‘Humanae Vitae’ Was a Rewrite

A Controversial Encyclical’s Complicated Birth
Pope Paul VI in Geneva in 1969 (CNS photo/courtesy World Council of Churches)

Fifty years after the publication of Humanae vitae, the Vatican’s official publishing house has released an important book on the history of the encyclical. The author of the almost 300-page book—titled La nascita di un’enciclica. Humanae Vitae alla luce degli Archivi Vaticani (“Birth of an encyclical. Humanae vitae in the light of the Vatican Archives”)—is Gilfredo Marengo, the Italian monsignor who chairs the special commission created by Pope Francis for the study of the newly available Vatican archives. Pierangelo Sequeri, president of the John Paul II Institute and one of the most brilliant Italian theologians in the past fifty years, wrote the preface.

The book has two parts. The first reconstructs the history of the Holy See’s involvement with the issue of contraception between 1963 and 1968, the year Humane vitae was published. The second part is a selection of original documents from the Vatican archives made available to the special commission.

Marengo presents some important new facts about the drafting of Humanae vitae. To begin with, an earlier version of the encyclical was approved by Paul VI and scheduled for publication on May 23, 1968. That version, titled De nascendae prolis, had been written by Fr. Mario Luigi Ciappi, OP, and was a revision of a late 1967 text from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But the French and Spanish translators expressed a very negative assessment of Ciappi’s text, and on the advice of Monsignor Benelli, number two at the Secretariat of State, Paul VI decided to withdraw De nascendae prolis. The encyclical was hastily rewritten between May and July of 1968 under the direction of Fr. Benoit Duroux, OP, consultor of the CDF. Paul VI supervised this redrafting, made numerous changes to the text—especially in its pastoral section—and approved the new version of the encyclical on July 8, 1968. He also added “humanae” to the original title Vitae tradendae munus. (Marengo’s book gives us Duroux’s text along with Paul VI’s final changes.) The two prelates who had a key role throughout the entire drafting of the encyclical were Monsignor Carlo Colombo, auxiliary bishop of Milan, and Paul-Pierre Philippe, OP, secretary of the CDF.

The final text of Humanae vitae was essentially a product of theologians of the former Holy Office, and bore little trace Vatican II’s reflection on marriage in Gaudium et spes.

Another important fact revealed in Marengo’s book has to do with Paul VI’s request to the bishops gathered at the synod of October 1967 that they send him suggestions about a magisterial document on the regulation of fertility. Of the more than two hundred members of the synod, only twenty-six replied between October 1967 and May 1968—and only seven of these twenty-six recommended that Paul VI confirm Pius XI’s prohibition of contraception. Among the bishops in favor of a shift in teaching away from Pius XI’s Casti connubii were not only well-known European progressives like Suenens (Brussels), Döpfner (Munich), and Legér (Montreal), but also the U.S. prelates Dearden (Detroit), Krol (Philadelphia), Shehan (Baltimore), and Wright (Pittsburgh).

Paul VI’s initial eagerness to consult with other prelates is an important part of the story. As Marengo makes clear, Paul VI had not wanted to act alone on this issue. But in 1966 a well-known rift emerged in the birth-control commission set up by John XXIII between a majority that wanted the church to relax its prohibition on contraception and a minority who wanted to maintain it. It was in the wake of this split that Paul VI finally decided to disregard the advice of most of the bishops who had sent him their suggestions after the synod. Marengo notes that the people Paul VI chose to draft the encyclical made little effort to listen and respond to the worries of the commission’s majority. The final text of Humanae vitae was essentially a product of theologians of the former Holy Office, and bore little trace Vatican II’s reflection on marriage in Gaudium et spes.

All this helps us place Humanae vitae in the history of papal teaching on birth control—from Paul VI to Francis. To judge from Marengo’s book, Archbishop Karol Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II) did not have much impact on the drafting of Humanae vitae. But he did make some notable suggestions about the pastoral dimension of the text, and showed a keen interest in making sure that the encyclical did more than simply reaffirm the teachings of Pius XI and Pius XII. In a book on marriage by the young Joseph Ratzinger, reissued last month in Italian translation, we find the future Benedict XVI criticizing Humanae vitae’s theology of matrimony. (Ratzinger wrote the book in 1967 but it didn’t come out until 1969, a year after the publication of Humanae vitae.) Reading what these two future popes had to say about the encyclical before and immediately after its appearance reminds us that its theology was not the undebatable article of faith that it has since become for many conservative Catholics.

Marengo’s book is a milestone in the continuing effort to understand the history of the most controversial encyclical in modern times. Other questions remain, and they will be answered when other scholars, independent of the Holy See, are given access to the same set of documents Marengo’s special commission was allowed to study. 

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.

Also by this author
Was It Better Back Then?

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Books
Collections