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The EditorsJuly 16, 2018
A couple gets married in Stockholm, Sweden, in this 2013 file photo. (CNS photo/Fredrik Sandberg, EPA)   A couple gets married in Stockholm, Sweden, in this 2013 file photo. (CNS photo/Fredrik Sandberg, EPA) 

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).

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Robert Lewis
5 years 9 months ago

Except regarding matters of dogma, Catholics are free to use their own consciences in ALL matters of what is called "moral theology." The one obligation regarding those matters is that we must LISTEN to the teaching Magisterium and use its pronouncements, as well as our reason, to form our consciences. For instance, "killing" is always "sinful," but sometimes permissible, as in wartime. As the "conservatives" insist, that applies to capital punishment, capitalist economics and "just war" teachings, etc.; however, as we "liberals" insist, it also applies to "gay" relationships, contraception, etc. What Catholics may not question, if they are to remain Catholic, are things like the Incarnation, the "Real Presence," the Immaculate Conception, etc. As Newman says, in his "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk," "I will raise a toast to the pope, but to conscience first."

5 years 9 months ago

You are correct to a degree. A moral obligation to form one's conscience according to the official teaching AND tradition of the perennial Church is absolute. But you are incorrect in that this applies to dogma alone. There are moral teachings which are absolute and the Church has been consistent for 2000 years on. Homosexual acts, divorce and remarriage, contraceptive sex, euthanasia, etc. have always been condemned. You can read the fathers on these issuesites and it has been pretty clear and consistent since. In light of that, why do you think that one has the right to dissent from aforementioned teachings on said moral evils? As a conservative and traditional Catholic I prefer capitalism to socialism because it has proven to work better towards prosperity and freedom. But I would never advance it as something the Church prefers (although every Pope since Blessed Pics IX has condemned socialism) or settled. The Church has always declared capital punishment as permissible and still does. But I would never be a cheerleader for it. Same for immigration. These are prudential matters in which we can debate on application and merits. The Church gives us that freedom. But regarding the moral evils I mentioned above, the Church, for all tense and purposes, is settled. On the issue of abortion and contraception, the corpus of writings and teachings against it (in the last century alone) is pretty difinitive if you ask me. I think people who claim the permissibility of dissent on settled Church teaching on intrinsicly evil acts are just willfully deluding themselves. Such people should be especially concerned about their eternal destiny. We can never advance evil under the veil of conscience or a distorted notion of freedom.

Tim O'Leary
5 years 9 months ago

What a revealing article from the Jesuits back in 1968. While giving tacit support to the pope's right to preach, and their willingness to label those who disagreed with the Holy Father dissenters (including themselves), they relied on a conscience clause to overrule the teaching. They indeed struggled and couldn’t have imagined the consequences of contraception on society, on the decimation of their own order and on a host of follow-on dissents.

Humanae Vitae has turned out to be so prophetic and pivotal to our understanding of human life. At the time it might have seemed a heavy burden for Pope Paul VI to bear (like Amos speaking to Israel – this Sunday’s reading), almost alone and against the fashionable set and even many otherwise faithful Catholics. The editors note that HV wasn’t the last word. Indeed, there has since been the Theology of the Body (TOB) by Pope St. JP II the Great, his encyclicals Evangelicum Vitae & Familiaris Consortio, insights from many religious over the world (esp. Mother Teresa) and confirmation of its truth by all subsequent popes. While many left the Church, many others just stayed inside, and learned they could apply the conscience clause to dissent on many other issues just as easily. Thousands came into the Church from Protestant denominations because of it. Now Pope Francis is about to canonize Pope Paul VI, on the 50th anniversary of possibly the most important document since VC II.

