Quentin de la Bedoyere meets one of the last surviving original members of the famous papal commission on birth control
he last 40 years has seen, in western countries, a dramatic decline in active Catholic membership, marriages and vocations. And many would attribute in large measure this sorry state of affairs to the publication by Pope Paul VI of Humanae Vitae on My 25 1968. Its ruling that the established teaching on the intrinsic evil of contraception should remain in force rejected the firm recommendations of the Papal Commission which had been studying the issue since it had been appointed by John XXIII. It first met in October 1963.
Professor John Marshall, a distinguished neurologist who had spent much of his professional life studying the science behind natural family planning and working with the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (now Marriage Care), was a founder member of the commission. Now he was digging into his excellent memory. This could be the last time a founder member would be able to tell us about a proceeding of deep significance to the Church. I asked him if the task had been to examine whether the traditional teaching should be modified.
"On the contrary," he replied. "The UN was concerned with discussions on population problems, and our job was to establish the firmest and most coherent support for Catholic teaching based on good science and demographics. I don't think anyone at that stage thought of any change in the teaching itself. But our little band of six realised the need for additional firepower. So when we reconvened we had seven additions:' Five of these additions were theologians, including Joseph Fuchs and Bernard Haring — theologians of international reputation. How important were the theologians?
"Not just important — crucial, as it turned out. Pierre de Lochte's contribution proved to be a turning point."
He continued: "The commission, urged on by the growing scientific knowledge that only a small minority of acts of intercourse could lead to conception, had begun to consider whether the issue should change its focus from the old categories of the primary and secondary ends of marriage — and its sexual expression, to the community of love in the marriage. And the question of the structure of the marriage act did not of course apply to the Pill. So we had to dig deeper. and it was de Lochte who clarified that we were now dealing with questions of fundamental theology."
I wondered whether that was when the commission realised that the teaching would have to change.
"Certainly not. There was strong opposition to any change from some. and even those who were prepared to contemplate it were initially very uncertain and alive to the momentous consequences of change. I would describe it as a gradual realisation by the majority over periods of long discussion and thought. You must remember that by the time of the final general meeting in 1965, there were 58 members, and now included Catholic married couples."
I asked him to summarise the outcome of these considerations.
"Do you want the short answer or the long answer?" But he did not need my reply; he is a succinct man with a brain like a scalpel blade. "The short answer is that we concluded that the foundation is married love which expresses itself ideally and most hilly in the generous procreation of children, both in their conception and continued care. Taken within this perspective 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."
I asked whether natural planning would not have offered a satisfactory method of achieving these objectives Without interfering with the structure of sexual intercourse. 'He took the view that it was man's vocation to invent or discover ways of bringing order to creation. 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.
Although he and others were well aware that natural family planning, as used at that time, could be a problem for many, the presentation by the late Patty Crowley (who co-founded with her husband the Catholic Family Movement in America) of a survey she had been asked to conduct brought, he said, a taste of reality to those who had little pastoral experience.
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. It would be difficult to repeat such a survey now in the light of improved methods, since practising Catholic married couples who use natural family planning exclusively are no longer representative of the general population.
It was Patty who was later to reply to Fr Marcelino Zalba's question: "What then with the millions we have sent to hell, if the rules are relaxed?" She responded "Fr Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?
"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. They based their case on the tradition of the Church, and the moral laxity which contraception would introduce. Interestingly, the Pope cited the natural law in support of his final judgment — but without giving any further reasoning. And none has been forthcoming."
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.
In view of the ultimate decision, I asked Professor Marshall whether he thought that the Pope was determined from the first to reject any recommendation for change.
"No, I believe it was an agonising decision for him. He was consistently encouraging us to debate freely even when the devel oping trend of our thought was reported to him. He was a man who was open to persuasion, and it seems that in the end he was persuaded, probably by the so-called Holy Office, that the maintaining of the Church's consistent authority was more important than the insights of the commission."
"But might he not have been right in thinking that a change in such a firm teaching would have been scandalous to many people, and eroded the Church's authority'?" I asked.
"Certainly there would have been many distressed people — particularly those who were not aware that such changes in noninfallible teachings have occurred in the past. As an example, the Council's change in the Church's teaching on freedom of conscience in matters of religion was even more radical but did not attract popular attention. And the inevitable fuss would have been as nothing compared with the long term effects of maintaining the teaching."
I wondered whether he was referring to the very substantial drop in Catholic practice, marriages and vocations since then.
"Certainly that. 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 Magisteriurn'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."
I thought that the distinction between a doctrine being taught and a docttine being received had deep theological significance for the nature of the Church. Butthat was for another occasion, so I asked Professor Marshall to sum up.
"The papal commission could be described as an aberration. Asking experts from relevant disciplines to study a doctrinal question and make recommendations had never happened before — and it's unlikely to happen again. Yet there are so many problems.
For instance, we are asked to tackle the .shortage of vocations through Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Excellent in itself, but it should be complemented by a fullscale commission, making use of the Church's full resources — clerical and lay. But I doubt if it will be.
"Frankly I am gloomy about tie present prospects for the Church. The only bright light is the growth of Eucharistic:.tommunities led by good priests. That may be the future of the Church, as Karl Raker suggested."
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