The origins of a moral revolution: Vatican II on marriage and the family (Part 2)

This is the second part of the article begun in last week’s Digest, which was originally written by Professor Roberto de Mattei as an introduction to the Italian reprint of Draft of a dogmatic constitution on chastity, marriage, the family and virginity, one of the preparatory schemata fatefully rejected at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. This schema was reprinted during the Synod on the Family (2014–2015) in response to the attempts to spread the revolutionary tendencies sown during the Council, which continue to bear their bitter fruits in our time. The continued attack on the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family is also a call for Catholics to deepen their understanding of the roots of the moral revolution within the Church.


From the schema on marriage and family to Gaudium et spes

The original schema on marriage and the family, purged of references to chastity and virginity, was absorbed into the new text on the relationship between the Church and the modern world, known as schema XVII. Cardinal Suenens was in charge of this, under the mandate of John XXIII and later Paul VI.

Fr Bernard Häring, who like Frs Congar and de Lubac, was appointed peritus directly by John XXIII, was called to be the secretary of the commission. Häring was the main author of the document that, in January 1964, became schema XIII with the title Gaudium et spes. The most heated discussion over this text was on its treatment of marriage, especially regarding the traditional distinction between the primary and secondary ends of marriage. In 1963, the physician John Rock, who worked with Gregory Pincus on the development of the contraceptive pill, in the widely discussed book, The Time Has Come, had maintained that churches, and the Catholic Church above all, needed a new approach to the issue of birth control. In the same year, a long article by the Belgian theologian, Louis Janssens, was published in which he spoke of Rock’s book and said that perhaps the time truly had come. These theses were backed by two Canadians, Cardinals Maurice Roy (1905–1985), bishop of Quebec, and Paul-Emil Léger (1904–1991), Archbishop of Montréal, but above all by Cardinal Primate of Belgium Léon Suenens.

On the opposite front were Cardinals Michael Browne (1887–1971), Ernesto Ruffini (1888–1967) and Alfredo Ottaviani (1890–1979), flanked by a substantial group of bishops and several experts, traditional in their outlook, such as the Salesian Ermenegildo Lio (1920–1992) and the Spanish Jesuit Marcelino Zalba (1908–2009). In the same year, 1963, the Jesuit theologians John Cuthbert Ford (1902–1989) and Gerald Kelly (1904–1964) recalled the traditional doctrine, writing that: 

“[O]ne thing at least remains clear and certain in practice from the authoritative teaching of Pius XII and from the unanimous teaching of theologians: to use the pills as a means of contraception is gravely sinful, and Catholics who intend to use them thus must be refused absolution and are ineligible to receive the Holy Eucharist.”

In 1963, on the advice of Suenens, John XXIII had created a commission to study the problem of birth control. Paul VI gave news of this in an address to the cardinals on 23 June 1964, and asked that the Council deal with the subject only in general terms. On this point a decisive battle was to take place that would go beyond the case of the contraceptive pill and touch upon the very foundation of the natural law.

The contribution that caused the greatest sensation came on 29 October in the address of Cardinal Suenens, who in referring to the work of the commission, invoked birth control in these vehement words: 

“It may be that we have accentuated the word of Scripture, ‘Increase and multiply’, to the point of leaving in the shadows the other divine word, ‘The two will be one flesh’. … It will be up to the commission to tell us if we have not placed too much emphasis on the first end, which is procreation, at the expense of an equally imperative finality, which is the increase of conjugal unity. … The commission will have to examine whether the classical doctrine, especially that of the manuals, takes sufficiently into account the new data of today’s science. … Let us follow the progress of science. I adjure you, Brothers. Let us avoid a new ‘Galileo trial’. One of them is enough for the Church.” 

In listening to this speech Cardinal Ruffini could not refrain from banging his fist on the table in indignation, and two days later he unburdened himself to cardinal secretary of state Cicognani, calling Suenens’s words “horrendous” and asking that he be removed as moderator. Paul VI, who did not agree with the positions of the progressives on issues of a moral nature, was disconcerted and, in a stormy audience with Suenens, reproached him for a lapse of judgement.

The topic of birth control was removed from schema XIII, which the commission continued to discuss, meeting in February 1965 in Ariccia and Rome. The text it produced was brought to the assembly in September, during the fourth conciliar session. The discussion on marriage took place on 29 and 30 September 1965. Once again there were remarks on one side and the other from conciliar fathers of opposing viewpoints.

After long discussions, the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes was approved on 7 December 1965, with 2,309 votes in favour and 75 against. In Gaudium et spes, paragraphs 47 to 52 are dedicated to the institution of marriage in general (no. 48), to the concept of conjugal love (no. 49), to matrimonial fecundity (no. 50), to the connection between love and procreation. (no. 51).

