Plan for this must-cover Godbeat item in 2018: The 50th anniversary of 'Humanae Vitae'

Rightly or wrongly, most papal encyclicals land in newsrooms with a thud.

But there were no yawns in 1968 when Pope Paul VI issued his birth-control edict “Humanae Vitae,” which provoked a global uproar inside and outside his church.

Retrospectives will be a must item on reporters’ calendars around July 25, the 50th anniversary of this landmark. News angles include a monthly series at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University to rethink the doctrine, which started in October and runs through May 24. The listing (in Italian) is here (.pdf).

Paul declared that Catholicism, “by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” The Pope believed this fusion of the “unitive” and “procreative” aspects in marital acts is mandated by “natural law” as defined by predecessor Popes Pius XI (1930 encyclical “Casti Connubii”), and Pius XII (1951 “Address to Midwives”). Paul concluded the recent development of  “The Pill” changed nothing.

Though the pope said priests were bound to support this teaching, many joined lay Catholics and Protestants in opposing the church’s “each and every” requirement. Pope John Paul II later supported predecessor Paul, and recently so did Pope Francis, though with a twist

Key themes for reporters to assess:

First: Many analysts argue that the wide-ranging dissent on the birth-control pronouncement has weakened the church’s over-all moral authority.

Second: Paul reaffirmed couples’ purposeful limitation of births by avoiding sexual relations on fertile days. Traditionalists say this “rhythm method” or “natural family planning” has become far more reliable since 1968, countering the old jests about “Vatican roulette.” True?

Third: Catholic conservatives also contend Paul was correct, indeed  prophetic, in warning that widespread contraception “could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” Much there to pursue.

Fourth: Nagging biomedical worries about hormones in The Pill are newly reinforced by research reported Dec. 7 in The New England Journal of Medicine. Physicians have generally thought the lowered doses in current prescriptions overcome the danger of breast cancer as a side effect.

The December report involved the first mass study of lower dosages, monitoring all women of child-bearing years in Denmark. Compared with non-users, they showed a cancer increase  of 13 per 100,000 “person-years,” or approximately one added case per 7,690 women using The Pill for a year, with  higher odds for longer usage. The New York Times called this “a small but significant increase” in cancer risk. Chances of cancer also increased for those using intrauterine devices (IUDs) that include hormones. 

Fifth: Just after “Humanae Vitae” appeared, Paul Ehrlich published his influential “The Population Bomb,” which predicted a global “population explosion” would cause hundreds of millions of people to starve to death in the following two decades. Instead, a troublesome “birth dearth” has emerged, at least in Europe. Papal biographer George Weigel says “Europe is contracepting itself into demographic oblivion.”

An average of 2.1 children per woman of childbearing age is needed for a stable population, whereas the 2014 average across the European Union was only 1.58. Sixteen nations fell even below that low average, with strikingly low fertility in Catholic nations like Italy (1.37), Poland and Spain (1.32), and Portugal (1.23).  

Reporters will want to get reacquainted with Father Charles Curran, a key dissenter ousted at Catholic University and now teaching moral theology at Southern Methodist University. Quotable defenders of the church’s stance include Mary Eberstadt of D.C.’s Faith & Reason Institute and Janet E. Smith at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.  

 (Journalistic aspects: In 1967, the National Catholic Reporter unveiled the secret report from the Vatican’s advisory commission with its lopsided support for change on birth control. In 1968, Time magazine’s Rome bureau scored the worldwide scoop on the  release and contents of Paul’s long-awaited encyclical.

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