VATICAN CITY — Half way through the first synod on the family, when it was becoming clear that heterodox agendas were being pursued in heavy-handed and deceptive ways, a well-respected Church figure took me aside at a reception with a pained expression on her face.
“Of course, you realize this is all about Humanae Vitae,” she said. “That’s what I think they’re after. That is their goal.”
What she meant was that the many dissenters of Blessed Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical wanted the Church’s ban on artificial contraception — which Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) reaffirmed — softened and ultimately undermined.
At the time, her prediction seemed plausible, but too speculative. The synod participants didn’t seem too exercised by the issue, and Humanae Vitae was largely left alone, at least directly. German-speaking prelates, who took a leading role in the controversies during both synods on the family, even spoke warmly of the encyclical at a closing press conference of the second synod.
But as the Church prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae in 2018, the recent revelation of a four-member stealth commission to study the document — and other subtle and less subtle attempts to weaken the Church’s moral teaching — are making the concerns of the Church figure at the 2014 synod look ominously prescient.
In his encyclical, Paul VI re-affirmed the Church’s prohibition of artificial contraception, approved natural family-planning methods, and upheld the Church’s teaching on conjugal love and responsible parenthood.
It caused a sensation when published: In the wake of the sexual revolution — when much of the world had accepted birth control — and after a five-year study by a pontifical commission that appeared to be vying for the Church to also approve it, Paul VI’s reaffirmation that contraceptive use is “intrinsically wrong” made it one of the most controversial encyclicals in Church history. Immediately, many clerics and academics outright rejected Humanae Vitae’s teachings.
And yet many, particularly those who have devoted their lives to defending life, vigorously uphold Humanae Vitae as prophetic. They argue that the widespread acceptance of artificial birth control, revolutionized by the contraceptive pill for women, has separated the unitive and procreative purposes of sexual relations. This, in turn, has fueled the sexualization of culture and promiscuity now prevalent in the West, precipitating legalized abortion, the collapse of marriage, and inflicting deep harm on the family.
By contrast, the encyclical’s dissenters have pressured the Church for its teaching on artificial contraception to be loosened, arguing it is unrealistic, out of touch with people’s lives, and needs “updating.” A 2014 poll of Catholics in five countries by left-leaning broadcaster Univision found that 78% supported artificial contraception.
Now, dissenters — who today hold positions of influence and enjoy support from some in the highest ranks of the Church — appear to be viewing the upcoming anniversary as a golden opportunity, half a century in the making. Evidence to show that efforts are underway to exploit this opportunity is not hard to discover. One of the most visible has been the creation earlier this year of the four-member commission, quietly established by the Vatican with the Pope’s approval, to study Humanae Vitae.
The commission was never formally announced: The veteran Vatican correspondent Marco Tosatti first reported rumors of it, and the Vatican only confirmed its existence after the Italian website Corrispondenza Romana was able to verify the rumors in June, after it obtained a classified memorandum, circulated by Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, the sostituto or deputy, secretary of state.
The memorandum states that the commission is to “promote a comprehensive and authoritative study” of the encyclical to coincide with the anniversary and listed its four members. They include Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo, the commission coordinator who is professor of theological anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, and Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, appointed dean of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute last year.
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, was the first to publicly defend the commission’s work after news of it was leaked, telling Catholic News Agency that the initiative aimed at “studying and deepening” the encyclical. But he denied it was a “commission” whose purpose was to “reread or reinterpret” the document.
Msgr. Marengo further played down its influence, explaining its purpose is simply to carry out a “work of historical-critical investigation,” reconstructing the “whole process of composing the encyclical.”
But added to its unannounced beginnings, the mere existence of such a commission has left many suspicious and asking: Why make all the effort to deepen and study something that will not fundamentally change?
Also viewed as suspect is the unprecedented level of access given to the commission members. According to the memorandum, the Pope has given the scholars permission to view the relevant historical archives not only of the Secretariat of State, but also the Vatican Secret Archives and that of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Msgr. Marengo insisted such access was relevant, given the document’s importance and the debates it unleashed. Humanae Vitae, he said in a July 25 interview, “must be placed in the context of everything important and fruitful the Church has said on marriage and family during these last 50 years.” But such privileges haven’t even been awarded to researchers of Venerable Pius XII’s pontificate during World War II, despite years of lobbying for the archives to be opened.
All of which amounts to a concern that the commission is being used as a cover: to look at the scientific and historical character of the document, but with the ultimate goal of presenting the Pope with enough information for the encyclical’s dissenters to say: “Times have changed — Humanae Vitae needs to be interpreted in the light of conscience, according to the complexity of people’s lives today.”
Before his death on Sept. 6, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra had privately expressed similar grave concerns about the commission. Like others, he believed the opening of the archives was a ploy to obtain selected findings and then present them to show that Paul VI’s commission was moving in the direction of loosening the Church’s teaching on contraception, but undue pressure was placed on the Pope to reassert the doctrine.
Another expected strategy by commission members and other “revisionists” is to present any re-interpretations as part of a “change in paradigm” in moral theology, just as was achieved with Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) in allowing for some civilly remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion. The emphasis is expected to be on changing pastoral practice to make it more applicable to today — a tactic, say critics, to alter and soften Church teaching by finding exceptions, while all the time insisting the doctrine won’t be changed.
