In July 2008, I interviewed the late Professor John Marshall in the Catholic Herald on his experience as a member of the Papal Commission on Contraception. It was the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.
The last 40 years has seen, in western countries, a dramatic decline in
active Catholic membership, marriages and vocations. And many would
attribute in large measure this sorry state of affairs to the publication by
Pope Paul VI of Humanae Vitae on July 25 1968. Its ruling that the
established teaching on the intrinsic evil of contraception should remain in
force rejected the firm recommendations of the Papal Commission which had
been studying the issue since it had been appointed by John XXIII. It first
met in October 1963.
Professor John Marshall, a distinguished neurologist who had spent much of
his professional life studying the science behind natural family planning
and working with the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (now Marriage Care),
was a founder member of the commission. Now he was digging into his
excellent memory. This could be the last time a founder member would be able
to tell us about a proceeding of deep significance to the Church. I asked
him if the task had been to examine whether the traditional teaching should
“On the contrary,” he replied. “The UN was concerned with discussions on
population problems, and our job was to establish the firmest and most
coherent support for Catholic teaching based on good science and
demographics. I don¹t think anyone at that stage thought of any change in
the teaching itself. But our little band of six realised the need for
additional firepower. So when we reconvened we had seven additions.”
Five of these additions were theologians, including Joseph Fuchs and Bernard
Häring theologians of international reputation. How important were the
“Not just important crucial, as it turned out. Pierre de Lochte¹s
contribution proved to be a turning point.”
He continued: “The commission, urged on by the growing scientific knowledge
that only a small minority of acts of intercourse could lead to conception,
had begun to consider whether the issue should change its focus from the old
categories of the primary and secondary ends of marriage and its sexual
expression, to the community of love in the marriage. And the question of
the structure of the marriage act did not of course apply to the Pill. So we
had to dig deeper, and it was de Lochte who clarified that we were now
dealing with questions of fundamental theology.”
I wondered whether that was when the commission realised that the teaching
would have to change.
“Certainly not. There was strong opposition to any change from some, and
even those who were prepared to contemplate it were initially very uncertain
and alive to the momentous consequences of change. I would describe it as a
gradual realisation by the majority over periods of long discussion and
thought. You must remember that by the time of the final general meeting in
1965, there were 58 members, and now included Catholic married couples.”
I asked him to summarise the outcome of these considerations.
“Do you want the short answer or the long answer?” But he did not need my
reply; he is a succinct man with a brain like a scalpel blade. “The short
answer is that we concluded that the foundation is married love which
expresses itself ideally and most fully in the generous procreation of
children, both in their conception and continued care. Taken within this
perspective the need for every marriage act to maintain its structural
openness to conception is not necessary and may, in many circumstances, run
counter to the virtue of prudence.”
I asked whether natural planning would not have offered a satisfactory
method of achieving these objectives without interfering with the structure
of sexual intercourse. He took the view that it was man’s vocation to invent
or discover ways of bringing order to creation. The use of the safe period
was just such a control of nature, as were barrier contraceptives or the
temporary suspension of fertility through the Pill. All such methods reduced
the fullness of the sexual gift in a sense but, used responsibly, served the
higher end of marital love.
Although he and others were well aware that natural family planning, as used
at that time, could be a problem for many, the presentation by the late
Patty Crowley (who co-founded with her husband the Catholic Family Movement in America) of a survey she had been asked to conduct brought, he said, a taste of reality to those who had little pastoral experience.
It brought home the fact that well-motivated, active, Catholic couples had
on the whole valued the method but that a large majority had also found it
had harmed their relationship in various ways. It broadly concluded that the
method was not suitable for all couples and probably unsuitable for almost
any couple throughout the whole of their married lives. It would be
difficult to repeat such a survey now in the light of improved methods,
since practising Catholic married couples who use natural family planning
exclusively are no longer representative of the general population.
It was Patty who was later to reply to Fr Marcelino Zalba’s question: “What
then with the millions we have sent to hell, if the rules are relaxed?” She
responded “Fr Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your
“Perhaps,” Professor Marshall said, “the real turning point came in April
1965 when the four theologians who were opposed to change admitted that they
could not demonstrate the intrinsic evil of contraception through natural
law. They based their case on the tradition of the Church, and the moral
laxity which contraception would introduce. Interestingly, the Pope cited
the natural law in support of his final judgment but without giving any
further reasoning. And none has been forthcoming.”
The additional select group appointed for the final meeting to consider the
Majority Report consisted of six cardinals, 13 archbishops, one bishop and
the Pope’s theologian. The report was approved following preliminary voting
by the bishops on specific questions: was contraception intrinsically evil?
By a substantial majority the answer was no. Was the recommendation on
contraception in the report in basic continuity with tradition and the
teaching the Magisterium? By a substantial majority the answer was yes.
Subsequently, representations contrary to the Majority Report were made
privately to the Pope by those who believed that the doctrine could not, or
should not, be changed.
In view of the ultimate decision, I asked Professor Marshall whether he
thought that the Pope was determined from the first to reject any
recommendation for change.
“No, I believe it was an agonising decision for him. He was consistently
encouraging us to debate freely even when the developing trend of our
thought was reported to him. He was a man who was open to persuasion, and it
seems that in the end he was persuaded, by the so-called Holy Office, that the maintaining of the Church’s consistent authority was more important than the insights of the commission.”
“But might he not have been right in thinking that a change in such a firm
teaching would have been scandalous to many people, and eroded the Church¹s
authority?” I asked.
“Certainly there would have been many distressed people particularly those
who were not aware that such changes in non-infallible teachings have
occurred in the past. As an example, the Council’s change in the Church¹s
teaching on freedom of conscience in matters of religion was even more
radical but did not attract popular attention. And the inevitable fuss would
have been as nothing compared with the long term effects of maintaining the
I wondered whether he was referring to the very substantial drop in Catholic
practice, marriages and vocations since then.
“Certainly that. Every survey has shown that around 90 per cent of Catholic
couples ignore the unqualified teaching of Humanae Vitae. And the most
recent widespread survey of parochial clergy showed that fewer than half
supported the total ban. We have the unusual but very destructive dilemma of
the Magisterium teaching a doctrine under authority and that doctrine not
being ‘received’ by the Church as a community. Perversely, the perceived
irrelevance of the Magisterium¹s teaching on marriage may have contributed
to the growth of the contraceptive mentality which is now so evident in
countries we think of as Catholic.”
I thought that the distinction between a doctrine being taught and a
doctrine being received had deep theological significance for the nature of
the Church. But that was for another occasion, so I asked Professor Marshall
to sum up.
“The papal commission could be described as an aberration. Asking experts
from relevant disciplines to study a doctrinal question and make
recommendations had never happened before and it’s unlikely to happen
again. Yet there are so many problems. For instance, we are asked to tackle the shortage of vocations through Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Excellent in itself, but it should be
complemented by a full-scale commission, making use of the Church¹s full
resources clerical and lay. But I doubt if it will be.
“Frankly I am gloomy about the present prospects for the Church. The only
bright light is the growth of Eucharistic communities led by good priests.
That may be the future of the Church, as Karl Rahner suggested.”