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Canon law and that ‘Humanae vitae’ rumor

In my opinion the central teaching in Humanae vitae—that contraception between married couples (both terms being correctly understood) is intrinsically evil—is a proposition infallibly taught by the (ordinary universal) magisterium of the Church.

A banner referencing "Humanae Vitae," the 1968 encyclical of Blessed Paul VI, is seen in the crowd at the conclusion of the beatification Mass of Blessed Paul celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 19, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Too many Roman rumors, it seems of late, have turned out to be true (or close enough to true) to rule out recent rumors that a “papal commission” has been set up “to reconsider” (perhaps as a step toward repudiating?) Bl. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae(1968). In any event, a few observations.

1. Humanae vitae itself, as brilliant as it was and as prophetic as it turned out to be, was not an infallible exercise of the (papal) magisterium. But rather than defend that view against the few serious-thinking Catholics who might disagree let me move directly to my second point.

2. In my opinion the central teaching in Humanae vitae—that contraception between married couples (both terms being correctly understood) is intrinsically evil—is a proposition infallibly taught by the (ordinary universal) magisterium of the Church. I say this in light of my third point.

3. That the substance of Humanae vitae is infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium is masterfully argued in: John Ford & Germain Grisez, “Contraception and the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium”, Theological Studies 39 (1978) 258-312. This article expands on ideas considered in John Ford & Gerald Kelly, “Can the Catholic Teaching Change?”, in their Contemporary Moral Theology  (Newman Press, 1963) II: 256-278, but the 1963 article, while very good, need not be read in order to follow the 1978 discussion. If Ford and Grisez are correct (as I think they are, even in the face of some important challenges over the years) then no substantive modification of Humanae vitae can be wrought by any commission, papal, dicasterial, or otherwise.

4. What one could imagine being discussed hereabouts is whether the rejection of contraception set forth (I would say, infallibly) in regard toconjugal relations is applicable to non-conjugal relations. Some theologians, solidly committed to defending Church teaching against conjugal contraception, have flagged the fact that the anti-contraception tradition, witnessed to in Humanae vitae, has been clearly articulated, so far at least, only in regard to conjugal sex. See, e.g., Ramón García de Haro (Spanish priest, 1931-1996), Marriage in the Documents of the Magisterium: a course in the theology of marriage (Ignatius, 1993) 297-298. To be sure, others (including the esteemed William E. May, translator of García de Haro) argue that the Church’s rejection of contraception between married couples, already part of the infallible magisterium, also applies to non-conjugal sex (sex that is, of course, by definition, objectively immoral); but it is also possible that the Church’s rejection of conjugal contraception does not apply outside of that context. I grant, of course, that explaining that difference, not to mention keeping it from morphing into a license for all sorts of morally illicit acts, would not be easy in age ill-equipped to follow subtle discussions and ill-disposed toward even trying, but for those respectful of the Church’s tradition of precision in complex matters, drawing the distinction seems a possibility.

In any case, my main point is this: before any commission or study group could move against the substance of the Church’s teaching reflected in Humanae vitae, the arguments for its infallible certainty, arguments set forth and steadily defended by Ford and Grisez, would need to be addressed and soundly rejected.

Something I don’t see happening. At all.

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.


  1. You miss the point completely. This is 2017 and 4 years into Pope Francis. We don’t change doctrine. We just rationalize around it.

    You can keep your marriage is indissoluble doctrine and get divorced & remarried at the same time. I am certain that you can then keep your contraception is evil and practice contraception at the same time. Especially with Pope Whom am I to judge presiding over the commission.

    • Pat is correct. We have entered AliceInWonderland theology. Words mean what I say they mean. All is fog. But the fog has a purpose for the fog creators.
      Something wicked this way comes.

    • I dare Catholic World Report to print my message especially since it disagrees with CWR’s editorial position:
      I left the Catholic Church because of Pope Francis and Vatican II.
      The RCC is a shell of its former self and will NEVER be what it was prior to the papacy of John XXIII.

  2. Fortunately, “Alice in Wonderland” confirms both reason and arguably even natural law.

    “Alice waited a minute to see if he would speak again, but as he never opened his eyes or took any further notice of her, she said `Good-bye!’ once more, and, getting no answer to this, she quietly walked away: but she couldn’t help saying to herself as she went, `Of all the unsatisfactory — ‘ (she repeated this aloud, as it was a great comfort have such a long word to say) `of all the unsatisfactory people I ever met — ‘ She never finished the sentence, for at this moment a heavy crash shook the forest from end to end.”

    Alice in Wonderland, ch 6.

    Humpty Dumpty, even if a hierarch of the Church, ultimately takes a great fall and cannot be put back together again.

  3. Whilst I accept HV in practice, it’s always struck me that it was an inappropriate type of document for the issue to hand. Paul 6, once he had begun down the path of writing it, derived the only permissible conclusions but I wonder whether the effect of this has been to reduce the issue as s personal, pastoral one. A sort of subsidiarity of theology, I suppose. Priests no longer have to speak of it, neither from the pulpit or in private, nor even in confession I suspect because HV is there. I suspect Pope mat speak on this, as per divorce/ remarriage- discernment and solidarity thereby enabling hiv people access to marital intimacy, for example.

