My most recent late night post on the Catholic World Report blog:
The encyclical, Humanae Vitae, was promulgated 44 years ago today, on July 25, 1968. The word often used to describe Pope Paul VI's encyclical is "prophetic". It is one of those rather rare cases in which such a daunting, loaded, and strong adjective is exactly on the mark. Being prophetic, in the biblical and apostolic tradition, involves far more than some sort of foretelling of future events. It is, first, a forthtelling of truth, a proclamation of the Word of God. As such, it requires courage and a willingness to be rejected, mocked, and even vilified.
All of that happened to Paul VI, and the case can be made (and has been made many times over) that Humanae Vitae and the immediate response to it—harsh, mocking, dismissive, angry—marked a pivotal moment in the Church's life in the modern era in the West. There was talk then, as there is even today, that the deep divide over the teachings of Humanae Vitae and the subsequent, related teachings by Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI might lead to a divided Church. But viewing it in such a way is rather misleading because, first, the Church is One, and as such, cannot be divided into two (or more) bodies. "Unity", the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, "is of the essence of the Church" (par 813). There are wounds to the unity of the Church, and these take the form of "rifts", "serious dissensions", "ruptures", and "heresy, apostasy, and schism" (par 817).
It's hardly a news flash, of course, that there are many who have separated themselves from full communion with the Church because of Paul VI's clear teaching that contraception is sinful and contrary to God's plan for marriage, procreation, and family life. I have no doubt that many Catholics who use contraception are ignorant of what the Church teaches—and why she teaches it. Yet there are those who knowingly, willfully, and without shame insist that they and their convenient (and supposedly perfect) consciences have found the Church's teaching to be inadequate, inconvenient, and incorrect. Taken to its logical, if not altogether comfortable, conclusion, this approach assumes that God himself upholds the dissent founded upon their (poorly formed) consciences.
In other words, if final, definite authority is ascribed to one's conscience, then what it says is "true" must, when push comes to shove, be what God also says is true (unless one is willing to say God can hold contradictory moral beliefs). Yet this is nonsensical. On this feast of St. James, such a faulty, narcissistic approach brings to mind this passage of Scripture: