'Humanae Vitae' 25 Years Later: Church Can Interpret Natural Law?

Author: Archbishop Vincenzo Fagiolo



By: Archbishop Vincenzo Fagiolo President of the Pontifical Council For the Interpretation of Legislative Texts

[Reprinted with permission from the English Version of L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO, N. 35, 1 September 1993].


We begin our discussion with a passage from St. Thomas Aquinas that takes us immediately to the heart of the question about the Pope's authority and the assent owed his teaching: "One must adhere to the Pope's judgement more than to the position of any theologian, however well-versed in the divine Scriptures." (Quodl., IX, a.16).

In the Dogmatic Constitution "Dei Verbum", the Second Vatican Council taught that "the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living Magisterium of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ" ("Dei Verbum", n. 10b). The reference to this dogmatic truth is the foundation of the reasoning Pope Paul VI used to justify the central teaching of "Humanae Vitae."

In interpreting the divine law, both natural and positive, the Pope speaks and teaches in the name of the One from whom he received the authority he enjoys as *Vicarius Christi*. His is not a scholarly magisterium, but one of authority; he teaches, and must teach, as one with authority (cf. Mt. 7:29). As a result, in order to determine the authority of the Encyclical Letter on the problem of "the transmission of human life and the regulation of births," one must clearly identify the specific character of the doctrine contained in the document, and the particular nature of the teaching by which that same doctrine is proposed. Thus the solution to the problem of the Encyclical's authority follows from two basic considerations: one in relation to the content and the other with respect to the Encyclical's author. Given their close connection we shall consider them both together.


Canon 747 states that the Church, to whom Christ the Lord entrusted the deposit of faith so that, assisted by the Holy Spirit, she might reverently safeguard revealed truth, more closely examine it and faithful proclaim and expound it, has the innate duty and right to preach the Gospel to all nations (cf. "LUmen Gentium", nn 24a, 25a; "Dei Verbum", nn. 7a, 8a, 10a, b; "Dignitatis Humanae", n. 13b). The same divine mandate is the source of the Church's own task of always and everywhere proclaiming moral principles and of passing judgment on any human reality whenever she must defend the basic rights of the human person and the salvation of souls (cf. "Gaudium et Spes", n. 763). Even before Paul VI, John XXIII had recalled in the Encyclical "Mater et Magistra" and Vatican II had explained that it is the Bishops' responsibility to teach "how high a value should be placed on the human person, on his liberty and bodily life; how lightly we should value the family, its unity and stability, and the procreation and education of children" ("Christus Dominus", n 12c). In regard to procreation Vatican II had stated: "Without intending to underestimate the other ends of marriage, it must be said that true married love and the whole structure of family life which results from it is directed to disposing the spouses to cooperate valiantly with the love of the Creator"; and with the other consequence, which is essentially the principle which the Council in no way wanted to abandon and which it repeated clearly and forcefully: "Marriage and married love are by nature ordered to the procreation and education of children" ("Gaudium et Spes", n. 50a).

This principle (which is the main reason why Pope Paul's Encyclical would later reject the opinion of those who considered the use of contraceptives to be licit) is reaffirmed many times by the Council. We stress this here because Pope Paul Vi would have to state whether there were valid exceptions to the Church's traditional doctrine reaffirmed by his three immediate predecessors: Pius XI, Pius XII and John XXIII.

The same Council, "stante doctrina Magisterii," chose not to propose concrete solutions and referred them to the same Supreme Pontiff, who would consult the commission already established by John XXIII to study the problems of population, family and the birth rate. However, the Council repeatedly stated the principle mentioned above because of the necessary "harmony between married love and respect for human life." In fact it condemned "free love, ... selfishness, hedonism, and unlawful contraceptive practices" that are a desecration of married love (cf. "Gaudium et Spes", n. 47b). It is from the very structure of male and female and from their mutual, free attraction that the institution of marriage arises, which, according to the order of nature, is ordered to children even before positive legal systems recognize its properties and ends.


On this point the Council is always explicit, saying: "Married people should realize that in their behavior they may not simply follow their own fancy but must always be governed by a conscience in conformity with the divine law and be docile to the Church's Magisterium, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel" ("Gaudium et Spes", n. 50b). Thus, in this area, the Pope has an authority derived from his own proper office. With the mandate received from Christ he must teach and (if necessary) authentically interpret the divine law, both natural and supernatural, which must be known and observed in order to attain salvation.

