The Pontifical Academy for Life has triggered renewed speculation that Pope Francis could be planning a new document addressing the Church’s teaching on the immorality of artificial contraception, after one of its social media accounts said that Humanae vitae, Pope St. Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical letter on the subject, is not infallible.
But some theologians have noted that Humanae vitae articulates unchangeable divine and natural law principles, explaining that “developing” Church teaching into an approval for contraception would be incoherent, and unlikely to meet with Pope Francis’ approval.
One moral theologian told The Pillar he’s been told that Pope Francis has already pushed back from calls to “update” or “develop” official Church declarations on contraception.
“History records by Abp. Lambruschini confirmed that Paul VI said [to] him directly that [Humanae vitae] were not under infallibility,” the Pontifical Academy’s official account said on Aug. 6.
The academy’s now-deleted tweet generated considerable backlash and speculation online. Many commentators interpreted the statement as a suggestion that the landmark encyclical could become the subject of papal review or reform; that idea has already been floated in high-profile Catholic journals in recent months.
After the academy’s Aug. 6 tweet, The Pillar requested an interview to clarify the intended purpose of the post — to ask whether Catholics are bound to the prohibition on artificial contraception expressed in Humanae vitae, and if the academy’s leaders maintain that teaching can change.
In response, the academy issued a statement through Twitter Aug. 8, tagging The Pillar in another now-deleted tweet.
Referring to continuing debate about the academy’s recently published volume “Theological Ethics of Life. Scripture, Tradition, Practical Challenges,” a collection of addresses from a three-day seminar sponsored by the pontifical academy in fall 2021, the academy said in the statement that “Many people on Twitter seem to think that Humanae vitae is an infallible and irreformable pronouncement against contraception.”
“As regards the specific question of contraception,” the academy said, “when the moral theologian of the Pontifical Lateran University Msgr. Ferdinando Lambruchini presented Humanae vitae in a press conference in the Vatican on 29 July 1968, responding to a specific journalist’s question, he stated - under the mandate of [Pope Saint] Paul VI - that the encyclical Humanae vitae did not express a definitive truth of faith granted by ‘infallibilitas in docendo’.”
As the pontifical academy’s tweet noted, the encyclical was not issued invoking infallible papal teaching authority, which is usually reserved for the pronouncement of revealed dogmatic teachings, like the Immaculate Conception.
But Paul VI explained in its text that Humanae vitae still contained an articulation of unchangeable teaching:
“Since the Church did not make either of these laws [natural and evangelical], she cannot be their arbiter—only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of man,” wrote Paul VI.
“In preserving intact the whole moral law of marriage, the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilization.”
At the time Humanae vitae was issued, it was met with dissent among some Catholic theologians, who attempted to dispute both its rationale and its authority, with a group of 87 theologians writing a widely-publicized letter of open dissent.
Among key signatories of that letter was Fr. Charles Curran, then a theologian at The Catholic University of America, who subsequently saw his canonical faculty to teach theology revoked by the Vatican.
But while artificial contraception was becoming both widely available and more socially acceptable - even championed by some theologians - the pope’s encyclical warned against “the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control.”
“Consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law,” Paul wrote in the encyclical.
“Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”
Paul VI acknowledged that “not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching,” against artificial contraception,” and noted “much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church” on the subject.
“But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a ‘sign of contradiction.’ She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.”
The academy’s statement Aug. 8 triggered widespread debate online, even as one members of the pontifical institution urged the academy to adopt a more circumspect approach on social media.
Responding to the statements made on the academy’s twitter feed, philosopher Elena Postigo Solana -a member of the academy - called the issues “sufficiently relevant, profound, complex and serious” to merit a more cautious treatment online.
“I kindly ask for more prudence in making public and institutional statements,” she urged.
John Grabowski, professor of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America, told The Pillar Monday that he had been invited to the academy’s symposium that produced “Theological Ethics of Life,” but had been unable to attend.
“Looking at the list of invitees then and now, it is apparent to me that I would have been in a distinct minority position on this particular issue of the weight of the teaching on contraception,” Grabowski said.
