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Reflections from another viewpoint

· ​The Encyclical in Latin America ·

At the end of July 1968 the Catholic Church intervened decisively in the international debate with the publication of the Encyclical Humanae vitae. This papal document acknowledged the method of responsible procreation and denounced interventions made in the name of the “demographic explosion”, making it quite clear that the problem of global under-development, and especially in Latin America, was not the birth rate but rather the distribution of wealth. The Encyclical Humanae vitae was preceded by five years of painstaking analysis by the Pope, with every kind of question posed that was connected with birth control. Part of this analysis was entrusted to a study group made up of ecclesiastics and experts, commonly known as the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control.

This study group, formally called the Pontifical Commission for the Study of the Population, the Family and the Birthrate, was set up by Pope John xxiii on 27 April 1963, six months after the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. Contrary to a very widespread opinion, it did not propose to reformulate the Church’s doctrine regarding contraception but rather to help the Holy See to prepare the forthcoming conference sponsored by the United Nations and by the World Health Organization. Paul vi published the Encyclical Humanae vitae two months after the events in May 1968 which, among other things, unleashed the sexual revolution. At that time strong pressure was exerted by some of the mass media and experts issued pessimistic and alarmist demographic predictions which reality later proved wrong. Thus phenomena such as the sexual revolution, radical feminism, materialistic thinking and the birth control mentality, widespread in various countries, constituted a serious challenge for believers who joined forces in the debate on the invention of the birth control pill and on the various artificial methods of contraception.

It was obvious that the delicacy of the problem and the complexity of the context led Paul vi, whilethe Council was already under way, to concern himself personally with the study and resolution of the question. In this context Pope Montini, after long reflection, reaffirmed the Christian view of sexuality in which the Creator united two dimensions of significance and value which the Encyclical calls “unitive significance” and “procreative significance”. It is impossible to disarticulate this connection without affecting both dimensions, not only the one it is desired to exclude. Whereas in the rich countries on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and especially in the United States, the Church was being discussed and criticized, Latin America took no active part in this debate and indeed its reception of the Encyclical had in any case been good. The Encyclical was published in the same year as that in which the Medellín Conference was held, with the first session in July and the second in August-September. Thus the bishops of Latin America paid special attention to the demographic question of the continent. They clearly placed emphasis on the social and demographic interpretation of the Encyclical but also included a pastoral dimension which took into account the ecclesial reactions most attentive to actual couples, in tones that were completely in tune with the future key words of Francis in Amoris laetitia, welcoming, accompanying, discerning”.

At a first view, taken as a whole Latin America offers an apparently uniform panorama, with a common denominator: it is a region which is identified as a Christian society, with a basic Latin culture and a predominantly Spanish-speaking population. A common, apparently similar, history exists: colonization which took place mainly at the hands of the peoples of the Iberian peninsula, from the end of the 15th to the beginning of the 19th centuries. But concealed behind this historical uniformity is a striking difference, which is hard to reconcile and which gives rise to different dynamics.

Frida Kahlo, “The Love Embrace of the Universe” (1949)

Well into the post-conciliar period and with a Latin American Church on her way, the promulgation of the Encyclical on 25 July 1968 was one of the decisive events of Paul vi’s pontificate on our continent too. And this was because in Latin America in those years people were experiencing a social effervescence of religious feeling: in fact the Encyclical Populorum progressio (1967) and the episcopal meeting in Medellín, Colombia, in August 1968 eclipsed any profound discussion of Humanae vitae.

While on the other side of the Atlantic indifference and atheism were the core concerns requiring reflection, in Latin America the presence of a believing and poor people demanded of the Church and of theology an immediate response to their problems.

European theology was born deeply marked by dialogue with intellectuals; Latin American theology instead had a far more social character, with an evident concern for social issues. The Medellín Conference was the first occasion on which the bishops of Latin America made their own the message of the Second Vatican Council, with the determined responsibility of putting it into practice in their Churches and communities. The faithful reception of the Second Vatican Council by pastors, bishops and the group which directed CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Council, in those post-conciliar years marked the maturity of the Latin American Church and the spiritual, pastoral and social power which were to characterize her in the immediate future.

The contribution of CELAM was crucial, thanks to a collegial effort, with a gazed fixed beyond the local and particular Church. The second phase of the General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America had already shed a clear light on its aims in the title The Church in the present transformation of Latin America in light of the Second Vatican Council, with which that Church, hitherto so dependent on Europe, gradually found her own identity and a contribution to offer to the universal Church. Constant concern for the Church’s presence in the world highlighted the serious social inequalities: the reality and the scandal of the poor in Latin America. A preferential option for the poor was thus established, for social need and for evangelical and conciliar priorities, and became the most convincing sign of a Church, a people and a culture open to God.

María Luisa Aspe Armella




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 29, 2020