285. Information Memorandum From the Special Assistant to the Secretary of State for Population Matters (Claxton) to Secretary of State Rusk1


  • Pope Paul VI Statement Concerning Population In His Encyclical of March 28, 1967

The portion of Pope Paul’s Encyclical which deals with population matters (attached),2 although so ambiguously worded in places that I hesitate to try to analyze it, seems to me (after consultation with a Catholic demographer who was on the Papal Commission on birth control) to make at least three statements of which may turn out to be of great importance.

It recognizes that high rates of population growth add difficulties to the problems of development.
It states plainly (“it is certain”) that public authorities can intervene both “by favoring the availability of appropriate information” and “by adopting suitable measures.” The statement that public authorities can intervene is new and potentially of wide applicability. It should open the way for United Nations, national, state, and municipal authorities to provide appropriate information—presumably, but not plainly, meaning birth control information. They may also adopt “suitable measures”—a phrase perhaps intentionally left vague but apparently intended to be different from the “radical measures” that are rejected and may well be interpreted to include provision of some kind of fertility control program. There are two limitations on the “suitable measures:” (a) They must be in conformity with “the moral law,” which is not defined, but may refer to the standing doctrine on birth control—or may not; and (b) They must respect the rightful freedom of married couples, which is not a material limitation in practice.
The statement very importantly repeats in plainer language some of the revolutionary statements made by Vatican II: “It is for the parents to decide … on the number of their children,” with four considerations in mind: taking into account their responsibilities toward God; taking into account their responsibilities toward themselves—which presumably can mean their economic situation, the health of the mother and other such factors; taking into account their responsibilities toward the children they already have—which again is an important factor of broad meaning; and taking into account their responsibilities toward their community—again a new factor not in Vatican II and possibly important in communities where there are shortages of food, where economic growth is difficult and where social progress will be held back by excessively large numbers of children.

The statement qualifies all this decision-making by the parents with another factor that was not stated by Vatican II: that the parents are to make their decision “with full knowledge of the matter”— which might be read to mean adequate information concerning the possibilities of birth control.

The statement concludes with a limitation which is potentially broad in that it says “they must” (and hence may) “follow the demands of their own conscience.” This broad authority may be limited by the following phrase which speaks of the “conscience” as “enlightened by God’s law authentically interpreted.” A footnote to this clause refers to one of the Vatican II documents which refers to the statement of Pope Pius IX in 1931 regarding “natural” means of birth control. It is perhaps significant that the word “enlightened” is used—not such a word as “governed.”

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The fact that the entire statement is ambiguous in several places and open to interpretation is itself important in giving flexibility to officials, individuals and perhaps individual priests.3

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Records of the Department of State, Central Files, 1967–69, SOC 13–3. Limited Official Use.
  2. Not printed. The encyclical, Populorum Progressio, was released on March 28. It acknowledged that too frequently an “accelerated demographic increase adds its own difficulties to the problems of development: the size of the population increases more rapidly than available resources, and things are found to have apparently reached an impasse.”
  3. Commentators at the time interpreted the encyclical as progressive. For example, the March 28 headline in the Washington Evening Star read: “Pontiff Voices Eased View on Birth Control.” This interpretation was shared by some observers in Latin American countries as well. The Embassy in Caracas reported: “Liberal Catholics in Venezuela have seen the Pope’s statement as a new opening or at least a willingness to continue further study of the problem of birth control.” (Airgram A–735, April 8; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Records of the Department of State, Central Files, 1967–69, SOC 13–3)