Tuesday, August 05, 2008


The Catholic Herald interviewed one of the last surviving original members of the papal commission, Professor John Marshall. He offers insights into the thinking at the time immediately preceding HV, the many theologians, priests, bishops and cardinals who were part of the commission which numbered a total of 58 members by the time it issued its final report, and a brief look at the thinking of the commission members.

Some of the high points of the interview...

With regard to the need for every sexual act to be open to conception:

...the need for every marriage act to maintain its structural openness to conception is not necessary and may, in many circumstances, run counter to the virtue of prudence."

Regarding the use of natural family planning:

The use of the safe period was just such a control of nature, as were barrier contraceptives or the temporary suspension of fertility through the Pill. All such methods reduced the fullness of the sexual gift in a sense but, used responsibly, served the higher end of marital love. ...

It brought home the fact that well-motivated, active, Catholic couples had on the whole valued the method but that a large majority had also found it had harmed their relationship in various ways. It broadly concluded that the method was not suitable for all couples and probably unsuitable for almost any couple throughout the whole of their married lives.

What persuaded the commission to approve contraception?

"Perhaps," Professor Marshall said, "the real turning point came in April 1965 when the four theologians who were opposed to change admitted that they could not demonstrate the intrinsic evil of contraception through natural law.

Yet in spite of this conclusion, Pope Paul used natural law to buttress HV, and used it without a confirming argument.

The additional select group appointed for the final meeting to consider the Majority Report consisted of six cardinals, 13 archbishops, one bishop and the Pope's theologian. The report was approved following preliminary voting by the bishops on specific questions: was contraception intrinsically evil? By a substantial majority the answer was no. Was the recommendation on contraception in the report in basic continuity with tradition and the teaching the Magisterium? By a substantial majority the answer was yes. Subsequently, representations contrary to the Majority Report were made privately to the Pope by those who believed that the doctrine could not, or should not, be changed.

The laity rejected it, and in the process learned to reject a lot more than birth control:

Every survey has shown that around 90 per cent of Catholic couples ignore the unqualified teaching of Humanae Vitae. And the most recent widespread survey of parochial clergy showed that fewer than half supported the total ban. We have the unusual but very destructive dilemma of the Magisterium teaching a doctrine under authority and that doctrine not being 'received' by the Church as a community. Perversely, the perceived irrelevance of the Magisterium's teaching on marriage may have contributed to the growth of the contraceptive mentality which is now so evident in countries we think of as Catholic."

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