    • According to the clear and defined teaching of the Council of Trent, priests are supposed to help penitents to confess all serious or mortal sins since the previous confession, including the number of times and circumstances which could influence the seriousness of the sin.

  4. Oh too bad you didn’t win but as a token of our appreciation enjoy the board game version of Liberal Catholic Theologian to take home with you. Is it a sin? Or isn’t it? You get to decide! You put yourself in place of Jesus and get to make up the ‘rules’! But watch out…..those pesky rigid orthodox Catholics will have Scripture and Tradition ready to thwart your every attempt to make the Church into your own political image. Have fun!

  5. Regardless of its presentation in an encyclical, the author rightly confirms the infallibility of HV. The gravity of the pronouncement on contraception by Paul VI make it infallible. It is grave sin. An argument that developed is a distinction between objective and subjective culpability. We know fear, stress, danger can be mitigating factors regarding sin. Nonetheless sin is not absolved even if mitigated. If such a commission seeks to revise Humanae Vitae it will likely be along those lines. As was the case with former head of Knights of Malta M Festing who resigned after conflict with Pope Francis. Festing fired Grand Chancellor von Boeselager for distributing condoms in a Third World nation afflicted with HIV. The Pontiff overruled Festing and restored Boeselager. Reports were that condoms were actually distributed widely and indiscriminately including to staff working there. The use of condoms to prevent disease has been a controversial issue. Benedict XVI nonetheless supported Humanae V. Fear, stress, danger are mitigating factors that will likely be conflated to doctrine of exceptions to the rule which in practice as with communion for D&R become the new rule. Poverty may be added. As with AL and the National Bishops Conferences conscience became the lever for establishing a rule rather than exception. That seen clearly by the Maltese. Again mitigation does not remove sin. Laxity in faith and morals is what is actually diminishing the Church’s capacity to redeem and restore Mankind to a required level of dignity. Such a proposal to change Humanae Vitae only serves to further diminish redemption and restoration.

    • Perhaps everyone was in a coma a few years back, but Pope Francis has already gone against H.V., and for no less a noble purpose as eugenics. I lifted this from the handy Lifesight A-Z concern article posted yesterday:Pope Francis was asked about “avoiding pregnancy” in areas at risk of Zika virus transmission. “Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape,” he said. “On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil,” he added. “In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.” Asked for clarification, the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis was approving use of contraceptives and condoms in grave cases.”

      Who needs to changes Doctrine in the time of relativism, all you have to do is open a door that walks around Doctrine as in A.L.

      • The mention of Paul VI approving the use of contraceptives as mentioned by Pope Francis was false. There is absolutely no evidence that Paul VI ever approved that. There is some evidence of a discussion about the matter in Italy and an article in a theological review, called Studi Cattolici, I think. This is similar to how St. Thomas Aquinas and Gaudium et Spes are misquoted in AL to support something which anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of the way St. Thomas reasons would realize that he could not have held what AL ascribes to him.

  6. I am wondering if Fr. George Bergoglio was one of the signers of dissent when Humane Vitae came out? I do not know if they had such a public dissent in Argentina at the time but it would be interesting to know none the least?
    Of course it really does not matter since it appears we already know how the pope thinks right?

  7. Re. Dr. Peters’s closing comments that “before any commission or study group could move against the substance of the Church’s teaching reflected in Humanae vitae, the arguments for its infallible certainty, arguments set forth and steadily defended by Ford and Grisez, would need to be addressed and soundly rejected. Something I don’t see happening. At all.”
    Perhaps I am making an obvious point, but isn’t the concern here the same as the concern with respect to Amoris Laetitia, namely that this Pope, or some future one that he emboldens, will publicly express reservations about the longstanding teachings Church or even try to change doctrine. One can quibble over the fact that Pope Francis has not publicly done so yet in either case (Communion for the “remarried” or contraception). But I think it is also material that he has created an atmosphere in which longstanding teachings are now questioned in many quarters, and not just on these two issues. And led many to wonder whether some Pope might now “soundly reject” Church teachings. I think the distinction then is (a.) a Pope attempts to soundly reject, and (b.) actually, soundly, overturns doctrine. I think many of us worry that (a) may happen at some point here. Even if we believe (b) would not happen. (Gates of hell, etc.)

    • I don’t think that the doctrine, even if soundly proposed by a Pope can stand. It hasn’t in the past, as the cases of Popes Liberius, Honorius, and John XXII indicate, although the latter retracted his errors on his deathbed. I cannot imagine that there will be another Jesuit or Latin American Pope for a long time if ever. That is, of course, if the Jesuit order survives, because at present it seems hell-bent on self-destruction. In the past, after a Pope who has tried to push the Church in one direction, there is a move towards the opposite direction. Most Cardinals will probably think that the Church can’t afford another Pope who is going to begin debates about settled doctrine, thus open cans of worms, and provoke division in the Church. It is also likely that many of the electors will attempt to check out the character and doctrinal orthodoxy of the ones they are willing to vote for. I imagine that many of the Cardinals who voted for Cardinal Bergoglio never thought that he would cause the problems he has caused.

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