Fr John Zuhlsdorf, in his blog What Does the Prayer Really Say, gets to the truth of the matter:
I’ve heard this before. I never believed it.
Years ago on the COL Forum (which I ran) we had a discussion about this. One of the staffers tried to dig up the old files. In the meantime he sent this information. It was not originally written in English, so I touched it up here and there… but not very much.
This reads like a soap opera, on the one hand. It reads like a vicious campaign of lies and disinformation designed to confuse the faithful and undermine the Church, on the other.
The urban legend (lie) is now so common that even high-ranking churchmen cite it as if it happened. They aren’t lying, per se. They are passing on something that isn’t true but that they think is true… even if it really doesn’t pass the smell test.
This whopper doesn’t pass the smell test. Paul VI told nuns they could use contraceptives… riiiiight?
My emphases and comments.
So far, I was unable to retrieve the COL Forum thread on this urban legend about Bl. Paul VI and contraception for nuns in Africa, but I had some notes stored and then idiocies about our Holy Faith have the ability to switch on my memory neurons to combat mode, like yelling Saracens would do to a Templar knight who had been fasting and praying for a good fight the whole Quattuor Tempora of Lent.
You can search any archive, google any keyword, ask any historian or moralist, all you will be served with is old articles of pro-contraception authors repeating this story either with no supporting references or with no other evidence than references to older articles saying that “Rome” had OK’d contraception for endangered nuns in Africa at some point.
Notice, the more you go back in time, the more “Paul VI” becomes, more vaguely, “Rome”. Dig deep enough and you will find that “Rome” turns out to be just an article published, you guessed it, in Rome, precisely by the magazine Studi Cattolici, n° 27, in the year of our Salvation 1961. Title: “Una donna domanda: come negarsi alla violenza? Morale esemplificata. Un dibattito” (A woman asks, how to subtract oneself from violence? Exemplified morals. A debate).
Yes, I can hear you yelling at the monitor. Paul VI ascended to the Throne of Peter only in 1963.
And now I want somebody to tell me, with a straight face, that St. John XXIII allowed contraception. Above all, I want them to show me where and when he did it.
Back to the article. The authors were 1) Msgr. Pietro Palazzini, later a bishop and a Cardinal but back then a respected moral theologian and the Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Council, 2) Professor Francis Xavier Hurth, S.J., of the Pontifical Gregorian University, and 3) Msgr. Ferdinando Lambruschini of the Pontifical Lateran University (later Archbishop of Perugia).
Long and verbose story short, in that article Palazzini and Lambruschini explore a possible application of the “principle of the double effect” to the case of rape, where a legitimate end is pursued and the probable evil consequence is unintended. [NB: Double-effect!]
Fr. Hurth attempts an elaboration of Aquinas’ concept of genus moris and genus naturae where the moral status of an act can be different depending on its spiritual and physical characteristics. In fairness, I’ll note that, back then, chemical contraception was a relatively new subject. Tonsured moralists were unlikely to be all that familiar with the science and the physiology involved and it will take until 1968 to hear an authoritative pronouncement on this specific subject, the reviled Humanae Vitae. And it came from that same Paul VI who is said to have allowed contraception, if only by way of exception.
No, really, there is nothing else.
The opinion of three moralists in a magazine, attempting to offer, I repeat, an opinion on a complex matter, gets quoted loosely and ad nauseam by other moralists and journalists and becomes “Rome” and later “Paul VI”.
They will tell you that that article legitimized the concept of “lesser evil”. Leaving aside the fact that we can never choose evil, no matter the scale of it, the fact is that in 1957 Palazzini had co-edited a widely used manual where the following is said (I quote a 1962 English edition of this manual):
“To choose the lesser of two evils is permissible [NB] if the lesser evil is not in itself a moral evil (sin), but a purely physical evil or the omission of something good or indifferent, from which in a specific case an accidental bad effect will follow, less serious, however, than that which another course would provoke” (Ludovico Bender OP, in Dictionary of Moral Theology, Ed. Roberti, Francesco, Palazzini Pietro. Transl. by H. Yannone. Westminster, MD: Newman, 1962).
Now, I am no moral theologian but contraception is in fact a moral evil in itself (see Humanae Vitae 16) and not a “purely physical evil”, much less “something good or indifferent”. Case closed.
Not many outside Italy know, however, that Cardinal Palazzini was asked about this matter years later, and precisely in the ‘90s when another such myth was concocted, had seen that the Paul VI-Congo nuns version was losing credibility. I am talking about the John Paul II-Bosnia nuns myth.
