Soho is famous as London’s sleazy district. There are some excellent restaurants and pubs and some quaint old streets worth exploring. But there’s a sad and lonely side: prostitutes and clubs darkened windows, a faint air of menace that mingles with the pounding beat from clubs, seeping into the crowds sauntering along past the souvenir shops at the shabbier end of nearby Oxford Street.
It really is the last place you’d expect to find a celebration for the anniversary of a great papal encyclical. But here, in Soho Square, all this spring and summer, young Catholics have been marking the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae.
Remember the fuss when that encyclical came out? The TV interviews, the headlines, the massive dissent, the lists of priests signing letters to newspapers announcing their disagreement with the papal teaching? Forty years on, things are a bit different: in Britain, there has largely been silence. Many of those who were prominent dissenters have long since left the Church. Others have died. And among the Church leadership, there seems to have been an assumption that it is best simply not to discuss the subject at all.
But a new generation of Catholics is taking a different approach. To young people who have grown up in a Britain where abortion is rife, sexual promiscuity is regarded as the norm, and marriage is treated as a minority activity, the voice of the Church— speaking through Paul VI in prophetic tones—sounds a note of extraordinary freshness.
To those who have never known anything but a Britain where successive governments have used public cash to promote artificial contraception on a huge scale, and where the breakdown of family life and human relationships is a reality for all to see, the message of Humanae Vitae is something that points to a radically different approach.
“The atmosphere at the upstairs room at St. Patrick’s, Soho Square, was electric. People were standing on the stairs, sitting on the food counter, crammed in anywhere they could find a space.” Father Timothy Finigan has been one of the speakers at the “Love and Life” series held at St. Patrick’s Church to mark the Humanae Vitae anniversary. A lecturer at Wonersh, the Southwark diocesan seminary, a London parish priest, writer, and broadcaster, with an academic background in Oxford and Rome, he was invited by Father Alexander Sherbrook, parish priest at St. Patrick’s, to be part of the team speaking at what has turned out to be a major event in Catholic London.
Father Finigan was impressed by what he found. “My talk was a straight from the shoulder account of not only why Humanae Vitae was right but why Catholic teaching on sex, love, and the family offered a clear way out of the moral confusion that confronts young people in Britain today. The questions afterwards were intelligent and challenging but by no means hostile, and it was quite difficult to get away afterwards since so many of the young people wanted to continue talking about this crucial moral teaching.”
Father Sherbrook is perhaps not surprised by the enormous popularity of the talks. The series is the latest of several parish initiatives that began with meetings for young people under the title “Catholicism for the Curious” a few years ago. St. Patrick’s is an old church with a proud history—it dates back to a time when Catholics were just emerging from years of active persecution after the abolition of penal laws at the start of the 19th century—and a great tradition of mission.
The talks are linked with evangelical outreach to the local area—Corpus Christi processions, an SOS Prayer Line, and groups going into the streets and squares to sing, pray, and talk about Christ—and a range of other activities, all centered on prayer and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
“Yes, we’ve been getting good crowds,” Father Sherbrook says thoughtfully. “This message, about honesty in human love, is something for which people are hungering. There’s no doubt that they want to know about it.”
Speakers during the year have included lay people and priests, especially those with specialized medical, theological, legal, or other knowledge. The big issues have been tackled, the ones from which some Church spokesmen sometimes seem to want to shy away. “Aids, Condoms, and the Catholic Church”; “Searching for a Teaching Authority”; and “Contraception and Homosexuality” are some of the topics listed. Bishop Alan Hopes, auxiliary in Westminster, has been among those speaking, along with professor and Daily Mail writer Dr. Jaqueline Laing, Westminster pastoral work director Edmund Adamus, and Southwark diocesan vocations director Father Stephen Langridge.
So why hasn’t any other major organization in the Church in the United Kingdom done anything about the 40th anniversary of this major encyclical, which caused such headlines when it first came out and has a message that hits right at the heart of our current social and moral chaos?
“In England, we are certainly capable of arranging high profile events,” says Father Finigan. “The recent lectures in Westminster Cathedral are a good example—major public figures offered a platform, slick advance publicity, a prestigious venue, and a large audience. It would have been a golden opportunity to present the Catholic faith with confidence to the people of Britain today. Sadly, we had Tony Blair, the director general of the BBC, the archbishop of Canterbury, and a woman rabbi of a liberal synagogue instead.”
“To be honest, one gets the impression that many senior figures in the Church are not all that confident about promulgating the teaching of Humanae Vitae. In his biography of Archbishop Worlock, Clifford Longley described the policy of silence that was established and said that it became ‘a silence difficult to break.’ I think this is still the case in Britain.”
Mrs. Nicole Parker runs the London Fertility Care Center, which offers information and advice on natural family planning, from an office linked to St. Patrick’s in Soho Square. She has become a popular speaker at marriage preparation groups, her work having greatly expanded since it first began just a few years ago. Reactions to her talks range from the intrigued to the stunned and amazed, but are rarely if ever hostile. “They mostly simply haven’t heard this before—they are fascinated and want to know more,” she says. “Sometimes you could hear a pin drop as they listen to this information.”
By a tragic coincidence, Britain also marks another 40th anniversary this year—the passing into law of the Abortion Act. Passed by parliament in 1967, it became law in April 1968 and effectively permitted abortion on demand. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children marked the event with a series of events across Britain, including a vigil in London’s Parliament Square, during which women who had had abortions spoke of their pain and regret.
“This is a tragic anniversary,” said Rab McDonald of SPUC. “We had some 50 events to mark it—including pro-life chains with people holding hands in silent vigil at various places. The event in Parliament Square was followed by a short prayer service at which we commemorated the children lost through abortion during these 40 years, and the women who have been damaged and wounded.”
A nationwide campaign under the theme “Silent No More” has been organized by women who have suffered after abortion. Perhaps the slogan could also be used by those seeking to spread the message of hope offered by the Church’s vision of life and love, as taught in Humanae Vitae.
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