The origins of a moral revolution: Vatican II on marriage and the family (Part 1)


In what manner did the Second Vatican Council address the issue of marriage and the family? The question is worth posing not only out of academic and philological interest, but in order to better understand the roots of the current crisis concerning the family and Christian marriage. To better answer the question, one cannot limit oneself to a hermeneutical discussion on paragraphs 47–52 of the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes — the only conciliar document that deals directly with the family — but must consider Vatican II as a historical event, in its preliminaries and in its consequences.

Examining this aspect requires us to bring a particular decade into focus: the period between 1958 (the year of Pius XII’s death) and 1968 (the date of the promulgation of Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae). 1968 is also the year of the Sorbonne Revolution, which started a real moral revolution throughout Western society. But for the Catholic world this was not only a point of departure, but also a point of arrival: it was in fact preceded by the revolution in mentality and customs produced by Vatican II. The Revolution of 1968 certainly had a powerful impact on the Church as well as on society, but the “conciliar turning point” likewise fostered the explosion of 1968 and multiplied its driving force.

The birth of the new morality

In the last years of Pius XII’s pontificate, conjugal morality was founded on the natural law and could be summed up in one point: continence, inside and outside marriage, was considered a Christian value, whilst sexual union outside the sacrament of marriage was considered a grave sin.

According to the Church’s magisterium, the primary purpose of marriage is procreation, which is not a purely biological act but includes the natural and supernatural education of the children. Secondary purposes of marriage are the mutual aid of the spouses and the remedy for concupiscence. These cannot be placed before the primary purpose: they must remain on a lower level and not be separated from the generative function. This is what all moral theologians used to teach, and all pastors and confessors referred to this doctrine expounded by the encyclicals Arcanum of Leo XIII and Casti connubi of Pius XI and by the teaching of Pius XII in numerous speeches given to spouses, physicians and the Roman Rota.

But the 1950s and 1960s saw the beginning of a process of subversion of traditional morality led by theologians such as the German Jesuit Josef Fuchs (1912–2005), professor at the Gregorian University, the Italian Redemptorist Domenico Capone (1907–1998), professor at the Alphonsianum, but above all the German Redemptorist Bernard Häring (1912–1998), also a professor at the Alphonsianum and author of a 1954 work, Das Gesetz Christi, in which he tried to translate the theses of la nouvelle théologie, recently condemned by Pius XII in the encyclical Humani generis, into the field of morality.

The key point of the outlook of Häring and the other innovators was, and is, the replacement of the concept of nature with that of person. According to classical philosophy, nature comes before the person. In fact, human nature is the essence of man: what he is before being a person. Man is the subject of rights and duties because he is a person, but he is a person according to his human nature. The whole of Häring’s work is aimed at nullifying the natural law in the name of a “Christian existential personalism”.

The moral personalism propagated by Teilhard de Chardin, influenced by existentialism but also by evolutionist theories, overturned traditional doctrine and replaced the morality rooted in natural law with an evolutionary ethics based on personal decision. The re-foundation of morality on the person rather than on the objective reality of nature means attributing a dominant role to the human conscience. If the person comes before nature, he is founded on his own self-awareness and on his own will. The moral rule is no longer objective and rational but affective, personal, existential. The individual conscience becomes the sovereign norm of morality. And the first field for the application of this new anthropology is conjugal morality.

The schema of Vatican II: Chastity, marriage, family and virginity

On 25 January 1959, just three months after his election to the papal throne, Pope John XXIII announced the convocation of Vatican II. The decision was sudden and surprising, but the preparation of the Council was thorough and painstaking, through an ante-preparatory phase (one year) and a preparatory phase (two years).

