This week we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that confirmed longstanding Catholic teaching on birth control and warned prophetically of the social evils of a contraceptive culture.
Whenever the topic of Humanae Vitae comes up, you’re bound to hear about how Pope Paul VI “ignored” his own commission of clergy, theologians, and lay people that recommended the Church change its teaching on contraception. A 2018 article in the Irish Times says the pope’s decision to ignore the infamous "majority report" of this commission “killed the spirit of Vatican II” that was supposed to usher in a more “open, inclusive” Church.
But the historical evidence indicates that Paul VI did not set up this commission for the purpose of blindly following its recommendations. The late moral theologian Germain Grisez, who worked alongside one of the few commission members who upheld the traditional teaching on contraception, says Paul VI specifically sought out dissident voices. According to Grisez, Paul “wanted to see what kind of case they could make for that view. He was not at all imagining that he could delegate to a committee the power to decide what the Church’s teaching is going to be.”
Robert McClory confirms this in his book Turning Point, which chronicles the history of the commission from the perspective of an American married couple who were invited to join its later sessions. According to McClory (who supports changing Church teaching on contraception), the invitation to the progressive theologian Bernard Häring said, “It is the High Authority who has wanted diverse currents of opinion to be represented in the group. Yours are well known.”
Dissenters from traditional Catholic teaching on contraception say that this commission (founded by Pope John XXIII but expanded by Paul VI) showed how new, modern understandings of marriage and sex supported changing that teaching. But the commission’s main argument was that “the traditional doctrine of the Church” condemned “a truly ‘contraceptive’ mentality and practice” rather than every single act of contraception.
Even though it claimed to speak for the Church’s tradition, the commission never cites what previous Church Fathers, saints, popes, or councils have said on the issue of contraception. Instead, its interpretation of Church history comes from John T. Noonan’s contribution to the commission, wherein he presented a summary of his book Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, which was published subsequently in 1965. But even though he voted with the commission to change Church teaching, Noonan admits:
[T]he teachers of the Church have taught without hesitation or variation that certain acts preventing procreation are gravely sinful. No Catholic theologian has ever taught, “Contraception is a good act.” The teaching on contraception is clear and apparently fixed forever.
The commission’s moral argument in favor of contraception fares no better than its cursory treatment of the issue’s historical background. In the following passage the commission gives what would become a standard line of argument among dissenters of Church teaching on the issue of contraception:
It is not to contradict the genuine sense of this tradition and the purpose of the previous doctrinal condemnations if we speak of the regulation of conception by using means, human and decent, ordered to favoring fecundity in the totality of married life and toward the realization of the authentic values of a fruitful matrimonial community.
In other words, couples don’t have to abstain from every act of contraception, as if it were intrinsically evil; they just have to make sure their use of contraception does not affect “the fecundity in the totality of married life.”
But what does that mean? Do couples have to make sure only that they use contraception one for some sexual acts but not every one? Do they just have to allow fifty-one percent of conjugal acts to have the possibility of conception? Or would simply having the standard 2.1 children suffice?
Dissenters claim that sexual morality in marriage comes not from the morality of each isolated sexual act but the morality and focus of the marriage as a whole. But does this reasoning make sense?
Imagine if someone claimed that occasional instances of adultery weren’t wrong as long as they were being used as a means to strengthen the overall unity of the marriage (e.g., a husband wanting to boost his confidence so he can better love his wife)? Must we demand that every sexual act be faithful, or simply that acts of infidelity don’t affect “the faithfulness in the totality of married life?”
If such reasoning doesn’t justify occasional acts of adultery, then it doesn’t justify occasional acts of contraception either (though I hope dissenters won’t bite the bullet and just add the intrinsic sinfulness of adultery to the list of teachings they want to change!). Ralph McInerny also offers a helpful response:
The principle of totality cannot ground the claim that singular acts which, taken as such are offensive, cease to be so when considered in the light of the moral life taken as a whole. The moral imperative is not that we should act well more often than not. Rather it is: do good and avoid evil.
It can be distressing to learn that a group of high-ranking cardinals, bishops, and theologians gathered together to discuss moral theology and the truth did not win out in the discussion. However, Christ never promised that every single Catholic—or even every single member of the clergy—would be preserved from error. Even the pope can make mistakes when he is not speaking ex cathedra, or formally defining a dogma.
What Christ did promise was that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18). That means the entire college of bishops and the pope, speaking in his capacity as the successor of St. Peter, will never formally bind the Church to a theological or moral error. The Holy Spirit will protect the Church, even when it seems like many of its members have lost their way.
In the fourth century, the Arian heresy found favor with Emperor Constantius, and it overran the eastern part of the empire. Fortunately, one bishop of the East, St. Athanasius, had the courage to stand against it, no matter what his contemporaries thought and no matter how often the emperor exiled him. On his tombstone is the inscription Athanasius contra mundum (“Athanasius against the world”).
The same grace of the Holy Spirit can be seen in the wisdom of Pope Paul VI, who stood against the world, and even high-ranking members of the Church, in order to uphold the truth that every single instance of the marital act must be ordered toward the unity of the couple and the procreative potential of God to bless the couple with the gift of a child as an enduring sign of their matrimonial love.
For more on the many dimensions of wisdom found in Humanae Vitae, check out the new book Inseparable from Catholic Answers Press, available now at a special introductory price.