What is the doctrinal status of the Church’s teaching against contraception? How is Catholic teaching on contraception supported by Scripture, Christian anthropology, and the natural law? What is meant by the “radical paradigm change” mentioned by Archbishop Paglia in his Presentation and Pope Francis in his 2018 apostolic constitution, Veritatis Gaudium? How is Catholic moral theology related to contraception, the right to life, gender ideology, including homosexuality, transgenderism?
These and related questions will be the focus this Thursday through Saturday, December 8-10, at a conference in Rome presented by the International Catholic Jurists Forum. Co-sponsored by the Ave Maria Law School, Ave Maria University, and the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the conference will feature an impressive array (PDF) of over two dozen Catholic theologians, philosophers, canon lawyers, and other scholars.
Those scholars include Deborah Savage (Franciscan University, Steubenville), Robert Fastiggi (Sacred Heart Major Seminary ), Helen M. Alvaré (George Mason University), Janet E. Smith (Sacred Heart Major Seminary , retired), Fr. Peter Ryan, S.J. (Sacred Heart Major Seminary ), Mary Eberstadt (Faith and Reason Institute; Catholic Information Center, Washington, DC), Abigail Favale (University of Notre Dame), Matthew Levering (Mundelein Seminary), Fr. Piotr Mazurkiewicz (Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw), Angela Franks (St. John’s Seminary), John Finnis (University of Notre Dame), Eduardo Echeverria (Sacred Heart Major Seminary ), Monsignor Livio Melina (Veritas Amoris Project), and several others.
The conference is in response to the controversial publication, from the Pontifical Academy for Life, entitled Theological Ethics of Life. Scripture, tradition, practical challenges (Etica teologica della Vita. Scrittura, tradizione, sfide pratiche). That document, published by the Vatican Publishing House, was the result of an October 2021 seminar on ethics in which participants discussed “the possible legitimacy of contraception in certain cases.” Responding to Pope Francis’s statement that “the duty of theologians is research, theological reflection,” the December 8-10 conference, its site states, “seeks to respond to some of the important questions raised in Etica teologica, especially those connected with sexual morality, objective moral norms, and conscience.”
Robert Fastiggi, one of organizers of the conference, explains that while he doesn’t believe “most of the chapters” in the Theological Ethics of Life volume “are advocating radical departures from Catholic moral theology,” questions have been raised “about issues related to the role of conscience, intrinsically evil acts, and the normative status of Humanae Vitae with respect to concrete moral choices.”
He and Jane Adolphe of Ave Maria School of Law produced the concept note for the upcoming conference. “We wanted to make it clear,” he explains, “that the conference is not meant to be oppositional but constructive.” Fastiggi’s talk will be on “Catholic Sexual Morality and the problem of dissent,” and will discuss the response in 1968 to the publication of Humanae Vitae and subsequent responses and events, including the statement, Human Life in Our Day, from the U.S. bishops, which supported Pope Paul VI’s encyclical but contained a brief section on “norms for licit dissent.”
“Fr. Charles Curran and others,” notes Fastiggi, “used these norms as alleged support for their dissent not only from Humanae Vitae but also from other moral teachings such as those related to fornication and homosexual acts. … In my talk, I will argue that Catholic teachings related to contraception, fornication, and homosexual acts are definitive and infallible. Dissent, therefore, is not legitimate. … There can be legitimate development in pastoral approaches to those who do not follow proper sexual morality. These pastoral approaches, though, cannot approve of acts that are contrary to the natural law, Scripture, and magisterial teaching.”
Co-organizer Deborah Savage, in remarking on the Theological Ethics of Life book, says “it may not surprise anyone to know that this document seems to point toward a new but at the same time quite clear ‘ambiguity’ toward the Church’s teaching on contraception, expressed definitively in Humanae Vitae and considered infallible Catholic teaching for six decades or so. This conference is an effort to defend against any attempt to erode that teaching at a time when it seems most clearly at risk. The conference has an air of urgency to it as we try to mount a defense.”
Her presentation, titled “Man and Woman,” focuses on anthropological fundamentals. “We need to understand more clearly the anthropology at the heart of the unitive and procreative dimensions of the marital act.” Pope St. John Paul II Theology of the Body, she says, is vital, but more work needs to be done. “I have taken it as my task to articulate a robust account of man and woman – one that presents a coherent framework for understanding both their equality (in the sense both are equally human) and what constitutes their difference. … I will show that any ambiguity on the teaching of Humanae Vitae will be the final betrayal of both men and women – but women in particular – who are reduced to objects of sexual pleasure when the unity of the procreative and unitive dimensions are compromised.”
“As a culture,” Savage emphasizes, “we have completely underestimated the meaning of human sexuality as an essential element in anthropology and, as a result, we are committing a slow form of suicide. Those ready to jettison the teaching of Humanae Vitae don’t seem to understand this.”
