Natural Family Planning: Nature's Way - God's Way

52. The Theological Qualification of the Doctrine Expressed in the Encyclical Humanae Vitae

Debate over the doctrinal value of Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae on methods of regulating birth loses none of its interest and contemporaneity with the passing of time. Its interest is explained by the document's implications for the behavior of the faithful. It remains to the fore, perhaps because neither theologians nor spiritual shepherds who have discussed it are convinced by its argumentation, while the faithful who follow them do not feel easy in conscience, and continue to confess their way of behaving.

It is a delicate problem to seek to attach a theological note (qualifying the doctrinal value) of the teaching which affirms the essential immorality of contraceptive practices. In fact, one will have to analyze what some conferences of bishops have formulated (or are said to have formulated) in doubtful harmony with the encyclical. Besides, one cannot avoid taking into account the diverse (and at times contrasting) arguments presented by theologians who have criticized the encyclical, however hasty some of their positions, and however well-founded the suspicion that a good number of them wanted chiefly to excuse contraception in some cases on grounds of the circumstances and the honest purpose of the person acting, and sought arguments where they could find them.

We shall consider first the alleged difference between the Pope's doctrinal magisterium (abstract and theoretical, which points out the ideal to be achieved by the spouses) and the pastoral magisterium of the episcopal conferences (concrete and practical, which realistically declares what the situations in conjugal life demand). We shall then present what refers not to the encyclical and to the magisterial act of Paul VI, but to the traditional doctrine of the Church reaffirmed in that act, and to the characteristics with which that doctrine presents itself for the purpose of eliciting our assent. Finally, we shall propose the theological note which, in the light of the data available for determining it, seems to apply to the doctrine.

1. Alleged contrast between the encyclical and the collective pastoral letters

The bishops received in the encyclical a pressing invitation to work "zealously and incessantly ... to safeguard marriage and keep it holy, so that it may ever be lived more and more in all its human and Christian fullness" (HV 30). At the request of the Pope the Cardinal Secretary of State asked of them "that in this circumstance they should stand beside him as never before, to present to the Christian people this delicate subject of the Church's doctrine, explaining and justifying its profound reasons." He added that it was "necessary to make spouses understand all the spiritual riches brought by the effort at renunciation demanded of them ... ; to persuade them that it is possible, with the grace of God which never puts man to a test beyond his strength, to progress in chastity and in the other virtues .... You must finally make every pastoral effort so that there remain no ambiguity either among the faithful or in public opinion on the Church's position in this grave matter" (July 20, 1968).

Most conferences of bishops were able without difficulty to follow these recommendations in presenting the encyclical to their respective flocks. A small number of them found themselves facing the danger of a strong reaction against the encyclical on the part of many of the faithful, with the risk that the refusal would spread massively by contagion. The Pope vigorously disowned the rash opinion which, with the approval of some theologians and confessors, was asserted in certain countries; and he condemned the practice which was taking root in various countries, especially in Central Europe and in America. For this reason many conferences felt bound to speak on the possibility of "dissent" with the non-fallible magisterium by members of the Church competent in the matter; on the primacy of conscience in final decisions; on the practical difficulties that can cloud judgment when real conflicts of value seem to be conflicts of duties; and on a certain feeling of helplessness in fulfilling immediately the Christian ideal. In all this they demonstrated a reasonable understanding of human frailty, even though many times they did not make sufficient mention of the supernatural aids that strengthen human weakness, as the Pope and his Secretary of State had done.

All this the bishops recalled in accordance with traditional doctrine, even though to ardent souls their statements seemed to bear a tone of novelty and to go beyond the limited field attributed to the encyclical. What may have contributed to this interpretation were the dissenting attitude of theologians searching for differences in language and concepts, and the not entirely happy and clear formulation of some sensitive points of the pastoral letters. This, however, was quite understandable, since the bishops could not in a matter of weeks weigh expressions with the same accuracy as the encyclical had through years of preparation. In fact, some conferences (Canada, Australia, Indonesia, Mexico at a later date) subsequently explained their thinking when faced with mistaken interpretations.

