7. The Medico-Biological Aspect of the Papal Commission for the Study of the Problems of the Family, Population, and Birth Rate

Summary: Chapter VII

The Medico-Biological Aspect of the Papal Commission for the Study of the Problems of the Family, Population, and Birth Rate


Nobody who has taken an interest in the ethical aspects of contraception can ignore the important role they played in the deliberations of the Papal Commission for the Study of the Problems of the Family, Population, and Birth Rate (CP), created by Pope John XXIII, and maintained and augmented by Paul VI.

While more than fifty years have passed since the creation of the CP, and despite the fact that most of the documentation that it produced is still held in secrecy, it is convenient to review some topics of interest. This chapter will deal with the medical-biological aspects, since virtually nothing has been published on the subject. The present study benefits, on the one hand, from the work by Germain Grisez which discusses some of the documentation of the CP; and, on the other, access to another set of documents bequeathed by John Marshall, an original member of the CP, to the Library of the University of Notre Dame. Although it is incomplete, the material is of enormous interest. It allows for an exploratory and provisional study, pending the access to the full file of the CP, including the documentation delivered by its Secretary to Pope Paul VI.

At first, a brief historical summary about the CP is in order. Why was such a Commission formed? The most likely reason was the invitation received by the Holy See from the United Nations to participate in an International Conference on Population to be held in New Delhi.

Saint John XXIII created the group on April 27, 1963, but died before the Commission could hold its first session. Blessed Paul VI welcomed the CP, which came into its own during his pontificate.

The commission’s first impetus, to respond to a questionnaire from the United Nations regarding population control, naturally gave rise to the question of which policies could be authorized by the Church. In this way, with the consent of the Pope, the CP addressed the technical study of birth control methods and their corresponding theological-moral evaluation. This latter task raised the question, intense and long debated, as to how the timeless teachings of the Magisterium of the Church might be “reformed,” if they could be reformed at all.

The thematic work of the CP thus led to the field of theology, both fundamental and moral. As a result, the CP veered away from its initial stated objective, which was restricted to a multidisciplinary analysis of the contraceptive techniques requested by the Pope. This analysis focused on two methods: on the one hand, the “rhythm” method, which the Church accepted; and, on the other hand, the use of oral contraception with steroid hormones (“the pill”), on which the Pope wished to take a stand. With great urgency, bishops, priests and laymen requested that the Pope answer whether or not it was lawful to use the latter contraceptive method, which, since the mid-1960s, had enjoyed immense popularity.

The Papal Commission met five times, from October 1963 to June 1966. The CP was dissolved when the Commission’s Secretary General, Rev. Henri de Riedmatten, OP,  delivered the complete documentation to the Pope on June 27, 1966.

The body of this Chapter will focus mainly on the medical-biological debates of the Sessions of the Papal Commission, and its conclusions. This will include the way in which the CP, and in particular its medical members, dealt with the biological aspects of contraception, a discussion which would serve as a starting point for the debates and conclusions of the other groups and the entire CP.

One of the most urgent issues addressed in the work of the CP was to determine whether the pill acted through anovulatory effect, or whether it was an abortifacient.

In view of the work of the medical-biological Section of the CP, some conclusions arise regarding how the Section responded to the orders of the Pontiff.

First off, we can highlight the efforts of the Section to detract from, even discredit, the rhythm method, which had enjoyed the approval of the Magisterium since the pontificate of Pius XI and, above all, of Pius XII. And these efforts were carried out by 1) presenting a series of biological arguments (menstrual cycle variability, high failure rate in premenopause and during lactation); 2) offering very dramatic sociological testimonies of families and women “destroyed” for having relied on such an ineffective method; and 3) invoking philosophical reasons, by showing that the so-called natural methods are in fact artificial, because voluntary human intervention (the selection of the days of abstinence) breaks the natural random character of the spontaneous sequence of sexual acts.

On the contraceptive pill, the medical section tended to emphasize its efficacy and advantages, its lack of interference with the conjugal act itself, and its performance through an exclusively anovulatory mechanism. The possible antinidatory effect, although its possibility was not denied, is not mentioned in the final documents of the CP, although it appears to be denied, however fleetingly, in the debates of the Section.

One must ask, to what could to this silence be due? To an involuntary lapse of memory? To a scientific judgment of irrelevance of the data? To a deliberate concealment? In any case, the omission had serious consequences. Paul VI was not warned of the suspicion of the abortifacient effect and was left in ignorance of information crucial to the moral judgment he wished to perform. The Pope was thus deprived of a particularly significant fact which he required in order to issue, or postpone, a truly magisterial judgment.



Author: Gonzalo Herranz, University of Navarra.  Email: gherranz@unav.es


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