This editorial originally appeared in the issue of Aug. 17, 1968 under the title “An Editorial Statement on ‘Human Life.’”
Paul VI will clearly be remembered in history for his part in at least three great movements: Vatican II, world peace and development, and church unity. With the publication of “Human Life,” it seems certain he will also be remembered for his part in another great movement, difficult to name, which centers on the dignity and sacredness of family life and love. As a statement of the Dutch hierarchy declares: “Although this papal letter is not an infallible, dogmatic statement, it nevertheless is a real defense of the dignity of life as well as an appeal for responsibility in sexual relationships and marriage that is of the utmost importance to our society. May the discussion of the papal letter contribute to a better and better functioning of authority within the Church.”
In view of the enormous interest and debate provoked by the Pope’s encyclical, four points need to be explored: the right of the Pope to speak; the right of Catholics to agree and disagree; right and wrong ways to resolve the resulting tension within the Church; and the proper development of the Church’s doctrine on life, love and birth regulation.
In approaching such difficult and complex subjects, who can claim knowledge of the total truth? Unfortunately, in the heat of their initial reactions, many critics of the Pope have managed to sound far more convinced of their infallibility than he. All members of the Church must be constantly aware that salvation history is indeed history and therefore irretrievably a process.
In approaching such difficult and complex subjects, who can claim knowledge of the total truth?
In the final analysis dogmas are few and far between. Even in the case of dogmas our knowledge is subject to growth. In the area of the Church’s teaching on the natural law, we are still more inescapably tied to a system of development. Whatever else is clear about “Human Life,” it is certain that Paul VI did not intend it as the last word on life and love. For anyone else to claim the last word would be the essence of theological—or journalistic—folly.
The right of the Pope and bishops to speak on morals is self-evident to most Catholics. Nevertheless, there are some within the Church who experience difficulty with “Human Life” on procedural and substantive grounds. Although these objections are confined to a limited number of Catholics, they illustrate an extremely important aspect of the encyclical. The most serious theological problem it raises is not the problem of artificial birth control. It is the problem of the Pope, that is, an understanding of the exercise of teaching authority within the Church.
For our part, we have no doubt that tradition fully vindicates the right of the Pope and bishops to speak on family life and conjugal love. Indeed, it does much more than that: it establishes the duty of all Catholics to listen.
The right of Catholics to express disagreement with their leaders is a right as old as Peter and Paul.
The right of Catholics to express disagreement with their leaders is a right as old as Peter and Paul, though dissent from papal teaching is obviously not the normal posture of the Catholic. But dissent is possible when the teaching in question is still in a state of development, and when those who dissent have listened with open minds and hearts to what was said, and in the end have found grave, solidly grounded reason for disagreement. As Vatican II put it in the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (No. 25):
“This religious submission of will and mind must be shown by the faithful in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra. That is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.”
In accordance with this doctrine of the Council, Catholics owe a “religious assent of soul”: to the teachings of the Holy Father on faith and morals. The right and duty of Catholics, therefore, to agree with the Pope and to rely on him as a moral guide cannot be questioned. Neither, however, despite the apparent absoluteness of the Council’s language, should one deny the right to disagree, humbly but ultimately, on a matter not proclaimed with the Church’s guarantee of infallibility.
The abdication of personal moral responsibility has never been a doctrine of the Church.
Both the right to agree and the right to disagree have to be set in the general context of the Church’s teaching on the moral responsibilities of each individual. “Every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience...The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue” (“Declaration on Religious Freedom,” No. 3).
Theologians and married couples who are convinced, after careful study, that other conclusions than those drawn by the Pope are possible for them are not only free to follow their consciences, they must do so. No one can account to God for his talents simply by pleading that he acted as an agent of Peter. The abdication of personal moral responsibility has never been a doctrine of the Church. “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths” (“Church in the Modern World,” No. 16).
If there were only a few Catholics who conscientiously disagreed with the Pope’s blanket condemnation of artificial birth control, “Human Life” would not have precipitated wide tension in the Church. The truth is, however, that in addition to many of our more respected theologians in the United States, a large number of lay Catholics well-educated in philosophy and theology presently find themselves unable to assent fully to the encyclical’s absolute rejection of artificial birth regulation, and are conscientiously convinced that such regulation may be legitimate and even necessary in certain special circumstances. Their position would seem to follow lines suggested by the recent statement of the Dutch hierarchy: “A Roman Catholic owes respect to the authority and pronouncements of the Pope. The personal conscience cannot pass over an authoritative pronouncement such as a papal letter. There are, however, many factors which determine one”s personal conscience regarding marriage rules, for example, mutual love, the relations in a family and social circumstances.”
