Letters to Pope Francis explaining their experiences in response to the Pope’s invitation before the family synod October 2014

These letters were channeled through the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research

1. Connie Marks

November 9, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Sex for a Catholic?!
If you mean by that term the loving intimacy and the joy of physical union …. er ….. it simply didn’t exist for my husband or me! Any pleasure which could have been early on in marriage was killed off by Ogino Knaus and his Rhythm Method! If my memory serves me correctly!!! the only time a woman is ‘on heat’ is at the time of ovulation. The times in between she does her ‘duty’ but with no pleasure at all. It was no comfort to know that our sex life complied to the letter with the Church’s teaching on contraception and the dark evils thereof!

We Catholic women were docile idiots to go along with the rhythm method. By the time Humanae Vitae came along in 1968, I’d been married for 6 years and had had 3 children and 2 miscarriages. My best friend was married in 1962 the same year as I was and by 1968 she had 6 children, one a year since her marriage. She chose to be sterilized after two ensuing miscarriages and told me she was simply too mentally and physically exhausted to go on having babies because rhythm wasn’t working. O sinful woman, daughter of Eve. Off with her head.

Humanae Vitae changed everything. A week after its publication, my husband, a stocks and shares expert, looked at the financial pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine and said “No Change!”. I asked, what he meant, and he told me Bayer and Schering shares had remained constant. Bayer and Schering were the two pharma companies producing the Pill in those days. In other words, Catholic women who were already bold enough to be taking it hadn’t stopped buying it because of Humanae Vitae.

After it became known that the Pope’s two Vatican placemen on the international papal commission who voted against the 19 (I believe) other members of the commission who had voted in favour of a change to the Church teaching on contraception, Catholic women woke up! Catholic publications were crammed with women’s reports of their own experiences and there was a deluge of criticism of the failure of the Church to support them.

Large numbers of intelligent, thinking Catholic women took a corporate decision in those days, some of them took longer than others, but they took it: to ignore Catholic teaching and lead their sex lives guided by their own wisdom and instinct.

Did the world fall apart? Absolutely not. Were Catholic women less stressed and fearful of the next pregnancy? No longer. We were all popping the magic Pill! Did marriages fall apart? Some did, most didn’t …. of that generation it has to be said.

Some Catholic women, good mothers often with a gaggle of children, had extra-marital affairs secretly. I know of none who ever regretted doing that!

None of us wanted to be disobedient Catholics. We loved our church. What we didn’t love and ultimately rejected outright was the power of a celibate priesthood – many of whom we knew had ‘boyfriends’ – to tell us what to do in bed (or for that matter on the bear rug in front of the fire!).

There are thousands of celibate priests in Rome and elsewhere who continue to support the ban on contraception. Well, all I would recommend is to put them all in a big hall together and make them listen to someone reading Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt which makes Oliver Twist’s poverty-stricken life in the workhouse seem like a cosy alternative.

Some people I know are doing terrific work trying to change the minds of our Catholic leaders. I thank them from the bottom of my heart. But one thing is certain. No Pope, however committed to the poor and magnanimous of heart is going to allow the words of a woman to change anything at all. Don’t forget the words of St John Chrysostom: “Amongst all the savage beasts, none is found as harmful as woman”. And what about the revered Aquinas? “Woman is an occasional and incomplete being, a misbegotten male.” Or St John Damascene: “Woman is a sick she-ass …. a hideous tapeworm …. the advance post of hell”.

The cardinalate still believes all that in the depths of their dark hearts.

If it were not for my conviction that the fullness of all human knowledge about Jesus Christ was not deposited in the Catholic Church, I’d have said toodle-oo decades ago.

This tape worm ends her testimony with a note on Angela’s Ashes.

The McCourt family lived in Limerick when the author was a boy. He had 7 siblings but three further babies died in their poverty stricken home with walls dripping with water and no toilet. Did any Pope ever care a jot? ….. I do ask some stupid questions, don’t I?!

2. Fran Grubert

November 18, 2013 at 10:56 pm

The institutional church has a very ambiguous attitude to sex. The idea that you have to renounce it to be a “man of God” really undermines claims that sex is beautiful and God-given. Most people get the overriding impression that the “Church” disapproves of sex in general and considers all sexual sins as equally terrible.

I remember as a very young girl, reading the story of Saint Maria Goretti. The way it was written led me to believe that a person who was raped would be guilty of the sin of having sexual intercourse outside marriage. If you didn’t resist unto death, the message was, you hadn’t really tried hard enough to protect your “purity”.
You may think that I was very silly and I was! However, I honestly think that there is still an element of that attitude around.

I think ths has had terrible consequences in cases of clerical abuse because the abused have been made to feel dirty and as though they have somehow caused or colluded in their abuser’s sin. That made it easy to write them off or swear them to secrecy.
I’m sure that the negativity about sex and the desire to keep up the show of “holy celibacy” contributed to the “cover-up” culture. I am sure that some clergy have still not got the message that sexual abuse is evil because it is abuse, not merely because it is sex.

3. Anne Tracy

November 19, 2013 at 12:20 pm

I am an average middle-class, middle aged English catholic. I have 3 grown up children. All of them lived for several years with the partners they were eventually to marry, as do most young people in this country. In each case the decision to marry came after making sure, through living together, that the relationship was strong and likely to last. When they were sure, they decided to marry and have children. To limit the size of their families they use contraception, seeing this as the responsible way to live. Among my many Catholic friends I find this is the usual pattern. The result of church teachings is that my children feel themselves separated from a church which views their best and most intimate relationships in cold and unrealistic way. Their view is that celibate priests simply do not know what they are talking about.

