George Weigel on The Humanae Vitae Controversy

The following is the text of George Weigel's coverage of the Humanae Vitae controversy. It is taken from Chapter 6, Successor to St Stanislaw, of his biography of the Pope, Witness to Hope.



NOTE 1: The footnotes are hyperlinked and will appear in a new window to prevent you losing your place in the text. Close the window after you have studied the footnote to return to your original place in the text.

NOTE 2: Click HERE to read George Weigel's separate discussion on PJPII's "The Theology of the Body".



First established by Pope John XXIII, the Papal Commission for the Study of Problems of the Family, Population, and Birth Rate was reappointed by Pope Paul VI to advise him on the tangle of issues indicated in its title. For much of the world, though, this was the "Papal Birth Control Commission" and the only issue at stake was whether Catholics could "use the pill." In the highly politicized atmosphere of the immediate post-Vatican 11 Church, "birth control" became the litmus-test issue between theological "progressives" and "conservatives," even as the issue got entangled in ongoing arguments about the nature and scope of papal teaching authority. When one adds to this volatile ecclesiastical mix the cultural circumstances of the sixties in the West, including the widespread challenge to all established authority and the breakout into mainstream culture of the sexual revolution, it becomes apparent that a thoughtful public moral discussion of conjugal morality was going to be very difficult at this point. In 1968, Paul VI, who thought himself obliged to give the Church an authoritative answer on such a highly charged question, issued Humanae Vitae, which instantly became the most controversial encyclical in history and the cause of even further disruption in the Church, particularly in North America and Western Europe. The controversy was inevitable, but it might not have been so debilitating had the Pope taken Cardinal Wojtyla's counsel more thoroughly.

According to the familiar telling of this complex tale, Pope Paul's Papal Commission was divided between a majority that argued for a change in the classic Catholic position that contraception was immoral, and a minority that wanted to affirm that teaching. A memorandum sent to the Pope in June 1966—and journalistically dubbed the "Majority Report"—argued that conjugal morality should be measured by "the totality of married life," rather than by the openness of each act of intercourse to conception. In this view, it was morally licit to use chemical or mechanical means to prevent conception as long as this was in the overall moral context of a couple's openness to children.69 Another memorandum, dubbed the "Minority Report," reiterated the classic Catholic position, that the rise of contraceptives violated the natural moral law by sundering the procreative and unitive dimensions of sexuality. In this view, and following the teaching of Pope Pius XII, the morally legitimate way to regulate conception was through the use of the natural rhythms of fertility, known as the rhythm method.

Pope Paul VI spent two years wrestling with these opposed positions and with the pressures that were being brought to bear on him to take a side. Proponents of the "Majority Report" (which was leaked to the press in 1967 to bring more pressure on the Pope) argued that the Church would lose all credibility with married couples and with the modern world if it did not change the teaching set forth by Pius XII. Some opponents argued that adopting the "Majority Report" position would destroy the Church's teaching authority, as it would involve a tacit admission of error on a question of serious moral consequence. Paul VI eventually rejected the conclusion and moral reasoning of the "Majority Report," and on July 25, 1968, issued the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, section 14 of which began as follows: "Thus, relying on these first principles of human and Christian doctrine concerning marriage, we must again insist that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun must be totally rejected as a legitimate means of regulating the number of children."70 A maelstrom of criticism followed, as did the most widespread public Catholic dissent from papal teaching in centuries.

Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, well-known to the Pope as the author of Love and Responsibility, had been appointed by Paul VI to the Papal Commission, but had been unable to attend the June 1966 meeting at which the majority of the commission took the position later summarized in its memorandum. The Polish government had denied him a passport, on the excuse that lie had waited too late to apply.71 Wojtyla played an important role in the controversy over contraception and in the development of Humanae Vitae, nonetheless. The encyclical, however, was not crafted precisely as Wojtyla proposed.

