Home » The Encyclical Crisis

The Encyclical Crisis (1)

by Bernard Häring  from The Catholic Case for Contraception,

 Ed.Daniel Callahan, publ.Macmillan 1969,Ch.7, pp.77-91.

No papal teaching document has ever caused such an earthquake in the Church as the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Reactions around the world—in the Italian and American press, for example—are just as sharp as they were at the time of the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX, perhaps even sharper. There is the difference, of course, that this time anti-Catholic feelings have been rarely ex­pressed. The storm has broken over the heads of the curial advisors of the Pope and often of the Pope him­self. The document is regarded as a great victory by those groups who opposed the Council from beginning to end. The conservative magazine Triumph is a typical example of the mentality of the far right: Of priests who do not believe what the encyclical declares, it [78] demands that they be honest and leave the Church since they are automatically schismatics if they do not accept the words of the Pope. The day after the encyclical appeared, a doctor in consultation said: “Your Church has lost two members; both of my Catholic colleagues here have declared that they are leaving the Church, since they find this whole mentality of the Pope unbe­lievable.” The same day a priest came with the question whether he should not in honesty to his conscience give up his priestly ministry; he could not act in accordance with the encyclical. This traumatic experience, with the great danger of a mass departure from the Church, drove theologians to emphasize strongly the fallible character of the encyclical and to take a courageous stand.

If the Pope deserves admiration for the courage to follow his conscience and to do the most unpopular thing, all responsible men and women must show forth similar honesty and courage of conscience. I am con­vinced that the subjective and conscious motive of the Pope was love for the Church. Those who contradict him must do it also out of love for the whole Church, out of love for those whose faith is endangered. This also can and must be a service of love for the successor of St. Peter.

Monsignor Lambruschini, the Curia official appointed by the Vatican to explain the encyclical to the press, emphasized that it was not an infallible statement, and that the possibility of a revised statement, if new data appeared, could not be excluded. However, the tone of the encyclical seems to leave little hope that this will happen in Pope Paul’s lifetime—little hope, that is, unless the reaction of the whole Church immediately [p.79]  makes him realize that he has chosen the wrong advisors and that the arguments which these men have recommended as highly suitable for modern thought are simply unacceptable.

Non-infallible but very authoritative statements of popes were in the past officially corrected only after a relatively long delay. Even when they were strongly criticized within the Church, this criticism became known only slowly. But the radical change which rapid communication has brought about in the modern world has created a totally new situation for authoritative Church statements, which are not infallible. The dialogue with the rest of the Church, which formerly took decades to unfold, takes place now in a matter of days or weeks. No significant theologian can write or express his opinion on an important issue without its being known almost the same day by anyone in the world with enough curiosity to learn about it.

In the past things were different. It took centuries before the extraordinarily dangerous “teaching” of the direct power of the pope over all temporal matters was rejected. It demanded courage for Friedrich von Spee finally to speak out openly and forcefully against the persecution, torture and burning of witches, a practice which had been recommended and doctrinally justified by a very authoritative encyclical of Innocent IV. For a long time the moralists did not dare to explain that the castration of the Vatican choir boys was immoral, since it had strong papal approval. The Council of Vienna explained in 13 n that theologians who tried in any way to justify usury were to be “imprisoned in iron chains” for the rest of their lives. And as late as the eighteenth-century, moral theology textbooks [p.80] published in Italy had to print that warning. Pius IX’s Syllabus lay undigested in the Church’s stomach and in her relationship to the world until the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty and The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The immorality of torture, which was justified for so many centuries by the popes, and practiced in their name, was condemned by a papal statement only after a long period of time. Pius XII declared unequivocally that it was against the natural law. The “Holy Inquisition” and “holy wars” could have been wiped out from the picture of the Church if the prophetic spirit and the courage to speak out openly with Christian freedom had been more highly valued in the Church. When the popes and their curial theologians so frequently and so emphatically defended temporal power and the Vatican States as a divinely commissioned right and a spiritual necessity, this critical Christian frankness should have been more in evidence. Not only those who denied the implications of “Thou art Peter,” but precisely those who believe in the spiritual mission of the office of Peter must keep in mind the warning of the Lord against an earthly conception of the Messiah: “Away with you, Satan; you are a stumbling-block to me. You think as men think, not as God thinks” (Matt. 16:23).

