A Crisis of Authority: Humanae Vitae 50 Years Later

In the spring of 1968, almost three years after the Second Vatican Council closed, hope was still high that artificial contraception would no longer be considered a mortal sin. Rumors circulated that the committee studying the matter would advise the Pope to lift the prohibition. Reputable moral theologians were also purporting a lifting of the ban. Certainly some confessors were advising couples based on these expectations, influencing some to contracept.  Then on July 29, 1968, a veritable bombshell was dropped from the Vatican: in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI had retained the prohibition against artificial contraception.

The following day, Catholic theologians, in a political act, publicly rejected the encyclical, running an unprecedented advertisement in the New York Times.  The ad proposed at least three things, according to Ralph McInery’s What Went Wrong With Vatican II: The Catholic Crisis Explained: 1) Pope Paul VI had “flunked theology”;  2) the Pope had no right to “dissent” from his own commission or their opinions and that his function was to go with the vote — the “witnesses”; and 3) for the encyclical to be infallible, it must be specifically declared as infallible.

Crisis of Authority

Since the Council and Humanae Vitae, there has been a mass exodus of priests, religious, and laity from the Church, continuing today with 76% of baptized Catholics not attending Sunday Mass regularly.  The Council was supposed to spur the greatest renewal the Church has ever seen — so McInerny rightly asks, “What went wrong?” (p. 13). He answers that in telling “the faithful that, according to Vatican II, they may safely ignore the Pope as moral teacher and may follow their own consciences, formed according to advice the dissenters are giving…the dissenting theologians have… whipsawed ordinary Catholics between competing authorities and have done untold damage to the Church.” (pp. 145-6)

In short, the dissenting theologians have set up the laity to believe they are choosing between arguments, when in fact they are choosing between authorities.

Over 200 theologians signed the advertisement, setting up a highly successful model of an alternate magisterium that still creates confusion amongst Catholic laity on many matters of faith.  In a 1999 Time/CNN poll, 86% of Catholics “found it possible to disagree with the Pope on an article of faith and still be a good Catholic.” According to a Pew Research poll from 2013, a majority of Catholics think the Church should change its teachings on birth control (76%), priests should be allowed to marry (64%), and women should be allowed to be priests (59%).  The dissenters come from both the conservative and liberal factions of the Church.

Did Anyone Read The Documents of Vatican II?

It becomes apparent, however, that liberal dissenters advocating the “spirit of Vatican II” could not read!  What the bishops finally voted on and the Pope promulgated did not, in fact, set up a democratic Church!  Even if they could, church democracies don’t work, as the exponentially fragmenting Protestant churches display.  Yes, the Bible is infallible, but interpretations are not!

The Vatican II documents are clear on the issue of papal authority:  “The college or body of bishops has for all that no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff….For the Roman Pontiff,…has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (Lumen Gentium, no. 22).

Further, the dissenting assertion that Catholics can ignore the Church’s teaching unless the Pope speaks ex cathedra (infallibly) is also clearly refuted by Lumen Gentium (25): the submission of our intellects and wills [as an exercise of our free will], must be given to the bishops and especially the pope “even when he does not speak ex cathedra.”

It is clear the dissenting theologians have either not read the actual passages from Vatican II, or they are willfully opposing Church teaching.  In the end, the laity suffers the most.

The Vatican’s Response to the Dissent

The dissent has become institutionalized, infecting the entire Catholic educational system.  Almost every Papal document since 1968 has been judged, criticized, and marginalized.  And though the Vatican has responded patiently and clearly, all its efforts have been dismissed.


“Since Catholicism is something we receive rather than invent, authority is absolutely essential to it.”  (p. 147)  It is inconsistent for Catholics to reject the Pope’s/Church’s teaching yet consider themselves Catholic.  The Catholic Church is not a democracy.  In my opinion, the authority of the Pope and the Magisterium function as the immune system of the Body of Christ—and a healthy immune system must reject what threatens the body.

In the name of the “spirit of Vatican II,” the apparently illiterate dissenting theologians have set themselves up as an alternate authority/immune system.  But confusion has reigned long enough! Don’t be illiterate!  Men, read McInery’s What Went Wrong with Vatican II, or better, Humanae Vitae and the Documents of the Second Vatican Council.  Freely submit your intellect and will to the Church’s 2000-year-old-Christ-instituted authority!

Dave McClow


Dave McClow, M.Div., LSCW, LMFT, is a Clinical Pastoral Counseling Associate with the Pastoral Solutions Institute who provides tele-counseling services to Catholics internationally (check us out at www.exceptionalmarriages.com, or call to schedule an appointment:  740-266-6461).  For over 25 years he has served in many capacities in the mental health and addiction fields.  He is the founder of two text ministries for men: “Faith on The Phone” and “Fasting on the Phone” for Rekindle the Fire’s men’s group and is active on its central core team. He and his wife converted to the Catholic Church in 1996.  Since 1999 he has catechized 7th and 8th graders in the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana.  He is currently developing a comprehensive Catholic vision of masculinity that he believes will be an integral and leveraged component of the New Evangelization.

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  • Pax

    So what are we to do about it? Sacrifice and pray is a good start. challenges those who dissent where reasonable and possible. Also a good choice. Anything else?
    I suppose, just like Arianism the lord will eventually burn the heretics out of his church, but what else can you do meanwhile.

