The Siege of Humanae Vitae: Has the enemy almost breached the ramparts?

Fatima Perspectives #1217

Sandro Magister has written a piece in which he proposes that a new book by Gilfredo Marengo on the genesis of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV) represents “an unexpected obstacle” to “[t]he campaign that is underway to demolish ‘Humanae Vitae’ — the 1968 encyclical of Paul VI that said no to artificial contraceptives.”

I respectfully disagree. Based on the extensive summary of the book’s account provided by Andrea Tornielli, which Magister views as sufficient to see where Marengo is going, it is quite clear that Marengo, a member of Pope Francis’ semi-secret commission to “reappraise” HV on its fast-approaching 50th anniversary (July 25), has set the stage for another application of Francis’ utterly destructive novelty in the realm of moral theology: i.e., that objectively binding moral norms admit of practical exceptions based on each person’s subjective capacity to obey in his or her “concrete” situation.  In other words, a form of situation ethics.

According to Tornielli’s summary, Marengo documents the following facts:

  • The written responses solicited from members of the 1967 Synod of Bishops — the first of its kind after Paul VI invented the “universal” synod — were overwhelmingly in favor of altering the Church’s unalterable teaching on the intrinsic immorality of contraception, including the Pill. Of the 25 written responses received, 18 were in favor of the change and only 7 were opposed.
  • The seven opposed to any change included Bishop Fulton Sheen, Cardinal Siri (one of the staunch defenders of orthodoxy in the midst of the neo-Modernist uprising during Vatican II), and none other than the Bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.
  • The progressivist majority, represented by the infamous Cardinal Suenens of Belgium, argued for use of the Pill in “determinate conditions,” arguing that this would be a harmonious “development” of Pope Pius XI’s recognition that mere recourse to naturally infertile periods, not involving any artificial means, would not be immoral in and of itself.
  • The secret archives examined by the semi-secret commission reveal that Paul VI had been ready to publish an entirely orthodox draft of an encyclical on contraception, bearing the title De nascendae prolis (loosely: On Childbirth) written by the papal theologian Cardinal Mario Luigi Ciappi, known to readers of this column as the very prelate who revealed that the Third Secret warns of an apostasy that “begins at the top.” In fact, the Latin text had already been printed and was ready for official publication.
  • Ciappi’s draft, however, was shelved on account of objections routed to Paul VI through the Vatican Secretariat of State, which caused publication to be blocked while Paul VI reconsidered the text.
  • This was followed by a progressive redraft of the encyclical openly calling for what has now, under Francis, become the order of the day: affirming the teaching in principle while merely “accompanying” the faithful as they progressively walk along an imaginary “road to perfection,” without, however, actually fully accepting and obeying the Magisterium’s infallible condemnation of contraception. The progressive draft also emphasized “conjugal love” to the seeming detriment of the procreation and rearing of children as the primary end of marriage. The same document argued that the Pope must not assume the role of sole interpreter of the Church’s teaching in this matter, as if to suggest that the moral teaching of the Magisterium is subject to some kind of democratic consensus, at least among the newly conceived “college of bishops.”
  • Paul VI wisely rejected that disastrous rewrite, settling finally on the draft we now know as HV. But that draft, Marengo argues, is a kind of compromise between the doctrinal rigor of Ciappi’s draft and the opposing progressive redraft with its call for “accompaniment.”
  • Accordingly, HV does indeed affirm the intrinsic immorality of contraception, but it also refers to the “difficulty” of following the Church’s teaching “these days” — as opposed to the past, when people had far fewer material comforts and supports? It further repeatedly alludes to sympathy for the “weakness” of sinners, as if to minimize an already widespread failure to follow, with God’s grace, a basic dictate of the natural law. But HV does not go so far as to allow for “accompanying” sinners while they continue to violate a moral norm that admits of no exceptions.

From all of this, Marengo draws a conclusion that hardly represents an “obstacle” to a retreat from HV but rather seems to prepare the way.  He writes that with HV Paul VI negotiated a path between “two extreme attitudes,” which Marengo characterizes as “a prejudicial rejection of [Church] teaching or a defense — without ifs and buts — that would give him [the Pope] a disproportionate role as a bulwark [or castle wall] during every crisis in the church and in the world.”

If presenting an exceptionless moral norm without “ifs and buts” is now to be considered an “extreme attitude,” and if the Pope’s role in defending morals when they are under attack by the world and within the Church herself must now be limited, so that it is not “disproportionate,” on what ground does Magister stand in his claim that Marengo’s work poses an obstacle to the attack on the Church’s infallible teaching against contraception now underway? I do not see any reason for his confidence.  I see only trouble ahead. 

One should hope and pray that Magister is right, and I am wrong.


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