In number 48 it is stated that, with the pact between the spouses, an “intimate communitas vitae et amoris conquistalis” is established. The institution of marriage seems to be defined without reference to the offspring, as an intimate community of conjugal life, which reaches its fullest expression in sexual union. The essence of marriage seems to consist in sexual intercourse, which has an autonomous value with respect to procreation. In chapter 50 it is possible to see an inversion with respect to the two traditional ends, primary and secondary.

The most surprising aspect of Gaudium et spes is the lack of a presentation of the traditional order of the ends of marriage. This was, as in the case of many other texts of the council, a substantially ambiguous document. Logic teaches that two values cannot be on a plane of absolute equality. In the event of a conflict, one or the other of the equated principles is destined to prevail. The majority of the fathers voted for the document with the understanding that the primary purpose was to remain procreation, based on the objective nature of the institution of marriage. The progressive fathers, on the other hand, understood the equivalence as the denial of the primacy of procreation and the implicit affirmation of the primacy of conjugal love, founded not on nature but on the human person.

The post-conciliar period and Humanae vitae

After the close of the council, the commission on birth control set up by John XXIII continued its work and, towards the end of June of 1966, presented its conclusions to a group of cardinals charged with giving their view and reporting everything to the pope. There was a growing certainty in public opinion that Paul VI would change the Church’s traditional doctrine on the subject, in part because almost everywhere family planning was presented as a necessity of the contemporary world and the contraceptive pill as an instrument of woman’s “liberation”. Between 1966 and 1968, Paul VI seemed to waver before making a painful and troubled decision. Finally, with the encyclical Humanae vitae of 25 July 1968, the pope reaffirmed the Church’s traditional position on artificial contraception, contrary to the view of the majority of the experts he consulted.

A few days later, on 30 July 1968, the New York Times published an appeal, entitled “Against the encyclical of Pope Paul” and signed by over two hundred theologians, inviting Catholics to disobey Paul VI’s encyclical. This declaration, also known as the “Curran declaration”, takes its name from one of its promoters, Fr Charles Curran, theologian of the Catholic University of America, trained at the Alphonsian Academy in Rome under the teachings of Frs Capone and Häring.

A group of council figures opposed to the encyclical of Paul VI, including Cardinals Suenens, Alfrink, Heenan, Döpfner and König, met in Essen to organise opposition to the document, and on 9 September 1968, during the Katholikentag in Essen, in the presence of papal legate, Cardinal Gustavo Testa, an overwhelming majority voted to approve a resolution for the revision of the encyclical. It was something that had never been seen in the long (and even tormented) history of the Church. The exceptional fact is that the dissent was led not only by theologians and priests but also by several episcopates, including, in primis, that of Belgium, headed by Cardinal Primate Léon Suenens.

Paul VI was left almost traumatised by a protest coming from some of the figures of the Council closest to him, and in the ten years following Humanae vitae he did not publish a single encyclical, after having published seven between 1964 and 1968.

Suenens was the young cardinal of Brussels who, right after his elevation to the purple, had rushed to Rome to suggest to John XXIII that he give a pastoral imprint to the Council. He was the prelate to whom Paul VI had granted an unprecedented privilege when, on 23 June 1963, a few days after his election, he wanted him to be the one next to him at the window of the Apostolic Palace, in order to present him to the crowd gathered in St Peter’s for the Angelus. He was the man chosen to lead the Council’s four “moderators”: a key position he would hold for three years. And it was to Suenens that John XXIII and Paul VI had given the task of drafting the pastoral constitution on the Church and the modern world, which included all the problems of conjugal morality. So, was Suenens betraying the Council or aiming for its fulfilment?

In fact, the post-conciliar period did not follow the guidelines of Humanae vitae, but those of Cardinal Suenens and the theologians of dissent. Vatican II imposed on the bishops, as a duty, “pastoral sociology”, recommending that they open themselves to the sciences of the world, from sociology to psychoanalysis. In those years, authors such as the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and the American philosopher Herbert Marcuse presented the family as the repressive social institution par excellence and affirmed that “the core of life’s happiness is sexual happiness”. In the pontifical universities and seminaries, the texts that held sway were those of Fr Häring, now considered “the father of modern moral theology”. In Italy, the choirmasters of the “new morality” were theologians such as Don Tullo Goffi (1916–1996), Don Enrico Chiavacci (1926–2013), Fr Dalmazio Mongillo (1928–2005), Don Ambrogio Valsecchi (1930–1983) and Don Leandro Rossi (1933–2003).

