The conjugal act by which the couple mutually express their self-gift at the same time expresses openness to the gift of life. It is an act that is inseparably corporal and spiritual. It is in their bodies and through their bodies that the spouses consummate their marriage and are able to become father and mother. In order to respect the language of their bodies and their natural generosity, the conjugal union must take place with respect for its openness to procreation… Contraception deliberately deprives the conjugal act of its openness to procreation and in this way brings about a voluntary dissociation of the ends of marriage.
― Donum vitae, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Catholic theologians are expressing alarm after a Vatican institute originally founded by Pope St. John Paul II to defend Catholic teaching on life and family has instead published a book that includes sections that appears to undermine Catholic teaching, particularly on the issue of contraception.
The book, entitled Theological Ethics of Life, collects the proceedings of a three-day seminar that was hosted by the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV) at the Vatican from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1 in 2021.
While the book is not yet available in English, the National Catholic Register has published a lengthy analysis of key sections. In the introduction, Academy for Life President Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia calls for a “paradigm shift” in moral theology. Part of this paradigm shift, it seems, may include rejecting the Church’s perennial teaching that artificial contraception is – as Pope St. Paul VI stated in Humanae vitae – “intrinsically wrong.”
As the Register reports, one section suggests that since there are “conditions and practical circumstances that would make the choice to generate irresponsible,” a married couple may decide to resort “with a wise choice” to contraceptives, “obviously excluding abortive ones.”
In a response to this essay, the Archbishop of Lima, Msgr. Carlos Castillo Mattasoglio, noted that “a church that trusts in the human and spiritual maturity of its people cannot reduce the behavior of believers to mere normative formulas.”
Shifting Tones at the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV)
Pro-lifers and family advocates worldwide know the PAV as one of the most stalwart defenders of the sanctity of human life and family. This is hardly surprising, since the Academy was founded by the late Pope St. John Paul II, sometimes referred to as the “pope of life,” precisely in order to develop, teach, and promulgate the teachings he had done so much to defend in magnificent encyclicals such as Evangelium vitae and Familiaris consortio, as well as in his “Theology of the Body” addresses and private writings.
However, the PAV has been the center of considerable controversy in recent years. In 2016, Pope Francis approved new statutes for the Academy, at which point the terms of all the members automatically expired. While some of the previous members were re-invited to the newly formed institute, many were not. Meanwhile, a variety of new members were added, which included members of other faiths and non-believers.
Long-time observers of the Academy have noted a significant shift in tone. That shift seemed particularly stark in the PAV’s statement in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Rather than enthusiastically welcoming the decision or highlighting the human lives that would be saved as a result, the PAV put out what struck many as a surprisingly guarded statement, noting that abortion is an issue that “continues to arouse heated debate” and calling for “reasoned reflection and civil dialogue.”
PAV Responses are Conflicting
This new book only seems to confirm fears that the PAV is losing its way.
One member of the Academy responded to the news of the publication of the book with surprise. “As a member of the PAL [Pontifical Academy for Life]: the book is not an official statement but the seminar records in which 20 people made their personal statements,” wrote Elena Postigo, director of the UFV Institute of Bioethics, on Twitter. “Many members didn’t know about it and are astonished.”
The Academy itself is advancing contradictory positions when it comes to how we are to interpret this book. In an online exchange, someone posting from the official Twitter feed of the institute said that there was “no deviation” from Catholic teaching in the book, but only “debate and dialogue.” They also criticized the National Catholic Register article as an “incorrect” summary and suggested that people should read the entire book before making judgments.
On the other hand, the Academy also proactively highlighted chapter seven, which they said includes the topic “that is likely to draw most attention”, i.e., “the revisiting of the question regarding the use of artificial contraceptives.”
Changing Moral Truths is Relativism
In response to a Tweet suggesting that the PAV should “condemn dissent,” the Academy tweeted that “what is dissent today, can change.” According to the person tweeting from the PAV account, “this is not relativism.” The account then noted that scientific knowledge has advanced, so that we now know that “the Sun does not rotate around the earth.” “Otherwise, there would be no progress, and everything would stand still,” it added. “Even in theology. Think about it.”
In other words, despite protestations that the book is merely about “debate and dialogue,” and only includes the “private” reflections of certain individuals, the PAV clearly thinks of this debate and dialogue as tending in a certain direction, i.e., away from official Catholic teaching on contraception, and towards something new. Clearly, whoever was posting from the PAV is excited about the possibility of a theological “inversion,” similar to when scientists realized that the sun doesn’t move around the earth, but in this case in relation to sexual ethics.
Of course, ethics is not astronomy. While astronomers and other scientists working in the “hard” sciences might well discover things that no one has ever dreamt of before, and thus upend their whole discipline, ethics does not and cannot change in this way. What was wrong yesterday is wrong today.
For example, certain kinds of evils known as “intrinsic” evils can never be permitted, i.e., contraception, abortion, euthanasia, murder, and racism. All intrinsically evil acts are always wrong, immoral for the same reason: evil in the moral object of the knowingly chosen act. Hence, contraception does not become “not-contraception” by the absence of contraceptive intent, or due to a dire circumstance, or because of a medical rationale to relieve suffering, or because of popular opinion that wishes it were moral. Nothing can transform an intrinsically evil act into a good act. To say otherwise is, indeed, “relativism” – contrary to the PAV’s Twitter protestations.
