Humanae Vitae 45 Years Later: Part V

Part 5: Dissenters and Living Martyrs

Bob & Gerri Laird

This week marks national NFP Awareness Week as well as the 45th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae. The final installment of this series honors those clergy who stood up in the face of dissent.

History is worth repeating. On the 25th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae, a story[1] of the courage and humility of Archbishop J. Francis Stafford described the surrounding days, weeks, months, and years after Humanae Vitae. On the 40th Anniversary, Cardinal Stafford updated the original story[2]. It is obvious that dissenters are still among us. Acceptance of contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs are the norm among large elements of the clergy and laity within the Catholic Church, and religious freedom can no longer be taken for granted. On this 45th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae, it is worthwhile to re-consider the impact of the dissenters and the charitable response by today’s living martyrs.

Humanae Vitae was issued on July 25, 1968, and on July 30th, rebellious clergy had gathered over 200 signatures from prominent theologians and Catholics on a petition of dissent that was published in the New York Times. It was a “pivotal day in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.”

A week later, Father J. Francis Stafford was invited to attend a meeting in the basement of a rectory in Baltimore with 54 of his fellow priests. “The meeting was led by several priests from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and some local diocesan priests. Each attendee was asked to sign a statement of dissent that would be published the next day in the Baltimore Sun. The leader of the group, a former marine and a master of persuasion and intimidation, ’minced no words of his expectations’ of the group. There would be no time for discussion. They were to sign on the dotted line. One after another signed. Finally, this young priest was all that stood in the way of a document of unanimity. He stood firm. He didn’t sign. He said to his fellow priests that he didn’t sign for two reasons: (1) he had not read the document (and he also noted that none in the room, including the leaders of the group, had read it), and (2) he agreed with Pope Paul VI.

“The leader of the dissenters tried several times, using strong, coercive tactics and verbal abuse, to change the mind of this priest. None of his fellow priests came to his defense. Rather than the scorecard reading 55 to 0. It was 54 to one.

“A victim of tactics familiar to the counterinsurgency operations taking place at the time in Vietnam, this priest continued to find himself, and others like him, isolated and verbally abused. But as time passed, their allegiance to the Holy Father and the Church grew stronger. Within the Catholic Church, though, a major division was created which continues today. As he moved from Baltimore, where he became an auxiliary bishop, and then to Memphis, Tenn., and finally to his [next] archdiocese, he found that this isolation and dissent continued.”[3] The tactics were the same: abusive, coercive, judgmental, closed to the teaching authority of the Church, and increasingly abstract about the teaching of the Church.

Now, 45 years later, we continue to honor and thank those faithful priests, bishops, and theologians who, during those dark days of the summer of 1968, defended our Church and Her teachings, and still persevere today. God in His mercy and justice seemed to provide. This young priest from Baltimore later became a bishop, an archbishop, and a cardinal.

There are other faithful priests who, like Stafford, have equally moving stories about their defense of the Holy Father and the Church since 1968. All are living martyrs for the abuse they have withstood and continue to withstand defending the Church.

“The summer of 1968 is a record of God’s hottest hour. The memories are not forgotten; they are painful. They remain vivid like a tornado in the plains of Colorado. They inhabit the whirlwind where God’s wrath dwells. In 1968 something terrible happened in the Church. Within the ministerial priesthood ruptures developed everywhere among friends which never healed. And the wounds continue to affect the whole Church. The dissent, together with the leaders’ manipulation of the anger they fomented, became a supreme test. It changed fundamental relationships within the Church.

“. . . Ecclesial dissent can become a kind of spiritual violence in its form and content.  A new, unsettling insight emerged. Violence and truth don’t mix. When expressive violence of whatever sort is inflicted upon truth, the resulting irony is lethal.

