Natural Family Planning, St. John Paul II and Humanae Vitae

Pope John Paul II and Humanae Vitae, 1985-1986

Excerpts from J.F.Kippley, Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality (Ignatius, 2005, Chapter 7.  References are in the endnotes of Chapter 7.)

My incomplete files do not show any statements of Pope John Paul II dealing directly with the contraception issue during 1985. On January 28, however, the official Vatican newspaper published an article by Archbishop Edouard Gagnon, Pro-President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, commenting upon the series of talks the Holy Father had concluded the previous November 28th. Archbishop Gagnon noted that “In the preface to the Polish translation of Humanae Vitae he [John Paul II when he was bishop of Krakow] wrote: ‘The doctrine concerning the ethics of marriage has been transmitted and defined with precision by the authority of the Magisterium of the Church in Humanae Vitae. Therefore, after the promulgation of this document, it is difficult, as far as Catholics are concerned, to speak about inculpable ignorance or about error in good faith.’”

Archbishop Gagnon continued:  “Today, after the Synod on the family, after the Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, and above all after the Pope’s brilliant catecheses, there can no longer be doubts about the authoritative doctrine of the Church and about the unacceptability of dissent.”29

10 April 1986: John Paul II has delivered some of his strongest words about sexual morality to groups of moral theologians gathered under orthodox auspices in Rome. (The heterodox or heretical theologians avoid such congresses.) His address to the participants in the International Congress of Moral Theology (7 to 12 April 1986) forms an important part of that pattern. He started by noting the importance of living the truth “to which the Church is called to give witness” by quoting Matthew 7:21: “Not every man who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

He then noted that the “essential linkup of Truth-Goodness-Freedom has been lost to a large extent by contemporary culture. Therefore, to lead man to rediscover it is one of the particular requirements of the Church’s mission today for the salvation of the world.”

Noting the dangers of moral relativism he said:  “Indeed, an even more serious thing has come about: man is no longer convinced that he can find salvation only in the truth. The saving power of truth is questioned. People are entrusting to freedom alone, uprooted from any objectivity, the task of deciding autonomously what is good and what is evil. In the field of theology, this relativism turns into distrust of the wisdom of God, who guides man by means of the moral law. Against the prescriptions of the moral law are opposed the so-called concrete situations, with people no longer holding, basically, that the law of God is always the only true good of man.”

Recognizing that moral relativism is at the heart of alleged exceptions for contraception and abortion, the Pope said:  “To reduce the moral quality of our actions, regarding creatures, to the attempt to improve reality in its non-ethical contents would be equivalent, in the last analysis, to destroying the very concept of morality. The first consequence, indeed, of this reduction is the denial that, in the context of those activities, there exist acts which are always and everywhere in themselves and of themselves illicit. I have already drawn attention to this point in the Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (cf. n.17). The whole tradition of the Church has lived and lives on the conviction contrary to this denial. But even human reason, without the light of Revelation, is in a position to see the grave error of this thesis.
It is the result of deep and serious presuppositions which strike at the very heart not only of Christianity, but also of religion as such. That there in fact exists a moral good and evil not reducible to other human goods and evils is the necessary and immediate consequence of the truth of creation, which is the ultimate foundation of the very dignity of the human person.”

The Holy Father then went on to apply these principles to two pressing issues of the day:  “Man bears a law written in his heart (cf. Rom 2:15 and Dignitatis Humanae, 3) that he does not give to himself, but which expresses the immutable demands of his personal being created by God . . . This law is not merely made up of general guidelines, whose specification is in their respective content conditioned by different and changeable historical situations. There are moral norms that have a precise content which is immutable and unconditioned . . . for example, the norm that prohibits contraception or that which forbids the direct killing of an innocent person. To deny the existence of norms having such a value can be done only by one who denies the existence of a truth about the person, of an immutable nature in man, based ultimately on the creative Wisdom which is the measure of all reality (emphasis added).”

The Pope also recorded his rejection of the appeal to the numbers of Catholics who practice contraception or who say they see nothing wrong with it.   “To appeal to a “faith of the Church” in order to oppose the moral Magisterium of the Church is equivalent to denying the Catholic concept of Revelation. Not only that, but one can come to violate the fundamental right of the faithful to receive the doctrine of the Church from those who teach theology by virtue of a canonical mission and not the opinions of theological schools.”

Finally, the Pope reminded the theologians of their obligation in charity to oppose those who dissent and teach false doctrine:  “The scholar of ethics today has a grave responsibility, both in the Church and in civil society.
The problems he faces are the most serious problems for man: problems on which depend not only eternal salvation, but often also his future on earth. The word of God uses words in this regard that we ought continually to meditate upon. Love for whoever errs must never bring about any compromise with error: error must be unmasked and judged. The love which the Church has for man obliges her to tell man how and when his truth is being denied, his good unrecognized, his dignity violated, his worth not adequately appreciated.
In doing this, she does not simply present “ideals”: rather she teaches who man is, created by God in Christ, and therefore, what his true good is. The moral law is not something extrinsic to the person: it is the very human person himself in so far as he is called in and by the creative act itself to be and to fulfill himself freely in Christ.
With humility, but with a great firmness, you have to give witness to this truth today. In recent years we have seen the growth of an ethical-theological teaching that has not lived up to this . . .”30 


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