Thursday, April 2, 2009
Is the Catholic Church's Teaching on Contraception Infallible?
Is the Catholic Church's Teaching on Contraception Infallible?
By Matthew James Bellisario 2009
Many people today both inside and outside the Catholic Church view her teachings on human sexuality as being outdated. Others view it as something that is not solemnly defined, and a teaching that could possibly be changed in the future. In this essay I will substantiate that the teaching regarding the conjugal act and the prohibition of the use of contraception taught by the Catholic Church is an “infallible, or immutable doctrine” and that it is the constant teaching of the Catholic Church throughout the ages. I will do this by primarily focusing on the Church's official documents and not private theologian's opinions, although for additional emphasis I may include a few here or there.
There are two essential elements that the Catholic Church uses to form her moral teachings. The first is Divine Revelation which is revealed in Tradition and Sacred Scripture, and the Church's ability to observe and interpret the Natural Law as God has revealed it to us in creation. The two of course go hand in hand and often times the Natural Law gives us a deep explanation into morality which is often overlooked by those outside the Church. This is substantiated by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith which wrote in 1975, “But in fact, Divine Revelation and, in its own proper order, philosophical wisdom, emphasize the authentic exigencies of human nature. They thereby necessarily manifest the existence of immutable laws inscribed in the constitutive elements of human nature and which are revealed to be identical in all beings endowed with reason.”
It must also be understood that I am assuming that my readers understand that I assent to the Catholic Church as the pillar and bulwark of truth, and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit preserves and promulgates the truths of the moral order without error. This also is elaborated on in the document Persona Humana which states, “Furthermore, Christ instituted His Church as "the pillar and bulwark of truth." With the Holy Spirit's assistance, she ceaselessly preserves and transmits without error the truths of the moral order, and she authentically interprets not only the revealed positive law but "also . . . those principles of the moral order which have their origin in human nature itself" and which concern man's full development and sanctification. Now in fact the Church throughout her history has always considered a certain number of precepts of the natural law as having an absolute and immutable value, and in their transgression she has seen a contradiction of the teaching and spirit of the Gospel.”
This will be the basic framework that I will work from to prove that the Catholic Church very clearly teaches us that what has been decided in regards to human sexuality has been done so solemnly and infallibly. This means that the Catholic Church will never change her moral teachings on such issues as contraception, homosexuality or masturbation to name a few. The subject of contraception is usually one of the most heated issues of our times so I will write more focused towards that particular issue.
Part I The Basics of Human Sexual Morality
In order to understand such moral issues as the use of contraception we must first understand the Church's view on the conjugal act. It cannot be separated from human life itself or from the dignity of the human person in general. In order to examine sexual moral ethics, we must not only examine church documents on these specific issues, but others that pertain to the human person outside of the boundaries of sexual ethics. The very nature of a person's right to life and their supernatural eschatological end are the very core of human sexuality. Man was created by God so that he may have eternal life. When we arbitrarily overstep our bounds into the realm of creation we upset the Natural Law, and subsequently God's divine plan. As we will see many other moral questions all tie into this such as artificial insemination, sterilization, and masturbation. We must understand that when examining moral questions such as contraception it must be understood in light of the complete person. They are essential not only for human life, but essential for Divine Life. Moral matters that pertain to the conjugal act are of the utmost importance. Persona Humana tells us “In moral matters man cannot make value judgments according to his personal whim: "In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. . . . For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged."” It must be understood that we cannot understand moral questions of human sexuality without first understanding the Catholic Church's view of the human person.
It is also clear that the Catholic Church views human sexuality in conjunction with society in general and man's relation to God in society. Pope John Paul II emphasized that humanity cannot live as if God did not exist. (22 Evangelium vitae) Today's culture of death, as John Paul II denotes it, observes only the fallen nature of sexuality and dismisses God as the primary focus which he has also revealed in his creation. The Church emphasizes not only the consequences of individuals who exercise sexual immorality, but consequences that falls upon culture and society as well.
Natural Law: Absolute and Immutable.
Natural Law is of the utmost importance when addressing the moral actions of humanity. There are certain revealed truths in the Natural Law that cannot be ignored, and cannot be changed since they are an innate part of God's creation. When the Church deduces and defines certain truths revealed in the Natural Law they are never to be changed. As in the earlier passage I quoted the Church has defined certain aspects of the Natural Law to be immutable and absolute. This means that it is defined and unchangeable. I want to look at a few premises that the Catholic Church has defined regarding Natural Law and human sexuality. I believe that this is one of the underpinnings of the Church's teaching when it comes to sexual morality.
