Two Competing Versions of Humanae Vitae teaching

Here is yet another article worrying that Pope Francis might reevaluate Humanae Vitae, and revise its interpretation: Theologian: Tampering With Humanae Vitae Could Cause Untold Damage [National Catholic Register, 12 Sept 2017].

Yes, tampering with Humanae Vitae would cause untold damage. But some Catholics have already tampered with Humanae Vitae, and the damage has already begun. This tampering was not done by Pope Francis, nor by a secret commission appointed by him. Rather, the tampering is the work of certain leaders of the conservative Catholic subculture, who claim that contraception, as an intrinsically evil act, is defined by the marital state.

Now the above article from NCRegister contains both the correct teaching of Humanae Vitae and the revisionist error. First, the correct version:

“Many, however, vigorously defend Humanae Vitae as prophetic, arguing that the widespread acceptance of artificial birth control has separated the unitive and procreative purposes of sexual relations, leading to the sexualization of culture in the West, promiscuity, legalized abortion, the collapse of marriage, and inflicting deep harm on the family.”

Notice the term “sexual relations”. Contraception separates the unitive and procreative purposes of sexual relations — any sexual relations between man and woman. This view of contraception is entirely consistent with Church teaching on sexual relations in general. There are three good moral objects to any moral sexual act, the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings. The deprivation of any one or more of those goods makes the moral object evil and the act intrinsically evil. For example, homosexual acts are inherently non-procreative, which is one of the reasons that such acts are intrinsically evil. Non-marital acts are intrinsically evil because they lack the marital meaning. Contraceptive acts are intrinsically evil because they deprive sexual intercourse of the procreative meaning.

And now for the revisionist version of Humanae Vitae, which is also asserted in the NCRegister article, but does not appear to come from Fr. Woodall himself:

“The precise points of doctrine in Humanae vitae which it might be expected would be the object of scrutiny would be the principle of the inseparability of the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act (HV, n. 12), stated by Paul VI to be the basis for the condemnation for contraception (HV, n. 14), the teaching that each and every conjugal act must remain open to procreation (HV, n. 11), the condemnation of contraception as intrinsically morally disordered and hence incapable of being justified even for a good intention in pressing circumstances on the basis either that it might be the lesser evil or that it might partake of the goodness of those conjugal acts before and/ or after, during the whole of the married life, which had been or would be open to procreation, the reason being that what is intrinsically immoral may never be done even for a good intention (HV, n. 14), and the fact that this teaching, as the constant teaching of the magisterium on this matter, is unchanged and unchangeable because the magisterium has no power to decide what should be true, but only to proclaim what is true (HV, nn. 6, 18).”

The error in the above quote is found in the restriction of the definition of contraception to the marital state. Does Humanae Vitae teach that each and every marital act must remain open to procreation? Certainly. But the question is whether this teaching encompasses only marital acts, or all acts of sexual intercourse. The answer is found in many different Church documents, as I have described previously: Contraception and Heresy – Part 2 – On the Use of Contraception Outside of Marriage.

Now the English translation of Humanae Vitae uses the term “sexual intercourse”, not the narrower term “marital intercourse”. See Humanae Vitae, n. 14 “sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive” and “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”. Clearly, Humanae Vitae condemns contraception in the form of any act ordered to deprive sexual acts of their “procreative finality”.

But the response of the revisionists is to claim that this English translation, which has stood for many years, is in error. My rebuttal to that claim is here: Contraception and Heresy – Part 3 – On the Latin text of Humanae Vitae. The English text of Humanae Vitae, which defines contraception in regard to “sexual intercourse”, not solely marital intercourse, is correct.

So now we have two versions of the infallible teaching of Humanae Vitae:
(a) contraception 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”,
(b) contraception is defined as in (a), but with the term “marital intercourse” substituted for “sexual intercourse”, thereby narrowing the condemnation of contraception, as an intrinsically evil act, to valid marriages (natural or sacramental).

Version (a) is supported by Grisez, Boyle, Finnis, and May, in their article: “Every Marital Act Ought To Be Open To New Life” [PDF file].

“A dictator who wanted to control population might contracept by having a fertility-reducing additive put in the public water supply. He would engage in no sexual behavior whatsoever, and might not will any such behavior. He might also exhort people to abstain, but reason that if they did not, the additive in the water would prevent the coming to be of some of the possible persons he did not want.

