Humanae Vitae (1968): Infallible Teaching Against Contraception

Humanae Vitae (1968): Infallible Teaching Against Contraception October 28, 2017




The teaching against contraception as a grave sin was already firmly entrenched in Catholic tradition, having been strongly asserted again in 1930 by Pope Pius XI in response to the Anglicans [Casti Connubii]. Such declarations often come in response to heresy. No one (not even any Protestant body) had officially disagreed with the prohibition until 1930, so it was a non-issue. Once the Anglicans started sanctioning sin, then it was time to clarify the constant teaching. Hence, the heroic encyclical Humanae Vitae, written by Pope Paul VI in 1968.

The papal commission originally appointed by Pope John XXIII and then later modified a bit by Pope Paul VI thought it was acceptable for married couples to contracept in order to space children. This is why we have popes! Commissions, even those appointed by popes, are not themselves the magisterium. The commission clearly didn’t properly understand the received Catholic tradition on contraception.

But Pope Paul VI did (thank God and bless his heart) and that is all that matters. The commission was guilty of erroneous ethical reasoning. The Pope saw that and went against their recommendation. That’s how Catholic authority works: it is a Church run by popes, cardinals, councils, and bishops, not commissions and pointy-headed, trendy theologians. What the commission thought doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, authority- or doctrine-wise, anymore than discussions in ecumenical councils prior to the decisions rendered have any magisterial bearing. It might be interesting for historians and sociologists and those who get into Church politics, but it has nothing to do with what Catholics are to believe.

Just because some people on a commission came up with an opinion (that was ethically wrong), proves nothing. The commission existed to aid the pope in the decision-making process; to inform him of new technology and science. He is not bound, however to what they concluded. I trust the pope’s judgment because he has the charism of infallibility and the responsibility of leading the Church.

I shall now proceed to argue that Humanae Vitae not only promulgates an infallible doctrine, but also possibly ex cathedra doctrine, as argued by Fr. Brian Harrison in a lengthy, meaty article posted at EWTN. The article begins:

In “Living Tradition,” No. 12 (July 1987),[1] the present writer favourably reviewed a recent book by Fr. Ermenegildo Lio, O.F.M., “Humanae Vitae e Infallibilita” (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1986), in which the thesis is sustained that the teaching against contraception in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter “Humanae Vitae” (25 July 1968) is infallible, not merely by virtue of being an instance of the constant, ordinary and universal magisterium of the Popes and Catholic Bishops against this practice, but because the encyclical itself contains (in article 14) an “ex cathedra” definition. Lio claims, in other words, that “Humanae Vitae” contains an intrinsically infallible pronouncement: an instance of papal infallibility as defined by Vatican Council I.

To my knowledge Lio’s book has been virtually ignored by the theological community, in spite of his eminent qualifications as a professor of long standing in Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University, as a “peritus” at Vatican Council II, and an adviser to Pope Paul VI over the birth control issue–not to mention a personal autographed letter from Pope John Paul II thanking Fr. Lio for the presentation of his book, which was published by the Vatican Press.

Certainly, Lio’s thesis goes against the common view of theologians (both those who assent to “Humanae Vitae” and those who dissent from it), who have usually described the encyclical as being, in itself, a “non-infallible” document. Very often this conclusion seems to be drawn merely from the fact that there is no definition of a “dogma”–a point of “revealed” truth to be held as “of faith” (“de fide”)–in Pope Paul’s encyclical. But Lio’s point is that such definitions, while they represent the most solemn form of papal teaching, are not the “only” form which satisfies the conditions for an “ex cathedra” definition as laid down by the constitution “Pastor Aeternus” of Vatican I. In this paper I propose to develop this theme, in support of Lio’s thesis, i.e., the “ex cathedra” status of “Humanae Vitae.”

