Council Tackles Marriage, Birth Control, But Sidesteps Pill Issue

112th General Congregation
October 29, 1964

The ecumenical council has begun discussion of the long-awaited subject of marriage and birth control, but has sidestepped the particular question of birth-control pills.

Pope Paul VI has reserved this question to himself, said Archbishop John F. Dearden of Detroit in presenting the report on the treatment of family life in schema 13 on the Church in the modern world.

This document, as drafted by the commission, lays down the principle that fecundity in marriage should be both generous and conscious, Archbishop Dearden said.

Judgment about how many children a couple should have belongs to the partners in the marriage, he said. Their decision on whether to restrict the number of children should be made with a correctly formed conscience.

Judgment about the means of limiting offspring, he said, must be made according to the mind of the Church. He said this leaves no room for subjectivism.

Archbishop Dearden explained that the question of the pills had been avoided not only because the Pope had reserved it to himself, but because it is such an intricate problem that discussion on the council floor would be unable to settle it.

He pointed out that in the brief treatment of marriage presented in the schema’s article 21, a full treatment of the nature, holiness and properties of marriage could not be expected. The text provides only a synthesis of doctrine to enable Christians today to achieve a better understanding of the dignity and holiness of their state, he continued.

He said a true understanding of conjugal love is to be understood in the context of the dignity given it by the collaboration of parents with God in rearing a family.

Ernesto Cardinal Ruffini of Palermo, Italy, led off debate on the section on family life at the council’s 112th general meeting. He lamented the text’s omission of any mention of the nobility of Christian marriage. The unity and indissolubility of marriage must be safeguarded at all costs, he said.

He took up the passage where the text states that married couples with sufficiently serious reasons to limit the number of their children must still manifest tender love to each other. He commented that the text fails to explain how such love can be expressed, and that Catholic teaching has always maintained that in such circumstances the use of marriage is unlawful.

Cardinal Ruffini also asserted the text leaves the door open to all sorts of abuses by leaving the final judgment on this important problem to the interested individuals.

St. Augustine wrote some very harsh passages on certain aspects of married life in his day, and this shows that our own age is not so different, he said.

Cardinal Ruffini concluded by expressing the hope that the commission, in revising the text, will follow the authentic teaching of Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on marriage and Pope Pius XII’s 1951 speech to midwives. These two documents, he said, provide us with all the principles needed for the solution of this problem.

Leo Cardinal Suenens of Malines-Brussels appeared to reply to Cardinal Ruffini directly when he said we have learned much since the time of Aristotle — here the Belgian Cardinal paused — and even since the time of St. Augustine.

Urging the council to be courageous in facing pastoral demands for an objective study of the theology of marriage, Cardinal Suenens asserted there are grounds for thinking that the traditional outlook has been too one-sided.

The council press office paraphrased him as saying: “Our insistence on the command ‘to increase and multiply’ may have caused us to forget that this is not the only text in Sacred Scripture and that another passage, stating that a husband and wife ‘become two in one flesh,’ is also contained in Revelation and thus is equally divine in origin.

“We still have much to learn. No one can ever presume to exhaust the inexhaustible riches of Christ.

“We may well wonder if our theology texts have gone into every last detail and exhausted every possibility.”

It was here that he mentioned Aristotle and St. Augustine.

“It is true that the Church cannot abandon a doctrine which has been accepted and which clearly comes from Revelation. But there is nothing to prevent the Church from making a thorough inquiry to see if all facets of a problem have been sufficiently explored.

“Modern science may well have much to tell us in this connection and we should keep a ready ear. The council should take care to avoid a new ‘Galileo’ case. One such case in the history of the Church is quite enough!

“There are no grounds for being afraid. The Holy Father has set up his commission to study this all-important problem, and the competent commission of the council should work in close collaboration with it. The council commission should be made up of men of all ranks and walks of life in such a way as to represent the entire people of God. It would be well for the names of the members of this commission to be made available to the public.”

Council Fathers applauded Cardinal Suenens’ speech.

Paul Cardinal Leger of Montreal, who followed Cardinal Ruffini, noted that the text takes up serious problems, which as yet have had no satisfactory answer.

He noted that some people seem to fear any revision of the theology of marriage. They fear the Church will be accused of opportunism in undertaking such a study. But, he said, we cannot forget that this review has been provoked by the worries of some of the faithful and that its only purpose is to protect the holiness of marriage.

