Recent questioning of the doctrinal scope of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) within the Church, tends to consider a reform of teaching on assisted procreation techniques (ART) and contraception could be on the agenda. Enough to revive the controversy over the “non-negotiable points” of Christian doctrine.
Gone are the days when the religious news of the Vatican marked a summer break, while the successor of Peter abandoned the apostolic palaces to their torrid torpor, to join the smiling and peaceful countryside of Castel Gandolfo.
In July 2022, the Pontifical Academy for Life reignited controversy in the Catholic world over several bioethical issues – ranging from contraception to in vitro fertilization – which seemed to have been sufficiently commented on and settled for several decades.
It all started with the publication of the book Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition, Practical Challenges at the beginning of summer. A book that includes several contributions presented at a conference sponsored by the Academy in 2021.
These defend the distinction between a supposed moral ideal presented by the Church – such as the refusal of contraception – and the concrete and pastoral application of this ideal, which would justify derogations from traditional teaching.
Under the fire of criticism from those who accuse him of having given authority to theologians considered heterodox, the president of the Academy justified himself on the microphone of Vatican Radio: “We rather wanted to bring together different opinions on very controversial subjects, proposing many points of discussion”, explained Bishop Vincenzo Paglia.
The debate then ignited in early August, following a tweet posted on the official account of the Academy for Life, claiming that the content of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1968, prohibiting, among other things, artificial childbirth controls, does not bear the seal of infallibility and is therefore reformable.
The argument is perplexing, because it comes down to saying that everything that comes out of the domain of infallibility would be subject to evolution: logically, we can do better…
Moreover, a piece of doctrine does not need to be formally declared infallible to be so effective: no pope has ever proclaimed “infallible” the moral teachings of the Church on lying, theft or murder, which does not mean that it would be possible one day to cut the throat of one’s neighbor in complete peace of mind.
But the Academy for Life seems to ignore arguments based on logic and common sense: one of its prominent members, Rogrigo Guerra – who is also secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and a member of the Academy Pontifical Social Sciences – said it was “necessary to go beyond Humanae Vitae.”
Similarly, the Jesuit-controlled Civilta Cattolica announced on July 2 that the Holy Father may soon promulgate “a new encyclical or apostolic exhortation on bioethics, which he could perhaps title Gaudium Vitae (The joy of living).”
Would it be relevant to “go beyond Humanae Vitae”? What we know is that the more the reception of the encyclical is critical and negative on the part of the episcopates won over to liberal ideas and the spirit of 1968, the more the decline of moral theology is accentuated in the regions concerned.
It is not a question here of settling the question of the doctrinal status of the encyclical Humanae Vitae: at least we can consider it invested with a high degree of authority, because it comes under the ordinary magisterium of the pope and it repeats a constant teaching.
Certainly, the ordinary pontifical magisterium remains fallible – and the evolution of the crisis that the Church has been going through for several decades goes in this direction – but, the more constant it is, the more we can presume of its infallibility: even the case of the teaching dispensed in Humanae Vitae? The theologians will give their opinion and the magisterium will decide in due time.