Germain Grisez on "Humanae Vitae," Then and Now

The Dust Still Hasn’t Settled, But There Are Signs of Hope

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EMMITSBURG, Maryland, JULY 14, 2003 ( The encyclical on birth control, “Humanae Vitae,” remains as a milestone in the era after the Second Vatican Council.

As the document’s 35th anniversary approaches, ZENIT asked Germain Grisez, professor of Christian ethics at Mount Saint Mary’s College and Seminary, for a historical perspective.

Q: What was the primary significance of “Humanae Vitae“?

Grisez: With “Humanae Vitae,” Paul VI reaffirmed the constant and very firm teaching of the Church excluding contraception. I believe and have argued that teaching had already been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium — that is, by the morally unanimous agreement of the bishops of the whole world in communion with the popes. Together, they had taught for many centuries that using contraceptives always is grave matter.

Their manner of teaching implied that what they taught was a truth to be held definitively. Thus, the teaching on contraception met the conditions for infallible teaching, without a solemn definition, articulated by Vatican II in “Lumen Gentium,” 25.

Q: Pope John XXIII had set up a small committee to plan the Holy See’s submissions about population, family and natality to international meetings. In June 1964, Paul VI greatly enlarged that body and directed it to study the questions that were then being raised about contraception. If the teaching was already proposed infallibly, why did Paul VI do that?

Grisez: After John XXIII died in June 1963, several theological articles were published either suggesting that the received teaching on contraception had been mistaken, or that it was subject to exceptions, or that using the “pill” to prevent conception was somehow morally different from other methods. Cardinal [Alfredo] Ottaviani, prefect of the Congregation of the Holy Office, was preparing a document rejecting such theological opinions.

But Paul VI’s closest personal theological adviser, who in no way questioned the received teaching itself, was convinced that the pill was indeed similar to natural family planning, and therefore morally acceptable. Then some members of the committee John XXIII had set up urged Paul VI to delay judgment and study the matter.

Paul VI was determined not to ask anything of married couples that God does not require of them. That Pope also was a scholarly man, open-minded and willing to study. So, he told Cardinal Ottaviani not to deal with the subject, greatly enlarged the small committee but left it under the control of the Secretariat of State, and told it to study the questions at issue.

Still, Paul VI made no effort to define those issues. He wanted to give those who thought there was a way around the received teaching every opportunity to make their case.

Q: Did not the vast majority of the commission agree in their June 1966 report, which was leaked to the press, that contraception was morally acceptable for married people?

Grisez: The final report of the commission was not one of the documents that were leaked to the press, and, so far as I know, it has never been published. The leaked documents, which were misleadingly labeled, were among the appendices to the final report, and none of them was agreed upon by the majority of the 16 cardinals and bishops who made up the commission after it was restructured in February 1966, although they did approve sending those documents along to Paul VI.

True, the majority of the theologians, who were then among the periti [experts] advising the cardinals and bishops, had argued that contraception was morally acceptable, and nine of the 16 cardinals and bishops agreed with their position.

But virtually all the theologians and all but one of the cardinals and bishops also agreed that the pill was not morally different from other contraceptives, which had long been condemned.

Q: Still, having put the commission to work, why did Paul VI reject the conclusion about the morality of contraception reached by both a large majority of the theological experts and a majority — nine of 16 — of the cardinals and bishops?

Grisez: Because Paul VI was not interested in the number of those who held an opinion but in the cases they made for their views. In this respect, too, he acted like a scholar rather than a politician. Having received the commission’s final report, he studied it.

After about four months, he announced on Oct. 29, 1966, that he found some aspects of the majority’s case to be seriously flawed. He continued studying and concluded that the commission was right in holding that the pill is not morally different from other methods of contraception.

Eventually he became completely convinced that there was no alternative to reaffirming the received teaching. He then took great care preparing the document that was eventually published as “Humanae Vitae.”

Q: The world had to wait until July 25, 1968, for the publication of the encyclical. What was happening in the meantime?

Grisez: Unfortunately, proponents of contraception among theologians and bishops took advantage of the delay to prepare an unprecedented response to the document. Dissenting theological statements were readied, and a strategy for maximizing the public impact of those statements was worked out.

Some groups of bishops also laid the groundwork for their later statements undercutting not only “Humanae Vitae” but the constant and very firm teaching on contraception itself. At first, Paul VI commented on the reaction, but he never really responded to the dissent.

Q: Facing down such intense dissent would have been difficult in any age …

Grisez: Since the dissent was widespread and involved many bishops and even several conferences of bishops, disciplinary action plainly was out of the question.

It is worth recalling that Paul VI also was concerned about the “Dutch Catechism,” some of whose formulations he considered to be incompatible with defined doctrines. In that case, too, he appointed a commission to deal with the problem. That commission proposed corrections, but the Dutch bishops refused to incorporate them. Instead, a version of the corrections was printed as an appendix in later editions. And Paul VI took no further action on that matter.

Q: What were the consequences of the dissent to “Humanae Vitae” and on the “Dutch Catechism”?

Grisez: During the next decade, theological dissent from the teaching of “Humanae Vitae” spread to other moral norms, especially those concerned with sex, marriage and innocent life. Pastoral practice on all those matters became far more permissive than it had been before Vatican II.

At the same time, many theologians published works on the central dogmas of the faith that proposed theories incompatible with defined doctrines. The teaching in many seminaries treated those theological views on both morals and faith as acceptable. During that period, the reform of the liturgy planned by Vatican II was carried through. But as the new rites were put into effect, abuses became widespread. Many priests and religious quit, and the numbers of seminarians and novices dropped steeply.

Q: John Paul II became Pope in October 1978. Has he not dealt with all those problems during the past 25 years?

Grisez: He certainly has tried to. He has taught vigorously and repeatedly, and Cardinal Ratzinger has worked closely with him in an effort to deal with theological dissent, both on moral teachings and on the central dogmas of faith.

However, in practice, dissent from the Church’s moral teaching is prevalent in the affluent nations. And I think that the appearance of doctrinal unity among the bishops of the world is somewhat deceptive. In my judgment, the overall situation today is no better than it was when Paul VI died.
Q: Still, in many places, natural family planning is being promoted. There also are many young families with four, five, six, or more children. And a great many young people are active in pro-life activities. Doesn’t it seem as if some people are listening to the message of “Humanae Vitae”?

Grisez: Indeed, some are. Though in my judgment the overall situation has not improved since Paul VI died, neither has it grown worse. The message of “Humanae Vitae” — which is the message of the whole Christian tradition — is still being heard.

Public opinion polls are notoriously unreliable, but it is interesting that they do not seem to show any significant decrease during the past 35 years in the percentage of Catholics who accept the teaching of “Humanae Vitae.” That is remarkable and encouraging, considering that almost everyone who was over 65 in 1968 has died, and almost nobody under 40 today was able to read the news reports about “Humanae Vitae” when it appeared.

For that persistence of faith, we have to thank the Holy Spirit! But we also have to thank Pope Paul’s courage and clarity, and Pope John Paul II’s rich and very persistent teaching in a whole series of documents, especially “Familiaris Consortio,” the series of talks that laid out the “theology of the body,” “Veritatis Splendor,” and “Evangelium Vitae.”

Then too, we have to thank the many faithful pastors, teachers, parents — all those who have kept the faith and handed it on, often in very difficult circumstances.

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