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About that ‘Humanae vitae’ rumor

July 11, 2017

Too many Roman rumors, it seems of late, have turned out to be true (or close enough to true) to rule out recent rumors that a “papal commission” has been set up “to reconsider” (perhaps as a step toward repudiating?) Bl. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae (1968). In any event, a few observations.

1. Humanae vitae itself, as brilliant as it was and as prophetic as it turned out to be, was not an infallible exercise of the (papal) magisterium. But rather than defend that view against the few serious-thinking Catholics who might disagree let me move directly to my second point.

2. In my opinion the central teaching in Humanae vitae—that contraception between married couples (both terms being correctly understood) is intrinsically evil—is a proposition infallibly taught by the (ordinary universal) magisterium of the Church. I say this in light of my third point.

3. That the substance of Humanae vitae is infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium is masterfully argued in: John Ford & Germain Grisez, “Contraception and the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium”, Theological Studies 39 (1978) 258-312. This article expands on ideas considered in John Ford & Gerald Kelly, “Can the Catholic Teaching Change?”, in their Contemporary Moral Theology  (Newman Press, 1963) II: 256-278, but the 1963 article, while very good, need not be read in order to follow the 1978 discussion. If Ford and Grisez are correct (as I think they are, even in the face of some important challenges over the years) then no substantive modification of Humanae vitae can be wrought by any commission, papal, dicasterial, or otherwise.

4. What one could imagine being discussed hereabouts is whether the rejection of contraception set forth (I would say, infallibly) in regard to conjugal relations is applicable to non-conjugal relations. Some theologians, solidly committed to defending Church teaching against conjugal contraception, have flagged the fact that the anti-contraception tradition, witnessed to in Humanae vitae, has been clearly articulated, so far at least, only in regard to conjugal sex. See, e.g., Ramón García de Haro (Spanish priest, 1931-1996), Marriage in the Documents of the Magisterium: a course in the theology of marriage (Ignatius, 1993) 297-298. To be sure, others (including the esteemed William E. May, translator of García de Haro) argue that the Church’s rejection of contraception between married couples, already part of the infallible magisterium, also applies to non-conjugal sex (sex that is, of course, by definition, objectively immoral); but it is also possible that the Church’s rejection of conjugal contraception does not apply outside of that context. I grant, of course, that explaining that difference, not to mention keeping it from morphing into a license for all sorts of morally illicit acts, would not be easy in age ill-equipped to follow subtle discussions and ill-disposed toward even trying, but for those respectful of the Church’s tradition of precision in complex matters, drawing the distinction seems a possibility.

In any case, my main point is this: before any commission or study group could move against the substance of the Church’s teaching reflected in Humanae vitae, the arguments for its infallible certainty, arguments set forth and steadily defended by Ford and Grisez, would need to be addressed and soundly rejected.

Something I don’t see happening. At all.

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