A history of the difficult gestation of Humanæ vitæ

Par l'abbé Jean-Marie Perrot

Français, italiano

In the document addressed to the Fathers by the Preparatory Commission before the opening of the Vatican II Council, there was one which reflected the traditional doctrine on marriage, as explained by Pius XII in the preceding years. But, it suffered the rejection of the preparatory schemas by the conciliar assembly and was never discussed. In October 1964, a new text was presented within schema XIII for an open debate which led to the Constitution Gaudium et spes.

The “progressive” attack and the intervention of Paul VI at the Council

In concrete terms, the document appeared to be written with an “open spirit” since it did not recall the traditional hierarchy of the ends of marriage which subordinated the good of the spouses to fecundity. The subject of marriage, as well as other subjects, gave way to decided and impassioned remarks. For example, Cardinal Suenens declared: “I adjure you, my brothers, let’s avoid a second “Galilee trial”. One is enough for the Church.” He wanted to elaborate a renewed concept about the nature, where the “increase of unity in marriage” would be given a position as “equally imperative” as the one given to the traditional end of marriage that is procreation. As to Cardinal Leger, he called to favor more, in terms of moral judgement, “the very state of marriage” and less the acts considered in their singularity. In what regards the disconnect between the teaching of the magisterium and the practice of contemporary christian couples, it was emphasized by Patriarch Maximos. Some voices opposed these calls to a reform of marriage moral but they were in minority.

Then, that is when through a letter of the Secretary of State, Cardinal Cicognani, Paul VI asked that four modi be taken into consideration. There was a great turmoil not only in regards to the the content of the demands but also because of their imperative character. The first modi asked for the following clarification: “the contraceptive means must be mentioned with reference to Casti connubii.” The second modi re-established, with a minor degree though, a distinction between the ends of marriage, by suppressing the word “also” in a sentence of the new document: “True marital love … also tends to prepare the spouses to cooperate to the love of the Creator and Redeemer, who through them increases and enriches each day his family.” For Fr. Bernhard Häring, famous author of the Moral treaty The law of Christ, definitely not a conservative yet stunned by the anti-papal campaign led by the “Belgian group” (particularly active on the matter), in this regard Paul VI was only re-establishing the true spirit of the Fathers that had been somewhat distorted in a partial and excessive way. A mediation, if any, was initiated by Mgr Garrone who obtained that the demands of Paul VI be put to debate. In his Journal of the Council, Fr de Lubac says he was touched by the humility of Paul VI when the pope accepted this compromise, at a time when the atmosphere was heavy and sometimes even heated.

In the end, came out a document that was a compromise, as other conciliar documents were, definitively approved and ratified by the Fathers: “A true and well understood marital love, as in all the structure of family life which flows from it, tends, without underestimating the other ends of marriage, to bring the spouses to be ready with stout hearts to cooperate to the love of the the Creator and the Savior who, through them, wants to enlarge and enrich his own family day by day” (Gaudium et spes, n.50 §1). A document of compromise but, particularly, a doctrine or rather a speech (for is there matter for doctrine, some say?) pending a word from Paul VI, since the pope had reserved the case to his decision. Pope Paul VI, indeed, entrusted the topic of birth regulations to a work group, soon a Commission (already working, discreetly, since several months), and he indicated he was reserving the decision to himself. The Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes mentioned it in a note on paragraph 51: as a result, it was not clear if chemical contraception was part or not of the “ways disapproved by the Magisterium.”

What was the result of all this? Was it a manipulation of the Council by Paul VI, as some complained? Was the pope manipulated by an influential minority, as others said? We saw what Fr Häring thought on the subject; for Hans Küng, we had an example of the permanency of “pontifical absolutism”, actually self-destroying a few years later in the caricature of the “pill pope”, unjust but not totally undeserved.

The Pontifical Commission won over to the evolution party

What was this Commission whose the Pope, supposedly, would follow the recommendations? At the start, kept to 6 members, it increased to seven, and then to an additional forty experts, clerics and laities, from all disciplines; and, in the end, sixteen cardinals and bishops responsible to supervise the work and bring it to term.

