Statement of 18 Priests of the Diocese of Saginaw on "Humanae Vitae"

On July 23, 1968 The Vatican issued the controversial encyclical condemning birth control - "Humane Vitae."  It was issued during the papacy of Pope Paul VI and rejected the recommendations of the special papal commission the pope had set up to study the issue. The surprising rejection of the pope's own commission is a convoluted story and its background can be researched in the reference at the end of this paper.

In response to an August 4, 1968 letter in the Saginaw News that strongly supported the encyclical eighteen (18) priests of the diocese (including myself) signed and sent the following letter to the newspaper.  It was not well received by the bishop of the diocese and we were remonstrated and the consequences were of unwritten magnitude.  The letter reads as follows:

Evaluation and Interpretation

We wish to submit the following statement drafted by a representative group of over 200 Catholic theologians.

"As Roman Catholic theologians we respectfully acknowledge a distinct role of hierarchical magisterium (teaching authority) in the church of Christ. At the same time Christian tradition assigns theologians the special responsibility of evaluating and interpreting pronouncements of the magisterium in the light of the total theological data operative in each question of statement.  We offer these initial comments on Pope Paul VI's encyclical on the regulation of birth.

"The encyclical is not an infallible  teaching. History shows that a number of statements of similar or even greater authoritative weight have subsequently been proven inadequate or even erroneous.  Past authoritative statements on religious liberty, interest-taking, the right to silence, and the ends of marriage have all been corrected at a later date.

"Many positive values concerning marriage are expressed  in Paul VI's encyclical.  However, we take exception to the
ecclesiology implied and the methodology used by Paul VI in the writing and promulgation of the document:  They are incompatible with the church's authentic self-awareness as expressed in and suggested by the acts of the Second Vatican Council itself.  The encyclical consistently assumes that the church is identical with the hierarchical office. No real importance is afforded the witness of the life of the church in its totality;  the special witness of many Catholic couples is neglected; it fails to acknowledge the witness of the separated Christian churches and ecclesial communities; it is insensitive to the witness of many men of good will; it pays insufficient attention to the ethical import of modern science.
"Furthermore, the encyclical betrays a narrow and positivistic notion of papal authority, as illustrated by the rejection of the majority view presented by the commission established to consider the question as well as by the rejection of the conclusions of a large part of the international Catholic theological community.

"Likewise, we take exception to some of the specific ethical conclusions contained in the encyclical.  They are based on an inadequate concept of natural law:  The multiple forms of natural law theory are ignored and the fact that competent philosophers come to different conclusions on this very question is disregarded.  Even the minority report of the papal commission noted grave difficulty in attempting to present conclusive proof of the immorality of artificial contraception based on natural law.

"Other defects include: Over-emphasis on the biological aspects of conjugal relations as ethically normative; undue stress on sexual acts and on the faculty of sex viewed in itself apart from the person and the couple; a static world view which downplays the historical and evolutionary character of humanity in its finite existence as described in Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World; unfounded assumptions about the evil consequences of methods of artificial birth control; indifference  to Vatican II's assertion that prolonged sexual abstinence may cause faithfulness to be imperiled and its quality of fruitfulness to be ruined; an almost total disregard for the dignity of millions of human beings brought into the world without the slightest possibility of being fed and educated decently.

In actual fact, the encyclical demonstrates no development over the teaching of Pius XI's Casti Connubii whose conclusions have been called into question for grave serious reasons.  There reasons, given a muffled voice at Vatican II, have not been adequately handled by the mere repetition of past teaching.

"It is common teaching in the church that Catholics may dissent from authoritative, non infallible teachings of the magisterium when sufficient reasons for so doing exist.

"Therefore, as Roman Catholic theologians, conscious of our duty and our limitations we conclude that spouses may responsible decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception is some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the values and sacredness of marriage...."

This statement contains strong and weighty arguments which throw doubt on the conclusions of Pope Paul's VI's
encyclical.  It is Catholic teaching that doctrine containing such doubt cannot be universally binding.  Furthermore, the encyclical has been presented to the church as a non infallible document.

Submitted and signed by:

Rev. I.L. O'Brien, St. Bernard, Alpena
Rev. R.E. Fitzpatrick, St. Rose, Heron
Rev. Charles Howley, St. Helen, Saginaw
Rev. Charles O'Neil, St. Mary, Hemlock
Rev. Joseph K. Miller, St. Felix, Pinnebog
Rev. Donald Christensen, St. Patrick, Croswell
Rev. Leo Gengler, St. Paul Seminary, Saginaw
Rev. Leonard Wilkowski, St. Edward, Omer
Rev. John Gentner, St. James, Wittemore
Rev. James Miller, St. Boniface, Bay City
Rev. Terrence Yule, St. Anthony, Helena
Rev. Theodore LaMarre, Sacred Heart, Birch Run
Rev. Robert Keller, Sacred Heart, Saginaw
Rev. Richard Cross, St.Joseph, St. Louis
Rev. John O`Callahan, Mt. Carmel, Saginaw
Rev. Lawrence Howley, St. Anne, Alpena
Rev. Edwrad Konieczka, St. Cyril, Bannister
Rev. Leonard Tuozzolo, St. Joseph, Bay City

Note:  Some interesting background on the machinations that went on before  "Humanae Vitae"
was issued can be found in Chapter 19 "Born to Set Times Right" of Gary Wills' book Why I Am Still a Catholic.
(Houghton Mifflin, 2002)