We have sinned
My niece is an abomination. It's not because “Becky” credulously forwards random bits of stupid and ignorant Internet crap. (She's actually eased off on that.) In fact, it's not because of anything that she has done herself. It's her parents' fault, in the fashion of Jeremiah 32:17, which is full of praise for God's tender mercy: “You show love to thousands but bring the punishment for the fathers' sins into the laps of their children after them.”
My niece, you see, is the product of artificial insemination. While it's true that my brother is her father and my sister-in-law is her mother, infertility problems early in their marriage prompted them to seek intervention by a physician. As good Catholics, they should have known they were committing a grievous sin. Nothing gets the Church's panties into more of a bind than violations of its archaic sex code, even if it's in pursuit of starting a family. Funny thing, too, since every Catholic couple is harangued on the occasion of their marriage to “accept Children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church.” God forbid that you employ the techniques of modern medicine to promote or prevent pregnancy. That really ticks God off, for some reason, and either motivation is wicked. Or so says Rome.
Not everyone is privy to the family's deep, dark secret. I suspect even Becky doesn't know, but we elder family members recall the clandestine doings of the past. (I even know about my nephew's childhood electrolysis to correct a unibrow and how his cousin's accidentally broken nose became an opportunity to sneak in a little rhinoplasty in addition to the repair job.) And then, of course, there's the biggest sin of all—or maybe it's a miracle: the long stretches of fertility during which no children appeared. How the heck did that happen in a devoutly Catholic family? (Or perhaps I should say, “How the heck did that not happen?”)
July 25 is the anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the famous encyclical promulgated in 1968 by the late Pope Paul VI, of unhappy memory. The corrosive effect of that papal letter was immediate and has now had forty years to eat away at the Catholic Church.
There were plenty of other distractions for American Catholics in 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been murdered in April. Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of our only Catholic president, was murdered in June. Nevertheless, Humanae Vitae came as a bit of a shock even to a benumbed Catholic population. It was widely known that the majority of the members of a papal commission had recommended a relaxation of the Church's strict stand against birth control, making the argument that contraception was not intrinsically sinful and could reasonably be chosen by Catholics in accordance with the dictates of personal conscience. Paul VI, however, accepted the argument of a minority report, which strenuously opposed any change in Church practice. It was a stunning bump on the road to reform and modernization that had begun six years before with John XXIII's convocation of the second Vatican Council. Many Catholics, including several clerics, resisted the pope's proclamation and embraced the majority report's suggestion that personal conscience was paramount in such matters.
Today, only a small minority (31%) of Roman Catholics in the United States believe that artificial birth control is a sin. American Catholics are in a “soft schism,” embracing a nominal Catholicism while in reality acting with about as much freedom from Church dogma as if they were Protestants. Rome may insist that there is no such thing as a “loyal opposition,” since the Catholic Church is a top-down organization whose hierarchy brooks no disagreement, but in fact the Church appears to be tolerating a huge amount of dissent in order to preserve its numbers. In its claim to have over a billion adherents in the world, the Vatican is counting many people who do not embrace all of the Church's teachings. Depending on whether my home parish has ever bothered to purge its roster, they might even be counting me! If Rome were ever to crack down and enforce its rules as strictly as possible, the priest shortage would be solved overnight, since at least half of all Catholics would be abruptly disqualified from membership and many parishes could be consolidated. Even the Vatican is not that dedicated to doctrinal purity.
In reflecting on the encyclical's fortieth anniversary, I do believe that Humanae Vitae has left my family a legacy other than the secret shame of my niece's anti-immaculate conception. In doing the math, I note that my brother is thirty-seven years old. He is the baby of the family and arrived a dozen years after his other siblings. What happened to disrupt my parents' long string of birth-free years? That's right. The pope in Rome shook his admonitory finger at my Catholic parents and they decided to “take one” for the pontiff. It appears that I have a Humanae Vitae kid brother. In looking back over his life and my parent's experiences in dealing with a teenager during their middle-age years, it does appear that obedience is its own punishment.
But at least he's not an abomination.