In a five-part series of articles marking the 45th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Bob Laird, programs director for The Cardinal Newman Society, and his wife Gerri explain how the encyclical’s teachings are even more relevant—but sadly still controversial—in the Church today.
“Acceptance of contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs are the norm among large elements of the clergy and laity within the Catholic Church, and religious freedom can no longer be taken for granted,” the couple writes in the series’ final installment at The Art of NFP. “On this 45th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae, it is worthwhile to re-consider the impact of the dissenters and the charitable response by today’s living martyrs.”
Bob Laird is the former family life director for the Diocese of Arlington and has served several years on the board of the Couple to Couple League. Gerri also worked for the Arlington Office of Family Life and founded its program to help women heal after abortion, called Project Rachel. Bob and Gerri have been a certified Natural Family Planning (NFP) teaching couple for the Couple to Couple League since 1984.
They recount that just five days after Humanae Vitae was issued in 1968, 200 clergy and theologians published a petition of dissent in the New York Times. They discuss how the widespread dissent from Humanae Vitae set the stage for current attacks on religious liberty. They also share an inspiring story of bravery from one young priest who stood alone against the tide of dissent in the Archdiocese of Baltimore:
Father J. Francis Stafford was invited to attend a meeting in the basement of a rectory in Baltimore with 54 of his fellow priests. “The meeting was led by several priests from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and some local diocesan priests. Each attendee was asked to sign a statement of dissent that would be published the next day in the Baltimore Sun. The leader of the group, a former marine and a master of persuasion and intimidation, ’minced no words of his expectations’ of the group. There would be no time for discussion. They were to sign on the dotted line. One after another signed. Finally, this young priest was all that stood in the way of a document of unanimity. He stood firm. He didn’t sign. He said to his fellow priests that he didn’t sign for two reasons: (1) he had not read the document (and he also noted that none in the room, including the leaders of the group, had read it), and (2) he agreed with Pope Paul VI.
“The leader of the dissenters tried several times, using strong, coercive tactics and verbal abuse, to change the mind of this priest. None of his fellow priests came to his defense. Rather than the scorecard reading 55 to 0. It was 54 to one.”
Fr. Stafford later became President of the Pontifical Council of the Laity and was raised to the rank of a Cardinal
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