Any papal decision that calls into question the Church’s ban on artificial contraception either expressly or implicitly would do “untold damage to the Church’s magisterium,” a moral theologian has warned.

Father George Woodall, who teaches moral theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, also said he was concerned that a commission tasked with examining the process of writing Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae would provoke “serious problems” if, as part of a “revision,” it advocated exceptions to allow artificial contraception in opposition to the Church's moral teaching.

He said it would also weaken the Church’s ability to combat moral relativism and unleash “a new pastoral crisis at least as grave” as the one that followed the publication of the encyclical which marks its fiftieth anniversary next year.

Paul VI’s reaffirmation of the Church’s infallible teaching that contraceptive use is “intrinsically wrong” came at a time when the Western world was embracing contraception wholesale, making it one of the most controversial encyclicals in Church history.

Immediately many clerics and academics outright rejected Humanae vitae’s teachings.

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.

As the 50th anniversary of the encyclical's promulgation approaches, various attempts by some of the Church’s most senior figures are now underway to challenge the encyclical.

Here below, Father Woodall explains his concerns, centering on the dangers that any revision will use the same interpretive key as Amoris laetitia, falsely stating that although pastoral practice has altered, doctrine remains the same.

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Papal Commission on Humanae vitae in the light of Amoris laetitia

Rumors of a Papal commission to re-examine Humanae vitae in the light of Amoris laetitia have been circulating and it seems that such a commission has been established under Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo, including Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri. Msgr. Marengo, of the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family, has focused his writings on anthropology, but, following Amoris laetitia, has written on the need to overcome abstract norms.

It seems that Msgr. Marengo's group is to examine the documents of the Papal Commission set up by John XXIII and expanded by Paul VI, whose majority recommendations were rejected by Paul VI in Humanae vitae. What might be the significance of such a commission and of its recommendations?

There have been important developments since Paul VI's encyclical, notably John Paul II's confirmation of the teaching in Familiaris consortio and his attempts to provide an anthropological foundation and explanation for the encyclical's doctrine in what is commonly called the 'theology of the body'. Several aspects of this doctrine have been incorporated into the text of Amoris laetitia. There would be no difficulty to be anticipated about a commission highlighting these aspects because they are in full harmony with the doctrine of Paul VI. Considerable attention was given in Amoris laetitia to the nature of (marital) love, to the various factors to be considered in evaluating whether or not a person has a vocation to marriage, to what is involved in living out that vocation over the years and through the various stages of marriage life. The exhortation contains a section on fecundity, which deals largely with a broad concept of the fecundity of marital love in general, in terms of enriching the couple themselves, the family and society. There is nothing especially new in these reflections, but they are useful at a pastoral level. Nothing in these approaches is necessarily at odds with Humanae vitae and it could be expected that the compatibility of the recent exhortation with Paul VI's encyclical would be brought out by the commission.

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). 

If the commission were to recommend and if the magisterium were to teach formally that 'abstract moral norms' such as these, and others in Humanae vitae, should be rejected or, more likely, should not be interpreted legalistically nor be imposed as burdens on couples unable to bear them by those wishing to cast stones at people in difficulties, but should be present them as mere 'ideals', which married couples should seek to fulfil, but which might they might not be able always to fulfil in pressing circumstances and which, for a good intention and perhaps through discernment, assisted by a pastor in the light of their unique circumstances, they might violate, set aside or interpret creatively, this would lead to serious problems in my opinion.

Such a 'revision' of Humanae vitae would imply an equally radical revision of Veritatis splendor, which rejected consequentialism, proportionalism and a 'creative' interpretation of moral conscience amongst other grave errors afflicting recent moral theology and which reasserted firmly the teaching that deliberately choosing what is morally disordered, the moral object of the act, even for a good intention in pressing circumstances, would render the act immoral (VS, nn. 75-78) and that some acts, including contraception,  were of their nature of intrinsically immoral, such that they could never be 'ordered' to the true good of human beings or to God and his will (VS, nn. 79-83). The 'pastoral approach' of  'graduality' would be very problematic if it involved the idea that the norms of Humanae vitae did not really apply to some couples because, in their circumstances they could not be expected to abide by them; suggesting that they might contracept now as part of a plan not to do so in the future is the graduality of the law, not the law of graduality, in which someone striving to follow the truth expressed in the norm, whose sins against it of which he or she repents are fewer than in the past, is encouraged to renew the commitment to live by that truth fully. The rejection of the graduality of the law and the acceptance of the genuine law of graduality appeared in Familiaris consortio (n. 34).

It may be unlikely that there would be an overt and explicit denial of the key doctrines of Humanae vitae and/ or of Veritatis splendor, but the situation would be very grave in my opinion if any recommendation of the commission were to be incorporated in a formal magisterial teaching, which implied or appeared to imply such a denial or which was or which appeared to be incompatible with the doctrines just noted. The pastoral crisis surrounding Humanae vitae was grave, but a new pastoral crisis at least as grave would likely be unleashed, one which would involve very grave damage indeed to the respect for the magisterium within the Catholic Church and beyond.

Such an outcome of the commission, were it to be endorsed and enacted in formal magisterial teaching, unless the magisterium were able to offer a very convincing explanation of how this did not contradict the doctrines of either or both of these major encyclicals, would cause massive doctrinal and pastoral damage.

A formal or an implicit denial, contradiction or discarding of what Paul VI and John Paul II taught, in full harmony with the centuries-old tradition of Catholic moral doctrine of moral theology, might lead to the claim that the present pontiff is to be followed against his predecessors. A moral norm taught by the magisterium requires an obsequium religiosum or religious obedience, but such a claim would then boil down to blind obedience to the will of a pope or of the current magisterium in contradiction to that of previous moral magisterium — obedience to the mere will of a superior (voluntarism) is utterly discredited because it is contrary to reason. Nor could it be compared to a mere disciplinary change, such as the color of vestments, the date of a feast or the rules of fasting, because it involves moral truth. The explanation that things have changed in the meantime would not convince either because objective moral truth is not changeable in its essentials; precisely such relativism was  condemned in Veritatis splendor. The magisterium cannot invent moral truth. It cannot contradict, but is bound by, the gospel of Christ, revelation, dogmatically defined truths and constantly taught doctrines which have been proposed definitively or as exception-less for the universal Church.

Were any decision, as a result of the commission, to call that into question expressly or implicitly, in my view, it would do untold damage to the Church's magisterium, to respect for that magisterium by Catholics and by others, to the capacity of the magisterium to teach effectively, to the Church's moral doctrine in general, and to the mission of the Church to combat the moral relativism that is the plague of the contemporary world. 

G.J. Woodall,

June, 2017