4. Mary

November 22, 2013 at 2:07 pm

I found out yesterday that the priest who married me and my husband 22 years ago, the priest I had idolized as a first grader, was indicted for public indecency, soliciting sex from an off duty police officer, and failing to inform said same that he was HIV positive. Some are assuming he’s an abuser because he is gay. Some are calling for the end of priestly celibacy. Some are simply praying for him. I remember him as a young man who was joyful, warm, a wonderful and compassionate homilist, and a passionately creative and talented liturgist. I know of another view that the tradition of expecting a person to be mature enough to freely choose a life of permanent celibacy adolescence or young adulthood permanently stunts that person’s psychosexual development. I will never take seriously the church teachings on sexuality until its clergy are not mostly made up of immature, inexperienced and privileged men who shouldn’t be trusted to balance a checkbook, much less exert such control over anything or anyone. It’s been proven over and over again that women who can control the number and timing of their children’s births, and thus gain more overall self determination, are able to take better care of the children they have. I do not think twice about using reliable and safe methods of birth control, nor has any doctor I’ve ever gone to in my entire life.

5. Don Henderson

November 23, 2013 at 12:55 am

This statement challenges the Church to find a new foundation upon which to build a theology of sexuality. I am suggesting that marriage was not the focus of many of the scripture writers. Rather, being human authors with no experience of any encounter with a Triune God, they missed the divine revelation that connected the creation of humanity with the Trinity: God created humanity in the image and likeness of God. In the image and likeness of God he created him; male and female he created them. I suggest that our sexuality was that unifying force that binds humanity “so that man does not live alone.” As the three divine persons are bound into a perfect unity by the bonds of faithful and eternal love, so the attraction leading to a commitment between human persons BECAUSE OF THEIR GENDER is what enables humanity to be in the image and likeness of the Trinity.

We see this attraction throughout creation, and sometimes the sexual attraction leads to frenzy among animal species and sometimes it leads to lifelong and monogamous commitment. among others. I believe that this sexual attraction transcends gender; sometimes it is between opposite genders and sometimes it is between the same gender, as we also see reflected in the other species of creation. Allowing for the mutations that come with evolution, there emerges into the human consciousness that human children need the complete and longterm nurturing of their parents to achieve full and mature adulthood. Thus marriage becomes an ideal and its necessary characteristics emerge. I’m not a theologian, so I can’t explain all of this either clearly or completely, but I urge those who are theologians to pursue this line of theologizing in the spirit of “Faith seeking understanding.”

6. Grace

November 8, 2013 at 6:37 pm

It seems incredible to me that an organization like the Catholic Church hangs on to outdated teachings in our own day and age. Where is the intelligence of our leaders? The Church still forbids contraceptives, a prohibition which the vast majority – and I mean VAST majority – of Catholics rightly ignores.
I am taking my grandchildren to church at times. That is: when mass is said by a sensible priest. I would hate them to have to go through the same trauma I and my husband went through so many years ago . . .
Coming from a family of eight (!) children myself, I had seen all the misery that it brought to my mother and the hardships we all had to undergo by lack of resources. Two of my brothers could not finish college because my parents could not afford to pay for their education. They sighed with relief when one of my sisters got married early on. Now if WE had to struggle like that, and we were not the poorest of the poor, what about so many other Catholic families who are even worse off?
Total abstention from sexual contact is not the answer. It goes against the nature of a loving bond between husband and wife.
When my own husband and I took the decision to limit our family through proper planning, it created much anxiety and guilt. Fortunately we met an understanding priest who worked as chaplain in my husband’s school. He visited us one night and put our consciences at peace. We used contraceptives.
Why is our Church – or should I say: why are our leaders? – so obsessed with a ruling that goes against the very heart of our Christian belief in God as Love?
So I pray that the Pope, the bishops and Vatican leaders will come to their senses and rid us of this unnecessary baggage.

7. Sean Larkin

November 8, 2013 at 7:52 pm

I married someone who is not a Catholic. She is Anglican. After the wedding I discovered I was in for real trouble. The Church of England has no objections to the use of contraceptives, and what my wife told me about it made sense to me. On the other hand the Benedictines who had taught me drummed into us that no contraceptives were ever allowed.
I tried to abstain. It didn’t work.
Eventually I started using condoms but when I went to confession I was told I had committed a mortal sin. It left me confused. I used condoms again and in desperation went to see our Catholic parish priest another time. He was adamant. He refused to give me absolution unless I promised to give up artificial birth control. I was in shock. In fact I left the confessional there and then.
When I had simmered down and discussed matters with my wife, who was very understanding, I decided to go to the Anglican service on Sundays. And we still do. We go together. My three children were all baptised in the Anglican Church.
Why am I writing this? Perhaps I am still a Catholic somewhere. “Once a Catholic” and all that.

8. Ann

November 9, 2013 at 7:58 pm

I married a heathen who respected my religious beliefs although he thought that most of them were rubbish. After ten years of marriage and eight pregnancies we both agreed that the ban on contraception was ruining my health and our marriage.
Although still a practising Catholic I have come to my senses but none of our children (although baptised) consider themselves Catholic.

9. Hilary Peachey

November 11, 2013 at 9:11 am

We used NFP for several years, resulting in 3 more-or-less planned pregnancies, the third of which was a severely disabled boy, who sadly died aged 17 months. After that, we consulted various people and tried to continue with the NFP, having another well-planned child the following year, but as by that time I had had 3 Caesarian sections, we were advised to have no more children. We continued to use a combination of NFP and condoms, but I nearly died from a miscarriage a couple of years later, and then became pregnant for a 6th time, upon which I was offered an abortion. Refusing this, I went to see my parish priest, to talk about sterilisation. He told me this was gravely sinful, and a mutilation of my body, and said our only option was to live as brother and sister. I thanked him for his advice, and after the baby was born, thankfully without too much difficulty for me, I had the sterilisation. We have continued to receive the sacraments, though I don’t go to my parish priest for confession.
A review of the discipline on family planning (by which we mean contraception) is long overdue. I know of at least one young woman who refuses to become a Catholic, though drawn to it by her husband and children, because of the Church’s attitude.
Catholic couples know that it is the health of the whole family, couple and children (if any) together, and so they ignore the rules made by ‘celibate’ old (and young) men, and rightly so.

9. Jos

November 12, 2013 at 4:51 pm

I have a brother with four children who tried to depend upon Natural Family Planning as he wanted to remain a good Catholic. The result was more children than he wanted with all the pressure that this brought to their relationship and finances. The method just does not work.

Also it takes no account of what the ordinary person thinks sexual intercourse is about. For them it is love making not primarily children making.

