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Betsy Kneepkens: Admitting when we’re wrong is powerful. Humanae Vitae’s dissenters should do so

Admittedly, I don’t like to be wrong; ask my husband. A while back my son and I had a long disagreement about when I authorized permission for his older brother to leave campus during lunch. I was extremely confident that it was late in his senior year. My younger son believed differently, so he shared incidental evidence over and over again in an attempt to prove I was wrong, and I would not concede.

It was not until that younger son retrieved school documentation with my signature on it that I acknowledged I was wrong. I am horrible with details, so I should have known better than to count on my memory as fact. It is intriguing how evidence can be right in front of me, and I still feel a desire to deny the truth.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

I try not to be insistently correct, but the sin of pride is challenging, and I have a fallen nature. I find it mindboggling when a simple “I was wrong” has the power to end negative energy and others’ discomfort, yet people, like me, are often reluctant to set the record straight. Unfortunately, at times, an unwillingness to admit you are wrong can dramatically affect the lives of others, and worse yet the sin of pride can have damaging consequences long term.

You can see times when misjudgment had undesirable consequences at the time and changed the course of history. For instance, the music of the Beatles was rejected by their first production company, because the company was confident they would never make it in the music industry. Even more recently J.K. Rowling was turned down by her first 12 publishers, because her work was not deemed worthy of print.

In both of these cases, the decision makers were arrogantly confident in their judgment, which ultimately came at a high cost to the respective organizations. Other misjudgments had dire outcomes. One of the more notable goes to the owners of the “unsinkable” Titanic, whose confident decision to purchase just 20 lifeboats because you would never need them was later responsible for the demise of over 1,000 travelers. This decision is particularly heartbreaking since the owners knew that the designer of the ship made room for 64 lifeboats, the capacity of which was more than enough to bring all passengers to safety.

This month Catholics celebrate the 50th anniversary of what I think is one of the richest and most prophetic encyclicals of modern times, Humanae Vitae.

Because of the insistent decision of a small group of men, mainly theologians and clergy, Catholics either don’t know this document exists or have ignored the message altogether. The teachings found in this document, however, ought not to be overlooked. Humanae Vitae beautifully articulates the reasons to be faithful to God’s plan for man, woman, the meaning of marriage, the conjugal union, and the fruits of this union.

In a logical and pastoral way, Pope Paul VI explains to the faithful the propose for the church’s prohibition of artificial contraception. The pope also illuminates the importance of respecting God’s design for responsible parenting by managing family planning effectively in accord with the nature of our natural reproductive systems. Pope Paul wants us to know that God has a plan for married couples to manage their fertility and that God’s design of the human person permits that.

These men, confident and dare I say shortsighted, proclaimed in churches and to the media before the document was officially released that the children of God could dissent from this particular teaching. The dissenters focused the conversation on how the faithful could reject this doctrine and paid very little attention on what the encyclical had to say.

In a somewhat unprecedented way, Pope Paul VI included in his writing what the cultural consequences would be if society ignored this message of the church. Unfortunately, these leaders of dissent avoided Pope Paul’s notice of social ills, and nearly the whole world has adopted a lifestyle that ignores God’s plan for the regulation of birth and accepts without question horrific consequences that are now our reality.

In chapter 17 of Pope Paul’s work he proclaimed that ignoring God’s design for marriage and the conjugal union will create suffering. He mentions that accepting artificial contraception will “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality” and decrease the respect for the woman, treating her as an “instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.” He went on to say governments will use contraception as a weapon for governing or their authority. Furthermore, Pope Paul talked about how the culture will decide that the individual has the total domain of their bodies to the exclusion of others, their children, and their spouse.

The gravity of these men’s dissenting decisions has had a devastating impact on our culture that is undeniable. We live now with a divorce rate over 50 percent. The number of children born in a single parent home has skyrocketed. Two hundred babies are aborted for every 1,000 children that get to live. Sex trafficking, domestic abuse, pornography, hooking up, sexually transmitted disease, and infidelity are commonplace. Overwhelmingly families are smaller. As a result, support systems are diminishing, entitlement increasing, and loneliness with a high rate of depression plague so many lives. The list sadly goes on and on, all foretold in that teaching written 50 years ago.

That group of men who thought their decision to teach people to dissent from church teaching half a century ago was right have almost all died. There are just a few those individuals still alive, and I wonder if they ever think about the connection of their decision and the suffering people endure. I also think about what sort of impact it would have if those last few men got together to discuss the long-term effects of their decision and if they could have been wrong.

I often contemplate what impact these few men could have on society now if they would go public and proclaim they made a mistake. To me, the evidence is extremely clear. The path these men encouraged went a direction they did not calculate. The good they thought they could bring to the human condition is woefully overestimated. What a bold and courageous statement it would be if these last few living men stood up and said they were wrong and the church was right. I am just left imagining what kind of impact their words would have and the potential to change the course of history.

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.