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Detour: the Commission on Birth Control.

In 1966, two years before the release of Humanae vitae, the encyclical that upheld the Catholic ban on contraception, the Papal Birth-Control Commission recommended that Pope Paul VI lift the ban. In his new book Turning Point (Crossroad, 1995), Robert McClory describes what transpired during the last meeting of the Commission on June 20 and 21, 1966.

Cardinal Julius Doepfner, archbishop of Munich, made clear his view: "Contraception is not intrinsically evil." It is, he said, a "physical evil," which can and should be allowed for a greater good: to protect a wife from pregnancy that might endanger her health or life, or to give a couple the opportunity to care for and educate the children they already have, or to avoid the uncertainty of rhythm. Without hesitation, Doepfner declared that Casti Connubii is not infallible and is subject to doctrinal development - just as Vatican II approved of religious liberty without apologizing for its past assertions about "no salvation outside the Church."

Everyone expected Doepfner to take such a stance. They were not prepared when Cardinal [Valerian] Gracias of Bombay arose. His long record of opposing efforts by the Indian government to control population growth was well known. At first he sounded like [American Jesuit theologian Father] John Ford. "If the Church changes here," he said, "then there will be a crisis in Christendom and the Church's enemies will rejoice." But, he continued, "There is a resurrection after every death. The Church will survive. And we must find a way to help couples." He said he still had personal problems with contraception but had given much thought to the pill and believed it would be a godsend for the teeming masses in his country.

Then came a third occurrence that propelled further the move for change. [Vatican theologian] Bishop [Carlo] Colombo, alarmed by what seemed Gracias's defection from the conservative camp, interrupted the cardinal. If the Church backtracks on contraception, he warned his colleagues, they "would endanger the very indefectability of the Church, the teacher of truth in these things which pertain to salvation. Wouldn't this mean the gates of hell had in some way prevailed against the Church?"

[Spanish Jesuit Father Marcelino] Zalba could not agree more. "What then," he asked, "with the millions we have sent to hell if these norms were not valid?"

Patty Crowley [a married Catholic from Chicago] could not restrain herself. "Father Zalba," she interjected, "do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?"

A momentary stunned silence followed, then some chuckles at this intrusion of common sense in these austere deliberations. Patty seized the moment and spoke further.

"On behalf of women in general, I plead that the male Church carefully consider the plight of at least one half of its members, who are the real bearers of these burdens. Couples are generous. Christian couples want to have children. It is the very fruit of their love for each other. What is needed is to rid ourselves of this negative outlook on psychological and spiritual values. Couples can be trusted. They will accept the progress of change, and they will have increased confidence in the Church as she helps them grow in love and demonstrates her trust and confidence in them."

Gracias concurred, but he was still having trouble reconciling his seminary training with his pastoral instincts. He called on [Jesuit Father Joseph] Fuchs [of Germany], whom he knew as a careful, conscientious theologian, to explain how he had come so far in such a short time. Fuchs's candid account of his theological journey provided a fourth boon to those hoping for change. He said he, like Bernard Haring and other theologians on the Commission, served as experts at the Vatican Council, and they all made this change, "some sooner, some later."

His own doubts started in 1963; in 1965 they intensified and he withdrew permission from his publishers to reprint his popular textbook on Catholic morality, which presented Casti Connubii in glowing terms. Earlier in 1966 he had stopped teaching moral theology at the Gregorian University because he no longer wished to defend a position he did not personally accept. He had come to understand how doctrine develops, said Fuchs, how a specific condemnation must be withdrawn when the rationale behind it is no longer persuasive. "There has been an evolution in doctrine since Casti Connubii under Plus XII and at Vatican II," he said. "And this evolution has been moving in one direction: away from the notion that each contraceptive act is intrinsically evil."

When the archbishop of Bourges, Cardinal Joseph Lefebvre, arose to address the gathering, many assumed he would try to redirect the momentum toward the right. But Colombo and [Cardinal Alfredo] Ottaviani were disappointed. He said simply, "It appears after looking at the documents given us that it wouldn't be too rash to go along with the majority." Then came Bishop Pulido-Mendez of Venezuela, whose views had not been publicized. He had problems with the word "contraception" but agreed substantially with Doepfner and Fuchs and was ready to vote for change. Realizing that something like a tidal wave was rising, Cardinal [Leo Joseph] Suenens [of Belgium] suggested the bishops were ready to view the Majority Report and make a decision.

First, however, the hierarchy had to decide whether to submit one report to the Pope or two-one representing the majority position and one the minority. Monsignor [Fernando] Lambruschini, an Italian with long experience in the Curia, strongly advised sending just one report, and a unanimous one at that. "We don't want to embarrass the Holy Father with two views," he said in an unintentionally accurate peek into the future. "Then he would probably feel obligated to settle on the old doctrine."

However, since it seemed impossible to get a unanimous position, some bishops advocated two texts. Cardinal [John] Heenan [of Westminster, England] came up with a compromise idea: one text representing the majority position, but with "input" from Ford and the other minority holdouts. Many regarded this as a splendid idea, and the group authorized a reediting of the Majority Report. In any event, they firmly agreed that this body would submit but one official position paper to Pope Paul.

Thus after only two days, fears of a blockade by the cardinals and bishops evaporated. At least two generally assumed to be conservatives (Gracias and Lefebvre) were leaning toward change, as was at least one doubtful (Pulido-Mendez). Thus, eight of the fifteen present had aligned with the majority view. And now hope sprang up that the minority might yield a little. As it turned out, that hope was unfounded.
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Title Annotation:details of final meeting on proposed lifting of Church ban on contraception
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Sep 1, 1995
Words:1103
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