Schonborn, Elliott lament bishops’ failure on Humanae Vitae

09 Apr 2009

By The Record

Reporters only recently noticed a remarkably tough address delivered by
Austria’s most Senior Catholic prelate, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn,
last year in Jerusalem on the lack of leadership in the Church in 1968,
and since, on the immorality of birth control.                              


Left, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, Austria, answers questions during a news conference in Vienna. He has sdetailed Catholic bishops’ failure to act decisively to back Pope Paul VI when the pontiff released Humanae Vitae, a critical breakdown of Church teaching on sexuality that has resulted in many Catholics today contracepting. Below, Bishop Peter Elliott of Sydney says the situation also occured in Australia. Photos: CNS/Courtesy of Bishop Elliott


A leading Australian bishop who is also an expert in the theology of marriage and gender in Melbourne backed Cardinal Schonborn’s comments. Bishop Peter Elliott of Melbourne supplied The Record with an article he has just completed chronicling widespread dissent or efforts to undermine or weaken Humanae Vitae’s authority in the Church in Australia and internationally (see below).
The blistering attack, in which Vienna’s Cardinal Archbishop Christoph Schonborn accuses a number of his predecessors of lacking the courage to speak out against birth control and blames them in part for the declining birth rate in Europe, was delivered to a Neocatechumenate meeting in Jerusalem on March 27, but only appeared late in 2008 on the website of the Viennese archdiocese. From there, journalist Christa Pongratz-Lippitt picked up the story, reporting on it on November 8 in The Tablet of London.
Schonborn said that, after the publication of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae which reiterated traditional Church teaching condemning as immoral the use of birth control, many bishops’ conferences around the world – including those of Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the US and later Australia – issued statements assuring the faithfully that the issue was a matter of conscience.
These bishops, Schonborn said, “frightened of the press and of being misunderstood by the faithful,” distanced themselves from the Church’s teaching.
Now, Europe is “about to die out,” and part of the reason is the lack of commitment by the bishops to the Church’s true, fruitful, loving and beautiful pro-life teaching, Schonborn said.
Schonborn has told Inside the Vatican in the past that he is “very worried” about the plummeting population in Austria.
“I think that it is also our sin as bishops, even if none of us were bishops in 1968,” he said in the talk.
Bishops have not had, or did not have, the courage to ‘swim against the tide’ and say yes to Humanae Vitae, he said.
The Cardinal, who is close to Pope Benedict XVI, particularly criticised two of the many 1968 bishops’ conference declaration on Humanae Vitae, which all stressed the importance of the individual conscience.
He singled out the Maria Trost Declaration, whose signatories included Cardinal Franz Koenig, the late archbishop of Vienna, president of the Austrian bishops’ conference and a Father of the Second Vatican Council, and Konigstein Declaration, whose signatories included Cardinal Julius Doepfner, the late archbishop of Munich, president of the German bishops’ conference and another Council Father.
Cardinal Schonborn accused the signatories of “weakening the People of God’s sense for life” so that when “the wave of abortions” and increasing acceptance of homosexuality followed, the Church lacked the courage to oppose them.
There were a few memorable exceptions in 1968, the cardinal said, one of which was Krakow, where a group of theologians led by the archbishop and cardinal of Krakow, the future Pope John Paul II, drew up a memorandum which was sent to Pope Paul VI, urging him to write Humanae Vitae.
“I think this witness by a martyr-bishop of the so-called Silent Church carried more weight than all the expertise Pope Paul VI had drawn up on this subject,” Cardinal Schonborn said.
“It led him to make this courageous decision. I am convinced in my inner being, even if I have no historical evidence, that this text from Krakow helped to give Pope Paul VI the courage to write Humanae Vitae.”
Schonborn thanked the Neocatechumenate families for having large families which produce many vocations, and he thanked Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI for discerning between the different charisms and, following the example of St Paul in 1 Corinthians 14, saying which are of God. He asked them God to forgive all bishops and give them courage to say “yes” to life.
Speaking from Melbourne, Bishop Peter Elliott told The Record Cardinal Schonborn’s comments were correct.
“What Cardinal Schonborn said is true – and it’s time it was stated openly 40 years down the track,” Bishop Elliott of Melbourne said.
Bishop Elliott, a former official with the Pontifical Council for the Family in Rome for ten years has also just written an article for the Council’s journal setting out the widespread pattern of rejection and undermining of Humanae Vitae that took place in the Church up to and including the level of national bishops’ conferences around the world.
Bishop Elliott says that he was effectively excluded from membership of the Australian Catholic Theological Association for many years because of his support for Humanae Vitae.
In the article he also recounts the experience of meeting with Bishop Bernard Stewart of the Diocese of Sandhurst in the 1970s and watching as the bishop cried and apologised to him while recounting how the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference had voted to adopt a weaker stance on Humanae Vitae.
Part of the damage caused by such weakness led many Catholics into believing the Church’s teaching was not binding, on birth control and sterilisation, he writes.
The international trend for bishops’ conferences to back-pedal on support for Humanae Vitae was the most tragic episode in the saga of the encyclical, he recalls in the article.
Bishop Elliott says that 40 years after Pope Paul VI’s courageous and prophetic encyclical, which also made him something of a martyr for promulgating it, he detects a mood of indifference within the Catholic community in Australia.
In many parishes, teaching on birth control is a “non-issue”.
“No-one speaks about it. Rarely do articles appear in Catholic journals on this controversial topic. It is not included in homilies, even if prudence would require a certain reserve and delicacy when preaching at Sunday Mass because children are present,” he writes.
And yet, he says, “In spite of some problems it is easy to explain the core message of Humanae Vitae and to promote natural spacing of childbirth.

