THE FAMILY AND VATICAN II
Reflections.

Andrew Szebenyi
Le Moyne College, Syracuse, NY
2004





One of the most beautiful, intense, and fulfilling human experiences is to form a family. In Christianity, the family is sacred, and in the Catholic tradition the family life is a sacrament. Why? To answer this question, here are the words of the Second Vatican Council on marriage and family, taken from the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. December 8, 1965. The documents of this council are somehow different from those of other councils. They are like opening a window to the modern world and letting in the sunshine of a new Spring day.

The partnership of married life and love is created by God and rooted in sexual union when there is permanent, personal and mutual consent, and is oriented toward having children and forming a family. Love of this sort wells up from the fountain of divine love, and so it comes from God. It is for this reason that the Church treats marriage as a sacrament, a sign of God’s faithful love of us, and a source of grace for the partners. Children likewise contribute in their own way to making their parents and the entire family holy as they all share the moments of everyday life. The love that a married couple shares is expressed and made perfect through sexual union of which the Scriptures speak glowingly. Marriage as a sacrament and as a source of life and pleasure unites human and divine in mutual giving and bliss.

All this may sound somewhat idealized but on a practical level it provides good direction and it should be lived as much as possible in the various circumstances. The quoted passage above presents a view that is true, meaningful and precious. If this view became lost from sight for whatever reason, it is very much worth while to look for it and find it again. It is to be healed if it has been wounded. It is to be embraced at all times in good and bad. Because of its inherent sanctity and importance, we all must protect family life from all harm, and become skilled and knowledgeable in doing so. But here are the words of Vatican II.

To safeguard marriage and family, there is the need to avoid all that hinders, such as polygamy, divorce, so-called free love, excessive self-love, the idealizing of pleasure, and the illicit use of birth control. Also disruptive are modern economic conditions, social and psychological influences, the demands of civil society, and problems resulting from population growth. In each of these cases, an anguish of conscience results for many which is terribly painful and disruptive.

I am taking but only one disruptive issue in this list of concerns, which has become overly significant since the second Vatican Council. And that issue is the undeniable need for reproductive restraint today because of the enormous population growth that has been initiated and developed mostly in the twentieth century. This issue is important, because marriage is oriented toward having children and forming a family which increases the number of people in the world, while at the same time we also realize that there are limits to population growth, which for the sake of love and respect for human life must also be considered. The question is, how to achieve a demographic transition from growth to balance. In real and practical terms, the question is, how to achieve an optimal population and then maintain it at replacement level, which then limits the number of children on the average to two per family? Of course the means to achieve this balance must be morally acceptable. What do we find about this in the documents of Vatican II? Here is a fair sample of relevant statements.

1. Thus, parents sometimes stop having children and yet maintain their love, for the purpose of marriage is not solely tied to procreation. The mutual love of the spouses, too, must be embodied in a right manner; and must grow and deepen.

2. This can be difficult if sexual love is ended in order to prevent conception, and can endanger the bond as well as the quality of family life.

3. Since the transmission of human life is not merely a human activity, sexual intercourse and responsible conception must be harmonized. Decisions made toward this end will be based on objective standards that reflect divine love.

4. Parents should then ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God following their conscience, enlightened by divine law; and guided by the Church.

5. We reject wholeheartedly a solution to this that involves the taking of life through abortion or the killing of infants.

6. Children should be prepared for independence and not forced into marriage.

7. Families are the foundations of society and governments should support them.

8. Those skilled in science, too, can support the regulation of birth and peace of conscience, especially those in medicine, biology, social science, and psychology.

9. Parents should take into account those already born and those foreseen, considering both the material and spiritual conditions of the times and of their family’s state.

10. Catholics are not allowed to use methods of birth regulation that are disproved of by the teaching authority of the Church.

11. How all of this will be understood in our day and age has been handed over to a special commission which will report soon to the pope.


These 11 points are the essential statements of the council on regulation of the size of the family in our present world. Of course, there are different ways to interpret these statements. The correct interpretation is the one that takes to heart the guidance of the council and at the same time does not lead into internal contradictions. Such contradictions come about if we try to promote a principle without considering the present conditions. The result is then easily dysfunctional. Similarly dysfunctional is to state that we must do something specific, and then at the same time render all effective means illicit, reducing the situation to total inadequacy. It is really neither helpful nor honest to give with one hand and then take it back with the other. We do need here an honest inquiry and an effort to avoid all that is dysfunctional. I believe the children of God deserve that much and more. But let me single out the last three statements above, nine, ten, and eleven.

In a book, Turning Point, Robert McClory describes the history and final outcome of the papal commission. It started with six people in 1963. The following year another seven and then two more were added, and then the next year in 1965, another 43. After much beating about the bush, the overwhelming majority view finally concluded that the means to achieve harmony between the need to maintain the sexual relationship of couples, and the need for responsible parenting, is given by making use of contraception. It was clearly stated that the decision about the choice of means belongs to the well informed and practical judgment of the spouses. Abortion and anything that is suspect of being abortive, as well as sterilization were clearly rejected by the commission. The members of the commission were well informed responsible, and professional people from many walks of life.

Pope Paul VI did not follow the recommendations of the majority view. Why? Through private communications with Alberto Ottaviani and John Ford the expert work of the commission was nullified. It was stated clearly by pope Paul VI in the encyclical Humanae Vitae that followed in 1968, that the only acceptable method to regulate family size is natural family planning, using the non fertile days in a woman’s reproductive cycles. Since it is a fact that natural family planning is neither natural nor planning, the recommendation is dysfunctional for most couples. It is also clear that to affirm the couples’ responsibility in these matters, and then restrict their means to carry out this responsibility to something that is quite inadequate is really not well thought out. Somehow in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, the spirit of Vatican II, its remarkable ideas of aggiornamento and reformability, were lost and forgotten. The result of all this was, of course, a devastating failure.

Today people tell me that it does not matter what Humane Vitae said because nobody follows it. To which I say, that is too bad. Not that nobody follows it, but that the children of God are not supported by their Church in one of their most important struggles. They have been left on their own without real counsel, while at the same time the Magisterium’s credibility has suffered a great deal. All that is really too bad.

In view of clear evidence, I cannot in good conscience teach or support natural family planning. And in view of the importance of the issue of family size today from the ecological, demographic, economic, cultural, and personal aspects I support the papal commission’s majority view and not the encyclical’s. That is why I interpret the statement: Catholics are not allowed to use methods of birth regulation that are disproved of by the teaching authority of the Church, exclusively in terms of the statement: We reject wholeheartedly a solution to this that involves the taking of life through abortion or the killing of infants. After all unlimited growth in a limited world actually embraces death and not life. In addition, I strongly and with respect support the statement: Parents should take into account those already born and those foreseen, considering both the material and spiritual conditions of the times and of their family’s state.

As to the education of children it is a precious insight to say that children should be prepared for independence. (Statement 6 above). This idea has been presented most completely in a passage of The Dutch Catechism promoting education to love.

Education is service. To treat children as unimportant is to be self-seeking. To regard children as things which can be turned into copies of one’s own person and desires, is also self-seeking. Each child has something special and unique about it. It is a new human being, not a repetition of ourselves. The parents should serve this new life, to set it free to be itself. It is a service which takes in fact the form of giving directions, leading to the love of God, and to the love of others. (A New Catechism, page 405, on Marriage and the Family. The Seabury Press. 1967 and 1969.)

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