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Humanae Vitae at 50: Setting the Context. A Conference in Rome

Voice of the family, a coalition of twenty-five pro-life and pro-family associations, held an international conference in Rome on October 28th, hosted by Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. Among the speakers, His Eminence Cardinal Walter Brandmüller; Professor Roberto De Mattei and Professor Josef Seifert; Father Serafino Lanzetta from University of Lugano; Jean-Marie Le Méné from Foundation Lejeune; Dr. Thomas Ward, President of the National Association of Catholic Families in the UK; Doctor Philipphe Schepens, Secretary General of the World Federation of Doctors Who Respect Human Life, Belgium; and John-Henry Westen, editor-in-chief of Lifesitenews, Canada. The morning session was chaired by John Smeaton, chief executive of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children in the UK, while the afternoon session was chaired by Father Shenan Boquet, President of Human Life International. The closing address was delivered by His Excellency Luigi Negri, Archbishop of Ferrara.

As Dr. Smeaton emphasized, the conference intended to remind that by the infallible doctrine of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Catholic “unchangeable teaching” on sexual morality; a teaching which today is facing, as Cardinal Brandmüller remarked, “unprecedented attacks” not only from without, but also from within the Church. In a sense, the effort to alter such millennial doctrine, undertaken today under the aegis of Pope Francis’s Apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, is not new. As both His Eminence and Professor De Mattei recalled, immediately before and after the Second World War, straight to the Second Vatican Council, and until the publication of Humanae Vitae in July 1968, numerous and fierce were those exponents of the ‘progressive’ Church who strove to relinquish the traditional teaching on marriage, sex, and birth control, which dated back to the earliest centuries of Christianity, too often in the name of ideologies that were sharply divergent from the Catholic faith.

In particular, Professor De Mattei insisted on the role of the nouvelle théologie, condemned by Pius XII in the encyclical Humani Generis, but prompted by the University of Leuven especially through the works of the personalist theologian Louis Janssen. The trick was to substitute the concept of ‘person’ for the concept of human nature. As De Mattei explained:

“Human nature is in fact man’s essence, what he is before being a person. Man is a subject of rights and duties because he is a person, but he is a person because of his human nature. If the person precedes nature, man is founded on his self-conscience and his own will. Moral rules are no more objective, rational, but rather affective, personal, existential. Human conscience becomes the sovereign norm of morality”.

One cannot ignore here the impressive link that ties together the approach criticized by De Mattei, Protestant ethics (the primacy of individual conscience), and the exaltation of Lutheranism we are witnessing in today’s Church.

But another, even more worrisome aspect comes through: the connections between Catholic reformism on sexual morality and the movements for sexual liberation, feminism, evolutionism, Malthusianism, Marxism, and obviously the Freemasonry, which developed in the English-speaking world, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, from the early 18th century onwards. Such tendencies were backed by wealthy financiers (like the Rockefeller Foundation) and by influential political advocates, like the Society of Nations and, later on, the UN. It is somewhat unsettling that today Pope Francis would be so acquiescent towards global institutions which hinder freedom of education, and try to impose the LGBT agenda to national legislatures and schools.

For instance, Dr. Ward alarmingly reported that the Synod of the Family explicitly contested the exclusive role of parents in the education of children, de facto justifying “indoctrination by the birth control and homosexual lobby”. He also recalled that the Vatican hosted in 2016 a workshop “to promote the Strategic Development Goals which include compulsory sex education and the universal provision of contraception and abortion”. It is as if the Church, which was formerly well equipped to counter the international influence of radicalism (e.g.: Prof. De Mattei stressed how the Vatican was constantly monitoring feminist theorist Margaret Sanger’s activities in the Twenties), is now gradually embracing its enemies’ cause.

De Mattei explained that the Commission which worked on sexual morality and contraception during the Second Vatican Council devoted major efforts not only to manipulate the decisions assumed by the Council Fathers, but also to rebuff the explicit re-instantiation of the unchanged doctrine on sexuality, contraception, and abortion by Pius XII’s Casti Connubii, and to pressure Paul VI in the years before the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, an encyclical which was vehemently contested by the dissenters. The reformers denied that a single, universal moral law could rule the faithful’s behaviour; in their view, sins like contraception and abortion could become permissible, if not advisable, depending on the circumstances. After Humanae Vitae, these ‘innovators’, who longed for the infiltration, as denounced by Cardinal Brandmüller, of “situational ethics” in “Catholic moral theology”, felt they had only lost a battle, not the war. But, as Prof. De Mattei underlined, and as it is important to keep in mind in these years, “from the viewpoint of the doctrine of the faith the case is closed, and no commission of studies, although nominated by the papacy, has the right to reopen it”.

It is due to mention here Prof. Seifert’s brilliant speech as well. As usual, indeed, his contribution stood out for its philosophical and theological profundity, and the effectiveness with which it was capable of engaging the contemporary academic debate, offering a precious source of arguments to counter the dominance of nihilism, consequentialism, and other anti-life ethical positions. That particularly a consequentialist approach may threaten the doctrine of Humanae Vitae was in fact also acknowledged by Fr. Lanzetta, who identified in the teleological background of Amoris Laetitia, which points to the intentions and the purposes of actions rather than on the rightness per se of those acts, a perilous “change of paradigm”.

Prof. Seifert’s intervention was focused on providing a set of specific reasons to account for the immorality of contraception. The first reason was the “inseparable bond between the unitive and procreative meaning of the marital act”, an inseparability which is not merely a matter of fact, but entails a moral obligation not to divide and isolate “the spousal act and procreation”. Marriage ought to be open towards conception, and the spouses are forbidden from manipulating its sacramental substance.

