Monday, August 18, 2008
What follows is a letter that appeared in the August 2d issue of The Tablet:
Truth and authority
I read your wide coverage of Humanae Vitae (26 July) with interest as I was one of the original six members of the Papal Commission on Birth Control appointed by Pope John XXIII and confirmed by Paul VI. The outstanding feature of the Commission was its dedication to the discovery of the truth. Every argument was carefully analysed and sifted to determine its weight. The other striking feature was the attitude of Pope Paul VI. Because of the international political implications of the Church’s teaching on contraception, the Commission was set up by the Secretary of State, not by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) as might have been expected. The Secretary General of the Commission, the Swiss Dominican, Henri de Reidmatten, reported directly to the Pope. When it became clear that fundamental questions were being raised, the response of the Pope was to continue the study with diligence and integrity.
It was only after the Commission had completed its report and been disbanded that the CDF swung into action, persuading the Pope not to change the teaching for fear of the damage this would do to papal authority. It failed to envisage the greater damage to be caused by maintaining a teaching which is unsustainable. The CDF set up a secret commission entirely of priests to produce a new report. This gives an insight into the curial mindset to think that a group of celibate priests, handpicked for their orthodoxy, would have a better understanding of marriage than a commission of cardinals, bishops, priests and lay people, married couples and single people, drawn from all five continents and embracing a wide range of sacred and secular disciplines.
The fundamental difference between the Commission and the CDF lies in the understanding of the nature of sexual intercourse in marriage. As Charles Curran (“Dangers of certitude”, 26 July) succinctly explained, the hierarchical Church identifies the morality of sexual intercourse with its physical aspects. It would hotly deny this, but the fact that a couple are allowed to choose an act that is nonprocreative but may not make an act non-procreative shows that it is the physical aspect that is sacrosanct. The Commission, looking at the evidence, took a wider view of sexual intercourse, seeing it as part of the wider relationship, expressing and fostering love.
The Commission anticipated that a change in teaching would be a great pastoral challenge and prepared a pastoral document of four chapters, one largely the work of the French Jesuit Père de Lestapis, the finest account of married love I have ever read. What a pity that none of this was ever published.
There have been many tragic consequences of Humanae Vitae, but none greater than that referred to in “A mother’s story – 1” (26 July). For the Popes, especially John Paul II, to teach, in season and out of season, that contraception is wrong and the overwhelming majority of the faithful to reject this undermines the integrity of the Church and weakens its witness in many areas. I hope that your coverage of this issue will promote more open and honest discussion which is so badly needed.
Professor of Neurology
University of London