The Encyclical Crisis Then (and Now)

Commonweal Magazine selects various stories from past issues to post on its website, and this month they’ve included theologian Fr. Bernard Häring‘s response to Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical that banned artificial contraception.

In many ways, as I’ve written before, this encyclical looms over all discussions about authority and conscience in the Roman Catholic church today. I’ve included some choice quotes with bits of my own commentary below, but it is definitely worth reading the whole thing, whether you’re interested in church authority and teaching generally, or the development of this teaching in particular.

If [Pope Paul] deserves admiration for the courage to follow his conscience and to do the most unpopular thing, all responsible men and women must show forth similar honesty and courage of conscience. I am convinced that the subjective and conscious motive of the Pope was love for the Church. Those who contradict him must do it also out of love for the whole Church, out of love for those whose faith is endangered. This also can and must be a service of love for the successor of St. Peter.


many will say: in this question it is not a matter of power; it is simply a matter of understanding Christian marriage. At first sight this may seem to be so, but if one looks more closely, it is clear that an outmoded understanding of curial power is the real issue, and, in conjunction with it, the issue of non-collegial exercise of the teaching office, and the inadequately explored issues of how the pope teaches.

I’m always glad to see power explicitly called out in discussions of church teaching. And I’ve often reflected that the RC church tends to talk about “teaching” when it really seems to mean “legislating,” so it’s nice to see the question of how the pope teaches raised here.

Here is a list of church teaching which was later recognized as wrong, and was revoked – very useful reading for those who would insist that church teaching never changes or that church teaching can never be wrong:

It took centuries before the extraordinarily dangerous “teaching” of the direct power of the pope over all temporal matters was rejected. It demanded courage for Friedrich von Spee finally to speak out openly and forcefully against the persecution, torture and burning of witches, a practice which had been recommended and doctrinally justified by a very authoritative encyclical of Innocent IV. For a long time the moralists did not dare to explain that the castration of the Vatican choir boys was immoral, since it had strong papal approval. The Council of Vienna explained in 1311 that theologians who tried in any way to justify usury were to be “imprisoned in iron chains” for the rest of their lives. And as late as the eighteenth-century, moral theology textbooks published in Italy had to print that warning. Pius IX’s Syllabus lay undigested in the Church’s stomach and in her relationship to the world until the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty and The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [aka Gaudium et Spes]. The immorality of torture, which was justified for so many centuries by the popes, and practiced in their name, was condemned by a papal statement only after a long period of time. Pius XII declared unequivocally that it was against the natural law. The “Holy Inquisition” and “holy wars” could have been wiped out from the picture of the Church if the prophetic spirit and the courage to speak out openly with Christian freedom had been more highly valued in the Church.

Praise for brave bishops resisting a “curial maneuver”:

Meanwhile Cardinal Ottaviani called the Commission together again, but excluded the theologians and lay persons who were members of the Commission. The question was to be dealt with now by bishops alone. But even this curial maneuver did not succeed in its objective. The bishops insisted on the presence of the theologians and lay people. Never in my life had I seen such an admirable stand taken by so large a group of bishops: reverence for the successor of Peter and absolute honesty and frankness prevailed.

From the perspective of mimetic theology, this quote really leaped out at me:

I frequently heard from the man who worked on Humanae Vitae the argument that it was impossible the Anglicans could be right. [They had approved “the responsible use of means to regulate births” at the Lambeth Conference in 1930.] That would dishonor the Catholic Church.

Surely such reasoning has more to do with ego, pride, and tribal identity than with the peace of Christ and the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

On wishful thinking:

It is bad curial style to speak of a desire for something to be true as though it were actual fact.

Can I get an Amen?

A critical difference between HV and the 1930 encyclical on marriage, Casti Connubii:

Humanae Vitae differs from Casti Connubii by no longer making the effort to base the teaching of the Church in this matter on Genesis 38. It no longer tries to base its proof on Scripture. For every layman knows today that the intention of that text was to insist on the obligation to raise up children from the wife of one’s dead brother, an obligation which is now forbidden by the Church. The text is not dealing with the absolute sacredness of the sperm.

