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Pope Paul VI and the nuns in the Congo: an illusory precedent

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 22, 2016

Well now, did Pope Paul VI authorize nuns in the Belgian Congo to use contraceptives as a defense against rape? The short answer, it appears, is probably No. But even if he did, for several different reasons, it is wrong to claim that Paul VI set a precedent of the sort suggested by Pope Francis in his headline-grabbing interview last Thursday.

Father John Zuhlsdorf recounts the relevant facts on his blog, and John Allen of Crux essentially confirms them. In 1961, an article appeared in Studi Cattolic, arguing that contraceptive use could be justified in the Congo case. The future Pope Paul VI—at the time he was Cardinal Montini, Archbishop of Milan-- didn’t write that article. He was, however, friendly with the authors, and later made one of them a cardinal. So it is possible that he agreed with the reasoning in that journal article. (It is also possible that the future Pontiff maintained his friendship with and admiration of the authors despite a disagreement over this subject. But let’s leave that possibility aside for now.)

If we assume that Cardinal Montini agreed with the authors—and this is an assumption, made without benefit of evidence—his view on the matter was not authoritative. He was not the Pope.

He did become Pope two years later, and if he agreed with the authors of that journal article in 1961, it’s not unreasonable to think that he still agreed when he become the Roman Pontiff. (In passing, notice that the assumptions are beginning to pile up.) Now he was in a position to say something authoritative on the matter.

And he didn’t.

(In what follows, I shall proceed on the assumption that Pope Paul did quietly give his approval. That assumption is not unreasonable. Many intelligent people in Rome have been working under that assumption for years. It’s certainly conceivable that Pope Paul VI made a decision that has been conveyed by word-of-mouth through the clerical grapevine. John Allen makes the curious argument that since the Holy See never repudiated the 1961 journal article, the logical implication is that it had the Pope's approval. But that is speculation; keep in mind that this is an assumption—in fact, a series of assumptions.)

There is nothing in writing, nothing on the record, to show that Pope Paul approved the use of contraceptives by nuns in the Belgian Congo. If he did give permission, he did so secretly. If he did, he chose not to make a statement, and not to put it in writing. That would suggest two things:

First, presumably the Pope had his reasons for wanting to keep the decision quiet. Most likely he realized that publicity about the decision would create confusion about the Church teaching on the morality of contraceptive use. Pope Francis seems to have neglected that concern.

Second, by maintaining his official silence on the question, Pope Paul quite deliberately avoided an invocation of his authority. When a Pope speaks on matters of faith and morals, loyal Catholics heed his words. But when he does not speak, obviously he does not command assent. In this case Pope Paul did not want to set a precedent, did not want to bind consciences, did not want to teach. So it is not entirely fair to invoke his decision in order to justify another judgment.

Moreover, even if Pope Paul had made an authoritative judgment, and even if he had set a precedent, that precedent would not apply to the case of the Zika virus. As Ed Peters explains , the decision attributed to Pope Paul involved defense against acts of sexual violence, not the frustration of acts of marital love. The distinction is clarified, and several more questions on the subject answered, in this fine article from Catholic World Report by Janet Smith. If only that article could have been given to all the journalists boarding the papal plane, there would have been no need to question the Pope on the subject, and a great deal of trouble could have been avoided.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 22, 2016 10:07 PM ET USA

    Disturbing. Is this simply a mistake or something more intentional? Incompetence or malicious? Neither option is encouraging. It's hard to imagine that someone with the resume of Pope Francis could consistently make one blunder after another as long as he has while manifesting a tenacious perseverence in continuing these types of press conferences/interviews. It's simply nonsensical. It's refreshing to see Catholics- many of them among the laity- standing in the breach to bear witness.