Attacks on the Church’s teachings on the transmission of human life usually come from those who want to justify artificial contraception. This group denounces the alleged “rigorism” or “obscurantism” of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, who have insisted, like all their predecessors, that it is always gravely sinful for spouses to interfere with the conjugal act to impede the possibility of procreation.
But there is a growing tendency among some to attack the teachings from the opposite direction. This group denounces Paul VI, John Paul II, and “the post-conciliar Church” for permitting and encouraging what is known generically as periodic continence or natural family planning. As is well known, these terms refer to the identification and exclusive use of the naturally infertile period of the wife’s cycle for having conjugal relations when a married couple has sufficiently serious reasons for wanting to avoid conception.
Ironically, the latter group often joins forces with “progressive” dissenters in claiming that there is no moral difference between NFP and the use of artificial contraceptives. Using the same epithet employed by many of their archenemies, they refer to NFP as “Catholic contraception,” claiming that if the Church were logically consistent, it would either allow all methods of birth regulation or forbid all methods.
I should begin by acknowledging that, in its milder forms—when it is directed more against some modern pastoral policies and practices rather than at the Church’s authentic doctrine about NFP—the rigorist criticism seems reasonable and just. From what I have seen and read in my years as a priest, I agree with such critics that there is sometimes a one-sidedness or lack of balance among those promoting NFP. Married or engaged couples often are taught the legitimacy and the techniques of NFP with little or no mention of that other part of the Church’s teaching that insists that couples need “just reasons” (Humanae Vitae 16; Catechism of the Catholic Church 2368) for using NFP if they wish to be free from blame before God. (Indeed, I think we need now from the magisterium some less vague and more specific guidelines as to what actually constitutes a “just reason.”)
Often such couples hear nothing of the fact that “Sacred Scripture and the Church’s teaching see in large families a sign of God’s blessing and the parents’ generosity” (CCC 2373). Still less frequently are they informed that, according to the magisterium, frivolous or materialistic considerations are in themselves inadequate criteria for deciding when NFP can be justified (cf. Gaudium et Spes 50).
What Constitutes an Official Vatican Statement?
Having said that, we must now point out the serious error of those who go much further than simply to rebuke an unduly lax, permissive, and one-sided pastoral approach to NFP and claim that the practice is in principle immoral and stands condemned by the previous ordinary (or even extraordinary) magisterium of the Church. As we will see, there was never a Catholic teaching against the use of periodic continence. Practically as soon as the first rudimentary methods of estimating the infertile period arose with the advance of medical science in the mid-nineteenth century, the See of Peter immediately and explicitly gave its blessing to this practice.
Ignorant of this fact, some are now claiming that, from an orthodox Catholic viewpoint, the very notion of regulating or planning births and family size is an affront to God and betrays a lack of trust in his loving providence. They claim that married couples are morally obliged either to engage in regular conjugal relations without any intention of “planning” their family size (and so leaving that entirely to God’s providence) or, if they are convinced that there are just reasons for avoiding another pregnancy, to abstain totally from conjugal relations for as long as that situation lasts, without making any attempt to identify and make use of the naturally infertile times of the wife’s cycle.
Perhaps the most outspoken and uncompromising proponent of this view is Richard Ibranyi, a prolific “sedevacantist” (he believes that John XXIII was the last valid pope) whose booklets, bulletins, and web site articles denounce the “apostate” Church of Vatican II and the “anti-popes” who lead it. Ibranyi recently has published a booklet whose conclusions are forthright and unambiguous: “All those who use Natural Family Planning commit mortal sin. There is a natural law upon all men’s hearts, and the practice of NFP violates the natural law. Pope Pius XI [in the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii] teaches there are no exceptions and no excuses. No exceptions, even if your priest or bishop says it can be used” (Natural Family Planning Is Contraception , 32).
Well, did Pius XI in fact teach this? To answer that question, we first need to set Casti Connubii in its historical context, as that encyclical was by no means the first statement from the Vatican on this subject.
