Can the Pope Have the Question of Contraception Reviewed?

Our analysis concerns a question that has circulated around the Catholic Church in Italy, Germany and in the USA since 11 May as important news. It is based on an assumption that has arisen from the post of a noted expert of the Vatican, namely Marco Tosatti. According to this, Pope Francis intends to set up a commission in order to examine how the encyclical Humanae vitae published in 1968, discussing sexual ethical questions, could be evaluated in light of the last 50 years. In the following, we are going to consider the effects this step may have in the Catholic Church.

As it is known, the last encyclical of Paul VI was Humanae vitae, which, even though it was pontificated by Pope Montini for ten years, was not followed by any further encyclical. This was interpreted by many as reticence from the pope, who previously actively revealed himself in this form. This encyclical is primarily noted for reinforcing the claim among other topics, opposing the sexual revolution in 1968 following the Prague Spring, along the rigorist Augustinian principles of sexuality within marriage, that any artificial way of contraception is evil in itself. It suggested the so called ‘natural family planning’ based on the observation of women’s menstrual cycle as the only supportable method for those who temporarily wish to refrain from child birth as Catholics:

Similarly 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.

[…] Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong. (Humanae vitae 14)

Although the preparatory commission not only not supported this teaching of the encyclical, but was also expressly against it, it was nevertheless published; it is thus clear that we may consider it the pope’s own decision. The decision, which has significant authority in ethical questions, was received with surprisingly intensive opposition by Catholic believers, while the conservative layer of the clergy and laymen interpreted the declaration of Paul VI as a prophetic action. Many episcopal conferences started to explain the encyclical of the pope, emphasizing the possibility of inherent pastoral care Masses of believers, however, have been continuously opposing this ethical teaching in the practice of married life since then, and have avoided the Holy Communion and confession for this reason. The teaching of Humane vitae has not ceased to be the disputed topic of moral theologists, Catholic families and the clergy in the last 50 years. By continuing ambiguous communication, many priests officially represent the teaching of HV in public for example in the question of contraception, but in private or in the confessional they excuse people for not adhering to it in effect even in Eastern Europe.

VI. Pál

This is why it is understandable why the news, which are leaking out not only from Tosatti but also from other, not official Vatican sources, excited Germany basically representing the progressive theological school, and Catholicism in the highly conservative USA, or Italy, which is in between. In Germany, the first reflection more extensive than Tosatti’s and written by Giuseppe Nardi was published on 15 May. In the USA, an article by Maike Hickson about the topic was published for example on the portal Onepeterfive from among conservative sites on 17 May in which he, based on his own, also not official Vatican sources, reinforced that a commission of secretly selected members is under convening or has already convened, which may start or have started the revision of the teaching of Humanae vitae. A day later another conservative portal, The Catholic World Report published the concerned commentary of Russel Show in connection with the news. Although the latter acknowledges that the Vatican did not want to either reinforce or refute the news so far, but after Tosatti’s post the writing assumes even the lack of refutation meaningful.

The author of the article proceeds even further when he assumes the drafting of an imaginary report, which this review commission could hand over to the pope at the end of their work in order to change the teaching of Humanae vitae. According to the vivid imagination of Russel Show, the report could argue, for instance, that the claims set forth by Paul VI only showed a respectable, ideal direction in 1968. The ideal, however, cannot be identical with the norm. If a declaration of the difference between ideal and norm could at all be possible concerning the statements of Catholic sexual ethics about contraception, then the norm could be reformulated, according to which the non-abortive but artificial methods of birth control (e.g. the use of condoms) could also be legalized.

The whole line of guessing has two really important stakes; one has practical, the other has theoretical significance with wider influence. If such a commission indeed set up which, also based on the results of the questionnaire published before the 2014 Synod on the family for example, faced that most Catholics cannot accept the teaching of Humanae vitae about contraception within marriage even today, a practical result could be the acceptance of non-abortive but artificial birth control methods. This could clarify an important question of conscience in the life of Catholic married couples on a practical level. The theoretical possibility of the reevaluation of the magisterial declaration would be even more significant than this specific ethical question. Why?