In "Humanae Vitae" the Pope taught, with the divine assistance he enjoys (cf. "Lumen Gentium", n. 25a), what the Church's ordinary Magisterium had always held to be true and right, and what had been reconfirmed by the extraordinary Magisterium of Vatican II. The arguments of those who claim to pass judgment on the basis of their knowledge do not stand up against this Magisterium: between the two teachings there is a substantial difference of quality and not only of degree. The teaching of "Humanae Vitae" is Magisterium - though ordinary - which contains decisions belonging to a divinely established authority (cf. canon 331; "Lumen Gentium" nn. 18a, 20c, 22b, 23c; "Christus Dominus" n. 2a) and exercised in order to interpret and teach (as in our case) the moral norms of human conduct. If he were not the Pope, he would lose his legitimate power and the intrinsic reason for his ministry; at most he could carry out a scholarly magisterium, which, however, would not be of use to the Church and to which he has not been appointed by the Church's Founder; he would lack the supernatural "virtus" of assisting and confirming his brethren in the faith and in the moral law (cf. Lk. 22:32, Mt. 16:29; Vatican I, Dogm. Const. "Pastor Aeternus", DS 3074).

It is Jesus himself who wanted the Pope to have a Magisterium of authority, having entrusted him with the mission of teaching men the truths to be believed and the duties to be fulfilled. In promulgating "Humanae Vitae" Paul VI acted within and by force of this Magisterium. He proposed anew "a teaching which is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation." Paul VI therefore says: "Let no Catholic be heard to assert that the interpretation of the natural moral law is outside the competence of the church's Magisterium. It is in fact indisputable, as our Predecessors have many times declared (Pius XI, St. Pius X, Pius XII and John XXIII are cited), that Jesus Christ, when he communicated his divine power to Peter and the other Apostles and sent them to teach all nations his commandments (cf. Mt. 28:18029), constituted them as the authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the natural law, the reason being that the natural law declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men's eternal salvation" ("Humanae Vitae", n. 4).


In this dogmatic exposition Paul VI was also supported by the recent conciliar Magisterium. On 7 December 1965, the Pope, in union with the Fathers of Vatican II, promulgated the Pastoral Constitution "Gaudium et Spes", the third chapter of which has a wealth of doctrinal teaching on the dignity of marriage and the family. Particular light is shed on our question by the statement we find in n. 50 of this Constitution, entitled "The Fruitfulness of Marriage." After stating with extreme clarity that marriage and married love are ordered by their very nature to the procreation and education and education of children, the Council exhorts Christian couples to adhere to the Church's teaching and not to follow their own fancy, but "*always be governed* by a conscience in conformity with the divine law and *be docile to the Church's Magisterium*, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel" (n. 50b). Therefore, on the basis of Vatican II's teaching as well, the Pope did not speak in "Humanae Vitae" as a private theologian like other theologians, but in virtue of the mandate entrusted to him by Christ, as he himself fittingly stated in his Encyclical (cf. n. 6).

And however much he may have agonized before publishing the Encyclical an sought to understand all the varying opinions, as the Successor of Peter and the Vicar of Christ he rightly and solemnly declared that "we, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to us by Christ, intend to give our reply to this series of grave questions" (n. 6). This is authentic Magisterium; this is acting as a sure teacher with the clear conscience that he is speaking with an authority he knows he has received and who is well aware that he is teaching rules of moral conduct "in the name of Jesus Christ" and "with the help of the Holy Spirit." ("Dei Verbum", n. 10b).

The Servant of God Paul VI's Encyclical "Humanae Vitae" thus has the authority of the Church's ordinary Magisterium and therefore its teaching must be given "a religious submission of intellect and will; the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid whatever is not in harmony with that teaching" (canon 752). Vatican II had already expressed it well: "This loyal submission of will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, *even when he does not speak 'ex cathedra' in such wise*, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and that one sincerely adhere to decisions made by him, in conformity with his manifest mind and intention, which is made known principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated" ("Lumen Gentium", n. 25a).

It is almost unnecessary to recall that John Paul II not once but many times has supported and proposed anew the teaching of "Humanae Vitae", with the full conviction that "it is necessary to make God's marvelous plan for married love procreation and family upbringing shine in the sight of new generations." The recent CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH has reconfirmed the teaching of "Humanae Vitae". (Cf. nn. 2366-2372). We conclude as we began with another beautiful statement of St. Thomas Aquinas: "Against his (the Pope's) authority neither Jerome nor Augustine can assert his own opinion." ("Summa Theologica", II-II, 1. 11, a.2, ad 3.).

"THE LIBRARY" by AVATAR on Sept. 30, 1992 at 23:02 Eastern, about THE PLACE FOR ARCHIVING LONG FILES (57 notes).

Note 56 by AVATAR on Sept. 12, 1993 at 23:04 Eastern (12126 characters).