In 1966, the archbishop of Kraków created his own diocesan commission to study the issues being debated by the Papal Commission. The archbishop, soon to be cardinal, was an active participant in the Kraków commission's deliberations, which also drew on the expertise he had begun to gather in the nascent archdiocesan Institute for Family Studies. The Kraków commission completed its work in February 1968, and a memorandum of conclusions—"The Foundations of the Church's Doctrine on the Principles of Conjugal Life"—was drawn up in French and sent to Paul VI by Cardinal Wojtyla.72

According to Father Andrzej Bardecki, one of the participants in the Kraków process, Wojtyla's local commission had seen two drafts of a proposed encyclical on the subject of conjugal morality and fertility regulation. One draft, prepared by the Holy Office, the Vatican's principal doctrinal agency struck some members of the Kraków commission as "stupid conservatism" stringing together various papal pronouncements on the subject while neglecting to mention Pius XII's endorsement of the rhythm method of fertility regulation, or "natural family planning." The alternative draft, which Bardecki remembered as having been sponsored by German Cardinal Julius Döpfner, took the position of the "Majority Report" of the Papal Commission, which involved a serious error in its approach to moral theology, in the judgment of the Kraków theologians. By arguing that conjugal morality should be judged in its totality, and each act of intercourse "proportionally" within that total context, the "Majority Report" and the German draft misread what God had written into the nature of human sexuality, and did so in a way that undermined the structure of moral theology across the board.

Were the only alternatives, therefore, "stupid conservatism" or a deconstruction of the moral theology?
The Polish theologians didn't think so. The Kraków commission memorandum, which reflected the thinking of Cardinal Wojtyla and the moral analysis of Love and Responsibility, tried to develop a new framework for the Church's classic position on conjugal morality and fertility regulation: a fully articulated, philosophically well-developed Christian humanism that believers and non-believers alike could engage.

The starting point for moral argument, they proposed, was the human person, for human beings were the only creatures capable of "morality." This human person, male or female, was not a disembodied self but a unity of body and spirit. My "self" is not here, and "my body" there. As a free moral actor, I am a unity of body and spirit. Thinking about the moral life has to be thinking within that unity, taking account of both dimensions of the human person.

The Kraków theologians went on to argue that nature had inscribed what might be called a moral language and grammar in the sexual structure of the human body. That moral language and grammar could be discerned by human intelligence and respected by the human will. Morally appropriate acts respected that language and grammar in all its complexity, which included both the unitive and procreative dimensions of human sexuality: sexual intercourse as both an expression of love and the means for transmitting the gift of life. Any act that denied one of these dimensions violated the grammar of the act and necessarily, if unwittingly, reduced one's spouse to an object of one's pleasure. Marital chastity was a matter of mutual self-giving that transcended itself and achieved its truly human character by its openness to the possibility of new life.

This openness had to be lived responsibly. "The number of children called into existence cannot be left to chance," according to the Kraków memorandum, but must be decided "in a dialogue of love between husband and wife." Fertility regulation, in fulfillment of the "duty" to plan one's family, must therefore be done through a method that conformed to human dignity, recognized the "parity between men and women," and involved the "cooperation" of the spouses. By placing the entire burden on the woman, chemical and mechanical means of fertility regulation like the contraceptive pill and the intra-uterine device violated these criteria. Contrary to the claims of the sexual revolution, such artificial means of contraception freed men for hedonistic behavior while violating the biological integrity of women with invasive and potentially harmful tools. Family planning by observing nature's biological rhythms was the only method of fertility regulation that respected the dignity and equality of the spouses as persons.

The Kraków theologians openly admitted that living marital chastity this way involved real sacrifice, a "great ascetic effort [and] the mastery of self." Education in the virtue of chastity must begin with "respect for others, respect for the body and [for] the realities of sex." Young people had to be taught "the equality of right between man and woman" as the foundation of "mutual responsibility." Pastors who shied away from programs aimed at educating couples in fertility regulation through natural biological rhythms were derelict in their duties, and were complicit in the "grand confusion of ideas" that surrounded sexuality in the modern world. Moreover, the memorandum continued, the pastor did not fulfill his responsibilities as a moral teacher by inveighing against promiscuity. On the contrary, no one could preach or teach persuasively on this subject unless the entire question was put in the humanistic context necessary for the Church's teaching to ring true. It was imperative that pastors work with lay people in this field, for "well-instructed Christian couples" were better positioned to help other couples live chaste lives of sexual love.