He said difficulties in this field could have arisen from inadequate explanations in theological manuals concerning the purposes of marriage, explanations not based on Holy Scripture but dictated by an unduly pessimistic mentality.

In this connection, Cardinal Leger praised the schema for avoiding the old terminology of the primary and secondary purposes of marriage. He also praised the schema for stating that marital fecundity must be governed by prudence and generosity.

He asserted that it is not sufficient merely to establish the specific purposes of marriage, but more attention must be paid to the purpose of individual acts. This would only elevate into the order of principles what has long been a part of the Church’s teaching, especially concerning the lawfulness of conjugal love despite sterility. With such principles, moralists, physicians and psychologists will be in a position to deal with further details.

Cardinal Leger’s address was also applauded.

Melkite-rite Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh of Antioch, like Cardinal Suenens who directly preceded him, called on the council to have the courage to take up the problems of the hour.

The council press office paraphrased his speech, also applauded, as follows:

“There is a question of a break between the official doctrine of the Church and the contrary practice of the immense majority of Christian couples. The authority of the Church is called into question on a vast scale. We must have the courage to approach a solution to this problem without prejudice.

“Frankly, the official position of the Church on this matter should be revised on the basis of modern theological, medical, psychological and sociological science.

“In marriage, the development of personality and its integration into the creative plan of God are all one. Thus, the ends of marriage should not be divided into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ ends.”

The 85-year-old patriarch said he wondered whether official positions might not derive from what he called a “bachelor psychosis” on the part of persons “unfamiliar with marriage.”

He suggested, as the council press office paraphrased his speech, that “perhaps unwillingly, we are setting up a Manichean conception of man and the world, in which the work of the flesh, vitiated in itself, is tolerated only in view of children.” (Manicheans held that all matter, and therefore all flesh, is intrinsically evil.)

Patriarch Saigh called for study by theologians, physicians, psychologists and sociologists to find proper moral solutions.

The Church’s duty, he said, is to educate the moral sense of its children, not to bind them in a net of prescriptions which they must blindly obey. He said the Church’s mission in the world is at stake.

Bishop Eugenio Beitia Aldazabal of Santander, Spain, asked for more clarity in the schema’s teaching on fecundity in marriage. He also asked that the term “contract” and its implications be used in the schema regarding marriage. This, he said, is called for by the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage.

Archbishop Tulio Botero Salazar of Medellin, Colombia, asked for a clear stand on the Church’s position on birth control and the means used for it. He said it is a mistake to think that poverty is the only reason for the practice of birth control. God foresaw the difficulties connected with procreation, and he has certainly provided the necessary spiritual help. The schema must fearlessly reject any means of birth limitation which gives priority to instinct and diverts married couples from the obligation flowing from their true and noble love, he said.

Bishop Paulus Rusch of Innsbruck-Feldkirch, Austria, urged that the schema insist on the deep significance of those laws of the Church which seem to cause difficulty. He said the defense of these laws is a great contribution to the welfare of all mankind, as millions of “orphans of divorce” can bear witness. If God’s laws had been followed in the homes where they were born, their lives would not be so blighted, he stated.

He also appealed for a statement on the condition of youth, especially in industrialized countries where young people spend most of their time away from home.

Bishop Rudolf Staverman for Sukarnapura, Indonesia, urged that the schema avoid a false dualism in describing marriage. He said this would be detrimental to the full integrity of the physical and the spiritual in Christian marriage.

Before the debate began on marriage and its problems, the council concluded discussion of articles 19 and 20 of the schema on the Church in the modern world. These articles deal with the dignity of the human person.

Bishop Josef Stimpfle of Augsburg, Germany, said he saw difficulties arising from the exhortation to the faithful to change social conditions which are not in keeping with Christian principles. He pointed out that while slavery existed in the time of Christ, neither Christ nor the apostles openly opposed it. St. Peter urged the slaves to be obedient to their masters, he said, and St. Paul sent a newly baptized slave, Onesimus, back to his master, Philemon. Bishop Stimpfle asserted that the attitude of the early Christians gradually spread, thus bringing about the gradual elimination of slavery.

He also urged that the schema give importance to the role of liberty in education and scientific research. Top administrators should also have their subordinates free to act, he said.

