John Garvey

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of “Humanae Vitae.” The world has changed dramatically since Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical, mostly in ways he foretold.

Abortion and sterilization are commonplace. Artificial birth control has opened “wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” Governments favor “those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective … (and) may even impose their use on everyone.”

In 1968 the pope’s critics envisioned a different future. The encyclical provoked an unprecedented crisis of authority in the American Catholic Church. It originated, I am embarrassed to say, at the Catholic University of America. Many faculty members of the School of Theology issued a statement of dissent that was ultimately signed by more than 600 theologians across the country. It generously acknowledged that the pope had “a distinct role” in the church.


But, the dissenters observed, “Humanae Vitae” “is not an infallible teaching.” Similar papal statements “have subsequently been proved inadequate or even erroneous.” That was why there fell to theologians (like those signing the statement of dissent) “the special responsibility of evaluating … pronouncements of the magisterium in the light of the total theological data.”

The controversy was in one sense about sex. In a larger sense it was about the teaching authority of the church. Fifty years on we have another dispute over teaching authority. But as Justice Robert H. Jackson once observed about a case before him in the Supreme Court, “the parties (have) changed positions as nimbly as if dancing a quadrille.”

In 1968, progressive theologians disputed the pope’s teaching authority over sex. Traditionalists were his strong defenders. In 2018, traditionalists disparage the pope’s teachings on the economy, the environment and even sex. They say he is outside his lane in discussing capitalism and global warming. They accuse him of causing confusion by his teaching on marriage. And progressives in the church cheer for him.

But I think that in our arguments, old and new, about who is right, we are losing sight of a different, and important, point about what it means to be Catholic.

My father used to remind us that keeping the family together is a really important thing, valuable in itself. He would appeal to family unity in times of division. It was a reason for tolerating unfairness and even unjust treatment.

Unity in the church has an even more essential value. In the Nicene Creed we profess our belief in a church that is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church reminds us that God “does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals … (but) together as one people.” The unity of the church matters because God’s plan of salvation for us is communal.

And in this world our unity is a sign of how to love one another and live together in peace. It’s not just a symbol. Our relations as members of the body of Christ have an intrinsic value, like the love that joins husband and wife or brothers and sisters.

The popes’ critics lose sight of this — the critics of Pope Francis no less than the critics of Pope Paul. They differ from one another in their views on sex and business and the gospel of creation. But they are alike in forgetting that the church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.

They both need to bear in mind the words of Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism: “Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the new covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, in order to establish the one body of Christ on earth.”


Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Catholic University’s website is