The fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae last year brought the first publication of then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyła’s private letter to Paul VI, in which the Polish archbishop thanks the pope for the encyclical. He then offers concrete proposals for an “absolutely necessary” pastoral instruction from the Vatican to overcome “existing doubts” about the prohibition of birth control, the nature of the conjugal life, and the teaching authority of the pope.
Beyond its fascinating and forthright explanation of the key controversies surrounding the encyclical, this letter – actually an essay in length and style – offers a provocative glimpse into what would become the future magisterial teachings of Pope St. John Paul II.
Writing in 1969, just months after Humanae Vitae’s publication, Cardinal Wojtyła saw clearly that criticisms of the encyclical’s substance and style cut right to the heart of the Church’s mission: “Challenging the moral doctrine of the Church in a field as important as that dealt with by the encyclical can be an occasion that gives rise to a much broader process of challenging other elements of Christian faith and practice.”
As we know decades later, that proved only too true.
First, concerning general Christian faith and practice, Wojtyła addressed the Church’s ability to teach authoritatively on morality. Immediately after Humanae Vitae’s release, dissident theologians took to the airwaves and op-ed pages to undermine the authority of the Church to issue binding teachings on moral matters.
Twenty-five years later, as pope, John Paul approved the publication of Donum Veritatis: On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, which sought to reorient theology as a vocation in service of the Church and not of worldly ideologies.
Specifically, Wojtyła was not shy in his 1969 letter of affirming Humanae Vitae as an authoritative expression of the Church’s teaching office: “The encyclical Humanae Vitae is not a solemn document of ex cathedra teaching; therefore it does not contain any dogmatic definition. However, since it is a document of the ordinary teaching of the Pope, it has an infallible and irrevocable character. . . .[I]t is impossible to think that the conjugal morality contained in the encyclical Humanae Vitae could be revoked, i.e. considered fallible.”
This emphasis on the infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium – the consistent and universal teachings of the pope and bishops in union with him through the ages – would become Pope John Paul’s preferred tack in handling the most sensitive doctrinal issues of his pontificate.
Rather than issue solemn definitions, John Paul appealed to the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church to teach infallibly the immorality of abortion in Evangelium Vitae in 1995, and the reservation of the priesthood to men only in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994. By using this means to teach authoritatively, John Paul showed that these were not just his teachings, but those of the universal Church – held always, everywhere, and by all.
A second major concern stressed in Wojtyła’s letter is “conscience and its relationship to the moral law.” In the wake of Humanae Vitae, many couples were told by theologians and pastors that they could use artificial birth control if their consciences judged it acceptable.
Wojtyła vigorously condemned this misuse of conscience, which is not “a norm superior to the moral law.” He continued, “Attributing to conscience an autonomy that would give it not only a normative but also a legislative role, would be contrary to the foundations of both natural and revealed ethics. Such autonomy would be tantamount to accepting subjectivism and relativism in morality.”
This misunderstanding of conscience has remained widespread since. As pope, John Paul himself took up the charge that he issued to Paul VI: he published in 1993 his encyclical on moral theology Veritatis Splendor, arguably his most important writing as pontiff.
In it, he makes an identical critique of falsely giving conscience “the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly.” He then developed, in the heart of the encyclical, the proper understanding of conscience as grounded in freedom, truth, and the natural law, all subjects mentioned more briefly in his 1969 letter.
Third, Wojtyła’s letter pressed Paul VI to “set out the doctrine on marriage . . . in order to present a correct and clear perspective on the theme of marital love.” In particular, he added the necessity “to insist on the fact that marriage is a vocation.”
He then outlined the roles of fecundity, continence, and suffering in marriage. He was under no illusions that such essential matters could be glossed over or deemed inappropriate: “It is therefore up to the master of morals and teacher, who is the Church, to grasp and highlight the boundaries that, in the sphere of sexual values, make one pass from the act worthily lived, to use and abuse.”
As pope, John Paul wasted no time taking up this mantle: within a year of his election, he began a series of talks now well-known as the “Theology of the Body” in which he articulated the meaning of human sexuality in light of our dignity as human persons made in God’s image. Further, he offered his vision for how the vocation to marriage is to be lived in Familiaris Consortio in 1981.
Wojtyła’s letter is excellent in its own right, and still very relevant for us fifty years later. It stresses the urgent need to act on these issues – a need still pressing today. As pope, he did not get to them all right away, but he did eventually, and supremely well. The letter makes clear a crucial fact: the key teachings of St. John Paul’s pontificate were forged in response to the crisis of truth that found its most acute expression in the Sexual Revolution.