NL 2018/11

50 Years of the Catholic Encyclical Humanae vitae:

Did the Austrian Hermann Knaus have a hand in it?

Back in the 1930s: contraception is a game of chance; abortion is forbidden and therefore dangerous. Then Hermann Knaus presents the latest results of his research: now, for the first time, it is possible to predict the days on which a woman can get pregnant and those on which she cannot. A world view begins to unravel: children can be planned, unwanted pregnancies avoided. People therefore have the ability to determine their own fates – a heavy blow for Christian ideologies, who view children as the work of God: His will is to be accepted unconditionally; human meddling is a sin. Now they need to issue an opinion.

The Catholic Church has maintained a strict ban on self-determination for millennia, reinforcing it in 1930 in one of its own encyclicals (Casti connubii). Yet all the same, it brings itself to accept Knaus’s theory: because it calls for abstinence and because it is rather prone to error.

Thirty years later, the Catholic gynaecologist John Rock and the biochemist Gregory Pincus develop the pill in the USA, based on Knaus’s theory and the groundwork of numerous researchers. Abstinence is now no longer necessary, and miscalculations are rare. Again, the religious communities feel required to guide their flock.

The Catholic Church wrestles hard. Since they have accepted Knaus’s method of contraception, there is actually no argument for rejecting the pill, including from a theological point of view. Although, by their own admission, the topic of sex is embarrassing for representatives of the Catholic Church, they occupy themselves with the pros and cons of the pill in consultations, committees, working groups and discussions lasting years. There is nothing they do not look into: medicine, ethics, morality, Church history, Church Fathers, their own earlier statements, etc. The central question in the Vatican is: if fertility is ordained by God – is man allowed to mess around in the good Lord’s handiwork?

After six years of intense discussions, on 25th July 1968, the time has come: the Catholic Pope has made up his mind. People think they know his decision already: it surely can’t be anything other than favourable for the pill; after all, Knaus’s method of counting days was already accepted by the Catholic Church decades previously. It simply could not be that the Church would sanction a less effective method and then forbid a more effective method for the same objective.

Nobody knows what then prompted the Catholic Pope, on the contrary, to reject the pill in his encyclical Humanae vitae(On the Proper Regulation of the Propagation of Offspring). It seems as though the world-renowned Austrian gynaecologist Prof. Hermann Knaus (1892–1970) had a hand in it. For, a few months prior to the publication of the Catholic encyclical, in October 1967, ‘the press’ reported on a visit Knaus made to Rome: “The Pro-Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Cardinal Ottaviani, has hosted Professor Knaus. Ottaviani had a summary drawn up of the famous gynaecologist’s views on the effects of the ‘pill’ and on birth control in general, and this is to be presented to Paul VI.”

The arch-conservative Catholic Ottaviani had in fact acted independently in order to establish his own view of total repudiation of the ‘pill’ as the official policy of the Catholic Vatican – against the prevailing opinion of the time and against the clear majority, even in the Vatican. German weekly ‘Der Spiegel’ detected this already at the start of the consultations: “Cardinal Ottaviani, as head of the Theological Commission, who helped prepare the Council, had been successful in his efforts to present to the assembly of Church dignitaries only drafts of his own liking. He had surrounded himself in the Commission almost exclusively with like-minded spiritual leaders and theologians.”


The ‘pill’ is to blame for everything

Knaus’s expert assessment reads like a template for the later Catholic encyclical. First, he rails against the pill using scientific arguments. It’s nothing new: the experiment that laid the foundation for the later development of the pill and its use as a means of contraception was already performed in 1930 at the University Women’s Hospital in Graz. In the following pages of his expert report, Knaus addressed all possible and impossible side effects of the pill (at that time): loss of appetite, disinclination to work, breast cancer, depression, vomiting, frigidity, infertility, fatigue, thrombosis, etc.

Thereafter, contrary to his otherwise strictly scientific argumentation, Knaus devoted himself to the moral aspect: apart from the adverse medical effects of the ‘pill’ on the female body that he had enumerated, it would endanger the ethos in the civilised world in which almost all people up until that point had distinguished themselves through mastering compulsive erotic desire. The loss of this self-control would lead to the collapse of a societal order achieved over the course of centuries. Unsurprisingly, he eventually ended with his own method of “natural contraception” as the only one to be recommended, and mentioned his own books.

And there was one more thing that was important to him to make clear: it would be cynical to understand his rhythm method as a recommendation for sex before or outside of marriage, and certainly not as an alternative to this pill in this regard!

Whether the Catholic Pope actually set eyes on and read Knaus’s expert assessment can only be surmised from the broad consensus between the contents of the advisory report and the later encyclical, but not proven, so long as the Vatican keeps its archive under lock and key.


Coup d'état in the Vatican?

The Catholic Church had not made deciding for or against the ‘pill’ easy for themselves: for one thing, the Churchmen actually possessed little knowledge of the effects and side effects of the pill. The buzzword thalidomide loomed in their minds: what if the Catholic Church were to approve something that later turned out to be a medical catastrophe? Or does the ‘pill’ perhaps even have an abortifacient effect? (Still today, medical knowledge is not anchored in the heads of the Catholic clerics, as current discussions show.)

Despite all these deliberations, repeated votes in the Vatican committees resulted in a clear majority acceptance of the pill. Yet contrary to this majority, and that of the Catholic faithful, the second-most-important man in the Vatican, Cardinal Ottaviani, and a handful of close confidants, like Wojtyla, the Pole who would later be Catholic Pope, dismissed this sentiment. For them, it was about continuity and, therefore, the credibility of Catholic doctrine, which they viewed as essential for the survival of their Church. Then came Knaus’s alarming warnings against an effective contraceptive method, just in the nick of time! Whether their strategy came off remains a moot point, in view of the increasing number of people exiting the Catholic Church and the decline in influence of the Vatican since the 1968 encyclical.

Presumably neither the Catholic Pope Paul VI. nor Ottaviani had expected massive resistance of that kind against their rejection of the pill. Thus, many Catholic bishops in numerous countries felt forced to give in to the pressure of their base: in clear opposition to the Catholic encyclical, they granted their adherents the right to self-determination with regard to the pill, in official declarations (such as the Maria Troster Declaration in Austria, for example, the Königstein Declaration in Germany, or the Solothurn Declaration in Switzerland).


Why Hermann Knaus in particular?

Knaus – the gynaecologist from Austrian province Carinthia – was internationally one of the most esteemed pioneers in the field of family planning; he united scientific research with tremendous experience as a practising gynaecologist and obstetrician, held lectures, trained doctors, taught at the university. Governments called him in as an advisor, prominent patients sought his help, colleagues from all over the world came to look over his shoulder or work alongside him. He received honorary doctorates and other accolades. Not everyone shared his opinion with regard to the effectiveness of counting days, but no-one could provide any scientifically founded evidence to the contrary. Yet even ‘great minds’ need a ‘power house’, and in Knaus’s case, that was the Catholic Church, whom he assisted.

In order that the extensive work of Hermann Knaus remains preserved for posterity, the MUVS, is collecting and documenting his roughly 50 years of academic accomplishments in a dedicated project: books, articles in scientific journals, discussion papers, letters, photographs, etc., bear witness to his efforts to understand the laws of nature. The Hermann Knaus documentation archive, as well as the recently published “The Detective of Fertile Days – The History of the Gynaecologist Hermann Knaus”, by S. Krejsa MacManus and C. Fiala (in German, ISBN 978-3-99052-146-5), reveal the academic and doctor, the campaigner and teacher, the colleague and friend.