In Papal Primacy: From Its Origins to the Present, German Jesuit Klaus Schatz had this to say about encyclicals: “Papal teachings of this kind before Humanae Vitae (1968) hardly ever encountered any significant opposition within the Church.” With 2017 and the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation having passed, 2018 is shaping up as the anniversary of a different kind of reformation—or a different kind of schism. It will be fifty years since the final encyclical of Paul VI’s papacy, a document remembered almost solely for its teaching against artificial methods of birth control and hardly at all for its reception of the teaching in Gaudium et Spes on the two goals of marriage, mutual love and procreation.
The preparations to mark this anniversary suggest we will see yet more signs of tension in how different Catholics (culturally and geographically) understand Catholicism. Based on the program they released at their November gathering in Baltimore, for example, the U.S. bishops are far more excited about celebrating the anniversary of Humanae Vitae than their counterparts in the rest of the world, who seem to be looking at marriage and family with a different kind of focus. And this “enthusiasm gap” is reflective of more than just the present moment; it suggests continuation of the skirmishes within the Church that have persisted through Francis’s papacy.
It began within a few months of Francis’s election, with his decision to pull back on the obsessive emphasis on sexuality. It was not just an argument e silentio (from silence) but stated explicitly, several times in the years to follow. There was the interview with Antonio Spadaro, SJ, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica in September 2013; there was his decision to call the Bishops’ Synods of 2014 and 2015 on family and marriage; there was the publication of Amoris Laetitia “on love in the family” (not just on marriage) in the spring of 2016. In the summer of 2016, Francis cemented his pastoral take on family and marriage with the creation of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, and with new appointments for the Pontifical Academy for Life and the John Paul II Institute for marriage and family. In 2017, there was the establishment of the Pontifical Theological Institute John Paul II for the Sciences of Marriage and Family at the Lateran University in Rome, replacing the institution created by John Paul II.
More directly related to Humanae Vitae was the creation in July 2017 of a special commission to study the history of the drafting of the encyclical. This commission has been given a waiver from the seventy-year rule regarding accessing of documents, so that it can examine those from the commission that prepared Humanae Vitae, which are kept in the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Secretariat of State. (There are studies on the history of the debate at Vatican II, but the commission’s papers themselves have never been examined.) The leader of this commission is the Italian priest and theologian Gilfredo Marengo, professor of theological anthropology at the John Paul II Institute. The commission includes two other theologians—Monsignor Pierangelo Sequeri , president of the John Paul II Institute, and Monsignor Angelo Maffeis, president of the Paul VI Institute in Brescia—as well as church historian Philippe Chenaux of Lateran Pontifical University).