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
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
"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
"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
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)