The spring of 1960 saw the collection of the consilia et vota, the 2,150 responses from the bishops of the whole world to the request for issues to be brought before the future assembly. Then all this material was sent to ten commissions appointed by the pope to draw up the schemata for submission to the Council. The commissions operated, under the supervision of Cardinal Ottaviani, prefect of the Holy Office, until June of 1962. On 13 July, three months before the opening of the assembly, John XXIII established that the first seven constitutional schemata, which he had approved, were to be sent to all the Council fathers as the basis for discussion for the general congregations. They were denominated: The sources of revelation; Keeping the deposit of faith pure; The Christian moral order; Chastity, marriage, family and virginity; The sacred liturgy; The means of communication; The unity of the Church with the Eastern churches. These documents, on which ten commissions had worked for three years, collected the best of what the theology of the twentieth century had produced. They were dense and comprehensive texts that went straight to the heart of the problems of the time, in clear and persuasive language. John XXIII studied them carefully, annotating them with handwritten comments. “On all the schemata”, as then Archbishop Vincenzo Fagiolo recalls, “in the margins there are these often repeated expressions: Good, Excellent. On only one, that on the liturgy, which appears in fifth place in the volume,2 here and there appear some question marks, all in the pope’s own hand, with a sense of astonishment and disapproval.”

The schema on the family was called the Draft of a dogmatic constitution on chastity, marriage, family and virginity. The introduction explained that “the Holy Synod has decided to exalt and defend, in a single dogmatic constitution, both the chastity of the unmarried together with its most beautiful flower, sacred virginity, and the chaste marriage with its celestial fruit, the Christian family”.

The document is divided into three parts, accompanied by notes. The very first chapter of the first part clarifies that “sex is ordered to marriage and its spiritual and material goods” (no. 3) and that “it is unjust to want to change one’s sex, if sufficiently determined” (no. 2), nor “is it permissible to bring human germ cells of the two sexes together in laboratories so that they can be united” (no. 4). A note recalls the speech of Pius XII of 19 May 1956, according to which “with regard to the attempts at artificial human fertilisation in vitro, it is sufficient to observe that they are to be rejected as immoral and absolutely illicit”.

The document reiterates that “although chastity is not the only nor the first good of the moral life of men, nevertheless without it there cannot be an integral moral life” (no. 5), recalling the passage of St Paul, “Do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9–10). It explains the importance of inculcating this virtue among young people, recalling that God does not ask for anything that is impossible, but sustains with his grace those who undertake to observe his law, in matters of sexuality as well. The text moreover condemns all forms of violation of modesty and of sexual deviation.

In the second part, dedicated to marriage and the family, the first chapter reaffirms both the principles of the unity and indissolubility of marriage and that of the hierarchy of ends. The text specifies that “the primary purpose is solely the procreation and education of offspring, even if a particular marriage should be unfruitful” (no. 11). The “perpetual and exclusive right to acts capable of generating children by natural means” must be considered as the proper object of matrimonial consent. “Other objective ends of marriage, which are born from the nature of marriage itself but which are secondary, are the mutual help and comfort of the spouses in the communion of domestic life, as well as the remedy, as is commonly said, for concupiscence.” Among the errors condemned are “the theories that, by inverting the just order of values, put the primary purpose of marriage on a secondary level with respect to the biological and personal values of the spouses and that, in the same objective order, indicate conjugal love as the primary end” (no. 14).

In the second chapter, dedicated to the rights, duties and virtues proper to Christian marriage, the schema, taking up the traditional Augustinian doctrine on the three goods, distinguishes the bonum prolis, the bonum fidei and the bonum sacramenti (no. 16). From the bonum prolis is derived the right and duty of spouses to procreate, but artificial insemination, the use of contraceptive means, therapeutic abortion and any form of termination of pregnancy are prohibited. 

From the good of the sacrament is derived indissolubility. In fact, the document emphasises, “civil union alone, which contradicts the laws of the Church that render it null and void, does not give rise to any conjugal bond before God, nor does it constitute a sacrament. For this reason, those who have married deceitfully and invalidly against the laws of the Church are by every right to be considered public sinners, and the Church has the right to declare her errant children as such and to impose canonical penalties on them” (no. 19). Civil divorce (no. 20) and free love (no. 22) are condemned, and “the opinion that the lack of love alone justifies considering a marriage as invalid and dissolved” is defined as wrong (no. 22).

The third chapter reaffirms the role of the Christian family, rejecting those forms of emancipation that disfigure the nature, function and role of women “under the influence of a false opinion of equality with men” (no. 26).

