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A Powerful Defense of Humanae Vitae’s Role in Church Teaching

As we celebrate the 51st anniversary of the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, Gerhard Cardinal Mueller, the former prefect of the Vatican Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith, weighs in. His new book, The Power of Truth, is required reading. It’s so important that the Population Research Institute has made it available as a special gift for your donation. (For this week only, though!)

Mueller’s clarity and precision offers a breath of fresh air as he describes the nature of the Magisterium and Humanae Vitae’s distinctive place within it.

The Church “can carry out her mission of leading people to God only if she puts the light that she received from the Lord, not under a bushel basket, but rather on the lampstand,” Mueller writes. This must be done “so that everybody knows, through the light of Christ, the hope to which they are called.”

The Power of Truth is a hard-hitting book because these are hard times. We are “in the midst of what is perhaps the greatest upheaval in the Church since the divisions of the 16th-century and the greatest persecution of Christians in history to date,” Mueller writes.

The political, cultural, and moral crisis of the West is immense and affects all mankind,” he continues. “This disaster follows from the denial of objective truth, which is founded in God, the Creator of the world … If truth is merely subjective and finds its criterion only in individual advantage and pleasure, then we have not arrived in the kingdom of freedom but we are stranded in the ‘dictatorship of relativism.’”

To respond, “the Magisterium of the Church must speak plainly and clearly”— but therein lies a problem: “How can the Church perform her service to God’s truth and to the salvation of mankind if the credibility of many shepherds and teachers of the faith is shaken by seriously immoral conduct and deliberately-caused confusion in their teaching of faith and morals?”

How, indeed. First, not through politics. “Our attitude toward the truth revealed to us by God cannot depend on a psychological condition, a conservative or progressive cast of our mind. This politicizing interpretation of all events in the Church results from a preoccupation with power, whereas the faith springs from the truth and unites the Church in Christ.” 


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The Magisterium: The Authority of Truth, Not The Power of a Person

“By what authority” does the Church teach,” Mueller asks in the first chapter. In a fascinating  survey of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf — the cultural revolution in 19th century Germany — he finds a definition articulated by Pope Pius IX of “the teaching office exercised by the Pope and the Church’s councils.” 

Here we learn that the Magisterium “is not superior to the word of God but is its servant.” The Pope “has the mission both to preserve the truth of Revelation and to establish new conceptual formulations of the Creed (the ‘symbol’) where necessary. In doing so, he cannot add anything to the Revelation given to us in Scripture and tradition, nor can he change the content of previous dogmatic definitions.”

But is there any real truth at all? One postmodern thinker recently tells us that “absolute truths are a source of conflict and violence, whereas the real strength of Christianity lies in the practice of charity.” This notion is hardly new. It has been around for hundreds of years, since David Hume argued that “Christianity’s claim to absolute truth was to be blamed for devastating civil wars” and intolerance. A close reading of this chapter will give great insight into the “social justice” heresies of today. 

Mueller then moves on to a defense of the Sacraments and their proper content and conduct. He does not shrink from addressing controversies that have arisen since Pope Francis was elected in 2013. His approach is refreshing, his tone careful and thorough. And brave: he confronts head-on the prevailing spirit of the age embodied in the sexual revolution.

Its advocates argue that it has “freed people from a narrow and prudish bourgeois morality of double standards.” But is this true? To succumb to this tempting view is to lower man to the level of animals, his intelligence serving merely to facilitate the satisfaction of his sexual desires and “to prevent or violently undo the undesirable consequences of fruitfulness by means of contraception or abortion. When the link between sexuality and procreation is broken, sexuality is not liberated but rather abandoned to the mere search for pleasure and self-satisfaction.”

All this has turned man’s sexuality “into a drug that provides people with a sense of life in the face of the nihilism that arises from a materialistic worldview.”

