On Humanae Vitae

Author: Cardinal Pericle Felici


Cardinal Pericle Felici

Much has already been spoken and written about the Encyclical Humanae Vitae. Shouts of "hosanna" have mingled with cries of "Crucify", and the Pope is once again seen to be, like Christ Himself, a sign of contradiction.

But as far as I know the problem has not yet been studied in depth on a strictly scientific basis; sufficient attention has not been given to the relationships existing between the Pope's Encyclical and the Council's teaching, to which the Encyclical so often refers.

Some, taking a very superficial view, have affirmed that by his Encyclical, Paul VI has restricted the vast horizons opened up by Vatican II and by good Pope John. (Oh, if only Pope John could rise from the tomb to reply to the many rash speakers who misuse both his name and his authority!) Others maintain that Vatican II did not in any way deal with this specific question. Others have eventually declared that the whole teaching of Paul VI is to be found in Vatican II.

On a former occasion, when interpreting a passage of the Council, I wrote: "To understand what the Council has taught two things are necessary: an exegetical examination of the text taking into account the 'journey' by which it reached its final formulation; and at the same time a willingness to be guided by the voice of the Magisterium which is the authentic interpreter of the Conciliar decrees." ("Council si, Council no" in L'Osservatore Romano, 12 April 1968).

It is of interest to know the "journey" traveled for the formulation of the doctrine of the so-called regulation of birth. These are only brief notes which we offer for further development by students.

The subject is explicitly referred to in Part II, chapter 1 of the pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes on the Church in the modern world.

Various drafts and studies had preceded the final preparation of this Constitution for the Council. The first real draft, properly so-called, on the subject was submitted to the Fathers on July 3, 1964; it began with the words Gaudium et luctus. The text, relatively short, was accompanied by Appendices bound in a separate section. There was considerable discussion on the value of these during the third conciliar period. They contained clarifications and explanations on the subject which had already been substantially included in the draft.

In this first draft the affirmation was made that "such is the character of conjugal love that matrimony of its nature is ordained for the generation and rearing of offspring." Then, as regards the number of children, it is emphasised that married couples should not follow blind instinct but fulfil their duty "with full and conscious responsibility, according to the gifts of God and the law of true love." They do this by forming a judgement based upon the requirements of pedagogy, economics, hygiene, as well as family and community, i.e. both civil and ecclesial. In the Appendices the same ideas are repeated in more extended form, but a precise directive is finally given when it says that the judgement mentioned above shall be formed "according to the teaching set forth by the Church."

Owing to the numerous observations made by the Conciliar Fathers, a new text was drawn up and then distributed to the Fathers on May 28, 1965. It was a single text: the Appendices were, to a great extent, included in it

On the subject of matrimonial fertility, the Conciliar Commission observed: "Although parents have in all ages decided the number of their children, to-day the question has become more difficult because many new factors affect this decision. Different opinions were in evidence in the Aula. "A goodly number" of Fathers expressed the wish that parents, trusting in God's Providence, should have as many children as God gives them by the operation of nature. But a great majority of the Fathers, in one way or another, supported the opinion in favour of so-called parental responsibility. Only a few (and two of these with some hesitation) did not exclude the use of contraceptive means in grave cases. The Commission rather followed the first two opinions, shared by such a large number of Fathers. As regards parental responsibility, it recalled the words of Pius XII addressed to Italian midwives (October 29, 1951) and to the Italian Family Associations (November 26, 1951) where allowance is made for the "regulation of births" (as distinguished from so-called birth control) for medical, eugenic or social reasons. The text (of the new draft) says clearly that the parents' conscience should be governed by objective laws and by the requirements of a good of a different order; the words used (conscientia lege Dei recte informata) clearly underline the fact that shameful means are forbidden.

The "mind" of the Commission was clear, and the recall to the teaching of Pius XII on a point which could give rise to equivocation (parental responsibility) was very timely.