In the fourth chapter, dedicated to the rights, duties and virtues proper to the Christian family, among other things the demographic question is addressed in these words: 

“The Holy Synod, urgently exhorting everyone to give such effective help as they are able to families burdened with many children, at the same time severely condemns those who recommend or spread the use of dishonest contraceptive means with the aim of limiting the number of children; by such means the good of peoples is not defended, as is sometimes falsely claimed today, but rather is the social order corrupted.”

No. 34

Finally, the third part exalts sacred virginity, condemning “those who dare to maintain that the marital state is to be preferred to the state of virginity and celibacy” (no. 38), and urges Christian parents to “promote sacred vocations” in their families.

The schemata are dismantled

When, in July of 1962, then Archbishop Pericle Felici, secretary of the Council, presented John XXIII with the conciliar schemata that he had reviewed and approved, the pope enthusiastically commented, “The Council is done, at Christmas we can conclude!” In fact, by Christmas of that year all the schemata of the Council had already been thrown out by the assembly, except De Liturgia, the very one that John XXIII liked least but the only one that satisfied the progressive minority. And Vatican II would not last three months, but three years.

What had happened? A group of Central European and Latin American Council fathers, whose “experts” consisted of the main representatives of la nouvelle théologie, had decided to reject the schemata prepared by the Roman commissions, considered too traditional, and to rewrite them.

In June of 1962, Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens (1904–1996), the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, gathered a group of cardinals at the Belgian College in Rome to discuss a “plan” for the upcoming Council. The participants at the meeting included Cardinals Döpfner, Liénart and Montini. Suenens recounts that he discussed with them a “confidential” document in which he criticised the schemata drawn up by the preparatory commissions and suggested that the pope create, “for his personal and private use”, a restricted commission of a few members, “a sort of brain trust” to respond to the great pastoral problems of the day. In August, the pope also received a petition from Canadian Cardinal Paul-Emile Léger, the Sulpician Archbishop of Montréal. The letter was signed by Cardinals Liénart, Döpfner, Alfrink, König and Suenens. The document openly criticised the first seven schemata that were to be discussed by the assembly, stating that they were not in keeping with the approach that John XXIII wanted the Council to take.

Vatican II opened on 11 October 1962. On 13 October the first general congregation was inaugurated, but at the opening of the session, an unexpected turn of events took place. The order of the day was to vote to elect the representatives of the Council fathers on the ten commissions appointed to examine the schemata drawn up by the preparatory commission. Cardinal Liénart, supported by Cardinals Frings, Döpfner and König, protested the failure to consult the episcopal conferences and asked that they be convened before voting for the commissions. The whole thing had been arranged beforehand. Cardinal Tisserant, president of the assembly, granted the postponement and the consultation of the episcopal conferences, which were called upon to list new candidates for the commissions. The role of the episcopal conferences, which was not provided for by the regulations, was officially sanctioned. This brought to light the existence of an organised party, dubbed by Fr Wiltgen “the European Alliance”, which obtained the nomination of almost all of its candidates for the commissions. More than by the bishops themselves, the episcopal conferences were guided by their experts, the theologians, many of whom had been condemned by Pius XII and were now preparing to play a decisive role in the Council.

On 19 October, on the eve of the meeting of the third general congregation, there was a meeting at Mater Dei on the Via delle Mure Angeliche of a group of German and French bishops and theologians, chosen by Hermann Volk, the Bishop of Mainz. “The purpose of the meeting”, Congar notes in his diary, was “to discuss and decide on a tactic” for dismantling the theological schemata.

The plan was implemented through a process that the philosopher of law Paolo Pasqualucci called “procedural brigandage”. The schemata were thrown overboard and rewritten, with a completely different spirit and slant. The schema on the family and marriage was destined to undergo a tormented rewrite.

Part II of this article will follow in next week’s Digest.


  1. Il primo schema sulla famiglia e sul matrimonio del Concilio Vaticano II, edited and introduction by Roberto de Mattei (Edizioni Fiducia, 2015).
  2. Ibid., pp. 157–199.