The issue of birth control recently resurfaced based on a new book by Monsignor Gilfredo Marengo titled “Birth of an Encyclical: Humanae Vitae in the Light of Vatican Archives”. Much has been written in the past about the actual pre-encyclical commission first appointed by John XXIII in 1963 and then greatly expanded by Pope Paul VI. Both Popes thought it wise to include many non-clerics on the commission.
This 72-person commission ultimately produced a report in 1966 suggesting that birth control was not an evil act and that couples should be allowed to decide for themselves what methods of birth control should be employed. Sixty-four members of this commission supported the majority report which Paul VI largely ignored in Humanae Vitae.
This majority report, however, raised a ruckus in the Synod of Bishops who pressed Paul VI, prior to his encyclical, to present the matter to the Synod. That is exactly what happened during a 1967 Synod held in the Vatican. Of the 200 Bishops present, only 26 produced written responses. It is those writings that make up part of Marengo’s book.
It is surprising both that more did not respond and that most of those responding were in favor of openings for birth control, some 19 out of 26. Also notable were who some of those for and against were. Three American Cardinals were in support of the opening; Shehan of Baltimore; Krol of Philadelphia and Dearden of Detroit. This may come as a surprise to many in the current U.S Conference of Bishops. The lone dissenting American respondent was Fulton Sheen who joined six ther Bishops in urging Paul VI to uphold the urrent magisterium. One other of the seven included a young Bishop from Krakow named Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II).
It has been known for fifty years that Human Vitae’s treatment of birth control was contrary to the vast majority of the Commission appointed by John XXIII and expanded by his successor. Less known is that many prominent members of the Synod also favored a more liberal treatment of the issue. We’ll never know for sure what the full complement of Synodal Father’s thought, since so many of them didn’t respond, at least in writing. No doubt, however, that each had a view.
Fifty years later, with hundreds of thousands of Catholic married couples living in a technical
state of sin, it would have been nice to know. Where do you stand?
Michael Sarafa is Co-publisher of the