The Authority of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae

Author: M. R. Gagnebet, O.P.


M. R. Gagnebet O.P.


The encyclical "Humanae Vitae" foresaw that it would encounter strenuous opposition, heightened by the communication media. Whereas, every day hundreds of Bishops, priests and faithful express their gratitude to the Pope, current newspapers are filled with protests, criticisms, and reproofs. Truly, in the likeness of her Divine Founder, the Church seems, more than ever, a "sign of contradiction". But what is still worse, some sons of the Church, even some theologians, rank among the opponents, while simultaneously affirming their submission to the Church to which they profess their allegiance. They, too, are products of the times and why should we be surprised at their being imbued with the widespread spirit of criticism? However, though they often do not take it into account, this criticism touches upon essential principles of our faith. It can disturb the Christian people and prevent the papal teaching from bearing fruit. Therefore, without indulging in polemics, it is necessary to bring into the open the equivocations and ambiguities on which criticism rests and which it spreads.

Issue not a scientific one

The first reaction to this criticism is the astonishing fact that certain Catholics seem to have lost sight of the proper character of the Church's teaching authority. It is not a scientific magisterium, it is one of authority. The Pope, supreme doctor of faith, authentically interprets the divine law and teaches that its observance is binding "on all the faithful." Undoubtedly he is acting within the limits of his supreme authority. If he does not quote Scriptural texts, it is because this divine law is a natural law, written in the heart of man to dispose him to acts by which he attains his perfection. That the Pope has authority in this regard is evident, since Christians need to know with certainty the precepts of the natural law by which they must abide to attain their salvation. Furthermore, like all natural truths under God, this natural law, with regard to its essential principles, is contained in Sacred Scripture. Therefore, it behooves the Pope to clarify these principles and to draw from them conclusions that might escape the ordinary discernment of the greater part of the faithful. For this two-fold reason, the interpretation the Pope gives to this law, as it bears on the use of marriage, is an act of his supreme authority, designed to interpret authentically all divine law, both natural and supernatural. In this instance, resorting to the case of Galileo is absolutely irrelevant. The issue here does not bear on science but on morality.

"He who hears you, hears me!"

The judgment of the Pope is supported by justifying arguments. Without wishing to diminish in any way the value of these arguments, without denying the role they played in shaping the papal decision, we must forcibly affirm that they do not constitute the essential of the encyclical. The essential is a moral rule which is therein taught and prescribed. It is taught, because in the light of the divine assistance which he possesses, the Pope declared it to be true and good. It is binding by reason of the divine authority of the Vicar of Christ, who commands through him. "He who hears you, hears Me!"

Addressing the priests, the encyclical makes reference to this fact: "Be the first to give, in the exercise of your ministry, the example of loyal, internal and external obedience to the teaching authority of the Church. That obedience, as you well know, obliges not only because of the reasons adduced but rather because of the light of the Holy Spirit, which is given in a particular way to the pastors of the Church in order that you may illustrate the truth (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 25).

St. Thomas did not attempt, even by way of hypothesis, to counter this authority of the Magisterium of the Church, which resides principally in the Sovereign Pontiff, with arguments of even the greatest theologians and doctors. "We must abide rather by the Pope's judgment," he writes, "than by the opinion of any of the theologians, however well versed he may be in divine scriptures." (Quodl. IX, Art. A.16). "Against his authority, neither Jerome nor Augustine nor any other of the holy doctors defends his own personal views" (Summa, IIa, IIae). Pope Alexander VIII condemned the proposition of the Jansenists who claimed to support their errors by means of St. Augustine's teaching: When we have discovered a doctrine clearly grounded in Augustine, we can adhere to it and teach it without having regard to any Bull whatsoever of the Holy Roman Pontiff." (D. Sch. 2330). The great German theologian of the last century, Scheeben, considered it theological rationalism for theologians to attempt to judge, by their own science, the decisions of the divinely established authority, which interprets the truths of faith and teaches moral rules.