We must, then keep these considerations in mind while attempting a fair assessment of the episcopal magisterium on the encyclical. But to discover the truth about the alleged divergence between the pastoral magisterium of the conferences of bishops and the doctrinal magisterium of the encyclical, other considerations must be brought forward. Among these are the following:

As Paul VI pointed out to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, (1) there can be no adequate distinction between dogmatic doctrine and pastoral doctrine by differentiating the nature (not the degree) of the assent due to the faith to be professed and to the faith to be applied to life (Lumen Gentium 25, 1).

To maintain that there is real disagreement between the Pope and the bishops, especially in view of the preceding observations, valid proofs would be needed. In our judgment they do not exist, or at least have never been produced. On the contrary, there exist very meaningful counterproofs:

The great majority of conferences stated either explicitly or in a manifestly implicit way their total agreement with the Pope. Some also expressed their profound gratitude for the support he gave to their concerns (Latin America and the Third World in general). Others assured the Pope of their firm support and urged the faithful to do so (United States, Mexico, Poland, East Germany, southern Europe). Others were concerned about restraining and remedying the resistance they feared would follow, without, however, calling in doubt the validity of the papal document (Belgium, Austria, Scandinavia, England, Canada). Some were at least ambiguous or confusing on certain points, but without claiming to disagree (France, Austria, Indonesia, South Africa).

In fact, it should be noted that even in those pastoral letters that are cited as disagreeing with the encyclical, there is acknowledgment of its doctrine. (2) Some letters deplore "the criticisms full of rancor and the erroneous interpretations of the encyclical" (cf. Switzerland 303), or they recall the duty of listening to the Pope's appeal "with the interior disposition of assent" (West Germany 32).

When we consider these endorsements dispassionately and we take into account the circumstances leading to the drafting of the pastoral letters, we think it impossible to find any real divergences between the papal teaching and that of the bishops. Neither is it possible to discover in the latter a departure from the clear and unconditional affirmations of the former regarding their application to help married people in the concrete; nor can any valid evidence by found that some pastoral letters threw a damper on the encyclical. In the majority of cases the letters only tried to render the encyclical accessible and acceptable by explaining its contents in greater depth and by supporting it with considerations of their own. In general, they wished to take into account theoretical and practical difficulties, thus demonstrating an understanding which, in our view, has been erroneously interpreted, partly because of the infelicitous phrasing of this or that passage of some pastoral letters, which happened to contradict statements found in the same letter.

Apart from this, it comes as a surprise to note the generalization of the alleged difference between the doctrinal magisterium of the Pope and the pastoral magisterium of the bishops. The entire third part of the encyclical (19 to 31) is as pastoral as are the episcopal documents, a fact which many bishops acknowledge; and the pastoral applications made by the bishops are based on the teaching of the encyclical. It could not be otherwise if the Gospel "is the source of every saving truth and of the entire discipline of morals" (Denzinger-Sch6nmetzer 1501). Moreover, if we look at the number of pastoral letters and of bishops, the group openly declaring that they support the encyclical is by far the larger.

2. Doctrine of the Church on the artificial regulation of birth

Against the claim, contrary to reality, that some conferences went beyond the limits set by the Pope to the licit exercise of marriage, there is need here of calling to mind the Catholic teaching, so that no one may remain confused or deceived by a supposed disagreement between the papal intransigence that pointed out the essential order based on absolute moral norms and the episcopal openness that attributed objective validity to certain exceptions in the existential order.

By their consecration bishops receive the office of teaching authentically in the Church (Lumen Pentium 21, 2) and are sacramentally strengthened with the "sure charisma of truth" (Lumen Gentium 8.2): thus their teaching ministry is given the presumption of truth. But diocesan bishops feed their flocks under the authority of the Roman Pontiff (LG 11, 2), even when they do so on their own authority (LG 27, 2). It follows that they must be respected as witnesses of the divine and Catholic truth when they teach in union with the Roman Pontiff (LG 25, 1). For this reason, in gauging the authenticity or the value of their teaching' we cannot prescind from the phrases underlined. To be heedworthy, bishops must teach in communion with the Pope, (3) since "the body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff"(LG 22, 12).