10. Elisabeth Price

November 12, 2013 at 4:54 pm

When I was a nurse in the Middlesex Hospital in the 1950s I met a devout Catholic patient who had had five stillbirths at six months’ gestation. She was there waiting for the current foetus to die so we could induce a stillbirth. The obstetricians seeing the enormous emotional and physical strain this was placing upon her, advised sterilization. Her parish priest told her to live as brother and sister with her husband. She said to me: “But I am his wife not his sister!” My question was not whether sterilization or contraception was wrong for her, but if, as her comment implied, sexual intercourse is intrinsic to the relationship of marriage, what right any cleric had to forbid it.
I soon found out by buying Pius XI’s Casti Connubii and Pius XII’s Address to Midwives. This latter document admits that there are times throughout a marriage where for good reason procreation should not occur, but states that “heroic abstinence” should be practised. He also pours scorn on the idea (para 43) that intercourse has an emotional meaning for the couple!
I was overjoyed to hear there was a Pontifical Commission sitting on Birth Control, and read in the Tablet and other Catholic papers that the Vatican II bishops were redefining marriage as a covenant not a contract, and had admitted (in contradiction to Pius XII) that intercourse had a unitive as well as a procreative meaning.
I was totally appalled at the publication of Humanae Vitae, particularly when I heard that none of the Commission, including the Minority Dissenting Four could state why contraception was contrary to Natural Law. I was married to a barrister (died Nov. 11th 2012 after 51 years of marriage) – this may have made me even more shocked at a Pope, purporting to be a leader of morality, who could condemn an act where its guilt could not be proven. Any secular judge doing this would be summarily sacked!!
Later I obtained a copy of the Minority Theologians’ Working Paper which had persuaded Paul VI to write HV. They admitted that the sinfulness of contraception was not clear. However they stated that “If contraception were declared not intrinsically evil, in honesty it would have to be acknowledged that the Holy Spirit in 1930 (the year of Casti Connubii), in 1951 and 1958 (Pius XII’s Address to Midwives), assisted the Protestant Churches and that for half a century Pius XI, Pius XII and a great part of the Catholic hierarchy did not protest against a very serious error, one most pernicious to souls, for it would thus be suggested that they condemned most imprudently, under pain of eternal punishment thousands upon thousands of acts which are now approved”.
(Yes indeed that is why I have protested ever since.) In secular law, if new evidence comes to light proving wrong conviction, then if guilt is not squashed on Appeal, loss of faith in the legal system would follow. This has surely happened. I pray Pope Francis will right that wrong.
I knew from reading Robert Blair Kaiser’s The Encyclical that Never Was that many married people had given evidence about the difficulty of living their intimate lives round thermometers and calendars, and that at the end of the Commission 16 bishops were added to its number. These voted on the evil or no of contraception. 9 voted it was innocent, 3 abstained, and only the Curial 3 voted it was to continue to be declared evil. If the whole of the Vatican II bishops had been allowed to vote there is no doubt at all that HV could never have been written! Alas as in other matters the Curia who had been outvoted in the Council, remained in the Vatican and have worked ever since to reverse the wishes of the Majority!
I hope I will further shock people by another quote from that Minority Four, this time attempting to pour scorn in the evidence of the married couples given to the Commission of the need for frequent intercourse in marriage. “This psychological good can be obtained in some other way, which is something the contraceptive theory is always silent about because conjugal love if the love is genuine is above all a spiritual matter and requires no carnal gestures, much less at some determined frequency. Consequently the affirmed sense of generosity and absence of hedonism are suspect when we find the intimate love of the whole person between a father and a daughter and a brother and sister without the need of carnal gestures.”
Who were these so-called theologians specializing in marriage questions who could talk such nonsense, fit to pass judgement on married people – yet these were the ones Paul VI heeded.
I then bought Noonan’s Contraception. He was the Historical Consultant to the Pontifical Commission, and this tome written in English is a thorough and comprehensive analysis of the understanding of sexuality throughout the ages.
The physiology was flawed. Until the ovum was discovered in 1845 the sperm was thought to contain the whole embryo – the future human being -, so coitus interruptus and male masturbation where seen as killing some person already alive, and therefore were condemned as homicide.
Furthermore intercourse was seen as a seed implanting exercise, and since no farmer seeded a field twice, intercourse in pregnancy was seen as mortal sin.
The psychology was equally flawed. Augustine who wrote the theology of marriage which was quoted 13 times by Pius XI in Casti Connubii, had lived in fornication with a slave and saw the sexual magnetism between man and woman as the pull of lust resultant upon the Fall, causing people to abuse the physical pleasure put in the act to ensure that procreation occurred. This idea still appears in the Catechism of the Catholic Church par. 1607: “At the Fall the relationship of marriage ceased to be a relationship of love and understanding and became a relationship of domination and lust”. Gen 3,16 is quoted to support this, however the semantics are flawed! “You shall be subject to your husband and he will have dominion over you”
Domination and dominion are two entirely different concepts. I can happily say that “The Lord Jesus has dominion over me”, and to a lesser extent so did my husband. Neither of them dominate!
Reading John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, I found all Augustine’s theories about original sin wrecking marriage, even his suggestion that a husband can commit adultery with his own wife if he feels undue sexual desire for her.
Where to turn for help? Matt. 19 4-6 is surely Jesus Christ revealing the truth about the human sexual instinct. It impels young people to leave the parental home, seek a spouse to whom they cleave for life and that “they shall be one flesh (have intercourse) and therefore are no longer two but one flesh – what God has joined together let no man put asunder”. Does this mean, or does it not, that the initial and continuous purpose of intercourse in marriage (and the sinfulness of its abuse in fornication and adultery) is to render the couple no longer two separate individuals but partners in a mysterious whole created by God?
I have looked everywhere in the teaching of Pius XI, Pius XII, Paul VI and John Paul II and nowhere is this text expounded in that way. If it can be used to ban the divorced and remarried from communion, I am hoping that one day it will undermine the whole of the flawed magisterial teaching which has caused such misery to so many married people down the ages.
I have written several letters in the Catholic Press, and received a strong letter of support in The Tablet from the eminent Irish moral theologian Fr. Sean Fagan SM. He has spent many years lecturing in many places including Rome and written several books. He said no one had cited Mt 19 4-6 as I had, and that this text was indeed pivotal. He wrote another book `What Happened to Sin” including this point. Cardinal Levada, then Head of the CDF, called the international Superior of the Marists to his office and told him to buy up all unsold copies of this book. If he refused to do so, he (an elected Superior) would be removed and a compliant person put in his place. Furthermore, if Fr. Fagan revealed this to the Media, he would be defrocked, as indeed he would be if he ever wrote or spoke again.
Is this Christian behaviour? It is more like the Communist and Nazi regimes under which John Paul II and Benedict XVI grew up. But can this awful teaching survive if it can be pointed out to be contrary to the teaching of Christ?
Hence I go on crying like the importuning widow in the Gospel who bangs on the Judge’s door at midnight.
I have written to the theologian teaching the theology of marriage at Wonersh who would not answer my repeated question: “Is intercourse intrinsic to marriage as stated in Mt. 19 4-6? If so has any cleric the right to demand its suspension in NFP?” He reported me to Archbishop Peter Smith for harassment! I have since written to the Archbishop asking for an interview and have not even received the courtesy of a reply to my request. However I think this teaching is so unjust, so damaging to souls, so destructive of the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church in the eyes of the world, that I will still battle on. I am hugely supported in this by Fr Fagan who is now 84, blind and in agony from arthritis. I wish Pope Francis would hear of his writing, admit its truth and re-instate him as a speaker of Gospel truth! It would mend a broken heart of one who has striven all his life to give pastoral care to those at odds with magisterial teaching on sexuality.
I have one further personal point to make. Abstaining for most of our honeymoon, I still returned pregnant. Miscarried at 10 weeks after ‘flu, had one period, and was pregnant again. We abstained for 3 months after our son was born. I then went to see the then safe-period expert. He told me to wean the baby. Then he would put me on the Pill to bring my periods back and we could then start on charts. I said I did not wish to wean the baby, so he said he could not help me! I continued to feed for 1 year, and never had a period – we had intercourse as we wished all that time. I then weaned Peter and had one period. I then conceived John and similarly breast fed him for a year. He was a strong minded fellow and would not be weaned. I cut his feeds down to 2 per day. I ovulated unbeknown and conceived again. I did not realize I was pregnant until my elder daughter started kicking me!
Research done in Edinburgh, Norway and the USA revealed that if a woman breast feeds for at least 10 minutes at least 5 times in 24 hours, the pituitary gland produces a hormone – prolactin, which suppresses ovulation in lactation. Of course here are departures from this norm. But I argue that this is Nature (the hand of God) preventing the arrival of a sibling when the infant is still needing the breast. Similarly the menopause stops a woman conceiving when her body is too old for childbearing. She is still capable of orgasm well into old age!
Yes in the man the unitive and procreative are one in the same act, but in the woman it is clear that the unitive function is continuous for her life, but the procreative is an occasional thing, prevented by Nature when necessary. What, I ask, is the difference between my regime of prolonged lactation to space my children and a bottle- feeding woman using the Pill? Ditto, is it not anticipating the sterility of the menopause to use contraception when the family is complete?

