In a 7,500-word encyclical released July 29, Pope Paul VI flatly refused to temper the Roman Catholic teaching that “artificial” contraception is evil. The document, entitled Humanæ Vitæ, evoked a groundswell of dissent among the pontiff’s ecclesiastical subordinates. It was hard to tell which would prove to be more historic: the Pope’s reaffirmation of traditional Vatican views on birth control, or the crisis it seemed to be precipitating among the half billion members claimed by the Roman Catholic Church.

“God has wisely disposed natural laws and rhythms of fecundity which, of themselves, cause a separation in the succession of births,” said Pope Paul. “Nonetheless the church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law, as interpreted by her constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act (“quilibet matrimonii usus”) must remain open to the transmission of life.”

The Pope had a good word for family planning but said that only the rhythm method is moral. The rhythm method is simply abstinence from sexual intercourse during the woman’s fertile period. Because it is not possible to determine with precision the time of the fertile period, the method is unreliable. The Pope echoed Pope Pius XII in asking that medical science provide “a sufficiently secure basis for a regulation of birth, founded on the observance of natural rhythms.”

The first major sign of defiance was a statement signed by more than a hundred American Catholic theologians. The statement is openly critical of the Pope and takes issue with the encyclical, citing numerous “defects.”

“Many positive values concerning marriage are expressed in Paul VI’s encyclical,” the statement says. “However, we take exception to the ecclesiology ...

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