Fr. Ryan echoes these same concerns, remarking that the book from the Pontifical Academy for Life has “caused some to wonder whether the Church’s moral teaching on controversial issues like contraception and sexual activity apart from the one-flesh union of a man and a woman in marriage, can and should be changed.”
He points to the recent comments by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., of Luxembourg, the relator general of the Synod of Bishops, about whether the Church has the power to bless “same-sex unions.” It is “hard to avoid the impression,” says Fr. Ryan, “that the statements are designed to communicate the Cardinal’s disagreement with that teaching without having to say so clearly. The conference is an opportunity to address, among other topics, the question such statements leave us with, namely, whether the teaching can or cannot be changed.”
One of Fr. Ryan’s two talks is titled “Catholic Teaching on Sexual Morality and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium,” and it argues, he says, “that the Church’s teaching on the grave evil of engaging in nonmarital sexual activity meets the conditions set out in Lumen gentium, 25, for the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium.”
“People who are tempted to engage in such activity need support in their efforts to live chaste lives,” he adds, “and one especially important way theologians and pastoral ministers can provide that support is to communicate their concerns with conviction. But they cannot do so unless they themselves are convinced of the truth of the teaching. The fact that it has been, as I argue, proposed infallibly by the ordinary universal magisterium is a gift that enables them to offer that support.”
Fr. Ryan emphasizes that in addition certainty about the Church’s teaching, people also “need the grace of the Holy Spirit to empower them to resist temptations that initially may seem all but irresistible.” But if “theologians and those entrusted with their spiritual welfare give them the impression that nonmarital sexual activity is not gravely wrong, poses no real risk to their salvation, and can even be appropriate and good,” then they “are unlikely to turn to God and wholeheartedly beseech him for the grace to resist temptation…”
Mary Eberstadt, who has written books on the Sexual Revolution, familial breakdown, and the effects of contraception, points out that Pope Francis recently observed that “Ideologies ruin things!” And that, she says, “is exactly why the ICJF conference is necessary. Today, a particular ideology threatens the Church. This ideology is based on capitulation to the perceived demands of the sexual revolution. Its goal is to roll back bedrock teachings about life and marriage, so that post-revolutionary Catholics can enjoy permission to return to pre-Christian, pagan norms about sex.”
This ideology, she says, is not new. “It has been ascending across the West for decades now. Cliched though its thinking is, the attendant errors continue to demand calm clarification and rebuttal.”
Her presentation at the conference will focus on “countering ideological abstractions with essential, verifiable, and overlooked facts. History, sociology, and other academic disciplines offer copious proofs of what the sexual revolution has wrought — and hence, why capitulation of the kind now being urged remains wrong. … Unlike decades ago, the days of claiming ignorance about the revolution’s fallout are over. So, ipso facto, is the ideological case for capitulation to the revolution itself.”
“This conference is necessary now,” explains Eduardo Echeverria, “because the Church’s normative teaching on marriage … her teaching on the foundations of morality, including sexual ethics, and the significance of moral absolutes are all currently under attack, with dissenters calling for a revision of all this teaching.”
His presentation will critique the so-called “radical paradigm change” in light of the teaching of St. Vincent of Lerins on doctrinal development and the moral teaching of St. John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor. That paradigm change, he says, is “a perpetual hermeneutics of recontextualizing and reinterpreting the deposit of faith,” which undermines an authentic pastoral approach to moral questions and challenges.
The Pontifical Academy for Life has become, says Angela Franks, “the forum for some theologians to contest the intrinsically evil nature of contraception. The methodology of these thinkers has already been addressed and critiqued two pontificates ago, with John Paul II’s examination of moral theology in Veritatis Splendor and his body of writings on human sexuality.” The recent book from the Academy, while presented “as a development in moral theology, is in fact a regressive move.”
Franks’ presentation, titled “Disordered Desire and Contraception,” addresses “the nature of human desire before and after the Fall. Some moral theology presumes a very optimistic view of fallen human sexuality, as though it is reliably ordered to and motivated by love. I will use St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of desire to show that, without a natural end, desire tends towards self-centeredness, even and especially in the powerful realm of sexuality.”
“Contraception,” she notes, “structurally removes the natural end of procreation from the sexual act and thereby opens it up to self-chosen and self-centered ends. Surely we have enough information, over fifty years into the sexual revolution, to keep us from naivete about how destructive self-centered sex can be.”
The conference, which begins at 9:00am (Rome time) on Thursday, December 8th, will be livestreamed.
For more information about the conference, see this PDF with a complete listing of participants, presentations, and times.
(Editor’s note: Sacred Heart Major Seminary was incorrectly referred to as Sacred Heart University. That error has been corrected.)
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