For some Catholics it must have felt like a flashback to 1968. Last week, 149 academics issued a statement publicly challenging Church teaching on contraception.

The statement, issued by an organisation called the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, heralds a 20,000-word report rejecting the arguments of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which upheld the Church’s prohibition. It also asks the Vatican to form a new commission to reopen the discussion on contraception.

Almost immediately, about 600 other scholars fired back, issuing a counter-statement rejecting the Wijngaards Institute’s arguments and upholding Humanae Vitae.

Nearly 50 years on, the encyclical remains a matter of great controversy. But things have changed since 1968, in such a way that the Wijngaards statement may demonstrate the weakness of their position, as much as its strength.

It’s true that opposition to Humanae Vitae – and the long tradition of Catholic teaching which it represents – remains the norm, both within and outside the Church. Indeed, the pressure from international bodies to bend the Church to their will helps to explain the urgency with which the counter-statement was issued.

The United Nations’ Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development, which is currently examining “sexual and reproductive health challenges in the developing world”, invited the institute to present its statement, in conjunction with two other reports launched by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation and the UN Population Fund.

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