Catholic Church teaching on Contraceptives

pope_francis5Pope Francis’ Exhortation “The Joy of Love” (Amoris Laetitia, 19 March 2016) concluded the Synod on Family and Sexuality (2014-1015). The Pope summarized the outcome of the Synod as a renewed focus on the pastoral principles governing sexuality (see here). But he also spoke about the use of contraceptives. What did he say about this topic?

We have to remember that, before the Synod, the Catholic Church’s stand on contraceptives was anchored in Humanae Vitae, an Encyclical by Pope Paul VI, published on 25 July 1968 (read the document here). Pope John Paul II reiterated and amplified Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. To evaluate Pope Francis’ carefully measured statements in 2016, we have to compare them to statements in Humanae Vitae and in the intensified statements by John Paul II. The comparison will make clear that papal ‘doctrine’ on contraceptives has moved forward — even though it has not totally overturned Humanae Vitae, as most theologians are convinced should be done.

Pope Francis’ statements about the use of contraceptives give rise to eight ‘observations’:

OBSERVATION 1. Pope Francis reiterates that sexual intercourse normally aims at procreation. This should be respected, he says.

“Blessed Paul VI, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, further developed the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family.  In a particular way, with the Encyclical Humanae Vitae he brought out the intrinsic bond between conjugal love and the generation of life: ‘Married love requires of husband and wife the full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood, which today, rightly enough, is much insisted upon, but which at the same time must be rightly understood…  The exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties towards God, themselves, their families and human society’ (Amoris Laetitia, § 68).

  • Note that Pope Francis does not repeat Humanae Vitae‘s contention that the unitive and procreative meanings must always be present in each and every marital act. This is significant, for that affirmation was THE central contention of Humanae Vitae, the key to its interpretation as being part of ‘natural law’  and the pillar on which its total ban of contraceptives rested. Yet here we have Pope Francis silently side-stepping it.
  • Moreover, Pope Francis explicitly refers to an exaggerated interpretation of the ‘unitive bond’ when he states: “We also need to be humble and realistic, acknowledging that at times the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people has helped contribute to today’s problematic situation. We need a healthy dose of self-criticism. Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation.” (Amoris Laetitia, § 36).

OBSERVATION 2. Pope Francis enumerates the wrong kinds of reasons some people have for using contraceptives. These include – to paraphrase his words – open sex with just anybody, fear of over-population, giving priority to personal freedom and life-style.

  • “Furthermore, Synod Father declared that ‘the decline in population, due to a mentality against having children and promoted by the world politics of reproductive health, creates not only a situation in which the relationship between generations is no longer ensured but also the danger that, over time, this decline will lead to economic impoverishment and a loss of hope in the future.  The development of bio-technology has also had a major impact on the birth rate.  Added to this are other factors such as ‘industrialization, the sexual revolution, the fear of overpopulation and economic problems…  Consumerism may also deter people from having children, simply so they can maintain a certain freedom and life-style’.” (Amoris Laetitia, § 42a).
  • “The Synod Fathers stated that ‘the growth of a mentality that would reduce the generation of human life to one variable of an individual’s or a couple’s plans is clearly evident’.  The Church’s teaching is meant to ‘help couples to experience in a complete, harmonious and conscious way their communion as husband and wife, together with their responsibility for procreating life.  We need to return to the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul VI, which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods of regulating birth’.” (Amoris Laetitia, § 82).

OBSERVATION 3. Pope Francis condemns governments politically imposing limits on family size or forcing contraception on people.

“The Church strongly rejects the forced State intervention in favour of contraception, sterilization and even abortion. Such measures are unacceptable even in places with high birth rates, yet also in countries with disturbingly low birth rates we see politicians encouraging them.  As the bishops of Korea have said, this is “to act in a way that is self-contradictory and to neglect one’s duty” (Amoris Laetitia, § 42c).

OBSERVATION 4. Like his predecessors Pope Francis accepts birth control in principle: parents have the right and duty to plan their families prudently.

  • “In accord with the personal and fully human character of conjugal love, family planning fittingly takes place as the result of a consensual dialogue between the spouses, respect for times and consideration of the dignity of the partner.  In this sense, the teaching of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae and the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio ought to be taken up anew, in order to counter a mentality that is often hostile to life… Decisions involving responsible parenthood presupposes the formation of conscience, which is ‘the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There each one is alone with God, whose voice echoes in the depths of the heart’ (Gaudium et Spes, 16).  The more the couple tries to listen in conscience to God and his commandments (cf. Rom 2:15), and is accompanied spiritually, the more their decision will be profoundly free of subjective caprice and accommodation to prevailing social mores”. The clear teaching of the Second Vatican Council still holds: ‘[The couple] will make decisions by common counsel and effort.  Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring.  For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life.  Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society and of the Church herself.” (Amoris Laetitia, § 222a).
  • “The upright consciences of spouses who have been generous in transmitting life may lead them, for sufficiently serious reasons, to limit the number of their children” (Amoris Laetitia, § 42b).

OBSERVATION 5. Like his predecessors Pope Francis favours birth control during a woman’s monthly period of infertility.