After very interesting treatments of the question of infallibility and its proper conditions, Harrison gets back to the subject at hand, Humanae Vitae: (my blue highlighting):

Paul VI revealed his state of mind regarding “Humanae Vitae” to the College of Cardinals in his end-of-the-year address on the year’s events on December 23, 1968. He said that as a result of his long and scrupulous examination of the arguments against the traditional teaching on birth control, “this teaching showed itself to Us anew in all its severe and yet ‘serene certainty.'”) . . .

The dogmatic definition specifies four elements which constitute an “ex cathedra” definition:

1. The Pope must speak as “the pastor and teacher of all Christians” (“cum omnium Christianorum pastoris et doctoris munere fungens”). As Bishop Gasser explained, this means “not . .. when he decrees something as a private teacher, nor only as the bishop and ordinary of a particular province.”[62] Nobody can possibly doubt that this condition is fulfilled in the case of “Humanae Vitae.” A papal encyclical, by its very nature, is a document in which the Pope speaks in this universal capacity. In this case, Paul VI goes even further and addresses the non- Catholic world–perhaps because the doctrine he is teaching is in this case a matter of natural law, accessible and objectively binding on all human beings as such. The encyclical is explicitly addressed: “To the venerable Patriarchs, Archbishops and Bishops and other local ordinaries in peace and communion with the Apostolic See, to priests, the faithful and to all men of good will.”[63] The definition adds after “fungens” the words “prosuprema sua Apostolica auctoritate”–“by virtue of his’ supreme Apostolic authority.” Some commentators make this a separate or independent condition, but Bishop Gasser did not mention it as such. In fact, it is only by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority that the Pope “can” speak “as the pastor and teacher of all Christians,” so there could be no question of his ever speaking in that capacity “without making use of,” or depending on, his supreme apostolic authority. In any case, this aspect of an “ex cathedra” decision is also spelled out in “Humanae Vitae.” In article 6 the Pope declares that the decision he is about to announce is being promulgated “by virtue of the mandate entrusted to us by Christ” (“vi mandati Nobis a Christo commissi”).[64] He has just asserted in article 4, in regard to that “mandate,” “Jesus Christ, when communicating to Peter and to the Apostles His divine authority and sending them to teach all nations His commandments, constituted them as guardians and authentic interpreters of all the moral law.” This, he says, “is indisputable, as our predecessors have many times declared.” It is thus evident that in this document the Pope is speaking precisely as the Successor of Peter the Apostle, by divine mandate and authority as the Church’s supreme teacher on earth. He thereby indisputably fulfils the first condition for an “ex cathedra” statement.

. . . 3. The dogma of 1870 then adds that in an “ex cathedra” pronouncement, this doctrine must be proposed as “ab universa Ecclesia tenendam,” literally, “requiring to be held by the universal Church.” This obligation of all Catholics to accept the doctrinal decisions is repeatedly expressed in the encyclical. In the definition itself, the three practices proscribed (direct abortion, direct sterilization, and contraception) are all declared to be “absolutely excluded as licit means for regulating birth” (“omnino respuendam… ut legitimum modum numeri liberorum temperandi”). [he goes on at length to elaborate on this condition]

. . . 4. The final condition for an “ex cathedra” pronouncement is that the Roman Pontiff “define” (“definit” in Latin) the doctrine he is proposing for acceptance by the whole Church. . . .

Now, the fact that Pope Paul in “Humanae Vitae” meant to end the controversy over birth control (in the sense just explained) is evident both from the text of the document itself and from the historical circumstances in which it was prepared and issued. As is well-known by all those who have followed recent Church history, the 1968 encyclical came at a time of deep and widespread discontent, anguish, dissension and uncertainty over the question of birth control within the Catholic fold itself. That is precisely the kind of situation where an “ex cathedra” decision- -a final, doubt-dispelling, certain resolution of a very specific doctrinal question–is an urgent pastoral necessity, in order to restore peace to millions of troubled Catholic consciences. The question had been formally reserved for the “judgment” of the Supreme Pontiff during the recent Ecumenical Council, which stated that, after the papal commission had completed its study of this and related problems, the Supreme Pontiff would be able to “pass judgment” (“iudicium ferat”).