“It seems to me that the Pontifical Academy for Life wants to treat this matter as an open question, as many saw it in 1966. However, it is not 1966. Not only do we have the authoritative teaching of Paul VI, but the whole magisterium of John Paul II--not to mention the further reaffirmations of Benedict XVI and Francis,” the theologian explained.
“While the teaching may not - yet - have been proposed definitively by way of a solemn judgment — i.e., invoking papal infallibly — the substance of the teaching is constant and settled doctrine,” Grabowski said.
“The academy neglects to note that John Paul II in his catecheses on the theology of the body taught quite clearly that the teaching of Humanae vitae is based not simply on natural law but on divine revelation communicated in sacred scripture, saying in his audience on July 18, 1984, that ‘it becomes evident the moral norms [of Humanae vitae] are not only part of the natural law, but also of the moral order revealed by God.’”
“The Church has no authority to change or override truths communicated in revelation,” said Grabowski. “She can only hand them on. Thus, the teaching is indeed authoritative and, I would say, irreformable — though perhaps not yet formulated in a definitive way.”
While Humanae vitea is discused in Rome, some theologians have warned that any move to undermine the teaching of Humanae vitae on artificial contraception could worsen social decline in the West, and intensify the “throwaway culture” often condemned by Pope Francis.
In his 1968 encyclical, Pope St. Paul VI warned that the widespread adoption of artificial contraception, even within marriage, would lead to increases in divorce, abortion, and other forms of sexual immorality, all contributing to increased human suffering.
Charles Camosy, professor of medical humanities at the Creighton University School of Medicine and the Monsignor Curran Fellow in Moral Theology at St. Joseph Seminary in New York, told The Pillar Monday that Paul’s predictions have been vindicated in the intervening decades.
Camosy suggest that any attempt to diminish the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception would create cascading moral and theological problems.
“Humanae vitae isn't just true,” said Camosy, “it is now more obviously true than at any time since its promulgation.”
“The model of reproduction as disconnected from sex has led to the rejection of the idea that having children is an unmerited gift from God. Instead, it pushes in the direction of a so-called ‘right to have children’ which may — especially if one is older and/or gay or lesbian — require mandatory coverage of in vitro fertilization,” Camosy said.
“One wonders what such a shift will require of vulnerable women who are already structurally coerced into renting their bodies to serve the fertility of others,” he asked, while saying that “It now clear that it is virtually impossible to separate the logic of contraception from the logic of abortion.”
“Indeed, until very recently the United States was governed by abortion law (Planned Parenthood v. Casey), which insisted that women need abortion as a backup to contraception. Abortion is the fail-safe for participation in sexual culture created by contraception,” Camosy added.
“When reproduction is separated from sex and moved to a laboratory, gross ableism follows. Indeed, disabled embryonic children are discarded and those with genetically preferred traits are implanted — a practice that will become even more common,” said Camosy. “Furthermore, this culture of reproduction mirrors the excesses of our country’s consumerist practices, producing millions of ‘extra’ embryos destined for the absurd fate of perpetual frozen storage.”
Speaking about the link between artificial contraception and the disintegration of sexual morality, Camosy said that Paul VI’s predictions of 1968 had been grimly vindicated, noting that “the separation of sex from openness to procreation has produced a hookup culture in which the primary script for sex involves intentionally using another person’s body as a mere object and then discarding them.”
“That this throwaway sexual culture very often crosses the line into sexual violence is a feature, not a bug,” Camosy said.
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The academy’s Aug. 6 tweet came in response to a small debate among Twitter users about a recent interview given by one of the academy’s members, Rodrigo Guerra, who is also Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.
In an interview last week, Guerra said that “it is necessary to go beyond Humanae vitae.”
He added that Pope Francis wanted to develop an understanding in the Church “that moral theology needs to relearn to look more closely at the real life of people,” in order to ensure that “moral theology recovers its experiential and pastoral moment, which has sometimes been lost.”
