Humanae Vitae was courageous, but not prophetic: Catholic historian
ROME, July 24, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) — Humanae Vitae should be celebrated for upholding the Catholic Church’s ban on contraception and abortion but, at least in one sense, it was not prophetic, a noted Catholic historian has said.
The Catholic Church will mark the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s 1968 controversial encyclical on Wednesday, July 25th.
In a recent article, Professor Roberto de Mattei discussed new facts that have emerged about the origins of Humanae Vitae, as a result of a “secret” Vatican commission’s investigation of archived documents relating to the preparatory work of the encyclical.
The commission’s findings are chronicled by one of its members, Monsignor Gilfredo Marengo, in a new book titled, The birth of an Encyclical. Humanae Vitae in the light of the Vatican Archives.
Now, in this follow-up interview with LifeSiteNews, Professor de Mattei speaks more in depth about the genesis of Humanae Vitae, explains what magisterial authority it has, and discusses the encyclical’s strengths and weaknesses.
De Mattei argues that Humanae Vitae did not express the Church’s doctrine on the ends of marriage with sufficient clarity. Quoting Pope Pius XII, he explains that the Church has always infallibly taught that procreation is the principal end of marriage:
“The truth is that marriage, as a natural institution, by virtue of the Creator’s will, does not have as its primary and intimate end the personal perfection of the spouses, but the procreation and education of new life. The other ends, inasmuch as they are intended by nature, are not equally primary, much less superior to the primary end, but are essentially subordinated to it. This is true of every marriage, even if no offspring result, just as it can be said of every eye that it is destined and formed to see, even if, in abnormal cases arising from special internal or external conditions, it will never be possible to achieve visual perception” (Pope Pius XII, Address to midwives, October 29, 1951).
De Mattei is an Italian historian and president of the Lepanto Foundation. He has taught at various universities and has served as vice-president of the National Research Council, Italy’s leading scientific institution. He is also a member of the recently established John Paul II Academy for Human Life and the Family.
Christian marriage, he says, is aimed ultimately at “giving children to God and to the Church, so that they might be future citizens of Heaven.” Fifty years after the promulgation of Humanae vitae, de Mattei insists that “we need to have the courage to re-examine” the Church’s teaching on the ends of marriage, “motivated only by a desire to seek the truth and the good of souls.”
LifeSite: Professor de Mattei, on July 25, 1968 Paul VI promulgated the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Fifty years later, what is your historical judgment on this event?
De Mattei: Humanae Vitae is an encyclical of great historical importance, because it recalled the existence of an immutable natural law at a time when the benchmark for culture and customs was a denial of lasting values amid historical change. Paul VI’s document was also a response to the ecclesiastical revolution that attacked the Church from within after the close of the Second Vatican Council. We must be grateful to Paul VI for not yielding to extremely strong pressure from media and ecclesiastical lobbies that wanted to change the teaching of the Church in this regard.
Unlike many people today, you claim that Humanae Vitae was not a prophetic document. Why?
In common parlance, prophetic is defined as the ability to foresee future events in the light of reason illumined by grace. In this respect, during the years of the Second Vatican Council, the 500 Council Fathers who demanded that communism be condemned were “prophets” in their prediction that this “intrinsic evil” would soon collapse. Those instead who opposed this condemnation — in the conviction that communism contained something good and would last for centuries — were not “prophets.”
In those same years, the myth of the demographic explosion was spreading, and everyone was talking about the need to reduce the number of births. Those like Cardinal Suenens, who asked that contraception be authorized in order to limit births, were not prophets; while Council Fathers like Cardinals Ottaviani and Browne, who opposed such requests by recalling the words of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28), were prophets.
The problem facing the Christian West today is certainly not one of overpopulation but of demographic collapse. Humanae vitae was not a prophetic encyclical, because it accepted the principle of controlling births in the form of “responsible parenthood,” even though it was a courageous document in reiterating the Church’s condemnation of contraception and abortion. In this respect it deserves to be celebrated.
Some have suggested that Humanae Vitae offered a new teaching in recalling the inseparability of the two ends of marriage, the procreative and the unitive, and put these ends on an equal footing? Do you agree?
The inseparability of the two ends of marriage is part of the doctrine of the Church, and Humanae Vitae rightly recalls this. However, in order to avoid any misunderstanding, we have to remember that there is a hierarchy of ends. According to doctrine of the Church, marriage is, by its very nature, a juridical-moral institution elevated by Christianity to the dignity of a Sacrament. Its principal end is the procreation of offspring, which is not a simple biological function and cannot be separated from the conjugal act.
Indeed, Christian marriage is aimed at giving children to God and to the Church, so that they might be future citizens of Heaven. As Saint Thomas teaches (Summa Contra Gentiles 4, 58), marriage makes the spouses “propagators and preservers of spiritual life, according to a ministry at once corporal and spiritual,” which consists in “generating offspring and educating them in divine worship” (Eph. 5: 28). Parents do not directly communicate supernatural life to their children, but must ensure its development by passing on to them the inheritance of faith, beginning with baptism. For this reason, the principal end of marriage also involves the education of children: a work — as Pius XII affirms in an address on May 19, 1956 — which by its scope and consequences far surpasses that of generation.