Msgr. Marengo has firmly denied such an intention, insisting that “the issue of a conciliation between Amoris Laetitia and Humanae Vitae is not in the agenda.” But in an article in March for Vatican Insider — headlined, “Humanae Vitae and Amoris Laetitia: Parallel Histories” — he warned that the Church’s moral teaching can be too abstract and detached for people to follow and asserted that “responsible creativity” should be risked in pastoral care. He also quoted Pope Francis’ address to the John Paul II Institute in October, in which Francis warned against presenting “a theological ideal of marriage that is too abstract, almost artificially constructed, far from the concrete situation and of effective possibilities of families as they are.”
But the commission is not the only means to maximize this long-awaited opportunity to change Humanae Vitae. Further evidence can be seen in what appears to be a four-year concerted attempt to marginalize the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II, who led the resistance to a relativistic interpretation of the encyclical.
As archbishop of Krakow, Poland, Karol Wojtyla contributed to the commission that drafted the document (although he was unable to take part personally due to the communists’ travel restrictions) and strove to uphold the Church’s teaching in the document by emphasizing personalism (seeing man as a person rather than an object) with the natural law.
His teachings ever since formed a bulwark against the dissenters. Most notably they include his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World) and his theology of the body catecheses — both attempts to provide an anthropological foundation and explanation for the encyclical’s teaching. Perhaps even more significant was his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), which for the first time presented Catholic moral doctrine in a systematic and formal way, firmly rejecting any relativist interpretation of an intrinsically evil act (an action that is always morally wrong, regardless of its particular circumstances), such as use of artificial contraception.
The operation to marginalize John Paul II ahead of next year’s anniversary has been visible in two primary ways. First, by largely ignoring his teachings during the previous two synods to allow the kind of “paradigm shift” in the Church’s moral teaching that found its way into Amoris Laetitia. Second, by overhauling the leadership of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, respectively replacing its chancellor and dean with Archbishop Paglia and Msgr. Sequeri. Both are known supporters of softening the teaching of Humanae Vitae.
Msgr. Sequeri, who is not a moral theologian, but a specialist in aesthetic theology and musicology, has written the introduction to a new book entitled, Amoris Laetitia: A Turning Point for Moral Theology, edited by Stephan Goertz and Caroline Witting, in which it is argued that Amoris Laetitia represents a paradigm shift for all moral theology, and especially in interpreting Humanae Vitae.
For his part, Archbishop Paglia was unable to give a clear answer when I asked him in early July if he agreed with the encyclical’s teaching against use of artificial contraception. The document “must be studied and more fully appreciated, particularly in the light of the challenges we face every day,” he said, highlighting the “negative consequences of gender ideology, the de-population crisis in the West, the omnipresence and invasiveness of technology, and mankind’s inability to hold on to its own humanity.”
Another reason for concern about Archbishop Paglia’s position with respect to Humanae Vitae is a document he circulated privately among family synod participants, advocating “the gift” of reception of Communion for divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics who request such permission from their bishops. In light of that synodal intervention, as well as a corresponding approach in a Vatican-published book he edited in 2015 with Msgr. Sequeri entitled, Church Family — An Indissoluble Bond, evidence of Archbishop Paglia’s support for a similar softening of Church teachings on artificial contraception appears solid.
In addition to marginalizing John Paul II, further evidence of moves to undermine the encyclical can be seen in new members chosen for the Pontifical Academy for Life — also since last year placed under the leadership of Archbishop Paglia. Several of them have gone on the record to voice their dissent from Humanae Vitae, in particular Father Maurizio Chiodi, who uses arguments to justify contraception that critics say are condemned in Veritatis Splendor, and Jesuit Father Alain Thomasset, who wants to see the term “intrinsically evil” removed.
Finally, there are Pope Francis’ own comments regarding the encyclical’s teaching. Asked in 2014 if the Church should revisit the issue of contraception, he replied: “It all depends on how the text of Humanae Vitae is interpreted. Paul VI himself, toward the end, recommended that confessors show great kindness and attention to specific situations.”
He added it is not a question of “changing doctrine, but to go into the depths, and ensuring that pastoral [efforts] take into account people’s situations, and that, which it is possible for people to do.”
The Pope also last year praised one of the most prominent dissenters of Humanae Vitae, the German moral theologian Bernard Häring. And speaking to reporters in February last year, Francis cited favorably a mythological story of Paul VI allowing nuns in the Congo to use contraception for cases of violence. The case has historically been used by dissenters as a means to circumvent the encyclical’s teaching. The Pope is also sympathetic to the vision of the Church of the late Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Martini, who was very vocal in his opposition to Humanae Vitae.
So what is likely to happen? The commission will have no authority to enact changes, and, already, there are reports of divisions among them that will weaken its purpose. But some cardinals, bishops and theologians, as well as elements of the media, will use this opportunity to try to persuade Francis to modify Humanae Vitae using the strategies outlined above as well as others. From the other side, pressure will be exerted to leave the encyclical alone on the grounds that it has proven so prophetic and that the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception is based on her infallible moral teaching.
Debates will, therefore, deepen over the coming months, as the document considered the lynchpin of the Church’s resistance to the collapse in sexual morality in the West comes under intensified attack, directed not from the secular world or a few dissenting theologians and bishops this time, but from some of the most senior figures in the Church.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
Also see moral theologian Father George Woodall's concerns about Msgr. Marengo's commission here.