At this point we need to clarify what sort of document does in fact constitute a genuine Vatican intervention. Some rigorists, including Ibranyi, refuse to accept as official—or even as authentic—any Vatican statement that is not published in its official journal, the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. The error on this point evidently is based on a misapplication of canon 9 in the 1917 Code of Canon Law (paralleled by canon 8 in the 1983 Code), which states, among other things, that “universal ecclesiastical laws” must be promulgated in the AAS in order to be binding.
“Ecclesiastical laws” are exercises of the Church’s governing office. They are concerned above all with practical decisions, establishing that something specific is to be done or not to be done. Such decisions need to be distinguished from those of the Church’s magisterium, or teaching office, which are above all concerned with the theoretical task of clarifying the difference between true and false doctrine.
As anyone familiar with standard Vatican procedures knows, since the AAS was established by Pope St. Pius X in 1909 there have been many official statements and decisions of the popes and Vatican congregations—including doctrinal documents from the Holy Office and Sacred Penitentiary (which addresses in moral questions especially relevant to confessors in the sacrament of penance)—that are not published in the aforesaid journal. Often they are sent privately by Rome to bishops, and perhaps only years later get published in some Catholic journal. Apart from “universal ecclesiastical laws,” which do indeed have to be published in the AAS, the inclusion or non-inclusion of other types of papal and Vatican statements in the AAS is a measure not of their official or non-official character but rather of the degree of public importance that the Holy See attaches to them.
The Vatican and NFP
Let us now return to the subject of natural family planning. It was first necessary to clarify the question about the necessity or non-necessity of AAS promulgation in order to forestall a rigorist objection to the argument below. It so happens that several key magisterial documents approving NFP were never published in the AAS. And because they were never published even in the English-language version of Denzinger (a key source of pre-Vatican II doctrine for laymen such as Ibranyi, who publicly admits his ignorance of Latin), these decisions have remained unknown to those Catholics who denounce NFP as a recent “modernist” aberration or heresy. I have never seen any of those decisions cited, or even referred to, in rigorist attacks on the use of periodic continence.
The first time Rome spoke on the matter was 1853, when the Sacred Penitentiary answered a dubium (a formal request for an official clarification) submitted by the bishop of Amiens, France. He asked, “Should those spouses be reprehended who make use of marriage only on those days when (in the opinion of some doctors) conception is impossible?” The reply was: “After mature examination, we have decided that such spouses should not be disturbed [or disquieted], provided they do nothing that impedes generation” (quoted in J. Montánchez, Teología Moral 654, my translation). By the expression “impedes generation,” it is obvious the Vatican meant the use of onanism (or coitus interruptus, now popularly called “withdrawal”), condoms, etc. Otherwise the reply would be self-contradictory.
The next time the issue was raised was in 1880, when the Sacred Penitentiary issued a more general response . The precise question posed was this: “Whether it is licit to make use of marriage only on those days when it is more difficult for conception to occur?” The response was: “Spouses using the aforesaid method are not to be disturbed; and a confessor may, with due caution, suggest this proposal to spouses, if his other attempts to lead them away from the detestable crime of onanism have proved fruitless.” (This decision was published in Nouvelle Revue Théologique 13 : 459–460 and in Analecta Iuris Pontificii 22 , 249.)
One could not ask for a more obvious and explicit proof that more than eighty years before Vatican II, Rome saw a great moral difference between NFP (as we now call it) and contraceptive methods, which Catholic moralists then referred to as onanism.
This was the doctrine and pastoral practice that all priests learned in seminary from the mid-nineteenth century onward. Before Pius XI was elected, Blessed Pius IX, Leo XIII, St. Pius X, and Benedict XV all clearly approved of this status quo established by their own Sacred Penitentiary and never showed the slightest inclination to reverse its decisions of 1853 and 1880.
But What Did Pope Pius XI Teach on the Subject?
Achille Ratti, the future Pius XI, was born in 1857, four years after the initial Vatican permission was given for periodic continence. Like all other obedient and studious priests of his era, Fr. Ratti would have learned and accepted this authentic Vatican-approved teaching that allowed NFP as a means of avoiding offspring. It seems most unlikely that after being elected pope he would have had any intention of condemning the practice. It is well known that the main thing prompting him to speak out about contraception at all was that the 1930 Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church had scandalized all morally upright folks by teaching, for the first time in the history of those claiming the name “Christian,” that unnatural practices—i.e., onanism—could be morally acceptable. Periodic continence simply was not the issue in 1930, and Pius XI did not address that issue in Casti Connubii.
