“Humanae Vitae” Under Siege. But It Will Have To Go Over Wojtyla and Caffarra’s Dead Bodies

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By Chi Sono,L’Espresso, Feb. 2018

Fifty years after its publication, Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae” against artificial contraception is now solidly in the overhaul shop, as Settimo Cielo documented in the previous post.

And it is evident that Pope Francis’s intention is to bring about the reversal – which means in practice to legitimize contraceptives – in the most soothing manner, as if this were a matter of a natural and proper evolution, devoid of rupture, in perfect continuity with the preceding magisterium of the Church and with the “true” profound dynamic of the encyclical itself.

But if one looks just a bit behind it, this artifice does not by any means appear easy to realize. There are words of Francis’s predecessors that rise up like mountains against a change of the doctrine of “Humanae Vitae.”

They are words that the proponents of change take care not to cite. But there they are, irremovable.

There is in particular an address by John Paul II of November 12, 1988 that should suffice on its own to block the way.

Twenty years had gone by since the publication of “Humanae Vitae,” and Pope Karol Wojtyla took the opportunity to defend it as the be-all and end-all, carving into stone words like the following:

“This is not a matter of a doctrine invented by man: it has been inscribed by the creating hand of God within the very nature of the human person, and has been confirmed by him in revelation. Bringing it into question, therefore, is equivalent to refusing God himself the obedience of our intelligence. It is equivalent to preferring the light of our reason to the light of divine wisdom, thus falling into the darkness of error and ultimately undermining other fundamental mainstays of Christian doctrine.

In front of him were bishops and theologians from all over the world, meeting in Rome for a major congress on none other than “Humanae Vitae.”

And John Paul II wanted precisely to identify and refute the reasons that had led so many theologians and pastors to reject what Paul VI taught in that encyclical.


The first of these reasons – he said – concerns a mistaken understanding of the role of conscience:

“During these years, following the contestation of ‘Humanae Vitae,’ the Christian doctrine of moral conscience has itself been brought into question, accepting the idea of conscience as creator the moral norm. In this way has been radically broken that bond of obedience to the holy will of the Creator in which man’s very dignity consists. Conscience, in fact, is the ‘place’ in which man is illuminated by a light that does not stem from his created and always fallible reason, but from the very wisdom of the Word, in which all has been created. ‘Conscience,’ as Vatican II wonderfully writes, ‘is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths’ (Gaudium et Spes, 16).

From this – he continued – is unleashed a bad understanding of the Church’s magisterium:

“Since the Magisterium of the Church has been instituted by Christ the Lord to illuminate the conscience, […] one cannot, therefore, say that a believer has undertaken a diligent search for the truth if he does not take into account what the Magisterium teaches: if, equating it to any other source of knowledge, he sets himself up as its judge; if, in doubt, he follows instead his own opinion or that of theologians, preferring it to the certain teaching of the Magisterium.”

Just as the binding force of the moral norm is also undermined:

“Paul VI, qualifying the contraceptive act as intrinsically illicit, intended to teach that the moral norm is such as not to admit exceptions: no personal or social circumstance has ever been able to, can, or will be able to render such an act ordered in itself. The existence of particular norms in reference to the intra-worldly activity of man, endowed with such obligatory force as to exclude always and in any case the possibility of exceptions, is a constant teaching of the Magisterium of the Church that cannot be brought into question by the Catholic theologian.”

The error is so grave – John Paul II continued – that it brings into doubt the holiness of God:

“Here one touches upon a central point of the Christian doctrine concerning God and man. On close inspection what is brought into question in rejecting that teaching is the very idea of the holiness of God. In predestining us to be holy and immaculate in his sight, he has created us ‘in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’ (Eph 2:10): those moral norms are simply the demand, from which no historical circumstance can dispense, of the holiness of God who participates in the concrete, and indeed not in the abstract, in the individual human person.”

It nullifies the cross of Christ:

“Not only that, but this negation renders vain the cross of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 1:17). In becoming flesh, the Word entered fully into our everyday existence, which is articulated in concrete human acts; in dying for our sins, he re-created us in the original holiness that must express itself in our everyday intra-worldly activity.”

And finally, it involves the loss of man:

“And again: that negation implies, as a logical consequence, that there is no truth about man that is exempt from the flux of historical becoming. The nullification of the mystery of God, as always, ends up in the nullification of the mystery of man, and the non-recognition of the rights of God, as always, ends up in the negation of the dignity of man.”


In closing this address, John Paul II urged the professors of moral theology in the seminaries to transmit with absolute fidelity the message of “Humanae Vitae.” And in particular he entrusted this task to the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, which he founded in Rome a few years earlier and which in that very year, 1988, had created its first foreign branch, in Washington.

The head of the institute at that time was a theologian named Carlo Caffarra, who was also a consultant for the congregation for the doctrine of the faith headed at the time by Joseph Ratzinger, as well as being one of pope Wojtyla’s closest coworkers in matters concerning life and family.

And Caffarra’s mind and pen are easily recognizable in the text of the address cited above.

Caffarra was archbishop of Bologna from 2003 to 2015, and was one of the four cardinals who in 2016 submitted to Pope Francis five “dubia” on the correct interpretation of “Amoris Laetitia,” the postsynodal exhortation that is being used today as the source of a paradigm shift in the interpretation of “Humanae Vitae”:

Francis has never responded to the “dubia,” nor to the request to give an audience to the proponent cardinals, sent to him in a letter from Caffarra in the spring of 2017.

Caffarra died Last September 6, and even since then the pope has refrained from any gesture of understanding and esteem for him, even on October 1 when he went on a visit to Bologna.

As for the pontifical institute that still bears the name of John Paul II, Pope Francis refounded it last year with a new name: “For Marriage and Family Sciences,” and above all with a new grand chancellor in the person of Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, engrossed in “rethinking” the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” and therefore in legitimizing contraceptives, because – he says – “the norms are there to enliven human beings, not to operate robots.”


(The address cited above is in any case not the only one in which John Paul II reproposed and defended the teaching of “Humanae Vitae.” Another can be recalled from June 5, 1987, addressed to participants in a study meeting on the natural regulation of fertility. And even more important are the references to “Humanae Vitae” that he included in the exhortation “Familiaris Consortio” of 1981 and in the encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” of 1993).

(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)