On Contraception, Now Even Wojtyla is “Rigid” and “Doctrinaire”

By Renzo Puccetti

The release of a book on the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which documents the influential help of the then-Archbishop of Krakow, has become an occasion for Avvenire to renew an assault on the encyclical published 50 years ago. Its objective: to bypass the ban on contraception. The strategy is to divide Blessed Paul VI (good and flexible) from Saint John Paul II (rigid and doctrinaire).

In cauda venenum [In the tail is poison]. This is what you say when the end of a discourse reveals its polemical nature which until then was hidden. I am referring to the review by Luciano Moia which appeared last Sunday [4 March 2018] in Avvenire, on the book by the Polish theologian Fr. Pavel Stanislaw Galuska published by Cantagalli entitled “Karol Wojtyla and Humanae Vitae – The Contribution of the Archbishop of Krakow and of a Group of Polish Theologians to the Encyclical of Paul VI.”

The chief editor of Avvenire focuses on just a few lines of this 550-page text, which describe among other things a letter sent from the then-Archbishop of Krakow Karol Wojtyla to Pope Paul VI in which it is suggested that the so-called “parallel magisterium” of rebelling bishops be strongly confronted. These bishops, by means of pastoral documents, ended up emptying Humanae Vitae of its contents and undermining the unity of the faith on a decisive point for the moral life of the faithful. I took great personal comfort in the fact that the narration of the reaction of the various episcopates to the encyclical of Paul VI was drawn from my work, “I veleni della contraccezione” [The Poisons of Contraception] (Edizioni Studio Domenicano), and it coincides with that which emerges from the work of the future Polish pope. In my text I spoke of the parallel magisterium as an “inverse magisterium” and thus of a truly and really “perverse magisterium”, but for dear Mr. Moia the wormtongue language of the rebel bishops denoted “respect, accompaniment, and understanding.”

In reality, presenting the pronouncements of over 40 bishops’ conferences as “declarations and applicative documents that are variously critical”, Moia creates a distorted representation, implying to the reader that all the bishops of the world were in accord in their critique of Humanae Vitae. Certainly, there were statements of the episcopates of Austria, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, and Canada, for whose approval the activism of [Canadian] Bishop Remi de Roo was determinative (Recalled by Prefect Cardinal Ratzinger for his support for the ordination of women, in 2000 he was ordered to publicly apologize for expenditures not approved by the Vatican which created a deficit of 12 million dollars in his diocese).

On March 27, 2008, speaking in Jerusalem to the Neo-Catechumenal Way, in reference to the statements of the Bishops’ Conferences of Austria and Germany [on Humanae Vitae], Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, whom Pope Francis has called a great theologian and the best interpreter of Amoris Laetitia, said: “We ought to repent of this sin of the European episcopate which did not have the courage of Paul VI, because today we are carrying the weight of the consequences of this sin.”
Apart from the “respect, accompaniment and understanding” of which Moia writes, he is silent on the fidelity of the statements of the Bishops’ Conferences of Italy, England, and the United States; the latter was described by the former diplomat Kenneth D. Whitehead as “one of the strongest counter-cultural episcopal affirmations of Humane Vitae.” In the end Wojtyla was correct: the argument presenting contraception as a matter to be left to the conscience of married couples, caught in a supposed “conflict of duty” between their human obligations and their Christian obligations, which was invented by the Dutch bishop Willem Bekkers in 1963, permeated the statements of the various dissenting episcopates.

Such arguments were repeatedly refuted by the Magisterium, but now they have reemerged today, like theological zombies, to justify the need for sexual relationships between divorced persons and persons other than their spouse. But if they were not valid then, one does not see why such arguments ought to be valid now, when all of the accumulated empirical evidence, theological reflection, and magisterial statements [in the fifty years since Humanae Vitae] attest to their invalidity.

Where Moia wants to go with his argument becomes clear at the end of his article, when he writes: “What was the reaction of Montini to this proposal? We don’t know. But we do know that in the following ten years of his life, he spoke only four more times on the topic of Humanae Vitae. And not only did he never show any intention of tightening down on its application, but in his official discourses and interventions he never made any further reference to the natural methods of regulating fertility.”

What relevance should the presumed silence of Paul VI ought to hold, if not showing his desire not to exacerbate further a clash that was already on the point of schism? In reality the silence of the Pope was also used at the time as an argument that the teaching of the Church on contraception was doubtful, and, as they say, in dubiis libertas. In those same years the regressive Bishop Josef Reuss of Mainz issued a directive to the priests of his diocese in which he instructed them to relieve couples of the obligation to abstain from contraception because of the existing situation that the doctrine was in doubt. This was also the line of argument followed by the theologians Richard McCormick and Bernard Häring.

