Jimmy Akin versus the Magisterium on Contraception, part 2

As I mentioned in the previous article on this topic, Jimmy Akin claims that the Magisterium has no teaching on the morality of contraception outside of marriage. He mentions this claim a number of times in his posts. Here is one example:

“I am sympathetic to the desire to find in recent Magisterial statements a ban on contraception regardless of the circumstances. Indeed, I used to hold that this is what the documents said (in part because I was using faulty translations that rendered ‘coniugale commercium’ as ‘sexual act’ rather than ‘marital act’ or, even more literally, ‘marital congress’ or ‘marital intercourse’).

Over time, and in consultation with various Latin experts and experts in moral theology, I came to realize that this view is incorrect and that in its recent statements the Magisterium has limited itself to treating the use of contraception within marriage.” (Jimmy Akin, The Meaning of ‘Marital Intercourse’)

There are three main problems with the above quote and with the whole post from which it is taken:

1. the claim that the Vatican translation of Humanae Vitae is faulty
2. the claim that intrinsically evil acts are not always immoral regardless of circumstances
3. the claim that the Magisterium has never taught that contraception is immoral outside of marriage

All three claims are provably false. Furthermore, the teaching of the Magisterium on contraception and on intrinsically evil acts is infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium, and so the rejection of these teachings is the grave sin of heresy. Jimmy Akin frequently uses his blog to teach grave heresies to his readers — and they don’t seem to mind.

Here is another post by Akin, which makes the same claim about the Latin text: Conjugal Relations. He asserts that the Latin terms used in Humanae Vitae to refer to sexual intercourse are limited to sexual relations in marriage, because the text should instead read: “marital intercourse”. Partly on the basis of this claim of a translation error, he concludes that contraception has only been condemned by the Magisterium within marriage.

Akin asserts that his understanding of the Latin is based on:

“(a) my knowledge of Latin, (b) what dictionaries of ecclesiastical Latin say, (c) the structure of the passage, (d) the concurrence of the translation of the same passage in the English version of the CCC, and (e) the concurrence of other Latinists who I know….”

(a) Concerning Akin’s claimed knowledge of Latin, here is a post (Latin-Speaking Guy Or Gal Needed!) in which Akin asks for help translating Latin from anyone who might contact him by e-mail and claim to know Latin. He obviously is not an experienced and competent translator of Latin. And he thinks that he can find a better translator than himself by posting a request on the internet. Where were these other “Latinists”, whom he supposedly knows, when he needed translation help?

(b) Concerning what dictionaries of Latin say, the translation of any language is not done by looking up each word in the dictionary. The translator must understand the text in the original language and in context. When I read a passage from the Bible in Latin, I am able to understand the meaning from the Latin, without first translating the text in my mind. When I translate a passage from Latin, I understand the meaning in context, not as individual isolated words.

More to the point, when you look up an adjective in the Latin dictionary, like conjugale, the meaning of the adjective is based on the meaning of the root word, a noun, conjugium (the -al ending makes it an adjective). As an example, Cassell’s Latin dictionary has this definition of the noun conjugium: “a close connection”, and of the verb, conjugo: “to bind together, connect.” So even the Latin dictionary indicates that this Latin term is not restricted to marriage. See my full explanation here.

In addition, the magisterial document Casti Connubii uses the same Latin term to refer specifically to sexual relations outside of marriage (see this article, section 4.), thereby proving that when the Magisterium uses that term, it is not limited to marital intercourse, but refers to sexual relations in general.

(c) Concerning the structure of the passage, Humanae Vitae bases its condemnation of contraception on “laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman.” (Humanae Vitae 12) And Pope John Paul II says much the same thing; he finds the basis for the immorality of contraception “inscribed in the being of man and woman” (Familiaris Consortio 32) and in God’s plan for sexual communion and human sexuality. The nature or being of man and woman is independent of whether they are married. Of course, to avoid sin all sexual acts must be marital, unitive, and procreative. But the deprivation of the procreative meaning is a sin, regardless of whether the marital meaning is present or absent. When both the marital and procreative meanings are absent, then the act is more gravely disordered.

And on both points, (b) and (c) above: The official translation of Humanae Vitae does NOT say marital intercourse. The passage specifically says “sexual intercourse” as well as “procreative acts” (Humanae Vitae 14). Who do you think knows Latin better, Jimmy Akin — who needed to ask for help translating a brief 1400 word Latin text from any random person on the internet: Latin-Speaking Guy Or Gal Needed! — or the official translators used by the Vatican? Moreover, this translation of Humanae Vitae has stood unchanged for over 40 years. This encyclical is one of the most prominent and most cited magisterial documents, and is frequently cited by Bishops around the world. Do you really believe that Akin sees a translation error — one that supposedly changes the meaning of the doctrine — which the Bishops do not see? Who knows Latin better, the many Bishops and Cardinals of the Church, or Jimmy Akin and his unnamed “Latinists”?

