Did Pope Paul VI approve of contraception for nuns in the Congo? No!

It is commonly said, in discussions on the use of contraception for a good purpose or in a dire circumstance, that Blessed Pope Paul VI approved of the use of contraception by nuns in the Congo (during the revolutions of 1960 to 1965) who were in danger of rape. But is that claim true? I did some research with the help of Google Books, and here is what I found:

Christianity Today, 1966, Volume 10, Issues 14-25, page 31:
“The Roman Catholic press carried the story during the Congo revolutions that three recognized theologians in Rome had concurred in an opinion that nuns in the Congo missions could legitimately take the pill to prevent pregnancy in case they might be raped. In this decision, the theologians, with the apparent approval of the Vatican….”

The magazine Christianity Today states, in an article dated to 1966, that three theologians gave this opinion, and that the approval of the Vatican was only “apparent”. That is a far cry from approval by the Pope.

Catholics and Birth Control: Contemporary Views on Doctrine, by Dorthy Dunbar Bromley, 1965:
“One specific use of the pill as a contraceptive has been approved by a number of Catholic theologians – that is, when a woman is threatened with rape, as were Catholic nuns in the Congo. Noting that it had received queries on this question, the Rome publication, Studi Cattolici, published in 1961 the unanimous views of Msgr. Pietro Palazzini, secretary of the Sacred Congregation, Professor Franz Hurth, S.J., of the Pontifical Gregorian University, and Msgr. Ferdinando Lambruschini of the Pontifical Lateran University.”

In addition to the above sources, we have a footnote in an article by Leopold Denis: Case of Conscience, African Clergy Review, Issue 17, 1962, p. 334, note 12. That text cites the same three theologians mentioned above, opining that the nuns could use contraception to prevent pregnancy in cases of rape.

The above book by Bromley (1965) gives the names of those three theologians and the publication in which their views were stated: “Studi Cattolici”. That periodical is not published by the Vatican, but by a private organization, called “Associazione Ares” (in Italian). And Msgr. Palazzini was never a member of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But from 1958 to 1 January 1968, he was secretary for the Congregation of the Council. Msgr. Palazzini was consecrated as a Bishop in September 1962, the year after he published his opinion. So none of these three theologians was a Bishop at the time of their writing on this subject.

The papacy of Pope Paul VI began in June of 1963 and ended in August of 1978. Humanae Vitae was issued in July of 1968.

Thus, in 1961, when these three theologians issued their opinions, Pope Paul VI had not yet been elected Pope. Instead, Pope Saint John XXIII was in office. But no one claims that John XXIII gave this approval to the nuns of the Congo. Probably, the claim about Paul VI arose because he authored an encyclical against contraception (Humanae Vitae). The point of this distorted claim is perhaps to suggest that there are exceptions to the teaching of the Church on contraception in Humanae Vitae (or that Her teaching is inconsistent). Such is not the case.

Therefore, I conclude that neither Pope Blessed Paul VI, nor Pope Saint John XXIII, ever gave any official approval to the use of contraception by nuns in danger of rape.

Edited to add: Also, there seems to be no evidence that any nuns in the Congo actually used contraception. At the time, oral contraceptives were new to the market and not widely available. So the opinion of those three theologians proposed a hypothetical use of contraception.

Updated (2/23/16) to add: ChurchMilitant.com offers some more specifics from one of the three theologians mentioned above —

One of the three theologians who co-authored the 1961 position paper was the late Cdl. Pietro Palazzini. In a 1993 article published in La Repubblica, Cdl. Palazzini explained the point of the paper.

“What I argued many years ago in Catholic Studies, and I repeat today,” he wrote, “is that women victims of violence, whether nuns or laity, may prevent pregnancy by acting in the hours immediately after the rape, prior to new life being born.” In such cases, he advocated the use of douches to eliminate the rapist’s sperm from the victim’s body.

In the same article, when asked about this very topic, then-Vatican spokesman Msgr. Piero Pennacchini affirmed, “The Holy See has never published any texts authorizing religious to take contraceptives, even though they run the risk of being raped.”

His stated opinion in 1961, repeated in 1993, did not apply to abortifacient contraceptives (oral or chemical contraceptives), but only to a contraceptive douche (much more common in the 60’s than today).

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

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2 Responses to Did Pope Paul VI approve of contraception for nuns in the Congo? No!

  1. Jeff says:

    Again, we see in this case that there is no reason or approval from anyone, that justifies preventing or ending the life of a newborn, period. I have not spoken to one person who has stated, “I am glad I terminated my pregnancy”, but have spoken to more than a few who greatly regret having ended their pregnancy.

  2. John birman says:

    Thank you
    In the immortal logic of Will Rogers – It ain’t what a man don’t know that makes him a fool, it’s what he thinks is so that ain’t
    Highly appreciate this clarification.
    Just parroted this particular belief heard in the past few days in regards to another “media analysis of what Pope Francis may do” to my wife, who said this was probably an urban legend
    And as usual she was right

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