It is incredible to think Pope Paul VI made this decision before the holocaust of abortion was truuly upon us (60M in the US alone since 1973), before the celebration in the arts and culture of all sorts of perverse sex and pornography, before an explosion of divorce & alternative ‘families,” legal prostitution, illegitimacy, sexual harassment, rape and sex trafficking, sex abuse crises in nearly every institution, including notoriously even the Roman Catholic Church, a secretive gay lobby within the Church, involving Bishops and Cardinals, the scourge of HIV, and epidemics of venereal disease, a demographic winter in the west, crises of sterility, gender confusion, fascist attacks on the Church’s religious freedom. The argument continues on the sexual issues in full force, forever morphing into new areas of perversity and decline. But, the teaching of HV is actually winning out in the Church. See this interesting article on it from 500 Uk priests http://catholicherald.co.uk/news/2018/06/15/hundreds-of-british-priests-sign-statement-backing-humanae-vitae/

5 years 9 months ago

This is one of the few articles that I have read in America in which I haven't entirely wanted to vomit from reading. I agree for the most part with what the author stated. But a few observations...

While conscience is inviolable, it must be properly formed. Many today who lay claim to conscience, especially in dissenting from settled Church teaching on marriage and sexuality, but have failed to for themselves properly. The Catechism states in paragraphs 1783-1785 states individuals have a duty to for their consciences in light of perennial and authoritative Church teaching. No one will be excused on the Day of Judgement if they have failed to form themselves, humbly, according what the Church actually teaches.

One is permitted to dissent from the Pope provided one knows his/her Faith according to the perennial and authoritative sources. One is only permitted to dissent IF a said teaching is at variance with the tradition that proceeded it and, therefore, a novelty. In the case of artificial birth control and Humane Vitae, one cannot dissent in that the Church has always, from the earliest centuries, condemned procured abortion and chemical/barrier means to accomplish that (cf. Didache apostolorum, St. Clement of Alexandria "Paedagogus" (2.10.96), Athenagoras of Athens "Supplication for the Christians", etc.).

While doctrine develops that does not mean one is permitted to determine whatever they like. As I said before, the Church has been very consistent in its condemnation of artificial birth control from the beginning. But within the last century, beginning with Pope Pics XI's encyclical Casting Canubii (which was written in reaction to Anglican approval of birth control), Humanae vitae, and the pontificate and writing of St. John Paul II it is very difficult to dissent from the Church'Street condemnation. I great mass of teaching has come over the past century that really makes the Church's position solid as a rock.

5 years 9 months ago

I would like to ask you a question of people here: if it was permissible for people to dissent from settled Church teaching on the matter of contraception would it be equally permissible to dissent and condemn Pope francis's push for Holy Communion to public adulterers (divorced and married without a declaration of nullity of their previous marriage)?

Nora Bolcon
5 years 9 months ago

I really wish that this church could concentrate on its greatest and most urgent matters first. Our hierarchy may believe there is some amount of people who agrees with their take on artificial birth control but since over 90% of Catholics, active Catholics, have been using it then it is probably time to just declare the Laity wins on this one and move onto other issues far more important. The most important issue now facing Catholicism is our church's use of sexism and its horrible effects on our entire church and on the world as well.

We at present are still losing a higher percentage of women than other Christian Churches and this has been happening for quite some time. I don't agree all disagreement should be humble from the laity, especially when our leaders are demanding we treat others with bias and hatred based on only their flesh.

If bishops were ordered to no longer ordain black men, by a pope, would we stand by and do nothing to defend these men who did nothing wrong? Would we deny the enormous harm that such a decree would cause not only those men who feel called to priesthood but all black men? I hope not.

If the pope went insane and declared definitively that all blonde children should be forced to have their right arms cut off at birth because the pope believe God told him to decree this, would we follow this decree and wait to stop cutting off arms until the extremely slow process of humble change finally goes through and obtains the majority of bishops backing? I hope not.

There are times when the damage of waiting is too extreme to the humanity of those being targeted by obviously hate-filled and ignorance engorged decrees that protest must begin immediately, and even rebuke of leadership must boldly be spoken forth.

