Grisez Interview: New documents give the real story behind Paul VI Birth Control Commission
February 24, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) - Documents now open to the public reveal a new story about the fascinating inner workings of the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family, and Birth-rate, commonly referred to as the “Birth Control Commission,” which was behind the critical papal encyclical Humanae Vitae.
Dr. Germain Grisez, emeritus Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University and a close friend and advisor to Commission member Fr. John Ford, S.J., has made the documents available on his website, along with a narrative of the events surrounding the Commission’s work from 1964 to 1966.
In an interview with LifeSiteNews, Dr. Grisez revealed further information about the significance of these documents, which he believes stand to correct mistaken public perceptions about the events leading up to the issuing of Humanae Vitae.
The Commission was originally created by John XXIII shortly before his death in order to prepare for Vatican participation in a United Nations conference. Pope Paul VI expanded the Commission’s mandate to study the increasingly controversial issue of the Church’s teaching on contraception.
Grisez explains on his website that Paul VI’s real interest was not in potentially revising the Church’s teaching, but in determining whether use of the birth control pill was condemned by that teaching.
“From what Father Ford told me, I am certain that Paul VI was confident that Pius XI’s reaffirmation of the traditional teaching against contraception in Casti Connubii was sound and could not be contradicted,” Dr. Grisez told LifeSiteNews. “I also am certain that the issue about the pill was the only specific issue Pope Paul wanted investigated.”
Grisez explained that it had seemed plausible that the pill may not violate the integrity of the marital act, since, unlike barrier methods, the pill does not change “outward sexual behavior.”
Grisez supports his analysis on his website, pointing out that on June 23, 1964, when the Pope announced the Commission’s work, he indicated its mandate by referencing “not the teaching of Pius XI (who had taught that contraception is always gravely wrong) but that of Pius XII (who had rejected a forerunner of the pill).”
Grisez became involved with the Commission’s work through his acquaintance with Fr. Ford, who was appointed as a member in 1964. He was also acquainted with another member of the Commission, American psychiatrist Dr. John Cavanagh, who shared with him a report of the first session of the newly expanded Commission. This is among the documents now available on Dr. Grisez’s website.
What the document reveals, says Grisez, is that the Commission’s Secretary General, Rev. Henri de Riedmatten, OP, had “skillfully managed the session:”
“Philosopher and lawyer John T. Noonan, Jr. was about to publish a book about the Church’s doctrine on contraception that was in effect a massive brief for the view that the teaching could change, and de Riedmatten had arranged for Noonan to summarize his case in a two-hour plenary meeting that opened the session’s discussions.
“Then, instead of focusing on the question of the birth control pill or even on the truth of the Church’s constant and very firm teaching, de Riedmatten focused on the question of whether, as he put it, the teaching was ‘reformable’ or ‘irreformable.’”
This, Dr. Grisez explains in his narrative, became the Commission’s focus in the meetings that followed. Grisez eventually went to Rome himself and assisted Fr. Ford in drafting various documents in support of the Church’s traditional teaching, a position held by a shrinking minority of the Commission’s members.
In June of 1966, the Secretary General delivered the Commission’s Final Report to Pope Paul VI. The report consisted of a detailed account of the Commission’s work, followed by a draft document entitled the Schema of a Document on Responsible Parenthood, to be issued by the Holy Father announcing a change in the Church’s teaching.
Grisez obtained a copy of the report when Cardinal Ottaviani, President of the Commission and an opponent of change, asked him and Fr. Ford to prepare a response to be delivered to the Holy Father. The Final Report, and Grisez and Ford’s response, are accessible on Grisez’s website.
Grisez relates that he and Fr. Ford were “appalled but not surprised” by the bias reflected in the Secretary General’s report.
“I recall that Father Ford thought that the views of the majority were presented just as he expected those holding them would have wanted them presented, while the views of him and his colleagues were in some respects not adequately presented,” Grisez told LifeSiteNews.
The report’s bias would evidently not have taken Pope Paul VI by surprise either. According to Grisez, Paul VI was aware of the ideological leanings of those he had appointed to the Commission, and had composed the Commission in this way in order to give their argument a fair hearing.
“The way he enlarged the Commission and named the Cardinals and bishops who were its members during its final phase made it clear that he wanted to know what those who thought development was possible had to say,” Grisez explained.
Moreover, despite the nature of his original mandate, relates Grisez, the Holy Father had “never set definite limits on the Commission’s work . . . But, of course, he expected the Commission’s results to be for his eyes alone, and so he expected to be able to set aside anything not consistent with the faith of the Church.”
This expectation was disappointed in the spring of 1967, when a translation of the Schema of a Document on Responsible Parenthood was leaked to the press. Originally written as a draft proposal document for the Holy Father, it was re-titled: “The Majority Report.”
Also leaked to the press was a document that had been prepared by Fr. Ford not as a final report, but as an internal paper written in defense of the Church’s traditional teaching, and presented to the Commission in the course of its sessions. Originally written in Latin, it was titled Status Quaestionis: Doctrina Ecclesiae Eiusque Status.
This latter document, translated into English and French, was re-made as the “Minority Report,” and presented as a counter part to the “Majority Report.”
“The Schema Documenti was drafted with a view to publication by Paul VI, and it therefore omitted difficult arguments and was more reader friendly than either of the two theological position papers,” Grisez explained. “Most people who read it first, thinking it was the majority report, were impressed by its readability. The minority’s theological position paper, Status Quaestionis, by contrast, was harder to read and impressed readers as stiff and formal.”
Both documents are available on Grisez’s website under their authentic titles. In an introduction to the documents, Grisez expressed the hope that their publication would prove a benefit to the Church.
Grisez told LifeSiteNews that the true story and original text of these documents counters “The mistaken public impression . . . that the number of those on the Commission who thought this or that mattered to Paul VI.”
Such an impression has been expressed by a number of influential Catholic writers, including Patty Crowley, a former member of the Commission who has since been involved in the founding of Call to Action, an organization which advocates married and female priests, and the democratization of Church decision-making processes.
In a 1993 article published in the National Catholic Reporter, Crowley recounts her experience on the Commission and says that she felt “betrayed” by the Pope’s rejection of the majority opinion of the Commission.
Crowley writes: “If, as in the majority opinion of the commission, birth control is not intrinsically evil, and if it is clear that the majority of Catholics are practicing some form of birth control, how can the official church continue to uphold the statements of Humanae Vitae?”
However, Grisez counters, Paul VI “was not interested in numbers. He was interested in finding evidence and reasons that would justify any sort of legitimate development of the traditional teaching. The Commission failed to provide any justification for change. . . . They presented the best case that could be made for change, but, after carefully studying that case, Paul VI found it wanting.”
As to Pope Paul VI’s original concern - whether the birth control pill constitutes contraception - Grisez notes that the Commission was in nearly unanimous agreement that the pill “presented no special problem.”
Agreeing with this assessment, Paul VI ultimately rejected the idea that the pill presented any special characteristic to make it an exception to the Church’s teaching.
“The Pope—on the issue that had mainly concerned him—acted in accord with the nearly unanimous advice of the Commission’s experts and members,” Grisez said.