In 1968, a time of crumbling social mores, Pope Paul VI did something truly radical: he issued a papal letter about God’s plan for married love.
“Humane Vitae” affirmed Roman Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life, conjugal relations that are respectful of both partners and their mutual procreative power, and responsible parenthood. Plainly put: sex is designed for (heterosexual) marriage, children are gifts and artificial birth control is an impediment to healthy relationships.
In the era of free love and second wave feminism, those declarations were contentious.
Fifty years hence, Paul VI, who will be sainted this fall, seems vindicated. His bold predictions that contraception would degrade men, women and human sexuality sadly have materialized.
The church faithful, who abide its sexual ethic, have borne great fruit.
The golden anniversary of Humane Vitae, should be a glorious celebration of God’s truth.
Instead, it is mired in scandal because some church leaders who vowed to promote a culture respectful of these sexual values, have not upheld them in their own lives.
A month ago, credible allegations surfaced that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, D.C., had sexually abused a minor. Since then, revelations about his behavior, including that he systematically preyed upon young seminarians, have raised questions about how and why he continued to climb the church hierarchy, let alone remain a priest.
McCarrick mentored men, some of whom also rose to prominence in the church, at the very least prompting questions of what they knew and when.
Rome is ultimately responsible for disciplining clergy, but many leaders in the American Catholic Church must have willfully ignored the rumors. The church has policies and procedures to address this kind of behavior, but it appears, to borrow a phrase, the flesh was weak.
While review boards and independent watchdogs might help uncover illicit and illegal behavior before it spreads, the only real way to restore faith in the church and its teachings is for its bishops to emulate Paul VI and boldly affirm the church’s teachings on sex and love by encouraging its prelates live it out, and regularly declaring it from the pulpit.
“We are responsible to live the gospel and to preach it,” Fort Worth, Texas, Bishop Michael Olson told me. It’s something he says he’s trying to do through example and priestly formation.
“The church was founded by Christ but is populated by human beings,” Olson said. “But that does not exonerate us from our responsibility to convert and to be converted.”
And conversion on a massive scale is what both priests and laity need right now.
The church, like the culture, has been swept far downstream from the belief, so beautifully described by Paul VI, that human behavior — especially sexual behavior — must not be self-reverential.
The revelations about McCarrick foster a cynical understanding of human nature that puts the subject first and make it increasingly hard for priests to speak with any moral authority to their rightfully dubious flocks. They can restore that authority by preaching the truth in word and action.
Olson cautioned that we must not identify McCarrick’s sexual misconduct with couples using contraction in marriage, and he’s right, but the same broad principles apply to us all. Our actions must be directed toward a higher good and we must be accountable for them.
For church leaders, that accountability begins by affirming the truths of Humane Vitae and living them out as a witness to the laity.
I’m encouraged to know that Bishop Olson agrees.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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