The Tragedy of Paul VI: Encyclical [Humanae Vitae]

From PAPAL SIN: Structures of Deceit (2000) by Garry Wills

Pope Paul's action in the years leading up to Humanae Vitae (1968) looked so contradictory as to seem perverse. On the one hand, he sided with the minority in the Council to inhibit any talk of change on contraception -- even intervening directly at the last minute, when there was no indirect way left him, to thwart the will of the majority. Yet, at the same time, he was expanding the Pontifical Commission on birth control that Pope John had set up, making its membership more inclusive, watching as it widened the scope of its deliberations. What can explain such behavior?

I think that only a combination of the calculating and the sincere can solve this mystery. On the calculating side, Paul's treatment of the commission subtly deflected it from its original purpose. Cardinal Suenens suggested the commission to Pope John to get an independent source of information for use in the Council. It would provide fresh material for the bishops to reflect on in their final debates. When Paul widened the commission's mandate, he said that its findings might be helpful to him in considering papal response to a 1964 UN conference on family planning. When that conference passed without the commission's being able to reach any useful conclusions before it convened, Paul's continuation of the commission's work for his own purposes made sure that its views were kept entirely apart from what was occurring at the Council. If he had lost his bid to reinsert Casti Connubii doctrine into the decree on the church in the modern world, he could have removed the whole subject of birth control from the Council's consideration, saying that it was being handled for him by the commission. The very existence of the commission seemed to give him options for maneuver. Yet the commission is what sealed him into his doom on contraception.

He could not have suspected any such outcome -- for one thing, because the commission was a papal secret, and the Vatican had lived for decades with the assurance that it could contain its secrets. Even when the Pope conceded the commission's existence, he left its composition and function mysterious. All the participants were ordered to keep their actions strictly hidden. There would be no official publication of minutes or results. When a news photographer infiltrated one meeting, he was chased down and his film was destroyed. Even its own members could not take informal pictures of each other while the commission was in existence. (A few snapshots were made after the dissolution of the body.) Everything they said or did was to be turned over confidentially to the Pope, who could use or suppress it at his discretion. If this original plan had been followed, and the Pope wanted to ignore what the commission did, it would no more exist on the record than had Pius XI's secretly drafted encyclical on the Jews. The idea of a "runaway" commission was remote from Paul's mind. What he wanted was one that would not affect the debates of the Council fathers.

But Paul was a sincere believer, not a mere ecclesiastical politician, and I think he was so convinced that church teachers could not have erred that he hoped a broader look at the subject would end up confirming Casti Connubii, perhaps on new grounds. He was no doubt encouraged to think along these lines by John Ford, the preferred expert of the Curia, who had decided that old natural law arguments against contraception were weak, but the church could not have erred, so new grounds must be found for bolstering the truth. If the Onan story could be sacrificed, then so could conventional (Thomistic) views on natural law, so long as the church remained consistent in its condemnation, on whatever grounds. Ford brought to Rome a Catholic philosopher, Germain Grisez, who helped him develop a new "will to life" argument. The Pope probably hoped this prefigured the outcome of the commission's reflections. He was no doubt stunned when the commission attacked the entire Casti Connubii position. And he was especially angered when the commission's rejection of the past was leaked to the press. What he thought he was fostering as a shrewd way of containing a problem had backfired, making the task of drafting Humanae Vitae more difficult than he had ever anticipated. Yet it must be drafted.

Humanae Vitae

The Pontifical Commission met five times, at first in the fall of 1963 -- six men convening at Louvain. The second meeting (like all subsequent ones) was in Rome, in the spring of 1964, attended by thirteen men. The number was increased to fifteen for a meeting that summer. Up to this point, no one had presumed to recommend altering the church's teaching on contraception. Things changed at the fourth session, held in the spring of 1965, when the size of the commission jumped up to fifty-eight, with five women among the thirty-four lay members. An expert called in for consultation was John T. Noonan, from Notre Dame in Indiana, whose study of the church's changing positions on usury had won scholarly acclaim. He was working on a similar study of changes in the prohibition of contraception -- a book that would appear just as the commission was disbanded. Noonan opened the members' eyes to the way that noninfallible papal teaching can develop.

