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Reacting to pontifical academy, theologian says teaching of Humanae vitae can’t change

Carl Bunderson   By Carl Bunderson for CNA

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)

Denver, Colo., Aug 8, 2022 / 19:01 pm (CNA).

The teaching of Humanae vitae on contraception is an instance of the ordinary and universal magisterium, and as such is irreformable, a moral theologian has said in response to a statement from the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Father Thomas Petri, O.P., president of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., noted that even critics of the teaching on contraception have “acknowledged that this was always the Church’s teaching” and that nowhere in the Church’s teaching has there been permissiveness, of any form, of contraception.

“This suggests that this has always been the teaching of the Church, so it’s part of the ordinary, universal magisterium,” Petri said. “So even if it’s the case that any particular encyclical” such as Humanae vitae “is not infallible, the teaching that it presents is in fact irreformable, because it’s part of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church.”

In Humanae vitae, his 1968 encyclical on the regulation of birth, St. Paul VI wrote that “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means” is “excluded,” as an unlawful means of birth control.

The Pontifical Academy

The Pontifical Academy for Life, an institution associated with the Holy See but which is not itself a magisterial body, hosted a 2021 seminar on ethics in which a participant discussed “the possible legitimacy of contraception in certain cases.”

A synthesis of the seminar was recently published by the Vatican Publishing House, which has given rise to questions about whether the Church’s teaching on birth control is reformable.

The Pontifical Academy for Life has defended the discussion it hosted of the permissibility of contraception, tweeting Aug. 5 that “History records by Abp. [Ferdindando] Lambruschini confirmed that Paul VI said him directly that HV were not under infallibility.”

Then in an Aug. 8 statement, the academy wrote that “many people on Twitter seem to believe that Humanae Vitae is an infallible and irreformable pronouncement against contraception.”

It noted that “when the moral theologian of the Pontifical Lateran University Msgr. Ferdinando Lambruschini presented Humanae Vitae in a press conference … he stated under the mandate of Paul VI — that the encylical Humanae Vitae is not to be considered part of the infallible pronouncements. Lambruschini stressed that Humanae Vitae did not express a definitive truth of faith granted by ‘infallibilitas in docendo.’”

The statement added that as Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyła asked Paul VI to define Humanae vitae’s teaching as infallible. “Pope Paul VI did not do it and neither did Pope John Paul II during 26 years of his pontificate,” the academy’s statement said.

Father Petri’s response

Petri noted that St. John Paul II had confirmed Humanae vitae’s teaching as part of the ordinary and universal magisterium.

“In Veritatis splendor — which the Pontifical Academy does not note — in Veritatis splendor John Paul II does say that contraception is an intrinsically evil act, so there can be no reason or purpose for contraception. Benedict XVI gave several speeches in which he spoke about contraception, and it can’t be changed. What was true yesterday is true today.”

While there can be “legitimate discussions of how to present it or how to help people understand it, or how to help people who are in difficult situations, whether medically or even because of moral pressure,” the teaching itself is not a topic for debate, explained Petri, author of “Aquinas and the Theology of the Body” (Catholic University of America Press, 2016).

“There could be a real discussion about how to do that, but there can’t be any sort of rollback of the teaching, because it’s what’s always been taught, and that’s how Catholic theology, and Catholic doctrine, works.”

“These things aren’t really meant to be argued over Twitter,” he reflected. “It’s not the forum to sort of put these things out there.”

Petri added that “It’s not helpful to simply focus on infallibility and what is named infallible in an extraordinary way. The First Vatican Council, when it spoke about papal infallibility, was very clear that it was supposed to be an extraordinary act.”

Petri compared an infallible statement to an ecumenical council. He described it as “a very extraordinary act, and which usually only happens when the matter at issue, whether it’s a doctrinal matter or a moral matter, has become so entirely embroiled in conflict … that it requires such an extraordinary act as a pope or a council declaring something infallibly.”

“That’s not normally how Church teaching works — that’s why the ordinary magisterium is important.”

When a pope does not intend to teach infallibly, “that doesn’t mean we’re supposed to ignore what he’s teaching, or to act like his opinion is just one opinion among many,” Petri said.

“Even if he’s not intending to proclaim something infallible, especially when he’s teaching things that popes have been teaching for centuries, it has a certain weight to it.”

While one might disagree with how things are expressed, “that doesn’t mean that what he’s teaching is up for grabs,” Petri said.

