Birth of an encyclical: Priest documents preparation of 'Humanae Vitae'

IMAGE: CNS photo/Libreria Editrice Vaticana

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Documents in the Vatican Secret
Archives and the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
prove it was a “myth” that Blessed Paul VI largely set out on his own
in writing “Humanae Vitae,” the 1968 encyclical on married love and
the regulation of births.

In anticipation of the encyclical’s 50th anniversary, Pope
Francis gave special access to the archives to Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo, a professor at Rome’s Pontifical
John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences.

The results of his research were published in Italian in
early July in the book, “The Birth of an Encyclical: ‘Humanae Vitae’ in
the Light of the Vatican Archives.”

In a note to reporters, Msgr. Marengo said his research
revealed four little-known facts: Pope Paul approved an encyclical, “De Nascendae Prolis”
(“On a Child’s Birth”), in early May 1968, but was convinced by
translators in the Vatican Secretariat of State that it still needed work; a
new draft was corrected by hand by Pope Paul; on several occasions the future
St. John Paul II sent suggestions, including an extensive treatment of the
theme, but there is no evidence that they were used heavily in the final
document; and Pope Paul asked the 199 bishops at the 1967 world Synod of
Bishops to send him reflections on the theme of the regulation of births.

Msgr. Marengo said the request to the synod members was a
surprise. It is not included in any report about the synod itself.

“The news about the desire of the pope to consult all
the members of the synodal assembly is very important,” he said, “because
one of the accusations repeated most often after the publication of ‘Humanae Vitae’
was that the pope decided to act alone, in a manner that was not

The pope received only 25 responses in the period between
Oct. 9, 1967, and May 31, 1968, Msgr. Marengo said. And, perhaps more
surprising, of those, only seven bishops asked Pope Paul to repeat the Catholic
Church’s teaching against the use of contraceptives.

The other responses — including a joint U.S. response from Cardinal Lawrence Shehan of
Baltimore, Cardinal John Krol
of Philadelphia, Archbishop
John Dearden of Detroit and Bishop John Wright of Pittsburgh — exhibited an openness to the
use of artificial birth control in some circumstances, however “none of
them would say that using
the pill is a good thing,” Msgr. Marengo told Catholic News

Fulton J. Sheen of Rochester, New York, and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland — the
future Pope John Paul II — were among the seven bishops urging a reaffirmation
of church teaching that using contraceptives was wrong.

“The pope never thought of proceeding alone, putting
the collegial profile of the Petrine ministry in parentheses,” Msgr.
Marengo wrote.

But consultation is not the same thing as taking a vote. And
bishops were not the only ones asked for their input. Long before the synod,
and before Pope Paul was elected to lead the church, St. John XXIII had
appointed a small committee to study the issue of the regulation of birth.

Pope Paul expanded the commission, which included several
married couples. The commission’s work ended in 1966 with the leaking of a
report by the majority of members asserting artificial contraception was not
intrinsically evil; minority reports, insisting contraception was morally
wrong, were leaked in response.

After reading the commission reports and the bishops’ input,
Msgr. Marengo wrote, Pope Paul “found himself in a situation that was not
easy. His judgment had matured, and he felt obliged in conscience to express it
in virtue of his apostolic ministry, knowing well that going in that direction
would place him at a predictable and painful distance from sectors of the
church community that were not marginal.”

In fact, less than a week after the encyclical was
published, Pope Paul held a general audience and spoke about just how weighty
the decision was. “Never before have we felt so heavily, as in this
situation, the burden of our office,” he said July 31, 1968. “We
studied, read and discussed as much as we could; and we also prayed very much
about it.”

For Msgr. Marengo, the process of drafting “Humanae
Vitae” cannot be understood without recognizing the changes in the church
unleased by the Second Vatican Council, including on the theme of marriage and

“Since the council in ‘Gaudium et Spes’ recognized
‘responsible parenthood’ as a value — changing in a fundamental way the vision
of marriage — the idea of many was that it required a change in the church’s
sexual morality as well,” he told CNS.

“The difficulty for Pope Paul VI was in how to explain
that the use of contraceptives was not licit, but to do so in the light of an
affirmation of responsible parenthood,” he said.

The encyclical’s emphasis on the “inseparable
connection” between the “unitive and the procreative” qualities
of married love, he said, marked a significant change in church teaching from
before Vatican II; previously, the church taught that the primary purpose of
marriage was for procreation.

Blessed Paul’s personal work in rewriting the encyclical’s
“pastoral directives” also reflects the teaching of Vatican II, he
said. Previously, “the magisterial task was to explain, and the pastoral task
was to tell people to accept.”

“‘You must obey’ was the classic pastoral approach,”
Msgr. Marengo said.

But, he said, “Pope Paul broke this schema, saying, ‘I
will explain the teaching and if you try to understand it, you will see that it
is true and is what is best for you.'”

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden

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