As for myself, I have looked at the Latin text of Humanae Vitae and other documents, and I find that the official Vatican translation (sexual intercourse, not marital intercourse) is correct. How well do I know Latin? Well enough to translate the entire Bible from Latin into English.

My very thorough explanation on the proper translation of the Latin words in question is here: On the Latin text of Humanae Vitae.

(d) Akin also cite “the concurrence” of the same passage in the CCC, by which he means that the CCC quotes Humanae Vitae on this point. This does not prove Akin’s claim, it merely begs the question as to the proper understanding. What about the “concurrence”, or lack thereof, found in other magisterial sources?

I have studied and analyzed many different magisterial documents on contraception for my book on the topic, and prior to that work for a set of articles on the topic. And I found clear examples of the magisterial teaching on contraception that do not use the Latin conjugale, as well as clear teachings that condemn contraception regardless of marital state. On the latter point, see this article: the use of contraception outside of marriage. On the former point, see this article. I will cite a few examples here:

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “Any cooperation whatsoever, institutionally-approved or tolerated, in actions which are in themselves (that is, by their nature and condition) ordered toward a contraceptive end, as well as any that impede the natural result of the sexual act [actuum sexualium] allowing it to be subjected to deliberate sterilization, is absolutely forbidden.” (Reply of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Sterilization in Catholic Hospitals, Quaecumque Sterilizatio, March 13, 1975, AAS 68 (1976) 738-740; DOCUMENTA 25)

The Magisterium condemns the cooperation of Catholic hospitals with contraception (even merely passive toleration), regardless of whether the patients are married or single, even for non-Catholic physicians and non-Catholic patients. And the Latin phrase used is the broad term actuum sexualium, not any form of conjugale. The USCCB’s Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic hospitals likewise condemns cooperation with contraception, regardless of whether the patients are married or single.

In Casti Connubii , Pope Pius XI cites the condemnation of contraception by Sacred Scripture and by Saint Augustine.

“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 Judah, did this and the Lord killed him for it.’ ” (St. Augustine, De Adulterinis Coniugiis, Book II, n. 12; Genesis 38:8-10)

The wording used by Saint Augustine and quoted by the Pontiff is this: “even with one’s legitimate wife”. By this wording, Augustine is condemning contraception both outside of marriage and within marriage. He is saying that contraception is still immoral, even within marriage, which implies that it is also immoral outside of marriage. And Pope Pius XI quotes him on this point without any disagreement, correction, or qualification. This is not merely the opinion of Augustine. The Pontiff is using the words of Saint Augustine to teach the Church. Then Pope Pius states that this teaching against contraception is an “uninterrupted Christian tradition,” implying that the teaching is also infallible.

By the way, the work by Augustine quoted by Pope Pius is titled “De Conjugiis Adulterinis” in Latin, and is often translated as “On Adulterous Unions.” So here is an example of a use of the word conjugale (in one of its many forms) to refer to sexual intercourse other than in marriage, as is necessarily implied by the term “adulterous”. There are also two other uses of the same Latin word — which Akin claims always refers to marital intercourse — to refer to non-marital sexual union (see this article, section 4).

(e) Concerning the claim that “other Latinists” known by Akin agree with him, I ask: “Who are these persons?” Akin does not name them. Why not? Is their position on this point a secret?

The Latin experts who translate documents for the Holy See, those who translated Humanae Vitae, are also unnamed. But their translation was accepted by the Holy See. And faithful Bishops throughout the world, those using the English text, have accepted the translation. Moreover, subsequent Popes have accepted this translation. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have not seen any such problem with the translation. They have both cited Humanae Vitae many times; they certainly are very familiar with the passages in question. Do you really believe that Akin and his unnamed Latinists see a serious error in the text that the Popes and Bishops do not see?

Jimmy Akin is not an experienced or knowledgeable translator of Latin, nor is he competent in the area of moral theology. He has published no books of moral theology, and he has published no translations from Latin, as far as I know. His claim that the doctrine of the Magisterium on contraception is to be understood as limited to its condemnation within marriage — based on an alleged translation error in Humanae Vitae which supposedly implies that the magisterial doctrine on contraception has been widely and profoundly misunderstood — is ignorant, arrogant, and patently false.

This post is long enough for now. So I’ll save my refutation of these other false claims:
2. the claim that intrinsically evil acts are not always immoral regardless of circumstances
3. the claim that the Magisterium has never taught that contraception is immoral outside of marriage
for another post: part 3.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

My books on moral theology:
The Catechism of Catholic Ethics
Roman Catholic Marital Sexual Ethics
Roman Catholic Teaching on Cooperation with Evil
Roman Catholic Teaching on Abortion and Contraception

My articles on moral theology

My translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate:
Catholic Public Domain Version
Latin-English Bible with translation notes

My edit of the Latin Vulgate Bible
My translation of the magisterial document Unam Sanctam with commentary

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