“All the more so when you’re talking about a teaching which multiple popes have repeated over multiple decades. And in the case of contraception we could say centuries,” he said.

“You simply can’t say, ‘Well, Humanae vitae wasn’t declared infallible, Paul VI didn’t declare it infallible, therefore because it’s not infallible, it’s up for grabs.’ This is not a binary.”

A similar point was made in a 2019 article by Augusto Sarmiento.

Sarmiento wrote about the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1990 instruction on the ecclesial vocation of the theologian, which discusses various levels of magisterial statements. The article appeared in “Dizionario su Sesso, Amore e Fecondità,” edited by Father José Noriega and René and Isabelle Ecochard.

A professor at the Univerisity of Pamplona, Sarmiento noted that “the pope, with Humanae vitae, did not will to propose an extraordinary teaching of the Magisterium ex cathedra.”

To support this, he quoted from Lambruschini’s comments at the press conference presenting the encyclical: “However, it is always an authentic pronouncement, especially since it is part of the continuity of the ecclesiastical magisterium.”

Sarmiento wrote: “On the nature of the authority with which the norm of Humanae vitae is proclaimed, there is no doubt that it is part of the ordinary, universal magisterium,” and that the encyclical “is a teaching of the ordinary universal Magisterium of the Pope and of the bishops that must be considered definitive.”

Humanae vitae and its precedents

In Humanae vitae St. Paul VI taught that “sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive” is thereby “intrinsically wrong.”

The pope discussed artificial birth control in the context of defining and analyzing marital love and responsible parenthood.

“The Church … 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,” St. Paul VI wrote, adding that this doctrine has been “often expounded by the magisterium of the Church.”

He presented his statements as a reply, given “by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ,” to questions on the moral doctrine of marriage.

St. Paul VI referred especially to the teaching of Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world.

Gaudium et spes stated that spouses “must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel … Thus, trusting in divine Providence and refining the spirit of sacrifice, married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate.”

This statement, in turn, referred in a footnote to Casti connubii, Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical on Christian marriage, which proclaimed “any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”

In that encyclical Pius XI referred to “frustrating the marriage act” as a “criminal abuse,” and said that “those who in exercising [the conjugal act] deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.”

Casti connubii also states that “Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime,” and cites St. Augustine’s interpretation of Scripture as such.

The present day

Pope Francis was asked about a re-evaluation of the Church’s doctrine on contraception, or whether the use of contraceptives may be considered, on his July 29 flight from Canada to Rome.

The pope responded that “dogma, morality, is always on a path of development, but always developing in the same direction.” He cited St. Vincent of Lerins as saying “that true doctrine, in order to move forward, to develop, must not be still, it develops … it is consolidated over time, it expands and consolidates, and becomes always more solid, but always progressing. That is why the duty of theologians is research, theological reflection. You cannot do theology with a ‘no’ in front. Then it is up to the Magisterium to say, ‘No, you’ve gone too far, come back.’ But theological development must be open, that’s what theologians are for. And the Magisterium must help to understand the limits.”

He referred to the acts of the Pontifical Academy for Life’s seminar, saying, “those who participated in this congress did their duty, because they have sought to move forward in doctrine, but in an ecclesial sense, not outside of it, as I said with that rule of Saint Vincent of Lérins. Then the Magisterium will say, ‘yes, it is good’ or ‘it is not good.’”

Mónica López Barahona, a board member of the academy, told ACI Prensa last month that “It’s not true that the Church or the Magisterium have changed their moral criteria regarding some questions of bioethics; not even that the Vatican has begun a process of reviewing these issues.”

López stressed that “the book is not an official declaration of the Pontifical Academy for Life on these issues” and that it does not represent “the moral criteria of all its members,” adding that “some were disconcerted when they saw the news about the publication of the book and the seminar, about which they knew nothing until that moment.”

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  1. I’m not one to delve too deeply into conspiracy theories but what we see going on in the world today does make you wonder.
    We at least know there are interests with deep pockets who lobby & attempt to undermine the church & the family because we are the last ones standing against secularism & population control. Division & discouragement are tools used to destroy our morale. And we know who the author of those is.