Auxiliary Bishop Santo Quadri of Pinerolo, Italy, asked that the schema outline the Church’s social doctrine concisely. He also urged prudence and care in the schema’s defense of the rights of women, lest the council be accused of either feminism or anti-feminism.

Auxiliary Bishop Augustin Frotz of Cologne, Germany, said that just as the Church once failed to perceive the deep problems of labor in modern life, the Church has not yet become aware of the worldwide implications of the changed position of women in modern society. Women should be accepted as the Church’s grown-up daughters, not just children. In the liturgy they should be addressed directly as “sisters” and not just submerged in the salute “brother.”

Bishop Gilles Barthe of Frejus-Toulon, France, asked for the insertion of a paragraph describing the standards of man’s dignity according to Catholic teaching. Freedom, he said, has become an absolute today. Man ascribes his entire dignity to his autonomy.

Increasing liberty is a good thing, but it often means an increasing spirit of domination and of egoism. Man’s fullest freedom consists in his subjection to God and God’s laws, and this fullest freedom will circumscribe the domination and egoism which stem from a narrower idea of freedom. In subjection to God men find their true dignity, he said.

Maurice Cardinal Feltin of Paris was allowed to anticipate debate on article 25 (world peace) because of his imminent departure from Rome.

Cardinal Feltin said world opinion expects the council to be as forthright on the question of peace and war as Pope John XXIII was in Pacem in Terris. Public opinion expects in particular a definite condemnation of modern war and all its terror, he said.

He asserted that the text is sufficient already to outlaw atomic, bacteriological and chemical warfare, but said there must be a concerted effort to outlaw all armaments.

Cardinal Feltin said work for peace must become part of the Church’s ordinary pastoral work.

The changes proposed by the Theological Commission for chapter two of the schema on the nature of the Church were distributed in the council. Archbishop Pericle Felici, council secretary general, announced that a vote on the procedure and decisions of the commission would be taken Oct. 30.

Gregorio Cardinal Agagianian was the day’s moderator.

The meeting opened with Mass concelebrated by Julius Cardinal Doepfner of Munich, Germany, who was marking the silver jubilee of his ordination, and 12 other council Fathers. All were celebrating some anniversary. Among them were Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara of Yuanling, China, now living in Union City, N.J., a Canadian missioner who was imprisoned by the Chinese Reds and then expelled, and U.S.-born Bishop Louis Morrow of Krishnagar, India.

The Gospel was enthroned by the apostolic administrator of the Montevideo, Uruguay, archdiocese, Bishop Antonio Corso.

The ecumenical council, avoiding any appearance of settling disputed questions about the Blessed Virgin’s role as “Mother of the Church,” is steering clear of that title.

The chapter of the schema on the nature of the Church dealing with the Blessed Virgin, as rewritten by the Theological Commission according to the virtually unanimous agreement of the council Fathers, simply affirms the Church’s devotion to Mary “as a most-loved


This formula, said Archbishop Maurice Roy of Quebec in explaining the commission’s revisions to the council Fathers, is an equivalent expression of Mary’s motherly role in the Church.

He asserted that the amended text provides a better explanation of Mary’s motherhood in the order of grace.

Regarding the title “mediatrix,” which was questioned in the council debate as tending, unless very carefully explained or properly understood, to detract from Christ as the sole mediator, the amended text contents itself with stating that Mary has been invoked under this title.

Archbishop Roy said the commission was in almost unanimous agreement that this and other titles such as “advocate” and “helper” are perfectly faithful to Holy Scripture.

Such an enumeration of various titles, he said, deliberately avoids theological controversy and simply affirms the fact of this widespread invocation and devotion.

The council Fathers passed the amended chapter by an ample majority. A total of 1,559 council Fathers voted their unqualified approval. With 2,091 votes cast, the required majority was 1,394.

There were only 10 no votes.

However, 521 Fathers voted qualified approval, that is, approval with changes to be made. One vote was null.

The chapter was enlarged in the commission to explain how all apostolic activity in the Church regards the Mother of God and the Mother of men as a perfect model.

Patrick Riley
NCWC News Rome Correspondent

* * * *

Coffee bars were virtually deserted and council Fathers listened in silence as debate began on marriage and the family.

