Marengo’s Lament: ‘The Birth of an Encyclical’ unwittingly confirms old truths

Pope Paul VI had no doubts about the truth of the doctrinal teaching he set forth in Humanae Vitae, but he knew that given the signs of the times the teaching would be hard to receive.

Left: The cover of the Italian book, "The Birth of an Encyclical: 'Humanae Vitae' in the Light of the Vatican Archives," written by Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo, who was given special access by Pope Francis to research "Humane Vitae" in the Vatican Archives. (CNS photo/Libreria Editrice Vaticana); right: Pope Paul VI is pictured in this undated photo. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In early 2017, Pope Francis set up a four-man study committee to prepare for the 50th anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae (July 25, 2018) (HV).  It included Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo, theologian at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences at Rome, who was appointed chairman; Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, theologian and President of the same Institute; Msgr. Angelo Maffeis, head of the Paul VI Institute in Brescia; and French historian, Philippe Chenaux, Lecturer at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.

Church law provides that scholars may have access to the Holy See’s archived materials only after seventy years.  In light of the anniversary, Pope Francis made an exception giving the committee full access to documentation on the preparation of HV from both the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the Vatican Secret Archives.  The committee’s charge was to reconstruct the process by which the text came about, looking at preliminary drafts, noting the input of consulters, and, most importantly, trying to illuminate the intentions of Paul VI for its final content.

One of the first fruits of the committee’s work has recently been published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana (Vatican Publishing House), Msgr. Marengo’s The Birth of an Encyclical: Humanae Vitae in the light of the Vatican Archives (La Nascita di Un’Enciclica: Humanae Vitae alla luce degli Archivi Vaticani, July 10, 2018).  The book is very hard to get hold of in the United States; my copy is on order.  This essay is prepared from reading multiple reviews, mostly from European sources, especially the piece by Andrea Tornielli in Vatican Insider, which quotes extensively from the text.

From the reports, we can confidently conclude that the committee unearthed nothing of great significance, and certainly no smoking gun that would undermine the credibility of HV’s teaching.  If it did, the gleeful response of its opponents would be irrepressible.

But it did find two points of secondary interest that defenders of the despised document will find encouraging.

Multiple drafts

First, Marengo tells us that on May 9, 1968 (remember, the document was published on July 25, 1968), after five years of preparatory work, Pope Paul VI approved a draft of an encyclical entitled, De nascendi prolis (“On the bearing of offspring”).  The text was predominantly the work of Fr. Mario Luigi Ciappi, OP, who himself was revising a 1967 CDF text that no doubt was a committee text.  Pope Paul had even set a date for De nascendi’s promulgation: the Solemnity of the Ascension (May 23, 1968).

Marengo laments that the Ciappi text was “a rigorous pronouncement of moral doctrine”.  His lament may contain a seed of truth.  Ciappi was a traditional Thomist.  Thomas’s writings on contraception, unlike his writings on the virtue of chastity, killing, or other weighty moral issues, are clunky and physicalistic (see Summa Contra Gentiles, bk. III, ch. 122, nos. 4-5). Ciappi was fond of quoting Aquinas in later references to the teaching of Humanae Vitae.  It is not improbable that parts of his draft were straight out of Aquinas. 

Marengo then tells us that two French translators, Msgrs. Jacques Martin and Paul Poupard, along with Msgr. Benelli at the Secretariat of State, expressed concerns to the Pope that the Ciappi text was too “traditional”.  In consequence, Paul VI put Martin and Poupard in charge of reworking it.  Marengo says the Martin-Poupard version proposed “a profound change in style and approach,” above all in the first and third parts (the introductory and pastoral sections respectively), but that the fundamental doctrinal contents remained the same.

Paul VI was not content with this text either.  Again, Marengo says “all the main doctrinal principles” were in place, but the pope thought the pastoral section was still lacking; he wanted problems of the conjugal life to be better framed in terms of fidelity to the loving plan of God.

