The teaching of Humanae vitae on contraception is an instance of the ordinary and universal magisterium, and as such is irreformable, a moral theologian has said in response to a statement from the Pontifical Academy for Life.
Father Thomas Petri, O.P., president of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., noted that even critics of the teaching on contraception have “acknowledged that this was always the Church’s teaching” and that nowhere in the Church’s teaching has there been permissiveness, of any form, of contraception.
“This suggests that this has always been the teaching of the Church, so it's part of the ordinary, universal magisterium,” Petri said. “So even if it's the case that any particular encyclical” such as Humanae vitae “is not infallible, the teaching that it presents is in fact irreformable, because it's part of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church.”
In Humanae vitae, his 1968 encyclical on the regulation of birth, St. Paul VI wrote that “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means” is “excluded,” as an unlawful means of birth control.
The Pontifical Academy
The Pontifical Academy for Life, an institution associated with the Holy See but which is not itself a magisterial body, hosted a 2021 seminar on ethics in which a participant discussed “the possible legitimacy of contraception in certain cases.”
A synthesis of the seminar was recently published by the Vatican Publishing House, which has given rise to questions about whether the Church’s teaching on birth control is reformable.
The Pontifical Academy for Life has defended the discussion it hosted of the permissibility of contraception, tweeting Aug. 5 that “History records by Abp. [Ferdinando] Lambruschini confirmed that Paul VI said him directly that HV were not under infallibility.”
Then in an Aug. 8 statement, the academy wrote that “many people on Twitter seem to believe that Humanae Vitae is an infallible and irreformable pronouncement against contraception.”
It noted that “when the moral theologian of the Pontifical Lateran University Msgr. Ferdinando Lambruschini presented Humanae Vitae in a press conference … he stated under the mandate of Paul VI — that the encylical Humanae Vitae is not to be considered part of the infallible pronouncements. Lambruschini stressed that Humanae Vitae did not express a definitive truth of faith granted by ‘infallibilitas in docendo.’”
The statement added that as Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojty?a asked Paul VI to define Humanae vitae’s teaching as infallible. “Pope Paul VI did not do it and neither did Pope John Paul II during 26 years of his pontificate," the academy's statement said.
Father Petri’s response
Petri noted that St. John Paul II had confirmed Humanae vitae’s teaching as part of the ordinary and universal magisterium.
“In Veritatis splendor — which the Pontifical Academy does not note — in Veritatis splendor John Paul II does say that contraception is an intrinsically evil act, so there can be no reason or purpose for contraception. Benedict XVI gave several speeches in which he spoke about contraception, and it can't be changed. What was true yesterday is true today.”
While there can be “legitimate discussions of how to present it or how to help people understand it, or how to help people who are in difficult situations, whether medically or even because of moral pressure,” the teaching itself is not a topic for debate, explained Petri, author of "Aquinas and the Theology of the Body" (Catholic University of America Press, 2016).
“There could be a real discussion about how to do that, but there can't be any sort of rollback of the teaching, because it's what’s always been taught, and that's how Catholic theology, and Catholic doctrine, works.”
“These things aren't really meant to be argued over Twitter,” he reflected. “It's not the forum to sort of put these things out there.”
Petri added that “It's not helpful to simply focus on infallibility and what is named infallible in an extraordinary way. The First Vatican Council, when it spoke about papal infallibility, was very clear that it was supposed to be an extraordinary act.”
Petri compared an infallible statement to an ecumenical council. He described it as “a very extraordinary act, and which usually only happens when the matter at issue, whether it's a doctrinal matter or a moral matter, has become so entirely embroiled in conflict … that it requires such an extraordinary act as a pope or a council declaring something infallibly.”
“That's not normally how Church teaching works — that's why the ordinary magisterium is important.”
When a pope does not intend to teach infallibly, “that doesn't mean we're supposed to ignore what he's teaching, or to act like his opinion is just one opinion among many," Petri said.
“Even if he's not intending to proclaim something infallible, especially when he's teaching things that popes have been teaching for centuries, it has a certain weight to it.”
