This is a translation of the ecumenical council speech (Oct. 29) on schema 13, article 21, “Dignity of Marriage and the Family,” by Melkite-rite Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh of Antioch.
Today I would like to draw the attention of your venerable assembly to a special aspect of morals: the regulation of birth.
The fundamental virtue which imposes itself on us, we shepherds gathered in a council that wishes to be pastoral, is the courage to approach squarely present-day problems in the love of God and of souls. Now, among the anguishing and sorrowful problems which agitate the human masses today, there emerges the problem of birth regulation, a problem most urgent since it is at the bottom of a grave crisis of the Catholic conscience. There is here a conflict between the official doctrine of the Church and the contrary practice of the vast majority of Christian families. The authority of the Church is once more questioned on a large scale. The faithful are reduced to living outside the law of the Church, far from the sacraments, in constant anguish, unable to find a working solution between two contradictory imperatives, conscience and the normal conjugal life.
On the other hand, on the social plane, the demographic growth in certain countries, and particularly in the great agglomerations, prevents under present circumstances any improvement in the standard of living and condemns hundreds of millions of human beings to a shameless and hopeless misery. The council must give it a valid solution. It is its pastoral duty. It must say whether God really wants this depressing and anti-natural blind alley.
Venerable fathers, you who in the Lord, Who died and resurrected for the salvation of men, are conscious of the sorrowful conscience crisis of our faithful, let us have the courage to approach it without bias. Frankly, should not the official positions of the Church regarding this matter be revised in the light of modern science, theological as well as medical, psychological and sociological? In marriage, the development of the person and his integration in the creating plan of God forms a whole. The purpose of marriage therefore must not be dissected into primary and secondary purposes. This consideration opens up a horizon on new perspectives regarding the morality of conjugal behavior as a whole. And then, do we not have the right to ask ourselves whether certain official positions are not subordinated to obsolete conceptions and possibly even to the psychosis of bachelors who are strangers to this sector of life? Are we not, unwittingly, weighed down by this Manichean conception of man and of the world whereby the carnal act vitiated in itself, is tolerated only for the sake of the child? Is the external biological rectitude of the acts the only criteria of morality, independent of the life of the home and of its conjugal and familial moral climate, and of the grave imperatives of prudence, the basic rule of all our human activity?
On the other hand, does not present-day exegesis commit us to more prudence in the inter-reorientation of two passages of Genesis: “Grow and multiply” and that of Onan, which have been used for so long as a classical Scriptural testimony of radical rebuking of anti-conception acts?
How relieved did the Christian conscience feel when Paul VI announced to the world that the problem of the regulation of births and of family morals “is being studied, a study as wide and profound as possible, that is to say, as grave and honest as is demanded by the great importance of this matter. The Church will have to proclaim this law of God in the light of scientific, social and psychological truths which, lately, have been the object of study and of documentation.”
Because of this, in view of the extent and gravity of this problem, which concerns the whole world, we ask that the study should be conducted by theologians, doctors, psychologists and sociologists, in order to find the normal solution which imposes itself. The collaboration of exemplary Christian married people also seems necessary. In addition, is it not in line with the ecumenism of this council to start a dialogue on this matter with the other Christian churches and even with thinkers of other religions?
Why remain closed within ourselves? Do we not have before us a problem common to all mankind? Must not the Church open herself to the Christian as well as to the non-Christian world? Is it not the leaven which is to raise the dough? Also, it is necessary that it should achieve in this, as well as in all other sectors which concern mankind, positive results which will give peace of conscience.
Far be it from me to minimize the delicacy and gravity of the matter and of the possible abuses. But here as elsewhere is it not the duty of the Church to educate the moral sense of its children, to train them in personal and community moral responsibility, profoundly mature in Christ, rather than enveloping them in a network of prescriptions and commandments, and purely and simply asking them to conform to them blindfold? And we ourselves, let us open our eyes and be practical. Let us see things as they are and not as we would wish them to be. Otherwise, we risk talking in a desert. The future of the mission of the Church in the world is at stake.
Let us therefore put into practice, loyally and effectively, the declaration of His Holiness Paul VI at the opening of the second session of the Council:
“May the world know that the Church looks at it with profound understanding, with a sincere admiration, sincerely disposed, not to subjugate it but to serve it, not to deprecate it but to appreciate it, not to condemn it but to sustain and save it.”