From Inside the Vatican Magazine with additional reporting from The Record.


Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical letter on the transmission of human life, Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968. One month earlier, I had been received into the Church at the Catholic Chaplaincy of the University of Oxford, where I was studying theology. What a time for a young Australian Anglican to become a Catholic! Puzzled and bewildered by the way so many fellow Catholics reacted to the papal teaching, I began to reflect on what had been happening just before the encyclical appeared. This was the first step that helped me to appreciate the truth and wisdom of the Holy Father’s teaching. It also turned out to be the remote preparation for a future priestly ministry of serving the truth of life and love contained in Humanae Vitae.

Among Catholics in England in 1968, there was a sense of expectation. Experts predicted “a change” in the Church’s teaching on birth control. A pamphlet from Ealing Abbey in the “Living Parish Series” even prepared women for the great reversal of Church teaching. That pamphlet suddenly vanished when the papal teaching appeared. I regret not buying a copy at the time. It would be a collector’s item today.

However, quieter voices were saying that “a change” was out of the question. Any change would reverse the constant moral teaching against contraception, proposed by Pope Pius XI in Casti connubii and repeated by the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes., 50, 51. But quieter voices were ignored in the Sixties. It was a confused era for Catholics seeking moral guidance on spacing childbirths. The radical social climate influenced many Catholics, especially the young. That year, 1968, had already seen the dramatic rise of the New Left with the student riots in Paris and elsewhere, even if these only briefly touched Oxford.

Before the Encyclical: Doubts and False Hopes

Early in 1968, when I was under instruction to become a Catholic, I participated in a Catholic study circle in a student’s rooms in Christchurch College. The topic was what the Pope might decide about contraception. The group reflected the doubts raised by the anovulent pill about the Church’s teaching against contraception. But these doubts were based on very simplistic perceptions. The pill did not involve mechanical means that interfered in the natural act. To all purposes, it was invisible and doctors said that it could have medical applications.

Little was known in those days about the health hazards and side effects of the pill. I doubt whether anyone knew about the early abortofacient effects. Few people recognized the disruptive psychological dimensions of contraception within the interpersonal relationship of marriage.

Looking back to that evening in the quiet glories of Christchurch College, I recall a kind of consensus in the group – the Pope will ban condoms and allow the pill! Looking back, one blushes at our student naivite. But we were also subject to certain influences within the Church.

