The reception-sensus fidelium argument assumes that the acceptance or rejection of a teaching by the mass of Catholics reflects the action of the Holy Spirit.
In the half-century since Pope Paul VI published his encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirming that contraception is always wrong, opponents of the teaching have frequently focused on "reception" and "sensus fidelium"--the sense of the faithful. The argument from "sensus fidelium" takes public opinion as an indicator of whether a teaching is true. "Reception" is shorthand for saying a teaching must be validated by having a majority "receive"--that is, accept--it.
There are differences between the two, but where Pope Paul's encyclical is concerned, both boil down saying most Catholics don't agree with it, so it must be wrong.
People arguing this line against Humanae Vitae cite polls showing Catholic approval of contraception. For instance: two years ago a Pew Research study found that even among those who attend Mass every Sunday, only 13% thought artificial birth control was wrong.
That settles it, no? Sorry, but it doesn't.
The reception-sensus fidelium argument assumes that the acceptance or rejection of a teaching by the mass of Catholics reflects the action of the Holy Spirit. But not so long ago an overwhelming majority of American Catholics agreed that contraception was wrong. Looking at the numbers in 1963, sociologist and novelist Father Andrew Greeley, later a bitter critic, said Catholics "accept the Church's teaching with a vengeance."
Now, if "reception" and "sensus fidelium" were correct, we'd have to conclude either that contraception was wrong before the encyclical but acceptable after it or else that the Holy Spirit changed his mind. But both explanations are absurd. We need a better reason for the shift.
And in fact there is one--at least, in the United States. Starting after World War II, efforts began to bring about radical change in American attitudes on sex. This campaign included not only Planned Parenthood but foundations like Ford and Rockefeller and wealthy individuals like John D. Rockefeller 3rd, academic institutions, and elements of the media.
Some of the efforts were aimed at the federal government--successfully, with the Johnson and Nixon administrations pushing government promotion of birth control as a population limiting anti-poverty measure at home and abroad. And some was targeted at the Catholic Church, with collaboration from within by Catholic individuals and groups.
By the mid-1960s this campaign had converged with the development and marketing of "the Pill," an oral contraceptive that made birth control simpler than ever before, and with a raging cultural revolution--largely a sexual revolution--by then sweeping the United States and countries like it.
And so the stage was set for Humanae Vitae. After long delay and in the face of mounting pressure for change, Pope Paul issued his encyclical, only to be greeted by an immediate chorus of dissent. The encyclical didn't stand a chance.
All this is documented in book-length studies that include Donald T. Critchlow's Intended Consequences (Oxford, 1999) and, on the Catholic side, Msgr. George Kelly's still-indispensable The Battle for the American Church (Doubleday, 1981). They spell out how it was that, as Critchlow says, by the 1980s "a liberal sexual culture had been created" in America.
"Reception" and "sensus fidelium" have roles to play in the process by which the Church articulates its faith, but not as polemical weapons against the Magisterium. After 50 years of attacking Humanae Vitae, the opponents need to address this question: In view of the cheapening and coarsening of sex in this time, the rise of the hookup culture, the vulgarization of popular entertainment, and much else, is it possible Humanae Vitae got it right?
Russell Shaw is the author of more than twenty books. He is a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and served as communications director for the U.S. Bishops.