Msgr. Melina: Applying a ‘Paradigm Shift’ to Humanae Vitae Would Distort Its Meaning

As the encyclical turns 50, the president emeritus of the Pontifical Pope St. John Paul II Theological Institute tackles various attempts to soften its teaching.

Msgr. Livio Melina
Msgr. Livio Melina (photo: Edward Pentin)

The teaching contained in Humanae Vitae belongs to the natural moral law and is therefore “a definitive truth that the Church cannot change,” a former president of the Pontifical Pope St. John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences has said. 

In comments to the Register July 2 to mark the 50th anniversary of Blessed Paul VI’s landmark encyclical July 25, Msgr. Livio Melina explains the true nature of the document that principally taught married couples to be generous in their openness to life and reasserted the Church’s ban on deliberate contraception. 

Msgr. Melina stresses that any “development” of the encyclical could only be achieved in “vital coherence with Tradition, without spurious additions” and that presumed “paradigm shifts,” although claiming not to change doctrine, “actually distort its meaning, since they make good what was previously evil and evil what was previously good.” 

Furthermore, the Italian professor, who teaches fundamental moral theology at John Paul II Institute, says it is “truly petty and pitiful” to suggest Blessed Paul VI was a timid person who “out of fear” went along with “traditionalist” members of the Curia and that his own sentiment would have been to have sided with those pushing for a softening in the Church’s teaching on contraception — a dissent that had so “embittered him.” 

Msgr. Melina’s comments come as various indications have suggested pressure may be exerted to soften the encyclical’s teaching on contraception to coincide with its half centenary. See also this article in which various other authorities debate possible permissible changes to the encyclical. 


Msgr. Melina, what is the core of Humanae Vitae? Is it an ideal orientation left to the interpretation of each person’s conscience as some have claimed or is it a binding moral norm?

The founding nucleus of the encyclical Humanae Vitae is found in paragraph Nos. 12 and 14. No. 12 expresses in positive terms the principle of the ‘inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act’ — a doctrine, it says, ‘often expounded by the magisterium.’ Moreover, it is expressed in negative terms as a consequent norm, in No. 14: ‘Excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means.’ The act of contraception is in fact defined as ‘intrinsically wrong’ and ‘it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive.’ 

These statements cannot be interpreted as mere ideal guidelines valid for the whole of conjugal life, because the teaching of Humanae Vitae explicitly refers to every single conjugal act. The encyclical in these two points clearly responds to the question discussed and rejects the thesis (of the ‘majority report’ of the commission that advised Paul VI) that, in the name of the so-called “principle of totality,” it is claimed not to apply to individual acts, but only to married life as a whole.


Is it a doctrinal teaching or only disciplinary and pastoral?

No. 4 of Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical affirms that this response is based on the ‘moral doctrine of marriage,’ ‘founded on natural law, enlightened and enriched by divine revelation,’ of which the magisterium of the Church is not author, but ‘guardian and authentic interpreter.’ It is therefore a doctrinal pronouncement, based on natural law, but also enjoys the light of revelation, given in an authentic way. 

The truths of the faith and moral teaching cannot be separated. Since the Council of Trent, then at Vatican I and Vatican II, the formula in fide et moribus [of faith and morals] indicates the object of authentic magisterial teaching, given with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, which can be the object of definitive teaching. 


Is it infallible in the Church or open to question? Is it reformable?

One must not confuse a solemn act of the magisterium with infallibility. The theologian [Msgr. Ferdinando] Lambruschini, when he presented the encyclical Humanae Vitae to the press, while denying that it was a solemn act with the note of infallibility, described it as an ‘authentic pronouncement’ of ‘Catholic doctrine,’ with the qualification of ‘nonreformability,’ which therefore asked for a ‘loyal and full, interior as well as exterior assent.’ It should also be pointed out that a doctrine can be infallible, even if it has not been taught by a solemn act of the Magisterium, which defines a formula. In fact, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said: ‘According to the definition of Vatican I and the teaching of Vatican II in Lumen Gentium 25, the Magisterium of the Pope enjoys the charism of infallibility when it proclaims by definitive act a doctrine concerning faith and morals. The whole episcopal body also benefits from the same infallibility, when preserving the bond of communion in itself and with the Successor of Peter, it teaches a sentence to be considered definitive. This means that the magisterium can teach a doctrine concerning faith and morals as definitive, either by a definitive act (solemn judgment) or by an act that does not have the form of a definition’ (Introduction to the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis Oct. 28, 1995). 