In light of this indisputable doctrine all arguments fail which attempt to set up the pastoral letters against the encyclical or to diminish the value of the encyclical by the fact that it has taken a stand on a topic debated by theologians and bishops. Such attempts would fail even if we acknowledged a basis for certain distinctions made by theologians, but which seem to us indefensible, between the merely prudential magisterium regarding the non-revealed natural law (a magisterium exercised by virtue of the power to govern, and valid only insofar as its reasons are valid), and the doctrinal magisterium deriving from the power to teach, and valid on the basis of the guarantee given to reason by the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

In conclusion, where there is a hypothetical discordance between the papal magisterium and the episcopal magisterium, the former should prevail as the teaching of the Church.

On the other hand, it must also be clearly stated that what the encyclical proposes is not only the teaching of Paul VI, but the teaching professed by the faithful and traditionally proclaimed by the magisterium of the Holy See and of the bishops of the Church "with constant firmness" (HV 6).

In the title, I have intentionally referred to the doctrine expressed in the encyclical, not to the doctrine of the encyclical, Actually, there can be a great difference between the formulation of a doctrine and the mode of formulation. The encyclical, as a document of the ordinary magisterium, is undoubtedly fallible by itself. This was pointed out by several conferences (e.g., France 240, Scandinavia 212) in statements which in some cases (cf. Austria 121) could have been more exactly worded to avoid erroneous interpretations on the part of the faithful. But from this it does not follow that the encyclical could not express a doctrine that is infallibly true and irreformable for another reason. One can hardly find an encyclical that does not contain some infallible proposition. Such can be case with Humanae Vitae; not only when it affirms, for example, that Christ made the Apostles the authentic interpreters of the law of the Gospel (4, 2), but also when it declares intrinsically and objectively immoral every act which is directly or indirectly contraceptive (14, 3-4).

Right in this line, two outstanding American professors, Ford and Grisez, (4) well known as experts on the subject, published on the tenth anniversary of the encyclical a documented article. Their discussion, pursued with clear and well-weighed reasoning, focuses on the conditions laid down by Vatican II (5) for teachings on faith and morals to be held infallibly true. They conclude in a convincing manner that such conditions are present in the Catholic tradition expressed in No. 14 of the encyclical, referring to the artificial regulation of birth.

These authors found a first proof in the doctrine presented in 12, 1 of the constitution Lumen Gentium, containing an idea from St. Robert Bellarmine, a Doctor of the Church. This idea, which was being prepared for definition in Vatican 1, is that in a Church established to profess truth and to sanctify itself through doing good, it is not possible over a long period of time and throughout the world for a notable error to prevail among the People of God in a matter of faith and morals. (We would add: especially when the matter is one of great importance and of constant application, as in the case under discussion.) The Council says: "The whole body of the faithful, who have the anointing of the Holy Spirit, cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is manifested by the supernatural appreciation of the faith of the entire people when, 'from the bishops to the last of the faithful,' they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals."

What is stressed is the value of the sensus fidelium, which today is frequently invoked inopportunely, but which here finds its real application; not a sensus which constitutes truth, but which manifests it. It is also clear that once the truth is professed by the People of God (not because of the opinion of men of good will nor because of an opinion deriving from an ecclesial source, even though supported by the theologians), of necessity it remains substantially true for all times.

The second reason is found by the above-mentioned authors in 25, 2 of the same Constitution: "Although the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ on the following conditions: namely, when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving nonetheless amongst themselves and with Peter's successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning matters of faith and morals they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely."

To maintain that the moral doctrine presented by Paul VI on contraception is infallible, it will be necessary to demonstrate with certainty that the bishops by their moral unanimity, in union with the Pope, have held it as certain and definitive.

Now, this demonstration appears very clear during the pontificates of Pius XI and Pius XII, and is sufficiently documented during one and a half centuries, since 1816 when the Holy See had to concern itself with guiding bishops and confessors on the abuse of marriage.