“. . . But that night was not a total loss. The test was unexpected and unwelcome. Its unhinging consequences continue. Abusive, coercive dissent has become a reality in the Church and subjects her to violent, debilitating, unproductive, chronic controversies.  But I did discover something new.  Others also did. When the moment of Christian witness came, no Christian could be coerced who refused to be.   Despite the novelty of being treated as an object of shame and ridicule, I did not become ‘ashamed of the Gospel’ that night and found ‘sweet delight in what is right.’ It was not a bad lesson. Ecclesial obedience ran the distance.

“. . . Paradoxically, in the hot, August night a new sign shown unexpectedly on the path to future life. It read, ‘Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered.’ The violence of the initial disobedience was only a prelude to further and more pervasive violence. Priests wept at meetings over the manipulation of their brothers. Contempt for the truth, whether aggressive or passive, has become common in Church life.  Dissenting priests, theologians and laypeople have continued their coercive techniques.  From the beginning the press has used them to further its own serpentine agenda.”[4]

The liberal revolution against authority in the 60s and 70s touched both clergy and lay people alike. Today some clerics don’t discuss the subject because they either don’t understand it or are afraid that it will offend the congregation. Parents don’t want to discuss it with their children because they, themselves, contracept and/or are sterilized. One can’t teach what one doesn’t practice. Many pro-life organizations will adamantly oppose abortion, but take no stand on the use of contraception, sterilization, or abortion-inducing drugs.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M., Cap., points out that the contraception dispute is “not merely a dispute about how to regulate family size, rather, at root, it’s a dispute about the very meaning of life and the essence of marriage. . . Much is at stake here – the authentic realization of our humanity and the survival of the Catholic family in the third millennium.”[5]

Dissent against the Church teachings delineated in Humanae Vitae  (as well as in other Church documents) has set the stage for the current attacks against religious liberty since Catholic public dissenters are now in the highest positions of government as Vice President, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Minority Leader in the House of Representatives. These same individuals support “same sex marriage” and the dissolution of marriage as we know it today. They have created the “perfect storm” by joining forces demanding mandatory free contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. Under the guise of human rights, these dissenters are contracepting and sterilizing future generations of Americans out of existence. Chaput and Stafford were right.

Archbishop Stafford was asked by the Holy Father in 1996 to leave Denver and become President of the Pontifical Council of the Laity and then raised to the rank of a Cardinal. He retired in 2012. He concludes his story of five years ago by stating that not much has changed.[6] He recalls a subsequent meeting with the ex-Marine priest.

“While my mind and heart were recalling the events of the night, he remained silent. His silence continued afterwards. Even though he had not forgotten, he made no comment. He didn’t lift his eyes. His heart’s fire was colder now.

“Nothing was forthcoming. I left the matter there. No dialogue was possible in 1968; it remained impossible in 1978. There was no common ground. Both of us were looking into an abyss – from opposite sides. Anguish and disquiet overwhelmed the distant hope of reconciliation and friendship.  We never returned to the subject again.  He has since died while serving a large suburban parish.  The only remaining option is to strike my breast and pray, ‘Lord, remember the secret worth of all our human worthlessness’.

“Diocesan presbyterates have not recovered from the July/August nights in 1968.  Many in consecrated life also failed the evangelical test. …[T]he abyss has opened up elsewhere. The whole people of God, including children and adolescents, now must look into the abyss and see what dread beasts are at its bottom. Each of us shudders before the wrath of God, each weeps in sorrow for our sins and each begs for the Father’s merciful remembrance of Christ’s obedience.”[7]

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Bob and Gerri Laird have been a certified NFP teaching couple for the Couple to Couple League since 1984, and have written and spoken extensively on numerous topics related to family life, such as marital intimacy, natural family planning, parenting, chastity, post-abortion healing, reframing the abortion debate, and the HHS Mandate. 


[1]Bob Laird, “Living Martyrs,” Arlington Catholic Herald, August 5, 1993, 5.

[3]Laird, “Living Martyrs.”

[5] Bob Laird, “’Humanae Vitae’ – on Marriage and Family – at 30,” Arlington Catholic Herald, July 23, 1998, 3.