The text, which was then translated into the various modern languages, faithfully followed the "mind". Thus in the paragraph which spoke of the harmony which should exist between conjugal love and the responsible transmission of life, an affirmation of considerable value was introduced. This stated: "The moral character of a way of acting when it is a question of harmonizing conjugal love with the responsible transmission of life depends not only upon a sincere intention and a correct appraisal of motive, but should also be determined by objective criteria founded on the dignity of the human person as well as by a realisation of the whole meaning of mutual donation and human procreation within the context of true love. Moulded by these principles, the children of the Church, in the regulation of births, will not stray down forbidden paths which may be condemned by the Magisterium."

At the beginning of the fourth session, the discussion on the prepared text took place in the Aula. Many Fathers requested that it be expressed in more exact terminology so as to avoid any apparent suggestiveness in a matter of such delicacy. The new text was subjected to further revision (textus recognitus) and besides a renewed. affirmation that decision about the number of children definitely pertained to the parents, there was also a precise and unequivocal statement that married couples could not proceed by their own free-will but should follow their conscience "ab ipsa lege divina illuminanda; dociles erga Ecclesiae Magisterium, quod illam sub luce Evangelii authentice interpretatur." This is the first time that a broad indication was expressly given to the Church's Magisterium which interprets the divine law; but a hint was already included in the above-mentioned Appendices.

Voting on the draft (schema) then followed and the modifications proposed were fairly numerous. Still greater precision was requested. Two Fathers bluntly considered the text to be "theologically immature, equivocal and silent on some essential points." (Theologice immaturum, aequivocum et reticens in quibusdam essentialibus). The Commission replied that it was not its task to settle each and every question that could arise from the subject matter, the more so since the Pope had set up an ad hoc Special Commission. In any case, the text threw a strong light upon the sacred character of marriage, of love (and this was in accord with the Encyclical of Pius XI Casti Connubi) and of fertility as well as on the many rights and duties inherent in married and family life.

In the amended text (textus denuo recognitus) the doctrine previously explained was repeated, at the same time changing the phrase "conscientia ab ipsa lege divina illuminanda" for another more exact one "conscientia ipsi legi divinae conformanda" and this was followed by the other words: dociles erga Ecclesiae Magisterium, etc. In the following paragraph, which, as has been said, speaks about the harmony between conjugal love and the responsible transmission of human life, some valuable expressions are introduced. These say that: the objective criteria which determine the lawfulness of sexual relations should be taken from the nature of the person and from the nature of the acts of the person (in the former text there was no mention of such acts); that the whole meaning of donation and procreation could not be envisaged without a genuine reverence for conjugal chastity; that for children of the Church ("his principiis innixis'' and not just imbutis as was said in the previous text) it was not lawful (therefore it is not a question of a recommendation as might appear at first sight) to wander down paths forbidden by the Magisterium in the interpretation of divine law (these last words were missing in the former text).

Filially, when some Fathers seemed puzzled that the text could be interpreted in a way that differed from the teaching of the previous Magisterium, a note was added to avoid any further doubt. This repeated the principal acts of the Magisterium referred to in the text. These are the Encyclical of Pius XI Casti connubii, the Allocution of Pius XII to Midwives on October 29, 1951, and the Discourse of Paul VI to the Cardinals on June 23, 1964. In the same note it was stated that Paul VI had established a Special Commission to find a solution for some particular questions: "ut postquam illa munus suum expleverit, Summus Pontifex iudicium ferat".

The text then became the Constitution which was approved and promulgated by the Council on December 7, 1965.

From this brief survey it is clear that the Council not only supplied the background for Pope Paul's decision but enunciated the principles which inspired it. The unequivocal witness to this fact is the ceaseless quest for precision, for the investigation of problems, for documentation, for the valorization of the Magisterium in the interpretation of divine law. Finally, the Council, in remitting some particular questions for solution to the Holy Father, has reaffirmed and thrown into strong relief, especially in the dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium the supreme personal Magisterium, given to him by Christ.

