This kind of question requires from the teaching authority of the Church a new and deeper reflection on the principles of the moral teaching on marriage—a teaching which is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation.
No member of the faithful could possibly deny that the Church is competent in her magisterium to interpret the natural moral law. It is in fact indisputable, as Our predecessors have many times declared, that Jesus Christ, when He communicated His divine power to Peter and the other Apostles and sent them to teach all nations His commandments, constituted them as the authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the natural law. For the natural law, too, declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men's eternal salvation.
In carrying out this mandate, the Church has always issued appropriate documents on the nature of marriage, the correct use of conjugal rights, and the duties of spouses. These documents have been more copious in recent times.
The consciousness of the same responsibility induced Us to confirm and expand the commission set up by Our predecessor Pope John XXIII, of happy memory, in March, 1963.
This commission included married couples as well as many experts in the various fields pertinent to these questions. Its task was to examine views and opinions concerning married life, and especially on the correct regulation of births; and it was also to provide the teaching authority of the Church with such evidence as would enable it to give an apt reply in this matter, which not only the faithful but also the rest of the world were waiting for.
When the evidence of the experts had been received, as well as the opinions and advice of a considerable number of Our brethren in the episcopate—some of whom sent their views spontaneously, while others were requested by Us to do so—We were in a position to weigh with more precision all the aspects of this complex subject. Hence We are deeply grateful to all those concerned.
However, the conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain, dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally this serious question. This was all the more necessary because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed, and especially because certain approaches and criteria for a solution to this question had emerged which were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church.
Consequently, now that We have sifted carefully the evidence sent to Us and intently studied the whole matter, as well as prayed constantly to God, We, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, intend to give Our reply to this series of grave questions.
Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 4-6
Reflection – So we will be going through this controversial encyclical, a few paragraphs at a time, a few days at a time. I’m thinking right now that we may spend our weekends here for the next little while, and do other stuff Monday-Thursday, for variety.
So, having established the question yesterday in pp 1-3, the genuine question of birth control raised above all by the development of the pill, Pope Paul VI now establishes his own authority as Pope, an authority shared by him with the bishops of the Church, to teach with authority on matters of the moral law.
Oh, we don’t like this, do we? The notion of authority is a rough one for post-moderns—the idea that someone who is Not Me has the right to say something that is binding on Me—terrible! Of course the Church’s authority is completely different from the Church’s power—the Church has no power whatsoever to do anything but make statements and give teachings. As was pointed out in the comments yesterday, a large majority of Catholics do in fact reject Humanae Vitae, although I would bet you dollars to donuts that hardly any of them have read it, could summarize its arguments, or could discuss the history of the question with a semblance of coherence or accuracy. Not a well thought out and carefully considered dissent, in other words, not for the most part.
But back to the central assertion—the Church’s hierarchy has authority, given to it by Jesus Christ Himself, to teach authoritatively (that is, assured of the truth of the teaching, and thus binding on the conscience of the faithful) on matters of faith and morals. This very point is, in fact, part of the sensus fidelium of the Church, that real teaching authority lies in the episcopal and papal office. This is standard Catholic doctrine—if one really rejects this wholesale, one is simply not a Catholic. Fine – go in peace! God bless you! Let us pray for one another.
But Catholics believe in the college of apostles and the teaching authority of the bishops and the Pope in a particular way. And never in recent years has this belief been more tested and called for than in 1968, when the Pope essentially had to overrule the majority conclusion of the commission he had convened to uphold a teaching that so many wanted to see changed. I don’t remember those days (I was two at the time!), but the pain, the anger, the turmoil the erupted with the publication of Humanae Vitae echoed and resounded in the Church throughout my childhood.
At the end of it all, and with all the genuine difficulties and questions and very real problems and anguish of this difficult matter, we do come back to this central matter of Catholic faith: the magisterium of the Church, the pope and the bishops together, have authority given them by Jesus Christ, to teach on matters of faith and morals. So it has always been understood, so it always will be understood. And we will leave it there for today.