence as well as creating the best circumstances in which to care for them. The fact that a majority of Catholics are oblivious to this wisdom, as enshrined in Humanae Vitae, goes a long way to explain why they might be ill equipped to defend traditional marriage and its privileges. For “if Catholics have never been taught the Church’s teaching,” Janet Smith writes, “isn’t it more likely that they have been formed more by the culture that surrounds them than by their Church?”

What to do then? In short, we need to get the word out but quick—and we can’t wait for the bishops or the clergy. Their reluctance to unequivocally and unabashedly affirm Humanae Vitae over the decades has helped create the current mess: a Catholic laity so utterly confused on these essential matters of life and love. And for the splinter minority of Catholics who aren’t confused? Let’s just say it’s not been easy to stay the course in the face of widespread ridicule and demoralizing marginalization, even within our ecclesial home.

Yet stay the course we must, and particularly these days we should be emboldened to make Humanae Vitae better known, although I’m not talking civil disobedience here. No doubt, that may come, but no need to rush it. Instead, here are a few alternative suggestions that are perhaps just as radical.

  1. Don’t contracept. Your marriage will be stronger, your ability to talk about chastity with your kids will be enhanced, and your conscience will be clear as you take Humanae Vitae to the streets—which leads me to suggestion numbers two and three…
  1. Teach Humanae Vitae. Whenever you get a chance. Teach it to your children right alongside teaching them about the Facts of Life (when developmentally appropriate, of course). Talk with your teens about birth control—about what they hear from their friends and at school, what they pick up in the news and on social media—and be clear, unapologetic, and confident. Teach it in CCD and ask for it to be taught in Catholic schools. Finally, ask your pastor—ask your bishop!—to make Humanae Vitae the centerpiece of pre-Cana workshops. Too often, this marvelous, beautiful teaching on marital intimacy—including the warnings about birth control—is tagged on to pre-marriage instruction as an appendix or afterthought. Instead, it should constitute that instruction’s very core.
  1. Be a Humanae Vitae missionary. Buy a case of Humanae Vitae and pass them out—with a smile. When I first read Humanae Vitae as a twenty-something convert, it was a revelation—and a revolution! I wanted to share that same epiphany with as many folks, Catholic and otherwise, as I could, and so I was delighted to find out that the Daughters of St. Paul published a small pamphlet edition for a mere 25¢—remember that? I used to buy them by the box and distribute them to people willy-nilly and with great joy. It made me so happy because I was sure they’d be surprised what they found, and that they’d at least be persuaded that the Church’s teaching made sense, even if they couldn’t accept it.

On that last point, you could argue that it would be much cheaper—even free!—to just forward online links to Humanae Vitae, especially since printed copies have risen in price from two bits to a buck or more. However, consider the difference between an “e-card” and an actual greeting card—is there any comparison? We routinely ignore our overflowing email inboxes, but when you get a physical letter in the mail, aren’t you eager to open it? It’s like the extra effort involved in non-electronic forms of communication entitles them to greater attention and consideration.

Plus, a real smile has it all over an emoticon, and if you personally put copies of Humanae Vitae in the hands of folks, you can attach a bit of your own buoyant poise—a grin, in other words, from ear to ear! This is terrifically good news, after all, and you get to be the messenger. It’s almost like, well, Christmas—and you can be an angel passing along the good word. Alleluia!


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