Elements of the Kraków commission's memorandum may be found in Humanae Vitae, but Father Bardecki's suggestion that sixty percent of the encyclical reflected the approach devised by the Polish theologians and Cardinal Wojtyla claims too much.73 Humanae Vitae did make references to Christian personalism, to the good of sexual love, and to the duty of responsibly planning one's family.74 But the encyclical did not adopt in full the rich personalist context suggested by the Kraków commission. Absent this context, with its emphasis on human dignity and on the equality of spouses in leading Sexually responsible lives, Humanae Vitae's sharp focus on sexual acts opened it to the charge of legalism, "biologism," and pastoral insensitivity, and left the Church vulnerable to the accusation that it had still not freed itself of the shadow of Manichaeism and its deprecation of sexuality.

Although the charge would likely have been made in any case, the encyclical's failure to adopt the full Kraków context made this indictment more difficult to counter. The Kraków proposal came to the same conclusion as the encyclical on the specific question of the legitimate means of fertility regulation. Kraków, however, offered a more compelling explanation of why this position was better fitted to the dignity of the human person, and particularly to the dignity of women.

The timing of Humanae Vitae could not have been worse; 1968, a year of revolutionary enthusiasms, was not the moment for calm, measured reflection on anything. It is doubtful whether any reiteration of the classic Catholic position on marital chastity, no matter how persuasively argued, could have been heard in such circumstances. On the other hand, one has to ask why a position that defended "natural" means of fertility regulation was deemed impossibly antiquarian at precisely the moment when "natural" was becoming one of the sacred words in the developed world, especially with regard to ecological consciousness. The answer is obviously complex, but it surely has something to do with whether Humanae Vitae provided an adequately personalistic framework in which to engage its teaching.

The Kraków memorandum also demonstrated that the marital ethic it proposed was not a matter of Catholic special pleading (still less Polish Catholic special pleading); its moral claims could be debated by reasonable people, irrespective of their religious convictions.75 Humanae Vitae did not demonstrate this adequately. The encyclical was a step beyond the "stupid conservatism" that had worried some participants in the Kraków Commission, but it was not enough of a step. Kraków had dealt with the fact that changing cultural conditions required articulating a new context for classic moral principles. Rome remained rather tone-deaf to the question of context. The result was that the principles were dismissed as pre-modern, or just irrational.

The failure to explicate a personalist context for the Catholic sexual ethic, compounded by the politicization of the post-Humanae Vitae debate in the Church, had serious ramifications for the Church's effort to articulate a compelling Christian humanism in the modern world. In its first major post-Vatican II confrontation with the sexual revolution—the most potent manifestation of the notion of freedom as personal autonomy—the Church had been put squarely on the defensive. Had the Kraków commission's memorandum shaped the argumentation of Humanae Vitae more decisively, a more intelligent and sensitive debate might have ensued.


69 The "Majority Report," and a history of the process sympathetic to its perspective, may be found in Robert Blair Kaiser, The Politics of Sex and Religion (Kansas City: Leaven Press, 1985). For a different reading of the issues and the majority/ minority "reports," see Janet E. Smith, "Humanae Vitae": A Generation Later (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1991), and Janet E. Smith, "Humanae Vitae at Twenty: New Insights into an Old Debate," in Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader, Janet E. Smith, ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).. Return
70 I use here the translation prepared by Janet E. Smith in "Humanae Vitae": A Generation Later, p. 282. Return
71 Author's conversation with Pope John Paul II, December 16, 1998. Tad Szulc's suggestion that Wojtyla deliberately missed the crucial vote on the papal commission in June 1966 is without foundation in fact (see Pope John Paul II p. 254). Return
72 "Les Fondements de la Doctrine de l'Eglise Concernant Les Principes de la Vie Conjugale," in Analecta Cracoviensia I(1969), pp. 194-230. Return
73 See Szulc, Pope John Paul II, p. 255. Return
74 Humanae Vitae, 7-10. Return
75 Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi's claim that "the sexual philosophy of Woj tyla and his flock of Polish Catholics became the rule for the universal Church" suggests a lack of familiarity with the argument of both the Kraków memorandum and Humanae Vitae, as well as with the processes by which documents such as the latter are developed; see His Holiness, p. 113. Return
  Witness to Hope ©1999 George Weigel Published by Cliff Street Books/Harper Collins