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Commentary » International

Did Pope Paul get it wrong on birth control?

His own commission disagreed with him, alleges writer

Did Pope Paul get it wrong on birth control?

Picture: CNS/National Catholic Reporter

Frank Maurovich for National Catholic Reporter International

July 30, 2013

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...For readers not around 45 years ago when Pope Paul promulgated the decree that renewed the Catholic church's ban on all artificial forms of birth control, it may be helpful to offer a brief review of that history. Pope Pius XI first imposed the ban in 1930, six months after the Anglican Lambeth Conference allowed its church's married couples to decide the issue by themselves. In October 1964, several Catholic bishops raised the issue of birth control during a discussion of marriage and the family at the Second Vatican Council. Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens of Malines-Brussels pleaded with his brother bishops to study the issue and "avoid another Galileo affair. One [failure of the church to keep abreast of scientific advances] is enough."

Pope Paul, however, had taken the birth control issue off the council's table, announcing it would be decided by his interaction with the Pontifical Birth Control Commission. In June 1966, the commission turned over its final report, asking the Holy Father to take into account "the fruitfulness of an entire marriage" rather than focusing on individual sexual acts. Two years later, Pope Paul published his decision in Humanae Vitae, in which he acknowledges "the value of conjugal love in marriage and the relationship of conjugal acts to this love" but reasserts, "The church ... teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life." (HV#11)

The late sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley often pointed to the encyclical as the principal reason why the leadership of the Catholic church lost credibility and why so many Catholic parishioners left the church. Now few seem to care. Polls indicate that more than 90 percent of Roman Catholics ignore the decree. They side rather with the pope's commission, which voted overwhelmingly for change. In his decision, the pope argued that "within the commission itself there was not complete agreement." (HV#6)

Well, yes, but in a preliminary vote of the inclusive body of 58 experts on the commission -- clergy and laity, scientists, theologians, gynecologists, sociologists, three married couples and other scholars -- an unofficial tally showed 52 to 4 in favor of reform with two abstentions. And despite the fact that the pope loaded the commission with 15 cardinals, archbishops and bishops as official members for the final week of discussion, the high-level prelates reportedly voted 9 to 3 with three abstentions that the use of contraceptives was not intrinsically evil. (I use the words "unofficial" and "reportedly" because the commission's work was wrapped by the Vatican in a blanket of secrecy. Two of the final documents were leaked to the press, received wide publicity and undoubtedly fueled the firestorm that greeted the pope's decision.)

Full Story: Humanae Vitae at 45: A Personal Story

Source: National Catholic Reporter

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