50 years on the drafting of Humanae Vitae matters

As its 50th-anniversary approaches, the story of how Blessed Pope Paul VI arrived at the final text of Humanae Vitae will be a main focus of discussion.

Paul VI issued his encyclical in 1968 after a commission of theologians and experts spent four years meeting to study in-depth whether the Church could be open to the contraceptive pill or other artificial forms of birth control.

In his encyclical, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed that sexual relations cannot be detached from fecundity. The event was a watershed moment in the Church.

The event was a watershed moment in the Church.

A study group from the Rome-based John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family aims to produce a paper on the development of the encyclical. The group is led by cultural anthropology professor Monsignor Gilfredo Marengo, who teaches at the institute.

Professor Marengo told Vatican Radio July 25 that the commission in the end “was not able to give Bl. Paul VI what he needed to draft the encyclical,” and so the Pope “had almost had to start again.”

He underscored that Bl. Paul VI’s work was made even more difficult by the fact that “public opinion in the Church was very much polarized, not only between in favour and in opposition to the contraceptive pill but also among theologians, who presented the same polarized counter-position.”

While the discussion was still ongoing, a document favourable to Catholic approval of the birth control pill was published simultaneously in April 1967 in the French newspaper Le Monde, the English magazine The Tablet, and the American newspaper the National Catholic Reporter.

The report emphasized that 70 members of the Pontifical Commission were favourable to the pill, but in fact, the document was “just one of the 12 reports presented to the Holy Father.”

Those are the words of Bernardo Colombo, a professor of demographics and a member of the commission, writing in the March 2003 issue of “Teologia,” the journal of the theological faculty of Milan and Northern Italy.

When Paul VI published Humanae Vitae, public opinion was thus already oriented against the Church’s principles which the pontiff reaffirmed, and the Church’s teaching was strongly targeted.

Prof. Marengo told Vatican Radio that “Humanae Vitae” deserved an in-depth study.

The professor’s first impression is that when the study group’s research is complete “it will be possible to set aside many partisan readings of the text” and will be easier to “grasp the intentions and worries that moved Paul VI to solve the issue the way he did.”

The story of the encyclical dates back to 1963 when St. John XXIII established the commission to study the topics of marriage, family, and regulation of birth.

Pope Paul VI later enlarged the commission’s membership from six to twelve people. Then he further increased its numbers 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.

Then he further increased its numbers 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.

After the end of the works of the commission, Paul VI asked a restricted group of theologians to give a further examination of the topic.

Pope Francis has shown great appreciation for Bl. Paul VI and for “Humanae Vitae” several times, such as in an interview March 5, 2014, with the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, ahead of two synods on the family.

Asked if the Church was going to take up again the theme of birth control, the Pope responded: that “all of this depends on how ‘Humanae Vitae’ is interpreted. Paul VI himself, at the end, recommended to confessors much mercy, and attention to concrete situations.” Continue reading

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