With the assistance of Archbishop Paul-Pierre Philippe, CDF Secretary, and Rev. Benoit Duroux OP, CDF consulter, Pope Paul modified the pastoral section, making, we are told, multiple emendations with his own hand, and finally approving the text on July 8. 

So between Spring and Summer of 1968, Ciappi’s De nascendi prolis became Humanae Vitae, published, as noted, on July 25.

Marengo’s bias

Multiple reviewers of the Marengo text have repeated the claim that we now know that what was of greatest interest to Paul VI in the drafting of the encyclical was the pastoral teaching in Part III, not the doctrinal principles asserted in Part II.

Marengo himself argues from the fact that Pope Paul was satisfied with the essential contents of Ciappi’s doctrinal section yet required considerable emendations of his pastoral presentation, that “the lawfulness or unlawfulness of contraception was not the object of the future magisterial intervention”; in other words, HV’s doctrinal condemnation of contraceptive acts was of secondary import to Pope Paul; what was really on his mind and heart were the contents of the pastoral section.  Marengo even claims that by emphasizing the notion of “conjugal love,” Paul VI signaled “an implicit downgrading [decentramento] of attention upon the procreative end of marriage.”

But a much more plausible reading, more in accord with the character and history of Paul VI, is that the pope believed that the text’s doctrinal formulation of the moral norm against contraceptive acts was most relevant to the salvation of souls and happiness of the faithful; he was adamant from the start that his drafters should get it right and that its teaching should be both unambiguous and consistent with what the Church had always held and taught to be true about the morality of contraceptive acts; and he made clear that no waffling or nonsense would be tolerated; his drafters did what he asked and achieved the clarity he sought for in the earlier drafts.  Moreover, rather than concluding any diminution of the primacy of the procreative end of marriage and the marital act, the truth seems rather to be that the pope intended to elevate the unitive purpose of marriage to a co-equal status with procreation.  (More on this below.)

Marengo is a leading proponent of the method of pastoral accompaniment presented in Amoris Laetitia (AL).  Recall that this method has lead bishops’ conferences around the world to conclude that couples living in unchaste second marriages, who have not received annulments, may return fully reconciled to the Church (i.e., receive holy communion) without a resolution to live chastely.

Marengo transforms Pope Paul VI into a kind of glad harbinger for the so-called paradigm shift signalled in Amoris Laetitia.  Marengo insists the pope understood “the difficult cultural and social conditions in which married couples live”; that he expressed a “realistic recognition of the common experience of weakness and sin”; and that he knew above all that “human freedom always adheres imperfectly” to the demands of Gospel; consequently, he dropped “any tone of doctrinal and disciplinary rigor” in his teaching on the conjugal life, “shifting the focus rather to the perspective of accompanying couples, who are invited to progressively adhere to the fullness of the Christian form of their mutual love” (emphasis added); yet even knowing that perfect adherence lies far in the distance for most couples, the pope nevertheless believed that the “Church must always propose its teaching with fidelity and completeness.”

Notice the salient elements of the story: de-emphasize doctrine in favor of pastoral method; emphasize the difficult cultural and social conditions that make it difficult to live the Gospel; formulate pastoral care in terms of “accompanying” sinners; call the Christian life a journey towards—but never perfect conformity to—the fullness of fidelity to the Gospel; and emphasize “the common experience of weakness and sin”. 

Marengo’s implicit message?  Fidelity to HV’s doctrinal teaching is not what we should consider most important, because it wasn’t what was most important to Pope Paul VI.  What was most important was accompanying couples who though mired in sin nonetheless advance progressively though imperfectly towards a life of full conformity to the Gospel. 

