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New insights on manipulation of 1960s papal commission on birth control

February 03, 2011

A leading American Catholic theologian has offered new insights into the work of a papal “birth control commission” that pushed for a change in Church teaching prior to the release of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI.

Germain Grisez, a longtime professor at Mt. St. Mary’s University and author of the acclaimed multi-volume work, The Way of the Lord Jesus, provides a glimpse at the internal workings of the papal commission in his reflections on the life of his late colleague, Father John Ford.

A distinguished American Jesuit theologian, Father Ford was appointed in 1964 to the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family, and Birth-rate, which had been established by Pope John XXIII and later expanded by Pope Paul VI. A firm defender of the traditional Church teaching, Father Ford saw that the secretary of the commission, Father Henri de Riedmatten, was working to influence the group in favor of a change.

The disclosures of Father Ford—and of Grisez, who eventually joined his colleague in Rome to help make the case for traditional Catholic teaching—show how the work of the papal commission was manipulated by the selective presentation of facts and careful framing of debates.

Eventually Pope Paul VI set aside the recommendations of the commission, explaining that they “cannot be considered definitive.” Pope Paul went on to confirm the Church’s traditional teaching in Humanae Vitae. But the work of the papal commission helped to generate a storm of criticism against the Pope’s encyclical, causing widespread dissent against the Church’s teaching that endures to this day.


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  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Feb. 10, 2011 5:21 PM ET USA

    Three assistant priests at our parish,in 60's said (off the cuff),that birth control was permitted with an informed conscience. Well,I informed my own conscience and was glad for the pass. Incidentally, 2 of these priests left the priesthood. I am beginning to realize how heroic a Catholic marriage is.

  • Posted by: impossible - Feb. 04, 2011 12:02 AM ET USA

    History has sure proved the truth of Humanae Vitae. Note: Contraception actually increases the abortion rate. This has been known for decades. In 1970, Malcolm Potts, a former medical director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, said, "Abortion and contraception are inextricably intertwined in their use. As the idea of family planning spreads through a community there appears to be a rise in the incidence of induced abortion at the point where the community begins to initiate the use of contraceptives."