Priests still suffering from effects of Humanae Vitae dissenters, Vatican cardinal says

ppstaffordhv240708 Cardinal James Francis Stafford

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the often debated papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s teaching against contraception. Looking back at the events as he experienced them, Cardinal James Francis Stafford writes that the reaction by dissenters to the papal document involved a level of infidelity which divided the ranks of the clergy to such an extent that they have still not recovered.

The recounting of the events of 1968 by Cardinal Stafford-who was a priest in Baltimore at the time of the encyclical’s release-is eloquent, laced with scriptural allusions and the insights of a scholar. He set out to peer into the summer of 1968, “a record of God’s hottest hour,” as he dubs it, at the request of L’Osservatore Romano and has made his submission available to CNA.  

This “is not an easy or welcome task. But since it may help some followers of Jesus to live what Pope Paul VI called a more ‘disciplined’ life (HV 21), I will explore that event,” the cardinal writes.

Before launching into the retelling of the trial surrounding the dissent of priests to Humanae Vitae, Cardinal Stafford offers his readers some of his scholarly wisdom.

“Lead us not into temptation” is the sixth petition of the Our Father.  Πειρασμός (Peirasmòs), the Greek word used in this passage for ‘temptation’, means a trial or test.  Disciples petition God to be protected against the supreme test of ungodly powers. The trial is related to Jesus’s cup in Gethsemane, the same cup which his disciples would also taste (Mk 10: 35-45). The dark side of the interior of the cup is an abyss. It reveals the awful consequences of God’s judgment upon sinful humanity.  In August, 1968, the weight of the evangelical Πειρασμός fell on many priests, including myself,” the cardinal began. 

“The summer of 1968 is a record of God’s hottest hour.  The memories are not forgotten; they are painful. They remain vivid like a tornado in the plains of Colorado. They inhabit the whirlwind where God’s wrath dwells. In 1968 something terrible happened in the Church. Within the ministerial priesthood ruptures developed everywhere among friends which never healed. And the wounds continue to affect the whole Church. The dissent, together with the leaders’ manipulation of the anger they fomented, became a supreme test. It changed fundamental relationships within the Church. It was a Πειρασμός for many.”

An insider’s view of Paul VI’s Commission

The American cardinal then delved into some of the inner-workings of the Vatican that he was privy to in the years leading up to the issuing of Humanae Vitae. In particular, he recalled that, Cardinal Lawrence J. Shehan, the sixth Archbishop of Baltimore, who was his ecclesiastical superior at the time, was a member of the Papal Commission for the Study of Problems of the Family, Population, and Birth Rates, first established by Blessed Pope John XXIII in 1963 during the Second Vatican Council.

As Pope Paul’s commission prepared to deliberate about the Church’s teaching on contraception, Cardinal Shehan “sent confidential letters to various persons of the Church of Baltimore seeking their advice.  I received such a letter,” Stafford writes.

“My response drew upon experience, both personal and pastoral.  Family and education had given me a Christian understanding of sex.  Yet, in many ways, Cardinal Stafford explains that, “Not one of my professional acquaintances anticipated the crisis of trust which was just around the corner in the relations between men and women.” It wasn’t until a 1961 encounter with a 16 year-old parishioner who was a drug user that he came to the realization of what he had to tell Cardinal Shehan about contraception.

“A sixteen-year old had been jailed in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. At the time of my late afternoon visit to him, he was experiencing drug withdrawal unattended and alone in a tiny cell. His screams filled the corridors and adjoining cells.  Through the iron bars dividing us, I was horror-stricken watching him in his torment. The abyss he was looking into was unimaginably terrifying.  In this drugged youth writhing in agony on the floor next to an open toilet I saw the bitter fruits of the estrangement of men and women. His mother, separated from her husband, lived with her younger children in a sweltering third floor flat on Light St. in old South Baltimore. The father was non-existent for them.  The failure of men in their paternal and spousal roles was unfolding before my eyes and ears. Since then more and more American men have refused to accept responsibility for their sexuality.”

This experience, Stafford explained in a confidential letter to Cardinal Shehan resulted in an insight “which was elliptical: the gift of love should be allowed to be fruitful. These two fixed points are constant.  This simple idea lit up everything like lightning in a storm. I wrote about it more formally to the Cardinal: the unitive and procreative meanings of marriage cannot be separated.  Consequently, to deprive a conjugal act deliberately of its fertility is intrinsically wrong. To encourage or approve such an abuse would lead to the eclipse of fatherhood and to disrespect for women.”

For reasons unknown, this idea failed to sway Cardinal Shehan who sided with the majority of the papal commission, which advised that the Church’s teaching on contraception be changed in light of new circumstances. 

“This sets the scene for the tragic drama following the actual date of the publication of the encyclical letter on July 29, 1968,” Cardinal Stafford writes.

Following the publication of Humanae Vitae, Stafford recalls the way the rejection of the Pope’s encyclical unfolded.