The Holy See intervened at least nineteen times to condemn this abuse under various forms of onanism, approving instead periodic continence, before Pius XI promulgated once more and in a very serious tone "the Christian doctrine taught from the beginning and handed down uninterruptedly down through the centuries," according to which "every marriage act which is deliberately deprived of its natural procreative power is against the law of God and against the natural law; and those who act thus are guilty of a serious crime." (6) Pius XII confirmed this doctrine by condemning "every attempt of spouses to prevent procreation in the exercise of the conjugal act." He added that such a "prescription is as fully valid today as it was yesterday, and will be valid tomorrow and always, because it is the expression of a natural and divine law." (7)

It must be observed that both passages received the endorsement of the Council when it referred to them as texts which indicate the means of birth control disapproved by the magisterium (GS 51, 3 and footnote 14).

History offers no doubts about the fact that the body of the faithful has given its assent to this doctrine during the past one and a half centuries. This fact is also admitted by those who try to interpret it as an indication of a lack of freedom of opinion. That the episcopal magisterium has professed and upheld in general the same doctrine throughout this period of time is demonstrated by the textbooks of moral theology used in their seminaries, as well as by a large number of individual and collective pastoral letters of this century. (8) That the condemnation of onanism includes the condemnation of any action that attempts to frustrate the generative power of the conjugal act is clear from the expressions: "every marriage act ... .. every attempt on the part of the spouses," and also from several pastoral letters referred to in note 8.

Consequently Paul VI was well able to appeal to the doctrine which the Church has always provided" (HV 4,3), doctrine "manifested by the constant teaching of the Church" (HV 10,6), "proposed with constant firmness' (HV 6, 1), as part of "the saving teaching of Christ"(HV 29,1), which the magisterium cannot change but only safeguard and interpret (HV 18, 1), presenting it virtually as irreformable. (9)

To claim that the encyclical was dealing with a temporary solution to prevent public authorities from intervening in the sector of conjugal intimacy (cf. HV 17); to maintain that it was not a question of affirming a truth in a definitive way (cf. HV 6), but of proposing a safe doctrine amid the various ongoing debates; to try to interpret the indicated intrinsic disorder as a mere ontic or pre-moral evil, a distinction never recognized by the magisterium; to suggest that according to the encyclical the moral disorder can be classified as objectively venial (cf. HV 25, 3) - these and other considerations, at times fetched from afar to construe obscurely positions that are clear, not only forget the circumstances of the promulgation of the encyclical but even overlook many expressions of the papal document which deny all such considerations.

The most serious difficulty against the encyclical would be that of demonstrating its disagreement with the Council. But if one takes into account the part of the encyclical which in exposing the doctrinal principles (HV 7-13) describes conjugal love and its characteristics in an integral vision of man, the various aspects of responsible parenthood and its relation to conjugal love, one will admit how rightly Paul VI (the only interpreter authorized by the Council) concluded that, feeling "obliged to make our own the Council's doctrine promulgated by us," he had followed "the personalistic concept proper to the conciliar teaching," (10) and that, as he repeated shortly before his death, the encyclical was "the reaffirmation of the important principles which, in keeping with the recently concluded Council, he had put forward with a more careful formulation. " (11)

This was admitted by various conferences, but it is especially clear from a comparison of the two documents. These documents refer to the Church's magisterium, and concretely to the passages of Plus XI and Plus XII which we have already mentioned, for a norm of behavior on responsible parenthood and on the manner of harmonizing love with the responsible transmission of life. Moreover, the Council announced beforehand that the Holy See would in due time issue a declaration on moral questions.

3. Theological note of the doctrine expressed in the encyclical Humanae Vitae

There is no doubt that the doctrine expressed in the encyclical is susceptible of theological qualification. "No one of the faithful will want to deny that the magisterium of the Church is competent to interpret even the natural moral law," the Pope remarked at the beginning of his encyclical, referring to important papal documents (HV 4, 2 and note 1).