Now in that kind of situation, the “judgment” which is awaited from the supreme ecclesial tribunal on earth–not the “Roman Rota” nor the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” but the Successor of Peter in person, from whose judgment no appeal is possible–is by its very nature a “definitive” judgment: the last word; the end of the argument.

Pope Paul VI was well aware that this kind of “definitive, certain” judgment was being expected of him, and made clear in his encyclical that he intended to give it there and then. In the introductory section, he states that he enlarged the papal commission so as to gather “opportune elements of information.” This would better enable him to give “an adequate reply to the expectation not only of the faithful, but also of world opinion.”[74] Then, in article 6, the Pope makes it clear that this encyclical will give the reply which the world has been anxiously awaiting:The conclusions at which the Commission arrived could not be considered by Us as manifesting the force of a certain and definitive judgment (“vim iudicii certi ac definiti prae se ferrent”), dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally such a grave and momentous question (“quaeque Nos officio liberarent, tam gravis momenti quaestionem per Nosmetipsos consideratione expendendi”).[75]

Already the implication is completely clear: “the Commission” could not produce a statement with “the force of a certain and definitive judgment,” but “the Pope” can and will give such a judgment after having “personally examined” the matter. The Holy Father then formally announces his intention (still in article 6) to hand down the long-awaited judgment in this present document. His solemn words are usually diluted or weakened in vernacular translations. The following is an accurate rendition of this key passage:

Wherefore, having carefully pondered the documentation placed before Us, having most diligently examined the matter in mind and spirit, and after having raised ceaseless prayers to God, We now resolve, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, to give Our reply to these grave questions.[76]

Article 6 thus makes manifest the Pontiff’s intention to give, in this document, a “definitive” teaching on birth control–one handed down with no less than divine authority. It is worth remembering that the “mandate” from Christ referred to here is specifically his teaching authority, not merely the governing authority by which the Pope can make disciplinary decisions. Pope Paul has just asserted in article 4, “It is in fact indisputable, as Our predecessors have many times declared, that ‘Jesus Christ, when communicating to Peter and to the apostles His divine authority,’ constituted them as guardians and authentic interpreters ‘of all the moral law.'”[77]

Do I agree that it is ex cathedra? I don’t know. I’ll let theologians tackle that. I think Harrison makes a great argument, though (as usual), and I do strongly believe it is infallible doctrine in the ordinary magisterium (and can’t imagine how this could be denied). Here are some of the stronger authoritative statements in the encyclical itself (from the copy on the Holy See website):

The Magisterium’s Reply

6. However, the conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain, dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally this serious question. This was all the more necessary because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed, and especially because certain approaches and criteria for a solution to this question had emerged which were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church.

11. The Church, nevertheless, 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.

Union and Procreation

12. This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.

Unlawful Birth Control Methods

14. Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.

Recourse to Infertile Periods

16. Now as We noted earlier (no. 3), some people today raise the objection against this particular doctrine of the Church concerning the moral laws governing marriage, that human intelligence has both the right and responsibility to control those forces of irrational nature which come within its ambit and to direct them toward ends beneficial to man. . . .

Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious.

Consequences of Artificial Methods

17. Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control.

[see also in section 29: implied as applying to this question]

I’m not alone in my opinion, by any means. Catholic Answers has asserted that the prohibition of contraception is infallible teaching. Now, lest someone think, “so what?”, I would point out that Catholic Answers is supported by a great many bishops (many of whom write in its magazine).

The late Fr. John A. Hardon, S. J., one of the leading catechists in America, who is now being considered for sainthood, agrees, too:

Is it infallible Catholic doctrine that contraception is a mortal sin? Yes! How do we know? We know this from the twenty centuries of the Catholic Church’s teaching. Already in the first century, those who professed the Catholic Faith did not practice either contraception or abortion, which were commonly linked together.