Once the existence of the Commission was known, the debate grew stronger outside, even more so as some internal documents of the Commission were leaked and actually showed a clear evolution of a large majority of the members in favor of a mutation of the Church speaking. Yet, at the beginning, the composition seemed to represent a diversity of opinions.

But is it truly surprising? Hans Küng was right when, received by the pope on 2 December 1965, he put forward the argument that the great majority of theologians – and what could be said of the faithful… – was in favor of a sensible “progress”. If Fr. Labourdette, one of the Thomist of the Commission, entered the said Commission reticent to an evolution and later to become a supporter, some personalities as remarkable as Jacques Maritain, Charles De Koninck, Fr. Journet and Fr. Cottier were already of this opinion. Even though we wonder – at least in the light of the documents of the second and fourth one – if they had grasped what a contraceptive pill was, placing it rather willingly among natural methods of regulation and aside from other means of artificial contraceptives. The quasi concomitance of the coming out of the pill on the market and of their documents explains maybe the strange stand.

In the end, when the Commission concluded its work in June 1966, the partisans of evolution seemed to have won. The prelates ended up having to answer to two questions. The first one was: “Is the intrinsic illicit way of any contraceptive intervention certain?”; as to the second question, it went as this: “Can the licit way of the contraceptive intervention, in the terms described by the majority of expert theologians of the Commission, be affirmed in the continuity with Tradition and the declarations of the Supreme Magisterium?” With a large majority of nine votes for both questions (plus a few abstentions interpreted as being close to the majority), they answered No to the first question, Yes to the second one.

The encyclical that brought disagreement

Sometimes the times it took Paul VI to condemn chemical contraception (almost three years) is often compared with the time it took Pius VI to condemn the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (8 months). Times of incertitudes longer in the first case, and “retractions” how much more difficult of the spouses who had adopted this practice.

In July 1968, the encyclical Humanæ vitæ took indeed the opposite stance of these conclusions, and of the media pressure, whether it came from Catholic entities such as the Ami du clergé which so far had been the zealous propagator of the Holy Office calls to order during all of the first half of the century, or the secular publications like France-Dimanche in their issue of 16 July 1964 in their title: “Holy Father, you must give your authorization to the pill.” It seems it was a report presented by Cardinal Ottaviani in the name of the “minority” which convinced Paul VI: this doctrine had been presented in a constant and universal manner since at least 1816, date of the first response of the Holy Office to a question on the subject, what ever the means used to prevent the fecundity of the act of marriage. As a result, it was not about discussing the infallible character or not of the encyclical Casti connubii of Pius XI, but recognizing the continuity of the teaching of the ordinary magisterium. The traditional position should be received as an irreformable moral truth.

It is not certain that there had been, in the history of the Church, a magisterial document more rejected, more decried and less obeyed, and in the end so quickly (voluntarily) forgotten than the encyclical Humanæ vitæ.

If Africa and Latin America, to a lesser extent Asia, gave it a positive welcome, the episcopates of Western countries, to a few exceptions (like Spain, or Italy), were embarrassed, to say the least. It was not possible to frontally oppose the document; some then started to highlight the regrets over the faithful disoriented by the document: not those half-hearted already won to the world, but those who strive to live their faith seriously and found themselves to endure a heavy burden, to some even simply unbearable. As a result, in the name pastoral care towards all, but mostly towards those in particular, some support was given to the encyclical, but there was also the option left for the couples to make in good conscience a decision which did not agree with the magisterial teaching, eventually over the advise of a careful and benevolent confessor.

The pastoral note of the French episcopate, published in November 1968, reflected this policy: it legitimized divergence with the doctrine of the encyclical invoking the notion of conflict of duties: a wrong that cannot be avoided (the couple’s harmony if the doctrine is recognized, disobedience if the doctrine is rejected), “the spouses will determine at the end of a common reflection led with all the care their conjugal vocation requires”; and if the choice was contraception, they would remain open to the call of God, in a different situation. In this way, without being a good, the spouses’ decision to use contraception would still be a disorder, but an “inculpable” one…

Fr. Jean-Marie Perrot