It is therefore hard to understand, especially from the lips of responsible people, such expressions as these: The Pope made the decision all by himself (for that matter, he could have done so!); the Pope has gone against the Council; the Pope has not taken into account the consensus of the People of God; and many such-like phrases even less respectful.

As regards the Special Commission referred to in the Council document, its task was solely to furnish information and to supply materials for forming a judgement. That is what it has done. It pertained to the Pope, and only to the Pope, to decide. We find this set down in the Council document which has been quoted: "Ut postquam illam munus expleverit, Summus Pontifex iudicium ferat". And the Pope has passed judgement (iudicium ferat) in line with conciliar teaching after having consulted a very large number of competent and qualified individuals and organisations, as the Encyclical confirms. Towards all of them Paul VI has displayed the greatest respect, verging almost on scrupulosity. But this respect could not deprive him of the authority that belongs to him alone nor could it ease the burden of that responsibility that falls upon him as Supreme Pastor of the Church. Anyone who would pretend the contrary immediately falls into practical if not theoretical Conciliarism, that conciliarism which Vatican Council II condemned anew in reaffirming the supreme personal prerogative of the Pope.

Some have observed that the solution came only after many had formed contrary convictions. I wrote about that very point in this paper on March 22, 1968: "By the fact that a problem has been submitted to careful study by the competent authority, some have thought themselves already authorised to accept its implications and its consequences. Anyone who knows the earnestness with which grave and prudent moralists usually form judgements in such matters can only lament such a superficial view. Just suppose that the Ministry of Health entrusted to a Commission the task of examining a poisonous substance to see whether and how and in what doses and for what maladies it could be used. Would anyone be bold enough, before knowing the result of the enquiry and the verdict of the competent authority, to take a dose of this poisonous substance? Should he suffer injury as a result, he certainly cannot summon to court the Ministry which ordered the enquiry. But that is just what is being said and spread about and advised by some folk for much more serious problems, more serious because they are problems pertaining to the moral order. There should be a feeling of relief that a deeper examination of the problem could bring confirmation of the traditional teaching and principle. What then? In every case, until legitimate authority declares differently, a stand must be taken upon the directives which have always been given by the Magisterium. This is a pledge of safety; it is a viewpoint which finds strength in the teaching and spirit of Vatican II." (''Stati d'animo postconciliari" in L'Osservatore Romano, March 22 , 1968). In our case, it was the Council itself which had given an unequivocal viewpoint, and the Pope himself had affirmed that the Church was in no state of doubt about the question! At present it is being said by other parties that the teaching of the Encyclical is not defined ex cathedra and is therefore not infallible. What confusion of thought! Is it defined, for example, that I am alive, that I work, that I walk along the street, that I perform other actions? All the same this is certainly true and anyone who would deny it would deny something that is as clear as daylight. Before the Council of Nice, at which the consubstantiality of the Word was solemnly defined, the true followers of Christ firmly believed in it, whilst those who denied it, as for example, Arius, were considered heretics.

In other words, the definition, even if different extrinsic reasons sometimes make it necessary, adds nothing intrinsically to the truth, which usually requires the assent of the intellect.

When, as in the case of the Encyclical, a fundamental truth of the moral order is authentically taught, by one who has both the right and the duty to do so in his role of Supreme Shepherd, when it is taught in clear and solemn words which require the consent of all, both bishops and faithful, there is only one course to be followed by anyone who sees in the Pope the Supreme Head of the Church, the Vicar of Christ: to accept it with devoted and reverent submission as Vatican II itself teaches. Any other arguments, as far as I am concerned, are quite irrelevant.

Appeal is made to the dignity of the human person as proclaimed by the Council, to the nobility of the individual conscience which deserves respect. But the Council has said elsewhere, in clear language, that there is no true dignity which does not refer to God and obey Him; that conscience is alone a true and safe guide which obliges only when it follows the divine law, interpreted as occasion arises by the Magisterium of the Church; and that everyone is obliged to form a true conscience for himself.

We must quote the Council, but we must quote it correctly.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 September 1968, page 6

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