A campaign had already spread across Europe and North America to allow the pill for Catholics. Confessors gave conflicting advice to women: some saying “no change”, others “wait for it”, others “follow your conscience”, but that was a code for “go ahead”. Well before the encyclical appeared, the elastic conscience took hold in the Church, at least in a Western cultural context.

Pastoral Problems

However, looking back, I can see that some other practical and pastoral problems paved the way for dissent. Natural methods of regulating fertility were not trusted, not regarded as “scientific” enough to satisfy the prevailing contraceptive mentality in 1968. All natural methods were called “Rhythm”. Married people were skeptical when told that this old “calendar method” had been superseded by the Basal Body Temperature Method or the simpler Billings Ovulation Method. In the hedonistic mood of that era, when the sexual revolution was rising to power, any suggestion of a need for discipline or self-control was ridiculed.

As I observed in England, some promoters of natural methods were not really convinced about Church teaching, so they could no longer see the need for their essential work. I believe they had lost heart, and that is the most tragic cause of any failure to serve people. Some promoters of natural methods were not open to new developments, Billings Ovulation Method or the Sympto-Thermal approach.

Hopes for change were also raised by the Commission set up by Pope Paul to review the question. It was no secret that the majority report presented to the Pope by the Commission was in favor of change. That report was widely publicized and praised. The more prudent minority report, against any change to the constant teaching, was mocked, derided and rejected – but, as it turned out, not by the Vicar of Christ.

First Reactions to the Encyclical

When the encyclical appeared on the feast of St James in 1968, I was at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, in an Oxford students’ Summer pilgrimage Each day we worked with the sick. For me, this was a peaceful and humbling spiritual experience, but that was soon disrupted as news spread of the encyclical. I was amazed at the anger and uproar among young women in our group. Most of them were objecting to Pope Paul’s teaching. I soon saw that they had been led to expect the very opposite to what appeared in Humanae Vitae.

A fellow Australian, a seminarian from Sydney, was with us on the pilgrimage. I recall how he was not surprised, which revealed that his moral theology professors were wise men. He also knew the encyclical was not the Pope’s hesitant “decision”, rather a confident and clear restatement of unchangeable moral teaching. Before his untimely death, Fr. Jeremy Flynn worked among AIDS victims. He was an unwavering example of fidelity to the encyclical and its message of life and love.

On the day the encyclical was released it was undermined in Rome. Forty years on, I believe we need to remember this scandalous and damaging incident. For reasons I still cannot determine, Mgr Ferdinando Lambruschini told the media that the teaching was “not infallible”. These words, apparently his own comment, did not appear in the report in L’Osservatore Romano, but the damage was done. He had been in the Papal Commission and had signed the majority report. Picked up by the media, his words were interpreted by many people as a signal to ignore the papal teaching. The “logic” ran like this: “It’s not infallible so we can choose to reject it.”

Later, when I entered the seminary, I carefully studied the exact authority of the papal teaching, its “theological note”. I came to the opposite conclusion, that is, Humanae Vitae embodies infallible teaching. The writing of Dom Paul Nau on the Ordinary Magisterium was most helpful to me. But, in 1968, a recent convert did not know enough theology to understand that when a Pope repeats and elucidates constant Church teaching on faith or morals, then this is the infallible teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium. Humanae Vitae did not have to be proclaimed solemnly, like a dogma defined by the Extraordinary Magisterium.

What most of us did not know at the time was how a young Polish cardinal had influenced the way Paul VI presented the teaching. Karol Woytyla had written Love and Responsibility back in 1958. As Pope John Paul II he would develop and enrich Humanae Vitae.

A Famous Debate

Later in 1968 I was at the famous public debate over the encyclical, held in Oxford between some Dominican priests and Professor Elizabeth Anscombe. She defended Humanae Vitae logically and easily won the debate, not however in the opinion of many clergy, professors and students crowded into the Newman Rooms. Emotions counted more than reason at that time. She consistently maintained a direct and challenging argument, that if you accept contraceptive intercourse logically you should accept homosexual acts.

