For anybody who has been watching the CBCEW wrestling with the issue of marriage recently, here is something which might make one think “plus ça change ...”
On 7 May 1964 the Hierarchy of England and Wales published a statement on Contraception (h/t to Shane for the link).
"It has even been suggested that the Council could approve the practice of contraception. But the Church, while free to revise her own positive laws, has no power of any kind to alter the laws of God. “Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offence against the laws of God and nature.” — (Pius XI, Encyclical Letter “Christian Marriage,” 1930).
The Pope, in saying this, was not introducing a new doctrine. Fifteen hundred years ago St. Augustine bore witness to the same belief and practice in the Catholic Church: “Intercourse is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented.” — (De Coniug. Adult. 11, 12). In our own day, Pope Pius XII has spoken with equal bluntness: “This precept is as valid to-day as it was yesterday, and it will be the same to-morrow and always, because it does not imply a precept of human law but is the expression of a law which is natural and divine.” — (Address to Catholic midwives, October, 1951).
While recalling the plain teaching of Christ, we nevertheless wish to express our fatherly compassion for Catholic husbands and wives who sometimes find themselves in a position of great difficulty. We know that sometimes there can be an agonising choice between natural instincts and the law of God. Our hearts are full of sympathy, but we cannot change God’s law. We must all — married and unmarried, priest and layman — realise that following Christ calls for sacrifice and self-denial. Holy Scripture, Ecumenical Councils and the Popes, are at one in declaring that, aided by Divine grace, all God’s children are capable of chaste living. “There is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfil their duties faithfully and preserve purity in wedlock” — (Pius XI, Encyclical Letter “Christian Marriage,” 1930).
Many husbands and wives are troubled in conscience. They know that the Church is an infallible guide in matters of faith and morals. But doubts are shown in their minds by imprudent statements questioning the competence of the Church in this particular question. It is true that progress is made in the understanding of Christian doctrine. The Church is the Body of Christ and is always growing in wisdom and knowledge. But truth cannot contradict itself. The bishops feel bound to proclaim the unchanging nature of God’s law. We would be failing in our duty as pastors of souls were we to remain silent when so many voices are being raised to lead our people astray. The faithful are not incapable of the high degree of virtue which the observance of God’s law sometimes demands. Let them beware of false leaders: “If the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit.” — (Matt. XV: 14.)"
A clear statement, you will agree, on where the Catholic Church stands.
On 17 September 1968 the Catholic Bishops published a document responding to Humanæ Vitæ. It included the following statement:
"The Pope, bishops, clergy and faithful must all be true to conscience. But we are bound to do everything in our power to make sure that our conscience is truly informed. Neither this Encyclical nor any other document of the Church takes away from us our right and duty to follow our conscience. But if we were to neglect the guidance of the Church, morality could easily become subjective. This would be disastrous. It is well to remember the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” in the Second Vatican Council: “In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself.”
Theologians will seek clarification of the teaching in the Encyclical. Much of the field of human sexuality remains to be explored. We must ourselves continue sponsoring such research with assistance to initiatives already taken and the pooling of experience already gained. The Pope himself exhorts doctors to persevere in their studies in order to benefit the married people who consult them. We need to learn to what extent secular science can contribute to a solution of marriage problems.
We must also enquire what are the implications of the Encyclical’s reference to the use of therapeutic means. Those competent in these matters will continue their researches but the personal problems have to be faced by faithful couples genuinely wanting to do God’s will but facing formidable obstacles."
Not quite as black and white, perhaps. But then even before the encylical had been published, an Archbishop had felt able to tell the priests of his diocese:
“The Church’s awareness of the essential values of marriage especially as a ‘community of love’ has undergone remarkable development in the recent past. If in a given case these values are seriously endangered by following the Church’s traditional teaching on contraception, an individual couple may judge that they are excused from the observance of the concrete directive which is embodied in this teaching.”
Archbishop Beck, this was.