What magisterial authority does Humanae Vitae have?
In an attempt to soften the doctrinal clash with Catholics advocating contraception, Paul VI did not want to attribute a definitive character to the document. But the condemnation of contraception can be considered an infallible act of the ordinary Magisterium, where it reaffirms what has always been taught: any use of marriage in which, using artificial methods, the conjugal act is prevented from procreating life, violates the natural law and is a grave sin. The primacy of the procreative end of marriage can also be considered an infallible doctrine of the ordinary Magisterium, since it was solemnly affirmed by Pius XI in Casti connubii and reiterated by Pius XII in his foundational Address to midwives on October 29, 1951 and in many other documents.
In fact, Pius XII states clearly: “The truth is that marriage, as a natural institution, by virtue of the Creator’s will, does not have as its primary and intimate end the personal perfection of the spouses, but the procreation and education of new life. The other ends, inasmuch as they are intended by nature, are not equally primary, much less superior to the primary end, but are essentially subordinated to it. This is true of every marriage, even if no offspring result, just as it can be said of every eye that it is destined and formed to see, even if, in abnormal cases arising from special internal or external conditions, it will never be possible to achieve visual perception.” The Pope at this point recalls that the Holy See, in a public decree by the Holy Office, “proclaimed that it could not accept the opinion of some recent authors who denied that the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of offspring, or who teach that the secondary ends are not essentially subordinated to the primary end, but are on an equal footing and independent of it” (S.C. S. Officii, I April 1944 - Acta Ap. Sedis vol. 36, a. 1944 ).
You note in your article that one of the new elements included in Monsignor Marengo’s book is the complete text of the first draft of the encyclical, which was titled De nascendi prolis. You also note how, through a series of events, this encyclical was transformed into Humanae Vitae. Can you tell us more about how this transformation occurred?
The history of Humanae Vitae is complex, and it caused great anguish. The beginning of this story is the Council Fathers’ rejection of the preparatory schema on family and marriage, drawn up by Vatican II’s preparatory commission and approved by John XXIII in July 1962. The chief architect of the turning point was Cardinal Leo-Joseph Suenens, the Archbishop of Brussels, who had a profound influence on Gaudium et Spes and “piloted” the ad hoc commission on the birth control established by John XXIII and enlarged by Paul VI.
In 1966, this commission produced a text in which the majority of experts expressed their support for contraception. The following two years were controversial and confusing, as the new documents published by Monsignor Gulfredo Marengo confirm. The majority opinion, announced by the National Catholic Reporter in 1967, was countered by a minority opinion opposing the use of contraceptive methods. Paul VI then appointed a new study group, directed by his theologian, Monsignor Colombo.
After much discussion, they arrived at De nascendi prolis. But then another unexpected turn of events occurred, because the French translators expressed strong reservations about the document. Paul VI made new modifications, and finally, on July 25, 1968, Humanae Vitae was published.
The difference between the two documents was that the first was more “doctrinal,” while the second had a more “pastoral” character. According to Monsignor Marengo, they felt “the wish to avoid that the search for doctrinal clarity be interpreted as insensitive rigidity.” The traditional doctrine of the Church was confirmed, but the doctrine on the ends of marriage was not expressed with sufficient clarity.
In your article, you write that John Paul II “vigorously reaffirmed the teaching of Humanae Vitae, but the concept of conjugal love that spread under his pontificate is at the origin of many misunderstandings.” Can you say more about this?
I am grateful to John Paul II for his clear reaffirmation of moral absolutes in Veritatis splendor. But John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which is partly taken up by the new Code of Canon Law and the New Catechism, expresses an understanding of marriage centered almost exclusively on spousal love. After fifty years, we need to have the courage to re-examine this question objectively, motivated only by a desire to seek the truth and the good of souls. The fruits of the new pastoral ministry are there for all to see. Contraception is widespread in the Catholic world, and the justification given for it is a distorted view of love and marriage. If the hierarchy of ends is not established, we risk doing precisely what we wish to avoid; namely, creating tension and conflict and, ultimately, a separation of the two ends of marriage.
But isn’t the marriage bond also a symbol of Christ’s intimate union with the Church?
Certainly, but St. Paul’s famous expression (Eph. 5: 32) is almost always applied to the conjugal act, while married love is not only emotional, affective love, but first and foremost rational love. Rational love, elevated by charity, becomes a form of supernatural love and sanctifies marriage. Emotional, sensitive love can be degraded to the point of considering the person of one’s spouse as an object of pleasure. This risk can also arise from an overemphasis of the spousal character of marriage.
Moreover, referring to the image of Christ’s union with his Church, Pius XII states: “In both the one and the other the gift of self is total, exclusive, irrevocable: in both the one and the other the groom is the head of the bride, who is subject to him as to the Lord (cf. ibidem, 22-33); in both the one and the other the mutual gift becomes the principle of expansion and source of life” (Address to newlyweds, October 23, 1940). Today the emphasis is placed only on mutual self-giving, but there is silence about the fact that the man is the head of his wife and family, just as Christ is the head of the Church. The implicit denial of the primacy of the husband over the wife is analogous to the omission of the primacy of the procreative end over the unitive. This introduces into the family a confusion of roles whose consequences we are witnessing today.