During that historical debate, a young Australian postgraduate student John Finnis quoted footnote 9 in the encyclical, St Thomas Aquinas on the Natural Law. The Dominicans were most embarrassed! At that time, some English members of this great Order had absorbed Marxism. Later, in a pub, I heard a priest of this faction cynically describe Humanae Vitae as an opportunity to engage in power struggles in the Church. That incident also revealed another problem, how using dissent against the papal teaching became an instrument to achieve the radical goals of what Pope Benedict XVI calls “the hermeneutic of discontinuity” or rupture. Let me add that the English Dominicans today have moved well beyond that unfortunate phase in their history. 

A Most Uncomfortable Dinner

At about this time, the assistant Catholic chaplain of Oxford asked me to join him at dinner with a young couple, involved in postgraduate research. They were having difficulties with the papal teaching. He knew that I accepted the encyclical and he wanted moral support. When we arrived at the small apartment, the wife immediately began to denounce the papal teaching. Her husband remained silent. With some difficulty we managed to get to the main course of the meal, but she still went on attacking the errors of the celibate Pope. By this stage I was angry and suffering from indigestion. When she drew breath, I quietly asked whether she had read Humanae Vitae. She looked confused and admitted she had not read the encyclical. The topic of conversation changed immediately, and we were able to take our dessert and coffee in peace.

That evening revealed another pastoral problem. Many people did not read what the Holy Father taught. They relied on garbled accounts of his teaching, particularly in the secular media. Many people just regarded the abstinence involved in natural regulation of fertility as demanding and “impossible”, and there was the lingering issue of the bad reputation of natural methods when reduced to “Rhythm”. Can we say that this situation of ignorance and hearsay has improved much today?

Poor Follow-up and Dissent

Unfortunately, in the wake of Humanae Vitae, aggressive dissent seemed to freeze many Catholic leaders. Some acts of discipline were carried out by a few bishops against vocal priests, but that only made these men into media martyrs, victims of ecclesiastical tyranny. Other bishops organized meetings to give their priests formation on how to deal with cases in the confessional, but some of these meetings descended into fruitless disputation. At this time the destructive and divisive “conservative versus progressive” analysis of the Church became the way any issue was interpreted. Few realized that this was the intrusion of secular political categories into the Mystical Body of Christ.

In the United States, Charles Curran led the attack on the encyclical with well-known supporters. I later discovered that the whole exercise was prepared and carefully planned. In Europe Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx and Bernard Haring made dissent respectable, even normal. Kung later attacked infallibility itself. At least, he rightly understood the authority of the papal teaching in the context of the Ordinary Magisterium, while others equivocated over that question. However, I believe the most influential dissenter was Karl Rahner. At that time he was regarded as the greatest modern theologian. He gave prestige to the rejection of Humanae Vitae.

In the wider world, already swayed by the sexual revolution, the opposition was less subtle, even brutal. The Holy Father Pope Paul VI was attacked and abused in the secular press, which featured the first anti-papal cartoons ever seen in some countries. The Neo-Malthusians particularly abused the Pope by raising the specter of over-population.  But sectors of the Catholic press also joined in the attacks, and from Oxford I observed this scandalous phenomenon at close quarters.

Under its new editor, Paul Burns, the London Tablet dissented from Humanae Vitae. This prestigious journal has “faithfully” maintained this dissenting position for forty years. Another Tablet editor later censored a letter of mine contradicting another English dissenter, Dr Jack Dominian. I presumed to tell readers that Mother Teresa’s sisters teach natural family planning in India. That sentence had to be removed or my letter would not be permitted to appear. You could not even make fidelity to Humanae Vitae look good! 

The London Tablet recently “celebrated” the fortieth anniversary of the encyclical by repeating its dissent, this time allowing some space for other views. This influential publication is read by thousands of clergy and religious all over the Anglophone world. It is maintained by an aging English Catholic liberal establishment.