Although this law is theoretically accessible to human reason, man's intelligence needs the help of revelation in numerous cases of application in order to formulate its conclusions without error (cf. D.S. 3004/5). Today this happens in many fields because of the enormous influence of "public opinion" on the superficial judgment of people, especially with regard to issues dealt with passionately, such as sexuality, which itself can easily cloud our mind to the point of preventing us from seeing the truth. (12) On this particular question the Council quite suitably referred twice to the interpretation of the natural and divine law given by the Church in the light of the Gospel, and to the submission in ecclesiastical faith which the faithful owe to that interpretation (GS 50, 2-7 5 11 3 ).

From the very first centuries the Church pronounced herself on this doctrine when and in the manner the times required. We have made reference to statements made by the Holy See and the episcopate when doubts began to arise at the beginning of the last century concerning the value of the traditional doctrine. Their decisions, universally accepted up to a couple of decades ago, have all the value of a universal and definitive magisterium (all one need do is consider the formulas used) and of an equally universal sensus fidelium, with all that this signifies for a theological qualification of the doctrine. It is impossible for the Holy Spirit to permit, in a question of such transcendence and of constant application, an error of long duration in the Church and in the world.

In previous periods of history following the first centuries we do not have as many explicit documents on this doctrine as we have on fundamental dogmas of our faith. The reason for this is clear: the Church calls men back to the truth insistently, when truth is in danger. Now with regard to the moral disorder of contraception, there was no danger of an eclipse of the truth up to the nineteenth century, if we make an exception for the early periods of Christianity and for some chance discussions between rigorists and laxists. During the first centuries, contrariwise, it was necessary to call to mind the demands of Christian morality threatened at times by pagan behavior. That is why, beginning with the second century (Minucius Felix, Hyppolitus, Epiphanius) up to the Fathers of the fifth century (Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine) and the bishops during the time of the barbarian invasions (Cesarius of Arles, the Penitentials, some Decretals), we find increasingly clear allusions to contraception, to the "poisons of sterility" which kill the seed of life or which, if ineffective, provoke the "cruel lasciviousness" leading to abortion (13).

A reading of the expressions of the Fathers leaves no doubt about the idea of perversity which the People of God recognized in anticonceptive practices; and this, long before the theological doctrine on the primary end of marriage took shape, with the obvious implication for the morality of the conjugal act.

One might think that the doctrine of the magisterium presents the requisites for infallibility with respect to onanism, but not with respect to contraception in particular. Now, not only does the basic reason for condemning onanism find its full application in contraception, but it is also manifest that the condemnatory texts of Pius XI and Pius XII are sufficiently alike in their moral reach to that of Paul VI to enable them to be applied to contraception just as much as his; in fact, he cites them on this point. On the other hand, the Popes appeal to the living tradition of the Church from the beginning. But from the beginning, even before the onanistic use, anticonceptive practice was condemned. Finally, during the period between the encyclicals of Pius XI and Paul VI, the four collective pastoral letters of India, Formosa, Canada, and France, proceed without interruption from the condemnation of onanism to that of contraception, making explicit mention of contraceptive practices. (14)

"Your first task ... is to expound without ambiguity the Church's teaching on marriage," is the charge given by Paul VI to priests and especially to theologians (HV 28).

If we proceed without ambiguity, without searching for dark avenues of escape from the clear and precise statements of this doctrine, we think the following conclusions must be drawn:

In any case, one thing is certain. Aside from the theological discussion about the precise doctrinal value of Humanae Vitae, there can be no doubt about the grave moral obligation of everybody, pastors and faithful, to accept its teaching as indeed an expression of an act of the authentic magisterium as well as of a traditional doctrine of the Church. As the Bishops of Spain wrote: "The doctrinal value of this encyclical must be contemplated in the light of the faith. It confronts a subject which is not mere science, but is intimately and directly connected with faith and morals. The Pope speaks as the Supreme Shepherd of the Church, not as a private teacher .... He expressly wanted to settle a grave question which concerns the faith and morals of the faithful, availing himself of his supreme teaching authority .... He proposes a true doctrine which may not rightfully be presented as something provisional from the moment it possesses that stability on which the future of his supreme teaching authority depends. It adds a new and more solemn testimony to the numerous ones given previously and 'proposed with constant firmness by the Magisterium of the Church (HV6)" (351-352).

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