While one might disagree with how things are expressed, “that doesn't mean that what he's teaching is up for grabs," Petri said.
“All the more so when you're talking about a teaching which multiple popes have repeated over multiple decades. And in the case of contraception we could say centuries," he said.
"You simply can't say, ‘Well, Humanae vitae wasn’t declared infallible, Paul VI didn’t declare it infallible, therefore because it’s not infallible, it’s up for grabs.' This is not a binary.”
A similar point was made in a 2019 article by Augusto Sarmiento.
Sarmiento wrote about the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1990 instruction on the ecclesial vocation of the theologian, which discusses various levels of magisterial statements. The article appeared in “Dizionario su Sesso, Amore e Fecondità,” edited by Father José Noriega and René and Isabelle Ecochard.
A professor at the Univerisity of Pamplona, Sarmiento noted that “the pope, with Humanae vitae, did not will to propose an extraordinary teaching of the Magisterium ex cathedra.”
To support this, he quoted from Lambruschini’s comments at the press conference presenting the encyclical: “However, it is always an authentic pronouncement, especially since it is part of the continuity of the ecclesiastical magisterium.”
Sarmiento wrote: “On the nature of the authority with which the norm of Humanae vitae is proclaimed, there is no doubt that it is part of the ordinary, universal magisterium,” and that the encyclical “is a teaching of the ordinary universal Magisterium of the Pope and of the bishops that must be considered definitive.”
Humanae vitae and its precedents
In Humanae vitae St. Paul VI taught that “sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive” is thereby “intrinsically wrong.”
The pope discussed artificial birth control in the context of defining and analyzing marital love and responsible parenthood.
“The Church … in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life,” St. Paul VI wrote, adding that this doctrine has been “often expounded by the magisterium of the Church.”
He presented his statements as a reply, given “by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ,” to questions on the moral doctrine of marriage.
St. Paul VI referred especially to the teaching of Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world.
Gaudium et spes stated that spouses “must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church's teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel … Thus, trusting in divine Providence and refining the spirit of sacrifice, married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate.”
This statement, in turn, referred in a footnote to Casti connubii, Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical on Christian marriage, which proclaimed “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.”
In that encyclical Pius XI referred to “frustrating the marriage act” as a “criminal abuse," and said that “those who in exercising [the conjugal act] deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.”
Casti connubii also states that “Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime,” and cites St. Augustine’s interpretation of Scripture as such.
The present day
Pope Francis was asked about a re-evaluation of the Church’s doctrine on contraception, or whether the use of contraceptives may be considered, on his July 29 flight from Canada to Rome.
The pope responded that “dogma, morality, is always on a path of development, but always developing in the same direction.” He cited St. Vincent of Lerins as saying “that true doctrine, in order to move forward, to develop, must not be still, it develops … it is consolidated over time, it expands and consolidates, and becomes always more solid, but always progressing. That is why the duty of theologians is research, theological reflection. You cannot do theology with a ‘no’ in front. Then it is up to the Magisterium to say, ‘No, you’ve gone too far, come back.' But theological development must be open, that’s what theologians are for. And the Magisterium must help to understand the limits.”
He referred to the acts of the Pontifical Academy for Life’s seminar, saying, “those who participated in this congress did their duty, because they have sought to move forward in doctrine, but in an ecclesial sense, not outside of it, as I said with that rule of Saint Vincent of Lérins. Then the Magisterium will say, ‘yes, it is good’ or ‘it is not good.'”
Mónica López Barahona, a board member of the academy, told ACI Prensa last month that “It’s not true that the Church or the Magisterium have changed their moral criteria regarding some questions of bioethics; not even that the Vatican has begun a process of reviewing these issues.”
López stressed that "the book is not an official declaration of the Pontifical Academy for Life on these issues" and that it does not represent "the moral criteria of all its members,” adding that “some were disconcerted when they saw the news about the publication of the book and the seminar, about which they knew nothing until that moment."