Pope Pius XII wrote an allocution to midwives, on October 29, 1951. In it he made it very clear that the Church had previously solemnly defined certain principals of Natural Law and the conjugal act, that can never be abrogated. He wrote, “Our Predecessor, Pius XI, of happy memory, in his Encyclical Casti Connubii, of December 31, 1930, once again solemnly proclaimed the fundamental law of the conjugal act and conjugal relations: that every attempt of either husband or wife in the performance of the conjugal act or in the development of its natural consequences which aims at depriving it of its inherent force and hinders the procreation of new life is immoral; and that no "indication" or need can convert an act which is intrinsically immoral into a moral and lawful one. This precept is in full force today, as it was in the past, and so it will be in the future also, and always, because it is not a simple human whim, but the expression of a natural and divine law.” Just from this basic proclamation regarding Natural Law and the conjugal act, the use of contraception can never be accepted. I will continue to build my case.
Many presume to think that Humane Vitae was the first encyclical to condemn contraception. This is hardly the case. Pope Pius XI penned his encyclical Cast Connubii in 1930 when the Protestants began to revolt against God's Natural Law by succumbing to the use of artificial contraception. Prior to that Protestantism as vast majority rejected any use of it whatsoever. The Catholic Church however not only held to the age old teaching against it, it clarified it further. The Pope writes in reference to the encyclical focused on marriage and human sexuality, “In so doing We follow the footsteps of Our predecessor, Leo XIII, of happy memory, whose Encyclical Arcanum, published fifty years ago, We hereby confirm and make Our own, and while We wish to expound more fully certain points called for by the circumstances of our times, nevertheless We declare that, far from being obsolete, it retains its full force at the present day.” The encyclical covers the sacrament of marriage and it declares that what it is about to present is immutable, or unchangeable. “And to begin with that same Encyclical, which is wholly concerned in vindicating the divine institution of matrimony, its sacramental dignity, and its perpetual stability, let it be repeated as an immutable and inviolable fundamental doctrine that matrimony was not instituted or restored by man but by God; not by man were the laws made to strengthen and confirm and elevate it but by God, the Author of nature, and by Christ Our Lord by Whom nature was redeemed, and hence these laws cannot be subject to any human decrees or to any contrary pact even of the spouses themselves.” I want to look at some of what this encyclical says about marriage and human sexuality. It focuses directly on human sexuality and the conjugal act in marriage.
1.“Thus amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place.”
2. “But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.”
3.56. Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which 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 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.
Here we can see that not only has the Church solemnly defined this teaching, but it puts the weight of the entire Church tradition behind it. The encyclical also tells us that those who think it is possible to declare another doctrine that is opposed to it are in gross error. Pope Paul VI 38 years later will merely expound upon this basic, immutable premise. So those who say that Humane Vitae was not an infallible statement by the Church would be correct, because it was determined to be immutable long before it was penned. Both Pope Pius XI and Pius XII tell us so in various documents, two of which I have quoted from thus far. So before we even get to Humane Vitae the Church has already presented this basic principal regarding the conjugal act in conjunction with Natural Law to be immutable or unchangeable.
In 1968 Pope Paul VI released Humane Vitae which pulled together the Church's constant teaching regarding sexual morality. In the opening of the letter the weight of the entire Church is put behind the text and the teachings it declares. The document is not really promulgating any new doctrine or dogma, but rather expounds and builds upon what the Church had already found to be absolute and immutable. The document presents its teaching as is if it is already understood have ben proclaimed before. It also puts the weight of the infallible Church behind it.
“4. This kind of question requires from the teaching authority of the Church a new and deeper reflection on the principles of the moral teaching on marriage—a teaching which is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation.
No member of the faithful could possibly deny that the Church is competent in her magisterium to interpret the natural moral law. It is in fact indisputable, as Our predecessors have many times declared, (l) that Jesus Christ, when He communicated His divine power to Peter and the other Apostles and sent them to teach all nations His commandments, (2) constituted them as the authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the natural law. For the natural law, too, declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men's eternal salvation. (3)
In carrying out this mandate, the Church has always issued appropriate documents on the nature of marriage, the correct use of conjugal rights, and the duties of spouses. These documents have been more copious in recent times. (4)”
The document also has an interesting point in that it sees this adherence to Natural Law as being necessary for salvation. This is another key passage demonstrating that the Church had considered the subject to be infallible since a changeable doctrine cannot be a point that man could lose his soul over and referred to as a necessity. Humane Vitae restates what Pope Pius XI's encyclical stated regarding the conjugal act, and made it even clearer. It said, “Similarly excluded is 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." It continued, Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these. Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good," it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (18)—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.”