Paul VI and collegiality

The second point of interest concerns the decades old claim that Paul VI acted in solitude and contrary to collegiality in preparing the document.  Marengo’s account trashes the claim.  It tells us that in October 1967, Paul VI sent a survey to 200 bishops then at Rome for the first synod inviting them to send him reflections and suggestions on the question of birth control.  Only 26 responded, including two familiar supporters of the later document, Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Krakow, and Fulton J. Sheen, Bishop of Rochester.  A majority of the responses, however, like the majority of the members of the papal birth control commission, recommended overturning the ancient teaching, including—surprisingly—Cardinals Krol of Philadelphia and Wright of Pittsburgh, and unsurprisingly, Suenens of Brussels and Döpfner of Munich.

Suenens argued that the pope’s permitting of the contraceptive pill under certain circumstances would be analogous to Pius XII’s judgment on the licit use of the Calendar Rhythm Method to regulate births.  Just as Pius’s teaching introduced an element of novelty over and above the teaching of Casti Connubii, but contained nothing contradictory to it, so too, Sunenes argued, approval of the pill would introduce a novelty while maintaining continuity with past Church teaching.  Paul VI was not persuaded.

Archbishop Wojtyła, rather than replying to the papal survey with a simple placet/non-placet, drafted a lengthy reply representing the judgment (votum) of the bishops of Poland, a document Marengo refers to as the “Krakow Reflections” (Memoriale di Cracovia).  In it Wojtyła expresses two concerns related to what he believed was too great an accent on the authority of the Church’s teaching.  First, he was dissatisfied with the “special emphasis” on the question of infallible continuity; he said that since the pope deemed it necessary to reexamine the problem of birth control by setting up the pontifical commission, it cannot be taken for granted that the traditional rejection of contraceptive acts “belonged definitively to the infallible ordinary magisterium of the Church.”  Second, he felt that there was too heavy an emphasis upon the authoritative profile of the traditional ecclesial judgment and too little concern with presenting persuasive arguments for making the reasons for that judgment intelligible.  Marengo doubts the Krakow Reflections had much impact upon the drafting of HV.

I respectfully disagree.  Part II of the encyclical does exactly what Wojtyła recommends.  It presents a concise elegant argument for the Catholic Church’s teaching on conjugal chastity.  Repeating the most important contribution of Vatican II to the marriage debates of the day, it teaches that marriage is first and foremost a relationship characterized by “conjugal love” (see Gaudium et Spes, nos. 49-50).  To call love “conjugal” means it entails at once a union—wholly unique to itself—of body and soul (Latin: coniungo: to bind together, join, unite).  This love, HV 9 teaches, again following Vatican II, has four elements: it is fully human; total; faithful and exclusive till death; and fruitful.  Demonstrating that the pope didn’t mean to downgrade the procreative purpose of marriage, HV proceeds to quote Vatican II’s most beautiful—and thoroughly traditional—text on the subject:

Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare (Gaudium et Spes, 50).

This teaching, HV continues, repeated by the magisterium “on numerous occasions,” is “founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God, which man may not break on his own initiative, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (no. 12).  In other words, marriage is by nature a unitve and procreative type of friendship.  Unity and procreation are its intrinsic goods.

It follows that any action contrary to either good—including, the pope teaches, “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or a means” (no. 14)—is contrary to marriage and therefore wrongful.  It surprises me that Marengo would claim that “the sources [we studied] do not allow us to affirm that these texts [i.e., the Krakow Reflections] have been used in a significant way in the writing of Humanae vitae.”


Marengo’s text concludes lamenting the fact that the teaching of HV has become to both defenders and opponents a kind of litmus test for respective identity profiles in the Church.  Expressing his own view of the polarity in the Catholic world, he writes:

Two extreme attitudes have thus been favored: a prejudicial rejection of its teaching, or a defense – without ifs and buts – that gave it the disproportionate role of the definitive bulwark at every crisis in the church and in the world.

Notice he relegates to the margins of the “extreme” those who firmly accept and hold—without ifs and buts—the moral teaching of HV.  It is important, however, to see that it is not they, but Marengo (and those who agree with him) whose attitudes are extreme.  For they substantially depart from the solemn Professio Fidei (Profession of Faith) authoritatively promulgated by St. John Paul II in the Apostolic Letter Ad Tuendam Fidem, in which every Catholic, in order to be in full communion with the Church, must be able to profess:

Moreover I adhere with submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.

