By Desmond Albrow
EDITOR OF THE CATHOLIC HERALD
A MONTH has now passed since the encyclical Hutnanae Vitae bdirst upon the
world, but it would take either a knave or a fool tp claim that the dust of contro versy has settled. Let
it be said at the outset of this article that
the dust has in no manner of speaking settled, will not settle for some time, and furthermore should not be allowed to
settle until the last particle of truth has
emerged through frank and open discussion.
The birth control debate then goes on because it is only through sane "dialogue" at every level, through a temperate and charitable exchange of views that the tremors passing through the Church at the moment will eventually cease. Stop discussion, silence the lay critics, suspend outspoken priests, scoff at private conscience and the tremors will become an earthquake. And only a knave or a fool would welcome such an outcome.
Opportunity to look back
But if a month has not been Iong enough to still the doubts and the fears it is at least a tidy enough period to give an editor the opportunity to look back—sometimes in anger, sometimes in sOrrow and sometimes in gratitude—on some events during a momerous and perilous time.
Let us then begin at the beginning. When I read the encyclical I realised, as every editor of a Catholic journal must have done. that here was a Roman time-bomb: a theological and pastoral block-buster. No matter how delicately it was handled journalistically many readers were going to be deeply wounded.
I knew that any criticism of the encyclical would be construed by some as a personal attack on the Pope and in the event this misconstruction has been one of the saddest and most depressing aspects of the whole crisis. Even intelligent men and women saw, or were willing to believe. that a cool look at Ilumanae Vitae was a hatchet job on Pope Paul.
I knew that even straight news reporting of protests against the encyclical would bring a howl of rage from many. ("It is no concern of a Catholic paper, Sir, to give publicity to disloyal elements in the Church. You should beware of spreading scandal. I have cancelled my subscription.")
Division in the Church
I knew that in the weeks that followed. and as the correspondence page reflected the division of opinion in the Church, that there would be outcries against allowing open debate on what many would sincerely consider a closed issue. Rome had spoken. The matter was settled—at least for the time being.
I knew that the first article written by Norman St. JohnStevas in the week of the encyclical's appearance appearance would give apoplexy to some readers. What I did not know was that some of the same people, who had applauded the courageous campaign conducted by St. JohnStevas against the Abortion Bill, and had seen him as the Catholic knight in shining armour after his superb defence of his faith at the Oxford LJnion last year. would now regard him with contempt usually reserved for felons or disc jockeys.
Publicists on both sides
It was perfectly in order to give expression to the prompting of conscience against abortion. It was not in order to ventilate publicly the prompting of conscience over birth control and a noninfallible encyclical. Conscience, or the expression of it, tarnished the hero over night. St. John was no longer St. George. He was the dragon and it was time that the editor slew or sacked him.
I was also well aware that self-appointed publicists on both sides would be much in evidence. Whatever happened it was necessary to take the heat out of the situation that had developed and that was one reason why the CATHOLIC HERALD counselled against protest marches and the like.
Yet some of the starker idiocies that were later perpetrated took me by surprise —the scuffles outside Westminster Cathedral by rival Catholic factions and the less violent but equally petulant proposition of a collectionbox strike.
The laity were just as prone as some members of the Hierarchy to play into the hands of their opponents. and one was left lamenting the fact even on such an issue, when passions were bound to be raised, some Catholics were ready to man the barricades. It was guide lines we wanted--not battle lines.
Priest cuts up paper
But to revert to the production of the paper in the week of the encyclical; it was fraught with problems. We tried —and if outside comments are any guide I believe that we succeeded— to present the news in as dispassionate a manner as possible. We did all in our power to , give a balanced picture, omitting nothing of importance either in defence or criticism of the encyclical.
It was known in this office that such comprehensive coverage would lead to the banning of the CATHOtic HERALD in some churches. but not even our most experienced pessimist predicted that one priest would actually cut the paper up so that only the full text of Humanae Vitae, which we printed in full, was on sale.
Our leading article in the same issue, headlined "Not The Last Word," also came in for attack. Reading it with the benefit of hindsight one still wonders why. It was written with the primary purpose of keeping people within the body of the Church, of giving consolation to troubled souls, and appealing for time to reflect on the whole question of conscience and authority.
Plea for time and debate
We feared a stampede from the sacraments and it is worth reflecting on the fact that although we are being constantly reminded that the Church is a teaching Church it is also worth remembering in this context that the Church is also a sacramental Ch urch.
In effect we were arguing for time to study and debate not only the encyclical but all its consequences. In view of what has happened since who is to say unequivocally that we were wrong? Our plea for compassion was later echoed in the pastorals., among others. of Cardinal Heenan and Bishop Cashman. It was a pity that Archbishop Cowderoy of Southwark found himself incapable of expressing the same sense of charity or of trying to understand the sensitivity of feeling of priests under his charge.
We were. of course, disappointed with the encyclical as we made clear. We found no difficulty in accepting it as an ideal for marriage. No civilised man or woman could. just as no civilised man or women would wish to use contraceptives or the safe period if they could avoid them. In a perfect world contraceptives would not be necessary but. alas, we have to live in the world as it is.
What we found, and find, difficult was the blanket condemnation of contraceptives in all conditions. It is an easy matter to accept the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill" and it is just as easy for most people to accept dispensation from it under certain circumstances. Was there not a case to be made out for similar dispensation in the case of birth control?
Were parents with five children who were using contraceptives committing a graver sin in the eyes of the Church than a young childless couple who were using the safe period because they needed a telly or a car?
If birth control was against the natural law why had it taken the Pope so long to make his statement? There must have been doubt otherwise why was a papal commission appointed to go into the question. But above all there was conscience, and some time was to elapse before Archbishop Beck of Liverpool was to examine its pastoral implications in an interview in the CATHOLIC HERALD.
There were so many unresolved questions when the birth control edition was being produced that it was not only a matter of principle but seemed to be a matter of common sense and prudence to call for discussion and debate.
Views without malice
Humanae Vitae was authentic teaching. but it had been made perfectly clear at the press conference in Rome, when the encyclical was presented, that it was not an infallible doctrine document. If it was not infallible then it was surely proper to debate it?
That is why the Ca-rHouc HERAI.D has felt it both a necessity and a duty to print the many differing views on the encyclical and why it will continue to print them provided always that they are expressed reasonably and without personal hostility or malice.
There is, despite denials by people who should know better, a crisis of conscience among both priests and laity. It is absolutely imperative that those who are undergoing a sincere conflict between love of the Church and private conscience over birth control should be treated with all the tenderness at the command of authority. The Church will survive some of the recent remarks by Mgr. Gibney Vicar General of Southwark, but his ex parte utterances are not exactly calculated to heal the sick of heart and soul.
Authority and respect
It is equally imperative, of course. that priests who find themselves at odds with the Church over Humanae Vitae should think long and deeply before making a public avowal of their views. Unfortunately even when we act from the purest motives vanity constantly stalks at our side and occasionally it might be for the good of all involved to eschew the occasional television appearances or Press interviews.
But the point of this article is to explain to readers why we did what we did and why we believe that all lines of communication must be kept open. At this point in the development of the Church it is not always a case of Publish and be Damned but a case of publish and be banned.
To those who fear that open. discussion will undermine authority the reply is obvious: unless there is discussion authority will never be respected: if it is not respected it will be ignored.
The whole trend today is towards collegiality and it is significant that it is British Catholics, reared in the most advanced of political democracies and nourished on the milk of free speech, who have been most vociferous in the debate on Hamanae Vitae. It is a point worth remembering and reflecting upon in Rome.