Women in Catholicism are heavily scarred by sexism being drilled into their heads since birth. From the traditional to the progressive women I have dealt with, it is one thing they have in common. They feel they are less sacred than men overall. They feel their flesh makes them unworthy to act on the altars of our Lord God in sacramental ways but they believe their brother's flesh is fine. This belief effects their confidence in all areas of their lives, from how they raise daughters who have equally low self-esteem to their own, to how their own fears and sense of worth-less-ness cause them to refrain from seeking promotions when competing against far less qualified men.

We need to stop the hate and follow Christ's real example of equality, the only one he ever actually taught. Treat all people the same and the same as you wish to be treated - no exceptions. We need to stand up for same sacraments for all called in our church and allow for no more limits being placed on women simply because they are women. This is an issue that really matters and I wish America, NCR etc. would finally take a true, and brave stand for equal justice, humanity, respect for all members of our church and this must include same access to all her sacraments without bias against one's flesh. It is time to act like Christians not just claim to be Christians.

Andrew Wolfe
5 years 9 months ago

For someone who wants people to act Christian, you sure dole out a lot of accusation and spite.

Nora Bolcon
5 years 9 months ago

If someone accuses you of the facts of your behavior there is nothing unchristian in their doing so. Jesus reproved the Pharisees and Sadducees of their hypocrisy and the harm it manifested throughout all 4 Gospels. You mistake obedience to misogyny with Christian obedience to righteous commandments. They are not the same thing.

Michael Barberi
5 years 9 months ago

In many ways Humanae Vitae (HV) was a flawed encyclical. If you read it carefully and study all the pros and cons articles and books authored by theologians and priests over the past 50 years, you will come to the conclusion that the magisterium wants us all to believe that Natural Family Planning (NFP) is God's Procreative Plan, and that artificial contraception is intrinsically evil and against Divine Law. Unfortunately, there is no convincing theological foundation for such claims. In truth, no pope, bishop or theologian knows God's Procreative Plan with moral certainty. Nor is the magisterium or any pope, despite good intentions, absolutely protected from error on every moral teaching. If that was true, we would still have slavery, usury and no freedom of religion because those teachings were taught as truth for centuries by popes and bishops but were eventually changed.

Recently Pope Francis encouraged a HV Study Group to be formed to study all the documents about the birth control commission from the Vatican archives. This group has just completed its work and an article was written of its findings by Professor Marengo, the key theologian of this study group. While his book was just released "in Italian", we are only now just learning of some of its findings. Marengo made clear that after all of this research he concluded that "HV was not the undebatable truth that it has since become". Far from it.

While we know that 75% of the Pontifical Birth Control Commission members, including 12 bishops, recommended a change in the Church's position on birth control, it has "now been uncovered" that Pope Paul VI also asked the Synod of Bishops in October 1967 for their recommendations as well (almost 2 years after the Birth Control Commission Report). While 26 bishops replied, only 7 of them argued for no change in the teaching (about 27% of them). On the other hand, 19 bishops (73%) argued for a change in the birth control teaching! Unfortunately, Paul VI was too fearful of going against the teachings of popes Pius XI and XII, so he condemned artificial contraception.

I wrote an essay that was published in a prestigious Catholic Journal of Theology called "The Origin of Humanae Vitae and the Impasse in Fundamental Theological Ethics". The pivotal principle that underpins HV is called the 'inseparability principle'. In paraphrase, the inseparability principle says that the unitive and procreative dimensions of every marital act must never be separated by man because it is Divine Law. In essence, every marital act must be open to procreation. Ironically, Pius XII said that couples could practice NFP for a long time or a lifetime for good reasons. Yet if a couple for the same good reasons practices artificial contraception, it is intrinsically evil. Unfortunately, NFP is no more open to procreation that taking the pill because NFP couples act to ensure that every marital act is not procreative. NFP is not merely abstinence. Couples measure basil temperature and cervical mucus, plot them on a calendar to determine infertile times, then limit sexual intercourse to those times to ensure that every marital act is not procreative. Suffice it to say that HV should be responsibility changed.

Many who support HV argue that it is prophetic. This is folly. There is no credible scientific organization report that concludes that the increase in contraception is the "cause" of the increase in abortion, an increase in divorce, or the ills of our secular culture.

