‘Humanae Vitae’ in the Cross Hairs

Since the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAL) was restructured several years ago by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, it has been mired in a series of high-profile scandals.  The most recent controversy surrounds the publication of The Theological Ethics of Life.  Woven into this book are proposals for modifying doctrines such as the prohibition against medically assisted procreation.  The book also questions the teaching of Humanae Vitae, which forbids the use of contraceptives.

One of the contributors, Gilfredo Marenzo, argues that if “practical circumstances” make “the choice to generate irresponsible,” a couple may have recourse to the use of contraception devices.

In subsequent interviews and tweets, members of the Academy have insisted that Paul VI’s teaching on contraception is not infallible and hence subject to revision.  According to Fr. Maurizio Chiodi, Humanae Vitae does not belong to the infallible magisterium of the Church.  On the contrary, Chiodi claims that we are in the area of “reformable doctrine” where dissent by theologians and individual Catholics is quite possible.

According to the Catholic news and commentary site The Pillar, there is a subtle strategy underlying this new offensive against Pope Paul VI’s encyclical.  Paglia and his opportunistic colleagues recognize that it’s unlikely Pope Francis will compose a new document on contraception that revises the teaching of his predecessors. They hope that their suggestive comments, however, will focus attention on the issue of contraception at the upcoming Synod on Synodality and provide a new forum for dissent.

The goal? Perhaps that this discourse will lead to language in the penumbra of the final document (such as a footnote) that relativizes Humanae Vitae.  Even an allusion to the notion that contraception is sometimes morally permissible would quickly take root among dissident theologians and a receptive laity.

Any such compromise will fatally undermine the remarkable continuity of the Church’s teaching on this issue.

This doctrine was unambiguously reaffirmed at the Second Vatican Council in several sections of Gaudium et Spes.  In paragraph 51, the Council Fathers state that conjugal love must “preserve the full sense of mutual self-giving and of human procreation.” They go on to stipulate that the moral character of an act reconciling marital love with the “responsible transmission of life” must be based on “objective criteria” that preclude the prevention of sexual intercourse from resulting in procreation.

Humanae Vitae (14) echoes this principle because it rejects “all acts that attempt to impede procreation, both those chosen as a means to an end and those chosen as ends.”  It doesn’t matter what one’s more remote intentions might be (such as limiting the family’s size).


In a footnote to the paragraph in Gaudium et Spes, there are references to the denunciation of contraception by both Pius XI and Pius XII.  Thus, the Second Vatican Council and Humanae Vitae do not invent something new but repeat the Church’s constant teaching on contraception.

The basic principle in all of these papal and conciliar pronouncements is that a couple cannot have sexual intercourse and deliberately impede that act from reaching its natural end of procreation, no matter what their broader intentions may be.

Pope John Paul II addressed the issue of contraception in many of his papal and pre-papal writings including Theology of the Body and Veritatis Splendor.  In the former work, 134 catechetical addresses delivered in the first years of his papacy, he demonstrated how the justification for Humanae Vitae lies deep in the soil of moral philosophy and anthropology.

And in a speech on the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Benedict proclaimed that “the truth expressed in Humanae Vitae does not change.”

Given this exceptional continuity, it’s hard to deny that the Church’s charism of infallibility is at work here.  While the doctrine on contraception is not based on the same sort of ex cathedra infallibility as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, it represents an infallible teaching of the ordinary magisterium.  According to Lumen Gentium, such an infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium occurs under these conditions:  the bishops, in communion with each other and the pope, authoritatively teach on a matter of faith and morals and concur that this teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council and Humanae Vitae, the condemnation of contraception had already been universally proclaimed by bishops in communion with the pope who agreed that this teaching was to be held “definitively and absolutely.”  Thus, the prohibition against contraception clearly qualifies as an infallible teaching of the ordinary magisterium.

If Archbishop Paglia and his PAL succeed in relativizing this doctrine and transforming it into a general standard subject to multiple exceptions and qualifications based on the sophistic arguments of clever theologians, the stability and permanence of many other Church teachings will become equally vulnerable.  Telling Catholics that they can contracept if they have sincere motives and noble intentions is a direct repudiation of the instruction given in both Gaudium et Spes and Humanae Vitae.  Diluting this doctrine by declaring that contraception is not intrinsically wrong will surely amount to its virtual disappearance among the faithful.

Humanae Vitae has never been popular with the Catholic hierarchy. Most bishops have not rushed to defend the encyclical because it is so counter-cultural.  The sexual revolution has always been highly disdainful of any moral judgment against contraception.  If this latest stage in the drama plays out in the next Synod in the way The Pillar speculates, it will be instructive to see which bishops and cardinals are courageous enough to tangle with those who dissent from this steady orthodoxy.

As Fatima’s Sister Lucia declared, the “final battle” between Satan and Our Lord is being fought over marriage and the family, and the latest contraception dispute is a new inflection point.  The irrelevance of the ecclesial hierarchy in this epic spiritual conflict will be obvious if they fail to defend what popes from Pius XI to Benedict XVI (along with their predecessors) have taught with such clarity and authority.


*Image: Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1842 [The TATE, London]

You may also enjoy:

+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On ‘Humanae Vitae’ 

Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s Sexual Acts – Good and Bad – Are for Real 

Richard A. Spinello is Professor of Management Practice at Boston College and a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He is the author of The Encyclicals of John Paul II: An Introduction and Commentary and The Splendor of Marriage: St. John Paul II’s Vision of Love, Marriage, Family, and the Culture of Life.