In discussing Humanae Vitae and the developments of the last two years, the question, when all is said and done, is really, “When you have come to yourself, you must lend strength to your brothers” (Luke 22:31). What is needed is an enlightened understanding of the spiritual office of the successor of St. Peter, as it ap­peared so remarkably in Pope John, against the most bitter opposition of that curial group which at the [p.81] moment is triumphant, a group which, despite the era of internationalization in which we live, was powerfully strengthened at the last Consistory by the appointment of twelve Italian cardinals. What is needed is the liberation for this ecumenical era of the papacy in the direc­tion in which Pope Paul VI himself has already made such giant strides. Call to mind the visit on two occa­sions of Paul to the Patriarch Athenagoras, before Paul ventured to invite him to a visit in Rome. That was a sensitive and delicate touch, a special sign of humility of Paul with the Patriarch.

What is needed now is for all men in the Church to speak out unequivocally and openly against these reactionary forces. This alone can prevent the reactionary forces from pushing the Pope in the opposite direction, back to that worldly narrowness exemplified in the Syllabus and the Church prohibition of Italians from voting in their own country which lasted from 1870 to 1929.

On the one hand the encyclical is quite optimistic about the force of the arguments it proposes and the information provided by the Pope’s advisors, so that “The magisterium could give adequate reply to the expectation not only of the faithful, but also of world opinion” (N.5). Nevertheless, when the Pope speaks to “his own children” and to his “sons, the priests,” optimism about the force of the arguments diminishes somewhat. He asks for “loyal internal and external obedience to the teaching authority of the Church” and then adds: “That obedience, as you well know, obliges not only because of the reason adduced, but rather because of the light of the Holy Spirit, which is given in a particular way to the pastors of the Church in order [82] that they may illustrate the truth” (N.28). There can be no doubt that our obedience of faith to the Church rests on the confidence that the Church enjoys the special assistance of the Holy Spirit in the explanation of the Gospel and the guidance of the Church. But it is not possible to make the Holy Spirit responsible for everything which in past centuries was loudly asserted in an authoritative tone by men of the Church. However, in Humanae Vitae the central argument is clearly and unambiguously a thesis of the natural moral law, and therefore a truth which is to be proven from human experiences and arguments of reason.

If the Holy Spirit gives a very special grace in the composition and promulgation of this document, then one may legitimately expect that this grace will manifest itself in the way the question itself is handled. That means in the solid presentation of proofs from human experience and with good arguments. In my opinion, that is not true in the present instance. Therefore, it is no insult at all to the Holy Spirit if we continue to express our doubts.

After the appeal to the Holy Spirit follows an exhortation that for the sake of peace in the Church “all should speak the same language” (N.28). This admonition is followed by the words of St. Paul (is this an accurate translation?) that there should be no differences of opinion among Christians.

Paul opposed Peter to his face and expressed this difference of opinion openly (Galatians 2), when Peter had closed the doors to the spread of the Gospel, yielding in a moment of weakness to the pressure of the Jerusalem curia. The theologians and bishops who now raise their voices are not doing so out of [83] quarrelsomeness but because if they do not, the credibility gap will be increased for the Catholic Church and many will find it impossible to belong to the Church because of the emphatic assertion of a constant human tradition in the Church. If, when all is said and done, the Pope abides unyieldingly to the conclusion of his encyclical, that in the Catholic Church only this one language of argumentation, mentality and commands may be spoken, then the voices of many men and women who love the Church must fall silent, and this one language will reach the ears of only a few, and not the ears of men with whom the future lies.

The argumentation of Humanae Vitae rests mainly on two points. The first is the constant teaching of the Church; the second is the absolute sacredness and inviolability of the biological functions in every use of marriage, so that every act must remain open for procreation, whether or not procreation can at this moment responsibly be undertaken.

Humanae Vitae differs from Casti Connubii by no longer making the effort to base the teaching of the Church in this matter on Genesis 38. It no longer tries to base its proof on Scripture. For every layman knows today that the intention of that text was to insist on the obligation to raise up children from the wife of one’s dead brother, an obligation which is now forbidden by the Church. The text is not dealing with the absolute sacredness of the sperm.

So the only argument which remains is the fact that the Church has always taught this doctrine (“constant firmness by the teaching authority of the Church” N.6). In a chapter on tradition in one of my books I have attempted to show that the tradition is not so unequivocal [84] as many think. Attention must also be given to the historical context in which the teaching was presented. But if the argument from tradition is to play so important a role, we must call to mind Jesus’ struggle against the important role assigned to human traditions. “He also said to them, ‘How well you set aside the command­ment of God in order to maintain your tradition’ ” (Mark 7, 9). When the legalists asked the Lord “Why do your disciples break the old-established tradition?”, Jesus answered “Why do you break God’s commandment in the interest of your tradition?” (Matt. 15:24).