“The use of methods based on the ‘laws of nature and the incidence of fertility’ (Humanae Vitae, 11) are to be promoted, since ‘these methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them and favour the education of an authentic freedom’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2370).  Greater emphasis needs to be placed on the fact that children are a wonderful gift from God and a joy for parents and the Church. Through them, the Lord renews the world” (Amoris Laetitia, § 222b).

OBSERVATION 6. BUT Pope Francis avoids characterising artificial contraception as ‘contrary to the law of nature’ as affirmed by Pope Paul VI.

Read the following extracts:

pope_paulviPaul VI in 1968. “The Church in urging people to observe the precepts of the natural law . . . teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” (§ 11) “This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which human beings on their own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act. The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman.” (§ 12) pope_francis2Pope Francis does not repeat Humanae Vitae‘s contention that artificial contraception goes against the law of nature or against the laws laid down by God the Creator.

OBSERVATION 7. Pope Francis omits the blunt condemnation of artificial contraception as ‘intrisically evil’ affirmed by Pope John Paul II . This omission is highly significant because, if intrisically evil, the use of contraception could never be justified.

pope_johnpaul2John Paul II in 1981. “Paul VI affirmed that the teaching of the Church is founded upon 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. And he concluded by re-emphasizing that there must be excluded as intrinsically immoral every action which, either 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. When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion, they act as ‘arbiters’ of the divine plan and they ‘manipulate’ and degrade human sexuality-and with it themselves and their married partner-by altering its value of ‘total’ self-giving.” Familiaris Consortio (22 November 1981, § 32)

John Paul II in 1992. “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” (Canon 2370). Catechism of the Catholic Church (25 June 1992)

pope_francis2Pope Francis never calls artificial birth control ‘intrinsically evil’.

In view of the strong statements by his predecessors, this omission is significant.

For actions that are intrinsically evil admit of no exception. We have to avoid them at all times and at all costs. In September 1990, John Paul II ruled out the use of condoms to block the spread of AIDS in Africa. He told his audience that condoms were a sin in any circumstances.

trujillo2Cardinal Trujillo López (presumably with the approval of John Paul II) in 1997. “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.” Pontifical Council for the Family, Vademecum for Confessors (2 Feb 1997) ch. 2 § 4.

In 2003 Cardinal Trujillo López contradicted scientific evidence by claiming that condoms are permeable to the AIDS virus. It caused an uproar. The Cardinal died in 2008.

pope_francis2Saying that a teaching is ‘definitive and irreformable’ comes close to stating that it is infallible(!).

Pope Francis would certainly not agree to this. He even avoids the labels of ‘intrinsic evil’ and ‘against natural law’.

Pope Francis’ position is even made clearer by the occurrence of two exceptions mentioned by Popes in recent years.

  • pope_benedictxviIn 2010 Pope Benedict XVI stated in the context of condoms to fight AIDS:“There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.
    The Church of course does not regard [the use of condoms] as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” Interview with journalist Peter Seewald in Light of the World (Ignatius Press 2010).
  • pope_francis2In February 2016, on his flight back from Mexico, Pope Francis indicated that the Zika-virus pandemic requires a change in the Church’s policies on contraception. In that drastic situation, the principle of “Humanae Vitae” simply does not apply. Francis indicated that it would be permissible for women who had been exposed to the Zika virus to use contraception in order to avoid passing the disease on to their children. “Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil,” he said—in contrast with abortion, which still would be.

OBSERVATION 8. CRUCIALLY, Pope Francis states that conscience remains the ultimate subjective norm of morality even if an action were to be contrary to ‘natural law’.

  • “A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, ‘sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families. Along these same lines, the International Theological Commission has noted that ‘natural law may not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions’.” (Amoris Laetitia, § 305).
  • This is what the International Theological Commission said: “Moral science cannot furnish an acting subject with a norm to be applied adequately and almost automatically to concrete situations; only the conscience of the subject, the judgment of his practical reason, can formulate the immediate norm of action. But at the same time, this approach does not abandon conscience to mere subjectivity: it aims at having the subject acquire the intellectual and affective dispositions which allow him to be open to moral truth, so that his judgment may be adequate. Natural law could not, therefore, be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making a decision.” (International Theological Commission, In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at Natural Law (2009), § 59.
  • It is also worth noting that the ‘pastoral solution through personal conscience’ was possibly also in the mind of Pope Paul VI, the author of Humanae Vitae. On this we have the reliable testimony of Cardinal Martini. He maintains that Pope Paul VI did acknowledge exceptions in unusual circumstances and that he expected theologians and bishops to remind people of their conscience as their ultimate norm of right and wrong. That is, seemingly, why he accepted the advice of those bishops’ conferences who re-affirmed personal conscience. But if this is so, we wonder why Paul VI failed to express this in Humanae Vitae, which is so uncompromising throughout. Read more.

Read here on the primacy of personal conscience as re-affirmed in “The Joy of Love.”


wijngaards Papal teaching on contraception has developped since Humanae Vitae (1968). In “The Joy of Love” Pope Francis does not label contraception as going against natural law or being intrinsically evil. He seems to acknowledge that exceptional circumstances can make contraceptives licit.

The main achievement of “The Joy of Love” is that it officially re-affirms conscience as as the ultimate judge for the individual on what is right and what is wrong. This he also applies to contraception.

It remains regrettable that Pope Francis could not take the final step and abolish the official total ban of contraception.

John Wijngaards