The Church in her infinite wisdom did not stop with Humanae Vitae. Pope John Paul II put together a series of addresses referred to now as the Theology of the Body. In it he also restates what has been passed down to him regarding sexual morality. He also made various statements about the infallibility on the use of contraception in private and public statements he made throughout his papacy. For instance in 1987 he made the following two statements at an NFP conference..."What is taught by the Church on contraception does not belong to material freely debatable among theologians." and “Those who argue otherwise "in open contrast with the law of God, authentically taught by the Church, guide couples down a wrong path." (Prairie Messenger, June 15, 1987; Osservatore Romano, June 6, 1987) In 1979 he also addressed the US Bishops with the following statement, “In exalting the beauty of marriage you rightly spoke against both the ideology of contraception and contraceptive acts, as did the encyclical Humanae vitae. And I myself today, with the same conviction of Paul VI, ratify the teaching of this encyclical, which was put forth by my Predecessor by virtue of the mandate entrusted to us by Christ" (AAS, 60, 1968, p.485, Origins, Oct. 18, 1979). We can see a clear picture here developing as we examine these encyclicals and the Pope John Paul II's view of them. In 1980 the Pope addressed the Indonesian Bishops with the following, "In the question of the Church's teaching on the regulation of birth we are called to profess in union with the whole Church the exigent but uplifting teaching recorded in the Encyclical Humanae vitae, which my Predecessor Paul VI put forth 'by virtue of the mandate entrusted to us by Christ' (AAS 60, 1968, p.485). Particularly in this regard we must be conscious of the fact that God's wisdom supercedes human calculation and His grace is powerful in people's lives." "Contraception is to be judged objectively so illicit," said the Pope, "that it can never, for any reason be justified.” It is clear the John Paul II saw this teaching as being an absolute, immutable truth which was not up for discussion.
Ademecum For Confessors concerning some aspects of the morality of conjugal life.
Even though the Church has professed this teaching for ages, and over the past 80 years has clarified and solidified this teaching we still have dissenters in the Catholic church who claim that this teaching is not infallible. Finally in Feb of 1997 the Vatican grew tired of dissenters railing against constant, absolute, immutable truth and released a document to address dissenters in the Church who sought to destroy the image of God in marriage. For this reason the Vademecum for Confessors was penned by the Pontifical Council for the Family. The document opens with the defense of the family and marriage.
“The family, which the Second Vatican Council has defined as the domestic sanctuary of the Church, and as "the primary vital cell of society", constitutes a privileged object of the Church's pastoral attention. "At a moment of history in which the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it, and aware that the well-being of society and her own good are intimately tied to the good of the family, the Church perceives in a more urgent and compelling way her mission of proclaiming to all people the plan of God for marriage and the family"
In it there were several key pronouncements made regarding the conjugal act. Once again we see the church in an official document reaffirming an immutable truth not possessed in one document proclaiming it infallibly, but as an ordinary teaching which has been held constantly by the church as being immutable or infallible.
1.Therefore, among the fundamental moral principles of conjugal life, it is necessary to keep in mind "the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning".
2.Throughout this century the Supreme Pontiffs have issued various documents expounding the principal moral truths on conjugal chastity. Among these, special mention is due to the Encyclical Casti Connubii (1930) of Pius XI,12 numerous discourses of Pius XII,13 the Encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) of Paul VI,14 the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio15 (1981), the Letter to Families Gratissimam Sane16 and the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae (1995) of John Paul II. Together with these, the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes17 (1965) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church18 (1992) deserve special mention.
3.Contraception, directly opposed to the transmission of life, betrays and falsifies the self-sacrificing love proper to marriage, "altering its value of total self-giving"22 and contradicting God's design of love, in which it has been granted to married couples to participate.
In paragraph 4 of the Vademacum the Church explicitly tells us that the Church's teaching once again is definitive and irreformable.
4.The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable. Contraception is gravely opposed to marital chastity; it is contrary to the good of the transmission of life (the procreative aspect of matrimony), and to the reciprocal self-giving of the spouses (the unitive aspect of matrimony); it harms true love and denies the sovereign role of God in the transmission of human life.
