Father Ford, Paul VI and Birth Control: Germain Grisez Offers New Light on the Papal Commission

Posted: May 12, 2011
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WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 11, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Anyone interested in the rise of the phenomenon of public dissent by Catholics from the Church’s moral teaching in the last 40 years is familiar with the controversy generated by the publication of the papal encyclical "Humanae Vitae" issued by Pope Paul VI on July 25, 1968.

That publication was preceded by five years of careful review on the part of the Pope on all sorts of questions related to the regulation of birth. Part of that review was entrusted to a study group made up of ecclesiastics and experts, popularly referred to as the "Papal birth control commission."

The study group, formally called the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family, and Birthrate, was actually established by Pope John XXIII on April 27, 1963, six months after the start of the Second Vatican Council. Contrary to popular belief, its purpose was not to consider whether the Church should change its teaching on contraception, but rather to assist the Holy See in preparing for an upcoming conference sponsored by the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

John XXIII died 37 days later and Cardinal Giovanni Montini was elected Pope on June 21, taking the name Paul VI. The new Pope was keenly aware of the problem posed to the Church by the new secular consensus in the West on birth control. Catholics were increasingly using contraception and European theologians were beginning to challenge the received teaching in scholarly journals. He was also undecided on the question of whether the birth control pill, because it did not interfere with the performance of sexual intercourse, was a form of contraception. Advisors from all sides were pressing upon him a sense of urgency about the issue and urging him to take up the topic for consideration.

The Pope agreed that the issue needed serious consideration, but thought that the Vatican Council, now in its second year, was not the proper place to undertake it. He thus decided to expand the membership of the Pontifical Commission, which he did on June 23, 1964, adding physicians, psychiatrists, demographers, sociologists, economists and married couples. Because he did not clearly specify the commission's new mandate, its members redefined it on their own: to re-examine the content and status of the received teaching in the Catholic Church on the use of birth control.

Because it was a confidential commission, many details related to its inner workings have never been made known. We do know, however, that a year before "Humanae Vitae" was published, and about six months after the commission finished its work, in the spring of 1967, four commission documents were leaked to the press and published in English and French. They revealed that a majority of the members were in favor of overturning the traditional teaching on contraception and had recommended as much to the Pope.

The press had a field day with the leaked documents. Catholics throughout the world were given the impression that the Church was prepared to "change its teaching" on the contraception question. Consequently, false hopes and expectations were solidified. This in part accounts for the consternation many in the Church expressed in July 1968 when the Holy Father reaffirmed the ancient teaching.

Why were Catholics so poorly prepared to receive the papal teaching? Why did the Pope receive so little support from the bishops of the world? Why would defenders of change leak documents that were likely to cause terrible confusion in the minds of simple Catholics? Several books outlining the workings of the commission have been published over the years, but most have been written by steadfast opponents of "Humanae Vitae."

The rest of the story

The eminent American moral theologian, Germain Grisez, professor emeritus of Christian ethics at Mount Saint Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, recently published on his Web site, The Way of the Lord Jesus (www.twotlj.org/Ford.html), several of the official documents of the papal commission, including the four leaked documents.

Few persons alive today are more qualified than Grisez to speak on the workings of the commission. As a young moral philosopher, he was the right hand man of Jesuit Father John C. Ford, the foremost American moral theologian at the time and most influential theological advisor of the commission who defended the Church's traditional teaching. Together, Ford and Grisez drafted most of the commission's documents setting forth arguments in defense of the received teaching against artificial contraception.

Grisez provides links to the documents in the context of a biographical essay on Father John C. Ford, a truly great Jesuit who suffered seriously for his defense of the Catholic truth on sexual morality (not to be confused with Holy Cross Father John T. Ford). The documents make clear that from the earliest days of its expansion under Paul VI, the commission's secretary-general, Dominican Father Henri de Riedmatten, in concert with other like-minded members of the commission, were determined to persuade the Pope to overturn the Church's teaching on contraception.

When a vote was taken on June 20, 1966, of the 15 prelate members of the commission who were present, nine of the 15 bishops voted in favor of change. In addition, 12 of the 19 theological experts supported change, as did almost all of the lay advisory members. Sadly, even Paul VI's personal theologian, Bishop Carlo Colombo, made clear that he believed there might be contraceptive methods consistent with the Church's moral tradition.

Commission member Archbishop Karol Wojtyła of Kraków was prevented from attending the sessions because of obstacles put in place by the Polish authorities. No doubt he would have voted in the minority.

In publishing "Humanae Vitae," the Pope had to break with the views of a majority of his cardinal and bishop advisors, as well as with his own personal theologian. Recalling Father Ford's comments on the disproportionate results of the consultation, Grisez writes: "Plainly, Ford observed, when Pope Paul reorganized the commission, he hardly tried to load it against change; rather, he wanted to give the proponents of change every opportunity to make their case." They made their case, and the Pope rejected it as wanting.

Grisez's recently published account will supply important material for a critical evaluation, perhaps re-evaluation, of a painful period in the Church's recent history -- the pain of which is still being keenly felt in the life of the Church.

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E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics and director of the Fellows Program at the Culture of Life Foundation; and the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.
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