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“Humanae Vitae” and the sensus fidelium

Research shows that only about 13 percent of Mass-goers disapprove of contraception. Does that mean Humanae Vitae is wrong?

St. Albertus Church in Detroit (CNS photo/Jonathan Francis, Archdiocese of Detroit)

In the half-century since Pope Paul VI published his encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirming that contraception is always wrong, opponents of the teaching have frequently focused on  “reception” and “sensus fidelium”—the sense of the faithful. The argument from “sensus fidelium” takes public opinion as an indicator of whether a teaching is true. “Reception” is shorthand for saying a teaching must be validated by having a majority “receive”—that is, accept—it.

There are differences between the two, but where Pope Paul’s encyclical is concerned, both boil down saying most Catholics don’t agree with it, so it must be wrong.

People arguing this line against Humanae Vitae cite polls showing Catholic approval of contraception. For instance: two years ago a Pew Research study found that even among those who attend Mass every Sunday, only 13 percent thought artificial birth control was wrong.

That settles it, no? Sorry, but it doesn’t.

The reception/sensus fidelium argument assumes that the acceptance or rejection of a teaching by the mass of Catholics reflects the action of the Holy Spirit. But not so long ago an overwhelming majority of American Catholics agreed that contraception was wrong. Looking at the numbers in 1963, sociologist and novelist Father Andrew Greeley, later a bitter critic, said Catholics “accept the Church’s teaching with a vengeance.”

Now, if “reception” and “sensus fidelium” were correct, we’d have to conclude either that contraception was wrong before the encyclical but acceptable after it or else that the Holy Spirit changed his mind. But both explanations are absurd. We need a better reason for the shift.

And in fact there is one—at least, in the United States. Starting after World War II, efforts began to bring about radical change in American attitudes on sex. This campaign included not only Planned Parenthood, but foundations like Ford and Rockefeller and wealthy individuals like John D. Rockefeller III, as well as academic institutions and elements of the media.

Some of the efforts were aimed at the federal government—successfully, with the Johnson and Nixon administrations pushing government promotion of birth control as a population-limiting anti-poverty measure at home and abroad. And some was targeted at the Catholic Church, with collaboration from within by Catholic individuals and groups.

By the mid-1960s this campaign had converged with the development and marketing of “the Pill,” an oral contraceptive that made birth control simpler than ever before, and with a raging cultural revolution—largely a sexual revolution—by then sweeping the United States and countries like it.

And so the stage was set for Humanae Vitae. After long delay and in the face of mounting pressure for change, Pope Paul issued his encyclical, only to be greeted by an immediate chorus of dissent. The encyclical didn’t stand a chance.

All this is documented in book-length studies that include Donald T. Critchlow’s Intended Consequences (Oxford, 1999) and, on the Catholic side, Msgr. George Kelly’s still-indispensable The Battle for the American Church (Doubleday, 1981). They spell out how it was that, as Critchlow says, by the 1980s “a liberal sexual culture had been created” in America.

“Reception” and “sensus fidelium” have roles to play in the process by which the Church articulates its faith, but not as polemical weapons against the Magisterium. After 50 years of attacking Humanae Vitae, the opponents need to address this question: In view of the cheapening and coarsening of sex in this time, the rise of the hookup culture, the vulgarization of popular entertainment, and much else, is it possible Humanae Vitae got it right?

About Russell Shaw 168 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide and the highly acclaimed American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.

6 Comments

  1. Janet Smith’s voluminous work on Humanae Vitae and GEM Anscombe in rigorous argument against contraception have yet to be answered.

  2. I’m beginning to wonder if that number might not start to be higher. I’m a married church attending millennial with two children who have been attending all our lives, and somehow I never get these surveys. It just seems that if church-going millennials retained faith and practiced through college, they tend to accept Church teaching about this.

  3. Averages show 90% married Catholics in Am higher W Europe use contraceptives. Russell Shaw proposes the wide use of contraceptives if presumed indicative of reception theory and Sensus Fidelium cannot contradict the Magisterium. That is where it should end since Sensus Fidelium must include the entire body of the faithful. It’s well known the Pontiff initiated a study on change to Humanae Vitae based on premises in Amoris Laetitia. He recently sanctioned a study including members of the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences 2018 G Marengo Citta del Vaticano titled La nascita di l’enciclica Humanae Vitae. Sandro Magister reported that to the surprise of many the Pontiff’s appointed chairman of the Institute theologian Pierangelo Sequeri came out against changing the findings of Paul VI reiterating at the U of Milan that it is an “unjustifiable practice that procures and imposes artificial sterilization on the conjugal act”. At that the wisdom of changing binding doctrine seems moot particularly if a vast majority use contraceptives. Let me put it this way. If we were to devise a means to further erode the belief of Catholics in the permanence of Catholic doctrine this would be it. It’s high time for resolution of this growing anomaly and for Hierarchy to directly approach the Pontiff.

    • Dream on. The pipe who has ignored and derided the Dubia to AL resolving any matter of faith or doctrine? His entire pontificate is based in moral theology in the primacy of subjective (erroneous) conscience and the situation ethics it entails.

    • “Shaw proposes tge wide use of contraceptives…” I think you have stated the opposite of what Shaw proposes. This article supports HV.

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