Unfaithful Conservatives have turned Humanae Vitae into a Fabergé egg

Conservatives complain when the Pope criticizes them. They say, “Why is he criticizing those who are most faithful?” There is an assumption common among conservatives that the majority opinion in the conservative Catholic subculture is essentially inerrant. But, in fact, conservatives often go astray from magisterial teaching, by a process of radical reinterpretation of that teaching. Liberal Catholics are often guilty of openly rejecting Church teaching. But conservatives take their own errors and misunderstandings, and attribute these to the Church. Their own erroneous opinion is then presented as if it were doctrine. And Humanae Vitae is the most illustrious example of this gravely harmful situation.

Unfaithful conservatives have turned Humanae Vitae into a Fabergé egg, into an ornate, greatly-praised hollow shell. They have gutted the true meaning of Humanae Vitae, by radically reinterpreted its teachings. The result is that grave sins condemned by Humanae Vitae are approved by conservative “supporters” of the document. They praise Humanae Vitae with their lips, but their hearts are far from its truths.

1. Contraception outside Marriage

It is an infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium that contraceptive acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. And this teaching condemns the use of contraception regardless of marital state. I’ve explained this point many times in previous blog posts here.

The Magisterium often refers to marriage when speaking of contraception, since sex outside of marriage is gravely immoral. And therefore, faithful Catholics should not be considering using contraception outside of marriage. However, there are enough magisterial teachings on the subject to absolutely prove that the Church has condemned contraception regardless of marital state. See this article: Contraception and Heresy — Part 2, the use of contraception outside of marriage.

Humanae Vitae n. 14 condemns abortion, regardless of marital state. Then the document condemns direct sterilization, again without regard to marital state, and regardless of whether that sterilization is “permanent or temporary.” But contraception is essentially temporary sterilization, though it is the act that is sterilized, not the body. After condemning direct sterilization, Humanae Vitae states:

“Similarly excluded 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. Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these.”

The official translation says “sexual intercourse”, not marital intercourse. But some conservatives argue that the better translation is conjugal or marital intercourse, and that therefore the Church has only condemned as intrinsically evil the use of contraception within marriage. This view is held by Jimmy Akin, Edward Peters, Jeff Mirus, and others. They deny that the teaching of Humanae Vitae condemns contraception outside of marriage. The claim that Humanae Vitae contains a translation error is refuted here: Contraception and Heresy — Part 3, On the Latin text of Humanae Vitae.

How often is contraception used by unmarried persons, or by persons who are not in a valid marriage (such as the divorced and remarried)? Very often. It may be the case that contraception is more often used outside of a valid marriage than within. So these false teachers are approving of a vast number, and perhaps a majority, of the uses of contraception, while at the same time, they claim to be defenders of Humanae Vitae.

And when they speak in this way about contraception, they never distinguish between mere contraception and abortifacient contraception. So they not only fail to condemn contraception outside of marriage, but also fail to condemn the use of abortifacient contraception outside of marriage. And all the while, they praise Humanae Vitae and portray themselves as teachers of its doctrines.

To the contrary, the Church condemns the distribution and promotion of contraception, regardless of whether it is used in marriage or outside of marriage, as a grave offense: Familiaris Consortio, n. 30; Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n. 234; Evangelium Vitae, n. 17. The Church, in condemning the distribution and promotion of contraception regardless of marital state, thereby condemns any use of contraception regardless of marital state.

The Magisterium teaches that contraception is immoral because it separates the two meanings, unitive and procreative, found in human sexuality and in the being of man and woman. This basis for the immorality of contraception does not rely on the marital state, but on the nature of man and woman, on the nature of the human person, as explained in Familiaris Consortio, 32.

The Church opposes teaching young unmarried persons how to use contraception in sexual education programs. This opposition is not based solely on the possibility that those young persons might eventually marry and use contraception in marriage. Neither is it based solely on the Church’s opposition to the sin of pre-marital sex. The Church opposes teaching the young how to use contraception because contraception is intrinsically evil and therefore always immoral. Should we instead tell youths that contraception is not a sin, when the couple is unmarried?