  • John Palmer

    Is Mr. McClow disturbed by the dissenting opinions of Humanae Vitae or is he really talking about Amoris Laetitia? Pope Paul VI was clearly on the side of traditional Church wisdom and taught morality that was inspired by the Holy Spirit! He didn’t give in to the sexual revolution and the Spirit of the Age! But, what are we to do (aside from prayer and fasting) for a Vicar of Christ who does give in to the Spirit of the Age and waters down or violates the truths handed down through the Church since the time of Christ? What did the faithful do when the Arians held sway in the Church for a short period of time? Vat. II didn’t ask us to blindly surrender our intellects and wills to the Magisterium. I read most of the Vat. II documents, and what is clear to me is that a large number of our Bishops and Clergy violated the intent of the documents with liturgical, architectural and artistic novelties that were never intended to be implemented. The diminution of the Liturgy and the Protestantization of our Churches has led to a lack of solemnity, a lack of proper worship and a general malaise in the Church. That is why people have left the Church! Now, add to this the confusion of Amoris Laetitia and tell me what the faithful are supposed to do! Social re-engineering is going on in the Church today, and the Bishops and clergy who should be standing up to it are silent or complicit!

  • Dave McClow

    McInerny does not think argumentation will help, help states that it is a change of heart that we should pursue. I think this is true to some degree, but it is disappointing.

    I think becoming informed and living the the truth out in the domestic church which is the hub for the social justice activity (which I was a little stunned by when I recently learned it), and I would add it needs to be the center of evangelization. Share it with your friends and neighbors!

  • Dave McClow

    I was thinking about Humane Vitae and not Pope Francis. Certainly there is confusion and that is frustrating. Cardinal Burke states that the post-synod exhortation needs to be read in light of tradition. Fr. Raymond de Sousa has some interesting thoughts on the exception footnote in paragraph 8 that make sense in reading things in light of tradition to me:

    Only then do the guidelines speak about the situation — presumably
    for couples where one party is not a Christian or is not practicing the
    faith — where abstaining from conjugal relations is “not feasible.” The
    situation foreseen here is apparently that of one party desiring such
    abstinence, but the other refusing and threatening dire consequences in
    the absence of conjugal life. The first party then agrees to sexual
    relations against his or her will, for example, to preserve the welfare
    of the children.

    In such cases, the practicing Catholic party may not be guilty of
    serious sin and could therefore, in some cases, be admitted to the
    sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist. This case, it should be
    noted, could be treated in such a manner even before Amoris Laetitia,
    according to application of the standard principles of moral theology
    and confessional practice, analogous to the determination of the moral
    culpability of contraception when the spouses do not agree.


    People leaving the Church…

    It must be an issue larger than the change in Liturgy because we have the Latin Rite restored in almost every diocese, but they are not the growing parishes.

    I think a larger part of the problem which is reflected in “the diminution of the Liturgy,” is the loss of the sense of transcendence and the stress on immanence in our culture which I think leads to an untenable individualism and relativism’ I get to chose my truth. But this is a theme that the Supreme Court in 1992 decision Casey vs. Planned Parenthood has spoken on: at the “heart
    of liberty” is to “define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the
    universe, of the mystery of human life.”

    I am sure there are other reasons as well.

  • James

    The Catholic Church was in a no-win situation.

    The moral arguments against contraception are strained at best, but to change the position would compromise the authority of the Church.

    As a more practical matter, prohibiting contraception would ensure that the Church would continue to grow the old-fashioned way. It makes no sense to prevent an arithmetic loss (dissenters walking out) by giving up exponential gains (more little Catholics). While I think Pope Paul VI underestimated the levels of dissent, the math will eventually prove him right.

  • John Palmer

    I understand the example you give above, but I don’t believe it can be honestly argued that it is an exception to the rule according to our moral theology. The children whose welfare you’re concerned about are already collaterally damaged. They have to live and grow with the knowledge that their parents are living in a perpetual state of adultery, according to the very words of Christ. A subsequent threat of “dire consequences” by one party doesn’t erase the original sin of the second marriage. The guidelines are clear in this situation. The grey area you are suggesting is strained and calculated. The couple has to live as brother and sister or they must dissolve their association or they must each (as applicable) seek the nullity of their original marriages. Anything else constitutes a selfish denial of the very words of scripture, the words of Jesus himself.

    Concerning people leaving the Church, you are right, the Liturgy isn’t the only cause, but it is, in my experience, the most significant reason. It is the main reason that my five siblings don’t go to Mass any more. In a study, from an article I read recently (sorry I don’t remember where), the researchers indicated that the most common excuse for Catholics not attending Mass anymore was that they “Didn’t get anything out of it.” In fact, I think Father Mike Schmitz spoke about this in a recent video of his. This lack of proper understanding of “worship” has led to a huge number of Catholics not believing in the ‘real presence’ anymore. So, they are in fact heretics, who are subject to the ravages of “indifferentism.” And, yes ‘relativism’ is a huge problem for a lot of these fallen-away Catholics. I tried to talk to one of my sisters a while back and she ended the conversation with: “What’s right for me is right for me, and what’s right for you is right for you.” How do you argue with inane, puerile words like this?

  • Pax

    I understand what you are saying. still my heart aches over it.
    I am but a worm, a commoner and the princes of the church call up the fire of hell from below. What can I do but watch and prey while it consumes them and so many around them. I keep praying and take whatever action He guides me towards. There doesn’t seem anything else that can, or perhaps even should be done. Still, my own helplessness, make me feel like a small babe screaming as their mother holds them tight and shields them from some fearful beast.