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Fr. Serafino M. Lanzetta

Opinion,

Why rebellion against Humanae Vitae is tied to Vatican II’s unclear teaching

Fr. Serafino M. Lanzetta

November 5, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) –  The grave moral crisis happening in the Church of sexual abuses has roots deeper than the misbehaviour of some priests and prelates. Certainly, it is not the expression of human weakness that the youth would understand more than any other, since they themselves fall and get back up, as recently insinuated by Cardinal Baldisseri in a press conference for the presentation of the Youth Synod (1st October 2018). Will the young victims of numerous clerical predators easily understand this weakness?

The root of the problem is dogmatic and then moral.

At its beginning, there is the rejection of the doctrine of Christ on human love and sexuality. In a preceding article, I said that this doctrine began to be “officially” spoiled with a public rebellion to Humanae Vitae from within the Church. By putting into discussion the indissoluble bond between conjugal love and procreation, the door was opened to justify any possible union. However, the storm that arose in the Church cannot be thoroughly understood without taking another step backward, so as to perceive the initial moment of the “official” disagreement about the ban on contraception, which then escalated to a public rebellion against Paul VI. The protest caught fire publicly, but the fire already smoldered beneath the ashes. It is important to take a look behind the scenes of Vatican II in order to find out the very start of the animosity. Two key figures are relevant: Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens, the primate of Belgium; and Schema XIII that later became the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes.

Suenens, in his Mémoires on Vatican II (a 69-page text dictated by the Belgian Cardinal right after the Council that contains his personal memoirs and constitutes the documents 2784 and 2785 of the “Suenens Archive”), presents himself as “the father, the initiator” of Gaudium et Spes, although he also writes that he was not “extremely enthusiastic” about it, for the fact that Paul VI had sent to the mixed Commission, on 23rd November 1965, four modi that reaffirmed the classical doctrine of the Church on matrimony, so as to modify the paragraphs 51, 54 and 55 of the drafted text.

These modi, among others, dealt with the clarification of the Church doctrine on birth control, holding fast to Casti Connubi, which the Pope wanted to be explicitly quoted. It is worth noting that prior to the modi, Paul VI had asked Suenens to prepare a text for a possible declaration in tune with the opening to birth control as favoured by the Belgian primate. Suenens’ reaction to the denial of that pontifical declaration was very hard. He wanted to campaign among the Council Fathers, so as to make them vote against the new text. Only when he was reassured by Msgr Prignon that Msgr Heuschen and Prof Heylen had made those modi inoffensive, and that the question on birth control was pending in the conciliar text, did he accept to vote placet.

The reason Suenens was favourable to Schema XIII was his hope to see the Church’s position on birth control modified in the chapter De Matrimonio. On 7th May 1964, Suenens launched a baillon d’essai at a press conference in Boston, where he declared: “Medical research is coming very close to finding a pill which will make it very easy for married couples to plan their families without violating the teachings of the Church.” As witnessed by Werner Wan Laer, thanks to Cardinal Suenens, the chapter on matrimony in Gaudium et Spes remains one of the Vatican II texts most open to different interpretations.

Moreover, Suenens, who was appointed by Paul VI as Moderator of the Council together with three other cardinals (Agagianian, Döpfner and Lercaro), was able to introduce in the Council hall four questions in relation to the sacramentality and collegiality of the episcopate and the reintroduction of the permanent diaconate. Without the support of Paul VI, who in truth was very hesitant, and against the will of Ottaviani and of the Council Secretary, Pericle Felici, the Moderators and Suenens in particular proposed to the Fathers an “indicative ballot” on the four questions. The ballot was scheduled for 17th October 1963, but was already known to the press and was publicised by Avvenire d’Italia. Paul VI postponed the ballot and ordered all 3000 voting cards, whose printing was commissioned by Cardinal Lercaro, burned. It was then that the long and very well consolidated friendship between the Belgian primate and Pope Montini started to crack, to the point that Suenens would eventually rebuke Paul VI for not having handled in a collegial manner the publication of his encyclicals Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (1967) and Humanae Vitae (1968).