Jesus Christ promised divine assistance

To judge by the newspapers, which report the utterances of some wayward theologians which are then taken up by the entire international press, one would be inclined to think that this evil is actually widespread. The reasoning of certain theologians, the views of certain intellectuals are set in opposition to the arguments of the Encyclical. Emboldened by this criticism, they attempt denying his authority. Such an attitude would be lawful if the Church's teaching authority were scientific. In such a case, the conclusion would be as valid as its supporting arguments, but controversies pertaining to matters of faith and morals would be endless. In the present controversy, the two schools would continue to clash. Worry and insecurity would continue to thrive among the faithful and confessors. To preclude such disadvantages, which the actual controversy clearly reveals, our Lord willed that the Church's magisterium be one of authority. He confided to it the mission of teaching men the truths they should believe and the duties they should practice. However, if the men who have received this mission were left to their own personal enlightenment, they could, as others, err in the authentic meaning of the truths they teach and the nature of the obligations they impose. Though they were convinced they were right, though they were to offer the soundest arguments, they would not succeed in convincing all the faithful. As evidence of this, it suffices to note that the first principles of human reason are questioned by certain philosophical schools. Moreover, let us not forget that we are dealing with truths which are generally beyond the natural strength of our minds.

The way of scientific argumentation, therefore, makes it impossible to guarantee the maintenance of the authentic meaning of divine truths and the unanimous profession of faith. Therefore, Jesus Christ promised his pastors—authentic teachers of the faith—and, in particular, to Peter, His daily help to guard against error in matters of faith and morals and, through His pastors, to keep His people faithful.

Obligation to obey

It is on the strength of this assistance, that Pope Paul VI resolved the grave controversy on the use of marriage which had kept the teachers and the faithful in a state of uncertainty. Submission to this pronouncement requires the acknowledgment of an authority which is based on divine assistance. Although a Catholic might, because of his scientific training or for some other reason, find it difficult to grasp the compelling nature of the argumentation, nevertheless his obligation to obey would be no less. For this duty is grounded not on reason, but on the authority of the Roman Pontiff.

But—so they say—men of our times are not inclined to obey without reasons. This is certainly true. It is equally true that they practise such obedience in their everyday lives. The sick, without any knowledge of medicine, follows the prescription of his physician without being able to see its usefulness. In the last war, soldiers carried out the orders of their officers without knowing the strategy of their great leaders and the tactics of their immediate superiors. Why, then, in matters of faith and morals, should not the divine authority of the pastors of the Church require a like submission, after they have done everything in their power to enlighten themselves and their subjects? But most of, all, it is sheer nonsense to refuse the Pope's moral decision by opposing it. with a theological position he rejects with all his authority. This means placing on the same level the fallible light of a. human science and the divine light of Pastors whom the Holy Spirit guides.


Some object that the Encyclical "Humanae Vitae" is not a document of the infallible magisterium. They hold that the teaching contained therein does not bear the highest guarantee of certitude which, alone, could put an end to all dispute. In this way, one could admit the Pope's authority without submitting to this decree.

Duty of obedience

In the first place, let us point out that, according to the teaching of the last council, the doctrinal authority of the Pope and the Bishops is not limited to infallible teaching. The duty of obedience is not restricted to definitions of faith: "That religious assent of mind and will is due in a very singular way to the authentic Magisterium of the Sovereign Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra: this implies the respectful acknowledgement of his supreme teaching authority and the earnest adherence to his statements, in conformity with his manifest thought and desires, as well as with the deductions possible, especially because of the nature of the document or the frequent repetition of the same doctrine or the mode of expression".

Let us apply these criteria to the recent encyclical. Obviously the Pope intended to resolve a controversy which questions the time-honoured teaching of theologians approved by the Magisterium. On the same topic, Pius XII specifically stated, in the Encyclical "Humani Generis" (D. Sch. 3885), "this question is no longer open to the free discussion of theologians". Furthermore, Paul VI is not innovating in this matter. Without wishing to go further back into history, from the time of Pius VI, the teaching of the Holy See has never varied in this matter. In a particularly solemn manner, Pius XI propounded it in the Encyclical "Casti Connubii"; Pius XII, as well as John XXIII, taught it consistently. The council did not touch this question set aside for the Sovereign Pontiff, but affirmed its underlying principle: " ...sons of the Church may not undertake methods of regulating procreation which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law". (Gaudium et Spes, N.51). Finally, the document in which the Pope expounds his teaching is an Encyclical is an authentic interpretation of the natural law which declares the use of marriage which is conformable to the law and that which is not.

