A New Encyclical on Contraception?

A rumor is making the rounds in Rome that Pope Francis is preparing to issue an encyclical or some other form of teaching document on contraception. At this point, it’s only a rumor – it may be true, or it may not. But supposing it’s true, one naturally wonders what such a document from Francis might say.

Some background is in order. Next July will be the 55th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope St. Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical reaffirming the Church’s condemnation of artificial birth control. After several years of speculation that he would weaken or abandon the teaching, Pope Paul, having declared abortion and sterilization unacceptable, then said this: “Similarly excluded is any action that, either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation – whether as an end or as a means.”

This condemnation was hardly new. In his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI spoke of the “uninterrupted Christian tradition” against contraception before saying: “Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”

There are several ways of showing the wrongness of contraception.

Pope Paul pointed to its evil social consequences including a general lowering of the moral tone of society and placing a “dangerous weapon” in the hands of public authorities.

Pope St. John Paul II, writing in the framework of his distinctive theology of the body, spoke in Familiaris Consortio (1981) of the two meanings of intercourse – unitive and procreative. But he declared,  the “total reciprocal self-giving” of married couples is “overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language” leading to “a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love.”

And in Fulfillment in Christ the distinguished ethicist and moral theologian Germain Grisez and I sketch the outlines of an argument according to the New Natural Law Theory: “The choice to contracept is a choice to prevent the handing-on of human life when, as far as is known, that might otherwise take place. But this is a choice to impede a certain human good (life) in a particular instance” – and a choice of that sort violates the ethical principle that it is wrong to destroy, damage, or impede one human good for the sake of realizing another.


The indications that Pope Francis may have it in mind to contribute to the body of papal teaching on contraception are not conclusive but strongly suggestive.

Last July, for instance, the Jesuit-edited periodical Civiltà Cattolica, whose editor, Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., is a close advisor to this pope, published an article urging the Holy Father to take this step. Its author, Father Jorge José Ferrer, S.J., even suggested a title for the new document – Gaudium Vitae, the Joy of Life. Father Ferrer, a moral theologian at the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, was writing about a new collection of papers, some suggesting a shift in the teaching on contraception, from a conference organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life. The Ferrer article was titled “Re-Reading the Theological Ethics of Life.”

More recently the president of the Pontifical Academy, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, discussed the possibility of a papal encyclical with Christopher Lamb, a journalistic cheerleader for the current pontificate, in an interview published in the November 12 issue of the British liberal Catholic weekly The Tablet. Asked if an encyclical on contraception was in the works, Archbishop Paglia, who lately has been criticized for appointing as members of the academy two individuals who are pro-choice, didn’t answer directly but said “the day will come” when Francis or his successor will have to speak on contraception. “Certainly, we have to address it,” he added.

“A whole new chapter on the ethics of life could be emerging,” Lamb concluded.

If Francis does issue a teaching document, it won’t be the first time he has spoken about contraception. In January 2015, returning from the Philippines, he told reporters on the papal plane that he supports the Church’s teaching, but he rejected the idea that “in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits.” The correct approach, he said, was “responsible parenthood.”

It’s reasonable to think a statement on contraception by this Pope would bear a resemblance to what he said in his 2016 Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) about giving Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled. Saying that “in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully so – a person can be living in God’s grace,” he declared that the Eucharist was “not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

It doesn’t require much imagination to see how that line of thought could be adapted to the situation of a married couple who say they have good reason to avoid pregnancy by practicing contraception. But in that case, staying within the doctrinal boundaries set by what previous popes have taught will require that Francis tread lightly.

Serious students of these matters suggest, for example, that Pius XI may well have taught infallibly when thundering against contraception in Casti Connubii. And in a major 1978 article published – “reluctantly,” as Germaine Grisez later noted – by the Jesuit-edited journal Theological Studies, Grisez and moral theologian Father John C. Ford, S.J., argued that the manner in which the doctrine historically had been proposed satisfied the criteria for an infallible exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium of the world’s bishops teaching in union with the pope, as these are set out in section 25 of Vatican Council II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.

That of course is an argument that dissenting theologians have largely ignored in the contraception debate – perhaps because they have no answer to it.


*Image: The Visitation by Master Heinrich of Constance (Attributed to), ca. 1310–20 [The MET, New York]. Mary (left) tenderly places her hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder, while her cousin raises her arm to her breast in reference to her declaration, “Who am I, that the mother of the Lord should visit me?” (Luke 1:43).

You may also enjoy:

Michael Pakaluk’s Contraception and Our Abdication of Fatherhood

Randall Smith’s Contraception: How Far Back Does the Church Teaching Go?

Russell Shaw is a former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently (with David Byers) Revitalizing Catholicism in America: Nine Tasks for Every Catholic.