The Alleged Vatican Commission on Humanae Vitae – Nothing to See Here?

Back in May, we shared a report from veteran Vatican journalist Marco Tosatti, who had gotten wind of an alleged Vatican commission formed to study — and possibly to revisit — the teachings on contraception found in Humanae Vitae. Within a month’s time, the existence of this commission was confirmed by Professor Roberto de Mattei in a piece for Corrispondenza Romana.

De Mattei cited the words of Msgr. Marengo himself — the man who had been identified as the leader of this new commission on Humanae Vitae — and they were troubling indeed. They indicated that he favors an approach to the question of contraception that is reminiscent of the way Amoris Laetitia dealt with communion for the “remarried”.

In a more recent article in the same Newspaper (Vatican Insider, March 23rd 2017) with the significant title, Humane Vitae and Amoris laetitia, Monsignor Marengo asks if: “the polemical game – the pill yes – the pill no, like today’s – Communion to the divorced  yes – Communion to the divorced no – is only an appearance of discomfort and strain, [which is] much more decisive in the fabric of ecclesial life.

Marengo, in turn, cited the pope in this context, quoting Francis as speaking of an “excessive idealization, above all when we have reawakened trust in grace” that “has not made marriage more attractive and desirable, but quite the opposite.”

As I said in my commentary at the time:

[T]he key takeaway here is that just like we’ve been told over and over again that Christian marriage is an all-but-unattainable ideal, so if you messed up, no big, enjoy your adultery and by the way, here’s some Holy Communion, this is a mapping of that same “you’re never going to live this so why even try” ethos onto the question of contraception.

Interestingly, months later, certain media outlets have begun pushing back against the idea of this commission, relegating reports like ours to the realm of conspiracy theory. Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service had a story yesterday in which she confirmed that “Four theologians specializing in marriage and family life are studying Vatican archival material with a view of telling the whole story of how and why Blessed Paul VI wrote his encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae’ on married love.”

Wooden continues:

Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo, leader of the group and a professor of theological anthropology at Rome’s Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, spoke to Vatican Radio about the study July 25, the 49th anniversary of the encyclical’s publication.

Some bloggers, writing in the spring about the study group, alarmingly presented it as an initiative of Pope Francis to change the encyclical’s teaching against the use of artificial contraception.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, chancellor of the John Paul II Institute, categorically denied the bloggers’ reports.

In reply to an email, Msgr. Marengo told Catholic News Service July 26 that the study “is a work of historical-critical investigation without any aim other than reconstructing as well as possible the whole process of composing the encyclical.”

“Anyone who imagined any other aim should have simply done their work and verified their sources,” he said.

Interestingly, Archbishop Paglia had also denied that such a commission even existed — and, according to Luciano Moia of Avvenire, that Msgr. Marengo was even associated with it. (More on that in a moment.)

Inés San Martín, the intrepid Vatican correspondent for Crux, takes a more sarcastic tone in her piece today entitled, “No, Virginia, there’s no ‘secret commission’ on Humanae Vitae“. The executive summary at the top of her commentary tells you most of what you need to know:

Rumors of late, circulated by mostly conservative blogs, have suggested that Pope Francis and Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia have created a secret commission to reevaluate the teaching of ‘Humanae Vitae,’ Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on birth control. As it turns out, establishing the truth of the matter is even easier than generating the conspiracy theory in the first place.

San Martín continues:

Paglia has denied that any such commission exists. Speaking recently with Argentine journalist Andrés Beltramo Álvarez, Paglia said, “There’s no commission, that’s all been made up.”

This interview was published online on July 13 in the Spanish Alfa y Omega. Paglia himself provided a translation into English via Twitter.

Yet on Tuesday, Vatican Radio published a separate interview with Father Gilfredo Marengo, a professor of theological anthropology at the St. John Paul II institute in Rome. Responding to questions, he said he leads a “research group” on Humane Vitae.

That raised some eyebrows, since Marengo is precisely the man the rumors had identified as leader of the alleged “reinterpreting-the-document” commission. So, I picked up the phone, called the John Paul II Pontifical Institute, and asked to speak with him.

He wasn’t there, but the person on the other side of the line happily gave me his email. I wrote, and not ten minutes later I had a response.

Marengo told me that, together with colleagues, he’s part of a research group on Humane Vitae, but it “has nothing to do with ‘reforming the encyclical’.”


Based on the Marengo interview with Vatican Radio, it would have been easy enough to whip up a piece claiming it proves Paglia was lying, that there really is a secret cabal planning to gut Humanae Vitae, slap on a click-bait headline, and presto: A new Internet sensation is born.

As it turns out, though, picking up the phone to get the actual facts of the situation was just as easy.


Perhaps the moral of the story is this: If conspiracy theorists would devote the same energy to real reporting as they do to mental gymnastics and connect-the-dots exercises, they might actually know what’s going on once in a while.

For Wooden and San Martín, it seems that the fact that the group not only exists and is headed up by the very people who were claimed to be running it months ago is irrelevant. You see, it’s just a research group! Nothing more. The word “commission” is nowhere to be found! And why would anyone believe that such a group might suggest some changes in pastoral application of HV’s guidelines on contraception? Surely, something as unchangeable as the Catholic teaching on contraception has never been overturned by pastoral guidelines issued as a result of a working group set up to study a matter of established doctrine.

I suppose we’re meant to believe that it’s more plausible that this group has been set up under the guidance of a man who has publicly stated — recently — that he views contraception through the same lens as Communion for the “remarried” simply because he has nothing else to do with his time. It’s not like there’s a priest shortage or anything. “Humanae Vitae: The Untold Story” is obviously a top priority in 2017.