The Magisterium teaches that direct sterilization is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral because it deprives sexual acts of the procreative meaning. Direct sterilization is condemned by the Magisterium, regardless of whether the individual is married or single. And direct sterilization is not necessarily permanent, since the procedure often can be reversed.

Pope Paul VI: “Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.” (Humanae Vitae, n. 14)

Pontifical Council for the Family: “It is not in conformity with God’s design that couples should neutralize or destroy their fertility by artificial contraception or sterilization, and still less that they have recourse to abortion to kill their offspring before birth.” (The Ethical and Pastoral Dimensions of Population Trends, n. 73)

Pontifical Council for the Family: “The artificial methods of birth control as well as sterilization do not respect the human person of a woman and man because they eliminate or impede fertility, which is an integral part of the person.” (The Ethical and Pastoral Dimensions of Population Trends, n. 76)

Contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral for the same reason as direct sterilization, the deprivation of the procreative meaning from the moral object. We can therefore consider contraception to be a type of direct temporary sterilization. These two sins are so closely related, it would be absurd to say that the one is immoral only in marriage, while the other is immoral regardless of marital state. Rather, both sins “eliminate or impede fertility, which is an integral part of the person.” This reason is independent of marriage.

In addition, Catholic hospitals are not permitted to dispense contraception, neither to married couples nor to unmarried persons. If the Magisterium taught that contraception were only immoral within marriage, there would be no reason to restrict Catholic physicians in Catholic hospitals from dispensing contraception to unmarried patients in accord with the consciences of the physician and the patients, especially for non-Catholic patients. But such is not the case:

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 above-described ‘contraceptive end’ refers to the moral object, which is an end toward which the chosen act is ordered, by its very nature. Catholic hospitals are forbidden by the USCCB and the CDF from dispensing, approving of, or even tolerating the intrinsically evil acts of contraception and direct sterilization — absolutely forbidden, without regard for whether the patient is married or single, Catholic or non-Catholic. For contraception is intrinsically evil, and always gravely immoral, regardless of marital state. And that is why the above quoted document says sexual act [actuum sexualium], not marital act.

2. Cooperation with a Contracepting Spouse

As explained in my previous post, On Cooperation with a Contracepting Spouse, it is gravely immoral for a spouse to have marital relations with a contracepting spouse, (except for some cases of the sin of withdrawal by the husband). Yet many conservatives approve of this behavior, even to the extent of permitting a husband to have sexual relations with his wife, when she is using abortifacients or the IUD. The result is approval for an act which is “ordered toward a contraceptive end” as well as toward an abortive end.

While praising Humanae Vitae, many conservative Catholics issue opinions, not only refusing to condemn contraception and abortifacient contraception outside of marriage, but also approving of both within marriage in certain cases. Humanae Vitae condemns abortion, direct sterilization, and contraception, as each and all intrinsically evil. But conservatives have found various ways to approve of contraception and even abortifacients, while pretending their ideas are compatible with Humanae Vitae.

3. Abortifacient Contraception for a Medical Purpose

I’ve written on this topic several times already here. The question is whether Catholic spouses may use abortifacient contraception, and remain sexually active, if there is a medical purpose for that use. When the act is evaluated according to the three fonts of morality, the clear answer is that this proposed act is intrinsically evil and also gravely immoral by the circumstances.

The intention is to treat a medical disorder, and to exercise the marital right. So the first font of intention is good. The font called intention is the reason or purpose for choosing the act.

The second font is the moral object. Abortifacient contraception has two evil objects, the contraceptive and abortive ends of the chosen act. In this case, the couple are choosing to have sexual relations while using an abortifacient. The act is therefore ordered toward an abortive end, toward the death of innocent prenatals in the womb. The purpose in the first font does not change the object in the second font.