Alas we have mandatory celibacy which means sacramental experience is denied to the Magisterium and we have a theology of marriage as far removed from reality as a theology of the Eucharist might be when written by a non-communicant!

Forgive me for continuing so long, but I desire more than anything, as do many thinking devout Catholics, to change this teaching and I believe citing Mt.19 4-6 and the action of prolactin is the way to do it!
We also have in our marriage vow “To have” that means: to sexually possess. During negative times when conception should not occur – these vows have never been quoted by the Magisterium who happily tell us that we may not have each other at certain times of the month if conception is contraindicated in the aforesaid negative times.
I rebelled and we used condoms during ovulation after our fourth child was born.. A happy miscalculation gave us our third son!

11. Aaron Milavec

February 23, 2014 at 5:42 pm

Dear Elizabeth,

I hear your rage against the manufacturing of consent that emerged following Humanae Vitae. In your own wrestling with the issue, your pain and suffering come through to me. You have done the people of God a service in showing the soft and painful underbelly of Humanae Vitae.

My testimony [just below yours] gives more support.

As for the tyranny within the Church, you put it well:

Is this Christian behaviour? It is more like the Communist and Nazi regimes under which John Paul II and Benedict XVI grew up.

To be sure, the current climate of suppression of dissent within the Church has parallels with the way the Communist government in Poland functioned by way of keeping the Catholic population subservient during their years of misrule. Many, many people suffered. But, more than anything else, resorting to raw power eroded the very humanity of those who exercised it! In the end, the pressure for free inquiry and informed consent forced the Polish government to make more and more concessions. When free elections were again possible after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, those who engaged in the shameful politics of coercion for so many years were quickly isolated and removed from all public offices.

John Paul II was instrumental in overturning this tyranny that oppressed his beloved people in his homeland. How much more so should he have been instrumental in freeing the people of God from a tyranny that was fulminating within his new home in the Vatican.

Thus, we are now poised at a turning point. Either Catholics have to cave in to the bullying tactics of the hierarchy (led by the Vatican) or we have to diligently adapt non-violent strategies to thwart the abusive power plays that have caused untold suffering and to insist that our pastors return to the path of humility, accountability, and collegiality that was hammered out during Vatican II. We need only to remember John Paul II’s message to the Polish people: “Do not be afraid!” “Act as though you are a member of a free Church in a free State.”

My mind and heart are with you,

12. Aaron Milavec

November 12, 2013 at 10:24 pm

When Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae in 1968, he effectively challenged the confessional advice that many priests had been routinely giving in the confessional, namely, that any woman who had given birth to two children was free to use the birth control pill to prevent further pregnancies. Bishop James P. Shannon of St. Paul was so unsettled by Humanae Vitae that he even went so far as to stop hearing confessions altogether so that he would not be constrained to tell penitents something at odds with official papal teaching. But there was no escape. Here is his story:

Then he was visited [at the rectory] by a young woman… worried about her relationship with her husband. They had tried to practice the rhythm method of birth control, she said. But they had had two children in two years, they were poor, and they could not afford more.

