Birth Control and Church Authority

This post is an analysis of the theology in an article by Dr. Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University. The article was published in the New York Times: Birth Control, Bishops and Religious Authority (15 Feb 2012). Gutting offers a philosophical argument to the conclusion that: “The immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church.” However, his argument has serious flaws.

Dr. Gutting begins by referencing the HHS Mandate controversy, and by asserting that “98 percent of sexually active American Catholic women practice birth control, and 78 percent of Catholics think a ‘good Catholic’ can reject the bishops’ teaching on birth control.” The 98% claim is refuted in my article: Do 98% of U.S. Catholic women use contraception?

The problem with the 78% figure is that this type of survey includes many persons who attend Mass rarely or not at all. Persons who do not practice the Catholic Faith likely do not believe Catholic teaching. Many self-identified Catholics do not believe or practice the Catholic religion. So the inclusion of such persons in any survey substantially affects the numbers that Gutting cites.

For example, a Pew Forum study, in 2009, found that 67% of Catholics who attend Mass weekly are opposed to legalized abortion. But for Catholics who attend Mass less frequently or not at all, only 29% oppose legalized abortion. More than half of the Catholics surveyed (54.4%) said that they attend Mass less frequently than once a week or not at all.

Gutting’s argument about what the majority of Catholic believe depends on his definition of Catholic, essentially as anyone who calls themselves Catholic. To the contrary, I suggest that it is more reasonable to identify a person as Catholic if he or she practices the Catholic Faith.

Despite Gutting’s mistaken numbers, it is true that a significant percentage of church-going Catholics reject the teaching of the Church on birth control. But Dr. Gutting knows what the response to any ‘majority rules’ argument will be:

Gutting: “The response from the church, however, has been that, regardless of what the majority of Catholics do and think, the church’s teaching is that birth control is morally wrong. The church, in the inevitable phrase, ‘is not a democracy’. What the church teaches is what the bishops (and, ultimately, the pope, as head of the bishops) say it does.”

Gutting claims that there is no basis for the idea that the Pope and the Bishops have the authority from God to decide matters of faith or morals: “Who decides that God has given, say, the Catholic bishops his authority?” He’s right in a number of responses to this question. It can’t be the Bishops who give themselves authority. We can’t merely take their word that God has given them authority. And religious authority can’t come from secular government, nor any secular power. So far, he is correct. Then he draws a false conclusion:

Gutting: “In our democratic society the ultimate arbiter of religious authority is the conscience of the individual believer. It follows that there is no alternative to accepting the members of a religious group as themselves the only legitimate source of the decision to accept their leaders as authorized by God. They may be wrong, but their judgment is answerable to no one but God. In this sense, even the Catholic Church is a democracy.”

This argument is self-contradictory. He already stated that religious authority cannot come from any secular power. But then he cites “our democratic society” as the basis for his assertion that democracy is the source of religious authority. Even though he begins by saying that the conscience of the individual is that source, he quickly transforms this into a ‘majority rules’ argument. So his source for Catholic religious authority is the majority opinion of Catholics. This brings us back to the problem of including anyone who calls themselves Catholic in this group who supposedly can decide doctrine based on majority opinion.

An interesting microcosm of Gutting’s approach has already been suggested by at least one college. A particular college instituted a rule that no student group could limit membership based on what a prospective member believes. Then leadership of the group would be determined by a vote of the members. The problem that Christian groups raised concerning this system is that non-Christians could enter their group, out vote the Christian members, and turn the group into a non-believing organization.

The same result would occur to the Church on earth, if a Catholic is anyone who calls himself Catholic, and if the beliefs of the Church were determined by a ‘majority rules’ approach. The Catholic Church would eventually cease to be a religion. It would be replaced with a group of persons who believe whatever happens to be the ever-changing opinion of the majority of the members. Such a group is indistinguishable from democratic secular society.

Another problem with Gutting’s argument is his assertion that “there is no alternative” to a majority rules approach. In fact, there is an alternative. It is true that the Bishops cannot establish their authority by their own assertions. They cannot give themselves authority, or merely state, without any basis, that God gave them authority. But Gutting utterly ignores the Founder of the Catholic Christian Faith — Jesus Christ.

It is Jesus who gave His divine authority to the Church, to Peter and his successors, the Popes, to the Apostles and their successors, the Bishops. How did Jesus establish His authority? By proving that He is the Son of God. By performing miracles, and ultimately by dying and rising from the dead. If Christ has not risen, then our Faith is in vain. But He has risen, so our Faith has a firm foundation.

This is always the way with the all-too-common ‘majority rules’ argument for religious belief. Very quickly, the adherents of this view move away from Christ, and toward ever-increasing secularism. A religion based on the majority view of sinners, living in a sinful secular world, will always become more and more like sinful secular society, until it is indistinguishable from that secular society.


Gutting’s conclusion is as follows: “The bishops’ claim to authority in this matter has been undermined because Catholics have decisively rejected it. The immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church…. In fact the issue has been settled by the voice of the Catholic people.”

In his article, Dr. Gary Gutting publicly expresses two heresies:

(1) that the Pope and the Bishops of the Church lack the authority to teaching definitively;
(2) that the immorality of birth control is not a teaching of the Catholic Church.

Like most persons who argue against Church teaching on contraception, he implies that Humanae Vitae is the sole source of that authoritative teaching. To the contrary, Casti Connubii, Second Vatican Council, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Familiaris Consortio, and many other magisterial documents teach the same doctrine. As Pope Pius XI points out by quoting Saint Augustine, the teaching against birth control is an ancient teaching:

Pope Pius XI: “Small wonder, therefore, if Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death. As St. Augustine notes, ‘Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it.’ ” (Casti Connubii, n. 55.)

The teaching of the Magisterium against contraception is the constant teaching of successive Popes and of the body of Bishops dispersed through the world, and therefore, this teaching is infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium. (See Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, n. 25, for an explanation of this type of infallibility.)

Even more important is the teaching, also under the ordinary and universal Magisterium, that the Church does have authority from Jesus Christ to teach definitively, even infallibly, and to require Catholics to adhere to that teaching.

By knowingly choosing to reject both of these infallible teachings, on the authority of the Magisterium and on the immorality of contraception, Gary Gutting commits the grave sin of formal heresy. His sin is made graver still by the grave scandal caused by his public proclamation of these heresies.

Automatic Excommunication

Canon 751: “Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith….”

Canon 1364, n 1: “an apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”

Because he has committed the sin of formal heresy, Gary Gutting is automatically excommunicated. He is no longer a Catholic; he has been cut off from the Church by his own deliberate and knowing sin of rejecting definitive Church teaching. And the same is true for all persons who call themselves Catholic and yet reject the authority of the Church, and the teaching of the Magisterium on contraception, or abortion, or same-sex marriage, or any other definitive and infallible teaching. All such persons commit the grave sin of heresy and are excommunicated from the Church.

The idea is absurd and wicked that a set of excommunicated heretics, by sheer number, could give themselves the authority to change the teachings of Jesus Christ, expressed through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the one true Church.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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