“Rev. Charles E. Curran, instructor of moral theology of The Catholic University of America … and nine other professors of theology of the Catholic University met, by evident prearrangement, in Caldwell Hall to receive, again by prearrangement with the Washington Post, the encyclical, part by part, as it came from the press. The story further indicated that by nine o’clock that night, they had received the whole encyclical, had read it, had analyzed it, criticized it, and had composed their six-hundred word ‘Statement of Dissent.’ Then they began that long series of telephone calls to ‘theologians’ throughout the East, which went on, according to the Post, until 3:30 A.M., seeking authorization, to attach their names as endorsers (signers was the term used) of the statement, although those to whom they had telephoned could not have had an opportunity to see either the encyclical or their statement. Meanwhile, they had arranged through one of the local television stations to have the statement broadcast that night.” 

Cardinal Shehan was “scornful” of the reaction.  “In 1982 he wrote, ‘The first thing that we have to note about the whole performance is this: so far as I have been able to discern, never in the recorded history of the Church has a solemn proclamation of a Pope been received by any group of Catholic people with so much disrespect and contempt’.”

More in Vatican

The test in Baltimore

“The personal Πειρασμός, the test, began,” writes Stafford, who was a priest of the Diocese of Baltimore at the time.

He remembers that the trial began with a phone call inviting him to St. William of York parish in southwest Baltimore to discuss the encyclical. “The meeting was set for Sunday evening, August 4. I agreed to come. Eventually a large number of priests were gathered in the rectory’s basement. I knew them all,” Stafford relates.
Although he expected a chance to read the papal document and discuss it, nothing of the sort happened. Instead, one pastor/ leader, assisted by some priests from the local seminary read the Washington statement aloud. Then the leader asked each of us to agree to have our names attached to it.  No time was allowed for discussion, reflection, or prayer. Each priest was required individually to give a verbal ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”       

“I could not sign it,” states Cardinal Stafford.  ‘My earlier letter to Cardinal Shehan came to mind. I remained convinced of the truth of my judgement and conclusions.” … However, Stafford says that no one else there held his convictions; “Everyone agreed to sign. There were no abstentions.  As the last called upon, I felt isolated. The basement became suffocating.”

What happened next involved was unprecedented in the history of the Baltimore presbyterate, according to Stafford. “They had planned carefully how to exert what amounted to emotional and intellectual coercion. … The priest/leader, drawing upon some scatological language from his Marine Corp past in the II World War responded contemptuously to my decision. He tried to force me to change.  He became visibly angry and verbally abusive.  The underlying, ‘fraternal’ violence became more evident. He questioned and then derided my integrity.  He taunted me to risk my ecclesiastical ‘future,’ although his reference was more anatomically specific. The abuse went on.” 

“We all had been subjected to a new thing in the Church, something unexpected. A pastor and several seminary professors had abused rhetoric to undermine the truth within the evangelical community.  When opposed, they assumed the role of Job’s friends. Their contempt became a nightmare,” Stafford observes.

The aftermath of dissent

(Story continues below)

This type of abuse was paralleled in the secular history of the time as well, says the cardinal, citing an encounter from April 1968 with the same priest who would a few months later lead the dissent meeting at St. William of York.

As the riots in Baltimore raged following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Father Stafford called the pastor to see if he might need food, medical assistance, or other help from the city. When the pastor answered the phone, Stafford could hear “disillusionment and fear” in the priest’s voice as he described how, “Everything has been set ablaze.”

The memory of this incident prompted Stafford to realize that, “Ecclesial dissent can become a kind of spiritual violence in its form and content. …Violence and truth don’t mix. … The violence of the priests’ August gathering gave rise to its own ferocious acrimony. Conversations among the clergy, where they existed, became contaminated with fear. Suspicions among priests were chronic. …The Archdiocesan priesthood lost something of the fraternal whole which Baltimore priests had known for generations.”

“Something else happened among priests on that violent August night,” explains Cardinal Stafford, “Friendship in the Church sustained a direct hit.”

A lesson learned

In spite of all the damage done by the dissent, Stafford stresses that, “that night was not a total loss.” “Paradoxically, in the hot, August night a new sign shown unexpectedly on the path to future life. It read, ‘Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered’.”

“I did not become ‘ashamed of the Gospel’ that night and found ‘sweet delight in what is right.’ It was not a bad lesson. Ecclesial obedience ran the distance,” the American cardinal writes.

The lesson to be learned from this is that, “Contemporary obedience of disciples to the Successor of Peter cannot be separated from the poverty of spirit and purity of heart modeled and won by the Word on the Cross,” writes Stafford.

Cardinal Stafford closes his reflections by giving his honest assessment of where the Church stands after the decades of dissent.

“Diocesan presbyterates have not recovered from the July/August nights in 1968.  Many in consecrated life also failed the evangelical test. Since January 2002, the abyss has opened up elsewhere. The whole people of God, including children and adolescents, now must look into the abyss and see what dread beasts are at its bottom. Each of us shudders before the wrath of God, each weeps in sorrow for our sins and each begs for the Father’s merciful remembrance of Christ’s obedience.”

The full-length version of Cardinal Stafford's reflection can be read at or by clicking here.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.