Statement of the Hierarchy of England and Wales on ‘Humanae Vitae’
The Bishops Conference of England and Wales released the following statement on the 17th September, 1968, after a seven-hour emergency session held to discuss the fallout from the release of Humanae Vitae:
1. When Pope Paul issued the Encyclical “Humanae Vitae” he asked the bishops to see that his teaching was presented in its true light “that is, to show its positive and beneficent aspect.”
The Encyclical, nevertheless, concerning as it does the source of human life, was bound to arouse strong feelings. Whatever decision the Holy Father made was bound to be a test of faith. Some Catholics were convinced that a change in the moral teaching and practice of the Church was inevitable. Others were just as strongly convinced that any change would be a betrayal of the faith.
In view of the controversy which the Encyclical has aroused the Bishops of England and Wales call upon all Catholics to conduct their discussions in a responsible and temperate manner and in a mutually charitable spirit.
Discussion has so far centred mainly on the question of contraception. The impression is given that the Pope set out merely to condemn artificial methods of birth control. This he could have done in a single sentence. The Encyclical speaks at length on the dignity of married love and the obligation of responsible parenthood, although it has not been sufficiently appreciated that the Encyclical was not intended to be a complete treatise on holy matrimony.
The Press has, not surprisingly, concentrated on the subject of contraception but the faithful and their pastors must study the document as a whole. In it the Pope reaffirms the sublime teaching of the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution on “The Church in the World To-day.”
The Encyclical teaches us that marriage “is far from being the effect of chance or the result of blind evolution of natural forces. It is in reality the wise and provident institution of God the creator, whose purpose was to establish in man His loving design. As a consequence, husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, in order to co-operate with God in the generation and education of new lives.”
“Furthermore the marriage of those who have been baptized is invested with the dignity of a sacramental sign of grace, for it represents the union of Christ and His Church.”
This triple partnership of husband, wife and God gives marriage its particular sacredness. It is the guarantee that God will never fail to support and guide the married couple by His grace. It is also the reason why the marriage act is not under the sole dominion of husband and wife.
2. Pope Paul wrote his Encyclical only after years of study and prayer. In the heat of controversy some writers appear to have forgotten that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ. It is for him to issue Encyclical Letters whenever he thinks it is his duty to do so. This right and duty were reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council. The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church declares:
“This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium 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. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” (25).
It is well-known that the Encyclical is the fruit, not only of prayer, but of years of consultation with bishops, theologians, doctors, scientists, and not least important, married men and women. The commission set up by Pope John to examine the demographic problem was enlarged by Pope Paul and entrusted with the study of marriage and the family. No member of the commission thought that the questions proposed to it could be resolved by a majority vote.
Its task was to sift evidence and to present the Pope with its findings. It was always understood that the decision must be made by him alone as Christ’s Vicar. The Pope has assured us that he weighed up carefully and conscientiously all the evidence submitted to him both by members of his commission and by hundreds of others.
3. Some have questioned whether, in fact, Pope Paul rather than a section of his advisers is responsible for the teaching contained in the Encyclical. Those most closely concerned with the Pontifical Commission easily recognise the Pope’s own thoughts in this document. From the beginning, the Pope regarded this decision as one which he personally must take. He delayed his statement until he was satisfied that he had heard and studied the arguments of every school of thought. Only then did he publish the decision which he had conscientiously made in the sight of God. “We now intend”, he says at the beginning of ‘Humanae Vitae’, “by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, to give Our reply to these questions.” (6).
4. The Encyclical has provoked serious discussion on the whole exercise of the Magisterium. It is being argued that in a matter so intimately affecting the lives of millions the burden of responsibility should not rest upon one man even though he is the Vicar of Christ. At the Council it was generally recognised that a question of such delicacy as contraception could not properly be debated in that vast assembly. Collegiality must be the subject of further study, but it cannot be invoked as a reason for refusing assent to an Encyclical.
5. An Encyclical is a statement of principle, not a detailed personal guide. Thus, for example, when speaking of responsible parenthood the Encyclical says: “The responsible exercise of parenthood implies that husband and wife recognise fully their own duties towards God, towards themselves, towards the family and towards society…” (10).
The Pope does not attempt to tell parents how many children they ought to have. This decision is one to be taken by the parents alone in the light of all the considerations laid down in the Encyclical.
One of these considerations is that “each exercise of the marriage act must remain in itself open to the transmission of life”, although, as the Pope points out, in fact “not every conjugal act is followed by a new life”. Nevertheless it is against the plan of God to take positive steps to destroy the possibility of the transmission of life. The use of marriage during infertile periods, on the other hand, does not destroy the act’s “openness to the transmission of life”.
6. At one time not only Catholics but all Christians held contraception to be abhorrent but in recent years, however, doubts have been expressed about the Church’s interpretation of the moral law. The very fact that the Pope created a commission to review the question tended to confirm their doubts.
