Humanae Vitae, a Half-Century On

How Different Catholics Read It
A banner referencing “Humanae Vitae,” the 1968 encyclical of Blessed Paul VI, is seen in the crowd at the conclusion of the beatification Mass of Blessed Paul celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 19. The Mass also concluded the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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). 

These steps have been met with suspicion by the usual self-appointed watchdogs of Catholic orthodoxy, known for identifying Catholicism with culture-war style life issues.

These steps have been met with suspicion by the usual self-appointed watchdogs of Catholic orthodoxy, known for identifying Catholicism with culture-war style life issues. It’s telling that the authors of these attacks against Francis’s personnel decisions are typically unable to say much about the theological orientations of the new appointees. Marengo, Sequeri, and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia (president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and of the St. John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family) write in Italian and are well known and respected in Italy, but they’re less familiar to English-speaking Catholics. Such a gap isn’t a new phenomenon. What is new is the sense of peril for Humanae Vitae the culture warriors feel, though they shouldn’t; it’s clear to anyone who’s read their writing that Francis’s appointees are no enemy of it. The problem is that they represent an approach that is not the culture-war approach.

Lately, criticism also been directed at the Pontifical Gregorian University of the Jesuits in Rome, which has organized a lecture series (October 2017 through May 2018) on Humanae Vitae. George Weigel’s November piece in First Things was the culmination of a series of articles appearing in online Catholic media accusing the leadership of the Gregorian of sabotaging the orthodox reading of Humanae Vitae and weakening the Church’s teaching on it. Aside from the inaccuracies (the names and affiliation of the speakers) and omissions (the fact that this is part a multi-year program on papal encyclicals—Laudato Si’ in 2015-2016 and Populorum Progressio in 2017-2018), what’s striking is how the pre-emptive nature of the articles seeks to intimidate. What’s really going on in Rome is a pluralistic and intellectually diverse engagement with Humanae Vitae; in addition to the program organized by the Gregorian, there was also the conference at the Angelicum last September. Meanwhile, the U.S. bishops have a series of events clearly focused on “natural family planning.”

It is also interesting how neo-conservative and neo-traditionalist Catholics cite Paul VI only for Humanae Vitae. The rest of his teachings—especially Populorum Progressio, on social and economic justice; Evangelii Nuntiandi, on contemporary evangelization; the last three of the four sessions of Vatican II; and his direction of liturgical reform—are far less popular with them. This is what one could call a very selective use of papal teaching, and it reveals a bigger problem. It is not just the attempt to squash the intellectual and pastoral reflection taking place in a Catholic pontifical university and demonize it in online media. It is not just the usual anti-European posturing (“Europe is contracepting itself into demographic oblivion”—George Weigel). It is not the idea that there is a real, orthodox catholicity that is marginalized by the cultural and intellectual centers in Rome under this pontificate. It is not even the accusation of culpable ignorance (“Those who arranged this series of lectures are woefully ignorant of what’s happening outside their intellectual silos or that the Gregorian conference organizers have more than their elbows up their sleeves”—George Weigel again). The real issue is not even that the anniversary of Humanae Vitae is likely to become another chapter in the attempt to de-legitimize Pope Francis. 

The real problem is what this approach to the complex legacy of Humanae Vitae says about the impoverishment of the public theological debate between the continents.

The real problem is what this approach to the complex legacy of Humanae Vitae says about the impoverishment of the public theological debate between the continents. The first symptom of impoverishment is the anti-intellectualism evident in the rejection of any effort to study the history of the drafting and reception of the most critical and contested papal teaching in modern times. From a historical and theological point of view, we do not actually  know much about what happened in global Catholicism after Vatican II, and especially what happened during the reception of Humanae Vitae. There is no global-Catholic equivalent for Leslie Tentler’s masterful study on American Catholics and contraception. What remains to be analyzed is not just the European vs. U.S. reception, but also the reception in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Imposing assumptions about the history of marriage, procreation, and the family on the rest of the world is no substitute for serious studies.

The second symptom of impoverishment is the tendency to reduce understanding of a particularly sensitive papal teaching and its reception to a particular cultural and geographic point of view, and then universalize it. In this case it is once again “orthodox” American Catholicism vs. Europe, thus turning a critical chapter in the history of the Catholic tradition into yet another episode of “competitive natalism” (Leslie Tentler’s coinage), not between neighbors or parishioners, but between different continental Catholic churches. European Catholics did not have to wait for Humanae Vitae or Vatican II to have fewer children: more than a decade before Humanae Vitae, in the period between 1950 and 1955, the fertility rate in Italy was 2.3, while in the U.S. it was 3.3. As a European, I know very well that the demographic crisis of Europe is real; of the thirty students in my high-school class, I am one of the few who is married and has more than one child. But do we really want to use a new assessment of Humanae Vitae as a test for the reproductive vitality of Catholicism, in another attempt to present the American “orthodox” interpretation as the standard for global Catholicism?

Then there is the issue under the issue: the theological-political tweak given to this debate with Richard John Neuhaus’s interpretation of Vatican II as merging with the “western liberal consensus.” Accusing Francis and his theologians of being part of the “western liberal consensus” makes no sense. What is unforgivable, for some, is that Pope Francis is not part of the neo-conservative or the neo-traditionalist American consensus.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship. Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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