Will Pope Francis Respond with a New Encyclical?
However, given the level of confidence that Pope Francis has shown in his apparent support of the PAV, some are worried that the Holy Father might intend to take up the Academy’s suggestions. Others, it seems, are hopeful. One Jesuit writer, who recently published a long essay in the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica summarizing the PAV’s new book, seemed to welcome the idea that Pope Francis might issue a new encyclical on bioethical issues.
“It is legitimate to ask if Pope Francis will give us a new encyclical or apostolic exhortation on bioethics that might be called ‘Gaudium Vitae.’ [‘The Joy of Life’],” said Jorge José Ferrer, S.J., the author of the essay, according to America Magazine. (It is surely of interest that the PAV Twitter accounted posted the America article, highlighting the encyclical speculation).
We should not take this idea lightly. We know for a fact that Pope Francis pays extremely close attention to La Civilta Cattolica. He has repeatedly given long interviews to the journal (the latest one was published just a few weeks ago) and has repeatedly commented on essays that have appeared in its pages. If La Civilta Cattolica is calling for an encyclical promoting a “paradigm shift” in bioethics, we can be relatively sure that Pope Francis is at least aware of this.
Indeed, as the America article about the PAV’s book noted, “Pope Francis, according to Archbishop Paglia, had been fully informed of the process and knew about the preliminary text and the discussion at the seminar, and agreed that its proceedings be published in book form.”
Societal Pressure Does Not Change Truth
This whole controversy is, to put it mildly, quite concerning. The entire history of Christian moral teaching is unambiguous on the question of artificial contraception. The Christian church has always considered it intrinsically immoral, a teaching that was strongly and unambiguously reaffirmed by Pope St. Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae (promulgated 54 years today).
Despite the fact that this encyclical was met with howls of outrage from proponents of the sexual revolution, both within and without the Church, subsequent popes have strongly defended this teaching. Indeed, St. John Paul II did yeoman’s labor in unpacking and popularizing the deep wisdom in the Church’s sexual teachings throughout his pontificate.
It is true that a large percentage of Catholics currently ignore the Church’s teaching on contraception. However, it has been fascinating to witness in recent years a shift, as not only many Catholics, but even many secularists, have come to recognize that contraception has come with enormous costs to the health of society, marriages, and the women who have born the brunt of the cost.
It is not the Church’s job to conform to society, but rather to call society to something higher. As Pope St. Paul VI realized, our culture’s embrace of contraception stems from distorted attitudes toward creation, characterized by a desire to dominate nature, imposing our own design and will. We want to decide what is reality and deem it into existence. For us, freedom of choice is no longer a power to choose to do what is right, but rather to do whatever we desire without reference to any objective standard.
Based on this view, every behavior treats the human person as some-thing to be used rather than some-one, a gift to be received. Part of the attempt to replace Christianity with this ethic of dominance and self-will is the normalization of new sexual mores: contraception, promiscuity, abortion, gender confusion, etc. Whatever we wish to be, we are. Whatever we wish to do, we can do. Whatever we wish sex to be for us, it is.
The promoters of contraception promise a consequence-free control over our lives if we could just control our fertility with their drugs and devices. All the pleasure, none of that inconvenient fertility. My body is not me, exactly, it is an object for me to control for whatever reason I want; so, sex is just about my pleasure, and maybe someone else’s too. It is not necessarily about giving myself to the one I love with the possibility of creating new life as a result of that gift.
The Church Must Stand Strong on Contraception
Against this attitude, Pope St. Paul VI reaffirmed that “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” (Humanae vitae, no. 14). Leaving no doubt as to the authoritativeness of this teaching, he also wrote, “This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (Humanae vitae, no. 12).
It is hard to imagine how the Church could pursue a “paradigm shift” on an issue on which multiple popes, and the entire Christian tradition, have been in harmony. Such a paradigm shift would appear to be – and indeed, would be – an abandonment by the Church of a teaching that the world is desperately in need of. Everywhere you look, you can see the rotten fruit of the embrace of contraception over self-control, which Pope St. Paul VI warned us of. Sex has been degraded to a mere pastime, pornography with its objectification of women (and men!) is endemic, coercive population control has taken root all over the world, and marriage has fallen apart. For the Church to send up the white flag now, would be a betrayal of its sacred duty to call its members to conversion.
Of course, we believe that the Holy Spirit guides his Church, and that the papacy is the rock upon which it was founded. We must trust that our Holy Father will be protected from formally promulgating error. However, we know from past experience that much damage can still be done by weak leaders using coy or deceptive tactics to tacitly undermine Church teaching. We must pray for our Holy Father and for all our Church leaders, that they will rediscover and defend the Church’s teaching courageously, and without compromise. What we need now is not further retreat or confusion, but heroic spiritual leaders to lead us with clarity and conviction.