Apropos of this post, the Times has an article recounting Cardinal Cushing’s role in the battle to legalize contraception in Massachusetts back in the 1960s. Legalization at that time meant just for married couple over the age of 21, but the battle was basically won (the Supreme Court struck down the restriction on contraception for unmarried couples in 1972, according to the article). And Cushing’s position seems to me to have been precisely right: in a plurastic democracy, one group shouldn’t seek to impose its moral views on the rest of society.
I came of age in the 1960s, and it seemed for a while back then as if the world was headed in the right direction, with the Vatican Council and the Civil Rights Act and Medicare. As a knee-jerk liberal even back then, I thought all these things were obvious benefits to humanity. But, being young and stupid, I saw no reason why things couldn’t continue along the same course.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks that the world (and, in particular, the Catholic Church) has swerved in the wrong direction since then.
Rereading this old obituary of Cardinal Cushing reminded me of his role in legalizing birth control in Massachusetts. Here’s a quote via Andrew Sullivan:
I as a Catholic have absolutely no right in my thinking to foist through legislation or through other means, my doctrine of my church upon others. It is important to note that Catholics do not need the support of the civil law to be faithful to their religious convictions.
It was this position that made it possible for Catholic legislators in the late 1960s to vote to legalize birth control in Massachusetts. You don’t get American archbishops saying stuff like that nowadays.
Here is Garry Wills in the New York Review of Books on the insanity of the Catholic church’s position on birth control.
When Paul reaffirmed the ban on birth control in Humanae Vitae (1968) there was massive rejection of it. Some left the church. Some just ignored it. Paradoxically, the document formed to convey the idea that papal teaching is inerrant just convinced most people that it can be loony. The priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley said that Humanae Vitae did more damage to the papacy than any of the so-called “liberal” movements in Catholicism. When Pius IX condemned democracy and modern science in his Syllabus of Errors (1864), the Catholic historian Lord Acton said that Catholics were too sensible to go crazy every time a pope does. The reaction to Humanae Vitae proves that.
I’m old enough to recall when Garry Wills was a conservative who wrote for National Review. He has long since come to his senses.
Thinking about Pontiff reminds me of my research on the papacy, which included reading about Paul VI. Paul is in many ways a tragic figure. He was certain that his stand on birth control (in which he overruled the majority of a papal commission that had studied the matter) was right, but he knew that it would in some ways destroy his papacy and cloud his legacy. He believed that future generations would see that he was a prophet; over fifty years later, we know that he was wrong. This is the stuff of fiction: a man willing to destroy himself for what he believes to be a noble cause — a cause that the rest of us know will create untold misery for millions. But, alas, it’s not fiction.