We are keenly aware of the need for resolving the tensions that have now arisen in the Church.
This is the position in which America has found itself. Accordingly, we are keenly aware of the need for resolving the tensions that have now arisen in the Church.
There are right ways and wrong ways to resolve this tension. The worst possible way would be for dissenters to leave the Church, abandoning among other things their responsibility to participate in the development of the Church’s doctrine. A close second in disastrous consequences would be for dissenters to be forced out of the Church. If agreement with the Holy Father on birth control is narrowly conceived of as a “loyalty test” for Catholics, dissent in some could be coerced into defiance. The issue must not be falsified by oversimplification in any direction. If there is a question of obedience involved, there is also at issue a root question of the search of the whole Chureh for truth.
Accordingly, St. Paul’s plea for unanimity among the Christians in Corinth, to which Pope Paul refers in “Human Life” (No. 28), ought not to lead us to terminate discussion within the Church on the legitimacy in some circumstances of artificial birth regulation. The Pope himself made it clear; through Msgr. Ferdinando Lambrusehini’s presentation of the encyclical to the press, that he did not intend to make an irreformable statement. What is reformable is discussable. Indeed, if discussion of birth control was ever necessary in the Church, it seems supremely so now. It is a mistake to think that Paul VI has merely reiterated what Pius XI and Pius XII have said.
If discussion of birth control was ever necessary in the Church, it seems supremely so now.
“Human Life” presents an advanced Catholic understanding, especially in concepts of conjugal love and parental responsibility. The plans of more than one national hierarchy to meet for joint study of the encyclical make this clear.
In order to further discussion in a responsible way and to carry out the directives set forth by Pope Paul in “Human Life,” it may be expected that bishops will promote local and regional conferences of the clergy and laity, to accurately inform them of the Pope’s position and reasoning. Colleges and seminaries should organize seminars and symposiums to bring the full resources of theology, philosophy, the social sciences and medicine to bear on the fundamental issues and insights presented by “Human Life.” Our American bishops have already called the priests and laity of the country “to receive with sincerity what [Pope Paul] has taught, to study it carefully and to form their consciences in its light.”
Unfortunately, there may be some who will say that the laity (and perhaps the clergy) do not need to study, much less evaluate, the Pope’s position. All anyone needs to know, such a view would hold, is that the Pope has totally banned artificial birth regulation. This is precisely the moral “infantilism” that well-instructed Catholics know cannot be tolerated. They are thoroughly familiar with the teachings of Vatican II on personal responsibility and the formation of conscience. Moreover, they recall a passage from the “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (No. 62) : “All the faithful, clerical and lay, possess a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought, and the freedom to express their minds humbly and courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence.” Though they know that these words are directed primarily to those engaged in scholarly work, they sense that the Council is here also speaking of a spirit that must inspire every Catholic.
If, after prayerful study and reflection on the Pope’s judgment about artificial birth regulation, large segments of the clergy and laity are still not interiorly persuaded, tension will continue in the Church. The Spirit, however, who animates the People of God, will not permit tension to tear the Church apart. Slowly positions will change and full consensus will be achieved. Msgr. Lambruschini in his role as official spokesman in Rome for the encyclical declared, in fact, that conceivably the change could be quite radical. It is, however, much too early in the life of the Church to speculate on what the final word will be. It could turn out to be substantially what Paul VI has said in “Human Life.” It could also turn out, as we have thought more likely, to be something close but not identical. Meantime, Catholic couples of childbearing age must shoulder the burden of the affair. Whether they agree or disagree with the Pope, the position of very many will be difficult. All, we think, will find consolation in the Pope’s inspired descriptions of conjugal love and parental responsibility. They will also join wholeheartedly, as we do, in the Pope’s plea to men of science to labor hard at finding a “sufficiently secure basis for a regulation of birth, founded on the observance of natural rhythms” (No. 24).