Episcopal Conferences Respond

Then I witnessed, the most tragic phase of the saga of Humanae Vitae. Taking up the compassionate pastoral approach of the Holy Father in the encyclical, “Pastoral Statements” from various Episcopal Conferences began to appear. But  some of these in varying degrees modified the Pope’s teaching, usually in a slippery way by appealing to conscience, inaccurately understood in a subjectivist sense. The Canadian “Winnipeg Statement” (1968) was perhaps the worst. It has never been revoked, although a consistent defender of the papal teaching, Msgr Vincent N. Foy, has recently called for the statement to be corrected. But in 1974, my own country Australia finally fell into step with certain other hierarchies. By that time, I had been ordained a priest and was working as an assistant pastor in a large multi-ethnic parish. 

One afternoon, I waited in the sacristy of the second church in the parish for a Bishop who was about to baptize his great nephew. Most Rev. Bernard Stewart, Bishop of Sandhurst, was a courageous leader in defending and teaching the faith. It was shortly after the appearance of the Australian Bishops’ statement on Humanae Vitae. What was a young priest to think when a senior bishop, with tears in his eyes, apologized to him for losing the vote that let the weak Australian statement appear? After complaints to Rome, the statement was later corrected, but the damage was already done. The correction received little publicity. Through the secular media, Catholics heard “follow your conscience”, a green light for birth control and sterilization.

The Debates Continue

The effects of the intervention of Msgr Lambruschini lingered. Even supporters of the encyclical said that, while the teaching is immutable and irreformable, it is not infallible, a somewhat inconsistent position. However, in 1978, marking the tenth anniversary of the encyclical, in an article in Theological Studies, Fr. John Ford SJ and Prof. Germain Grisez expounded how Humanae Vitae is part of the Ordinary Magisterium, hence infallible. Their insights clarified the conclusion I had already reached independently. However, in 1983 their argument was attacked by Fr. Francis Sullivan SJ in his book Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church. Fr. Sullivan even argued that the Magisterium does not have competence in matters pertaining to the natural moral law. Professor Grisez and Fr. Brian Harrison OS, effectively refuted Fr Sullivan’s arguments – but his book is still a reference text on the nature of the Magisterium. Fr. Harrison has also promoted incisive work on the magisterial authority of Humanae Vitae by the renowned Lateran professor, the late Fr. Eremengildo Lio OFM, who agued in Humanae Vitae e Infallibilta (1986) that the encyclical is really an ex cathedra solemn definition, hence infallible.

However important these theological debates may be, the main point that we are called to maintain and promote is that this papal teaching is true, that Pope Paul was right, as Prof. Janet Smith of Dallas has argued well. In this regard, I recall the reassuring words Cardinal Edouard Gagnon, that the truth is always accompanied by its own grace, that truth has its own innate power. In the case of Humanae Vitae this truth is more than a theological question, rather the truth of the human person offering a critical pastoral response to the timeless question: ”How then are we to live?”

Pope Paul, Prophet and Martyr

Looking back at the witness of Paul VI, we rightly call him a prophet. During the years immediately after Humanae Vitae, to many of us, he seemed to be a martyr.  His letter on the transmission of human life was his finest hour and he suffered for it. Yet, as the Scriptures reveal, prophets are called to suffer when they proclaim God’s truth and point to the future.  What we can see today is that, not only his proclamation of truth, but his observations and predictions in the encyclical were accurate in light of social trends and events in people’s lives over the past forty years.

He said that contraception harmed women (Humanae Vitae 17). People laughed at him in 1968. Was not the pill the liberation of women? Forty years later various feminists agree with him, perceiving the way women are exploited by being robbed of their fertility. Men can easily exploit them sexually. The health issues are also clearer today. But I believe we need to do more to get accurate information out on this issue. There is still widespread ignorance and new “low dose” versions of the pill are being promoted as safe to use.