Paul VI did not want the Council to debate birth control. Suenens tells in his Mémoires that Cardinal Agagianian, who in that moment chaired the Council session, had prepared a text in which he would tell the Fathers not to discuss that topic. Suenens instead modified the text to say: “We will discuss this subject, but only in reference to the first principles, without entering into details.” Paul VI got very angry with Suenens and – as related by the latter – told him that he had lost his credibility with the Council bishops. However, Suenens was very proud of his actions. One of his colleagues, the rector of the Belgian College, Fr Aeber Prignon (1919-2000), told him: “You opened the future.” In fact, he was right about this: a sad future was opened, with a lot of problems for the world, but especially for the Church.

Suenens entrusted his hope for suitable successive hermeneutics of Gaudium et Spes in the document’s optimistic tenor, with its descriptive rather than assertive sentences. But many were not satisfied with Schema XIII (formerly XVII), which later became Gaudium et Spes, not for the same reason as Suenens, but for the fact that, despite being launched with much publicity, according to Fr Henri de Lubac, “the outcome was mediocre; no doctrinal coherence, and more, no Christian strength. Many bishops see this, and say this in private and in public, but there is no way to fully remedy to it; it is too late.” What was even more grievous, according to another critique of Gaudium et Spes by Msgr Blanchet, was the fact that, as very well highlighted by Cardinal Siri, there was “an excess of optimism, with no allusion to what is however a feature of our time: the diminishing of the sense of sin.”

Suenens appealed to the collegiality, a theme strongly debated in the Council and advanced by Cardinal Parente, who supported the claims of the “collegials”. But collegiality itself needed to be repaired, and so the Nota Praevia was added to Lumen Gentium. Suenens stubbornly alleged a lack of collegiality in the making of Humanae Vitae. It was also his conviction that the open teaching of Gaudium et Spes would have facilitated a future magisterial statement in favour of birth control. This did not happen, yet herein one can understand Suenens’ rebellion against the Magisterium of Paul VI, that, no doubt, was also very symbolic: it showed the dead end of the divorce between one’s ideas and the magisterium of the Church, with repercussions, no doubt, on the present situation.

From all this, we can make some evaluation. The post-conciliar confusion and rebellion against Humanae Vitae are tied – although indirectly – to the magisterial uncertainty of Vatican II, especially in Gaudium et Spes. One cannot simply put the blame on the contrasting hermeneutics born during the receptive phase of the Council. It was the Council itself, with its doctrinal ambiguity on various points, that created the hermeneutical problem. From the very outset of the Council, the Fathers with their theologians faced such a problem. The dispute between Paul VI and the Theological Commission over the constitutive value of Apostolic Tradition is just one example; Paul VI reaffirmed it with the previous Magisterium, but the majority of expert theologians and the Fathers omit it for the sake of “ecumenism”. The fact that the roots of the opposition to Humanae Vitae lie in Gaudium et Spes is shown also by the recent attempt to tie Amoris Laetitia to the Pastoral Constitution of Vatican II. The motive behind this is to overcome the Encyclical Letter of Paul VI on life by taking back the conciliar magisterium on love of husband and wife in the family, introducing an alleged “dignity of the person” in morally assessing methods of regulating birth (cf. AL 82), and justifying de facto the more uxorio marital intercourse.

There is another point to make besides this. The synod of bishops under Francis now has a new status, by which the issues for discussion arise from man – from the people, specifically the youth. The Church “listens” and does not teach. The synod teaching, if approved by the Supreme Pontiff, will be part of his ordinary Magisterium – a tangible idea of “the Church from below”, a magisterium continuously developing as an open construction site (or a “field hospital”), and a superimposition of roles between lay people and the ministerial priesthood.

Is this new “synod paradigm” a way to hold fast to the conciliar collegiality stopped by the Nota Praevia, but vehemently advanced by Suenens with a vision of a Church in fieri, where the (collegial) consent of the majority is preponderant? If it is so, Vatican II, on the one hand, would rise once again to a conciliar paradigm and, on the other, would also be used as a smokescreen for a new opposition in the Church to Her perennial Magisterium. A magisterial break and its supposed new beginning are like anesthetics on conscience; they are used to exorcise the ghosts of gloomy and prohibitive morals. All this, anyway, would confirm that the final root of today’s moral crisis is to be found in the attempt to subvert correct doctrine in the name of conciliar plurality. Unending hermeneutics solve no problems, but make new and very grievous ones arise.

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