The encyclical must provide the opportunity for a better, more historically-oriented understanding of tradition and also of language. Think again of the insistence in Paul’s creed that transsubstantiation is the most suitable word to express the real presence of Christ. This is to cling to words. Take as an illustration the English word “establishment”. When I learned English, “establishment” was defined as “that which rests on a solid basis and therefore generates confidence.” If someone in today’s world wants to say that the Church rests on a solid basis and generates confidence by simply saying “The Church and the papacy is an ‘establishment,’ ” then he has chosen the wrong word. Words must be understood in their context. Answers to the vital questions of a period are not magic formulas which can simply be “applied” over and over again.

The second argument is the biological understanding of the inviolable laws of nature. In the “hierarchy of values” (N.10), the biological seems to rate very high on the scale. The whole purpose of the act in its “metaphysical structure” is directed, so the argument goes, toward procreation and therefore every act must remain [85] open to procreation, even in cases in which it would be absolutely meaningless and irresponsible to bring new life into being. “In relation to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means the knowledge and re­spect of their functions; human intellect discovers in the power of giving life biological laws which are a part of the human person” (N.10). I believe that biological functions are one part of man; but these biological functions are often upset; and the art of healing is possible only if man is a responsible steward of these functions and can intervene. It has not been proven that the biological functions connected with the power of procreation are absolutely untouchable and sacred, especially since they are often upset and, even according to the teaching of the Church, measures to restore health may be undertaken. The biological functions must be subordinated to the good of the whole person and marriage itself. This is, if I am not mistaken, by far the most common opinion in the Church.

Pope Paul’s advisors hold to an absolutely biological understanding of the natural law. They have not even progressed from a very materialistic style of medicine to man-centered medicine, which views medicine not as the art of restoring biological functions, but of serving the whole person.

Pope Paul asserts that an intervention in the biological process necessarily destroys married love. This assertion has no more proof to back it up than the assertion of Casti Connubii that it is necessarly against the dignity of a woman for her to have some occupa­tion outside the home.

The Second Vatican Council, following scientific developments in the field of moral theology, strongly [86] developed the issue of responsible parenthood. There it is clear that birth control is evaluated quite differently in different circumstances. It is one thing if it is practiced as the result of a conscientious decision that new life cannot responsibly be brought into being here and now; it is quite another if it is a simple rejection of the parental vocation. Since Pope Paul makes the analysis of the act his starting point, this fundamental distinction does not appear. The evil seems to consist exclusively, or at least principally in the violation of sacred biological functions. The encyclical also fails to see that abortion is a much greater problem than the methods of birth control. In the encyclical, abortion is rejected only in passing; the Council put its principal emphasis on a condemnation of abortion. So the encyclical, from a pedagogical standpoint, is rather confusing.

Pope Paul’s encyclical gives an extraordinarily great significance to the rhythm between fertile and infertile periods. “God has wisely disposed natural laws and rhythms of fecundity which, of themselves, cause a separation in the succession of births” (N.11). Practically the only method permitted for responsible birth control is periodic continence. “It is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the in the infecund periods only” (N.16).

Father [Stanislas de] Lestapis, S.J., and Father [Gustave] Martelet, S.J., who are clearly among the super-consultors, have called the rhythm between the fertile and infertile periods “le mystère sexual,” the sexual secret of mystery. When I asked, ironically, some years ago, “What happens when the sexual mystery is not functioning properly?” without noticing the irony, the scholar answered “Then only asceticism can help.” [87]

Here is the problem of the present teaching: Women whose periods are regular, who can use all the necessary means, including the possibility of an undisturbed tem­perature reading and, if necessary, seven doctors at their disposal, can live in accordance with the teaching of the Church. What about the poor, the uneducated, when their periods are irregular, or when, because of their level of culture, they are simply incapable of under­standing these methods? What happens if these methods not only fail biologically, but lead to severe psychological disturbances?

Over the years I have received at least fifty letters which present cases in which the unsuccessful use of rhythm has led to psychoses for these women and required treatment for them in mental institutions. Just a week before the encyclical appeared, an English doctor wrote me that the confessor of a woman for whom he had prescribed the pill had refused her absolution when she had been released from a half-year of treatment in a mental institution after a pregnancy psychosis. And the superioress of an American hospital told me that the chaplain refused absolution to a severely ill woman who had taken the progesteron pill for the most valid reasons. He refused because she was not prepared to promise that she would take no more after her convalescence.

The encyclical Humanae Vitae is so apodictic and absolute that no exceptions of any kind may be permitted for objective reasons. The appeal for merciful consideration for the sinner can only be interpreted, it seems, to mean that one can be gentle only when one opposes the evil, that is, when the poor sinner has promised to amend.