The night before she went to see [Bishop] Shannon she had prepared a special dinner for her husband’s birthday, “wine, candles, the whole bit,” Shannon said. It was an act of love.

Her husband came home and saw what she had done, came up behind her in the kitchen and kissed her. But the fear of another pregnancy caught her. She fled to the bedroom, shut the door, and cried herself to sleep.

She went to Shannon because she wanted to use artificial birth control, to restore her relationship with her husband. Shannon remembers telling her, “Under the circumstances, you have a right to practice birth control.”

“Would the pope say the same thing?” she asked.

“Any pastor would,” he said, “and the pope is a pastor.

“She hugged me, and the tears ran down her cheeks,” Shannon said. “I’ve never seen her since.”[Reluctant Dissenter: An Autobiography (New York: Crossroad, 1998)]

The woman left with a joyful heart, but, in this case, the bishop left with the keen realization that he could not, under pastoral circumstances such as this, subvert his own hard-earned moral judgment by artificially mouthing the authoritative teaching of Paul VI. Like Martin Luther, he gave the pope the benefit of the doubt that he, too, would have acted as “a pastor” had he been visited by this woman. But then, like Luther, he realized that there was no place to hide—either he had to defend the right of women everywhere to decide when their circumstances justified the use of the pill or he had to admonish women everywhere that “every act of marital sex had to be open to conception.” Two months later, in November of 1968, Bishop Shannon resigned on the grounds that “he had become a problem for his superiors.”

From the very start, the absolute rejection of modern methods of birth control was met with stiff opposition among Catholics—both on the practical grounds of their own experience and also on the theoretical grounds that it enforced outmoded norms of human sexuality. The Winnipeg Statement represents the strongest episcopal opposition. “The purge” unleashed in the U.S. against dissenting priests and theologians was unprecedented.

The noted American moral theologian, Richard McCormick, SJ, observes that the coercive atmosphere in the Church on the issue of birth control does irreversible harm to the credibility of the magisterium as a whole:

By “coercive ecclesial atmosphere” I refer to a gathering of symptoms familiar to all. Bishops are appointed by ideological conformity. Theologians and bishops are disciplined [for nonconformity]. Obedience is demanded to all teachings. Judicial processes fail the criteria of due process. Consultation is secret and highly selective, [and includes] only those qualifying who agree with a pretaken position…

It was contended that the Church could not modify its teaching on birth regulation because that teaching had been proposed unanimously as certain by the bishops around the world with the pope over a long period of time. To this point Cardinal Suenens replied: “We have heard arguments based on ‘what the bishops all taught for decades.’ Well, the bishops did defend the classical position. But it was one imposed on them by authority. The bishops didn’t study the pros and cons. They received directives, they bowed to them, and they tried to explain them to their congregations.”

Coercive insistence on official formulations tells the laity in no uncertain terms that their experience and reflection make little difference. This in spite of Vatican II ‘s contrary assertion: “Let it be recognized that all of the faithful—clerical and lay—possess a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought, and the freedom to express their minds humbly and courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence.” If such humble and courageous expression counts for nothing, we experience yet another wound to the authority of the ordinary magisterium. The search for truth falls victim to ideology. [ Richard McCormick, S.J., “Theologians and the Magisterium,” Corrective Vision, Explorations in Moral Theology (Sheed & Ward, 1994, Chapter 7).]

In the end, what must we say regarding the conduct of Pope Paul VI after Vatican II? We must acknowledge that his absolute positions respecting indulgences, priestly celibacy, and birth control were taken without solid biblical exegesis, without informed historical studies, without wide consultation among cross-cultural experts, and without deeply listening to those suffering due to the authoritarian intransigence surrounding the issues at hand. We must acknowledge that he failed to implement the principles of collegiality and subsidiarity hammered out during Vatican II in arriving at these decisions. His failure as supreme teacher and universal pastor was consequently irresponsible and inexcusable. He should have known better. He should have acted differently.

Many Catholics think that a tyranny cloaked in the garb of Jesus can hardly be a tyranny at all. The truth, however, is just the opposite. The Vatican’s insistence that they are merely implementing the sovereign will of God as revealed by Paul VI fundamentally distorts the person, the teaching, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The impulse toward dissent within the Church is usually not a resistance to authority as such; rather, it is the repeated and flagrant abuse of ecclesiastical authority that is being called into question. Thus, it would be an act of fraudulent cowardice for those who know better today to continue to keep silence and to pretend that Paul VI somehow had the right to dismiss the findings of the Pontifical Birth Control Commission and to impose his own untested private opinions on the whole church for all times and in all places. He did not have the right to do these things then, and no pope has the right to do these things now.

13. Aaron Milavec

November 13, 2013 at 1:51 am

Given the exponential growth in the world population, the question naturally emerged in 1968 as to whether unchecked human growth is sustainable during the next hundred or two hundred years.

Many dismissed this on the grounds that there was ample space for housing developments nearly everywhere (even in Hong Kong); hence, the earth could easily sustain two to three times our present population. Pope Pius VI in Humanae Vitae agreed with this optimistic view of the future.

But now we know what we could not know in 1968. Four points and a conclusion:

#1 According to the United Nations, one in every five humans depends on fish as the primary source of protein. (United Nations, 2004) On the other hand, Marine ecologists fear that the biggest single threat to marine ecosystems today is overfishing. Our appetite for fish is exceeding the oceans’ ecological limits with devastating impacts on marine ecosystems. The cod fisheries off Newfoundland, Canada, collapsed in 1992, leading to the loss of some 40,000 jobs in the industry. The cod stocks in the North Sea and Baltic Sea are now heading the same way and are close to complete collapse. As population grows, the pressure for more and more effective fishing increases, and no government can, in conscience, limit the growth of industrial fishing so that sustainability can again be achieved. For this crime, we and our children’s children will suffer. . . .