I could go on with many more documents that also attest to this irreformable doctrine. The Catechism tells us also, “In contrast, "every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" is intrinsically evil:”
I would like to tie this altogether now with the Church's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. Two documents in particular define the conjugal act in regards to natural law as being immutable and certain. The basis on which the use of contraception is rejected also ties into other bioethics issues which the Church addresses. In Donum Vitae the Church again defines the conjugal act very specifically to address artificial fertilization. The document states,
“The Church's teaching on marriage and human procreation affirms the "inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning. Indeed, by its intimate structure, the conjugal act, while most closely uniting husband and wife, makes them capable of the generation of new lives, according to laws inscribed in the very being of man and of woman." This principle, which is based upon the nature of marriage and the intimate connection of the goods of marriage, has well-known consequences on the level of responsible fatherhood and motherhood. "By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination toward man's exalted vocation to parenthood."
So we can see that this basic, immutable truth binds together more than just the issue of contraception. It holds this truth and is able to define other questions regarding sexual morality that also can never be changed. Among these include the condemnation of masturbation, artificial insemination, and homosexual sex. All of these Church teachings will stand until the end of time because they are immutable and absolute in their relation to the way God created us.
Finally I want to quote a portion of Persona Humana penned also by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith concerning masturbation. This is also relevant here because the Church once again uses the same immutable teaching to condemn the action as well.
From Chapter IX
The traditional Catholic doctrine that masturbation constitutes a grave moral disorder is often called into doubt or expressly denied today. It is said that psychology and sociology show that it is a normal phenomenon of sexual development, especially among the young. It is stated that there is real and serious fault only in the measure that the subject deliberately indulges in solitary pleasure closed in on self ("ipsation"), because in this case the act would indeed be radically opposed to the loving communion between persons of different sex which some hold is what is principally sought in the use of the sexual faculty.
This opinion is contradictory to the teaching and pastoral practice of the Catholic Church. Whatever the force of certain arguments of a biological and philosophical nature, which have sometimes been used by theologians, in fact both the Magisterium of the Church - in the course of a constant tradition - and the moral sense of the faithful have declared without hesitation that masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act. The main reason is that, whatever the motive for acting this way, the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty. For it lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order, namely the relationship which realizes "the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love." All deliberate exercise of sexuality must be reserved to this regular relationship. Even if it cannot be proved that Scripture condemns this sin by name, the tradition of the Church has rightly understood it to be condemned in the New Testament when the latter speaks of "impurity," "unchasteness" and other vices contrary to chastity and continence.
To sum up my essay I would like to quote the late, great theologian Fr. John Hardon on this subject. It may have been more prudent to have entered this quote towards the beginning of this essay, but better late than never.
“It is infallible Catholic doctrine that contraception is a mortal sin? Yes! How do we know? We know this from the twenty centuries of the Catholic Church's teaching. Already in the first century, those who professed the Catholic Faith did not practice either contraception or abortion, which were commonly linked together.
The people of the pagan Roman Empire into which they were born universally practiced
* Cohabitation of one man with either several legal wives, or with a plurality of concubines
In contrast with this moral promiscuity, Christians practiced monogamy, one man with one woman; they did not use drugs to prevent conception; they did not kill the newborn children whom they did not want to live; they did not practice sodomy or prostitution; and for the Christian, adultery and fornication were grave sins that might require several years of penitential expiation.
What do we call the Church's unbroken tradition in forbidding contraception? We call it her ordinary universal magisterium or teaching authority. This has always been considered a proof of infallibility, or from another perspective, irreversibility.
What do these two terms mean?
* Infallibility means that God protects the Church from error in her 2000 years of teaching that contraception is a grave sin against God.
* Irreversibility means that this teaching will never be reversed. Contraception will remain a grave sin until the end of time.”
How many more documents would the Church need on this subject in order for this teaching to be considered infallible? I believe that if there was any doubt on the subject before the 1930's it has since that time been put to rest with many encyclicals, and documents penned by the Catholic Magisterium. I have not even touched on the vast history of the Church Fathers or other Popes who also attest to this infallible teaching, instead I have taken the Church's official documents at face value. Those bishops and theologians who even today lash out against these teachings as not being infallible are clearly at odds with the infallible Magisterium on the matter and therefore are in serious error. It is quite clear then that the Church's teaching that the use of contraception as being gravely immoral, is indeed an infallible teaching, and not just a certain teaching.
Persona Humana- Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith 1975
Allocution to midwives- Pope Pius XII October 29, 1951
Cast Connubii- Pope Pius XI 1930
Humane Vitae-Pope Paul VI 1968
Ademecum For Confessors-Pontifical Council for the Family 1997
Donum Vitae- Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Contraception: Fatal to the Faith and to Eternal Life- Fr. John Hardon 1998