Vatican City, Oct 20, 2014 / 23:03 pm
Father Francesco di Felice worked at the Secretariat of State during the pontificate of Bl. Paul VI, and recently recounted the story behind the blessed Pope's 1968 encyclical which was received with widespread dissent.
In drafting Humanae vitae, his encyclical on the regulation of birth, Bl. Paul VI studied the work began by St. John XXIII, who created a "commission for the study of population problems, the family, and births" in order to have a better understanding of the effects of contraceptives, Fr. di Felice told CNA.
Hormonal contraceptives having been introduced in 1960, in March 1963 – three months before his death – St. John XXIII established a Pontifical Commission on Birth Control to, as Bl. Paul VI wrote in his encyclical, "examine views and opinions concerning married life, and especially on the correct regulation of births" and "to provide the teaching authority of the Church with such evidence as would enable it to give an apt reply in this matter."
St. John XXIII had appointed six persons to the commission, which Bl. Paul VI soon increased to 12. Then, in 1965, he further increased it to 75 members, plus a president, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and two deputies, Cardinals Julius Doepfner and John Heenan.
During that time there was much lobbying, even among Churchmen, to accept artificial means of contraception. Cardinal Leo Suenens asked on Oct. 29, 1964 for an opening to artificial birth control, and his opinion was backed by many participants of the Second Vatican Council.
In April 1967, a document favorable toward the birth control pill was published simultaneously in the French newspaper "Le Monde," the English magazine "The Tablet," and the American magazine "National Catholic Reporter."
The leaked report stressed that 70 members of the Pontifical Commission were favorable to the pill; but the document was in fact "just one of the 12 reports presented to the Holy Father," Bernardo Colombo, a professor of demographics and a member of the commission, revealed in an article he wrote in Teologia, the journal of the theological faculty of Milan and Northern Italy.
The same report which had been leaked to the media was sent to Bl. Paul VI, and it was divided into two parts: the opinion of the majority, supporting artificial contraception, and the minority report, arguing for the maintenance of traditional Catholic teaching.
Fr. di Felice told CNA that "Paul VI took these two documents, one from the majority and the other from the minority. He brought them to his private chapel, and spent the entire night in prayer asking what he should do for the good of souls."
"Then, in the first light of dawn, a strong decision came to him like an illumination, as if the Holy Spirit was comforting him, and he said, 'This is what I should choose!'"
"And it was a huge choice," the priest recounted, "because if we had allowed the use of pills that alter the mystery of life, we would have altered the natural course, and that would have been a disaster."
Bl. Paul VI himself recounted in the encyclical that "when the evidence of the experts had been received, as well as the opinions and advice of a considerable number of Our brethren in the episcopate … We were in a position to weigh with more precision all the aspects of this complex subject."
Acknowledging that he was departing from the majority opinion of the commission, the blessed Pope wrote that "the conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain, dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally this serious question. This was all the more necessary because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed, and especially because certain approaches and criteria for a solution to this question had emerged which were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church."
"Consequently, now that We have sifted carefully the evidence sent to Us and intently studied the whole matter, as well as prayed constantly to God, We, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, intend to give Our reply to this series of grave questions," he concluded the first chapter of Humanae vitae.
When Bl. Paul VI published these words, public opinion was already oriented against the Church's principles which he had reaffirmed, and bitter disputes arose against the Church.
In an interview with Corriere della Serra in March, Pope Francis applauded Bl. Paul VI's "prophetic genius," saying that "he had the courage to take a stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a cultural restraint, to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism."
In his last address to the College of Cardinals, delivered June 23, 1978, Bl. Paul VI anticipated Humanae vitae's 10th anniversary, saying it suffered from "a certain climate of expectation that … engendered the idea of supposed concessions, or facilities, or liberalization in the Church's teaching on morality and marriage."
"It seems to us that a decade having passed since its promulgation, a sufficient perioed allows us to evaluate better – following the confirmations of serious science – the scope of the decisions made before the Lord, and it will be an occasion, also, to reiterate the importante princiople that, in the wake of the recently completed Council, we might enunciate with a more accurate formulation: the principle of respect for the laws of nature, which – in the words of Dante – 'takes her course / from the divine intellect and his art'; the principle of a conscious and ethically responsible paternity."
In fact, as a consequence of the contesting of the document worldwide, Bl. Paul VI never wrote another encyclical, though he remained Pope for another 10 years.
In the five years preceding Humanae vitae, he had written seven encyclicals.
Because of all this, Bl. Paul VI's Secretary of State, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, would later say, "On the morning of July 25, 1968, Paul VI celebrated the Mass of the Holy Spirit, asked for light from on high and signed it. It was his most difficult signature, one of his most glorious signatures. He signed his own passion."