An Unfortunate Document

Twenty years ago on a summer Saturday during a Pre-Cana wedding retreat, I learned the theological truth. After watching dreadfully old and sexist videos about marital communication and listening to a married couple discuss their relationship struggles, the nun hosting the event announced that our next topic was contraception. She did not get into a complicated or defensive theological debate. Instead, she said: “You all have received a copy of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae. Read it. Treat it as a stop sign, not a wall. After being informed, discern your options, pay attention to the issues it raises and decide what is best for your marriage.”

Anthony Padovano’s article “A Personal Perspective: A Theologian on Humanae Vitae in the last issue of Conscience magazine shares a similar theologically sound, pastoral approach to the one I received many years prior. But Padovano goes one step further, as he directly addresses the misconception that Humanae Vitae is an infallible teaching and invites the reader to consider the ways in which the encyclical is an “unfortunate document.” He notes that it elevated papal authority over the consensus of the faithful—a history many current lay Catholics do not know. Such an ecclesial move rarely benefits the sustainability or growth of the church.

The lack of consensus among the faithful is borne out in the divide between the encyclical and the lived reality of most Catholic couples’ contraceptive decisions (data shared in other articles in the same issue). Unfortunately, we must also reckon with the encyclical’s systemic consequences, such as the plight of those affected by restrictions on condom distribution—and by teaching against condom use in cases of HIV infection—based on the words therein. Additionally, the health and lives—not to mention potential economic contribution—of many women have been threatened by continuous childbearing when access to contraception is not available. It is an “unfortunate document” indeed!

We need more people like Anthony Padovano—open, educated religious leaders who will speak plainly about church teachings to support informed and well-formed lay decision making.

KATE OTT
Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics, Drew University Theological School
Madison, NJ

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