The applause greeting some of the speeches was the most enthusiastic heard so far in the council. Thus the members of the U.S. bishops’ press panel described the electrifying effects of the explosive issue in the schema on the Church in the modern world as debate on it began, with its attendant discussion on the population expansion and birth control.

“Today represents a turning point whose impact can hardly be overestimated,” Father Charles Davis, editor of the Westminster Clergy Review and dogmatic theologian at St. Edmund’s Seminary, Ware, England, said.

“Although there has been a feeling that the Church needs a change of thinking on these matters, there has until now been uncertainty whether such a change was allowable. Now the suggestion has been made in the council of a re-thinking — not on the (progesterone) pill only — but on the whole general doctrine on marriage. The authority of the speakers today shows it can be said those who think a change is needed have support.”

An English Mill Hill priest, Father Arthur McCormack, an expert on population problems and editor of World Justice magazine, agreed. But he cautioned that a broader view of today’s talks is necessary. He said:

“The old view that married couples were to have as many children as possible already had been changing before this morning. But the applause given the talk of Cardinal Suenens indicated authoritative backing for the need for this change in thinking. All should rejoice that it has been said in the council that the personal relationship in marriage is equal to the procreative function.

“Cardinal Suenens by the exalted nature of his talk brought out strongly that the Church is not talking to prostitutes in this, but to respectable families who are kept from the sacraments because of this problem.”

Father John J. King, O.M.I., of Lowell, Mass., superior of the General House of Studies in Rome for Oblate priests, also said he felt that the day’s speeches “marked the beginning of a new era and attitude.” But he added that such a change was inevitable and predictable because of changed circumstances today and the change in general thought on family life.

“Objections that have been raised against the Church’s position demanded such a response, and Cardinal Suenens has presented a balanced and Catholic attitude toward such objections. He called for an investigation in the light of Faith necessitated by changing circumstances, and he asked that this be done through scientific examination of the circumstances.

“But do not anticipate, because of any prejudice, the ultimate outcome of this investigation. Possibly the Church will find there is no answer available today,” he warned.

Others on the panel did not agree that the day’s speeches represented any great change or turning point.

Archbishop Joseph T. McGucken of San Francisco said he did not feel we were in any new position. “These subjects have been discussed for a long time.

“We hope the current study will be broad and deep. Marriage is plagued with many problems, even problems deeper than contraception. Broken homes, abandoned children are all part of the problems of marriage. The true nature of love as discussed today has broader and wider application than merely the problem of birth control,” the archbishop said.

“I do not think the discussion today has changed things in the slightest,” Auxiliary Bishop Philip M. Hannan of Washington said. He referred to the study begun several years ago at Georgetown University on the same point and indicated that Archbishop Patrick A. O’Boyle of Washington and himself had helped to set it up.

Referring to the recent statement by the European Economic Community, that European industry needs a greater population, he said that this side of the population problem must be considered.

Msgr. George W. Shea, rector of Immaculate Conception Seminary, Darlington, N.J., said he felt the newness of the ideas expressed in the day’s council meeting were “perhaps exaggerated.”

“The personal relationship between spouses has been discussed by many authors, by the catechism of the Council of Trent and by the papal encyclical on marriage, Casti Conubii,” he said. “This aspect of matrimony has never quite been lost sight of.”

The practical conclusion of this doctrine, he said, “is that parenthood must be responsible, and there is a place for planning. But we must not be too hasty in drawing conclusions regarding the means to be used in this planning. Chemical and mechanical means still have not been given the green light. Casti Conubii bases arguments against these means on the foundation of the Church’s tradition, and it is doubtful whether we are free to debate these means outside the council — especially in light of Pope Paul’s mandate not to debate them publicly, at least until the special commission he has set up finishes its work.”

Msgr. George G. Higgins, director of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, said the morning’s speeches had an importance “far beyond family regulation. They include the whole question on whether there has been sufficient freedom in the Church to debate debatable issues. Cardinal Suenens asked the members of the Pope’s commission and any others that may be organized on this topic be made a matter of public record. This may also be a minor turning point.”

Father Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R., former dean of the School of Theology at Catholic University of America, reminded that the “development of doctrine does not mean the denial of doctrine.”

He added: “If contraception were the only answer to family problems, then its increased use today should mean there would be a decline in divorce and broken homes. But this just isn’t so.”

Father John P. Donnelly
NCWC News Rome Correspondent

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