The Church should stop arguing over the rights and wrongs of artificial contraception but instead find ways to help people live out the teaching of Pope Paul VI, according to the leader of a commission set up by Pope Francis to study Humanae Vitae.
MgrGilfredo Marengo, who coordinated a research group examining material in the Vatican secret archives on the compiling of Paul VI’s controversial encyclical, said there was an urgent need for pastoral work because “objectively what Humanae Vitae says” is “very distant” to many people.
“Today we have a difficulty in accompanying families pastorally on the path marked out by Humanae Vitae. Perhaps if all those years we had invested more energy on this pastoral path instead of debating, in a strict way, if Humanae Vitae is right or Humanae Vitae is wrong, maybe today we would be in a better place,” Msgr Marengo said.
Today marks exactly half a century since Paul VI released one of the most controversial encyclicals of recent times, reaffirming the Church’s opposition to artificial contraception. Its release was met with fierce criticism from inside the Church and, fifty years on, the evidence suggests it is a teaching largely ignored by Catholic laity.
According to a 2014 poll by Univision 79% of Catholics across the world favour the use of contraception, a figure that rises to more than 90 percent in the Pope’s home continent of Latin America.
At the same time there have been a growing number of voices inside the Church defending the encyclical, in particular where it argues that contraception is “intrinsically wrong” and should be “absolutely excluded” in all cases. Last month 500 priests in England signed a letter stating their full support for Humanae Vitae.
When the Pope asked Msgr Marengo and a commission to look at the Vatican’s secret archives into the compiling of Humanae Vitae, it was met with alarm in traditional Catholic quarters that Francis was trying to covertly undermine – or re-write – Paul VI’s teaching.
But Mgr Marengo and his body conducted a solidly historical analysis of Humanae Vitae which has now been presented in a book “The Birth of an Encyclical,” currently only available in Italian. Then there was a commission of experts, set up by Pope John XXIII, with a majority of them arguing for contraception to be allowed in some circumstances. In 1967, this commission’s report was leaked to and published by The Tablet, The National Catholic Reporter and Le Monde.
Yet it was the divisions within that expert commission – four of its 72 members were opposed to any change in teaching – that led Paul VI to disregard its advice.