In examining any encyclical like Humanae vitae (“An Unhealed Wound,” June 15), four caveats are in order: the facile resort to “natural law” (slavery, usury, contraception); the uncritical reliance on “just cause” (death penalty); tradition as immutable (the “centuries-old” teaching on religious liberty that “error has no rights”); and the indiscriminate use of “the church teaches.”

Of these, “the church teaches” is the most overused and misunderstood concept. Two important citations, especially as they affect how we view the standing of Humane vitae. First, Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” which makes clear that “the teaching Church...under the guidance of the Holy Spirit [is comprised of] pope, bishops, theologians, pastors and the laity.” Second, the International Theological Commission’s 2014 “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church,” which was approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and which declares that:

the magisterium has to be attentive to the sensus fidelium, the living voice of the people of God. Not only do they have the right to be heard, but their reaction to what is proposed as belonging to the faith of the Apostles must be taken very seriously, because it is by the Church as a whole that the apostolic faith is borne in the power of the Spirit. The magisterium does not have sole responsibility for it.

Joseph G. Murray
Las Cruces, N. Mex.



Commonweal’s fifty-year Humanae vitae retrospective was nowhere more illuminating for me than in the first paragraph of John T. Noonan’s March 11, 1966 essay—written two years before that fateful encyclical—on the remarkable work that the Second Vatican Council, “the first council in the history of the church to speak on the purposes of marital intercourse,” had done as of that date. Theologians, to be sure, had written about marital intercourse for centuries and Noonan had published a remarkable history of their work a year earlier, but no authoritative ecumenical council had ever done so. How historic, then, that “now, for the first time, as the culmination of a slow evolution that took a decisive turn about 1680, a council gave authoritative teaching on coital purpose,” honoring it as a part of conjugal love. Quoting the council Noonan wrote, “Such ‘eminently human’ able to enrich the expressions of the body and of the spirit with a peculiar dignity and ennoble them as elements and special signs of conjugal friendship.”

The council fathers could have gone on, of course, from that inspired beginning to issue authoritative teaching on the subject of contraception within marriage, but Paul VI stepped in and requested that they deliberate no further, leaving the matter to him and to the commission that his predecessor, John XXIII, had already created to study the issue. That commission in due course issued a majority report, recommending that artificial means of birth control be permitted, and a minority report, recommending that the existing prohibitions be reaffirmed. In Humanae vitae, Paul VI made the minority’s recommendation his own authoritative teaching.

Prompted by Commonweal’s review and especially by Noonan’s astute essay, I read carefully and for the first time the “Minority Report of the Papal Commission for the Study of Problems of the Family, Population, and Birth Rate.” The final sentence of the report well conveys its priorities. Its core emphasis falls not on contraception itself but on the consequences for papal authority of admitting an error and making a change: “For the Church to have erred so gravely in its grave responsibility of leading souls would be tantamount to seriously suggesting that the assistance of the Holy Spirit was lacking to her.”

This final sentence came as no surprise, but the context for it that is provided in the second paragraph in the minority report’s five-paragraph conclusion did come as quite a sharp surprise. For among the earlier papal encyclicals discussed in the conciliar debates, none had loomed larger than Pius XI’s Casti connubii. Providing both context and rhetorical force for its recommendation, the minority report wrote with reference to Casti connubii that a change in Catholic teaching on contraception

would inflict a grave blow on the teaching about the assistance of the Holy Spirit promised to the Church to lead the faithful on the right way toward their salvation. For, as a matter of fact, the teaching of Casti connubii was solemnly proposed in opposition to the doctrine of the Lambeth Conference of 1930, by the Church ‘to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of token of her divine ambassadorship...and through Our mouth.’ Is it nevertheless now to be admitted that the Church erred in this her work, and that the Holy Spirit rather assists the Anglican Church!

Like Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism had once prohibited artificial birth control. However, at the 1930 Seventh Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion, Resolution 15 allowed “in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided this is done in the light of the same Christian principles.”

Is it even remotely conceivable that in some regard, at some moment, the Spirit might speak to—might even correct—the Roman Catholic Church through the voice of another church rather than “through Our mouth”? For the minority report, such an eventuality was clearly beyond all imagining.

Is it still? Or will the long aftermath of Humanae vitae by a roundabout path render the Second Vatican Council itself more ecumenical in its implications than any of the Council fathers, or the Holy Father himself, could have guessed at the time? It is significantly because of Humanae vitae that I, raised Catholic and for ten years a Jesuit, am now an Episcopalian, but I had never guessed that such a prior connection existed between the earlier, ecclesiastical trajectory and my later, personal one. Thank you, Commonweal.

Dios escribe derecho con lineas torcidas.

Jack Miles
Santa Ana, Calif.

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Published in the August 10, 2018 issue: View Contents
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