WASHINGTON — Nearly 50 years after the “prophetic” papal document Humanae Vitae, the Catholic Church’s long-standing teaching against contraception continues to promote the human good, said a group of Catholic thinkers on Tuesday.
“We hold that Catholic teaching respects the true dignity of the human person and is conducive to happiness,” said hundreds of Catholic scholars in a Sept. 20 document.
“Humanae Vitae speaks against the distorted view of human sexuality and intimate relationships that many in the modern world promote. Humanae Vitae was prophetic when it listed some of the harms that would result from the widespread use of contraception,” they said.
More than 500 Catholic scholars with doctoral degrees in theology, medicine, law and other fields have signed the document in support of Catholic teaching, “Affirmation of the Catholic Church’s Teaching on the Gift of Sexuality.”
Signatories of the document included Dominican Father Wojciech Giertych, the theologian of the papal household; John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America; Tracey Rowland, dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, Australia; Sister Prudence Allen, philosophy professor at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver; Dominican Father Thomas Petri, academic dean of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington; and Helen M. Alvaré, law professor at George Mason University.
The scholars charged that a new United Kingdom-based statement opposing Church teaching “offers nothing new to discussions about the morality of contraception and, in fact, repeats the arguments that the Church has rejected and that numerous scholars have engaged and refuted since 1968.”
The statement in question, organized by the U.K.-based Wijngaards Institute, claims there are “no grounds” for Catholic teaching against contraception. It questioned the idea that openness to procreation is inherent to the significance of sexual intercourse and said that “the choice to use contraceptives for either family planning or prophylactic purposes can be a responsible and ethical decision and even, at times, an ethical imperative.”
Abortion-causing methods of contraception should “ordinarily be avoided,” but can be accepted if “there is a proportionate reason for doing otherwise,” the Wijngaards statement said. It credited access to contraceptives for “substantial increases in women’s education and contribution to the common good” and said the benefits of contraception include easier family planning, a substantial decrease in maternal morbidity and mortality, infant and child mortality and abortion.
The Wijngaards statement was set to be presented at a meeting hosted at the United Nations Sept. 20 to “encourage the Catholic hierarchy to reverse their stance against so called ‘artificial’ contraceptives,” the institute said.
Organizers of the Wijngaards statement said they would promote their claims to Catholic Church officials, ordinary Catholics and “opinion leaders,” including bishops, priests, religious sisters, management and medical staff of Catholic health-care facilities, Catholic social workers and Catholic journalists. They said they would also promote their claims and theological materials to “all U.N. departments and development agencies who are trying to navigate the relationship between religious belief and women’s health as they work towards the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.”
The Wijngaards Institute was founded in 1983 by Catholic priest John N. M. Wijngaards, who was later laicized. His writings question Catholic teaching on masturbation, homosexuality and abortion. He also wrote a novel that promises “to liberate you from outdated Catholic sexual teaching.”
Besides Wijngaards, the 138 Catholic signers of the dissenting document include Mary McAleese, the past president of the Republic of Ireland; Peter Steinfels, former New York Times religion columnist and founding co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture; John Esposito, Georgetown University religion and international affairs professor; Peter Phan, Georgetown University professor of Catholic social thought; Paul Lakeland, Fairfield University professor of religious studies; Geoffrey Robinson, auxiliary bishop emeritus of Sydney; and Baroness Helena Kennedy, a member of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords.
Another signatory is Charles Curran, a former Catholic University of America theology professor who played a key role in dissent from Humanae Vitae. Two Creighton University professors, Michael Lawler and Todd Salzmann, were among the statement’s 22 authors.
Blessed Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirmed the traditional Christian rejection of contraception and said it applied to the birth-control pill. The move drew significant opposition from non-Catholics and from some within the Church who had been campaigning against Church teaching.
The Catholic Church holds that sex is designed by God to be both unitive and procreative and that attempting to separate these two aspects of human sexuality through artificial contraception is immoral.
Normally, if a married couple faces a just reason to avoid pregnancy, the Church teaches that they may do so through natural family planning, a process that works with a woman’s natural fertile cycles and abstaining from sexual activity during the times that she is fertile.
In their counter-document, the 500 Catholic scholars maintained that Church teaching is “true and defensible” on the basis of Scripture and reason. They described Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as “the ultimate and complete self-gift” linked to the biblical spousal imagery of Christ and the Church.
They charged that the Wijngaards statement’s authors “virtually ignored” the work of St. John Paul II and his theology of the body.
“There he demonstrates that our very bodies have a language and a ‘spousal meaning’ — that they express the truth that we are to be in loving and fruitful relationships with others,” the Catholic scholars said in their document.
Human sexual relations fulfill God’s intent only when they “respect the procreative meaning of the sexual act” and take place as a “complete gift of self” within marriage, they continued.
The Church asks the faithful to “deepen their relationship” with God, to be open to the direction of the Holy Spirit and to ask Jesus Christ to “provide the graces needed to live in accord with God’s will for their married lives, even the difficult moral truths.”
“The widespread use of contraception appears to have contributed greatly to the increase of sex outside of marriage, to an increase of unwed pregnancies, abortion, single parenthood, cohabitation, divorce, poverty, the exploitation of women, declining marriage rates, as well as to declining population growth in many parts of the world,” the Catholic document said.
The 1968 revolt against Humanae Vitae followed several years of global lobbying and organizing by wealthy foundations involved in population control and other forms of birth-control advocacy.
Donald Critchlow, in his 1999 Oxford University Press book Intended Consequences: Birth Control, Abortion and the Federal Government in Modern America, said that, in the 1960s, the wealthy heir John D. Rockefeller III and others within the foundation community were “astutely aware of the importance of changing the Catholic Church’s position on birth control.”
They saw a series of meetings at the University of Notre Dame from 1963 to 1967 as an opportunity to ally with Catholic leaders who could “help change opinion within the hierarchy,” Critchlow said. These meetings, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation, brought together selected Catholic leaders to meet with leaders of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Population Council, as well as with leaders in the two foundations.
Critics of the Wijngaards statement said they would issue a more detailed response in a forthcoming text called “Self-Gift: The Heart of Humanae Vitae.”