#2 The story for oil shows exactly the same phenomena. Recently developing countries like India and China are legitimately moving toward increased industrialization to feed, clothe, and house their teeming populations. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2010 World Energy Outlook estimated that conventional crude oil production has peaked and is depleting at 6.8% per year. US Joint Forces Command’s Joint Operating Environment 2010 issued this warning to all US military commands “By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day.” (www) So no government is currently rationing oil products; rather, every nation is trying to out-produce everyone else so that their people can enjoy the luxurious lifestyle that manufactured goods promise. But who is speaking for those who will be living when the industrialized landscape has to begin shutting down due to oil depletion? For this crime, our children’s children will suffer. . . .

#3 Governments have admitted that acid rain is a serious international environmental problem and many countries have taken steps to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. But air pollution does not stop at national boundaries. As the industrialization of India and China moves into high gear, this pollution produces smog in their cities. This is the immediate effect. Meanwhile, these invisible poison gases enter the atmosphere and, much later, forests and fish living thousands of miles away are put at risk due to the falling of acid rain. Some of the most dramatic effects on forests have been observed in Europe. In 1983, a survey in West Germany showed that 34% of the country’s total forest is damaged by air pollution. This included about one half of the famous Black Forest. Switzerland, despite its careful management of its forest reserves, has recorded damage to 14% of her forest trees due to the pollution that originates outside its borders. For this crime, we and our children’s children will suffer. . . .

#4 Finally, scientists can measure climate change by studying the levels of CO2 in our atmosphere. As the atmospheric CO2 goes above 350 parts per million by volume, scientists have recorded the melting of ice sheets, rising sea level, abrupt shifts in forest and agricultural land, and increasing intensity and frequency of extreme events like floods, wildfires, and heat waves. But who is speaking up for the planet earth and the limitations on the CO2 levels that it can safely absorb? For this crime, we and our children’s children will suffer. . . .


So now, in view of what we now know, what should be our reaction to the “family planning” proposed by Francis I in the leading question that he offers us for our consideration:

Question 7 f. How can a more open attitude towards having children be fostered? How can an increase in births be promoted?

This question make my blood boil! The world population at the time when Humanae Vitae was published was 3.5 billion. Today’s world population is 7.2 billion. This is more than double. Let’s face it. Our Mother Earth CANNOT SUSTAIN another fifty years of reckless population growth.

Here is the question that a prophetic Francis I should be asking:

Question 7 f. How can a more open attitude towards childless couples be fostered? How can an decrease in births be promoted?

Not to make this change NOW is to blindly continue to disrupt the ecosystems of our dear home and planet. It is to put our entire future at risk. For this crime, we and our children’s children will suffer beyond all measure. . . .

This is the sin against the Holy Spirit for which there can be no forgiveness.

14. Pippa Bonner

November 18, 2013 at 7:59 pm

I am now in my 60s but still hold the views I had at the time of Humanae Vitae. I have given birth to 4 much wanted and loved children. I used contraception during my fertile years and never felt “guilty.” I relied on primacy of conscience.

There are contraceptive methods that are not abortifacient and that was a key consideration for me. I do not judge women who have had abortions but I am relieved I was never in the position to feel forced to seek one. (eg I was never raped.)I think the psychological legacy of having an abortion are underestimated.
I really struggle that contraception and abortion are often put together as though they are similar.

I ask the Pope to consider reversing the teaching on contraception. After all, the advice given to the Pope at the time was to permit it and the celibate, unmarried, childless (and fearful?) Pope did not take advice from those who had more knowledge and first hand experience. Why consult if he was never prepared to consider permitting it? The damage that decision made has been incalculable for those who did not believe they could decide on contraception for themselves or relied on priests who told them what to do, or husbands who were not considering the implications of a another baby or needed to show their potency by having another child when often there was not enough resources for that child to be fed and educated. With widespread HIV and worldwide poverty and hunger to insist on contraception seems morally wrong.

15. Marysia

November 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm

A Search for Married Spirituality

This is an edited version of a contribution to the book “Women Experiencing Church”, Publ. in 1991 by Gracewing. Not much has changed., except that for 30 years of marriage now read 50.

I have been married for more than thirty years. Looking back, I can see that during that time I have become a different person. This is normal, we grow and develop. But I have something other than development in mind. I shall try to look back at the person I had been, and follow the process of change in my understanding of the Church’s teaching on what concerns most of its members, that is on marriage.

I met my husband when we were still young. We were both very religious. We could not to marry yet, but we knew that if we did get married, it would be to one another.

During my convent schooldays I had read that greatest mistake one could make was not to be a saint. But, since God had brought us together, He must have wanted us to look for sanctity through one another. So we set out to look for sanctity in marriage. The method seemed obvious. If we looked to the Church for guidance, we could never go wrong!

Still in our teens, we read Casti Connubii together. We accepted the encyclical’s outright condemnation of artificial birth control. Surely we were intelligent and knew enough about the female cycles to use the calendar, or so called ‘rhythm method’ to control the number and the spacing of children. However, in spite of this self-imposed discipline, within a month I was pregnant. Our third daughter was born three and a half years after the first. Clearly this could not go on. We obviously needed more and better information and found it, at last, at the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council, who introduced us to the temperature method. We breathed more freely. The discipline began to show results, or rather lack of them. But there was no question of conceiving a child intentionally; we had to leave room for emergencies.

These are common experiences. Such case histories have been described countless times in connection with Humanae Vitae and in other discussions before and since. But the question of birth regulation, since it affects women so intimately, clearly shows the callous attitude of the official Church. A handful of celibate old men, wielding power, make inhuman rules for others, even though Christ had warned them against putting burdens on other people’s backs.

We survived. Many marriages broke under the strain of trying to follow that teaching, which resulted in either too many children or in a damaged relationship! Moreover, when a marriage broke up under such strains, the victims were branded as sinners.

In our Family Group someone asked a priest to give reasons for the ban on contraception. He glibly replied: “I hope you don’t mind if I change the question, and talk about divorce, which is also forbidden”. We listened in amazement as he answered the unasked question. “But that refers to marriages which are failing” we replied. “All marriages are affected by the ruling on contraception, and the more the couple love one another the more they suffer”.

