Did Paul VI approve of Congo nuns using the Pill? Does it matter if he didn’t?

Is it important that we establish whether or not Paul VI approved of nuns under threat of rape using contraception?

Pope Paul VI greets children as he visits the Church of St. Leo the Great in Rome March 31, 1968. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

I find the insistence in some quarters that Pope Paul VI never approved the use of contraception by nuns in the Congo in danger of being raped to be curious. It is not a claim I made in my article Contraception, Congo Nuns, Choosing the Lesser Evil, and Conflict of Commandments, but I nonetheless wanted to consult the sources at my disposal to see what if any light they could shed on the matter.

Let me clear the ground first. What is at stake here? Is it important that we establish whether or not Paul VI approved?

What is at stake?

Not much, so far as I can see.

It is not necessary for establishing whether or not the Church approves of women in danger of being raped using anovulant or non-abortifacient contraceptives. That position is certainly the standard in the texts on moral theology written by faithful theologians (such as Germain Grisez and William May). Indeed, I know of no faithful theologians who reject that position. Moreover it seems totally consistent with the decades-long policy and practice of Catholic hospitals providing anovulant or other non-abortifacient contraceptive treatment to women who have been raped. As the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services of the US bishops state:

Compassionate and understanding care should be given to a person who is the victim of sexual assault. Health care providers should cooperate with law enforcement officials and offer the person psychological and spiritual support as well as accurate medical information. A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization. (36)

Somewhere along the way, these views became “approved,” largely, it seems, by not having been forbidden.  

If Pope Paul VI had approved of women in danger of rape using an anovulant or other non-abortifacient contraceptive, he simply would have anticipated what has become accepted. His approval certainly would have bolstered the position of those who also approved, but unless he had made his approval known in some official way, it would not, in itself, have been a “magisterial approval.” Had he in some unofficial way registered his disapproval, that would not have closed the question.

Thus, in respect to determining what Church teaching is on the subject, establishing Pope Paul VI’s view seems, well, irrelevant.

Tacit approval?

Still, Pope Francis has claimed that Pope Paul VI approved of the nuns in the Congo in danger of being raped using contraception. Was he wrong about that?

As has been abundantly noted, Paul VI was not pope in 1961 when that particular event took place. Someone may someday find his copy of a discussion of the topic written in 1961 by three trusted moralists who approved of allowing women in danger of rape (such as nuns in the Congo) to use a contraceptive; [i] they may find he scribbled on it “That is/seems right” or “This is/seems opposed to Church teaching.” But until that happens, I feel safe in saying that he never gave approval in a way that has been recorded.

Still, I know no one who is saying that Pope Paul VI gave approval in 1961 or thereabouts. Clearly, approval need not take place only in proximity of the event itself. It is important to note that he had a long pontificate in which that and related matters were discussed with some fervor.

Moreover “the nuns in the Congo” has in moral theological literature become a kind of standard example for the question of the morality of use of contraception by women in danger of being raped. If at any time during his pontificate Pope Paul VI approved of the use of contraception by women in danger of being raped, it would not be altogether wrong to say he approved of “nuns in the Congo” using contraceptives.  

Although no one can find evidence of explicit approval, tacit approval does happen, even at the Vatican. Did Pope Paul VI give tacit approval? Again, that is hard to know. Father Edward Bayer, author of the carefully researched and reasoned Rape Within Marriage (1987) (which bears both a nihil obstat and imprimatur; N.B. I am aware that this does not mean that everything stated in the book is verified as fact), maintains that the question of whether or not a husband could rape his wife received a lot of discussion in the 1960s and that those discussions assumed that it was permissible for unmarried women to protect themselves with a contraceptive when in danger of rape. Bayer does not go so far as to say that Pope Paul VI approved the nuns using contraception, but does indicate that the Pope was aware of the discussions.

Bayer also analyses carefully a response of the CDF in 1975 to a query of the US bishops about surgical sterilizations. He notes that the document is careful to condemn sterilizations done in respect to sexual actions “clearly foreseen and freely willed.” Bayer takes this as consistent with what he understood as tacit acceptance of the work cited above and subsequent work by such moralists as Zalba, Visser, and Günthös. In a footnote Bayer states, “Our interpretation of the Congregation’s intent not to condemn sterilization as a means of self-defense against unjust impregnation was confirmed in a private conversation with Archbishop Hamer, Secretary of the Sacred Congregation, in November 1980. This type of self-defense, according to the Archbishop, is now ‘classic doctrine in moral theology,’ and was carefully reviewed by the Congregation at the time the Belgian Congo case was receiving great notoriety. The 1975 Response to the American Bishops was phrased precisely to avoid condemning this doctrine of the moralists” (fn. 78, p. 115; emphasis in original).

Bayer also points to a statement in Humanae Vitae itself that suggests that Pope Paul VI was aware of the debate of whether rape was possible within marriage. In section 13, we read,

People rightly understand that a marital act imposed on a spouse, with no consideration given to the condition of the spouse or to the legitimate desires of the spouse, is not a true act of love. They understand that such an act opposes what the moral order rightly requires from spouses. To be consistent, then, if they reflect further, they should acknowledge that it is necessarily true that an act of mutual love that impairs the capacity of bringing forth life contradicts both the divine plan which established the nature of the marital bond and also the will of the first Author of human life. For this capacity of bringing forth life was designed by God, the Creator of All, according to [His] specific laws. (my emphasis)

This passage states that both forced conjugal sexual intercourse and contracepted conjugal intercourse are sinful.

Again, I am not contending that there is evidence that Pope Paul VI explicitly approved of the use of contraception by the nuns in the Congo or by married women in danger of rape by their husbands. But it is not implausible at all to think that in some way he made his approval known. In the archives of the Vatican there may be much stronger evidence than I have provided here.

Support for use of contraception to avoid exposure of an unborn child to the Zika virus?

I still can’t see why it is important to challenge the claim of Pope Francis in this regard, especially since the recognition that it is moral to use contraception as a means of self-defense under threat of rape—whether or not approved by Pope Paul VI—provides almost no support for the claim that women in danger of exposing their unborn children to the Zika virus may use contraception. Women under threat of rape are not trying to make a conjugal act of sexual intercourse infertile; they are engaging in self-defense by protecting themselves against a possible consequence of rape. Women who voluntarily engage in marital intercourse and who do something to make that act infertile are contracepting. They are violating God’s plan for marital sexuality, no matter how good their intentions. An absolutely fundamental principle of Catholic moral theology is that it is never moral to do something immoral to avoid undesirable consequences.


[i]Una donna domanda: come negarsi alla violenza? Morale exemplificata. Un dibattito.” Studi Cattolici (27) (1961) 62-72, contributed to by Monsignor S. E. Pietro Palazzini, then secretary of the Sacred Congregation of the Council, Father Francesco Hürth, SJ, professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, and Monsignor Ferdinando Lambruschini, professor at the Pontifical Lateran University. The journal Studi Cattolici is a publication of Opus Dei. 

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About Janet E. Smith 7 Articles
Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She has recently edited Why Humanae vitae Is Still Right (Ignatius Press 2018) and Self-Gift, Essays on Humanae vitae and the Thought of John Paul II (Emmaus Press: 2018)