Direct abortion is not moral for the medical purpose of saving the mother’s life. Euthanasia is not moral for the medical purpose of relieving severe suffering in the terminally ill. Contraception is not moral for the medical purpose of preventing a pregnancy that will endanger the mother’s life. Therefore, abortifacient contraception is not moral for the medical purpose of treating a painful period or some other medical problem. Intrinsically evil acts are not justified by a medical purpose.

The third font is the consequences of the act. In this case, the good consequences of the medical benefit can be obtained without the bad consequence of the deaths of prenatals, by refraining from marital relations while using the birth control pill. Moreover, the bad consequence of the deaths of the couple’s own prenatal children far outweighs the benefit of treating the non-life-threatening medical disorder.

Thus, abortifacient contraception is immoral under the second font, as an intrinsically evil act, and also immoral under the third font, as an act which causes much more harm than good.

Is this act permissible under the principle of double effect? No. The principle of double effect never justifies an intrinsically evil act. The first condition for an act to be justified by the principle of double effect is that the act not be intrinsically evil. In addition, the principle of double effect never justifies very grave consequences (deaths of prenatals) that can be avoided while still obtaining the desired benefit (by refraining from sex while taking the pill).

Does Humanae Vitae 15 justify abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose? No. Instead, it approves of certain procedures which are not intrinsically evil, and in which the good consequences equal or outweigh the bad consequences, such as a hysterectomy to treat a medical disorder.

“15. On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from — provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.”

The term “directly intended” does not refer to the first font of intention, but to the deliberate knowing choice of an act which is intrinsically evil (second font). Intrinsically evil acts are always deliberately (i.e. intentionally) chosen. Then the term “motive” refers to the intention or purpose of the act. So Humanae Vitae 15 says that a good motive or purpose, in the first font, such as to treat a medical disorder, does not justify the deliberate choice of an intrinsically evil act, such as abortifacient contraception. But as long as the act is not intrinsically evil, and the intention or motives are good, the act can be justified if the good consequences equal or outweigh the bad.

And yet many conservative authors justify the use of abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose, and misuse the above quote from Humanae Vitae as the excuse for this grave error.

4. Each and Every Marital Act

The Church condemns contraception because it deprives sexual acts of their procreative finality. But does the “procreative finality” required of sexual acts apply to a set of acts, or “to each single act”? Humanae Vitae answers that each single sexual act must be unitive and procreative. For there is an “inseparable connection” between “the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.”

Humanae Vitae: “The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” n. 11

This teaching was issued by Pope Paul VI on the topic of contraception. But it applies nevertheless to unnatural sexual acts, which are condemned by the Church as gravely immoral precisely because they are inherently non-unitive and non-procreative. The primary purpose of sexual relations is procreation. Inherently non-procreative sexual acts are always gravely immoral.

The question arises whether a married couple may use unnatural sexual acts in a set of acts along with at least one act of natural marital relations open to life. But the answer implied by Humanae Vitae is that “each single act” must be unitive and procreative. The spouses may not perform unnatural sexual acts, which are inherently non-unitive and non-procreative, and then justify those acts because they occur about the same time as an act of natural marital relations.

Unfortunately, many conservative authors have contradicted the perennial teaching of the Church on this subject, which is also the teaching of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. They have devised various excuses to justify the use of unnatural sexual acts in marriage, when, in fact, the Magisterium has sufficient clear teachings, not only in Humanae Vitae, to conclude that all unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil and gravely immoral, even in marriage.


Over the course of the last 50 years, conservative authors have radically reinterpreted Humanae Vitae (and other Church teachings) so as to exempt from moral condemnation many gravely immoral acts:

* contraception outside of marriage
* abortifacients outside of marriage
* abortifacient contraception in marriage for a medical purpose
* cooperation with abortifacient contraception in marriage
* unnatural sexual acts in marriage

What is left? The only act condemned by Humanae Vitae and still condemned by these unfaithful conservatives is contraception, within marriage, absent a medical purpose. They are not rejoicing in the truths taught by Humanae Vitae, but in their success in radically reinterpreting that document to conform to their own gravely immoral teachings.