At the moment, 80% of worldwide Catholics do not receive HV. It has become a dead letter. Time will tell what, if anything, Pope Francis will do about the teaching HV or its pastoral application.

The editors of America have written an excellent article. One must give respectful consideration to all papal encyclicals and study the issue in question thoroughly, seek priestly and moral guidance in order to make a proper informed decision of conscience. I would also suggest to pray for enlightenment and for our Church.

5 years 9 months ago

When Humane Vitae was written, debate might have been justifiable. But since, 49 years or so, the development of theology/ethics condemning it, official Magesterium, the science behind the negative/abortive effects, and it's evil genesis in eugenics leave no doubt to the evil of artificial birth control. Cannot be denied at this point anymore that homosexual acts are evil or that of divorce and remarriage. Seems people are being dishonest or duplicitous in their rationale.

"No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. " (Matt 6:24)

Michael Barberi
5 years 9 months ago


Dialogue and debate are always justifiable for good reasons, especially in pursuit of the truth. I think you are ignoring the 49 years of the development of theology/ethics supporting a change in the teaching HV. People that have studied moral theology, HV and other sexual ethics, either as scholars or informed Catholics, are not being dishonest in their rationale or scholarship. They are being respectful of the teaching, but disagree with the magisterium's philosophical and theological arguments. No one takes lightly a decision of an informed conscience when it is in tension with a teaching of the magisterium. It is not a matter of serving two masters. We all strive to love and serve God by loving and serving our neighbor. You can respectfully disagree for good reasons and still be a faithful Catholic.

I believe you and I are on opposite sides of the contraception issue. Thanks for your comment.

Andrew Wolfe
5 years 9 months ago

You are wrong, regardless of how prestigious the publications where you have published. The concession to NFP in HV is not an endorsement of today’s expectation of small families, to be achieved through a contraceptive use of NFP. Nor is s intended to allow for nonstop marital sex during infertile times. And while you may say Paul VI’s predictions didn’t come true due to contraception, the fact remains he did predict it and, very noticeably, Amerca’s editors completely ignored these warnings.

Tim O'Leary
5 years 9 months ago

Humanae Vitae was a reiteration of definitive infallible teach of the Church. Archbishop Chaput gave a great lecture on HV at CUA in April: http://archphila.org/archbishop-chaputs-address-at-catholic-university-humanae-vitae-and-its-legacy-april-4-2018/
Pope Francis praises HV several times in Amoris Laetitia. Some quotes:
82. The Synod Fathers stated that “the growth of a mentality that would reduce the generation of human life to one variable of an individual’s or a couple’s plans is clearly evident”...We need to return to the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul VI, which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods of regulating birth.
154 The acts proper to the sexual union of husband and wife correspond to the nature of sexuality as willed by God when they take place in “a manner which is truly human”.
222. The pastoral care of newly married couples must also involve encouraging them to be generous in bestowing life...the teaching of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae (cf. 1014) and the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (cf. 14; 2835) ought to be taken up anew, in order to counter a mentality that is often hostile to life

Andrew Wolfe
5 years 9 months ago

Today’s editors of America are to be commended for publishing their predecessors’ words on Humanae Vitae. It demonstrates both accountability and perspective, especially given the errors of the prior piece.

Lisa Weber
5 years 9 months ago

In our discussions about matters of sexuality, we might be well served by looking to what Jesus said and did with regard to matters of sexuality. Every thing Jesus said and did made sexuality more private. He defended the woman caught in adultery, making public punishment of adultery forbidden. He cured the hemorrhaging woman without commenting about ritual impurity. That made menstruation and bleeding after childbirth a private matter. In his comments to the woman at the well, he did not condemn the fact that she had been married five times (and she may have been widowed five times, not divorced five times - the story does not say). There is no record in the Gospels of Jesus commenting about homosexuality or abortion. I think Jesus would say that the use contraception is a private matter. The vast majority of the laity have taken the stance that use of contraception is a private matter and, in that, they echo what Jesus taught.

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