Pope Paul VI was well aware of the problem; he said to [Father John C. Ford, S.J.] who was his counselor: “Whoever keeps silent consents; if the Church does not prohibit it acquiesces, and the doctrine becomes probable”, and if something is probable it does not oblige.

But the doctrine was not in doubt. There were clear and clean pronouncements of the preceding magisterium, there were statements of Pius IX, Pius XII, John XXIII, there were centuries and centuries of Tradition, there was the voice of doctors of the Church and of her saints. However, to cut the margin even thinner, Paul VI himself, addressing the participants of the 52nd Congress of the Italian Society of Gynecologists and Obstetricians on October 26, 1966, had said: “The thought and the norm of the Church have not changed; they are those in force in the traditional teaching of the Church.” If today somebody wants to intentionally attribute a doctrinal significance of uncertainty to the silence of Paul VI after Humanae Vitae, they would be undertaking an intellectually fraudulent operation.

The Pope had responsibility for the unity of the Church, he was being faithful to the office of teacher and defender of the faith, he had reaffirmed the moral truth, and he chose not to reprimand forcefully the lie [of dissent]. We are dealing with extremely difficult choices at the prerogative of the Petrine office. How many times this has happened in history. We could think of the decision in 1588 of Pope Sixtus V to impose the canonical and civil penalties of homicide for those who used contraceptives or had an abortion. Only three years later, except for the case of an already-formed fetus, Gregory XIV abrogated the bull of his predecessor, restoring to contraception the nature of an act against chastity [rather than murder]. We could also cite the intransigent position of St. Pius V on the practice of prostitution in the city of Rome and contrast it with the more tolerant position of other popes who were also saints.

On the other hand, it was the same Blessed Paul VI who was sharply critical of permissiveness and of the intransigence of evil dwelling within the Church: “We were perhaps too weak and imprudent in this attitude, to which the school of modern Christianity invites us: the recognition of the profane world in its rights and values […] We have gone above and beyond in our conformism to the mentality and customs of the profane world,” he said during the general audience of September 21, 1973. Already then, immediately after the publication of Humanae Vitae, the theologians of dissent abandoned the argument of dissent in order to brandish the argument of the non-infallibility of the encyclical, an argument which Moia resuscitates. If Humanae Vitae is not infallible, then it is fallible, but if it is fallible it is not irreformable, and so therefore it is reformable and thus ought to be reformed – this is the line of thought followed.

Commenting on the request of Wojtyla for a pronouncement of the Pope which would declare Humanae Vitae “infallible and irreformable”, Moia writes: “Is it possible that Wojtyla was ignorant that it was the same Paul VI who had ordered Msgr. Ferdinando Lambruschini – dean of the chair of moral theology of the Lateran University and then Archbishop of Perugia – to explain in the press conference presenting the encyclical that the text ought not to be considered either infallible or irreformable? Evidently not.”  It is gratifying that Moia has discovered himself to be an admirer of Msgr. Lambruschini. If so, he ought to have no difficulty accepting also this one of his teachings: “None of the instances of the natural moral law can be sacrificed to a vague ‘pastorality’”, which he takes into account in his articles on morality (F. Lambruschini, Problemi della Humanae vitae, Queriniana, Brescia 1968, 135). It would be good now to specify the exact nature of the definitiveness of the encyclical and the theologically controversial material it contains, and also to confirm whether Paul VI himself actually ordered Msgr. Lambruschini in such a way (personally I do not know the source from which Moia gets this information).

Fr. Ermenegildo Lio wrote a powerful scientific essay edited by Libreria Editrice Vaticana and approved by John Paul II in which he demonstrates the presence of the necessary criteria [in Humanae Vitae] to consider it a certain and definitive act of the Magisterium. If the hundreds of pages of this study might discourage him, Moia could just get a copy of this month’s Timone, where he will be able to learn in a synthetic manner from the article of Fr. Carbone why Humanae Vitae is infallible.

But even admitting that these theologians could be in error, this does not change one comma of the fact that the norms on contraception are part of the definitive Magisterium. In an intervention published in L’Osservatore Romano on September 4, 1968, the theologian Rosario Gagnebet wrote: “When one calls upon the non-infallible character of this document in order to negate the certainty of the teaching it contains, it seems that one is forgetting that there are many certain teachings in Catholic doctrine which fall outside of those which have been the object of an infallible proposition.” And again in L’Osservatore Romano on January 5, 1969, Karol Wojtyla wrote: “It seems that throughout all of the arguments and appeals over the encyclical, full of dramatic tension, the words of the Master come to us: ‘By your perseverance you will save your souls’ (Luke 21:19). Because in the end this is what we are dealing with.” Does Luciano Moia really think that Gagnebet and Wojtyla would have written these statements in disobedience and behind the back of Paul VI?


Originally published at La Nuova Bussola Quotidiania. Translated by Giuseppe Pellegrino

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