Does History Repeat With Amoris Laetitia Confusion?

The Holy Father actually said to the College of Cardinals: “In a matter of such importance it seems right that Catholics desire to follow one single law propounded authoritatively by the Church. So it seems advisable to recommend that for the present no one should arrogate to himself the right to take a stand differing from the norm now in force.”

But, before readers begin rejoicing that perhaps the massive confusion swirling around Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Laetitia has been resolved in favor of the Church’s perennial and clear prohibition against the divorced-not-annulled-remarried Catholic receiving Communion, there is a twist regarding the above quote.

It’s not from 2017, but from June 23, 1964. And it’s from Blessed Pope Paul VI, not Pope Francis. It’s also about birth control, not Communion reception. Finally, it’s what the Holy Father had to say to his Cardinals nearly a full four years before the July 25, 1968, promulgation of Humanae Vitae finally put that years-long divisive question to rest, magisterially speaking.

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I was actually born in 1966, during the “great silence” of Blessed Pope Paul VI, as some called the period immediately preceding Humanae Vitae. I’ve studied that era at length. So, when the “Communion Question” was raised during the 2014 and 2015 synods, I felt confident that the question would at least be resolved when the pope published his post-synodal exhortation.

And a year ago, when Amoris Laetitia was published, I literally felt a visceral “gut-punch” upon realizing that it did not resolve the question in the text. Yet I thought the high-road approach was to read the text—footnotes included—in full and complete continuity with the magisterial teachings that came before it—just as Blessed Pope Paul VI’s words above suggested was the right course regarding contraception back in 1964. And I believe I did find a way to do that.

I only wished then that everyone else in the Church had opted for that approach instead of so many others insisting they saw Pope Francis as changing that perennial discipline.

But now, a year after Amoris Laetitia, we seem to be in uncharted territory. At least with Humanae Vitae, we ended up with freshly articulated, clear, magisterial truth in the midst of the brewing chaos of continued dissent. Bishops and catechists at least were being held to a measurable public standard regarding contraception. But today the “norm now in force” on Communion is in a virtual free-fall, with too many cardinals and bishops and people in the pew merely assuming there really is no norm in force since Amoris Laetitia didn’t restate it. Further, in the last year, Pope Francis’ “great silence” shows no sign of ending.

Yet, maybe we can learn something from the similarities that exist between the two “great silences,” before considering further the essential way in which history is not repeating itself.

“Aggiornamento” and the Pill
Some older readers may yet remember living through all this, while so many younger Catholics may be quite surprised by the debates, divisions, confusions, and intrigues that surrounded Church teaching on birth control that really set the stage for the post-Humanae-Vitae dissent that continues to mar the Church to this day.

Our point of departure is Pope St. John XXIII’s papal election in October 1958. Within a few months (January 25, 1959), he announced that he would convene an ecumenical council and began to speak in the now-familiar terms of “aggiornamento” and studying afresh everything about the Church with an eye toward contemporary reformulations of even ancient and certain doctrine.

Alongside this totally unexpected move by the Holy Father, a medical development—the anovulant “Pill”—had also just become the technological “breakthrough” that secular overpopulation alarmists viewed as the antidote for the impending doom of supposedly out-of-control birth rates.

Now, it was only about thirty years earlier (December 1930) that Pope Pius XI’s marriage encyclical Casti Connubii had taught quite clearly that contraception was always and everywhere morally wrong, but because the Pill’s mechanism was indirect, relative to marital relations, Catholics of all kinds began questioning whether the Pill might be morally okay, followed by theologians and bishops beginning to ask whether, given the “aggiornamento” underway, all contraceptives might be permissible, given the global overpopulation panic.

This questioning of Church teaching continued parallel to the official convening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, and it was pretty self-evident that the Council Fathers (especially those desiring change) were quite ready and willing to engage the divisive contraception question at the conciliar level.

Council, Commission, Conflict, Intrigue
So, in early 1963, Pope St. John XXIII opted to redirect the simmering birth control question to a smallish separate papal commission. Yet, his death on June 3, 1963, put both the council and the commission on hold, until both were taken up again—and the commission expanded—by his successor Blessed Pope Paul VI later that year.

Meanwhile, the controversy over birth control in the Church was gaining even greater momentum and attracting more attention from the already-divided body of Council Fathers. Some theologians and bishops were already proclaiming that contraception was not in fact contrary to natural law and were battling over the Church’s teaching that procreation and education of children was the “primary end” of marriage (resulting in the ambiguous compromise language on marriage’s ends found in the documents). Retreating from these “outdated” principles would make room for a change in teaching, contraception advocates thought.