    • Conspiracies don’t have to exist on a conscious level. As a baby boomer but never quite a hippie, although I wore bell bottoms and had long hair, I did monitor my generation’s “youth culture” that was talked about endlessly for its supposed uniqueness in human history. Terms were used with an assumed understanding that everyone believed would never die. If you held to the prevailing stupidities of those times you were “””HHHIIIPPP”””. You did not need to explain yourself. Today is not really much different. I don’t remember Orwell’s exact quote but it runs along the lines that says there does exist at any time and place there will be sets of beliefs that all those who consider themselves intelligent and elightened and benevolent will blindly follow no matter how depraved and cold-blooded and murderous those beliefs happen to be. Elitists never stop worshiping themselves and never consdider the consequences. Catholics used to know this. Their religion requires that they understand this. But now more and more Catholics, including high prelates, want to be elitists as much as everyone else.

      • Found the Orwell quote, I think:

        “To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone— to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone: From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink — greetings!”
        ― George Orwell, 1984

  2. I’m quite a bit more pessimistic. And realistic.
    “They” don’t need to change the teaching and call contraception morally fine. They just need to ignore it, which for all intents and purposes they have. Catholic doctors prescribe contraception, perform sterilzations procedures and are not told to stop going to Communion. Catholic women and men use it without a thought. They are not told to stop either.
    The hierarchy is mostly indifferent. Sure a young couple may have to go through a week-end of NFP information during the parish mandated pre-nuptial hoops-jumping, but no one is checking in on them to make sure they aren’t using the Pill or condoms or whatever. The topic was not brought up when I did RCIA or marriage prep. I had to found information on my own (and this was well before Google)
    Most young people probably don’t even know the teaching still exists or think it is little more than a pious, optional tradition, not relavent to them.

  3. There’s a big misunderstanding and error here. Only the direct explicit teachings of Christ – the eucharist, the sacraments, church order, etc. – are irreformable. For the rest, what the Church has decreed – like Humanae Vitae – she also has the power to change or to abrogate. If this news got it right, Fr. Petri has wrongly erased this basic distinction and elevated a church teaching to the level of Christ’s teaching. It’s wrong.

    • Deacon, it is not true that only the explicit teachings of Christ are irreformable. Some of the most obvious examples would be the dogmas of the Trinity, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Beyond this, however, it is not only formally defined dogmas that carry the weight if infallibility. Please go back and read the “Doctrinal Commentary on the Professio Fidei, authored by CDF Prefect Ratzinger and approved / authorized by St. John Paul II. This should really elementary stuff for someone who is a deacon and who presumably made the Professio Fidei as a condition of his ordination.

      Also, please see the Pontifical Council on the Family, “Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life” (Feb 1977), “The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable.”

    • Deacon, is that your opinion as a recognized theologian?? If so, your going to have to do a lot more to substantiate what you assert. Let’s have it.

    • Except for the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (more than an ambiguous exhortation) regarding the natural law:

      “This is the first time, in fact, that the Magisterium of the Church [!] has set forth in detail the fundamental elements of this [‘moral’!] teaching, and presented the principles for the pastoral discernment necessary in practical and cultural situations which are complex and even crucial” (n. 115).

      “The Church is no way the author or the arbiter of this [‘moral’] norm” (n. 95).

      The judgment of conscience (more than a mere “choice”) is between the clear moral principles reflected upon in Veritatis Splendor or, instead, the fundamental option, consequentialism, and proportionalism. Contrary to the coherence of faith and reason revealed in the Logos, the incarnate Jesus Christ, is “abrogation” which is a prominent feature of Islam.

    • This is false. An ex cathedra teaching of the pope is also infallible and irreformable, despite not necessarily being a direct teaching of Christ.

    • Not so Dom.

      The Church is, among other things, apostolic, and for instance, St. Paul specifically and explicitly teaches that sodomy is a sin, and so that’s irreformable.

      So despite the fact that Jesus didn’t specifically mention the sin of sodomy, the teaching that sodomy is a sin is an irreformable teaching, akin to Jesus’ teaching that fornicators will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

      So it doesn’t matter what “Eminent” Hollerich, SJw or other free-lancers babble about, because revelation ended with the death of the Apostles.

  4. With all due respect, this may be true but it will not stop them. They are clearly laying the groundwork to “reinterpret” this teaching to mean its opposite while characterizing it as being “in continuity” and a “legitimate development” of doctrine.

