On the Infallibility of Humanae Vitae. Some so-called 'Catholics' claim that the only teachings of the Church that its members are bound to follow are those that have solemnly been declared to be infallible.
Conversely, they say, any teaching of the Church that has not specifically been declared infallible is open for individual interpretation. This category of teaching would, of course, include those that have addressed such sexual misconduct as fornication, adultery, abortion, divorce, and the use of artificial contraception.
The question of conscience vs. authority must be answered on two levels, the most basic being from the standpoint of "natural law." As defined in Romans 2:12-16 and Jeremiah 31:33, God imprints the natural law on the heart and soul of man, and this leads him to know whether or not an act is moral or evil. In other words, "natural law" is man's instinctual knowledge of what is right and what is wrong — his "conscience."
St. Thomas Aquinas, who is quoted in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, says that "Natural law is simply the light of intelligence placed within us by God; by it we know what we should do and what we should avoid. God bestowed this light, or this law, with the creation."
The practical effect of pronouncements made under natural law is that they can never be changed — not even by the Pope and all of his assembled Cardinals and Bishops. And they certainly cannot be tampered with by disgruntled lay people and dissident priests!
But 'Catholics' for a Free Choice is always telling us that we can choose abortion if we do so with a clear conscience. In other words, just as homosexuals are "born that way," some people are born with a conscience that is vestigial in that it does not restrict their activities in the slightest.
Occasionally these pro-abortion 'Catholics' will quote a Vatican II document entitled Declaration on Religious Freedom in support of their contention that we should be able to do anything our 'conscience' does not object to.
However, Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., principal author of the Declaration, anticipated this kind of dishonesty. He stated in a footnote to the Abbott-Gallagher edition of the Council texts that
The Declaration does not base the right to the free exercise of religion on 'freedom of conscience.' Nowhere does this phrase occur. And the Declaration nowhere lends its authority to the theory for which the phrase frequently stands, namely, that I have the right to do what my conscience tells me to do, simply because my conscience tells me to do it. This is a perilous theory. Its particular peril is subjectivism — the notion that, in the end, it is my conscience, and not the objective truth, which determines what is right and wrong, true or false.
After settling the question of "natural law," we must turn our attention to the related issue of ex cathedra ('from the chair') pronouncements of the Pope.
There are two methods by which Catholics may know that a teaching of the Church is infallible and therefore must be obeyed by all Catholics in order to remain Catholic.
The first of these, of course, is an ex cathedra pronouncement. Popes use this mechanism very infrequently, and then only to address the very fundamentals of Catholic faith. Only once since 1870 has the Pope spoken ex cathedra; on November 1, 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Many pro-life theologians have debated the wisdom of having the Church's teachings on birth control and abortion be formally declared infallible, and have decided that this would not be wise in the larger scheme of things. The reason is that such a pronouncement in an area of morals (as opposed to fundamental beliefs) would give the impression that all other moral teachings of the Church were optional. This might lead to a situation where disbelief would run rampant in the areas not specifically addressed ex cathedra, and would lead to more and more demands for such pronouncements in almost every area of Church teaching.
The second means by which Catholics may know that a Church teaching is infallible is by examining the ordinary magisterium. This is the usual, day to day expression of the Church's infallibility.
The Canon of St. Vincent of Lorenz declares that any doctrine that has been taught semper ubique obomnibus — always, everywhere, and by everyone — makes it part of the ordinary and universal Magisterial teaching.
As shown by the quotes of ancient and modern Catholic theologians in Figure 9-2 and Figure 9-3, the prohibition against abortion has indeed been taught semper ubique obomnibus. Therefore, Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae does not declare or create some new doctrine or dogma. It simply reiterates the infallible doctrine that human life is sacred from conception to natural birth.
From this, we may state without fear of contradiction (from anyone who counts, that is) that the Catholic Church's ban on abortion is, indeed, derived from an infallible doctrine.
Before wrapping up this discussion on infallibility, we must consider this question: Do we really think that 'Catholic' abortophiles would suddenly stop their child killing if the Pope suddenly issued an ex cathedra decree that abortion was a mortal sin?
Obviously, they would not. Just as with the question of ensoulment, the pro-aborts couldn't really care less about the degree of solemnity of Catholic condemnation of abortion. This is another red herring they use to distract attention from the real issue.
An Expanded Definition of 'Abortion.' The Catholic Church has expanded its definition of abortion to include new drugs and surgical procedures. This expansion has not been necessary until relatively recently because such drugs and procedures simply have not existed until this time, and their invention had created a new 'grey area' that needed to be clarified.
The Pontifical Commission for the Authentic Interpretation of the Code of Canon Law, on November 24, 1988, stated that abortion is not only "the expulsion of the immature fetus," but is also "the killing of the same fetus in any way and at any time from the moment of conception."
This definition of abortion includes the use of any of the following;
- all birth control pills, because every birth control pill manufactured today causes early abortions part of the time! For a description of the modes of action of birth control pills manufactured today, see Chapter 2, "Abortifacients."
- mini-pills, morning-after pills, true abortion pills such as RU-486, abortifacients such as Depo-Provera, and injectable abortifacients such as NORPLANT (described in Chapter 2, "Abortifacients");
- so-called "menstrual extraction" techniques, a Neofeminist favorite; and
- the use of all intrauterine devices (IUDs), which are all abortifacient and act by preventing the implantation of the already-fertilized zygote (in order for the sanctions [including excommunication] against abortion to be applied, the woman must know that the IUD's action is abortifacient). The modes of action of the IUDs are described in Chapter 2, "Abortifacients."
Go to Next Topic: The Church Penalty for Assisting or Obtaining Abortions: Excommunication!
Return to Catholic Church Teachings on Abortion Table of Contents
Footnotes for “On the Infallibility of Humanae Vitae”
 Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., principle author of Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Freedom, quoted in Russell Shaw. "Answers." National Catholic Register, September 13, 1992, page 4.
 Monsignor William Smith, "Humanae Vitae, Dissent, and Infallibility." Presentation at Human Life International's "Conference on Love, Life, and the Family," held in Santa Barbara, California in March of 1991. This superb talk answers all of the difficult questions that may be posed by pro-aborts on Catholic teaching regarding abortion and artificial contraception. The tape of Msgr. Smith's talk would be very useful as a part of catechism classes and natural family planning presentations, and can be ordered from Human Life International, 4 Family Life, Front Royal, Virginia 22630, telephone: (800) 549-LIFE.
 "Church Elaborates Definition of Abortion." National Catholic Register, December 11, 1988, page 3.