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Pope Francis and Humanae Vitae: The difference to me

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 07, 2017

Let us return for a moment to Phil Lawler’s commentary on June 23rd, A papal commission reconsidering Humanae Vitae? No, but…. I was visiting family in California when Phil posted this, but I did want to say something further about what is a very important topic.

The points made in the commentary are spot on. Phil concludes that no commission has been established to “reconsider” Humanae Vitae (at least not in the sense of changing what Pope Paul VI taught in 1968) but expresses concern about the guidance Pope Francis has given to both the John Paul II Institute and the Pontifical Academy for Life. This guidance could well result in more of the kinds of articles, interviews and pastoral decisions that we have seen recently both in Rome and in various dioceses, sometimes questioning settled matters like the Church’s inability to ordain women.

As examples of what I mean, see three of my own recent commentaries: Don’t worry: The Black Pope is just a symbol of the zeitgeist and Reopening the question of women priests: A theological travesty and a spiritual tragedy and Why is there a resurgence of infidelity among Catholic leaders?.

What I wanted to add to this discussion is a reference to the one guarantee we have. The guarantee that the Magisterium of the Church will never teach an error in faith and morals, and so cannot possibly contradict itself, may seem very minimal, given the wide range of methods Catholic leaders can use to warp and undermine the truth (if they are so inclined). But this guarantee is all anyone who cares needs to understand faith and morals properly, so that he or she cannot be led away from God by wolves masquerading as shepherds. Indeed, the very fact that we must work harder and take our faith far more seriously, when we have only the Magisterium to guide us, may be one reason that the guarantee is so limited.

A perfect example

You may recall that Pope Paul VI’s teaching in Humanae Vitae is a perfect example of this guarantee in action. In the light of the emergence and widespread use of “the Pill” in the 1960s, Pope Paul formed a commission to look into the Church’s past teaching on contraception, such as that expressed in Casti Connubii in 1930 by Pope Pius XI. He wanted to discern whether the new chemical processes, not available in 1930, could be considered moral. This commission ended up divided on the subject, but a strong majority concluded that artificial contraception as understood at that time was morally acceptable. This group issued what is called “the Majority Report”.

Much as with Vatican II, quite a bit of the internal discussions, and of course the Majority Report itself, were leaked to the secular press. Accordingly, news media around the world gleefully reported that the Church was about to proclaim the Pill to be perfectly moral. Unsurprisingly, its use among Catholics continued to rise rapidly. It is true that a minority report was also issued by members of the commission who disagreed with its official (majority) conclusion. But there was no doubt in the media, nor in the minds of most Catholic moral theologians teaching in Catholic colleges and universities at the time, that enlightenment had finally conquered the backward and benighted intransigence of the Roman Church.

It is here that we begin to realize the importance of that subtle Magisterial guarantee. To shed some light, consider the touching and very brief poem by William Wordsworth, “She dwelt among the untrodden ways”. In this poem William Wordsworth penned a line nearly as brilliant as his reference to Mary as “our tainted nature’s solitary boast” (see another of his short poems, “The Virgin”). In his “untrodden ways” poem, though, Wordsworth used superb understatement in praising a young woman who led a relatively obscure life. She was “A maid whom there were none to praise / And very few to love”. The last stanza, however, reveals her importance:

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

It seems to me this is exactly like the rather obscure and highly-limited gift of the infallibility of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. The Holy Spirit serenely enlightens us through this gift. And the difference between the presence and absence of this gift, invisible to the eyes of the multitude, is absolutely vital to those who love God.

After reading both the majority and the minority reports, Pope Paul VI—contrary to every expectation—declared contraception within marriage to be intrinsically evil. But if that little-understood yet living gift of God to His Church had died, or ever could cease to be, all of us who care could join Wordsworth in saying this about Divine Wisdom: “She is in her grave, and, oh, the difference to me!”

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: grateful1 - Jul. 08, 2017 9:22 PM ET USA

    Point taken for the most part (and appreciated in full), but I share another poster's confusion about your reference to Wordsworth. Are you expressing resignation that all might already be lost?

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 07, 2017 5:12 PM ET USA

    bill.mueiko5646 and marksauser4128: Spot on! The Magisterium appears to be a thin thread, but it is indestructibly strong. It would make a huge difference to all faithful Catholics if the Magisterium were not guaranteed, a difference that others simply cannot fathom. It would, in fact, be a deal-breaker. But as it is guaranteed, despite constant suffering, we have what we need, and will not experience what Wordsworth did.

  • Posted by: bill.mureiko5646 - Jul. 07, 2017 3:46 PM ET USA

    For those of us who came to the Church in large part because of her Magisterium, this is a topic of vital importance. I get Wordsworth, and I think I get your use of his lines in this context, but I would like to hear more about your thinking. One could read your last paragraph to say something like, "well it was good while it lasted, and it made a difference in my life. Too bad it won't be there for my kids." Pretty sure that's not what you mean, but could you elaborate a bit?

  • Posted by: marksauser4128 - Jul. 07, 2017 3:24 PM ET USA

    Maybe I am missing the point, but it seems the thinnest of threads holds the Church from falling into the abyss, but it is a thread which will not break and will hold firm. I think about the Arian heresy and how close the Church came to losing its way, but it did not then. Neither will it now regardless the pastoral changes, including the use of birth control, being suggested by some of our Church leaders. Faithful Catholics know the truth.