Moral Errors in the Claims of the Papal Spokesman

Papal spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi has publicly stated that the words of Pope Francis to the press (on the plane trip back from Mexico) should be understood as approving of the use of contraceptives or condoms in dire circumstances. Here is the story at

‘Fr. Lombardi told Vatican Radio today, “The contraceptive or condom, in particular cases of emergency or gravity, could be the object of discernment in a serious case of conscience. This is what the Pope said.”

According to Lombardi, the pope spoke of “the possibility of taking recourse to contraception or condoms in cases of emergency or special situations. He is not saying that this possibility is accepted without discernment, indeed, he said clearly that it can be considered in cases of special urgency.”

Lombardi reiterated the example that Pope Francis made of Pope Paul VI’s supposed “authorization of the use of the pill for the religious who were at very serious risk” of rape. This, said Lombardi, “makes us understand that it is not that it was a normal situation in which this was taken into account.” ‘

Fr. Lombardi’s assertions in this matter are contrary to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium on contraception and on intrinsically evil acts. However, he is speaking on his own initiative. Popes do not exercise the Magisterium through papal spokespersons. So these words are only attributable to Fr. Lombardi, not to Pope Francis.

Even so, Pope Francis did err in his assertions about the use of contraception in the case of the Zika virus, which many believe causes severe birth defects (although this has been questioned by some researchers). The error of Pope Francis in this matter is not heresy; it is an error in the application of doctrine to specific cases.

I would go so far as to say that this error by Pope Francis is similar to the error of Pope John 22 (in the 1300’s) on the Beatific Vision of God. Pope John XXII opined, but did not teach under the Magisterium, that the just who enter Heaven after death (or after Purgatory) do not have the Beatific Vision until after the general Resurrection. This error was later corrected by Pope Benedict XII, who then infallibly taught that all the blessed in Heaven have the Beatific Vision, as soon as they enter Heaven, even before the general Resurrection.

Why is this position on the use of contraception to prevent birth defects (regardless of the cause) an error? First, the Magisterium infallibly teaches that contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Second, the Magisterium infallibly teaches that intrinsically evil acts are never justified by intention or circumstances. The good intention of avoiding birth defects, and the dire circumstance that children could be born with severe harm from those birth defects, do not justify the use of an intrinsically evil act of contraception.

Why then is contraception morally permissible in cases of rape? (1) Contraception is intrinsically evil because sex is naturally ordered toward procreation. (2) For the same reason, use of contraception in cases of rape is morally an interruption of the rape. So in the first case, the use of contraception is direct; there is a direct relationship between the choice to use contraception and the deprivation of the procreative meaning. This choice is inherently (directly) ordered toward that moral deprivation. But in the second case, the knowingly chosen act is to interrupt the rape; so the chosen act is not inherently (directly) ordered toward depriving sex of its procreative meaning. The use of contraception in cases of rape is indirect, and therefore not intrinsically evil.

Traditionally, theologians have not applied the terms direct and indirect to contraception. However, all intrinsically evil acts admit of this distinction, since acts are intrinsically evil only when the knowingly chosen act is directly ordered toward evil in the moral object. The Magisterium has infallibly condemned “direct abortion” (not merely “abortion”) in Evangelium Vitae. Some Church documents also refer to “indirect abortion”. Every intrinsically evil act is direct, and any similar act, if it is indirect, is not intrinsically evil.

Unfortunately, some false teachers and other dishonest persons, seeking to please their audience or to claim Church approval for grave sin, will incorrectly label some sins as “indirect” in order to make them seem acceptable. But this type of misuse of truth on morality is as old as sin itself. In the Garden of Eden, Eve knew that God had commanded her not to eat of the fruit of a particular tree. But she accepted the false claim of Satan that eating the fruit would not be deadly (i.e. that disobedience to God in a grave matter was somehow not a mortal sin). Sinners are always looking for excuses for sin. We cannot change the truth about morality as a reaction to their dishonesty.

The claim of Fr. Lombardi, that the intrinsically evil act of contraception is justifiable (or is no longer intrinsically evil) in a dire circumstance, is a false claim. The phrasing that he uses — “particular cases of emergency or gravity” and “special situations” and “special urgency” — refer to the circumstances of the act. But the Magisterium teaches that intrinsically evil acts are never justified by circumstances. In addition, his claim that a discernment of conscience would justify the deliberate choice of contraception is also false. Contraception is an objective mortal sin. Some non-Catholics might use contraception with a sincere but mistaken conscience. But Catholics must form their conscience in the light of Church teaching, which condemns all intrinsically evil acts, including contraception, even with a good reason, even in dire circumstances.

Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances.

Pope John Paul II: “If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain ‘irremediably’ evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. ‘As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt),’ Saint Augustine writes, ‘like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?’ Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.” [Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n. 81; inner quote is from St. Augustine, Contra Mendacium, VII, 18]

Pope John Paul II: “Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act, intrinsically evil by virtue of its object, into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.” [Veritatis Splendor, n. 81]

Pope John Paul II: “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” [Evangelium Vitae, n. 62.]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church: “It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.” [CCC 1756]

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).” [CCC 2399]

Pope John Paul II: “Contraception is to be judged objectively so profoundly illicit that it can never, for any reason, be justified. To think, or to say, anything to the contrary is tantamount to saying that in human life there can be situations where it is legitimate not to recognize God as God. Users of contraception attribute to themselves a power that belongs only to God, the power to decide in the final instance the coming into existence of a human being.” [Address on Responsible Procreation]

Compendium of the Catechism: “What are immoral means of birth control? Every action — for example, direct sterilization or contraception — is intrinsically immoral which (either in anticipation of the conjugal act, in its accomplishment or in the development of its natural consequences) proposes, as an end or as a means, to hinder procreation.” [Compendium, n. 498]

Pope Pius XI: “But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.” [Casti Connubii, n. 54]

Pope Pius XII: “Our Predecessor, Pius XI, of happy memory, in his Encyclical Casti Connubii, of December 31, 1930, once again solemnly proclaimed the fundamental law of the conjugal act and conjugal relations: that every attempt of either husband or wife in the performance of the conjugal act or in the development of its natural consequences which aims at depriving it of its inherent force and hinders the procreation of new life is immoral; and that no ‘indication’ or need can convert an act which is intrinsically immoral into a moral and lawful one.” [Address to Midwives 27]

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

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