Here I will return to the man who broke this story three months ago: Marco Tosatti (who, I’m fairly certain, has been practicing Vatican journalism for longer than the young Miss San Martín has been alive, in case she’s interested in any pointers of her own). In his post today, he engages in a bit of a “connect-the-dots exercise”, but we’ve decided (with his permission) to reproduce a translation* of it in full below all the same:

There are some things that are pleasing. On 11 May, we wrote that “In the Vatican, good sources tell us that the pontiff is about to nominate — or has even already formed — a secret commission to examine and possibly study changes to the Church’s position on contraception, as it had been settled in 1968 by Paul VI in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. It was the last document of this type signed by Pope Montini, and it was the formalization of what the Second Vatican Council had elaborated on this issue. So far, we have no official confirmation of the existence and composition of this body; but a request for confirmation or denial has been issued to the competent headquarters and so far has not been answered. This could be a signal in itself, in the sense that if the news were completely unfounded, it would not be difficult to say so. ”

A few days later, the US Catholic site OnePeterFive resumed the news, confirming its solidity. And on June 14, prof. Roberto de Mattei, on Corrispondenza Romana, provided some details. De Mattei wrote: “It will be Monsignor Gilfredo Marengo, Professor at the John Paul II Pontifical Institute, [who will act as] the coordinator of the commission nominated by Pope Francis to “re-interpret” the encyclical Humane Vitae by Paul VI, in the light of Amoris laetitia, on the occasion of  the fiftieth anniversary of the former’s promulgation, which  falls next year. The initial rumors of the existence of this commission, still secret, reported by Vatican reporter Marco Tosatti, were of a sound source. We can confirm that there is a commission, made up of Monsignor Pierangelo Sequeri, Head of the John Paul II Pontifical Institute, Professor Philippe Chenaux, Lecturer in Church History at the Lateran Pontifical University and Monsignor Angel Maffeis, Head of the Paul VI Institute in Brescia. The coordinator is Monsignor Gilfredo Marengo, Lecturer in Theological Anthropology at the John Paul II Institute and member of the Steering Committee of the CVII-Center Vatican II Study and Research magazine.”

On 4 July, in the Italian bishops’ newspaper, Avvenire, Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, released an interview with Luciano Moia. As writes Lorenzo Bertocchi today for La Nuova Bussola Quotidana: “The journalist [Moia], committed to the renewal of moral theology established by Amoris Laetitia, asked the prelate if certain ‘media manipulations’ about a secret commission for the ‘revision’ of Humanae vitae, the encyclical of Pope Paul VI on contraception and human love, corresponded to reality. Not only that; Moia also cited a supposed list of experts and theologians — from Pierangelo Sequeri to Gilfredo Marengo — who would be involved in this project. And then the fateful question: ‘Is there something true in all this?’ ‘Just nothing’, Paglia replied, rather, ‘it is a good time for the Church to help everyone reinvent the force of generativity while the world risks sterility’.”

Two days ago, Vatican Radio hosted an interview with Mgr. Gilfredo Marengo. In that same interview, he says that there is “a research group on the Encyclical, in view of the 50th anniversary”. It also names the members of the group involved in the work: Monsignor Pierangelo Sequeri, head of the Pontifical Institute John Paul II, prof. Philippe Chenaux, professor of Church History at the Pontifical Lateran University and Msgr. Angelo Maffeis, head of the Paolo VI Institute of Brescia. The very names same indicated by prof. But Mattei.

In substance: the news is confirmed, and even a certain secrecy is confirmed as well — let’s call it that — about the existence of this group. So much so that neither the institutional sources that we had contacted in May, without any reply, or Archbishop Paglia, who would have adjusted his denial in a different way, nor our colleague Moia, a specialist in these issues for the bishops’ daily, knew about it. As we said, these are events that give some satisfaction. And they confirm us in our great confidence and respect — with sound, deep reservations — towards official denials.

Why must we constantly play this cat and mouse game with the truth? Why, when we have a Vatican (and collaborators) that can’t be trusted — going so far as to change the wording of published translations and transcripts in a way that gives cover to controversial papal remarks (something John Allen of Crux defended) — should we believe these denials of reports that have been proven to be so close to the mark?

Is it that the “reconstruction” isn’t quite right? Is that enough to justify saying that a thing isn’t true? It’s not a “commission,” it’s a “research group,” so despite the fact that all the other details match up, it’s a conspiracy theory or a fabrication? Certainly, it’s within the realm of possibility that this “research group” will work diligently on a “historical-critical investigation” that will reconstruct “as well as possible the whole process of composing the encyclical.”

But without any other aim? No searching for loopholes? No examination of what possible equivocations Pope Paul VI might have considered before deciding against them? No exploration of Pope Francis’ own deeply troubling statements and gestures regarding the permissibility of contraception? No progress made in working toward the Francis’s belief that “We must always go forward. Always forward!”, and his goal of accomplishing “irreversible reform“?

Mark me down as skeptical.

Earlier today, I posted an excerpt of an essay pertaining to institutions in the secular sphere, and how when lying becomes necessary to maintain the status quo, the organizational goose is cooked. One part stands out:

Truth is power, lies are weakness. All we get now are lies, statistics designed to mislead and phony reassurances that the status quo is stable and permanent. The truth is powerful because it is the core dynamic of solving problems. Lies, gamed statistics and false reassurances are fatal because they doom any sincere efforts to fix what’s broken before the system reaches the point of no return.

The truth also has a name: Jesus Christ. And it is Him whom we serve. The present ecclesiastical system does indeed seem to have reached a point of no return, but Our Lord has guaranteed us that the Church He founded will never succumb to the enemy.

I long for the day when those in power in the Church lose the fear of confronting evil or of telling the whole truth, and instead work courageously to defend Christ’s teachings rather than constantly revisiting them in the hopes of finding a way around them.


*Maike Hickson assisted with this translation.

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