I wasn’t a particularly devout teenager. I knew it was important to go to Sunday Mass, but I honestly found it rather dull at times. So it was tremendously satisfactory when, one Sunday, there was high drama.
A man got up from the congregation during the priest’s sermon and shouted at him. From where we sat, it wasn’t quite clear what was happening — we craned to see, despite my mother’s hissed injunction, "Don’t stare!" and an unconvincing, "It’s probably nothing important."
The shouting went on only for a short time — I think there was some sort of brief answer from the priest in the pulpit — and then the man left the church and Mass continued.
Afterward, everyone was talking about it. It was clear that something important was going on. I asked my mother what the man had been shouting about but got a dismissive and unsatisfactory reply. My sister made a we’ll-talk-about-this-later sort of face and, when we were finally at home and in our own room, she told me smugly that she knew what it had all been about.
"But I bet you don’t," she said. "You and your friends don’t talk about it yet." Ah, so I knew now roughly what territory we were in — something to do with sex. "Yes, we do," I said at once. "We talk about it all the time." (Didn’t, actually, but I wanted to sound grown-up.)
It was the summer of 1968, and the Humanae Vitae debate had hit our local suburb. The man who had heckled the priest was a relative of another priest who had publicly dissented from the teaching, and who would be seen much on television in the weeks ahead — a popular and attractive young priest, ordained not long before, from a dedicated local Catholic family.
Dissent from Humanae Vitae wasn’t something remote and far away; it was written into the fabric of ordinary Catholic parish life. It involved popular priests and lay people who were active in many fields — teachers, leaders of organizations — and, from my recollection at least, it was mainstream. I don’t remember hearing anyone actively defending Humanae Vitae. Among my teenaged friends, when we discussed The Pill and its associated issues, it was simply assumed that within marriage it was presumably okay. The issue for us — one we discussed endlessly — was whether you should be sexually active before marriage (consensus was "no," although some girls moderated this with a "it’s all right if you’re engaged, or really love the person," which was pretty much the message we were getting from TV at that time).
I was in my early twenties when I first heard a defence of the Church’s teaching. I knew that my mother warmly supported the pope, and I was certainly committed to living by the values I had been taught. But the detailed arguments had not been put before me in any public forum. I took the attitude that the topic didn’t matter to me: I knew that sexual activity was reserved for marriage, so contraception couldn’t be an issue until then, and I was still single.
And then I heard Catholic writer Christopher Derrick speak. He was amusing, challenging, and accurate. He pointed out that the successor of St. Peter was a voice for the world’s poor, for the people who get pushed aside. He drew an image of an airplane filled with rich, indulged, and overweight people flying on holiday. They are typical Westerners, with a typical lifestyle involving contraception, sexual activity outside of marriage, divorce and remarriage, occasional abortion, and so on. They are eating enjoyable extra snacks between large meals as they gaze from the windows. Their flight takes them, far up in the air, over wide open spaces of land occupied by some of the poorest people on earth. On the plane, the conversation casually covers current topics — and of course it is universally agreed that the pope is just an old fool, out of touch, so ridiculous in this day and age . . . Anyway, what about overpopulation?
It was an image that stayed with me. It challenged all the clichés I had been given by the mass media on a whole range of linked subjects: economics, demography, development. For the first time, I began to be interested in how things worked: why an ageing and obese society might not have a real future, why the people we described as being part of the "Third World" might be worth getting to know and understand better. Later, I would become interested in things like how richly creative human beings can be; how important justice and good government are; how wicked — as well as stupid — socialist policies are, especially when imposed on a large scale. But those were thoughts for the future — as a young woman, I connected with just one major possibility: that the Church might be right in this particular area, profoundly right, embarrassingly so.
And now here we are, 40 years after Humanae Vitae, and I’m a middle-aged married woman in a Britain where abortion has killed huge numbers of our unborn citizens; where sexually transmitted diseases are at terrifying levels among teenagers; where half of all children are born out of wedlock; where contraceptive drugs and devices are advertised to adolescents on a massive scale. We have a huge problem with broken families, much official promotion of the homosexual lifestyle, and a soaring rate of violent crime among the young. We have a large and growing problem over how we will care for the growing numbers of elderly — me among them in a couple of decades’ time — with a diminishing base of younger people.
I don’t know what happened to the man who shouted in church. The young priest left the priesthood, and I don’t know what happened to him, either. Both were good and decent men who sincerely believed the Church to be wrong. But the Church had a greater wisdom. Peter’s successor was inspired to say the truth, to state what was unchangeable and right.
I don’t find Mass dull now. As my teens drew to a close, my involvement in an excellent Catholic youth movement helped to foster the development of my understanding and built on what I had been taught at home and school. And I was reading: Newman, Knox, Chesterton, and more. Now, looking back across the decades, I find Paul VI’s words extraordinarily wise, prophetic, honest, and realistic. Thank God for Humanae Vitae.
Joanna Bogle is an author and broadcaster living in London