Left: Pope Paul VI at a desk at the Vatican. Right: This copy of the encyclical "Humanae Vitae," "Of Human Life," was published in English by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops after the letter was promulgated in Latin by Pope Paul VI July 25, 1968.
One of the disappointments of the continuing debate over
contraception is the failure of Catholics who don’t accept the Church’s
teaching to acknowledge the existence of a serious and persuasive
rational argument that the Church is right.
Either these people
don’t know of the argument’s existencealthough it has been around
nearly half a centuryor else they don’t feel up to replying to it.
Neither explanation is greatly to their credit.
The problem this
presents could get worse in the months ahead as the Church prepares for
two assemblies of the world Synod of Bishops on marriage and family
issues. The first will take place next October, the second in October
Fortunately, Pope Francis has made it clear where he stands. In his recent interview with Corriere della Sera, he called Pope Paul VI’s 1968 anti-contraception encyclical Humanae Vitae “prophetic.” The issue now, he added, isn’t “changing the doctrine” but applying it sensibly. Pope Paul said the same.
instance of the problem I speak ofignoring a strong rational argument
in support of the encyclical’s teaching, that isis a column last month
by Clifford Longley in The Tablet, an influential voice of liberal Catholicism published in London.
writes often about the contraception issue from the perspective of
those who reject the Church’s teaching. His column is a critique of the
“Theology of the Body” identified with Pope John Paul II. Longley says
the theory is “defiantly unempirical” and fails to prove contraception
On the whole, I agree. But it’s not so clear the
Theology of the Body was intended to prove anything. Its aim, rather,
seems to be to shed light on sexuality in a way that will help people
understand sexuality more deeply. Someone open to what it says may find
that helpful in understanding the wrongness of contraception, and that’s
all the theory claims to do.
Besides the Theology of the Body,
however, there’s another approach that does indeed make a rational
argument against contraceptionan argument Longley and people like him
sometimes appear determined to pretend doesn’t exist. It’s the “New
Natural Law Theory” developed over the last half-century by thinkers
like Germain Grisez and John Finnis.
Briefly put, its case against contraception proceeds along these lines.
outlinethe blueprint, you might sayof the human capacity for
fulfillment is found in basic human goods. These are the fundamental
purposes for which human beings choose and act. Moral good and moral
evil reside precisely in how we choose to relate to them.
it isn’t possible always to pursue all of them. But it is possibleand
of the essence of moral goodnessthat one never directly choose to act
against any. Yet someone who understands what he or she is doing in an
act of contraception unavoidably wills and acts against the human good
of procreation, though very likely with some other good in view. And
that, very briefly, is why contraception is wrong.
There is much more to say, but this is the heart of it. Those who want a fuller treatment will find it in Living a Christian Life (1993), second volume of Grisez’s important work on moral theology The Way of the Lord Jesus. (Disclosure: my name appears along with others on the book’s title page as helping with its writing.)
of pretending this argument doesn’t exist, people who believe, and wish
others to believe, that the Church’s teaching against contraception is
mistaken need to come to grips with it.