The second reason related to the violation of the “superabundant” finality between spousal love and procreation. Here, the key point is the gift of fruitfulness “for the purpose of procreation” with which God endowed marriage, a finality Prof. Seifert qualified as ‘superabundant’. On this view, the “immorality of contraception lies in the separation of what is or should be the expression of spousal love from its fruitfulness”.

A third argument stemmed from Pope John Paul II’s reflections on the gift of spousal love as involving the integral gift of feminity and masculinity, which includes “potential paternity and maternity”. Accordingly, Prof. Seifert contended that is not permissible to sever these components of the gift of spousal love.

The fourth reason was the inviolable ‘vertical’ bond between human and divine act in procreation. As Prof. Seifert argued, “in procreation a unique cooperation occurs between God and man in the fruitful marital community”. Therefore, retaining the self-proclaimed right to break this tie amounts to an act of hubris by the spouses, man’s pure “rebellion against his own creatureliness”.

But one of the most interesting passages of Seifert’s lecture was probably the one in which he employed an argument defended by our beloved, dearly departed Cardinal Carlo Caffarra in 1988, and lately by theologian John Finnis. The idea is that contraception is a worse attack on human life than abortion: while, in fact, the latter deprives the child of temporal life on earth, the former denies to it “existence in all eternity”. Now, one may object that we do not have moral obligations towards hypothetical future subjects. However (if I did not get it wrong), the point is that, once the “first step in the direction of the existence of the child has already been taken” (via sexual intercourse), contraception means saying ‘No’ to life not only in its biological sense, but, more gravely, in its metaphysical dimension (the immortal soul God would have infused in the baby, were He not prevented from doing this by the spouses’ opposition).

Prof. Seifert concluded by underscoring that, in Veritatis Splendor, St. John Paul II had already guarded against the errors of situational ethics, utilitarianism and consequentialism, which obscure the “fundamental truth” in virtue of which we can claim that “there can be no grounds whatever for permitting an act that is morally evil in itself”. And while Seifert did not patently expose Pope Francis’s views, it is evident that anxiety is increasing due to Amoris Laetitia’s approach. And in fact, in his closing remarks, Archbishop Negri hinted at the difficulties the Church is facing in this phase of its existence, urging Catholics to be “missionaries of the truth” on Humanae Vitae. Undoubtedly, this may entail forms of ‘filial corrections’ of the most controversial statements by the current papacy. The problem has been openly addressed by Prof. De Mattei.

One may note, indeed, that the measures undertaken by present-day traditionalists are similar to the dissenters’ in the years before and after the promulgation of Paul VI’s encyclical. The point is not to contest or endorse the authority of the Pope; the point is to remind that such authority is not absolute, in the literal sense of being free from any external bond (ab-soluta). Over and above it, there lies the authority of Tradition, the “living magisterium” which allows us to discriminate between Catholicism and papolatry. Such permanent teaching of the Church does not belong “in usufruct to the living”, to use Thomas Jefferson’s famous quotation. To the contrary, as Benedict XVI contended, what counts for the Church “is never only the currently present society. For the Church, the dead are not dead: as a Communion of Saints it oversteps the limits of present time. The past is not past, and for this reason the future is already present. In other words: in the Church there can be no majority against the saints, the great witnesses of the faith […]. They will always belong to the present, and their voice cannot be put in the minority”.

7 thoughts on “Humanae Vitae at 50: Setting the Context. A Conference in Rome”

  1. Pope John Paul was such an advocate for the unborn and Humane Vitae.
    France’s top administrative court, the Conseil d’Etat has ordered a cross to be removed from a statue of Pope Saint John Paul II in Ploërmel, a small city in France’s Brittany region.
    The statue, nearly 25 feet tall, portrays Pope Saint John Paul II praying beneath an arch adorned with a cross. The memorial was erected in Ploërmel in 2006.
    What is wrong with the ‘eldest daughter of the Catholic Church’?

  2. “Prof. De Mattei stressed how the Vatican was constantly monitoring feminist theorist Margaret Sanger’s activities in the Twenties), is now gradually embracing its enemies’ cause.”

    Gradually embracing its enemies’ cause? I’d say we all have a good case of whiplash due to the speed at which the Vatican has embraced these causes.

  3. Laudato Si’ was the canary in the mineshaft. This papal misadventure into the realm of environmentalism, earth worship and junk science made it perfectly clear that Francis has bought into the whole godless “sustainability” movement. A fundamental plank of this movement is that there are too many people. We have to stop the breeding! We must protect the planet from the people.

    How is Catholic moral teaching on human life likely to fare at the hands of such a person? Wait…..what? There’s a commission which is currently revisiting Humanae vitae? Wow……I wonder how that will turn out?

  4. One of best and most controversial articles ever published in Latin Mass magazine was in the issue of Winter 2002 written by John Galvin entitled “Humanae Vitae: Heroic, Deficient – Or Both?”. The article was a critical critique of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical. Fr. James McLucas, the editor of the magazine at the time, printed the article and offered in following the issue rebuttals from both Janet Smith and Ronald McArthur. Mr. Galvin was then permitted to respond to these rebuttals. I once had the opportunity to speak with Fr. McLucas who said that the publication generated a hailstorm of criticism and personal smears from conservative Catholics like he had never experienced before. This attack was led by the Wanderer magazine in a series of articles in their May 23, 2002 issue. Mr. Galvin’s responses to all his critics are an important addendum to the original article. The Latin Mass web site no longer makes these articles available but I was able to find Mr. Galvin’s original article at:

    This article is important to read for many reasons which I will leave to the reader to discover. The Vatican undermining of Catholic morality did not begin with Amoris laetitia.



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