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

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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7 Responses to Unfaithful Conservatives have turned Humanae Vitae into a Fabergé egg

  1. John Platts says:

    Here is a passage from Scripture where unnatural sexual acts are condemned: “Because of this, God handed them over to shameful passions. For example, their females have exchanged the natural use of the body for a use which is against nature. And similarly, the males also, abandoning the natural use of females, have burned in their desires for one another: males doing with males what is disgraceful, and receiving within themselves the recompense that necessarily results from their error” (Romans 1:26-27).

    The passage that I have quoted from Sacred Scripture in this comment was also quoted by you in previous posts. Romans 1:26-27 condemns both unnatural sexual intercourse and mutual masturbation as both constitute “a use [of the body and sexual faculty] which is against nature”. Unnatural sexual intercourse between husband and wife and mutual masturbation between husband and wife are both unnatural sexual acts that are always morally wrong like homosexual acts are since both of these acts “exchange the natural use of the body for a use which is against nature” like homosexual acts do. In addition, unnatural sexual intercourse between husband and wife and mutual masturbation between husband and wife lack the procreative meaning like homosexual acts do, whereas the procreative meaning is present in non-contraceptive natural sexual intercourse.

    • Marco says:

      I wouldn’t compare those acts to homosexual acts. Homosexual acts are considered by the Church one of the 4 Sins that cry to Heaven for vengeance, and i don’t think that those acts are that grave (otherwise 98% of the men in this planet would have committed sins that cry to heaven for vengeance on a regular basis, expecially in their younger years, which seems unlikely).

  2. Paul M. says:

    Since this article discusses both the hypocrisy of some conservatives who are quick to judge Francis and with truth about contraception, I ask these question to better understand your perspective:

    What do you make of comments from Paul VI, Benedict XVI and Francis that (seem to) uphold the option of using barrier or other methods to ward off diseases such as HIV or the zika virus?

    Secondly, what of the words of Francis that suggest that responsible Catholics should not “breed like rabbits”? Does that not contradict the commandment of the Lord to be fruitful and multiply, which is the primary function of marriage?


    • Ron Conte says:

      Responsible parenthood considers the primary purpose of marriage to be the generation and education of children, not only the generation: “the fullness of the natural end of matrimony (which is not only the generation, but also the education of offspring)” (Pius XII). So there is nothing wrong with the Pope’s comment. Parents must act responsibly, and not merely produce as many children as possible.

      Those comments have been much discussed previously. None of those comments approves of barrier or other contraceptive methods for a medical purpose. The “nuns in the Congo” case was not an approval from the Pope, but an article in a newspaper. Pope Benedict was speaking of homosexual prostitutes, and so not of contraception.

      Pope Francis told “reporters that abortion remained a crime and an “absolute evil”, but “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil” and could be “the lesser evil”.” That does not necessarily imply approval for contraception, since contraception is a lesser evil than abortion. I don’t believe Francis ever stated an approval for contraception in cases of Zika.

      It is a problem when any Catholic thinks himself, herself, or themselves fit to judge and correct the Pope. We should interpret their teachings and decisions with charity, and be slow to disagree. A Pope can err to a limited extent in matters of faith and morals. But we should not make ourselves judges over him, nor assume that our own understanding is inerrant.

    • Marco says:


      So in case contraception is needed for medical purposes what should one do?

      I mean, it seems to me that there are a lot of situations in which the negative consequences would outweigh the positive ones in this case.

      For example, should a prostitute stop using contraception, catching a lot of sexual diseases in the process?

    • Ron Conte says:

      A prostitute should give up prostitution. But abortifacients are worse than mere contraception. In the case of abortifacients, the medical purpose does not outweigh the killing of innocents, in the consequences, and the act is intrinsically evil, in the object. But often the couple can refrain from sex, while taking the pill.

    • Marco says:

      I wasn’t talking about abortifacient contraception, of course. I was talking about preservatives.

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