Fifty-four years on from Pope Paul VI’s promulgation of the prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae – On the Regulation of Births, disagreement and outright dissent against this constant teaching of the Church is still raging.
Of note is the recent publication from the Pontifical Academy for Life which advocates for a “paradigm shift” in matters pertaining to marriage and life issues.
Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition, and Practical Challenges, is a collection of the proceedings of a seminar held in 2021, and promoted by the Pontifical Academy for Life. It discusses topics such as abortion, euthanasia, artificial reproduction, and contraception.
Archbishop Paglia, who heads the Academy notes in his introduction to the text that it
“is not a handbook of formulas or a catalogue of cases that can be taken out of the context of the overall argument. Rather, it is a fundamental exposition of the Christian vision of life, illustrated in its existential aspects that are most relevant to the dramatic nature of the human condition and addressed from the perspective of an anthropology that is appropriate to the cultural mediation of faith in today’s world.” (my emphasis).
It appears that the “perspective of an anthropology” Archbishop Paglia refers to may very well be the perspective held by secular society rather than reason illuminated by faith and the natural law.
Writing in the National Catholic Register, Jonathan Liedl, expresses a concern that the Pontifical Academy for Life (or at least some of its members) “is pushing for a ‘paradigm shift’ in moral theology that would include departing from established teaching on contraception, but also euthanasia and forms of artificial conception.”
Although not yet available in English, an Italian article reports the document expounds the belief that there are such “conditions and practical circumstances that would make the choice to generate irresponsible.” In those circumstances, it asserts, the married may “with a wise choice” resort to contraception, although “obviously excluding abortive ones.”
However, this declaration defies the stance of the Church through the ages; a stance that coherently protects the nature of marriage, and is soundly rooted in natural law, Scripture, and Tradition.
Humanae vitae reaffirmed teaching on contraception
Pope Paul VI presented all people of good will with the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968. In this prophetic document, the Pontiff clearly re-affirmed the teaching of the Church that “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” (#11)
As such, illicit acts include direct sterilization, and “every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.” (#14)
Importantly, Paul VI noted that “it is an error to think that a conjugal act which is deliberately made infecund and so is intrinsically dishonest could be made honest and right by the ensemble of a fecund conjugal life.” (#14)
It is the individual act itself that is to be open to the transmission of life, not the totality of intention to be open to life within the marriage itself.
The teaching of Humanae was not new, but rather a re-affirmation of what the Magisterium of the Church has always taught, and a view that was held by all Christians until 1930. At that time the Anglican’s held the Lambeth Conference where a concession was made, proclaiming contraception lawful in certain circumstances. This decision paved the way for a wider acceptance over time, and encouraged other Protestants to follow their lead, leaving only the Catholic Church standing firm.
Other Popes regarding contraception
In 1930, Pius XI promulgated the encyclical Casti Connubii – On Christian Marriage. Within that often-forgotten letter, he reminded anyone tempted to follow the path of the Anglican’s that “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.” To participate in this offense, Pius XI declared, is a “grave sin.” (#56)
Some years later, in 1951, his successor, Pope Pius XII, pointed out in his Allocution to Midwives that what had been declared in Casti Connubii “is in full force today, as it was in the past, and so it will be in the future also, and always, because it is not a simple human whim, but the expression of a natural and divine law.”
The great Saint Pope John Paul II spoke eloquently throughout his pontificate about the theology of the body and the natural family, established by the marriage of one man and one woman, as the foundation of society. With a joyfulness that captured the hearts of many, he was able to paint a vision of true human flourishment found only by following the Commandments.
In his encyclicals, especially Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, as well as in many of speeches, Saint John Paul II defended the reality that there are moral absolutes; that there are some things that are always and everywhere morally wrong without exception.
Addressing participants in a 1988 conference discussing Moral Theology, with a special focus on Humanae vitae, Saint John Paul II explained this important truth.
Paul VI, qualifying the contraceptive act as intrinsically illicit, intended to teach that the moral norm is such that it does not admit exceptions: no personal or social circumstance has ever been able, can and will make such an act orderly in itself. The existence of particular norms regarding the intra-worldly action of man, endowed with such a binding force as to always and in any case exclude the possibility of exceptions, is a constant teaching of the Tradition and of the Magisterium of the Church that cannot be put under discussion by the Catholic theologian.Address of John Paul II to Participants in the II International Congress of Moral Theology, November 12, 1988, #5
Rumours of a new encyclical allowing contraception
It is clear that the Church has been constant in her teaching in this matter, and it has only been within the last one hundred years that Protestants have chosen to choose another path. The Church has remained firm in her safeguarding of the final ends of the marriage act which unites spouses and “by their nature [is] ordained to the begetting and rearing of children.” (Gaudium et Spes, #50).
Despite her perennial teaching, there are those who have always dissented and who wish to promote an alternative moral theology.
The possibility of a new encyclical has been raised by Jesuit priest and professor of moral theology, Jorge José Ferrer, S.J. His essay, discussing the contents of the Pontifical Academy for Life’s publication, was published on June 30, in a publication whose content is approved by the Vatican Secretariat of State, La Civilta’ Cattolica.
Ferrer is quoted in the Jesuit-run America article as saying, “it is legitimate to ask if Pope Francis will give us a new encyclical or apostolic exhortation on bioethics that might be called ‘Gaudium Vitae.’ [‘The Joy of Life’].”
Given that the essay was approved by the Vatican Secretariat of State, the comment has raised suspicions that such an encyclical, allowing contraception (and possibly more), might actually be planned.
Pope Paul VI predicted the widespread devastation that would sweep over individuals, families, and society if contraception was widely accepted. All of his predictions have come to pass. Any attempt to make exceptions in certain circumstances, or to adapt moral theology to suit the whims of the current zeitgeist would have dire consequences not only within the Church, but outside her.
In his address to moral theologians cited above, Saint John Paul II unambiguously reiterated the truth of Humanae Vitae, and the danger of rejecting its wisdom.
In fact, it is not a question of a doctrine invented by man: it was inscribed by the creative hand of God in the very nature of the human person and was confirmed by him in revelation. To question it, therefore, is equivalent to refusing to God himself the obedience of our intelligence. It is equivalent to preferring the light of our reason to the light of divine wisdom, thus falling into the darkness of error and ending up affecting other fundamental cornerstones of Christian doctrine.Address of John Paul II to Participants in the II International Congress of Moral Theology, November 12, 1988, #3
Although the teaching of the Church is often perceived as a harsh “no,” divorced from the challenges of the current day, the reality is quite the opposite. The perennial teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage, family, and engendering new life, is a beautiful and resounding “yes” to truth, and is in conformity with the dignity of the human person, allowing for true flourishment.