A new Vatican birth control commission?

An imaginary, but not fanciful, sketch of what such a commission’s report to Pope Francis might say.

A packet of birth control pills is shown in this 2010 photo. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

A new birth control commission? Here’s hoping the reports out of Rome are only speculation, possibly generated by the fact that the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical condemning artificial contraception, is little more than a year away. (The encyclical was issued July 25, 1968.)

The story originated in a May 11 blog post by a reputable Italian Vaticanologist, Marco Tosatti. It crossed the Atlantic in the form of a this-could-be-true piece by American journalist Robert Moynihan.

The gist of it is that Pope Francis either is “seriously considering” establishing or has actually established a commission to examine Humanae Vitae. At the time this is written, the names of commission members—if any—are not known.

Supposing there either is or soon will be such a commission, it’s greatly to be feared its members will be the same people who put together Chapter 8 of Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia, with its opening to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled and whose spouses are still living. Or, if not those very same people, others who think as they do.

Precedent alone would make this news disturbing. The original Pontifical Commission for Population, Family, and Birthrate, established by Pope John XXIII and continued and expanded by Pope Paul, helped set the stage for dissent from the encyclical. The creation of a new commission to take a fresh look at the situation would encourage the expectation of some move away from the teaching that “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life” (Humanae Vitae 11).

To see why that’s so, consider an imaginary, but not fanciful, sketch of what such a commission’s report to the Pope might say.

To begin with, as an internal document, it would probably do something public documents from the Holy See seldom or never do: acknowledge the non-acceptance of Church teaching—in this case, the teaching on contraception—by very many Catholics. It might even say that, where contraception is concerned, many priests and even not a few bishops either look the other way or quietly express approval along the lines of “follow your conscience.”

What this imaginary report most likely would not do is take note of the small but not insignificant number of Catholics—bishops, priests, and laity—who’ve stood by the teaching of Humanae Vitae, despite the personal and professional difficulties that has involved for many of them.

They have done this not because they are rigorists or legalists or Pharisees, but because they believe the teaching reaffirmed by Paul VI is true and fidelity to truth in the face of hardship is part of the Christian vocation.

But singing the praises of such people would not be our imaginary birth control commission’s chief concern. Instead it would now turn to something very different, perhaps along the following lines and in words not unlike these:

“The most important point about a new document on contraception is that it say, frequently and unequivocally, that the teaching of Humanae Vitae is and will remain a beautiful ideal. At the same time, of course, it must be extremely careful not to call that teaching a norm. ‘Ideal’ conveys the gentle, pastoral tone so desirable here, while ‘norm’ is the language of legalistic rigidity.

“This, however, is more than just a matter of stylistic niceties. Something very substantial, something very important, is involved.

“A norm, as you know, is a standard of behavior with real binding force; one who acts contrary to a norm of behavior fails in regard to what he or she ought to do. To be sure, people very often do fail—they sin. But when that happens (here we are speaking the language of norms), they have a duty to repent and do their best not to fail again. This is not what needs saying about contraception.

“An ideal, by contrast, is a standard of behavior that, although admirable, is not realistically attainable by most people most of the time. It is an object of aspiration, not a goal to be achieved. Generally speaking, therefore, someone who falls short of an ideal deserves little or no blame. None of us is perfect, we all often fall short of what we recognize and respect as ideals in many matters. And so it is with contraception.

“Calling the teaching of Humanae Vitae an ideal also has another great advantage. It allows one to affirm truthfully that one not only respects the teaching of your holy predecessor but is teaching in unbroken continuity with him while applying the pastorally correct principle of mercy. Needless to say, that principle allows, even requires, that pastors who respect the ideal set out in Paul’s encyclical bless the members of their flock who, for good reasons, regularly practice contraception.

“Saying just this much may suffice for one document. Still, for the sake of those with scrupulous consciences, it may be well to add a little more.

“Those who oppose contraception and those who approve it agree that marital acts serve two fundamental human goods: the unitive good and the procreative good—love and life.

“Clearly, contraception may well be a practical necessity for the sake of love. Prolonged sexual abstinence is simply not a practical option for many married couples—indeed, it may threaten the stability of particular marriages.

“Contraception may also be allowable, even necessary, for the sake of the procreative good as well. That is clear when one considers that procreation includes not only the begetting of new life and but the whole process of nurturing a child.

“Contraception, considered in this holistic manner, is often practiced by couples who wish not to have more children than they can properly nurture. That is the situation of many married people these days, when the costs and other burdens associated with raising children are so large.

“Indeed, contraception in such circumstances is especially defensible in the case of a couple who have already satisfied their obligation to the procreative good by having several offspring and are now striving to provide them with a proper upbringing. Such couples, one might say, have paid their dues to procreation.

“It is against this background, Holy Father, that we recommend the writing of a new document proceed.”

Now what, it might be asked, is wrong with all this?

Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae definitively taught that contraception is morally wrong. This judgment takes in “every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” (Humanae Vitae 14).

Paul acknowledged the difficulty of living by this teaching of the Church. Like “all great beneficent realities,” he said, “it demands serious engagement and much effort —individual, family and social effort” (Humanae Vitae 20). And he called on priests to practice “patience and goodness” in dealing with married couples who find it hard to live up to (Humanae Vitae 29).

But in the end he left no doubt that each and every act of contraception is wrong, and “it is not licit, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil so that good may follow therefrom” (Humanae Vitae 14).

I hope reports about a new birth control commission are wrong. But if they’re right and there is such a commission, and if it presents Pope Francis with a report along the lines sketched above, my advice to faithful Catholics will be: pray for the Holy Father, follow your consciences, stand by the truth taught in Humanae Vitae. It really is a beautiful ideal—and also a norm.

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About Russell Shaw 267 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. No doubt if such a thing is in the works, they will produce a document that is muddled and ambiguous and there will be no clarification. They will just barely hold the line, so that no one has changed anything… and then say “but if it’s too hard… don’t worry about it?

  2. How about starting with basics ? Father, is the condemnation of artificial birth control an INFALLIBLE STATEMENT ? If so, please quote met its NUMBER so that I can look it up in DENZINGER. Denzinger is the Vatican book where all the infallible statements are deposited. If a teaching is not in Denzinger with the notation that it is infallibly stated, than it might still be true, but not infallibly so !
    Bottom line: if you then do not believe it you are still as good a Catholic as the next one in the pew.

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