BY GERARD NOEL
EXACTLY 25 is ago this coming Sunday, Pope Paul VI put his signature to the best known Papal Encyclical of modem times, Humanae Vitae. I remember it well because of the urgent need for speedy editorial comment in this paper's pages during what was my first week of working for the Catholic Herald.
We were still in our Fleet Street offices in those days and very splendid they were. We produced a leader which became a classic of its kind in terms of measured and scholarly response to what has become the most controversial papal pronouncement of modem days, or perhaps of all time.
A quarter of a century later, however, it is important to remember that the traumatic situation brought about by the encyclical was something which today's generation of Catholics could scarcely credit. Our own most excellent editor, presiding as she now does over a circulation-climbing period accompanied by a healthy and uninhibited exposition of modern English Catholicism, was a babe in arms when the Humanae Vitae storm broke. Not only would such a storm be highly unlikely today, but, more importantly, no such papal pronouncement would be likely to appear in the first place. It is true, admittedly, that a new Encyclical from the Holy Father is due to be released this weekend and that it is likely to reinforce certain principles enunciated by Paul VI. But to reinforce or paraphrase is a very different thing from breaking new ground, coming out with an explicit definition of Church teaching in an opposite direction of mainstream Catholic feeling. But this is exactly what Humanae Vitae did.
Such a view did not, it is true conform to a certain "standard" or conventional interpretation of the encyclical and its background, namely that it reaffirmed what was at least implicit in Catholic teaching for many years, even centuries, and therefore, as an authoritative exposition of
traditional Catholic teaching, called for unquestioning and universal acceptance.
What was not, however, generally known at the time was the dramatic story of what had gone on behind the scenes. It was in this respect that the late and great Cardinal Heenan played so important a part in the Hurnanae Vitae drama, not least as far as it concerned the Catholic Herald. The paper's leader, mentioned above, calling for conscientious appraisal of the encyclical in the light of accepted Catholic moral theological principles, was entitled: "Not the Last Word". It was well received in informal circles, but pilloried by a large number of pastors and teachers. This, of course, did us considerable short term harm and, as I well remember, my first years of editor
ship largely taken up with mending damaged fences. Many of the critics in question, by their own confession, had not yet read the actual text of the encyclical. Furthermore, by their attack on the Catholic Herald for "defying the Holy Father", they showed that they had not even properly read, or had only very imperfectly understood, our leader.
The next scene in the drama, however, was both encouraging and frustrating. Cardinal Heenan, in a famous television broadcast, told countless viewers that the encyclical was not, indeed, the last word as far as individual consciences were concerned. He not only, without of course mentioning the Catholic Herald by name, fully endorsed the stand we had taken but made the same point in a much more
forceful and explicit fashion. Alas, this did not prevent our continuing to be the scapegoats in the affair and for being the victims of a suppressed fury on the part of some Catholics who did not like, openly, to take issue with the Cardinal. What had been going on behind the scenes, however, was even more fascinating. This I learned in the course of what was almost certainly the most amazing conversation I have ever had with a senior churchman.
I had known Cardinal Heenan ever since I was about eight and had come to consider him a close friend as well as a respected spiritual counsellor and leader. What he told me in his sitting room over tea at Archbishop's House in 1971, soon after I had become editor of this paper,
should not, he said, be repeated to anyone, even in private, for "at least 20 years." He was not sure, at that point, as he told me, how much he would ever confide to his fellow priests and bishops, on whom he did not wish to place any unnecessary burden after such a difficult period.
Why then did he tell me? I'll never know for certain.
When, it appeared, he came back from Rome shortly before the publication of Humanae Vitae he had fully expected a document indicating a subtle but distinct shift of official Church teaching on contraception in line with current theological opinion at the highest and most scholarly levels, to say nothing of the general "census fidelium" as discovered by the extensive soundings initiated by Rome among the laity. The Commission set up by John XIII, and enlarged by Pope Paul, had, after all, given an over-whelming endorsement to the possibility of a major development in official Church teaching.
I shall never forget the sight of "Fr John" as I had long called him pacing up and down his study before telling any more if indeed, there was much more to be told. There was not a lot, but what there was was,dynamite.
"There will, I fear, be a lot of unnecessary suffering on the part of many dear good souls," were, as far as I remember, the exact words which he used next. But, he added earnestly, by way of giving me his much needed advice as to how to proceed in the Catholic Herald, there was, for pastoral reasons, urgent need for the utmost circumspection. It was for this reason he explained, that he had made a point of being so candid.
A heavy cross, he said, had been laid on the faithful. One day, he added, the climate would be different. Meanwhile, he admonished me, and, once again, I remember his exact words: "Festina lente, Gerry, festina lente."
He asked me then to join him in a prayer. I had never before seen him in quite this frame of mind, and was never to do so again.