Divine assistance not restricted

Those who substantiate their denial of the documentary teaching by maintaining that it lacks infallibility, seem to forget that Catholic doctrine contains teaching which is. certain, outside that which has been the object of an infallible proposition. The recent Council proposed the doctrine of collegiality as a teaching which is certain and contained in Scripture, though it did not propose it as a defined doctrine to be believed as a truth of divine faith. Undoubtedly, it is an infallible doctrine, but it has never been defined, since the Council refrained from promulgating new dogmas of faith. Who would deny that, in unfolding this doctrine, the Council received Divine assistance?

To restrict Divine assistance to a few extraordinary acts of the solemn Magisterium made through the centuries, is to forget that the Lord promised to be with the Church all days unto the end of time. At any rate, it is a theologically certain doctrine that the Holy Spirit aids the Church in proclaiming moral and disciplinary laws. This Divine assistance guarantees that, when it is a question of laws imposed on the universal Church, the Church can contradict neither Revelation nor the natural moral law. The Constitution "Auctorem Fidei" condemned a proposition of the pseudo-synod of Pistoia, according to which "the Church, governed by the Holy Spirit, could impose a disciplinary law that would be not only useless and more burdensome for the faithful than Christian liberty allows, but also dangerous and harmful". (D. Sch. 2678). If this is true of disciplinary laws, a fortiori it ought to be true of moral laws imposed by the Church on all the faithful.

Universal call to perfection

The Holy Spirit furnished such assistance in the case of the Encyclical "Humanae Vitae", which authentically interprets natural law. The line of conduct which the Pope followed is in keeping with Divine demands. It is not an unbearable weight that uselessly burdens the faithful; rather, its observance is necessary in order to avoid evil and do good in this matter. Those who proclaim the contrary are forgetting a little too soon the conciliar teaching on the universal call of all men to perfection. It is not merely man in the abstract who is called to perfection (the "thesis", as one journalist puts it), but it is man—poor, weak and sinful, as we all are in varying degrees ("the hypothesis" of our journalist). If we were left to our own resources, not only would this precept be impossible for the majority to observe, but many others besides. "Without Me, you can do nothing," says the Lord. And, commenting, Saint Augustine declares: "He does not say: without Me, you can not do something big, but: without Me, you can do absolutely nothing". And consequently, side by side with the precept is found the grace to help men of good will. Because men are weak, the Lord instituted a sacrament to remedy the evil they bring upon themselves by sin, Like its Divine Founder, the Church will never cease to proclaim to men God's demands. For these demands are the path which must be followed in order to attain to the fullness of both heavenly and earthly joy. Moreover, the Church, like Christ, is merciful. She takes to her heart the sinners, whose tears She dries whose wounds She heals. Therefore, though the Encyclical is not infallible, it proposes a sure way of life which Catholics ought to follow with an untroubled conscience. They may rest assured that this road will lead them to God, and that, in Him, married couples will find joys which the satisfaction of their natural desires could never give them.


In the last place, criticisms bear upon a third topic: The Pope made a one-man decision. He uttered this pronouncement against the advice of his counsellors. He did not solicit the collaboration of the Episcopal College to decide with him. He disregarded the faithful's "consensus of opinion". One journalist asked whether this was the first time that one man was right against all others.

It is strange to find fault with the Pope for not accepting the advice of the majority of the commission. It was up to the Pope to decide. In this task, the Holy Spirit helps him and he alone assumes the incommunicable responsibility for this decision, since it was on him that Christ conferred the authority to do so and the mission to guide the faithful to life everlasting. This mandate, this authority, this assistance cannot belong to any commission of experts, learned and prudent as they may be. The latter's function is to inform and gather data that may bring light upon the decision. As in this commission there was a majority in favour of an opinion never before held by the Church, it was urgently important to hear these learned and loyal men who had thought it possible to depart from the Church's traditional position. It was necessary that the arguments and objections be known and forcibly set forth by the very persons who had energetically proposed them. If the Pope had decided without hearing them, what would now be said? The encyclical explains why the Pope did not follow that advice. It is needless to labor the point further.

The Pope made a decision alone without and even, some hint, against the College. This view rests on a false notion concerning the College, on a theory propagated by certain theologians before the Council, and not accepted by the Council. According to this opinion, the exercise of supreme power in the Church should always be collegial. The day-to-day government and current affairs would be left to the Pope, as in the case of the resignation of a government which continues to tend to current affairs. Nevertheless, serious decisions should be taken collegially, either in Council or with the synod. This position is erroneous. Its promoters themselves admit that it is not in accordance with the Constitution "Lumen Gentium": "For in virtue of his office, that is, as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme, and universal power over the Church. And be can always exercise this power freely."