Another eyeopener was the result of a questionnaire brought to Rome by the lay couple Pat and Patty Crowley. They had long been active in the international Christian Family Movement, and they had surveyed their members -- devout Catholics all -- on their experience of the rhythm method of contraception. They found it far from natural. Since a woman's period fluctuates with her health, anxieties, age, and other influences, establishing the actual infertile period in any cycle required daily chartings of her temperature and close comparative reading of calendars -- and even then the results were not sure. The most conscientious Catholics, who followed this nervous procedure with precision, found that it was not certain -- which left them in great fear until the next menstruation (which might not occur). And in this concentration on the wife's physical conditions, her psychological patterns -- of fondness, need, crises, travel -- had to be ignored or repressed. The comments of the couples surveyed made riveting reading in the commission. A husband, a scholar, wrote:

"Rhythm destroys the meaning of the sex act; it turns it from a spontaneous expression of spiritual and physical love into a mere bodily sexual relief; it makes me obsessed with sex throughout the month; it seriously endangers my chastity; it has a noticeable effect upon my disposition toward my wife and children; it makes necessary my complete avoidance of all affection toward my wife for three weeks at a time. I have watched a magnificent spiritual and physical union dissipate and, due to rhythm, turn into a tense and mutually damaging relationship. Rhythm seems to be immoral and deeply unnatural. It seems to me diabolical."

His wife gave her side of the story:

"I find myself sullen and resentful of my husband when the time of sexual relations finally arrives. I resent his necessarily guarded affection during the month and I find I cannot respond suddenly. I find, also, that my subconscious dreams and unguarded thoughts are inevitably sexual and time consuming. All this in spite of a great intellectual and emotional companionship and a generally beautiful marriage and home life."

The commission was hearing that rhythm made people obsessed with sex and its mechanics while minority members at the Council were arguing that rhythm allows people to escape the merely animal urges and enjoy the serenity of sexuality transcended. The commission was also hearing from doctors that nature, of course, provides women with their greatest sexual desire at just the fertile times that rhythm marked off bounds.

The combined impact of Noonan's history and the Crowleys' empirical findings made the commission members -- good Catholics all, chosen for their loyalty to the church -- look honestly at the "natural law" arguments against contraception and see, with a shock, what flimsy reasoning they had accepted. Sex is for procreation, yes -- but all the time, at each and every act? Eating is for subsistence. But any food or drink beyond that necessary for sheer subsistence is not considered mortally sinful. In fact, to reduce eating to that animal compulsion would deny symbolic and spiritual meanings in shared meals -- the birthday party, the champagne victory dinner, the wine at Cana, the Eucharist itself. Integrity of the act? Is it sinful to be nourished intravenously when that is called for? Does that violate the integrity of the eating act? The more the assembled members looked at the inherited "wisdom" of the church, the more they saw the questionable roots from which it grew -- the fear and hatred of sex, the feeling that pleasure in it is a biological bribe to guarantee the race's perpetuation, that any use of pleasure beyond that purpose is shameful. This was not a view derived from scripture or from Christ, but from Seneca and Augustine.

The commission members, even trained theologians and spiritual counselors who had spent years expounding the church teachings, felt they were looking at reality for the first time. A cultivated submission to the papacy had been, for them, a structure of deceit, keeping them from honesty with themselves, letting them live within a lie. To their shared surprise they found they were not only willing to entertain the idea of the church's changing, but felt that it had to change on this matter, that the truth, once seen, could no longer be denied. When the nineteen theologians on the commission, convened for a separate vote, were asked whether church teaching could change on contraception, twelve said yes, seven no (including John Ford, who had joined the commission at this meeting).