He argued that artificial birth control can be used by governments to impose population control. The Delegation of the Holy See had to lead the international struggle against population control at the UN Conferences in the1990’s. I was a Member of the Delegation at the Population Conference in Cairo (1994), at the Social Summit in Copenhagen (1995) and the Conference on Women in Beijing (1995).  The Servant of God, Pope John Paul II was our inspiring and encouraging leader in that struggle, but we always relied on the teaching of Pope Paul VI in  Humanae Vitae.

He was also criticized for linking abortion to contraception and sterilization. Of course moral distinctions can be made between taking life and impeding life.  But recent decades have revealed how these three “ugly sisters” are inseparable components of the Culture of Death, linked closely to one another in a mysterious but evident way, particularly through an anti-life mentality.

His teaching that the love-giving and life-giving dimensions of the marriage act must never be separated has also been vindicated by the manipulation of nascent human life in recent decades – In Vitro Fertilization, surrogacy, embryo experimentation and the cloning of embryos. Creating human-animal hybrids was recently approved by Westminster, the “Mother of Parliaments”, which first legalized abortion in 1967.

He argued that that love, not just life, is disrupted by anti-natal practices. People who actually read his encyclical find his rich doctrine of married love. But the creative development of that dimension of his teaching had to wait for another Pope.

Later Pastoral Experiences

After the 1980 Synod of Bishops on the family, Pope John Paul II personalized Humanae Vitae in Familiaris Consortio. 28-35. Benefiting from the woman’s cycle, couples cooperate with God as ministers of life, open to the divine plan. The Holy Father promoted the truly interpersonal way of the natural regulation of fertility (FC 32).

In the early years of my priesthood in Melbourne, I came to know Dr John and Dr Lyn Billings. I soon became one the chaplains to the Ovulation Method circle. In 1984 John Billings invited me to accompany him with Dr Kevin Hume to a conference on Humanae Vitae being held in Rome at the new Istituto Giovanni Paolo II per studi su matrimonio e famiglia. During a discussion at that conference, with some trepidation, I stood up and expressed my views in favour of the infallibility of the encyclical.

Several years earlier, I had already encountered opposition in the Australian Catholic Theological Association for presuming to express that opinion. Later, when I was working in Rome, I was effectively expelled from that association, this time for not supporting a theologian who rejected the physical Resurrection of Our Lord!  But in Rome the atmosphere was very different to the decadence that unfortunately had infected Australian theological circles in those years.  Archbishop, later Cardinal, Edouard Gagnon offered to supervise my doctoral thesis, proposing the sacramentality of marriage as its theme. Therefore, I was able to return later that year to commence studies at the Institute, which in turn led to service in the Pontifical Council for the Family, 1987-1997.

Working in the P.C.F.

In the years of Vatican service in the Pontifical Council for the Family., I came to appreciate the luminous teaching of Humanae Vitae more deeply. A celibate priest finds that his vocation is enriched by learning from the personal experiences of so many couples who follow the papal teachings, who live those teachings day by day. He is also able to discover the insights of family movements. I found that the truth of life and love was further elucidated at interesting conferences and through new projects related to the natural regulation of childbirth. In this regard, the work of Dr Anna Cappella, OP, and her team has been great example to us all, with direct influence in Africa and beyond.

There were some unforgettable moments. One day, the late Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo set up two portraits in the corridor of our offices: Pope Paul VI, “the Pope of Humanae Vitae” and Pope John Paul II, “the Pope of Evangelium Vitae”. To me, that gesture captured what our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI describes as the “hermeneutic of continuity”, here applied to the strong and consistent papal magisterium on life and love. I also recall the day when Cardinal Lopez Trujillo invented that beautiful and accurate expression, the authentic alternative to describe the natural spacing of childbirths. His words capture two pastoral principles: that the natural methods embody the truth of the human person, an authentic understanding of fertility, and that these methods offer a real alternative to the “easy” but deceptive ways of contraception or sterilisation.

On returning to Australia in 1997, I learnt from Dr John and Dr Lyn Billings of their efforts to promote the Ovulation Method throughout China. This fascinating story  will be told one day. Many journeys, often under difficult conditions, took them to the most far-flung provinces of China. The natural methods offer a way through the ethical issues raised by the One Child Policy, and Chinese people are open to what is natural. I alluded to the gratitude of the women of China when I was honoured to preach at the solemn funeral Mass for Dr. John Billings in 2007, in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne.