Valsecchi and Rossi edited an Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Moral Theology published by Edizioni Paoline in 1973, which aimed to replace the classic Dictionary of Moral Theology by Cardinals Francesco Roberti and Pietro Palazzini. In the new moral dictionary, Enrico Chiavacci argued that “true human nature is not having nature”, while Valsecchi affirmed the need to unshackle oneself from a conception of morality that appealed to a metaphysical foundation of human nature.

The new moral theologians replaced the objectivity of the natural law with the “person”, understood as planning the exercise of his will, freed from any normative constraint and immersed in the historical-cultural context, or rather in “situational ethics”. And since sex is an integral part of the person, they asserted the role of sexuality, defined as the “primary function of personal growth” (thus Valsecchi), in part because, according to them, the Council taught that only in the dialogical relationship with the other is the human person realised.

According to traditional doctrine, the sexual act is in itself, by its nature, ordered to procreation and is good only if it occurs within marriage, without being diverted from its end. For the innovators, rather, the sexual act is good in itself, because it constitutes the most intimate and intense moment of human love, independently of whether or not it is ordered to procreation. Don Tullo Goffi, whom Gianni Gennari calls “one of the pioneers of Catholic moral theology of the time”, considers sexuality not only a physical and mental reality but “the privileged place where man experiences the passage from the vital to the human”. Sexuality is seen as an aid in man’s “evolution” and “maturation” through “knowledge” of the other, implementing the teaching of Gaudium et spes (no. 24), according to which it is only in the dialogical relationship with the other that the human person is realised. Sexuality is a factor of “humanisation” because it puts us in “communicative intimacy” with others. Fr Cornelio Fabro sums it up thus: “God’s love is realised as love of neighbour, love of neighbour is expressed above all in sexual intercourse”. This was the new morality that developed and still prevails today.

The encyclical Veritatis splendor reaffirmed the existence of the natural law and moral absolutes. But in practice the pontifical teachings were disregarded, and even if the teaching of the magisterium of the Church has not changed in this matter, contraception is widely practiced today by Catholic couples with the endorsement of confessors, moral theologians, bishops and even episcopal conferences.

The synod of bishops [of 2014] accepted, at least in part, Cardinal Kasper’s thesis according to which, in matters of sexual morality, the pastoral care of the Church should be changed, because there is a yawning chasm between the doctrine and the lived convictions of Christians. But the thesis is completely unfounded, because moral norms are, by their nature, norms of practical conduct. Morality is in fact the doctrine that guides human conduct towards the good, and every normative change involves a doctrinal change.

There is a red line that cannot be crossed and it is the moral norm of divine and natural faith, according to which any sexual act performed outside of legitimate sacramental marriage is gravely illicit. This doctrine must be considered as infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church. To admit even the slightest exception means toppling natural law as a whole. But the rejection of the Catholic moral system was unleashed by the new morality that emerged in the decade of 1958–1968. Once moral absolutes and the natural law have been abandoned, the transition from contraception to pre- and extra-marital cohabitation, and ultimately to homosexual union, is inexorable. If in fact there is no such thing as natural law, what prevails is the dialogical relationship, which conceals behind the mask of love the disordered pleasure of the partners. At this point, the measure of love lies in the truth of the interpersonal union, meaning the sincerity and stability of the sexual relationship. Once the objective datum of nature that establishes the difference between the sexes has been abandoned, personal and objective preference replaces sexual difference.

The Jesuit magazine, Aggiornamenti sociali, directed by Fr Bartolomeo Sorge, clearly set this forth in an article published in 2008. From the perspective of a personalistic and relational conception of human beings, homosexuality constitutes “a possible and legitimate variation of sexuality” as a result of the “right to the self-determination of sexual identity”. The legal recognition of homosexuality is justified in this anthropological vision: “Caring for the other on an ongoing basis is a form of the realisation of the subject and at the same time a contribution to social life in terms of solidarity and sharing.”

This is the context of the paragraphs, suppressed only in part, of the Relatio post disceptationem summarising the first week’s work of the synod of bishops in October 2014. Nor was there a lack of bishops and cardinals, inside and outside the synodal hall, who reissued the call to take hold of the positive aspects of the unnatural union, to the point of expressing hopes for “a codification of rights that can be guaranteed to people living in homosexual unions”.

How could this have been a surprise? Once traditional morality has been overturned, anything is possible. And if one wishes to go back to Vatican Council II, the starting point is not Gaudium et spes, which remains an equivocal document with pernicious effects, but the original Vatican Council II schema Chastity, marriage, family and virginity, negligently abandoned. This is why we strongly recommend reading it.