This set off alarm bells in the Vatican. For the next meeting, the last and the longest, from April into June of 1965, the members of the commission were demoted to "advisers" (periti) and the commission itself was constituted of sixteen bishops brought in to issue the final report. They would listen to those who had done the actual conferring, and theirs would be the final verdict. Debate before them would be presided over by Cardinal Ottaviani of the Holy Office. This bringing in of the big guns would have cowed the members in their first sessions. But things had gone too far for such intimidation now. The Crowleys brought another survey with them to the showdown, this one of 3,000 Catholics -- including 290 devout subscribers to the magazine St. Anthony's Messenger -- of whom 63 percent said that rhythm had harmed their marriage and 65 percent said that it did not actually prevent conception, even when the right procedures were followed exactly (even neurotically). Dr. Albert Gorres spoke of the self-censorship Catholics had exercised over themselves -- something the members recognized in their lives when it was pointed out. The Jesuit priest Josef Fuchs, who had taught Casti Connubii standards for twenty years, said he was withdrawing his moral textbook and resigning his teaching post at the Gregorian University in Rome now that he could no longer uphold what he was asked to profess. The vote of the theologians who were presenting their findings to the bishops was now fifteen to four against the claim that contraception is intrinsically evil. The vote of the larger group was thirty to five.

Here was a perfect laboratory test of the idea that contraception is against nature, as that can be perceived by natural reason alone. These people were all educated, even expert. They were Catholics in good standing (they had been chosen on those grounds).They had been conditioned all their lives to accept the church's teaching -- in fact they had accepted it in the past. They of all people would entertain the official case with open minds. They had no malice against church authorities -- most of them had devoted much (if not all) of their lives to working with them. Most had entered the project either agreeing with the papal position or thinking that it was unlikely to change. Now they found themselves agreeing that change was not only necessary but inevitable. They had trouble imagining how they had ever thought otherwise. Cardinal Suenens explained how they had been conditioned to have a double consciousness, to live a lie:

"For years theologians have had to come up with arguments on behalf of a doctrine they were not allowed to contradict. They had an obligation to defend the received doctrine, but my guess is they already had many hesitations about it inside. As soon as the question was opened up a little, a whole group of moralists arrived at the position defended by the majority here... The bishops defended the classical position, but it was imposed on them by authority. The bishops didn't study the pros and cons. They received directives, they bowed to them, and they tried to explain them to their congregations."

As soon as people began to think independently about the matter, the whole structure of deceit crumbled at a touch. The past position could not be sustained, even among these people picked by the Vatican itself, much less among Catholics not as committed as these were. And it was absurd to speak of the non-Catholic world as ever recognizing this "natural law of natural reason."

The need to face the prospect of change was impressed on the people in the commission by the arguments of the five theologians defending Casti Connubii.They reduced their own case to absurdities. John Ford said that intercourse is not necessary for marital love: "Conjugal love is above all spiritual (if the love is genuine) and it requires no specific carnal gesture, much less its repetition in some determined frequency." Ford also liked to say that, if the teaching on sexual activity only for procreation were changed, people could [word omitted] with impunity. Dr. Gorres quoted the Melchite Patriarch, Maximos IV, who said in the Council deliberations that priests display a "celibate psychosis" in the area of sex. The Crowleys had learned about that mindset when they arrived for the fourth commission session at an empty seminary where the members would be staying. Patty was not allowed to stay in the same room with her husband, but had to go away at night to a convent down the road. Sex could not occur in the confines of a seminary, even with no seminarians in residence.

The climactic vote of the commission -- the one of the sixteen bishops -- was nine to three for changing the church's position on contraception, with three abstentions. An agreement had been reached before the vote was taken to submit only one report for the commission, but Cardinal Ottaviani and Father Ford, seeing how things were going, had prepared a document of their own, which would later be misrepresented as an official minority document. There was only one official document, the sole one voted on by the bishops who had authority to report the body's findings. (Ottaviani was the one who had brought in these officials, hoping to get the result he wanted. When he failed to, he ignored his own device.)