Another positive development I discovered on returning to Australia was that the divisive disputes between the various natural methods had ended. Controversy and competition had been a negative feature in the field of the natural regulation of childbirth. The “methods wars” became bitter and involved a loss of charity and balance. But the Australian Bishops brought the promoters of various methods together in an official working group, which also has made it possible to receive some government assistance.

Recently technical disputes have arisen over the precise way the Billings Ovulation Method should be interpreted. I hope that these differences can be kept “within the family”. The devil loves to set good Catholics against one another, not so much over what we believe, but over how we do things!  While I favour the Ovulation Method, I have married friends who found that the Sympto-Thermal Method was more useful in their situation, and some of my relatives also benefited greatly from that method.

Where We Are Today

However, forty years after the encyclical I detect a mood of indifference within the Catholic community in my own country. In many parishes Church teaching on birth control is a “non issue”. No one speaks about it. Rarely do articles appear in Catholic journals on this controversial topic. It is not included in homilies, even if prudence would require a certain reserve and delicacy when preaching on this question at a Sunday Mass because children are present. In spite of problems, it is easy to explain the core message of Humanae Vitae and to promote natural spacing of childbirth. This can be done in many positive ways. The Australian Bishops’ Commission on Pastoral Life, of which I am a member, is supporting new ways of spreading the good news of the natural methods of spacing childbirths.

What is truly natural can be a means of grace in marriage because God’s plan has been given to us in our very creation as male and female. This is why we need to popularise the great gift of the Servant of God Pope John Paul II, The Theology of the Body. The capacity for self-giving, the interpersonal dimension of married life, grows with the help of natural methods, especially through the sharing of decisions in equality, with better communication and the tender love required for mutual self-control. Moreover, in the face of so many tragic fertility problems today, many couples can achieve the precious gift of a child by reversing the natural methods.

I believe the Church needs to support wider promotion of natural methods in the secular “marketplace”, particularly through television and the Internet. Millions of women are still ignorant concerning the real patterns of their fertility. Do they not have a right to this scientific knowledge? Most men think only in terms of contraception or the final “solution”, sterilization. The propaganda of International Planned Parenthood and its affiliates is prevalent, especially through the AIDS and condoms campaigns. Therefore, our message needs to be re-worked in imaginative and creative ways. One suggestion is that we should develop an appreciation for the natural “ecology of the body”, an approach that would resonate with many young people today.

The new generation of fervent young Catholics is a cause for hope.  I was encouraged at the recent World Youth Day in Sydney to see how young pilgrims welcomed the talks we offered on the Theology of the Body as well as information about natural methods. Some of them seem to appreciate the challenge of Humanae Vitae, seeing it as a radical alternative to the permissive ways that the world offers them. During World Youth Day, young people firmly, but humorously, rejected the condoms that were frequently and persistently pressed upon them in streets and parks.

Looking back at the loss and gain since 1968, I believe that within the Church we have an obligation to make it possible for all couples to live according to God’s plan for the transmission of human life. Otherwise we are like those lawyers in the Gospels, denounced by Our Lord for putting burdens on people’s shoulders while doing nothing to lift them. The teaching of Humanae Vitae is binding. On that principle there can be no compromise. But we need to do everything possible to help couples live according to the teaching of Pope Paul VI. We need to be true pastors, compassionate pastoral agents and courageous leaders in family ministry.

Therefore the “authentic alternative” offers us the only pastoral way forward. In every country we must widely promote the natural spacing of childbirths, imperfectly described as “natural family planning”. In my opinion, until there is a trained teacher of these natural methods in every parish, we are not being serious about the prophetic teaching of Paul VI, his liberating message of life and love.

Most Rev. Peter J. Elliott is an Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia. Between 1987 and 1997 he was an Official of the Pontifical Council for the Family. He is the Director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne.