Goodbye, “Humanae Vitae.” Half a century later, the encyclical against artificial methods of birth control that marked the most dramatic moment of the pontificate of Paul VI, rejected by entire episcopates, contested by countless theologians, disobeyed by myriads of faithful, is now giving way to a radical reinterpretation, to a “paradigm shift” undoubtedly desired and encouraged by Pope Francis himself.
Paradox would have it that Paul VI should be the pope whom Jorge Mario Bergoglio admires and praises the most. And precisely – his own words – for the “prophetic brilliance” with which he wrote that encyclical and for his “courage in standing up against the majority, in defending moral discipline, in applying a cultural brake, in opposing neo-Malthusianism present and future.”
But the reality is that “everything depends on how ‘Humanae Vitae’ is interpreted,” as Pope Francis never fails to comment. Because “the question is not that of changing doctrine, but of digging deep and making sure that pastoral practice takes into account the situations and what persons are able to do.”
His wish becomes command. An authoritative guise has now been given to the new interpretive paradigm of “Humanae Vitae,” with an explicit go-ahead for artificial contraception, by one of the pope’s most respected theologians, Maurizio Chiodi, professor of moral theology at the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy and a newly appointed member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, already the author of a book published in 2006, “Etica della vita,” that upheld the legitimacy of artificial procreation.
The authoritativeness of his position is confirmed by two connected facts.
The first is the context in which Chiodi laid down the new interpretation of “Humanae Vitae”: a conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University on December 14, in the course of a round of meetings dedicated to that encyclical at the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, organized by the university’s faculty of moral theology, directed by the Argentine Jesuit Humberto Miguel Yáñez, a protege of Bergoglio’s.
A detailed account of this conference was provided by the American journalist Diane Montagna on LifeSite News on January 8, followed by lively reactions from defenders of the contested encyclical:
But now there’s more. On Sunday, January 28 Chiodi’s conference was prominently featured by the newspaper of the Italian episcopal conference, “Avvenire,” in the monthly supplement “Noi, Famiglia & Vita,” introduced with a commentary entitled “From pope Montini to Francis, development in fidelity,” which states:
“It is a position [that of Chiodi] that authoritatively takes its place in the debate underway, and that must not be understood as an overrun or critique of ‘Humanae Vitae,’ a text that is and remains the fruit of a prophetic and courageous decision for the time and historical situation in which pope Montini conceived of it, not without torment and not without having clarified that this was a matter of a magisterium that was neither infallible nor irreformable. In this perspective, the theologian’s reflection is to be understood as a proposal that is intended to represent the development of a tradition. And a tradition, in order to be alive and to continue to speak to the women and men of our time, must not be fossilized but rendered dynamic, which means to be in keeping with a society that is changing. Fr. Chiodi has the courage to define the problem that is raised by some theologians and experts on pastoral practice. Are natural methods really to be understood as the only means possible for family planning?”
The commentary, as can be seen, ends with a question mark. Which is, however, entirely rhetorical. The ideas Chiodi presents in his conference, in fact, are not hypothetical, but affirmative. There are circumstances – he maintains – that not only allow but “require” other methods, not natural, for birth control.
The complete text of Chiodi’s conference republished in “Avvenire” – with a few edits that do not substantially alter it with respect to the one delivered at the Gregorian – is on this other page of Settimo Cielo:
After discussing again “the subjective responsibility of conscience and the essential relationship between norm and discernment” in the vein of the postsynodal exhortation from Pope Francis, Chiodi poses “the question of whether natural methods can / should be the only form of responsible procreation.”
And these are the conclusions at which he arrives:
“That to which the practice of ‘natural methods of fertility’ attests is the responsorial character of procreation: these too say that to procreate is not to create. The method, however, attests to more than it can guarantee on its own. It reveals a sense that transcends it. If the responsibility of procreating is that to which these ‘methods’ refer, then one can understand how in situations in which these are impossible or impracticable other forms of responsibility must be found: these ‘circumstances,’ for responsibility, require other methods of birth control. In these cases, ‘technological’ intervention does not deny the responsibility of the procreating relationship, just as moreover a conjugal relationship that observes natural methods is not automatically responsible.
“The insistence of the magisterium on natural methods therefore cannot be interpreted as a norm that is an end in itself, nor as mere conformity with the laws of biology, because the norm refers to the good of conjugal responsibility and the physical laws (physis) of infertility are inscribed upon a body of flesh and in human relations that cannot be reduced to biological laws.
“Technology, in certain circumstances, can allow the preservation of the responsible quality of the sexual act. So this cannot be rejected a priori, when the birth of a child is at stake, because this too is a form of acting and as such requires discernment on the basis of moral criteria that cannot be reduced to a syllogistic-deductive application of the norm.”
For the benefit of the reader, this is how “Avvenire” summarizes, in the center of the page, Chiodi’s reinterpretation of “Humanae Vitae”:
“If there are situations in which natural methods are impossible or impracticable, other ways must be found, because responsible procreation cannot ignore what technology has to offer.”
It is helpful to add that on January 27, the day before the republication of this conference by Chiodi, Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and grand chancellor of the John Paul II Institute, also said in an interview with the newspaper of the Italian episcopal conference, alluding to “Humanae Vitae,” that “further exploration on the front of responsibility in procreation” must be made, because “the norms are there to enliven human beings, not to operate robots,” and therefore “they require a process of evaluation that must take into account the whole of the concrete circumstances and of the relations in which the person finds himself.”
And even before Chiodi gave his conference at the Gregorian, Bishop Luigi Bettazzi, 94, one of the very few bishops still living who took part in Vatican Council II, had said to “Avvenire” on October 29, 2017 that fifty years after “Humanae Vitae” “the time has come to rethink the question,” because “it is not the doctrines that change, but it is we ourselves, with the passing of the years, who are able to understand their meaning better and better, interpreting them in the light of the signs of the times.”
Moreover, since last spring a study commission set up at the Vatican has already been working to reconstruct the genesis of “Humanae Vitae” from the historical and documentary point of view.
Its members are the Monsignors Gilfredo Marengo and Pierangelo Sequeri of the John Paul II Institute, Angelo Maffeis of the Paul VI Institute in Brescia, and the historian Philippe Chenaux of the Pontifical Lateran University.
Marengo and Paglia have denied that the work of the commission has to do with the contents of “Humanae Vitae,” much less with a reinterpretation of them.
But it is all too clear that the revisitation of the tumultuous path of the that encyclical’s preparation – in which already back then the circles in favor of artificial contraception were stronger and more pressing than those against, espoused by Paul VI – can only benefit the paradigm shift that is underway.
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)