In former years, even in the papal commission, I [88] Corinthians 7:1-5 was often cited. (“. . . The husband must give the wife what is due to her, and the wife must give the husband his due. … Do not deny yourselves to one another, except when you agree upon a temporary abstinence in order to devote yourselves to prayer . . .” It is the only biblical text that has the least connection with our problem. Paul warns energetically against a long period of continence, since it can turn out to the devil’s advantage. This need not mean adultery. The devil has already gained a great deal if husband and wife are irritable and hostile. Psychologists and concrete research, whose results were presented to the Holy Father (from Mr. and Mrs. Crowley and others) show that by far the majority of couples who were questioned said that the practice of periodic continence over a long period had notably upset the harmony of married life. All psychologists say also that total abstinence from intercourse for a long period, especially when forced on one of the partners, can be very dangerous.

Relying on this psychological knowledge, and following Paul’s line of thinking in I Corinthians 7, the Council gave this warning: “Where the intimacy of married life is broken off, it is not rare for its faithfulness to be imperilled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined. For then the upbringing of the children and the courage to accept new ones are both endangered” (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, N.51).

The failure of the encyclical to use either of these texts is indeed one of its gravest defects. Here an unavoidable question must be answered by the theologians: Can the encyclical Humanae Vitae be reconciled with the teaching of Vatican II? This is a particularly acute [89] question for the present writer. In January of 1967 I received, by word of mouth, a very precise warning from the Holy Office (Cardinal Parente) because of what I had said in an interview for La Rocca, an Italian Catholic magazine. The remark which was found objectionable was my statement that the awaited statement of the Pope would obviously have to be based on the criteria which had been worked out in the Council document on the Church in the Modern World, and could not be a simple return to Casti Connubii. I was instructed that this was theologically incorrect: The Pope was not bound by the Council document. Later, for my further instruction, and warning, I received two memoranda (monita) of Vatican theologians: one of them said that the two documents, Casti Connubii and the Council document (The Church in the Modern World) could not be set in opposition to each other; it was simply a matter of one complementing the other. The other memorandum (monitum) instructed me that the doctrine in this matter was to be drawn from the encyclical (Casti Connubii), and that the Council Constitution was only “pastoral.” This remark disregarded Pope John XXIII’s opening speech of the Council in which he said that the teaching office of the Church was in its entirety pastoral.

In my opinion it is harder to reconcile Humanae Vitae with the Council Constitution on The Church in the Modern World than to reconcile the Declaration on Religious Freedom with the Syllabus of Pius IX, or at least no less difficult. This assertion is based especially on the fact (1) that the question just mentioned from the Council Constitution and the text of I Corinthians 7 are simply not taken seriously, (2) that the conception [90] of natural law of the whole pastoral Constitution of the Council has simply not been incorporated into Humanae Vitae, and (3) that the criteria worked out in the Constitution for the acceptability of methods of birth control are not even mentioned and simply replaced by biological “laws.”

The question has been asked: does the encyclical bind all Catholics in conscience? The Pope seems to answer this question unambiguously. Nevertheless I believe that one must give the Pope credit for not abrogating or denying the general principles for forming a right con­science (The Church in the Modern World, N.16,). My answer along these lines is this:

  1. those who can accept the encyclical with an honest conscience must do so, with all the consequences;
  2. those who doubt whether they can, must study it thoroughly and also make use of further information in order to form a clear conscience;
  3. those who, with an honest conscience, cannot accept the teaching and requirements of Humanae Vitae, must follow their honest conscience. When married couples, then, for good reasons and with a good conscience use methods of birth regulation which in their minds are the most suitable — abortion is obviously excluded — they need not mention it in confession;
  4. Priests must instruct the faithful clearly about the Pope’s teaching. However, I do not see how they can be denied the right to speak out their own opinion with equal honesty.

The Pope did not follow that advice; he tried, with the help of his close associates, to give reasons. Some questions, of course, he simply did not put to himself, [91] perhaps with the intention of doing it at a later date. But it is really remarkable that in the long time they had, his advisors found no better reasons than those presented in the encyclical. The conclusion was settled. They had to find the premises to back it up. May others be more successful. But it seems that the conclusion doesn’t stand very solidly.

However, what is most important at this time is that the authority of the Church not be destroyed. What must be destroyed is everything which is an obstacle to the reunion of Christians and spiritual leadership. When this situation has arrived, the Church as a whole and especially the Holy Father must find ways out of this impasse. More than that, they must come to a style of authority that can move effectively, inspire confidence and belief. The general direction must be toward collegiality and internationalization. But in this question collegiality must also be a sharing in the whole experience of the laity, especially of married couples and married counsellors.

[1] From Commonweal, Sept. 6, 1968; portions omitted.