We can be confident that “teachings” here includes the doctrinal judgment against contraceptive acts formulated in Humanae Vitae.

I can only imagine …

The story Marengo tells us about HV’s preparation and fate can be—and you may be jolly well sure will be—elaborated and extended.  Permit me a small degree of literary license to do so.   (To be spoken with an Italian accent … )

After 50 years, we see that HV failed in its attempt to win adherents to its rigorous doctrines on regulating births.  This must mean its teaching was not an end in itself, but rather a work in progress.  We must wrench HV from the hands of doctrinal rigorists who wish to turn the bread of Church teaching into stones to throw at sinners.  We must acknowledge that there are many Catholics, whose lives are knotted in circumstances that admit of no easy answers.  These may not be able to conform perfectly to HV’s doctrine on the use of artificial birth control.  But Church teaching is not for “the perfect”; rather it’s for sinners.  Yes, the doctrine represents an ideal towards which we all may strive.  But who are we to judge those who are unable to reach the ideal?  Catholic pastoral practice therefore should offer more leeway for people to follow their own consciences on the use of contraception; and however they choose, especially if accompanied in the inner forum by a loving priest, our merciful response should, indeed must, be to say to them—as we now have said to remarried divorcees—‘You are free to receive the body and blood of Jesus without amending your lives, so long as you are sincere.’

The book’s real take away

What should we get out of Marengo’s book?  We should see that Pope Paul VI had no doubts about the truth of the doctrinal teaching he set forth in HV, but that he knew given the signs of the times that the teaching would be hard to receive.  The pope didn’t back down in setting it forth with as much clarity as he could.  And retrospectively his only regrets were not about his decisions to reject the erroneous opinions of his advisors and the clamoring secular world, but about the widespread rejection of HV’s truths.

I do not believe Paul VI was a prophet.  And I will leave it to the Church to decide if he was a saint.  But his life does demonstrate that he was a faithful pastor of souls.  He wanted everyone in the world to know that wherever intercourse is chosen, if someone intentionally renders that intercourse sterile, he or she does something contrary to the good of marriage, something that is objectively gravely evil, humanly bad for those who do it, and disintegrating of the common good of the community in which it is done.

God grant us more such faithful pastors.

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About E. Christian Brugger 7 Articles
Dr. E. Christian Brugger is a moral theologian living in Front Royal, Virginia.


  1. To be blunt (and crude): if I hear once more about “accompanying,” I will probably barf my guts out.

    A shepherd who is any good doesn’t “accompany” members of his flock, he guides them. Especially when they put themselves in danger.

  2. Pope Francis is 100% comprised and should step down for a man who believes in the fullness of Catholic faith.

    Marengo is dead wrong about sexuality and Matrimony. Here’s the ultimate truth that he ignores: procreation and conjugal live are ABSOLUTELY EQUAL in the eyes of The Lord who made us.

    There is no balance to be struck. Total openness to life is absolutely equal to conjugal union with our espoused. The willingness to totally consecrate and dedicate ourselves, even give our very lives, for our spouse and children is the only imitation of Christ for man and woman, outside of priesthood and religious vows.

    Any man or woman must be willing to give their whole life, and even die, for their beloved, which is the only token of love that is worthy of conjugal union. Every sexual act done outside of such love is trespassing on the body, which is The Temple of The Lord.

    To the extent that Pope Paul and his faithful drafters recognized the goodness and truth and beauty of conjugal live, they succeeded by showing that conjugal live has ABSOLUTE IDENTITY with Procreation.

    • Except that they are not (Dr Brugger is mistaken here as well). The primary end of marriage is procreation, the secondary end the mutual help and perfection of the spouses.