    You see, in the newspeak of the Church, we can change the meaning of things – even infallible things – to the opposite of what they once meant and claim there is no inconsistency. Don’t you understand that doctrine is always progressing, always evolving, never static and never going back? We had all better get on board the train if we don’t want to be condemned as “sinful backwardists.”

  5. Fr Petri OP delineated well the consistency of the ordinary and universal magisterium specifically on the immorality of contraception. What Christ Jesus taught in the Gospels didn’t preclude that the divinity reveal further to the Apostles [The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you Jn 14:26]. Catholicism, unlike the fallacy of Protestantism, and fundamentalist Catholics who repudiate tradition, it recognizes tradition, explicitly the Apostolic Tradition of the Church as consistent with divine revelation. Furthermore, the Church doesn’t teach morals ex Cathedra. It does teach, definitively, as revealed by the Holy Spirit and, or supported by reason what is intrinsically evil and irrevocable.

  6. What do you think is the reason why we American Catholics in receiving the teachings of Pope St. Paul VI are solely focused – sometimes to the point of inordinate fixation – on Humanae Vitae? The rest of the Catholic world on the other hand equally receive his other teachings besides Humanae Vitae especially Populorum Progressio and Evangelii Nuntiandi. Do we really think the Church’s teaching applies to the bedroom only, not to the boardroom, the society, or the world?

    • James Philip, so american Catholics do not receive equally the other Teachings, especially PP and EN??? Sources, references for this please – thanks and blessings.

      • DIY. Take a sampling of friends or any Catholic reachable to you who know of and are passionate about HV. Take a survey and determine the numbers. Who among them know, have read, understood and applied, and promoted the teachings in PP and EN?

  7. Suppose the church does reverse its ‘recommendation(?)’ on contraception, what difference will it make.
    Those who do will continue and likewise those who do not
    Would this new position have a bearing on the record of sin and be backwards effective?

    • John Doe – to your questions – Jesus would be a deceiver; His Apostolic Infallibility was used by every previous Peter and Bishops in union with him to deceive – Jesus and each would be grave sinners, absent of grace and eternal life without repentance…nothing complicated here, simple, clear, self-evident – the Holy Spirit’s Teaching cannot change or be reversed, “It is the same yesterday, today and forever’.

  8. hmm….. “those who participated in this congress did their duty, because they have sought to move forward in doctrine, but in an ecclesial sense, not outside of it, as I said with that rule of Saint Vincent of Lérins. Then the Magisterium will say, ‘yes, it is good’ or ‘it is not good.’”

    How is it a duty, sacred and holy, to move, not simply backwards, but to move off the narrow Way back to the forbidden fruit of sexual immorality of Eden [cf Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross on this – as she wisely witnesses, the punishment for this original evil was according to Sacred Scripture, difficulty ‘in conceiving and giving birth??? (,%D7%AA%D6%B0%D6%BC%D7%A9%D7%81%D6%A3%D7%95%D6%BC%D7%A7%D6%B8%D7%AA%D6%B5%D6%94%D7%9A%D6%B0%20%D7%95%D6%B0%D7%94%D6%96%D7%95%D6%BC%D7%90%20%D7%99%D6%B4%D7%9E%D6%B0%D7%A9%D6%B8%D7%81%D7%9C%D6%BE%20%D7%91%D6%B8%D6%BC%D6%BD%D7%9A%D6%B0%D7%83%20%D7%A1%20KJV%20with%20Strong%27s)

    Also, if they have moved it theologically forward, then it is not possible for the Magisterium to say ‘it is not good’ – this is only possible when the movement is backwards or ruptured…..Jesus mercy, Your Light, thank You!.

    • I’m just waiting for someone to explain where and what this magical mystery land of “forward” is and what why anyone has to go there.

  9. Gen 3:16 – let us not return to the intrinsic immorality of the Fall in Eden – its punishment was sorrow in conception and birth

    עִצְּבוֹנֵ֣ךְ ‘iṣ-ṣə-ḇō-w-nêḵ your sorrow
    וְהֵֽרֹנֵ֔ךְ wə-hê-rō-nêḵ, and your conception

    בְּעֶ֖צֶב bə-‘e-ṣeḇ in pain
    תֵּֽלְדִ֣י tê-lə-ḏî you shall bring forth

    King James Bible
    Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children;

    New King James Version
    To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.”

    Douay-Rheims Bible
    To the woman also he said: I will multiply thy sorrows, and thy conceptions: in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband’s power, and he shall have dominion over thee.


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