So the only argument which remains is the fact that the Church has always taught this doctrine (“constant firmness by the teaching authority of the Church” N.6).

That’s an important point.

Pope Paul asserts that an intervention in the biological process necessarily destroys married love. This assertion has no more proof to back it up than the assertion of Casti Connubii that it is necessarily against the dignity of a woman for her to have some occupation outside the home.

And 50 years later, I think we have plenty of evidence that “an intervention in the biological process” does not necessarily destroy married love…

The Second Vatican Council, following scientific developments in the field of moral theology, strongly developed the issue of responsible parenthood. There it is clear that birth control is evaluated quite differently in different circumstances. It is one thing if it is practiced as the result of a conscientious decision that new life cannot responsibly be brought into being here and now; it is quite another if it is a simple rejection of the parental vocation. Since Pope Paul makes the analysis of the act his starting point, this fundamental distinction does not appear. The evil seems to consist exclusively, or at least principally in the violation of sacred biological functions.

… as well as some evidence that non-intervention can be destructive of married love in certain cases:

Over the years I have received at least 50 letters which present cases in which the unsuccessful use of rhythm has led to psychoses for these women and required treatment for them in mental institutions. Just a week before the encyclical appeared, an English doctor wrote me that the confessor of a woman for whom he had prescribed the pill had refused her absolution when she had been released from a half-year of treatment in a mental institution after a pregnancy psychosis. And the superioress of an American hospital told me that the chaplain refused absolution to a severely ill woman who had taken the progesteron pill for the most valid reasons. He refused because she was not prepared to promise that she would take no more after her convalescence.

See also the stories collected by the women at WIT, Women Speak about Natural Family Planning.

Finally and fundamentally, how are we to understand HV in light of Vatican 2?

The failure of the encyclical to use either of these texts [1 Cor 7:1-5, Gaudium et Spes 51] is indeed one of its gravest defects. Here an unavoidable question must be answered by the theologians: can the encyclical Humanae Vitae be reconciled with the teaching of Vatican II? . . .

In my opinion it is harder to reconcile Humanae Vitae with the Council Constitution on The Church in the Modern World than to reconcile the Declaration on Religious Freedom with the Syllabus of Pius IX, or at least no less difficult. This assertion is based especially on the fact (1) that the question just mentioned from the Council Constitution and the text of 1 Cor. 7 are simply not taken seriously, (2) that the conception of natural law of the whole pastoral Constitution of the Council has simply not been incorporated into Humanae Vitae, and (3) that the criteria worked out in the Constitution for the acceptability of methods of birth control are not even mentioned and simply replaced by biological “laws.”

What I’ve elided in the above excerpt describes communications received by Häring from the Holy Office (now the CDF, but still responsible for disciplining theologians) insisting that the papal encyclical Casti Connubi is either complementary to, or more authoritative than, the Council document on the Church in the Modern World. This is strikingly similar to contemporary discourse: the more extreme conservatives insist that Vatican II was “only pastoral” and thus its documents do not have the authoritative status proper to the teachings of an ecumenical council (disregarding, as Häring points out, “Pope John XXIII’s opening speech of the Council in which he said that the teaching office of the Church was in its entirety pastoral”), while the somewhat more moderate hermeneutic of continuity guiding the “reform of the reform” is congruent with the “complementary” language.

In the early part of his essay, Häring implicitly argues that the rapid communication made possible in the modern world necessarily also speeds the process by which errant church teaching will be changed, because the pace of theological discussion has become likewise rapid. Clearly, Fr. Häring underestimated the human factors involved: airmail, radio, television, and the internet have changed communications but not the human beings doing the communicating. “The encyclical crisis” lingers to this day. Let’s pray that the Synod on the Family coming up later this year, which it seems will at least mention church teaching on contraception, will be able to make some progress towards its resolution.

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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1 Response to The Encyclical Crisis Then (and Now)

  1. Pingback: Pride, Ecumenism, Contraception, and Divorce | Gaudete Theology

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