      The Church is very clear on this, as Pope Pius XII puts it:

      “It was precisely to end the uncertainties and deviations which threatened to diffuse errors regarding the scale of values of the purposes of matrimony and of their reciprocal relations, that a few years ago (March 10, 1944), We Ourselves drew up a declaration on the order of those ends, pointing out what the very internal structure of the natural disposition reveals. We showed what has been handed down by Christian tradition, what the Supreme Pontiffs have repeatedly taught, and what was then in due measure promulgated by the Code of Canon Law [*1917 Code of Canon Law 1013, n. 1]. Not long afterwards, to correct opposing opinions, the Holy See, by a public decree, proclaimed that it could not admit the opinion of some recent authors who denied that the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of offspring, or who teach that the secondary ends are not essentially subordinated to the primary end, but are equal in principle and independent of it. ”

      If Paul VI in certain places emphasis the goodness and purpose of the secondary end, as does JPII, that should not be read as changing the teaching of the Church changing and flipping their order (or the linguistic absurdity of “co-equal primaries”), but merely that they wished to say something about the goodness, dignity, and importance of even the secondary end. That is, the secondary end is a true good, not just “Oh, and also…”

      But it a bad idea to take their teachings on the goodness of the secondary end as subverting the Church’s teaching on the hierarchy of ends, which are attached to the nature of marriage itself.

      • “Every sexual act done outside of such love is trespassing on the body, which is The Temple of The Lord.”

        This is completely false as well. The propriety of sexual acts is not dependent on the saintliness or affections of the spouses, but rather to the nature of marriage (and of the act) itself.

        Firstly, natural marriage has a dignity from God and the marital act in a natural marriage is perfectly honorable; but it would seem rather absurd to say that a Buddhist ought to love his wife as Christ loved the Church.

        It will not do to say that he ought to love his wife that much anyway, since when we talk about the Sacrament of Matrimony we are talking not about an amount of love, but about *charity*, which is a theological virtue given by grace. It is a difference of kind, not amount. A Buddhist, no matter how much he loves his wife, cannot love her “as Christ loves the Church”, but that does not mean that they are not really married or that when they do the acts proper to marriage they are “trespassing”.

        Turning to the Sacrament of Matrimony, a Catholic couple that is bitter, call each other names, and will hardly sacrifice a thing for each other, much less their lives, while obviously not acting as they ought, are still in a marriage which, as a sacrament, are joined together by God in a union which is a symbol of Christ and His Church and there is nothing dishonorable in the marital act between them. Even though they are falling far short of making that symbol obvious to themselves or to others, it is real, it is there, they are “one flesh” and when they come together in the marital act there is nothing dishonorable in it.

        There is a real danger in overly romanticizing marriage, and basically restricting its lawfulness to an imaginary, highly romantic love affair between saints. We are *all* called to be saints, and every married person is called, in part, to work out their salvation and sanctification precisely through their marriage.

        But the marriage is not debased nor the acts proper to it rendered into a “trespass” when a spouse fails to respond as they ought to that call to holiness. I can’t do better than to quote St Paul in saying, “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife; and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the believing husband: otherwise your children should be unclean; but now they are holy.”

  3. Brugger presents a valuable thorough exam of the Pontifical report contained in Marengo’s book. Excellent research and commentary. Although I disagree with his belief Paul VI was not a prophet. A prophet isn’t the common idea of predicting the future. Rather it is witness to Christ at the very moment in Church history 1968 when the pill already was in wide use among Catholics. Why then address the pastoral approach to conjugal relations centered on mutual love rather than the stricter dogmatic if not to witness to the divine love of God inherent in that mutual giving of self that cherishes the life transmitted and accepted by the other. Paul VI intended to say remove that dimension of human love and the inevitable outcome is devaluation of a divinely instituted good between Man and Woman. Exactly what we sadly witness today.

  4. As regards the possible o probable infallibility of the doctrine contained in HV, Germain Grisez and John Ford, S.J. make a powerful argument in favor of its infallibility according to the Ordinary Magisterium as expressed in Lumen Gentium 26 in an article published in Theological Studies in 1978. Their argument is very convincing.

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