Vatican City, Jul 19, 2018 / 15:00 pm
Humanae vitae is not a "pre-conciliar" encyclical, Bl. Paul VI did not develop the final draft in solitude, and, the pope sought opinions before promulgating the text, according to a new book on the encyclical's history.
The book "La nascita di un enciclica" (The Birth of an encyclical), was written by Professor Gilfredo Marengo, a professor of theological anthropology at the Pontifical Theological Institute John Paul II for Studies on Marriage and Family.
To write the book, Professor Marengo was given access to documents from the archive of the Vatican's Secretariat of State, with special permission from the pope, since archival material from the Holy See is usually made available to scholars only after 70 years.
The documents include a series of drafts and instructions and also a never published encyclical draft, De nascendi prolis, which was overturned by a new draft, which ultimately became the final text of Humanae vitae.
The study of these documents lead Marengo to a final conclusion: "the idea that Paul VI made his decisions alone is just mythological."
At the same time, "the isolation in which he found himself" after the promulgation of the encyclical is a different matter, Marengo said.
The book is the conclusion of a historical research project on Humanae vitae which initially sparked concern when announced. At the beginning, some speculated that a commission to reinterpret Humanae vitae had been formed, composed of Marengo, along with Pierangelo Sequeri, president of the Pontifical Theological Institute John Paul II, and professors Philippe Chenaux and Angelo Maffeis.
"The journey toward Humanae vitae was not difficult because of Paul VI's doubts or uncertainties on contraceptive practice. Difficulties came from the seeking of a language able to convey that judgement in a balanced, convincing and pastorally fruitful way," Marengo said
The path toward the publication of Humanae Vitae was long. It started in 1963, when St. John XXIII established a commission for the study of marriage, family and birth control.
Shortly after this, St. John XXIII died, and Paul VI was elected pope. He expanded the commission's membership from 6 to 12, and in 1965 he further expanded the membership to 75, chaired by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, prefect of the Holy Office – now named the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.
Professor Marengo's book follows step-by-step the development of discussion, from one session of the commission to another. In general, there is at first a pastoral approach, then a more doctrinal one, and then the synthesis offered by Bl. Paul VI.
Among the biggest concerns of some commission members was that arguing that the use of a contraceptive pill could be licit in some particular cases would favor the anti-birth policies of the developed West, thus impacting negatively the poorest countries.
The issue of birth control was part of the discussion during the drafting of the Second Vatican Council's constitution Gaudium et Spes. However, Paul VI made the decision to take the birth control issue out of the discussion. Marengo notes that the pope asked to include in Gaudium et Spes sections reiterating the Church's teaching on issues of marriage and family, opposing contraceptive mentalities and praising conjugal chastity, in order not to raise any doubt about Catholic teaching.
Particularly noteworthy is the plenary meeting of the expanded commission that took place March 25 – 29, 1965. The gathering recognized that a public statement on responsible paternity was needed, while it underscored that it had been impossible to reach a shared conclusion about whether the pill could be used licitly.
So, they proposed a temporary pastoral instruction, a "provisional solution to face the impossibility of reaching a convincing doctrinal stance."
Paul VI did not like it. Marengo noted that the pope was concerned "to avoid that the Church, and especially the magisterium, seemed unable to say a clear word on such a debated issue in the public opinion."
In addition to that, Paul VI deemed unacceptable "to back a change of the magisterium, not because there were strong and shared reasons, but because of the inability to untie all the knots."
Bishop Carlo Colombo, then auxiliary bishop of Milan, also made his proposal for a pastoral turn, and presented a text which said that "contraceptive practice must not always be considered grave sin," which was a way in the middle not to detach from Pius XI and Pius XII teachings and at the same time to dissolve conflict of conscience among spouses.
Paul VI did not take this suggestion, and started a new path of study, in his constant attempt to find a good balance between pastoral practice and doctrine.
Marengo underscored that, at the time, finding the proper language was difficult, as "a certain appeal for pastorality had been used to put in discussion some not-secondary issues of doctrine, and this caused uncertainty and uneasiness in the ecclesial body."
At this point, international pressure started to mount.
A document stressing that 70 members of the Pontifical Commission were 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" in 1967.
This publication is at the origin of the popular narrative that Paul VI acted alone, and against the opinion of the majority of commission theologians.
In 2003, Bernardo Colombo, a professor of demographics and a member of the commission, revealed that the document was in fact "just one of the 12 reports presented to the Holy Father," in an article he wrote in "Teologia", the journal of the theological faculty of Milan.
Professor Marengo's book also dismisses the narrative.