. . . What do we call the Church’s unbroken tradition in forbidding contraception? We call it her ordinary universal magisterium or teaching authority. This has always been considered a proof of infallibility, or from another perspective, irreversibility. What do these two terms mean? Infallibility means that God protects the Church from error in her 2000 years of teaching that contraception is a grave sin against God. Irreversibility means that this teaching will never be reversed. Contraception will remain a grave sin until the end of time.

He even argues in the same article that those who defend contraception cease being “professed Catholics” and lose divine grace.

Well-known moral theologian Germain Grisez concurs:

With “Humanae Vitae,” Paul VI reaffirmed the constant and very firm teaching of the Church excluding contraception. I believe and have argued that teaching had already been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium — that is, by the morally unanimous agreement of the bishops of the whole world in communion with the popes. Together, they had taught for many centuries that using contraceptives always is grave matter.

Their manner of teaching implied that what they taught was a truth to be held definitively. Thus, the teaching on contraception met the conditions for infallible teaching, without a solemn definition, articulated by Vatican II in “Lumen Gentium,” 25.

Another argument made is that the Church allows regulation of bodily functions, such as cough medicine or heart medicine and pacemakers, etc. We regulate digestion and help improve breathing. We use radiation in cancer treatment that sometimes causes sterility. Why, then (so the reasoning goes), should regulation of fertility or ovulation be a special ethical case?

It is because the deliberate separation of natural, intrinsic aspects that shouldn’t be separated, contravenes moral law. It’s not merely a matter of technology, as those who argue like this seem to be assuming. It is the nature of the act and intention, that violates natural law. The deepest, most intrinsic, ontological purpose of sexuality is to produce children. Contraception inherently involves a “contralife” or “anti-children” mentality. Medicine to stop a cough does not pervert the normal operation of a throat; it aids it to be what it is.

It’s the same with a pacemaker or heart medicine. We’re not causing the heart to violate its own essence (which would be to pump blood). Eyeglasses help eyes to see better, a cane helps a weak leg to walk, etc. Sterility in the process of radiation is an unintended consequence; therefore it involves no contralife will, and is permissible. Now, if it were known that it would absolutely, certainly make one sterile, I’m not sure of the ins and outs of that (in serious cases like cancer). If justified according to traditional ethics, the reasoning would be that the will is to heal the person of cancer, not to prevent conception.

I would have to study that further. But I know that a deliberate decision to contracept or to be sterile is immoral. Sometimes there is a risk. Say that was 6% or something and the only thing available to cure a cancer had this possible side effect. As far as I know it would be permitted, because it is not the intention in using it to be infertile, but to cure cancer, and the variables of future prognosis are not completely known.

If some new form of contraception were invented tomorrow, where a woman has to drink cranberry juice, stands on her head and then applies some electrical apparatus to her belly, and it became the latest rage in contraception, it would be condemned in Humanae Vitae (and Evangelium Vitae) also, and infallibly, as soon as it was demonstrated to be an effective contraceptive. It wouldn’t matter a hill of beans whether it was a new technology or not, just as murder remains wrong, no matter what method is used, because the evil lies in the intention and result: a dead human being killed immorally and unjustly.

Humanae Vitae was not innovative at all. This is what many don’t seem to grasp. The Church has always opposed contraception. The Pill was simply a new form of it. Dissenters from Humanae Vitae are hung up on technology and miss the forest for the trees.

It is said that many Catholics don’t follow the prohibition; therefore it is not a doctrine held universally by the faithful; therefore it is not binding and magisterial.

But the entire Christian world opposed contraception until 1930. That’s exceptionally universal: including Protestants along with Catholics and Orthodox. So we are supposed to now assert that universality is lacking when in fact it was there for some 1900 years until it was broken down via numerous means of propaganda (Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood, sterilization of black people and Jews and disabled people, eugenics, and so forth)? That’s backwards “logic”.