I led a discussion on sanctity in marriage – our ultimate goal – and realised that there were no married saints. Men were canonised for reasons unconnected to their state in life. Women had to be “virgins”, “widows” or “martyrs”. I thought innocently that the Church had through oversight not noticed the heroic virtues practised by married people. Nobody knew enough to contradict me, and show the true reason for that imbalance.

While I was confined to the suburbs with the babies, My husband continued extra-mural lectures on moral theology at the Newman Association and sat the exam. Writing about the role of sexual intercourse in marriage he disagreed with St. Augustine, placing what he called “togetherness” first. He failed the exam, but we were glad to know that he had expressed what we both thought.

We joined a local discussion group known as “The Mob”. There I first heard the opinion, that the Church tried to force religious forms of spirituality on married people. We needed a married spirituality, and would have to create it ourselves. This was a revelation. At last I stopped hankering after the glories of the Easter Liturgy when small children had to come first, or feeling guilty about not getting to church more often. The clergy were adept at requesting a “come hither” Christianity, manifested in frequent church attendance. Now I saw it as irrelevant to my life.

Then I read “The Man-Woman Relation in Christian Thought” by D. S. Bailey and became aware of the misogyny of the early Fathers, of Augustine’s contention that sexual intercourse in marriage was at least venially sinful, and only acceptable as a means of procreation. That man’s reaction against his misspent youth and his resulting imbalance on sexual matters has weighed heavily on the Church, which still has not shaken itself free from it. Augustine lurks under many of the reasons advanced against women priests. A married Anglican Bishop, Dr. Graham Leonard, revealed his own subconscious and that of many other clerics, saying that if he saw a woman at the altar, his first reaction would be to take her in his arms. What can one expect, therefore, of celibate clergy?

The depths of nonsense the to which the Fathers descended, are shown by St. Jerome’s opinion, that the Jewish patriarchs would have preferred to fulfil God’s promise of expanding into a great nation without sex.. Woman was equated with sex, sex with evil. A woman could only achieve sanctity if she became male, suppressed her womanhood. The early Fathers would have created a better world than God had done. Burdened with this bias against half the human race, the Church in the Middle Ages forbade intercourse before receiving the Eucharist, and discouraged it in Lent, on Fridays, on the eves of Holidays and at countless other times. And I had set out to find sanctity in marriage, by relying on the Church’s guidance!

Bailey’s book was the first of many. Why had I not known the history of the doctrine of marriage in the early Church? The nonsense has never been repudiated. Church’s teaching was no more correct now, than it had been in those early ages. It was still permeated with Manicheism from the time of Augustine. Some changes have taken place, and no-one would dare to express quite the same crude opinions to-day, but the changes were resisted all the time by a celibate clerical establishment. Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors declared : “Whosoever should maintain that the celibate state is not higher than the married state – let him be anathema!” The establishment fought a rearguard action at every step, giving way only under pressure from undeniable reality.

I re-examined the Church’s teaching on subjects which affected my life as a woman and as a partner in a marriage. This re-examination was soon followed by the far greater one, that of the Second Vatican Council. We welcomed it as a long overdue rethinking of the Church’s teachings in many fields, including the one in which we had more experience than did the Council Fathers.

I am not talking only of birth control, but also of the disregard by the official Church of personal values, whether within marriage or within other relationships. The fact that a woman’s interests had to be sacrificed to the bringing up of a numerous family did not worry the law givers. If her conceptions, like Eve’s, were multiplied, that was the reason for her existence. St. Thomas Aquinas said: “Were it not for procreation, another man would be always of more help to a man than a woman.”

It was unimportant if children had not enough room in the home for privacy,. Poverty was a virtue. Some of our friends accepted overcrowded conditions as the consequence of their Catholic life-style. One heard of children sleeping two to a bed. But our parish priest was building a presbytery in which each of the three curates had a bedroom and a sitting room. So civilised!

Which came first: compulsory celibacy or impersonal attitudes to other human beings? Perhaps they reinforced one another. A priest wrote in the Catholic Herald, that he did without sex altogether, so married people could do it for a time. For him, obviously, sex was impersonal. A bishop regretted that he was not allowed to have intercourse with a woman, if only once, “to see what it was like”. Those representatives of the Church talked of marriage, while seeing sexuality in the same light as do adolescent boys. Yet they were grown men, and they aspired to be our teachers and pastors.

The history of the teaching of Second Vatican Council and after on sex and marriage is well known — the reservation of judgement to the Pope, the papal commission on birth control, the scandalous disregard of its findings, the bombshell of Humanae Vitae. But by then the inadequacy of the teaching Church to pronounce on marriage was transparent. As the understanding of the role of conscience deepened, the teaching was taken as only one aspect of the problem. The encyclical had a chance of dying a natural death.

Yet Humanae Vitae was a bombshell. The free and open discussions in our house were heard by our children. A friend had shown my eight year old a photograph of Paul VI, the Pope. Barbara looked dubious: “Mummy and Daddy don’t like him much just now!” – she commented.

This is a personal account of my relationship with the official Church, but my experiences mean little in isolation. The clerics whom I have met were individuals, some better, some worse. I had ceased to expect guidance and wisdom from the clergy. What is important is how the Church institution has weighed over my life and the lives of others. I do not take the institution sufficiently seriously any more to suffer from it. But the institution is still putting burdens on people’s backs, and we should fight for principles not only when they affect ourselves.

Some post-hysterectomy or post-menopause women, who in the past had reached the end of their endurance, have since become “experts on natural family planning”, and give an exposé of the Billings method of determining the time of ovulation. Now there is better knowledge, they say, it’s easier. Of course it is — for them. But I refuse to accept that method, or any other, as the panacea, though it is an improvement on earlier knowledge. I also refuse to accept the right of clerics to immerse themselves with cold abstraction in questions of female physiology. They like doing that, and it has nothing to do with them.

John Paul II went far beyond Humanae Vitae in his condemnation of birth control. I have corresponded with women in Poland who were unable to make the safe period work, badly instructed, not knowing where to turn. They tried to be faithful, but when asking for bread had been given stones. They were conditioned to think that the Church has to go on with the teaching, and if they cannot adhere to it, it is their fault. Often they accept the dichotomy — on the one hand the ideal proclaimed by the Church, on the other undeniable reality. They live in this state of inner division – somehow.

