This coming July will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark encyclical of Blessed Paul VI, Humanae Vitae. Promulgating this document on the licit and illicit means of regulating birth surely went against the grain of the Pontiff who, by nature, avoided conflict at all costs; he issued the letter, surely knowing full well that conflict would ensue. It is one of the clearest signs of the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church that a pope so given to irenicism would be willing to take on the opprobrium of the world and of all too many in the Church.
Humanae Vitae has marked my life in the Church. I entered college seminary a mere three weeks after its promulgation. Significantly, the very first night of priestly formation, the senior seminarians asked us freshmen (kids seventeen or eighteen years of age) to declare ourselves: Are you with the Pope or the theologians (by which they meant the dissenters)? Amazingly, our class was evenly divided. Perhaps even more amazingly, with the passage of eight years of philosophical and theological studies, not one of us changed his position. The shadow of HV hung over every aspect of seminary life: liturgy, priestly spirituality, dogma, morality, canon law, pastoral praxis.
Paul VI was warned by the German specialist in the history of the Council of Trent, Hubert Jedin, that if the Pope did not engage the battle to maintain the truth of HV, losses to the Church of the twentieth century would eclipse losses sustained from the Protestant Reformation. Jedin never received a reply from the Pope he was trying to help. Sound familiar?
One of the arguments put forth by the HV dissenters was that the encyclical had failed to garner “ecclesial reception.” Neither the term nor the concept was a novelty; however, its use was insidious. Ecclesial reception refers to the process by which the Church at all levels, but especially through the worldwide college of bishops, takes a teaching to heart, thereby recognizing it as part of the Deposit of Faith. Blessed Pius IX had recourse to reception in the lead-up to his solemn definition of the dogma of Our Lady’s immaculate conception, asking the bishops of the world if that doctrine formed part of the sensus fidelium. Venerable Pius XII did the same before proclaiming the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption.
The theologians dissenting from HV pointed to the responses of many episcopal conferences which openly questioned the Pope’s teaching or at least finessed it in such a way as to make it meaningless. Interestingly, the American episcopate came down solidly on the side of the Pope in their pastoral letter, Human Life in Our Day. At any rate, the dissenters asserted that the lack of support (“reception”) essentially nullified the encyclical. By a curious turn of events, those who dissented from the papal document in 1968 (and/or their theological descendants) are now cheerleaders for Amoris Laetitia, the 2016 apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis.
What I find most curious of all is that these “cheerleaders” have not taken into account the “non-reception” of this exhortation. What do I mean? If a supposedly fatal flaw of HV was the lack of episcopal support (truth be told, that is not the sole criterion for authentic teaching; standing in continuity with previous teaching is paramount), why are they unwilling to apply that standard today?
Critics of AL’s eighth chapter are deeply concerned about the confusion sown there and seem to think they are lonely “voices crying in the wilderness.” I beg to differ. Great publicity has been given to bishops who have interpreted AL as permitting divorced/remarrieds to receive Holy Communion. In point of fact, the number of such bishops is minuscule. According to my calculations, only two diocesan bishops in the United States have promoted that position; two bishops in Malta; a region of Argentine bishops; a committee of German bishops. Out of more than 5,000 bishops in the universal Church, I don’t think we can consider supporters of the problematic practice as constituting “reception.” Actually, bishops dealing with AL at all have come down on the side of maintaining the immemorial discipline of the Church which denies Communion to those who persist in an adulterous union. The first American diocese out of the gate was Archbishop Charles Chaput’s Philadelphia. The statement of the US episcopal conference is likewise orthodox, like that of Poland’s hierarchy. The bishops of Kazakstan are the latest in what is, in reality, a rather long procession – and who can forget the “dubia” cardinals? In other words, either through positive teaching in favor of the tradition or silence in the wake of AL, the worldwide episcopate has not tendered “reception.”
If we add the category of the “sensus fidelium,” again we do not find support for any change in discipline. In the past two years of hearing confessions in a broad swath of the Church in this country, I have not had a single penitent ask about availing himself/herself of the supposed opening of Communion for the divorced and remarried. Further, every priest of my acquaintance confirms my experience. Simply put, neither at the hierarchical level nor at the level of the lay faithful has a permissive reading of AL been accepted into the life of the Church.
Pope Francis cannot turn a postcard response to a group of bishops into “authentic magisterium.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, reminds us:
This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed. (CCC, 86)
What are some other “take-aways” in this confused and confusing moment of ecclesial life?
When AL made its debut, I offered a detailed commentary in The Catholic Response (May-June 2016). While noting some passages which could cause concern, I suggested treating the exhortation as admitting of a totally orthodox interpretation (which is indeed possible). Had that advice been followed, the innovators would have had the burden of proving their case, rather than those expressing reservations about particular passages. Unfortunately, that toothpaste can’t be put back into the tube.
However, I would like to make two other strategic suggestions.
First, let’s re-visit what Vatican I taught about the charism of infallibility, namely, that the charism inheres in the Church as a whole and not in the pope. Rather, in certain very limited, clearly defined circumstances, the pope may exercise that charism. There has been a kind of “creeping infallibilism” in the Church over the past several decades, so much so that I daresay that the Fathers of Vatican I would be astonished at how so many papal utterances are accorded authoritative status. Somewhat amusingly, dissenters from traditional moral norms are now touting “respect for the Holy Father” whom they mocked fifty years ago. That said, Catholics do not worship the pope; they worship the Triune God. When the infallibility debate was in full bloom, W. G. Ward opined, “I should like a new Papal Bull every morning with my Times at breakfast.” In the wake of the conciliar definition of infallibility, Gladstone produced a pamphlet alleging that Catholics no longer had freedom of thought. That, in turn, provoked John Henry Newman to write his 150-page Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. He ends with a flourish, his famous toast: “To the Pope, if you please, – still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” Undoubtedly, that is what the Fathers of Vatican II meant by asserting that the magisterium serves the Word of God and does not control or contradict it. Papolatry is not Catholic, regardless from which side of the aisle it emanates.
Second, on last December 17, Father Maurizio Chiodi delivered a lecture at the Gregorian University in Rome as part of the institution’s series commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of HV. His remarks were a strong echo of the dissenters of 1968 – truly troublesome, especially since he was recently appointed to the Pontifical Academy for Life. While all that is lamentable, my guess is that his presentation was probably not heard by more than two or three dozen people. Those justifiably scandalized by the lecture spread word of the talk far and wide, thus giving heterodoxy major publicity. This approach on the part of loyal sons and daughters of the Church has been employed throughout the crisis born of AL – unwisely, in my estimation. While falsehood needs to be confronted, prudence also has a role to play. Who said what to whom under what circumstances? Who is best situated to deal with the problem? What is the most appropriate forum? In this age of rampant recourse to social media, not only are false teachings propagated but everyone with a Facebook or Twitter account feels qualified to enter the fray.
Even though this is an uncomfortable hour in the life of the Church, it has ample precedent in her history. Lest we forget, nearly every bishop walking into the Council of Nicea was an Arian or at least had Arian sympathies, prompting St. Jerome to remark: “The whole world groaned and marveled to find itself Arian.” The courage of bishops like Nicholas and Athanasius and the faith of common folk brought about victory for orthodoxy. I suspect that the Holy Spirit is using the present disconcerting situation to teach us a similar lesson, issuing in a similar happy result.