“Thus contraception aims to impede both the initiation of life and the being of the individual whose life would be initiated if not impeded. This definition makes it clear that contraception is only contingently related to marital intercourse. For the definition of contraception neither includes nor entails that one who does it engages in sexual intercourse, much less marital intercourse. Therefore, if someone both engages in a sexual act and contracepts, the two are distinct acts. A young couple tempted to fornicate has two choices to make, not one: whether to fornicate or not, and whether to contracept or not.

“Since contraception must be defined by its intention that a prospective new life not begin, every contraceptive act is necessarily contralife.”

They assert that contraception is inherently contrary to life, as it prevents the initiation of a new human being by preventing conception. And that is the very meaning of the word contra-ception. “This definition makes it clear that contraception is only contingently related to marital intercourse.” They reject the idea that contraception only occurs within a valid marriage. And their position is supported by the official English translation of Humanae Vitae as well as many other magisterial documents.

The Humanae Vitae revisionists speak as if Humanae Vitae were the only magisterial document on contraception. They claim it contains a translation error. And they speak as if no other theological position on Humanae Vitae were legitimate, but their own. All assertions to the contrary are ignored. They do not offer a counter-argument. They simply pretend that they are presenting to the faithful the only possible interpretation of Humanae Vitae.

How insane is this situation? Conservative Catholics are wringing their hands over a hypothetical reinterpretation of Humanae Vitae, which might advocate “exceptions to allow artificial contraception in opposition to the Church’s moral teaching.” [NCRegister] Yet at the same time, these same persons have themselves changed the interpretation of Humanae Vitae so as to allow massive exceptions to the prohibition against contraception as an intrinsically evil act. They claim that contraception is only the intrinsically evil act of contraception when used within a valid marriage. This claim places all uses of contraception outside of marriage (or in an invalid marriage which might seem valid) as if it were outside of the moral definition of contraception, making such uses either “morally neutral”, or not really contraception, or not an act as yet condemned by the Magisterium (the claims vary). It may be that the majority of uses of contraception would be placed outside of the Church’s condemnation by this radical revision of Humanae Vitae.

And these Humanae Vitae revisionists are the same persons crying out against the rumor (which, by all accounts, seems to be false) that Pope Francis might radically revise Humanae Vitae, so as to allow exceptions. They don’t want the Roman Pontiff to revise their own revision. They like their own revised version of the condemnation of contraception. And they fear that the Vicar of Christ might teach something contrary to their own minds and hearts.

{6:61} Therefore, many of his disciples, upon hearing this, said: “This saying is difficult,” and, “Who is able to listen to it?”
{6:62} But Jesus, knowing within himself that his disciples were murmuring about this, said to them: “Does this offend you?
{6:63} Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending to where he was before?
{6:64} It is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh does not offer anything of benefit. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
{6:65} But there are some among you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who were unbelieving and which one would betray him.

But if the teaching of Humanae Vitae is infallible and therefore a dogma (under the ordinary and universal Magisterium), any contrary teaching, any substantial distortion of that dogma, is in fact material heresy. The Humanae Vitae revisionists are teaching material heresy, while crying out against the sheer possibility that the Roman Pontiff, the Supreme Teacher of the Universal Church, might teach on Humanae Vitae, contrary to their own beloved heresy.

Many souls are being led astray by the radical revision of Church teaching, not only on contraception, but on intrinsically evil acts more generally. There is a growing body of conservative Catholic teachers who claim that certain intrinsically evil acts can be redefined so as to exclude many cases, and thereby justify: lying, abortion, abortifacient contraception, and even the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Once you start making exceptions to intrinsically evil acts, the entire body of Church teaching on morality falls apart. And that is what we are watching happen before our eyes. Yet the perpetrators are not liberal “heterodox” Catholics, but numerous leaders within the conservative Catholic subculture. Conservatism is not orthodoxy.

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

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1 Response to Two Competing Versions of Humanae Vitae teaching

  1. Mark P. says:

    These articles warning of an “attack” on or “revision” to Humanae Vitae seem to be based on either rumors or the authors’ own personal worries that this commission has been tasked with suggesting changes to the encyclical. From what I have read elsewhere, their concerns are invalid because the actual job of the commission is to research and write a history on how it was developed and came to its final form.

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