The boldness of the Council Fathers who sought to debate the question and have it inserted in document drafts led Blessed Pope Paul VI to rather boldly intervene, in November 1965. There had been much interaction between members of the papal commission and the Council Fathers, so the Holy Father’s intervention ensured that the birth control question would not be addressed via the council but would be reserved to himself and the commission set up to advise him.

Thus, the unresolved question continued to be in the news and on the minds of Catholics everywhere. What would the commission recommend?

Doubting the Law Amid Silence
Not surprisingly, like the Council Fathers, the commission members themselves were ultimately divided on the question. It took yet another year—1966—until a “majority” report favoring a change in teaching was prepared, with a “minority” report on its heels (and even a “majority” rebuttal of the “minority” report!), and submitted for the pope’s consideration.

Publicly and privately, the confusion was only escalating, as Catholics everywhere were beside themselves with concern for the long, slow-moving process that seemed to be at work. When would the pope come through with a final clarification? That pressure-cooker exploded in April 1967, when the majority report was leaked and published, giving rise to a certainty among many Catholics, laity and clergy included, that this meant the teaching would change for sure. And Catholics, laity and clergy included, began to act on this supposed certainty.

The real bombshell didn’t drop, however, until more than another year later, when the endless-seeming and criticism-inducing “silence” of Blessed Pope Paul VI came to an end. Finally, on July 25, 1968, Humanae Vitae was released and the question officially answered.

And then all hell really broke loose. Catholics everywhere had already gotten accustomed to doing what they wanted on the issue. Public dissent at all levels became rampant, and even some bishops and bishops’ conferences opted to pay lip service to the “official” teaching while more quietly continuing to dissent as they had during the previous long years of apparent indecision and confusion.

That Was Now, This Is Then… Almost
Now, for brevity’s sake, we must fast-forward and compare this history with the last several years of the synods and the publication of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia a year ago. These bullet-points reflect some of the similarities I see:

  • The “Communion question” was addressed quite clearly by Pope St. John Paul II more than 30 years ago in Familiaris Consortio, just like Casti Connubii taught clearly 30 years before the Second Vatican Council. Yet, in both cases, dissenting voices remained, waiting and hoping for an opportunity for change.
  • Both then and now, a climate favoring change arose—then because of the Council’s “aggiornamento,” now because of the perception of Pope Francis as a liberal “reformer” figure.
  • Despite there being two groups convened by the pope (then, it was the Council and the commission, now it was the extraordinary and ordinary synods), none of these groups were ever supposed to be the source of a final decision—that task was and is for the Holy Father alone.
  • Then and now, massive political intrigue and public wrangling has only made matters worse by increasing confusion and wasting more time.
  • Then and now, the confusion seems to be measurable in years—not weeks or months.
  • Then and now, contrary to the clear 1964 counsel of Blessed Pope Paul VI to his cardinals quoted at the top of this essay, the “norm now in force” was—and is being—set aside.

Lots of similarities exist, so at some level maybe our current confusion shouldn’t be so shocking to us.

Yet there is one major and glaring difference between now and then.

When Silence Is Not Golden
As previously noted, this time our Holy Father did not publish an official magisterial decision to resolve the issue at hand. His magisterial non-response to the “Communion question” is eliciting more confusion, more ambiguity, and more division, as I see it. It seems merely to reinforce everyone’s pre-existing views.

Pope Francis’ continuing silence on this question seems to be a wholly missed opportunity to resolve that which still needs resolving. In this light, the “dubia” made public by Cardinal Burke and his fellow cardinals, along with events like the April 22 lay-initiated conference on Amoris Laetitia, seem completely understandable, as they are in search of what the Church really does fundamentally need right now on this question. We need the Holy Father’s unambiguous reassurance that past and present teaching—and practice—remain in full harmony. We need to know not just that they are in harmony, but also how they are.

We must hope and pray that it will not be years before the faithful receive some form of fresh papal clarification. We might pray, too, that laity and clergy alike will cease dissenting from the clear teaching of Pope St. John Paul II on this issue. Faithful Catholics should be following that teaching and the wise counsel of Blessed Pope Paul VI.

Paraphrasing his words: For the present no one should arrogate to himself the right to take a stand differing from the norm now in force, especially regarding a matter of such great importance.

(Photo credit: Terry Fincher/Getty Images)


  • Jim Russell

    Jim Russell lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He writes on a variety of topics related to the Catholic faith, including natural law, liturgy, theology of the body, and sexuality. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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