August 23, 2017 (LifeSiteNews.com) – In May and June, Italian media sources began to report of the existence of a secret commission created by Pope Francis to bring about a “reinterpretation” of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reiterates the Catholic Church’s perennial condemnation of artificial birth control.
After the story was first reported by Marco Tosatti on May 11 and soon given further confirmation by Maike Hickson at One Peter Five, the Vatican refused to verify or deny it for an entire month, prompting Tosatti to quip that the silence “could in itself be a sign.”
Finally, in mid-June, Italian journalist Roberto de Mattei further confirmed the story and even listed the members of the alleged commission, including its head, Fr. Gilfredo Marengo, a theologian at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.
This led Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the grand chancellor of the institute, to finally break the Vatican’s silence with an ambiguous denial made in an interview with the Catholic News Agency (CNA), in which he claimed that “there is no pontifical commission called to re-read or to reinterpret Humanae vitae” but added that “we should look positively on all those initiatives, such as that of Professor Marengo of the John Paul II Institute, which aim at studying and deepening this document in view of the 50th anniversary of its publication.”
Marengo himself told CNA that stories about such a “commission” were nothing more than an “imaginative report” and assured the agency that “the issue of a conciliation between Amoris Laetitia and Humanae Vitae is not in the agenda.” He described his work as a “historical-critical investigation without any aim other than reconstructing as well as possible the whole process of composing the encyclical.”
Despite such attempts to dismiss reports about Marengo’s Humanae Vitae “commission,” concerns continued to be raised in Catholic media, and on July 25 Fr. Marengo gave an extensive interview to Vatican Radio in an apparent attempt to quell them. However, in the interview Marengo not only confirmed details given by de Mattei about his “commission” — which he calls a “study group” — but also drops a new bombshell, revealing that he has been given what appears to be exclusive access to the Vatican’s secret archives for the purpose of carrying out this Humanae Vitae “study.”
In the interview, published on the Vatican Radio website only in Italian, Marengo acknowledged that his “study group” consists of the same people named more than a month earlier by de Mattei: Pierangelo Sequeri, president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute; Philippe Chenaux, a professor of Church history at the Pontifical Lateran University; and Angelo Maffeis, president of the Paul VI Institute of Brescia.
“From the point of view of historical-theological research, it will be very useful to reconstruct the process of composing [the encyclical], which developed in distinct phases from June 1966 to its publication, by examining the documentation kept in some archives of the Holy See,” Marengo told Vatican Radio. “Given the approaching date of this 50th anniversary [of publication of Humanae Vitae], I have received permission to begin searching the archives, alongside some prominent scholars, Professors Sequeri, Maffeis and Chenaux.”
The next day, Marengo reaffirmed to the Catholic News Service that, in the words of CNS, “he felt it was important to ask the Vatican to set aside rules that prevent scholars from accessing Vatican archival material for 70 years.” CNS goes on to quote Marengo saying, “The competent Vatican authorities accepted my request, permitting access particularly to the collections of the Vatican Secret Archives and the archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”
The privilege of accessing the archives of this period is no small matter. The Vatican excludes scholars from virtually all material in the archives dating from the pontificate of Pope Pius XII to the present, and has done so for many years, citing the need to catalog and prepare the material before scholars can be permitted to view it. The Holy See has maintained this position for decades despite much pressure to open the archives arising from controversy over Pope Pius XII’s conduct during World War II.
The Vatican has long claimed that it is simply unable to accommodate requests for such material and continues to tell scholars that all material following the pontificate of Pius XI is unavailable to the public, except for documents relating to Vatican II. Only when the cataloguing process is complete will scholars be permitted to see documents from later periods, officials have repeatedly said, citing the principle that material in the archive should be opened to scholarly access only after 70 years.
Fr. Marengo and his “study group,” however, have been given exclusive access to this restricted section of the archives, something that other historians have been unable to achieve after decades of insistent requests. It is, to put it mildly, an unimaginable privilege for a group of scholars who wish to do nothing more than an historical recounting of the composition of an encyclical, a purely academic walk down memory lane. Such access had to be granted at the highest levels of authority in the Vatican. If this is not a “pontifical commission,” as Archbishop Paglia put it, it has privileges that certainly would seem to rival one.
Fr. Marengo’s curious project
The repeated attempts by Vatican officials to evade questions about this Humanae Vitae non-commission and to deny its significance, despite the unique privileges granted to it, raises an urgent question: What, precisely, does this exclusive Vatican “study group” intend to do?
In his interview with Catholic News Service, Marengo described the group’s activity as a “a work of historical-critical investigation without any aim other than reconstructing as well as possible the whole process of composing the encyclical,” in view of its upcoming 50th anniversary in 2018.
“Historical-critical” methods of textual interpretation are those that seek to understand texts by means of the processes that produced them as well as the social and cultural contexts in which they were written. With regard to the Bible, they have been used in doctrinally orthodox ways but have also been used to justify revisionist forms of interpretation that deny traditional understandings of Scriptural texts. This leads to claims that miracle stories, even those in the New Testament, are nothing more than literary devices, and even bringing into question such articles of the faith as the Virgin Birth of Christ and his resurrection from the dead.