While Guerra said that “the necessary unity between the unitive and procreative meaning of the conjugal act continues to be maintained,” his remarks have led to broad discussion among theologians and Vatican watchers the possibility of a change to the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception, which, the Church says, breaks the link between the unitive aspect and procreative potential of the sexual act.
During an inflight press conference last month, Pope Francis was asked about the possibility of “developing” Church doctrine on the subject, the pope responded that “When dogma or morality develop, it’s a good thing.”
“A Church that doesn’t develop its thinking in an ecclesial sense is a church that goes backward,” Francis said.
But the pope added that “dogma, morality, is always in a path of development, but development in the same direction.
“On the issue of contraception, I know there is a publication out on this issue and other marriage issues. These are the proceedings of a congress and in a congress there are hypotheses, then they discuss among themselves and make proposals. We have to be clear: those who made this congress did their duty because they tried to move forward in doctrine, but in an ecclesial sense, not out, as I said with that rule of St. Vincent of Lerins. … And then the magisterium will say: yes, it is good [or] it is not good, the pope added.
For his part, Grabowski told The Pillar that “the Holy Father is right to say that doctrine continues to develop in the life of the Church through the work of the Holy Spirit. That is, we come to understand the truth in a deeper and more adequate way.”
But, Grabowski said, “this does not mean the Church can authoritatively teach one moral truth at one point, do a 180, and then teach the opposite. This is a faulty understanding of development put forward by some moralists and jurists moonlighting as moralists.”
“There has to be a basic continuity even as the doctrine is understood more fully and in a new historical context,” the theologian explained.
“This is what I take Pope Francis to mean when he says this development is "in the same direction." It is also what Pope Benedict XVI called a ‘hermeneutic of reform and renewal.’"
Nevertheless, the exchanges have fueled speculation that Pope Francis could be preparing to revisit the 1968 encyclical’s teaching, and revise the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception.
A review of “Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition, Practical Challenges,” published in the July 2 edition of the influential Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica concluded by suggesting that Pope Francis could write “a new encyclical or apostolic exhortation on bioethics, which he might perhaps title Gaudium vitae” (“The Joy of Life.”)
While the review did not assert definite knowledge of a future encyclical, its floating of the specific title of “Gaudium vitae” has been taken in some Vatican circles as an indication that such a document is under serious high-level discussion.
However, some theologians have cautioned against assuming Pope Francis intended to upend the teachings of Paul VI.
Grabowski told The Pillar that when he was invited to the symposium which produced “Theological Ethics of Life,” he was told by the event organizers that there had been a plan for the conference, but that it had not met with papal favor.
“Originally [the academy’s president] Archbishop Paglia proposed using the meeting to write a draft of a document on life issues, a kind of ‘updating’ of Evangelium vitae 25 years later, which the Holy Father could then promulgate in his own name or at least the dicastery could author the document which could be issues with Pope Francis' approval.”
“My understanding is that Pope Francis declined both of these options and told them instead to do an academic symposium discussing the issues and he might contribute a foreword,” Grabowski said.
“I do think that is significant.”
“It should be noted,” Grabowski said, “that Pope Francis has spoken strongly and consistently in favor of this teaching of his predecessor St. Paul VI [against artificial contraception], praising his courage in responding to the ‘Neo-Malthusianism’ of his day.”
“When teaching directly on the subject, his language is clear, as he said in Amoris laetitia: ‘From the outset, love refuses every impulse to close in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning [of procreation], even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life.’"
After its Aug. 8 tweet, The Pillar again contacted the Pontifical Academy for Life, requesting an interview regarding “Theological Ethics of Life.”
The academy’s press office, led by Italian Fabrizio Mastrofini, responded by directing The Pillar to the book’s introductory note from the academy’s president, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia.
Editor’s note: Shortly after the publication of this report, The Pillar received an email from Fabrizio Mastrofini of the Pontifical Academy for Life, noting that:
“The Pontifical Academy has retired the text and the tweet and you are pleased do not speak about.”
The Pillar again requested an interview, but has received no response.