As the sexual revolution has continued, “the legal fiction of ‘same-sex marriage’ has diabolically redefined marriage as a mere arrangement for sexual complicity,  inasmuch as it deprives marriage of its basis in the union between a man and a woman in fruitful love.”

Mueller turns to chastity, a virtue scarcely celebrated in our age. “Chastity in body and mind, by contrast, safeguards human dignity and renders sexuality open to self-giving love.” In this context he introduces another topic seldom seen — the Sixth Commandment. “And what they consider mercy, some pastors of the Church feel that they should dispense their flock from what they regard as the exceeding severity of God’s Commandments — as though they bore a greater love for people than does the Creator himself.” In the terms Mueller has established at the outset, the sexual revolution has compromised and lost sight of the humanity which God created in His own image and likeness.


A Stirring Defense of Humanae Vitae

Humanae Vitae declared a revolution of life and love,” Mueller continues, and “it is not without God’s providence that fifty years later, the Catholic Church honors Pope Paul VI as a saint. This is the encyclical’s prophetic message: to be against death and for life. The Church stands for an integral view of the human person and his perfection in God, who is love.”

Mueller then examines the various arguments for and against Humanae Vitae, and a closely reasoned analysis which includes a defense of the Church’s Magisterium. He offers an indispensable review of the development of the encyclical since Pope Saint John XXIII established the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control in 1963, informed by new research conducted in recent years.

One often hears the question, why isn’t Humanae Vitae “the object of a formally infallible act of the papal Magisterium?” Mueller rejects this petulant complaint firmly. “does not put into doubt the perennial nature of the Church’s teaching against contraception.… A solemn definition would have undermined the authority of the ordinary Magisterium of the Pope and bishops. After all, the immorality of contraception is not the only moral teaching for which the Magisterium is criticized. Had the Pope solemnly defined that contraception is morally evil, people would immediately question the Church’s teaching on the immorality of adultery, fornication, masturbation, abortion, stealing, lying, and cheating — teachings that would have seemed less certain, suddenly, then the teaching against contraception… A proliferation of solid definitions in the area of morality would have had to follow,” he adds, “with the result that the authoritative value of solemn definitions would decline in proportion to their frequency, and the authority of the ordinary Magisterium would be lost entirely.”

He addresses the “second wind” felt by adversaries of Humanae Vitae after the publication of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia in the light of the Church’s teaching.

 “One can make a convincing case that the Church’s teaching against contraception pertains precisely to this ordinary and universal Magisterium.” After all, it was taken for granted until 1931 Pope Pius XI taught explicitly of the evil of contraception for the first time, because prior to that date, none of the Church’s teachers in all  of Christendom had ever taught in favor of it. 


Conscience and the Council

The Cardinal ends with welcome clarity. The Magisterium “does not invent or compose the truths of our faith. Its task rather is to witness to those truths continuously and unanimously, defending them against challenges that put them into doubt.” Those challenges, he observes, include allegations that the Second Vatican Council permits couples to place their consciences over the inviolability of the norms of the Magisterium. “But at best, such a claim can be made only by appealing to the ‘spirit’ of the Council. It cannot be sustained by the Council’s letter.” He then cites the Council document Gaudium et Spes.

“Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents…. In their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel” [No. 50]. 

“This citation alone,” he writes, “should suffice to refute the claim that Vatican II privileges conscience over the norm. It is only in the context of a nominalistic and voluntaristic morality that conscience and the moral law are seen in conflict. The Council does not share this perspective.”

Cardinal Mueller’s conclusion is both challenging and hopeful: “with the encyclical Humanae Vitae  the Church has raised a prophetic voice – not as predicting disaster, but as announcing salvation. Her message to the world of today is that there will be a renewal of marital spirituality and of the pastoral care of marriage and family once married couples do not perceive their children as a burden but joyfully accept them as God’s gift. Sons and daughters are not an impairment to our comfort, but rather children of God, called by him to eternal life and the love of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

And to all this we at PRI say, “Amen.”



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