The key of the reception of Humanae vitaeThe questions concerning contraception in the present sense signify a specifically modern problem primarily of the 20th and 21st centuries, since before the ‘discovery’ of the ovum in the 19th century, family planning could only try lopsided approaches due to our lack of biological knowledge. It was Pius XI who first dealt with the modern questions of contraception through papal magisterial declaration in the encyclical entitled Casti connubii in 1930. The heir of this encyclical is Humanae vitae of 1968. The latter has already attenuated the view of Pius XI, so it has brought an ethical theological change in the judgment of the question. In the time of John Paul II, however, the story was enriched by a new circumstance. Alfonso López Trujillo, who was appointed bishop by Paul VI at the age of 36, remarkably young due to his rigorist principles, became the Cardinal President of the Pontifical Council for the Family in 1990 thanks to John Paul II. He issued the writing entitled Vademecum for Confessors in 1997 in this function, as the President of the Council. This Pontifical Council basically has a right to form an opinion in questions concerning the family, and as a body of the Roman Curia, it shares the magisterial and pastoral authority of the pope. Thus although his statements do not have the power of the pope’s ex cathedra declarations, they are important reference points in the teachings of the Catholic Church. This document placed the sexual ethical views of Paul VI published in Humane vitae into the so called ‘definitive teaching’ category directly following the teaching of dogmas, by asserting the sentences below:

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. (Vademecum for confessors 2.4)

If we are only familiar with the historical data presented above, we may already know that the truthfulness of the first sentence is questionable in this form. Moreover, the knowledge of the complete history of theology makes it unambiguous that from several conceptions validly coexisting with each other, only one is represented by Casti connubii, Humanae vitae and after this, Vademecum for Confessors cited above. The Church did not always claim that every marital act deliberately has to be open to fertility. For support, it is enough to refer from the modern times to the widely spread moral theological views of Alphonse de Liguori for example. Therefore, this declaration of a new view based on the misreading of the holy tradition was a heavy and bold step from Cardinal Trujillo. It is a fact, however, that in lack of a higher magisterial declaration, the Pontifical Council for the Family presided by Trujillo presently considers this teaching definitive, therefore irreformable despite the false justification, and those propagating conservative sexual ethical principles have been fondly referring to this fact. This is how this reference could be included, for instance, in a broadcast of the video blog of 777 (from 5:58) in Hungary.

Although the definitive category is itself questionable due to the changes already noted above and the fact that it is based on a falsehood in a historical sense, if Pope Francis has indeed convened a commission reviewing the teaching of Humanae vitae and if the commission issues a report based on which the Roman pope proposes a doctrinal change in this ethical question, then a doctrine considered definitive by the conservative side will change by the proposition. It was not a problem before that Paul VI eased the opinion of Pius XI, because the teaching was not claimed to be definitive and thus irreformable on any level. In 1997, however, the Pontifical Council for the Family tried to use this label on the teaching about contraception. Therefore, in the long term, if a papal declaration touches this teaching, the essence of definitive teachings will be lost. Thus only the dogmas would remain irreformable declarations of teaching, although the development of dogmas makes the deeper understanding of truth possible by clarifying the historical situation.

Therefore, a change of quality in ethical theological forms in the short term and magisterial ones in the long term could follow from a review, which also directly leads to the direct change of ecclesiological or doctrinal questions. On the basis of my research so far, I believe the review of Humanae vitae and thus a change in teachings have no theological obstacle, primarily because this teaching originally cannot be regarded as definitive. For those not sharing this opinion, however, it should be declared in a direct papal encyclical that in the question of contraception we cannot speak of a closed and final teaching, but in accordance with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (GS 52), we are on a quest: in line with the researches of biologists, doctors, psychologists and theologians, we are in search of satisfying and feasible solutions in the Catholic Church. It is a question whether Francis brings into effect the guessing based on possibilities. And if he does, what doors will he open and what will he close?