The clearest proof that Ibranyi’s interpretation of Casti Connubii—namely, that it condemns NFP as just another form of contraception—is incorrect is that Pius XI did not interpret his own encyclical that way. Only a year and a half after it was promulgated, the Sacred Penitentiary yet again issued a statement on periodic continence. This ruling was eventually made public in the Roman documentary journal Texta et Documenta:
“Regarding the Exclusive Use of the Infertile Period.
“Qu. Whether the practice is licit in itself by which spouses who, for just and grave causes, wish to avoid offspring in a morally upright way, abstain from the use of marriage—by mutual consent and with upright motives—except on those days when, according to certain recent [medical] theories, conception is impossible for natural reasons.
“Resp. Provided for by the Response of the Sacred Penitentiary of June 16, 1880” (Texta et Documenta, series theologica 25 : 95, my translation).
Clearly, it would be preposterous to plead that Pius XI “never knew” about this 1932 decision before his death seven years later. In all probability he was the first to know about it. It would have been mailed out promptly to the bishops of the world for the benefit of their moral theologians teaching future priests in their seminaries. How could the only Catholic bishop in the world not to know of this “heretical distortion” (in Ibranyi’s view) of his encyclical be the bishop of Rome? Approved moral theologians everywhere continued to teach this settled and authentic doctrine about the legitimacy of NFP.
If the Pope had wanted to get a clear message to theologians and to the entire Church that he was reversing the doctrine of his four predecessors, he would have used different language than he does in Casti Connubii. For the sake of clarity, he almost certainly would have used the terminology of the theologians of that time: sinful onanismus on the one hand and on the other hand continencia periodicaor usus exclusivus temporum agenneseos to refer to what we now call NFP. He would have stated unambiguously that the latter as well as the former was now to be judged sinful and unacceptable.
It is interesting to note the difference in language between Ibranyi and Pius XI when addressing this topic. Ibranyi’s personal and un-Catholic doctrine repeats words like plan and goal. In Natural Family Planning Is Contraception, he says the essence of sinful contraception is “the desire to have marital relations while having deliberately planned to prevent conception” (7).
But nowhere does Pius XI stress “plans” or “goals” to avoid having children. He does not teach that such a “desire” or such a “deliberate plan” is essentially sinful. What the Pope brands as sinful is “frustrating the marriage act” (vitiando naturae actum)—that is, “frustrating its natural power and purpose.” But when couples carry out conjugal acts on the infertile days exclusively, they are not frustrating the natural power and purpose of those acts that they perform on those days. Those particular acts do not have any natural [procreative] power and purpose to begin with. You cannot frustrate a nonexistent power or purpose.
The point comes through clearly in the most solemn passage of the encyclical. After referring to the recent decision of the Anglicans to permit contraception, Pius XI declares:
“The Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and the purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin that surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately deprived of 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” (CC 56).
I have used the words deprived of at the point where standard English translation uses the words frustrated in. This makes the Pope’s true meaning a little clearer. The Latin verb he uses here is destituere. As Latin dictionaries show, this verb, when used with the ablative, as in this case (naturali sua . . . vi), means precisely “to deprive of,” “to strip,” or “to rob.” In such constructions, the accompanying noun in the ablative case is that thing of which the rightful owner has been “deprived” or that has been “stripped” or “robbed” from him. Now, of course, you cannot deprive anyone of something he never possessed to begin with. You cannot rob a man with no money any more than you can strip him if he is already naked. Likewise, as conjugal acts carried out precisely in the infertile period do not have any natural procreative potential, it is obvious that they cannot be deprived or robbed of that potential.
Even to this Day
Pius XI’s successor, Pius XII, confirmed yet again the moral acceptability of NFP for serious motives in two allocutions of 1951. Since then, of course, we have had further confirmations of the doctrine from Paul VI (in Humanae Vitae) and John Paul II (in Familiaris Consortio and many other statements).
We are looking here at a long and unbroken tradition by which the See of Peter has approved the use by spouses of periodic continence in order to avoid conception when their personal circumstances truly constitute a just cause for that avoidance.