The Ford "report," drawn up with Germain Grisez, said that any change was inconceivable. This was not because there were rational arguments against change: "If we could bring forward arguments which are clear and cogent based on reason alone, it would not be necessary for our Commission to exist, nor would the present state of affairs exist in the Church." No, the real reason to keep the teaching was that it was the teaching: "The Church could not have erred through so many centuries, even through one century, by imposing under serious obligation very grave burdens in the name of Jesus Christ, if Jesus Christ did not actually impose these burdens." Or, as Ford had put it in earlier debate, if the church sent all those souls to hell, it must keep maintaining that that is where they are.

This was not an argument that made sense, at this point, to the commission -- to bishops any more than to the theologians or lay experts. But it was the one argument that, in the end, mattered to Paul VI. He took advantage of the so-called "minority report" to say that he could not accept the commission's findings since there had been disagreement with it. Nine of the twelve bishops, fifteen of the nineteen theologians, and thirty of the thirty-five nonepiscopal members of the commission were not enough for him. Votes on the decrees in the Council had not been unanimous either, but he did not call them invalid for that reason. Paul's real concern was with the arguments that Ottaviani brought to him after the report was submitted. He knew what was worrying the Pope, and could play on that. F. X. Murphy had observed one thing about Paul's behavior throughout the meetings of the Council:

"The Pope was a man obviously torn by doubts, tormented by scruples, haunted by thoughts of perfection, and above all dominated by an exaggerated concern -- some called it an obsession -- about the prestige of his office as Pope. His remarks on this score at times displayed an almost messianic fervor, a note missing in the more sedate utterances of his predecessors. His innumerable statements on the subject were made on almost every occasion, from casual week-day audiences or Sunday sermons from the window of his apartment to the most solemn gatherings in season and out of season. Since it was part of the strategy of the [conciliar] minority to accuse the majority of disloyalty toward the Holy Father, Paul's constant harping inevitably caused the majority to think that he perhaps did share these misgivings, at least to a certain extent. It was noticed by students of Paul's remarks that while he showed an open-mindedness about almost any other subject, on the single theme of the papacy his mind remained strangely closed to analysis."

Those words were written before Humanae Vitae was issued, but they explain the letter entirely.

The commission members left their work convinced that the Pope could no longer uphold a discredited teaching. When the report was leaked to the press, Catholics around the world took heart at the signs of change. So far from upsetting their faith, as the Pope feared, it heartened them. What would unsettle their faith was what Paul did next -- issue Humanae Vitae, with its reiteration of Casti Connubii's ban: "The church, calling men back to the observance of the natural law, as interpreted by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life." Catholics responded with an unparalleled refusal to submit. Polls registered an instant noncompliance with the encyclical. At a previously scheduled Catholic festival of devout young Germans at Essen, a resolution that those attending could not obey the encyclical passed through a crowd of four thousand with only ninety opposing votes. A simultaneous poll among German Catholics at large found that 68 percent of them thought the Pope was wrong on contraception. Similar findings rolled in from around the world.

What were bishops to do? The encyclical itself had ordered them to explain and enforce the Pope's decision, along with all priests:

"Be the first to give, in the exercise of your ministry, the example of loyal internal and external obedience to the teaching authority of the Church ... it is of the utmost importance, for peace of consciences and for the unity of the Christian people, that in the field of morals as well as in that of dogma, all should attend to the magisterium of the Church, and all should speak the same language."