It was soon widely believed that a change in the Church’s attitude would be announced. Understandably, many wives and husbands, anticipating the promised statement of the Pope, have come to rely on contraception. In this they have acted conscientiously and often after seeking pastoral advice. They may now be unable to see that, at least in their personal circumstances, the use of contraception is wrong. A particular difficulty faces those who after serious thought and prayer cannot as yet understand or be fully convinced of the doctrines as laid down. This is not surprising in view of the discussions of recent years which have resulted in the present controversy. For others the problem of putting the doctrine into practice in their lives seems insuperable because of ill-health and other serious obstacles, sometimes because of a conflict of duties.
All should bear in mind the great weight which attaches to a pronouncement by the Holy Father. They should not close their mind but leave it open to the influence of the Holy Spirit and persevere in prayer and be ready to follow His guidance when it is given. They should pray for light to understand the doctrine taught by the Encyclical. It is not unreasonable to ask for all to practise the Christian virtue of humility and acknowledge the duty of every Catholic to listen with respect to the Vicar of Christ.
The Belgium Bishops have pointed out that acceptance of the Encyclical “does not depend so much on the arguments proposed in the statement as on the religious motives to which the teaching authority, sacramentally instituted in the Church, appeals.” (Belgian Hierarchy’s statement, No. 3).
7. The Holy Father realises what difficulties face married people. That is why in the Encyclical he recalls the example of Our Lord Who was gentle and patient. He came not to condemn but to save. He was clear and firm in condemning evil but there is no end to His mercy and compassion. In the same spirit the Encyclical makes no sweeping condemnations. There is no threat of damnation. Far from being excluded from the Sacraments those in difficulties are invited to receive them more frequently.
8. It cannot be denied that the Encyclical has created a conflict in the minds of many Catholics. Partly by reason of the discussions on contraception since the Council, they ask themselves how they can accept the Pope’s decision with sincerity. It must be stressed that the primacy of conscience is not in dispute.
The Pope, bishops, clergy and faithful must all be true to conscience. But we are bound to do everything in our power to make sure that our conscience is truly informed. Neither this Encyclical nor any other document of the Church takes away from us our right and duty to follow our conscience. But if we were to neglect the guidance of the Church, morality could easily become subjective. This would be disastrous. It is well to remember the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” in the Second Vatican Council: “In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself.”
9. Theologians will seek clarification of the teaching in the Encyclical. Much of the field of human sexuality remains to be explored. We must ourselves continue sponsoring such research with assistance to initiatives already taken and the pooling of experience already gained. The Pope himself exhorts doctors to persevere in their studies in order to benefit the married people who consult them. We need to learn to what extent secular science can contribute to a solution of marriage problems.
We must also enquire what are the implications of the Encyclical’s reference to the use of therapeutic means. Those competent in these matters will continue their researches but the personal problems have to be faced by faithful couples genuinely wanting to do God’s will but facing formidable obstacles.
They know that their own living conditions may not quickly be adjusted to accommodate another child. The prospect of pregnancy for some women is a risk to health and perhaps to life. Such Catholics are concerned not with academic disputes but with stark human decisions. Let them remember that the Church has the charity and understanding of Christ Our Lord. An Encyclical cannot consider all pastoral problems in detail but the Church has a care for those of her children with special difficulties. However difficult their circumstances may appear they should never think that they are separated from the love and grace of God.
“Let married couples, then, face up to the efforts needed, supported by the faith and hope which “do not disappoint . . . because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to Us.” Let them implore divine assistance by persevering prayer. Above all, let them draw from the source of grace and charity in the Eucharist. And if sin should still keep its hold over them, let them not be discouraged, but rather have recourse with humble perseverance to the mercy of God, which is poured forth in the sacrament of Penance.” (25).
10. There is a close connection between problems of the family and wider social issues. We, therefore, take this occasion to remind our priests and people of our Christian obligation to take an active share in social work both at home and in the developing countries. Housing aid and relief of hunger provide a response to the Pope’s appeal to all men of goodwill to work together to raise the standard of life throughout the world.
11. During this time of controversy we should all bear in mind that self-discipline and the way of the cross are part of our Christian calling. The easy way is often not the Christian way. We appeal once more for mutual charity. We are confident that the Holy Spirit will guide the people of God to understand the truth of the principles laid down by the Pope in “Humanae Vitae.” In working out these principles, bishops, priests and laymen must co-operate in a Christian spirit.
“You are God’s chosen people, holy and well-beloved. The livery you wear must be tender compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. You must bear with one another’s faults, be generous to each other, where somebody has given grounds for complaint. The Lord’s generosity to you must be the model of yours. And, to crown all this, charity, that is the bond which makes us perfect.” (Col. 3, XII-XIV).
The liberal, London-based, Ad Hoc Group, which had been established shortly after the Encyclical was released, criticised the Bishops’ statement and said many Catholics who had never used birth control were highly critical of Humanae Vitae.
The Group claimed that the Bishops’ statement referred to “those who after serious thought and prayer cannot as yet understand or be fully convinced of the doctrine as laid down” but that “the point is that almost all the critics of the last eight weeks are men and women who five or ten years ago did understand and were convinced. They completely supported the doctrine before the debate began but in the course of the last few years they have come to recognize its weaknesses.”