The teaching of Humanae Vitae was taught by Paul VI, John Paul II and subsequent popes, recalling the constant judgment of Catholic bishops on this point, as belonging to the natural moral law, and therefore as a definitive truth, that the Church cannot change. This doctrine of Humanae Vitae was later accepted, and has been for the last 50 years, by the ordinary magisterium of the bishops, dispersed throughout the world (a sign of this consensus is the Synod on the Family of 1980, and that of 2014 and 2015). It is necessary, therefore, to conclude that this teaching is definitive, which justifies the clear words of St. John Paul II: ‘What the Church teaches about contraception does not belong to matters freely disputable among theologians. Teaching the opposite is tantamount to inducing into error the moral conscience of the spouses’ (speech June 5, 1987). These words are still valid today: those who question the irreformable value of the doctrine of Humanae Vitae “mislead the moral conscience of the spouses.’


Can there be an evolution of the doctrine of Humanae Vitae?

The development of doctrine can certainly take place provided that it does not mean a negation or contradiction with what the Magisterium taught before: eodem sensu, eademque substantia (Vatican I). The vital coherence with Tradition, without spurious additions and without loss of essential elements, is a condition for organic development, as Blessed John Henry Newman taught. Otherwise, we fall into modernism, which claims to transform the doctrine from within, adapting its formulas to the conscience and religious experience of the times. It was Paul VI himself in an audience on Jan. 19, 1972 who denounced the survival of modernism, which ‘under other names is still present,’ because it is the expression of a series of errors that could ‘totally ruin our conception of life and history.’ 

There are presumed to be ‘paradigm shifts,’ which while claiming not to change doctrine, actually distort its meaning, since they make good what was previously evil and evil what was previously good. The space for the development of the doctrine is that of an anthropological and theological deepening, as happened in the ‘theology of the body’ of St. John Paul II. The limit proposed by the negative moral norms, concerning intrinsically bad actions, represents a point of verification that a development of doctrine does not amount to its perversion. ‘Heaven and earth will pass, my words will not pass,’ says the Lord.


What is the relationship between norm and conscience? In what sense is there a primacy of conscience?

The decisive point of the current debate concerns the relationship between the norm, taught by Humanae Vitae, and conscience, to which one would like to attribute primacy. It should be remembered that Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia, while hoping for a better involvement of the conscience of people in the practice of the Church, reaffirms that it is necessary first ‘to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor’ (No. 303). Certainly it is the judgment of the conscience that determines the concrete value of an act, but the moral conscience must be formed in its dependence on the truth about good and evil. 

Here the decisive point is the magisterium of St. John Paul II in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which cannot be forgotten or set aside. It excludes the autonomous or creative conception of conscience, which is not the source for deciding what is good and what is evil, since ‘profoundly imprinted upon it [is] a principle of obedience vis-à-vis the objective norm’ (No. 60), the expression of the truth about good and not an arbitrary and changeable decree of a human authority. For this reason ‘circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.’ (No. 81).


Regarding the discussion in the period of the Synod on the Family, what advantages did it bring to the subject of Humanae Vitae?

If we then consider the development of the synodal discussion, it must be noted that the ambiguous interpretation of the role of conscience in the application of the norm of HV 14, contained in the instrumentum laboris (137), prepared for the Synodal Assembly of 2015, was not only the object of great protest (appeal of 200 moralist theologians), but was effectively put aside by the synod fathers in the final document and this indicates, beyond media manipulation, what their true mind was.

There are those who affirm that the true sentiment of Paul VI would have been much more permissive than the letter of Humanae Vitae and the interpretation later affirmed by the Church.

Paul VI was not a weather vane. The BBC journalist who announced the publication of the encyclical July 25, 1968, confessed that he admired the Pope, precisely because of his courage to go against the tide, in the face of enormous media pressure (and not only). Therefore, it seems truly petty and pitiful to try to make Blessed Paul VI appear as a timid person, who out of fear would have yielded to the decisive question of Humanae Vitae under the curial pressure of the traditionalists while his sentiment would have been different, with the absurd pretense of crediting oneself today as true interpreters of his profound sentiment, that in the years of debate when he was bitterly contested he sided with the public dissent that so embittered him.


How do you judge the loose interpretations that undermine the normative value of the encyclical of Blessed Paul VI?

Equally instrumental is the “spiritualist” interpretation of an encyclical, dedicated to illustrating an ideal and principles but without arriving at any normative and practical conclusion (‘the problem of Humanae Vitae — it is said — cannot be reduced to: pill Yes, pill No!’), which would be entrusted to the primacy of subjective consciousness. 

In reality Humanae Vitae is the opposite of this spiritualistic Gnosticism or of this ‘moral docetism’ (R. Brown): It is an encyclical that speaks of the flesh and of its concreteness of conjugal intimacy, because it knows well that it is there that the truth of love, of the authenticity of relationships and, at the end, also the common good of a society is decided.