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On July 29, 1968, Pope Paul promulgated his seventh encyclical, Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), which condemned all methods of contraception on the grounds that it is an attempt to violate God’s natural laws. The decision is reflected by a distinct minority of Catholics, and it created an unprecedented storm of protest and dissent among both the Catholic laity and hierarchy. Millions of Catholics, including priests and even bishops, declared that they could not accept, without qualification, the teachings of Humanae Vitae, but in the same breath stated that their disagreement would not affect their standings as Catholics. Thus, a more basic issue than contraception emerged, that of Catholic freedom versus authority.

Priest-Sociologist Andrew Greenly in a column in U.S. diocesan newspapers quoted a bishop as saying that there are two Catholicism’s — an “official church” belonging to the Pope and hierarchy, and an undefined “free church,” consisting of a large number of dissenting laity and priests. Other officials suggested that the church is suffering from a “silent schism” of rebels who are remaining Catholic in name but are “hanging loose” from the institutional church. The “silent schism” became rather overt and noisy during the regular semi-annual conference of Catholic bishops in Washington. On the day before the bishops met an unruly crowd of 3,500 laymen rallied at the Mayflower Hotel, led by one of the nation’s most prominent Catholic laymen, Senator Eugene McCarthy. Later, about 100 priests staged a sit-in in the lobby of a Washington hotel, conducting silent vigils, gospel sing a-longs and rallies to illustrate the need for a liberal pastoral letter from the Bishop Convention.

Solemnly confronted by their own internal divisions, the bishops labored in lengthy sessions, some lasting until four a. m. to produce a pastoral letter that would pacify the dissident constituency. They finally issued a statement which, while urging faithfulness to the pope’s teaching, made clear that U. S. Catholics who practice contraception will not be barred from the sacraments. “No one following the teaching of the church can deny the objective evil of contraception itself,” the bishops said, “With pastoral solicitude we urge those who have resorted to artificial contraception never to lose heart but to continue to take full advantage of the strength which comes from the sacrament of penance and the grace, healing, and peace in the Eucharist.” Comparison of the first and final draft reveals little change and indicates that the debate, although intense, touched on points of phrasing and emphasis rather than deep doctrinal differences. The point of tension seemed to be between theological accuracy and pastoral solicitude. As one bishop put it, “We deliberately tried to strike a neutral chord which was orthodox but open.”

The apparent success to this approach surprised even the bishops, who insisted that they did not intend to produce a liberal document. The dissident priests, however, found enough assurance in the implication of the letter to declare their position vindicated. One bishop summed up the disagreement by saying that “the current hangup on contraception tries to make it a special sin — unlike other sins. This error can easily be erased by pointing out that the preaching of marital chastity, like temperance and the other ideal moral standards, presupposes that no one is a saint all at once.”

By issuing an encyclical that is simply not acceptable to a large segment of the Catholic church, Pope Paul has inadvertently raised the question of papal authority, one which has been raised many times in the past and one which will be raised countless times in the future. The Catholic church is again realizing the gross blunder and error of the papal claim to monarchic supremacy. One Catholic liberal claims that “We have the structures which fit a theology that is no longer accepted, but we don’t have the structures to fit an emerging theology.” Valid or not, the liberals seemingly have had their fill of prohibitory pontificating. But if the Catholic church continues to strike those neutral chords to lull dissenters, they will soon realize that theirs is a sonata of inevitable contention which no amount of improvisation can ever harmonize.