Just the Beginning

The cardinal served as moderator of a panel discussion called “From Dissent to Acceptance: Realizing the Full Riches of Humanae Vitae.” Catholic theologians in Washington, led by Catholic University’s moral theologian Father Charles Curran, signed a letter of public dissent from Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical on human sexuality, which Paul VI would later call one of the two greatest accomplishments of his pontificate.

That day in 1968, Cardinal Stafford said, was “the pivotal day in the life of the Catholic Church” in the United States this century. At the time the encyclical was released, Cardinal Stafford was a priest and director of Catholic Charities in the Baltimore Archdiocese. He recalled how the wave of dissent swept from Washington to Baltimore.

On Aug. 4 of that year, he said, a small but well-organized group of priests called a meeting in the basement of a parish rectory in Baltimore to convince 54 of their fellow priests to publicly dissent from Humanae Vitae. Their objective was to publish a statement the next day in The Baltimore Sun.

Father Stafford was the last in line to sign the statement. All of his fellow priests before him had signed the letter of dissent. He refused, saying that he had not read the encyclical and that he agreed with the Church’s stand against artificial contraception. He encouraged the other priests in attendance to at least read Humanae Vitae before publicly dissenting.

Cardinal Stafford said his refusal to publicly dissent from Church teaching led to increased isolation and abuse from other priests, not only in Baltimore, but in subsequent episcopal assignments in Memphis and Denver.

In Dallas last week, R. Scott Appleby of Notre Dame was one of two laypersons who spoke by invitation at the opening session of the bishops’ meeting. In his address, Appleby, who is not known as a conservative, said the Church’s current sexual crisis began with the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae. A large majority of American Catholics, he said, rejected the ruling, and a large majority of American bishops (and priests) declined to defend and promote the teaching. This event, Appleby said, marked the beginning of the bishops and the laity living in bad faith.

Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World Report magazine, agrees with Appleby’s analysis. The bishops have “looked the other way,” Lawler said. “Over the years the habit has become ingrained. On one issue after another — contraception, homosexuality, abortion — bishops have developed the practice of looking the other way, papering over the gap between teaching and practice. Meanwhile, the ordinary Catholic faithful became accustomed to this mode of behavior, so that they began to view bishops as distant, abstracted figures. And so we come to today's scandal.

“Yes, the path leads back to Humanae Vitae,” Lawler said. “If we wish to address the fundamental causes of today's distress, we cannot avoid that history.”

“Anybody who thinks the Friday vote on the sex-abuse policy will be the end of the matter is dreaming,” said the National Review’s Rod Dreher. “The battle for the Catholic Church in America has only just begun.”

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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