Why, on the anniversary of an encyclical that was published within the living memory of a large percentage of the population, would the Vatican have need of an “historical-critical” analysis of the encyclical?
Although Fr. Marengo and Archbishop Paglia have protested much that no revision of the document is intended, Marengo himself seems already to be in the process of reinterpreting Humanae Vitae in troubling ways, telling Catholic News Service, in their words, that “procreation ... was seen by many as the primary purpose of marriage, so Pope Paul’s insistence in ‘Humanae Vitae’ that sex within marriage is both procreative and unitive was something new, as was his declaration ‘without uncertainty that the exercise of responsible parenthood is an objective value for Christian families’ when done using natural methods.’” Marengo made similar statements during his Vatican Radio interview.
Both of these statements are, to put it bluntly, deeply erroneous interpretations of the encyclical. Pope Paul VI was no innovator in such matters; the canon law and moral theology of the Church has long understood the sexual act as the consummation of an absolutely indissoluble sacramental union between the spouses, whether or not it results in procreation. Both the catechisms of the Council of Trent and of Pope Pius X list the unity of the spouses and their mutual support as among the primary ends of marriage, and Pope Pius XI writes at length about the unitive purpose of the sexual act in his encyclical Casti Connubii. Moreover, the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary began to publicly permit periodic abstinence to avoid conception in the late 19th century. In Humanae Vitae, Paul VI never contradicts the Church’s teaching that the primary purpose of the sexual act is procreation.
It’s true that Humanae Vitae lists the unitive purpose before the procreative, but this was nothing new -- the Catechism of the Council of Trent, 400 years earlier, had done the same thing, listing the first purpose of marriage as the satisfaction of the urge toward the companionship of the opposite sex, and mutual support in old age, and the second being the desire for begetting and raising children for the purpose of educating them in the faith. This order did not necessarily refer to any ultimate teleological priority but to the temporal sequence of ends sought in marriage.
Marengo has laughed off the idea that he somehow wants to reconcile Humanae Vitae with Pope Francis’ confused apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, but that is exactly what his recent scholarship has sought to do. Only a few months ago, Marengo wrote an article for Vatican Insider called “Humanae Vitae and Amoris Laetitia,” in which he belittles the Church’s condemnation of birth control, asking if “the polemical game – the pill yes – the pill no, like today's — Communion to the divorced yes – Communion to the divorced no — is only an appearance of discomfort and strain, [which is] much more decisive in the fabric of ecclesial life.”
In the same article, Marengo parrots the reasoning of Amoris Laetitia that seeks to lower Catholic moral dogma to an often unattainable and purely abstract ideal. “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,” said Marengo, and cited Amoris Laetitia in asserting, “We have presented a too abstract theological ideal on marriage, almost artificially constructed, far from the concrete situation and the effective possibilities of families as they really are. This excessive idealization, above all when we have reawakened trust in grace, has not made marriage more attractive and desirable, but quite the opposite.”
Archbishop Paglia, Fr. Marengo, and their media sympathizers have labored mightily to convince Catholic journalists to “move along,” because there’s nothing to see here. They accuse them of hatching “conspiracy theories,” and even go so far as to claim that Pope Francis has never hinted at changing Humanae Vitae. In fact, Pope Francis has made statements that contradict Humanae Vitae almost verbatim, claiming that contraception can be justified as a lesser evil (a claim expressly condemned in the same encyclical). His apparently offhanded statement, made to reporters during a flight, was reaffirmed by Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi soon after.
Moreover, Pope Francis’ recent conduct with regard to the Church’s perennial doctrines on life and family has given Catholics much cause for suspicion. His administration and its allies engaged in deceptive tactics to manipulate two synods of bishops in order to justify the subversive novelties against the integrity of marriage contained in Amoris Laetitia. Chillingly, Francis has made statements about Humanae Vitae hinting that he has a similar agenda for the document on its 50th anniversary of publication.
In a 2014 interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Francis was specifically asked about “tak[ing] up again the topic of birth control” half a century after the publication of Humanae Vitae. “Your confrere, Cardinal [Carlo Maria] Martini [the late Archbishop of Milan] believed it was now time,” added the interviewer.
“It all depends on how the text of ‘Humanae Vitae’ is interpreted,” responded Francis. “Paul VI himself, towards the end, recommended to confessors much mercy and attention to concrete situations.” Francis then complimented Paul VI, calling him a “prophetic” genius, but added, “The object is not to change the doctrine, but it is a matter of going into the issue in depth and to ensure that the pastoral ministry takes into account the situations of each person and what that person can do.”
The Catholic faithful have heard this language from Pope Francis before – it is the rationale underlying Amoris Laetitia’s apparent acceptance of permitting adulterers to receive Holy Communion, which has become the cause of immense scandal regarding the sacrament of marriage, and the greatest doctrinal controversy connected to a pope for more than six centuries. It’s hardly a cause for optimism regarding Fr. Marengo’s curious non-commission, and its “historical-critical” review of Humanae Vitae.