But for the first time in memory, bishops' statements, while showing respect for the encyclical, told believers they could act apart from it if they felt bound by conscience to do so. The assembly of bishops in the Netherlands put it most bluntly: "The assembly considers that the encyclical's total rejection of contraceptive methods is not convincing on the basis of the arguments put forward." Other episcopal panels were more circumspect, but signaled that they would not consider those disobedient to the encyclical to be separating themselves from the sacraments. The Belgian bishops put it this way: "Someone, however, who is competent in the matter under consideration and capable of forming a personal and well-founded judgment -- which necessarily presupposes a sufficient amount of knowledge -- may, after serious examination before God, come to other conclusions on certain points." In other words: do not treat the Pope's words lightly, but follow your conscience after taking a serious look at them. That was the position taken by bishops in the United States ("the norms of licit dissent come into play"), Austria, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, the Philippines, West Germany, Japan, France, Scandinavia, and Switzerland. The Scandinavian statement was typical:

"Should someone, however, for grave and carefully considered reasons, not feel able to subscribe to the arguments of the encyclical, he is entitled, as has been constantly acknowledged, to entertain other views than those put forward in a non-infallible declaration of the Church. No one should, therefore, on account of such diverging opinions alone, be regarded as an inferior Catholic."

The Pope was stunned. He would spend the remaining ten years of his pontificate as if sleepwalking, unable to understand what had happened to him, why such open dissent was entertained at the very top of the episcopate. Four years after the publication of Humanae Vitae, when the Pope looked "cautious, nervous, anxious, alarmed," he deplored the defiance of church teaching in a sermon at Saint Peter's, and this was the only explanation he could come up with for the defiance: "Through some crack in the temple of God, the smoke of Satan has entered." He was increasingly melancholy and prone to tears. Had he opened that crack in the temple of God? Even as a nagging suspicion this was a terrible burden to bear. It explains the atmosphere of darkening tragedy that hung about his final years. He would not issue another encyclical in all those ten years. He was a prisoner of the Vatican in a way that went beyond his predecessors' confinement there. He was imprisoned in its structures of deceit. Meanwhile, Father Ford, who had assisted his fellow Jesuit Gustave Martelet in drawing up Humanae Vitae under Cardinal Ottaviani's direction, went back to the seminary where he had taught moral theology for years and found that the Jesuit seminarians there refused to take his classes, since they knew from others in the Order what he had done in Rome. As a result of what he considered his life's great coup, his teaching career was over.

The whole Catholic attitude toward authority in general shifted with the allowed dissent on Humanae Vitae. What could be done about that? Paul's hands, by his own act, were tied. Were those of future Popes as well? Paul's immediate successor, John Paul (Albano Luciani) seemed to signal that he would move away from the Casti Connubii ban. When the world's first test tube baby was born, the Pope took the extraordinary step of sending his congratulations, even though Humanae Vitae condemned in vitro fertilization. He told newsmen:

"I send the most heartfelt congratulations to the English baby girl whose conception was produced artificially. As for her parents I have no right to condemn them... They could even deserve great merit before God for what they wanted and asked the doctors to accomplish."

This was the kind of warm pastoral statement John XXIII was known for, and Luciani disturbed some in the Curia with the fear that they were in for another Johannine papacy. But Luciani died after a mere month in office, to be succeeded by a man who took his name from him, but little else. Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla of Poland, quickly showed by his words and actions that he was even more strict on contraception than Paul had been. He mounted a sustained conceptual and disciplinary defense of Humanae Vitae, insisting on its strict acceptance in his world travels. He solemnly celebrated the encyclical's tenth anniversary in 1978. The following year he launched a long series of discourses on sex published as The Theology of the Body. He quashed all dissent on Humanae Vitae at the 1980 Synod of Bishops meeting to discuss the family. In 1981 he issued a long (120-page) document on the same subject, the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. In 1988, he followed that up with an equally long encyclical (Veritatis Splendor) reasserting the teaching power of the church in this and other areas. Besides, he has shown a clear determination to appoint only bishops who will back him up on contraception -- though the body of the faithful has drifted farther away from him, on this point, all through his time in office. The double consciousness of Catholics is increasingly being stratified, the hierarchy accepting the papal view and the laity ignoring it. Only priests, caught between the two strata, are expected to incorporate both views in their conduct.

Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer by Garry Wills

Bookish and retiring, Garry Wills has been an outsider in the academy, in journalism, even in his church. Yet these qualities have paradoxically prompted others to share intimate insights with him -- perhaps because he is not a rival, a competitor, or a threat. As an observer, he has been able to look in on extraordinary and unlikely places and events -- jails, police raids, opera singers' backstage dressing rooms, strippers' changing areas, church rectories, Pentagon offices.

Here Wills offers a captivating account of his adventures: his salad days as a young reporter for Esquire, covering presidential campaigns from the rear seats of prop planes knee-to-knee with the candidates; investigating Jack Ruby in the demimonde of Dallas; riding in a bus from Memphis to Atlanta with the striking sanitation workers whom Martin Luther King Jr. was supporting when he was assassinated; writing for the charismatic William F. Buckley until their falling-out over Wills's increasingly outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. The book opens with a vivid account of Wills being arrested for the first time, along with Judy Collins, Dr. Spock, Richard Avedon, and other luminaries protesting the funding for the war. Only Garry Wills could bring together in one book Barry Goldwater, Daniel Berrigan, Beverly Sills, and John Waters. From high to low, from left to right, Wills shares, as only the best raconteurs can, stories of the fascinating people he has closely observed in his life, including moving portraits of his flamboyant father and his match made in heaven with his wife, Natalie.

With his dazzling style and journalist's eye for detail, Wills brings history to life, whether it's the civil rights movement, the protests of the 1960s, or close-up studies of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and many others. Illuminating and provocative, Outside Looking In is a compelling chronicle of an original thinker at work in remarkable times.

Garry Wills has written acclaimed and bestselling works, including Lincoln at Gettysburg, What Jesus Meant, and Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State. His books have received many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. A professor of history emeritus at Northwestern University, Wills is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and other publications.

Review: 'Outside Looking In' by Garry Wills


November 4, 2010

Having dared to try to explain Jesus, the Gettysburg Address and John Wayne in previous books, is Garry Wills slacking off a bit by gazing inward? Not if examining one's own life is a writer's greatest test.

Wills meets the challenge with his usual literary aplomb in Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer (Viking, $25.95). This collection of well-crafted essays, in which he revisits people he has encountered and events he has witnessed as a journalist, professor and historian, might be the only later-in-life memoir we will see from the busy Pulitzer Prize winner.

He seems comfortable in his own skin, whether it's as a bookish teenager who annoyed his father by reading so much or as a conventional adult who never smoked marijuana (or even tobacco) and never looked for love beyond his one and only.

Wills made himself heard through his writing. A conservative who opposed the Vietnam War, wrote critically of Richard Nixon and concluded that Alger Hiss was indeed guilty of treason, he could be difficult to pigeonhole politically. That he was close to the left-wing oral historian Studs Terkel and to the right-wing columnist William F. Buckley Jr. is a reminder that one who revels in intellectual inquiry can treasure the company of all kinds of people.

Though loyal and empathetic, Wills is not blind to the flaws of friends and loved ones. Among the few people who merit their own chapters are his father and Buckley. Both men were risk-takers who brought to his life an excitement and recklessness that he couldn't generate himself. One of the few regrets he expresses is the 30-year silence that followed a disagreement with Buckley.

Some people rubbed Wills the wrong way -- conspiracy theorists, religious hypocrites and self-centered actors don't fare well in his memory -- and he recalls a slight with apparent ease. More readily, he recollects a kindness. Hillary Rodham Clinton insisted on a hug instead of a cordial handshake even though her friend had recently suggested that her husband resign after the Monica Lewinsky affair.

This slender book couldn't be a more fitting way for an insightful writer to cherish the years he has spent observing others.