The Catholic Church has always been opposed to contraception. In our times, the Magisterium reaffirmed this condemnation solemnly and definitively in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, in 1968. Almost fifty years later, it seems that this teaching can be questioned.
On July 25, 1968, Pope Pius VI published the encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which he clearly reaffirmed the condemnation of artificial contraceptive methods – or birth control. This magisterial document, written “by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ”, caused a sensation. The doctrine it contains, a faithful echo of the Magisterium of his predecessors and of the ordinary magisterium of the bishops throughout the entire world, seems to be infallible and should be held as irreformable.
When the encyclical came out, the press worldwide protested. One headline read: “The Pope is Against the Pill”. Unpopular from the start, Humanae Vitae quickly became one of the most controversial encyclicals in history; it was the source of much controversy in the media and was watered down by several theologians and episcopal conferences. According to sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger, it was with this document that many Catholics distanced themselves from the teaching of the Church on conjugal morality that was subjected to “a slow disqualification” (sic).
For the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the encyclical next year, a study group has been created to research the creation of the document. The existence of this group was revealed by Vaticanist Mario Tosatti, and Professor Roberto de Matteo published a resounding echo in his Correspondance Romaine on June 14.
At the head of this group is Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo, professor of theological anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. Msgr. Pierangelo Saqueri, president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute, Professor Philippe Chenaux, a Church history professor at the Pontifical Lateran University, and Dom Angelo Maffeis, president of the Paul VI Institute in Brescia, are also members of the study group.
In an interview with Vatican Radio published on July 26, 2017, Msgr. Marengo spoke about the mission that has been entrusted to him: “Humanae Vitae must be placed in the context of everything important and fruitful the Church has said on marriage and family during these last 50 years”, he declared, and then added that from a historical and theological point of view, “it is very useful to piece together the path to the drafting of the encyclical, which developed in different phases from June 1966 to its publication on July, 25th 1968”.
Their research will especially concentrate on the ”complicated history of the Pontifical Commission that worked from 1963 to 1966, and in the end was not able to give him (Paul VI) what he needed to write the encyclical”. The conclusions of this Commission suggested opening the door to artificial contraception and provoked a serious crisis of authority in the Church when they were published in April 1967. The following year, Pope Paul VI gave a decisive answer on the controversy, but the harm was already done.
The preparations for the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae and the fact that the research and study has been entrusted to Msgr. Marengo do not fail to raise concerns.
While work on the Synod on the family was going on, recalls Roberto de Mattei, Msgr. Marengo suggested “abandoning a conception of the doctrinal patrimony of the Church as a closed system, impermeable to questions and provocations of the here and now, in which the Christian community is called to justify its faith, through its proclamation and testimony”.
More recently, on March 23, 2017, the same professor published on article in Vatican Insider under the suggestive title Humanae Vitae and Amoris Laetitia: Parallel Stories. In it he strongly criticized the four cardinals’ dubia on the exhortation Amoris Laetitia, and wondered if “the polemical game ‘the pill yes–the pill, no’, like today’s ‘Communion for the divorced yes – Communion for the divorced no’, is only an appearance of the discomfort and strain that is much more crucial in the fabric of ecclesial life.” For Msgr. Marengo, the cause of this discomfort and strain is clear: “Every time the Christian community falls into error and proposes models of life derived from too abstract and artificially constructed theological ideals, it conceives its pastoral action as the schematic application of a doctrinal paradigm.” And he quotes Pope Francis: “We have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.” (Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, March 19, 2016, para. 36)
Roberto de Mattei goes on to wonder whether matters of faith and morals can really be reduced to this sort of polemical game without leading inevitably to a relativization of the doctrine of the truth in the interest of pastoral practice. This latter, unlike the “far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideals”, can then justify any behavior in the name of the course of life, according to the modernist principle of immanentism.
Thibaud Collin, for his part, in L’Homme Nouveau on July 18, 2017, worried at this blind will for “a change of paradigm”, that could weaken the impact of the condemnation of contraception proclaimed fifty years ago. In the name of the “pastoral conversion” so dear to Pope Francis, regrettable results are to be feared on the subject of birth control, just like the ones produced by certain passages of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia on the indissolubility of the marriage bond.
He also pointed out that Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute and a member of the Humanae Vitae study group, was one of the organizers of the congress held on May 25, 2012, at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. An initiative of the episcopal conferences of Germany, France, and Switzerland, the goal of this congress was to “reflect on the means of relaxing the norms of conjugal morality”, wrote Thibaud Collin.
In answer to these worries, Nicolas Senèze spoke in La Croix (June 26, 2017) of unfounded rumors. In answer to Mario Tosatti’s allegations, he explained that no, the pope has not set up some secret commission to reread and reinterpret Humanae Vitae in the light of Amoris Laetitia. He simply authorized a historian to consult the archives on the preparation of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical. The journalist quotes an anonymous member of the research commission: “There has been no decision on what is to be done with this material: personally, if this was about reinterpreting Humanae Vitae, I would not have accepted. For me, this is mostly about making documents on the genesis of the encyclical available to the public”. And: “The goal of our work is to publish documents that are of real scientific interest in understanding what happened. And not at all to change the doctrine”. Duly noted.
It will certainly be interesting to follow the debates and studies that will come up with the fiftieth anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Perplexity remains, however, especially when Msgr. Marengo says that he hopes that at the end of this mission that has been entrusted to him, it will be “possible to set aside many partisan readings of the text” (which ones, exactly?) and “to grasp the intentions and worries that moved Paul VI to solve the issue the way he did.“ This is all the more true because he seems to lament the fact that “at the time, procreation was seen by many as the primary purpose of marriage”. (sic)
Vini Ganimara, on the website Riposte Catholique (July 18, 2017), considers that by bringing back out the work of the Commission that in 1967 spoke in favor of birth control and the non-infallibility of the preceding magisterial documents on the matter, the study group is going to rekindle the embers of controversy: “Bringing these documents back out today can only be explosive.” Time will tell.
May this fiftieth anniversary be an occasion to recall Catholic truth rather than to increase the confusion of the faithful.