It was condemned just as strongly in 1930, when virtually all Christians still agreed that it was wrong. 1968 added nothing essentially beyond that encyclical. But it was a different time: the height of the craziness of Baby Boomer sexual revolution, and so it was rejected by more-relevant-than-thou trendy liberal dissidents who had a very poor understanding of Catholic authority, and were deliberately looking for ways to undermine it.

The traditional prohibition of contraceptives goes back to ancient times, and those ancient methods (potions and so forth) were definitely regulating body functions. They either killed sperm or otherwise impeded it in its usual course of action: attempting to fertilize an egg. That’s two bodily functions. Whenever these methods worked to repress what would have been a conception, they were “regulating” natural physiology.

Take even Onan’s “withdrawal method,” for example (that had always been roundly condemned by biblical exegetes, as it was in the Bible, until recent times). That is perfectly “natural” in the sense that it is a function of biology. But human beings are more than mere biological machines. Sexual intercourse was always intended to be an action that included the openness to the new life that very well might result from it. Withdrawal is a contraceptive method that perverts the integrity of intercourse and lowers it into an immoral act of (in effect) masturbation, or something akin to homosexual sex (i.e., deliberate ejaculation in a place other than a vagina).

So now we have sophisticated methods of regulating the reproductive cycle. That has no bearing on the immorality of all such methods, because the intent is immoral and contrary to natural law.

Secondly, bodily functions and newly conceived human beings are two different things. Surely anyone can grasp the essential difference between kidney medicine or a pacemaker or a steel rod placed into a basketball player’s knee, and a very young human being. The latter is clearly an entirely different case. This is precisely why messing around with, and impeding natural reproduction is so immoral and dangerous.

As popes and other writers have argued, this reduces human beings to objects to be manipulated at the will of the potential or would-be parents. C.S. Lewis wrote about this. It also makes the same serious category mistake of assuming that all that is involved is the woman’s body. But that is not the case. Obviously, other human beings or would-be human beings are also involved. And that is why it is wrong and will never not be wrong, as (at least in Catholicism) immoral doctrines never develop into moral ones.

One might argue, however, that cough medications (as an example of regulation) suppress coughs that are actually natural bodily reactions, to expel unwanted fluids. Vomiting works on the same principle (yet we try to prevent it). Fever is the natural response to infection, etc. Medications are therefore unnatural, too; so why doesn’t the Church condemn them?

This is a worthy and substantive objection. But I merely have to qualify and further fine-tune my argument , though, as this does not overthrow it. Here I would contend that undesirable symptoms are being treated (rather than organs or source causes themselves), and this may or may not be best in the long run. I myself prefer not to take drugs when I have a cold. I’d rather let it take its natural course (I do use some homeopathic pills, which work on a different principle). I don’t see, however, that it becomes an issue of right and wrong. Like eating and exercise, it is a matter of “better and best” but not right and wrong, unless outright gluttony is involved.

The contraception issue is still unique. God cares about the proper function of a clogged throat (as He cares about every hair on our heads), but I think He cares a lot more about a new human being who would be conceived, but for the would-be parents who decide that they know better than God when new human life ought to come into existence. If there is no ovum, let that be the will of God. If it is His will that a particular woman be infertile, then we must accept that. But we don’t create the situation artificially ourselves and separate sexuality from procreation.

And this is, of course, in cases where there are no serious considerations where a couple could rightly conclude that they had had enough children (as Humanae Vitae acknowledges).

Contraception (as I have expressed it) “ties the hands of God.” It’s playing God. NFP does not, because it is not “contralife” and unnatural. It follows natural law and doesn’t involve the “right” to have sex whenever one wants, regardless of the fertility cycle. NFP fosters marital chastity and unselfishness. The Pill does not because it makes sexual pleasure and “no children” rather than openness to life the highest end and goal.


Photo credit: Official photo of Pope Paul VI (1963) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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