By Andrea Gagliarducci
Since Bl. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae was published 50 years ago, it has sparked wide-ranging debates, and frequent calls to change its teaching from some theologians.
At the 50th anniversary of the encyclical, some theologians have again begun calling for a reinterpretation of the document, or suggesting that adhering to it may be morally impossible for some Catholics.
The Vatican, however, gave a clear response to those calls in an article published by L’Osservatore Romano Feb. 16, 1989.
The Vatican newspaper issued the article – now published on the Vatican website – with no byline, often the sign of an official Church response.
The article responded to the declarations of an unnamed moral theologian who had called into question Humanae Vitae’s teaching. The article was preceded by an editorial note, and mentioned the declarations of a “well known moral theologian” that was “widely echoed by the press.”
L’Osservatore Romano said that the discussion raised doubts by an “intransigent” interpretation of Humanae Vitae and that mass media “relaunched, often with simplification and wrong interpretations, the doubts and fears of some theologians,”
The points raised in the discussion were similar to those being raised by some contemporary theologians: theologians argued that there are no Biblical references directly prohibiting contraception; that the use of contraception might sometimes be a “lesser evil”; and that an in individual moral conscience could be opposed to magisterium.
L’Osservatore Romano’s note recognized that objections to Humanae Vitae are sometimes caused by pastoral concern for “those couples who find difficulty in observing the moral norm regarding responsible procreation,” but said that “pastoral concerns” usually contained “more doctrinal issues.”
L’Osservatore Romano also state that objections to Humanae Vitae “are sometimes formulated without the scientific rigour which should distinguish serious theological reflection.”
“Occasionally,” the article said, objections to the document “take the form of personal attacks of a rancorous and disconcerting kind.”
Such observations may be especially poignant today.
The Vatican newspaper then proposed four observations:
First, that spouses in difficult situations “deserve respect and love,” especially when “various circumstances of life… make it difficult to fulfill moral duty.”
The Church, the article said, is called to be like Jesus, by approaching every situation with understanding, patience and mercy, and at the same time clearly proclaiming the truth, since living in the truth is “necessary condition for a fully and truly human life and for a path to sanctity, to which we are all called for.”
L’Osservatore Romano noted that “love and pastoral concern toward the spouses who are living difficult” can “never be separated from truth,” nor can pastors ever “eliminate or attenuate the duty to distinguish good and evil,” if they are to give real help.
“It is an outstanding manifestation of charity toward souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ.,” the article said, quoting from Humanae Vitea itself.
The second observation is that the Humanae Vitae’s prohibition of contraception “can not admit exception,” because contraception of the conjugal act is always an “intrinsically disordered act.”
In Humanae Vitae, Blessed Pope Paul VI stressed that “though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it.”
L’Osservatore Romano noted that Paul VI’s words are not a “theological opinion which is open to free discussion.”
The third observation addressed the nature of Catholic moral teaching.
L’Osservatore Romano stressed that Christian moral tradition has always taught that norms “which prohibit intrinsically disordered acts do not admit exceptions,” since such acts “are opposed to the person in his or her specific dignity as a person,” and so there is no subjective intention or circumstance that would turn these act into ordered acts.
Contraception, the article went on, is among the acts that are always intrinsically evil, because it contradicts the reciprocal self-donation innate to the marital act.
L’Osservatore Romano also noted that Christian moral tradition has “always maintained the distinction – not the separation and still less an opposition – between objective disorder and subjective guilt, ” that is, that all the circumstances at the basis of any behaviour must be taken into consideration to understand the responsibility the person who committed an act.
This approach, however, can impact the “grade of responsibility” of the person, but cannot turn a disorder into an order. This is the “law of graduality” that cannot be confused with the “graduality of law,” that is a law can be gradually understood.
The article referred to Pope St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, which taught that couples “cannot look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy. ‘And so what is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations. In God’s plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God’s command with serene confidence in God’s grace and in his or her own will.’ On the same lines, it is part of the Church’s pedagogy that husbands and wives should first of all recognize clearly the teaching of Humanae Vitae as indicating the norm for the exercise of their sexuality, and that they should endeavor to establish the conditions necessary for observing that norm.”
L’Osservatore Romano stressed that everyone, especially priests, are called to “help and accompany with patient and courageous love the couple of spouse to form their conscience,” so that their conscience will judge according to truth.
Priests are also called to help the spouses to “cultivate an ever more intense spiritual life, needed to understand and live the law of God within a non favorable social and cultural framework,” the article said.
The fourth observation was about the “credibility” of the Church’s Magisterium.
“Why not recognize,” L’Osservatore Romano wrote “that one of the causes (and not the least) which threaten [magisterial] credibility with ruin is precisely the organized and systematic way in which some theologians have repeatedly opposed the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, and later the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio?”
L’Osservatore Romano noted that the faithful are subject to “grave confusions” when the “some theologians speak of pronouncements of the Magisterium while concealing or deforming its specific nature and its original function.”
“The Church’s magisterium,” the Pope’s newspaper said, “cannot be correctly interpreted if one uses the same criteria as are applied m the human sciences, such as the bare socio-cultural criterion of measuring a greater or lesser degree of acceptance of the Magisterium. On the contrary, the Magisterium, as a gift of the Spirit of Jesus Christ to his Church for the authentic service, in the name of the authority of Christ, ‘of the faith to be believed and put into practice’ (Lumen Gentium, n. 25), can find proper understanding and full acceptance only in faith.”
As discussion about Humanae Vitae intensifies during its anniversary year, the letter is worth revisiting.