A priest from Poland, an “expert” on marriage visited our family group. He blamed the apparent confusion of the present teaching on birth control on priests. who irresponsibly began to talk of a change, which was not possible.

On the contrary, I said, those priests listened to married couples about the realities of their lives together, became convinced by that witness and had the courage to side with the people.

He was shocked. He had probably never before been contradicted, especially by a woman.

We know that any priest who has spoken publicly against Humanae Vitae is unlikely to become a bishop. Soon the teaching Church will consist entirely of “yes-men”. Instead of being shepherds to their flock, they will be sheep. But those sheep will lead.

It would be so much easier if we were sheep, both for us and for the bishops. But we are thinking women and men. The bishops appear to realise it, since occasionally they request the opinion of the “laity” on matters connected with marriage. They want to know our experience. After all, if they have asked, perhaps they really want to know, so giving them the benefit of the doubt, I reply.

Expressing the views of the groups to which I belong, I repeat that until they recognise the prominence of the problem of birth control in married people’s lives, their expressions of sympathy and pastoral concern will sound hollow. We have written to the bishops repeatedly: at the time of the National Pastoral Congress, Synod on the Family, Extraordinary Synod marking the twenty years since the Council, Synod on the Laity. But our efforts came to nothing. Cardinal Hume said during the Synod on the Family that many couples who use contraception lead good Catholic lives, but shrunk away from the consequences of his judgement. He set out to “repaint the road signs”, to make the teaching more acceptable, as if our acceptance or rejection of the Vatican line depended on its presentation, and not on the truth or otherwise of the teaching. This implies that we are ignorant, that we have not thought, prayed and suffered for years, finally becoming convinced of the fallacy of putting technique before personal encounter and rule before love. It implies that we wait for a lead from the clergy, a lead from the blind – as, on the subject of marriage they are blind. Christ said to the pharisees: “If you were blind, you would have no sin, but you say `we see’, therefore your guilt remains”. I have never heard sermon on this subject.

I may not have found a form of married spirituality, but I have discarded the ballast of centuries. I know that marriage is not merely “allowed” by God (since Christ attended the marriage feast at Cana he probably approved of it !)– but created by Him, so that men and women may have the best means of growing in their capacity to love.

Marriage exists for procreation only at the lowest, level. The first “good” of marriage is love. The bond exists in the physical, mental and spiritual spheres, and to weaken it knowingly is a sin against marriage and against God. Any rule concerning the conduct of the couple must be subjected to the primacy of love.

It took me years to discard the weight of mistrust and prohibitions which accompanied the idea of Christian marriage only a generation ago. Next generations may perhaps begin at this point, and work towards the creation of a positive married spirituality, which is still lacking in the Church.

16. Leafy Schroder

November 30, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Our daughter was born in 1969.
She was a few weeks old when we received a first ever visit from the Priest whose Parish we were in geographically. He was looking for money for the Church.
He looked at our baby daughter kicking away on the rug and commented ” I hope you are not using birth control. You may not receive the Sacraments if you are!”
In fact we had been made welcome in another Parish. The PP knew we had exercised what we deemed the right to follow our conscience. He had no objection to that and we were never denied the Sacraments.
Looking back, I feel sorry for the Priest who came to visit us. He must have been very insecure and unhappy surely?
We have now been married for 45 years and are still practising Catholics. Our daughter is not. She views the Church as being extremely hypocritical and unwelcoming. She is one of the most generous, wise and caring people I know and a good Christian.
The Church, namely we, the people of God, need to reach out to one another and demonstrate that we really care. It matters very much. Everyone needs to know that they are loved and loveable.

17. Clair

February 10, 2014 at 10:51 am

Humanae Vitae states: “Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings – and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation – need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.” This passage is particularly troubling for me and others who experience the reality of life. Should we also prohibit people from learning how to carve a turkey, because dexterity with a knife would make it easier to kill? We learn how important free will is, yet here the Church uses the opposite argument to attempt to justify a decision she knew was not shared by the many Christian couples who had thoughtfully contributed their experiences.
Read more here.

18. T.A.H. de Ruyter M.B. Ch.B.

March 16, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Very many heart-rending stories. Many contributors either ask for mercy or for understanding of their SIN (?) May I give my personal advise ? Do not ask for ‘mercy’ from the Clergy; go istead to the root of the matter.
Dear Father, is the statement that the use of mechanical cocntraceptives (e.g. condom, diaphragm) is intrinsically evil an INFALLIBLE statement ? If so, pleas quote me its number in DENZINGER. Denzinger is the usual name the clergy refers to, where all the teaching (probable, ordinary, definitive, and infallible, are written down). You will NOT FIND in that book the statement that mechanical contraception is instinsically evil. Do no take my word for it, ask your parhish Priest to, please, quote to you the number in Denzinger under which it is condemned. This is his job; if he does not know he should ask his Bishop for the number.
Do not fall for quotations from the Cathechism, that is NOT infallible. Do not fall for statements that surely 150 eminent theologians cannot be wrong. If he does, ask if that statement is perhaps an infallible statement and ask for its number. If not forthcoming you are still a good Catholic if you reject the statement.
It looks to me that we have more an EMOTIONAL PROBLEM than an intellectual one, something seems to make us refrain from asking the, to me, all to obvious questions. Do not let yourself be ‘pushed overboard out of the bark of Peter, (=Mystical body of Christ).
T.A.H. de Ruyter, M.B. Ch.B. Republic of South Africa.

19. Dr.Sr. Jasinta Prakashappa

June 2, 2014 at 12:52 pm

When Vatican II spoke of marriage in principle it did not address the influence of local cultural practices and their influence on the faithful.

One cultural evil is the caste system which is similar to the racism of the West. The church has failed to tackle the obnoxious practices of the caste system which is still alive. The evil observances of widowhood (ie. Not accepting the remarriage of the widow), the dowry system, bride burning, female infanticide are very visible among the Catholics. The Church is satisfied just administering the sacraments. The traditional evils are untouched, the Church hides behind the so called sacred and she sees to the spiritual aspects of marriage and does not touch the ground reality.
For the full text see here.