Those of us old enough will remember that during the Balkan wars articles begun to be published about “the Pope” or “Rome” authorizing nuns in Bosnia to take the pill in war zones. Palazzini is quoted in an article on that paper sewer some call La Repubblica which seems to have taken the place once occupied by the Osservatore Romano lately (OTOH, natura abhorret vacuum). The article was published on March 5, 1993.
Translated title: “The pill? Forbidden also for missionary nuns at risk of rape”.
Palazzini explains that all they were trying to do was to explore the possibility of actions aimed at preventing a pregnancy after a rape and before conception, supposing that possibility existed, in ways that have nothing to do with taking the pill for weeks for fear of a potential rape. So “Rome” (read: the author of an old article) denies having ever said that contraceptives are OK in certain circumstances.
[QUAERITUR] But what was this new article about and why were they interviewing Palazzini after 30 years?
Bear with me.
There had been stories of women raped in Bosnia (nihil sub sole novi). Fr. Bergamaschi, a Franciscan friar, had accused St. John Paul II of hypocrisy because the Great Pole had reaffirmed the constant teaching of the Church on contraception to the point of exhorting raped women to keep their babies but, according to Bergamaschi, had also authorized nuns to take the pill. So journalists began to ask questions. [Agere sequitur esse.]
With the typically half-horrified and half-snarky tone, the reporterette of La Repubblica has to write that the Vatican is in fact unwavering in its position on contraceptives, even in the case of rape. The inhumanity! She quotes the then vice-director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Fr. Piero Pennacchini. His words:
“The Holy See never issued texts authorizing women religious to make use of contraceptives, even if they run the risk of being raped”. “I know of no official document by the Holy See on this”.
Disappointed, the journalist evokes Fr. Efrem Tresoldi, a missionary who says that he doesn’t know the extent of the phenomenon. “Surely” there is “talk” of contraceptives among missionaries. “Certainly” some nuns have been told to make use of contraceptives, says Tresoldi. So, there are disloyal confessors or superiors of religious orders who tell nuns to act contrary to the doctrine of the Church.
OK Father, and what else is new? [Not much.]
Above all, since when are disloyal members of religious orders “the Pope”, or “Rome”? [When it fits.]
Unsatisfied, the reporterette turns to a missionary nun (she couldn’t find one from Bosnia so she asks one who had been in Africa for 12 years. Says the missionary nun: “Personally I have never heard of contraceptive pills”, “but there has been certainly the risk of (sexual) violence for many of us who lived though the great African upheavals. I don’t know if other sisters have been advised to take precautions”.
Back to Tresoldi, we are told that, of course, there is no official pronouncement, but that’s because John Paul II and his merciless minions are hypocrites who tell nuns to take the pill in secret even while they tell lay women to accept their fate and keep the baby.
That’s when the Repubblica hack turns to Card. Palazzini, hoping to save the day with the lies of 30 years ago.
A few months after this article and others of the same kind, in July 1993 the Jesuit magazine Civiltà Cattolica (surprise!) [NOT] published what to this day remains the “doctrinal” foundation to the John Paul II- Bosnia nuns version of the myth: G. Perico, Stupro, Aborto e Anticoncezionali, volume III, Quaderno 3433, 3 luglio 1993.
Search all you want, this stream of the myth always goes back to this article. [It sounds almost like the way all myths about Pius XII and the Jews go back to one source, a play in 1963, and that source was cobbled up by the KGB in a campaign of disinformation.]
No need to summarize it. Go read it if you want. I did.
He harkens back to the 1961 article and moves from there. [Surprise.] As happened with the Palazzini, Hurth and Lambruschini article, and even more given the firepower of the media of 30 years later, Perico’s piece sparkled lively discussions among moral theologians on the subject of contraception. Fine. But that’s not the point. That point is that they have nothing, not one thing they can come up with to support the notion that Paul VI or John Paul II ever allowed contraception, when the facts, the known and easily accessible, official, constant and binding pronouncements of the Church show the exact contrary.
Discussions are NOT the teaching of the Church.
Off-the cuff-remarks are NOT the teaching of the Church.
This is why on my bended knees I beg you all, Fathers, check your facts and, in John Wayne’s immortal words:
“Talk low, talk slow, and don’t talk too much”.
So: Who is going to tell Pope Francis that he should stop doing these stupid, self -indulgent mid-air Press conferences? They are doing enormous damage to the credibility of Holy Mother Church.
BTW, that last paragraph is Stramentarius, not Father Zed.