BY LI KE COPPEN IT IS THIRTY YEARS this week since the promulgation of the world's most controversial encyclical, Plum anae Vitae. The encyclical, issued on the 25 July 1968 by Pope Paul VI forbade the use of artificial contraception.
It provoked extreme reactions across the western world. In West Germany, 5,000 laymen signed a petition against the ban. In the US, priests, theologians and prominent layman protested. In France, bishops said it was up to the conscience of couples to decide whether to use artifical contraception. In England, there were scuffles in Westminster Cathedral between supporters and opponents of the decree.
The Catholic Herald entered the fray with an article by Norman St John Stevas critical of the Pope. "It is because of the theological emptiness of the encyclical that I state that, while it may ask for obedience, it may not command intellectual assent," he wrote, predicting that Catholic couples would ignore the teaching.
While some parish priests cancelled their subscriptions in protest, the newspaper's circulation doubled. Editor Desmond Albrow intervened to justify the paper's commitment to reporting both sides of the debate.
Thirty years on, opposi tion to the encyclical is still heartfelt. But Freda Lambert, president of the National Board of Catholic Women, said: "Without doubt Humanae Vitae gave a welcome impetus to promoting natural family planning.
But, she added: "Many couples do not think that artificial contraception within marriage is a sign of a contraceptive mentality. They believe it is helpful and important in excercising responsible parenthood."
Marriage Care, which has run a Natural Family Planning service since the late 1950s, estimates that between one and two per cent of sexually active couples use natural methods of contraception.
Jane Knight, director of NFP services, said that many non-Catholics follow the papal teaching for health reasons.
Fr John Murphy, Marriage Care's chaplain, said Humanae Vitae's deep truth lay in its teaching that sexual intimacy for married people is a fundamental part of the day by day search for God.
Pope John Paul II, one of Pope Paul VI's strongest supporters in 1968, described the encyclical as "the hardest decision any pope has had to make this century".
In 1995 he reiterated its teachings in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae.