Cardinal Reports ‘Honest Doubt’ Arising on Birth Control Teaching

113th General Congregation
October 30, 1964

The ecumenical council heard the Church’s Dutch cardinal declare that “an honest doubt” is arising among married people and theologians on whether the rhythm method of birth control is the only moral way to reconcile the demands of married love with the other needs of married life.

The “precise question,” said Bernard Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht, “is this: in performing this one and the same act a moral conflict has arisen. For if in this act a couple wants to preserve its biological purpose, their human duty of the human and Christian education of future and present offspring is compromised.

“If, on the other hand, they wish to preserve the good of fidelity and the good of education, then (outside of periodic continence, which is exercised by many spouses with great Christian virtue, but more often is tried with great inconveniences, or outside of complete continence, which … demands greater moral strength than a couple normally is supposed to have) only one solution is open to them: namely, performing the marriage act while excluding offspring, at least in this concrete act.”

Cardinal Alfrink said it is evident that if this exclusion were accomplished “by the use of means which without any doubt are intrinsically evil, the Church can never admit the sacrifices of a particular value in order to save the value of the whole marriage.”

Here he added a crucial sentence: “But with our new understanding of the science of man, and especially with our growing understanding of the essential distinction between merely biological sexuality and human sexuality, an honest doubt is arising among many couples and among scientists and some theologians about the arguments produced to demonstrate that in such conflicts in the married life of the faithful of good will, complete or periodic continence is the sole solution which is entirely efficacious, moral and Christian.”

The Cardinal said the Church should be solicitous for the purity of the observance of divine law, but it must also be solicitous for human problems. He added: “The Church must in a holy and diligent way so search that all Christians may know that the Church, whatever the answer may be, has studied the problem with great charity with all the means which the various sciences can bring.”

He suggested creating a permanent commission to follow the growth of problems treated by the council’s schema on the Church in the modern world.

Cardinal Alfrink’s carefully prepared speech was followed by a virtually extemporaneous plea from Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, secretary of the Congregation of the Holy Office, that the council not leave the role of Divine Providence out of the schema’s treatment of marriage problems.

He said he had no text, since he had expected to speak later. (It is believed that the moderators warned him they planned to ask for a cloture vote, which, in fact, was passed by a great majority.)

Then the cardinal, who has risen to one of the highest offices in the Church, recalled his childhood in Rome’s tough Trastevere district.

“I come from a family of 12 children,” the cardinal began.

“My father was a workingman, not an owner or manager. I was the 10th child.

“Never did my parents have any doubts about Divine Providence.”

He quoted Christ’s words: “Look at the birds of the air: they do not sow, or reap, or gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of much more value than they?”

“We are forgetting Divine Providence,” he declared.

He asserted that the text insinuates that the Church has erred in the past on a grave moral problem. He said that if such is the case, the commission now drafting the text on the Church’s indefectibility in doctrine should revise its text.

Cardinal Ottaviani said the council cannot possibly approve the freedom granted by the schema to married couples to judge for themselves the number of children they should have.

The Scriptural command to increase and multiply, he said, is not in opposition to the other text which speaks of married couples as two in one flesh.

Cardinal Ottaviani said that Michael Cardinal Browne, O.P., of the Roman curia, would emphasize the doctrinal points which he too felt should be emphasized.

Cardinal Browne first noted that he was a member of the mixed commission which had drafted the schema. He said that he therefore had at one time decided not to speak. But he added that he felt that certain things should be said which until then had not been said.

“My purpose in asking to speak was to offer witness on things that cannot usefully be argued about,” Cardinal Browne said.

Some things are certain, he said, from both the Church’s teaching authority and the classical schools of theologians. The primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children. Other considerations of mutual help and the satisfaction of desires must not be lost sight of, but they are secondary ends.

He made the classical distinction between the love of desire, in which the lover desires his own good, and the love of friendship, in which the lover desires the good of the beloved.

“The love needed in marriage to keep it firm, stable and deep is the love of friendship,” he said.

“In married life there is indeed sense pleasure. Yet it is natural that the more one party is moved by desire, the more the other party loses the love of friendship. Therefore, care should be taken in demanding marriage rights.”

He said the teaching that the conjugal act must conform to nature and remains lawful in sterile periods can be found in the works of Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI and Pius XII. There are and always will be difficulties which must be solved by scientific discoveries rather than by theological discussion, he said, and added that the Church can only await the outcome of present research.

If, with the Pope’s consent, the council also occupies itself with problems about the infertile period, this should be done through a commission, he said.

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Reuss of Mainz, Germany, speaking in the name of 145 bishops of many countries, echoed Cardinal Alfrink’s emphasis on the distinction between merely biological sex and human sex. He asked that the text be amended to include this emphasis.

Bishop Reuss said the schema should say that human sexuality involves the whole person. He asked for a forthright statement that married people must realize that they are called to procreation and not just to the selfish use of marriage.

Archbishop Joseph Urtasun of Avignon, France, deplored the text’s silence on divorce, which he called a plague of modern life. He pointed to the dangers to children involved in divorce. He said the schema should include a passage on the social implications of chastity and its importance in helping to choose a marriage partner.

He said he entirely agreed with Cardinal Alfrink.

Bishop Abilio del Campo y de la Barcena of Calahorra, Spain, said some parts of the text conflict with the traditional doctrine on conjugal love and imply approval of errors which have been condemned by the Church. This means a danger of scandal both inside and outside the Church, he said.

Like Cardinal Ottaviani, he criticized the schema’s failure to mention spiritual supports in the difficulties of married life. He said the text implies that it is almost impossible to keep God’s laws.

Bishop Joseph Nkongolo of Luebo, the Congo, said the big problems affecting marriage in Africa are the lack of free consent on the girls’ part and polygamy. He said the schema should state the most basic requirements for a valid marriage and should insist on its unity and indissolubility.

Bishop Francisco Rendeiro of Faro, Portugal, asserted that it is the state’s duty to safeguard the sanctity of family life, especially through movies, radio and TV. He said it is an inescapable fact that the theme of most shows in these media is human love, and that these do not always treat love with proper reverence. Youths must be protected, he said.

Bishop Pietro Fiordelli of Prato, Italy, urged that the text deal with the problem of abortion and asked that something be said about how to help young people of courting age. Special attention should be devoted to illegitimate children, who are deprived both of their name and a home, he stated.

Bishop Fiordelli said the council should not concern itself in detail with methods of birth control but should follow the Pope’s example and put the question into the hands of a commission of experts.

Bishop Juan Hervas y Benet for Ciudad Real, Spain, complained that the schema, though basically good, reflects one viewpoint among many.

He said that there was no mention of the influence of the supernatural life, of trust in Providence, of the love and acceptance of the Cross. He urged that the schema provide a more positive outlook on marriage, praising its virtues and encouraging married people to accept children with faith and joy. He said that psychologists and sociologists are generous in praising large families for their mutual help. Large families are also a source of priests and Religious, he said.

Archbishop Bernard Yago of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, urged the council to say something clear on the problems of tribalism. He criticized the schema’s silence on the modern cult of sensuality and on polygamy.

Like Bishop Nkongolo, he asked for a statement on the need for free consent in marriage. He also asked for a statement on the abuses of the dowry system and on divorce.

Gregorio Cardinal Agagianian, moderator of the day, announced that the moderators considered debate had been sufficient on the subject of family life (Article 21). He put it to a vote. An overwhelming majority approved.

Then Giacomo Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna, Italy, took over as the moderator for debate on article 22 dealing with the promotion of culture.

Father Joao Ferreira, prefect apostolic of Portuguese Guinea, complained that the schema used the word “culture” dozens of times but in different ways. He urged greater precision.

Bishop Roger Johan of Agen, France, said all the faithful are witnesses of the truth and have a real vocation in the promotion of culture.

Auxiliary Bishop Bohdan Bejze of Lodz, Poland, complained that the text is silent on the role of philosophy and the promotion of culture. He pointed to the influence of such philosophies as

Hegelianism, Marxism and existentialism, and urged the text to emphasize Christian philosophy and the importance of Christian philosophers in culture.

Underlining the role of the saints in shaping culture, he suggested that Pope John XXIII be enrolled on the Church’s list of saints.

Bishop Stanislaus Locoing of Tainan, Formosa, said that in mission countries the Church cannot make its presence felt by preaching its social doctrine. The small number of Catholics makes their influence too weak, he said. However, institutions such as universities, the Catholic press and organized works of charity bring the Church’s influence to bear in a country, he noted.

Father Aniceto Fernandez, O.P., master general of the Dominican Order, criticized the text for its failure to emphasize the role of theology in promoting the progress of human culture. Theology can forestall the danger of mistaken orientation, especially in society, he said. The Church’s contribution to culture will be in the foundation of universities to promote understanding of integral truth, he stated.

Coadjutor Bishop Pablo Munoz Vega of Quito, Ecuador, said the Church’s mission demands that it have professors as well as pastors. Before the Reformation, Church universities kept the Church in touch with culture, he said. Today, we must show our trust in genuine science by directing serious universities worthy of the name, he noted.

He pointed out that in Latin America one of the greatest sources of Marxist infection is in academic life, especially the universities. Catholic universities must be the means of combating this evil, he said.

The council was adjourned until Nov. 4 at the close of the day’s meeting. During the debate the Fathers voted on the way the Theology Commission had handled changes in chapters one and two of the schema on the Church.

The vote on changes in chapter one was 1,903 yes to 17 no, with 17 votes of qualified approval and four null votes.

The vote on changes in chapter two was 1,893 yes to 19 no with three null votes.

The day’s opening Mass was offered by Bishop Jean Gay of Basse-Terre and Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe. The Gospel was enthroned by the abbot general of the Premonstratensian Fathers, Abbot Norbert Calmels.

Patrick Riley
NCWC News Rome Correspondent

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