The explanatory note authentically clarifies the meaning of this passage: "The care of the whole flock of Christ has been entrusted to the Supreme Pontiff. It belongs to him, according to the changing needs of the Church during the passage of time, to determine the way in which it is fitting for this care to be exercised, whether personally or collegially...As supreme pastor of the Church, the Sovereign Pontiff can always exercise his authority as he chooses, as is demanded by his office itself. While the College always exists, it does not for that reason permanently operate through strictly collegial action, as the tradition of. the Church shows...It operates through collegial action only at intervals and only with the consent of its head". (Prefatory Note of Explanation, nos 3, 4). These texts are clear. Let us leave aside easily-adducible proofs. It is evident that no one in. the Church can reproach the Roman Pontiff for preferring, when he deals with such and such a question, the personal exercise of his supreme power. When the Holy Father deferred the personal treatment of this question till the close of the Commission's work, no one at the Council protested; nor could anyone have done so. The Pope did not neglect to consult the bishops, who could freely submit their opinions on the topic, as the Encyclical itself asserts.

But on what grounds do certain journalists affirm that the majority of the Episcopal body favoured the new opinion rejected by the Holy Father? Indeed, one can hardly forget some of the resounding conciliar speeches, but here again there is no evidence whatever that they represented the view of the majority of Fathers. Since the publication of the Encyclical two weeks ago, the "L'Osservatore Romano" has been printing daily statements of its acceptance by episcopal conferences, cardinals and bishops the world over. Better than newspapermen, the Catholic bishops know the duty that binds them of submitting to the Roman Pontiff. Reports from every corner of the earth show their docility to the Papal decision and their efforts to have the faithful abide by it.

Finally, a statement of American theologians, which the world press played up, hinges upon another strange argument: the Pope would not have taken notice of the faithful's "consensus of opinion". Despite their intention of remaining in God's grace, the faithful do not hesitate to have recourse to contraceptive means. How can we suppose that the guiding Holy Spirit is urging them to acts intrinsically bad? No Catholic doubts, the Holy Spirit's assistance to the Pope, but among the people of God it is not limited to the Pope; all benefit by it. One must not attribute too readily such a line of conduct to the Holy Spirit. Many other reasons explain it, notably the worldwide unbridled propaganda in favour of contraception and the imprudent approval that certain theologians gave to them, thus disregarding the Pope's caution before his pronouncement. An additional and still weightier fact: this alleged "consensus" of the faithful is far from being unanimous. On this matter, confessors are better informed than pressmen. I know confessors who hear penitents of all races and nations. They are unanimous in stating that Christians are heroically faithful to the moral laws confirmed by the Pope, even at the cost of tremendous sacrifices. Others there are who fail in this respect; but they recognize their guilt, and come to the holy tribunal to seek forgiveness and strength. Finally, it is true that the Holy Spirit's aid to the Church is not restricted to the Pope and bishops. It extends to all of its members and goes beyond the visible frontiers of the Church. However, in addition to this ordinary aid, promised to all, that they may fulfil the individual and social duties of the Christian life, a special assistance is provided for those who, in the Church, must exercise a public function in view of the common good. To settle the disputes that arise in matters of faith and morals is not the general function of all the faithful. First and foremost, this mission belongs to the Vicar of Christ. Likewise this special assistance belongs primarily and principally to him. Why attempt to confuse the faithful by such sophisms? The laity is not easily taken in by them. In the Pope's voice, they detect Christ's voice. One would read with profit in the "L'Osservatore Romano" the soul-stirring letters addressed to the Roman Pontiff. As the Constitution "Lumen Gentium", asserts, the adherence that the faithful instinctively give to the teachings of the Magisterium, even when these doctrines entail painful privation, manifests the "consensus" of the people.

They are grateful to the Roman Pontiff, who so courageously is fulfilling his arduous mission for their spiritual welfare. Throughout the world, contradictory voices may resound. The faithful do not allow themselves to be deceived. They know the Shepherd's voice and they follow it, for he alone has the words of eternal life and guides them to the fullness of the Christian life and to the joy of heaven.


Article in three parts,
taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 September 1968, page 6
19 September 1968, page 5
26 September 1968, page 6

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