Earlier this month, the Pontifical Academy for Life’s official Twitter account suggested that Catholic teaching on the necessary connection between sex and openness to having children might one day be discarded, just as the Church once rejected its long-held belief that the earth is the center of the solar system.  

“The Sun does not rotate around the Earth,” read the academy’s tweet from July 11. “Otherwise there would be no progress and everything would stand still. Even in theology. Think about it.” 

The idea that the Church might overturn St. Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“On Human Life”) has predictably set off a firestorm of reaction in the Catholic world, both positive and negative: That this suggestion was made by an institution founded to advise the pope on issues of law and biomedicine and their implications for morality and Church teaching, was doubly disturbing.

This all started with the recent publication of a new 528-page book (currently available only in Italian), the apparent result of a 2021 academy-sponsored theological seminar. America magazine’s Gerard O’Connell reported that “the subject that is likely to draw most attention is the revisiting of the question regarding the use of artificial contraceptives” in the book’s seventh chapter. 

O’Connell noted that, both in the seminar and in the book, it was affirmed that a couple can make a “wise choice” by having recourse to contraception in situations where the “conditions and practical circumstances would make it irresponsible to choose to procreate.”

Those words suggest the select group behind the document wants to revisit St. Paul VI’s authoritative teaching in “Humanae Vitae” that the connection between sex and openness to having children was so essential that it needed to be honored in every single act, without exception.

Other academy members have strongly objected to the book being published. Dr. Mónica López Barahona, an academy board member and president of the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation in Spain, said the book does not represent an official declaration of the PAL and also that it should have been reviewed by Vatican doctrine officials before being published. She acknowledged that some of its statements seem to contradict Church teaching, implying in particular that there are no actions that are intrinsically evil.

Significantly, the president of the academy himself, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, claims in the book’s introduction that it heralds a “paradigm shift” in moral theology, one which dismisses the old teaching as a “handbook of formulas” that doesn’t adequately capture the “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.”

Since what is being called for here is a shift affecting the whole of Catholic moral theology, those making this argument wouldn’t have to stop with issues like contraception and in vitro fertilization, but could also hypothetically revisit the Church’s teaching against racism, torture, and sexual violence — all of which are prohibited in each and every act without exception. After all, there are Catholics (especially when it comes to torture) who will also dismiss such teachings as applying a simplistic “handbook of formulas” to what can be a much more complex moral situation.

Let’s hope and pray that this is just the wishful thinking of a small group of seminar participants, so that the Church’s teaching that sins like racism, torture, and sexual violence are always and everywhere impermissible remains.

But let’s also realize that it is literally the worst time ever to be challenging the teaching of “Humanae Vitae.” It is true, as critics have said for multiple generations, that most Catholics have rejected the Church’s teaching in that document. But the Catholic Church’s teaching, whether about contraception or about our radical duties to give our wealth to the poor, is not subject to a popularity contest. 

By any objective measure, the Church’s teaching in “Humanae Vitae” is more relevant than it has ever been. A few reasons why:

  • The separation of sex from openness to procreation has produced a hookup culture in which the primary script for sex involves intentionally using another person’s body as a mere object and then discarding them. That this throwaway sexual culture very often crosses the line into sexual violence is a feature, not a bug. 
  • Virtual porn already dominates the lives of large majorities of young people, but in separating sex from marriage open to procreation, that kind of person-less sexual behavior will become our culture’s norm. Especially with the advent of the so-called “metaverse” and sex robots driven by artificial intelligence.
  • Happily, more and more women are rejecting the patriarchal expectation that they will “choose” to pump their bodies full of dangerous hormones as the price of admission not only for dating and relationships, but for following their educational and vocational dreams. More and more women (including those who are secular in their approach) are honoring their given, embodied femininity by using the latest technology to practice various eco-friendly and strikingly effective versions of the fertility awareness method. 
  • It now clear that it is virtually impossible to separate the logic of contraception from the logic of abortion. Indeed, until very recently the United States was governed by abortion law (Planned Parenthood v. Casey), which insisted that women need abortion as a backup to contraception. Abortion is the fail-safe for participation in sexual culture created by contraception.
  • When reproduction is separated from sex and moved to a laboratory, gross ableism follows. Indeed, disabled embryonic children are discarded and those with genetically preferred traits are implanted — a practice that will become even more common. Furthermore, this culture of reproduction mirrors the excesses of our country’s consumerist practices, producing millions of “extra” embryos destined for the absurd fate of perpetual frozen storage. 
  • This model of reproduction as disconnected from sex has led to the rejection of the idea that having children is an unmerited gift from God. Instead, it pushes in the direction of a so-called “right to have children” which may (especially if one is older and/or gay or lesbian) require mandatory coverage of in vitro fertilization. One wonders what such a shift will require of vulnerable women who are already structurally coerced into renting their bodies to serve the fertility of others.

The Church’s teaching on the inherent connection between sex and procreation was not only divinely inspired, but has never been more urgent in the consumerist West. Instead of resurrecting a played-out attempt to undermine this teaching, Catholic moral theologians should be working on new and creative ways to invite all people of goodwill to see its truth.

One obvious way to move toward this goal: U.S. and European Catholics should take a harder look at how and why Catholics in Africa and other places in the developing world have not capitulated to our consumer throwaway culture in the areas of sex and procreation. This is an opportunity to listen to peoples who can provide language and strategies — based on their lived experience — for helping the world see the truth St. Paul VI taught in “Humanae Vitae.”