Bernhard Häring (Pater Josef Steinle AMPR)

No papal teaching document has ever caused such an earthquake in the Church as the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Reactions around the world in the Italian and American press, for example, are just as sharp as they were at the time of the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX, perhaps even sharper. There is the difference, of course, that this time anti-Catholic feelings have been rarely expressed. The storm has broken over the heads of the curial advisors of the Pope and often of the Pope himself. The document is regarded as a great victory by those groups who opposed the Council from beginning to end. The conservative magazine Triumph is a typical example of the mentality of the far right: of priests who do not believe what the encyclical declares, it demands that they be honest and leave the church since they are automatically schismatics if they do not accept the words of the Pope. The day after the encyclical appeared, a doctor in consultation said: “Your Church has lost two members; both of my Catholic colleagues here have declared that they are leaving the Church, since they find this whole mentality of the Pope unbelievable.” The same day a priest came with the question whether he should not in honesty to his conscience give up his priestly ministry; he could not act in accordance with the encyclical. This traumatic experience, with the great danger of a mass departure from the Church, drove theologians to emphasize strongly the fallible character of the encyclical and to take a courageous stand.

If the Pope 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.

Monsignor Lambruschini, the Curia official appointed by the Vatican to explain the encyclical to the press, emphasized that it was not an infallible statement, and that the possibility of a revised statement, if new data appeared, could not be excluded. However, the tone of the encyclical seems to leave little hope that this will happen in Pope Paul’s lifetime—little hope, that is, unless the reaction of the whole Church immediately makes him realize that he has chosen the wrong advisors and that the arguments which these men have recommended as highly suitable for modern thought are simply unacceptable. Non-infallible but very authoritative statements of popes were in the past officially corrected only after a relatively long delay. Even when they were strongly criticized within the Church, this criticism became known only slowly. […]

In the past things were different. 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 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. 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. When the popes and their curial theologians so frequently and so emphatically defended temporal power and the Vatican States as a divinely commissioned right and a spiritual necessity, this critical Christian frankness should have been more in evidence. […]

[T]he encyclical is quite optimistic about the force of the arguments it proposes and the information provided by the Pope’s advisors, so that “The magisterium could give adequate reply to the expectation not only of the faithful, but also of world opinion” (N. 5). Nevertheless, when the Pope speaks to “his own children” and to his “sons, the priests,” optimism about the force of the arguments diminishes somewhat. He asks for “loyal internal and external obedience to the teaching authority of the Church” and then adds: “That obedience, as you well know, obliges not only because of the reason adduced, but rather because of the light of the Holy Spirit, which is given in a particular way to the pastors of the Church in order that they may illustrate the truth” (N.28). There can be no doubt that our obedience of faith to the Church rests on the confidence that the Church enjoys the special assistance of the Holy Spirit in the explanation of the Gospel and the guidance of the Church. But it is not possible to make the Holy Spirit responsible for everything which in past centuries was loudly asserted in an authoritative tone by men of the Church. However, in Humanae Vitae the central argument is clearly and unambiguously a thesis of the natural moral law, and therefore a truth which is to be proven from human experiences and arguments of reason. […]

It is not possible to make the Holy Spirit responsible for everything which in past centuries was loudly asserted in an authoritative tone by men of the Church.

The argumentation of Humanae Vitae rests mainly on two points. The first is the constant teaching of the Church; the second is the absolute sacredness and inviolability of the biological functions in every use of marriage, so that every act must remain open for procreation, whether or not procreation can at this moment responsibly be undertaken.

[I]f the argument from tradition is to play so important a role, we must call to mind Jesus’s struggle against the important role assigned to human traditions. “He also said to them, ‘How well you set aside the commandment of God in order to maintain your tradition’” (Mark 7:9). When the legalists asked the Lord, “’Why do your disciples break the old-established tradition?’” Jesus answered, “’Why do you break God’s commandment in the interest of your tradition?’” (Matthew 15:24). […]

The second argument is the biological understanding of the inviolable laws of nature. […] I believe that biological functions are one part of man; but these biological functions are often upset; and the art of healing is possible only if man is a responsible steward of these functions and can intervene. It has not been proven that the biological functions connected with the power of procreation are absolutely untouchable and sacred, especially since they are often upset and, even according to the teaching of the Church, measures to restore health may be undertaken. The biological functions must be subordinated to the good of the whole person and marriage itself. This is, if I am not mistaken, by far the most common opinion in the Church. […]

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. […]

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. The encyclical also fails to see that abortion is a much greater problem than the methods of birth control. In the encyclical, abortion is rejected only in passing; the Council put its principal emphasis on a condemnation of abortion. So the encyclical, from a pedagogical standpoint, is rather confusing. […]

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 Corinthians 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.”

The question has been asked: does the encyclical bind all Catholics in conscience? The Pope seems to answer this question unambiguously. Nevertheless I believe that one must give the Pope credit for not abrogating or denying the general principles for forming a right conscience (The Church in the Modern World, n. 16). My answer along these lines is this:

1) those who can accept the encyclical with an honest conscience must do so, with all the consequences;

2) those who doubt whether they can must study it thoroughly and also make use of further information in order to form a clear conscience;

3) those who, with an honest conscience, cannot accept the teaching and requirements of Humanae Vitae, must follow their honest conscience. When married couples, then, for good reasons and with a good conscience use methods of birth regulation which in their minds are the most suitable—abortion is obviously excluded—they need not mention it in confession;

4) Priests must instruct the faithful clearly about the Pope’s teaching. However, I do not see how they can be denied the right to speak out their own opinion with equal honesty.

On one occasion in the presence of Auxiliary Bishop Colombo the suggestion was made (by him or by someone else who was present) that the Pope should simply forbid under pain of disobedience all methods except periodic or total abstinence, without giving any reasons. I answered vigorously, “That would be the best method to destroy the authority of the pope.”

The pope did not follow that advice; he tried, with the help of his close associates, to give reasons. Some questions, of course, he simply did not put to himself, perhaps with the intention of doing it at a later date. But it is really remarkable that in the long time they had, his advisors found no better reasons than those presented in the encyclical. The conclusion was settled. They had to find the premises to back it up. May others be more successful. But it seems that the conclusion doesn’t stand very solidly.

Published in the June 15, 2018 issue: View Contents

Father Bernard Häring, CSSR was a member of the Papal Birth Control Commission.

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