Moral Theologian Father George Woodall on Humanae Vitae at 50

The English professor discusses what revisions or reinterpretations, if any, could be permitted as the encyclical reaches its 50th anniversary, and responds to a controversial list drawn up by the editor in chief of the Italian bishops’ newspaper, ‘Avvenire.’

Father George Woodall.
Father George Woodall. (photo: YouTube)

Moral theologian Father George Woodall recently shared his comments for this article on what changes, if any, could be permitted to Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which marks its 50th anniversary on July 25. 

To read his comprehensive answers in full, including his responses to Luciano Moia, the editor in chief of Avvenire, the Italian bishops’ newspaper, and Moia’s 10 “uncomfortable” points for reflection, I’ve attached them below.  

Father Woodall lectures at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum Athenaeum in Rome and wrote a book on the encyclical in 2014 that contained a new translation and a detailed commentary. The aim of the book was to help the reader better understand the Church's message and shed light on the richness of the encyclical's teaching. 


Father Woodall, in view of the Vatican commission on Humanae Vitae and other signals of possible changes to Paul VI’s encyclical regarding artificial contraception, what kinds of changes would be permissible for you and what would not be? 

Paul VI’s encyclical did not condemn only ‘artificial’ contraception: ‘To be rejected in the same way is any act whatever (‘Item quivis respuendus est actus qui …’ – my emphasis), which may operate in such a way that procreation may be impeded.’ (HV, n. 14). The next sentence has often been very badly translated into English, also using the word ‘artificial’, which is a wrong translation of the Latin. ‘Nor indeed is it legitimate to put forward as valid those arguments which are designed to give approval to those conjugal acts which are deprived deliberately of their fruitfulness …’ (Ibid.). The word ‘artificial’ has been used at times, and wrongly, for the word ‘deliberately’; the Latin expression ‘ex industria’ means quite definitely ‘deliberately’. (Amongst other things, the condemnation includes coitus interruptus [withdrawal during intercourse], which would be permissible if only what was artificial was immoral.)

Speculation about ‘changes’ to Humanae Vitae has been rife. I will not add to the speculation, since I have no basis on which to do so. I will state that doctrine that has been definitively proclaimed cannot be changed either in the sense of denying or contradicting what has been taught, or by asserting what is incompatible with such truth. If there were to be an authentic development of doctrine, this would neither entail nor imply any of these possibilities, but would deepen some particular point of prior doctrine, maintaining that doctrine intact, ‘eodem sensu eademque sententia’ (‘in the same sense and with the same meaning’). It would be incumbent upon any moral theologian and even more so upon any and all members of the Magisterium both to ensure that this was so and also to indicate and explain any new proposal in such a way that it did not violate this key principle, from Vincent of Lerrins, of all doctrinal development. In other words, they would be morally obliged to show, and especially for the Magisterium this would be a truly grave matter for them as pastors, that what they were proposing was not incompatible with the constant definitive doctrine which they were claiming to apply in some new way. 


A view often heard by those angling for change is that few Catholics follow the Church’s teaching on this issue. Is this a viable argument for re-interpreting the document and if not, why would it not be?

The argument that few people follow a moral doctrine does not render it false. It is said these days that most people tell lies, perhaps very often and on important issues, but that does not make the eighth precept of the Decalogue obsolete. There are repeated episodes of people getting others to ‘clock them in’ for work or who ‘clock themselves in’ for work and who then go shopping, go home or go to amuse themselves and there are others who do not work all the hours or as effectively as they should even if they are physically present; none of this alters the fact that they are both stealing from their employers by taking money they have not earned and also are failing to provide the service they should to the entity which engages them and to the wider community which it serves. Rampant divorce and increasing infidelity do not make fidelity to one’s spouse and the indissolubility of marriage immoral or optional. If what most people do makes it right, then racism and/ or sexual exploitation of others would become morally right in some places, but not in others. 


Another argument used is that Humanae Vitae is not an infallible document, but could it be argued that its prophetic nature shows that it is?

There are no infallible ‘documents’ at all. The Church’s Magisterium teaches that the Pope and the bishops of the Catholic Church in full communion with him (the College of Bishops) or the Pope himself, acting as the head of that College, are infallible, when they teach a matter of faith or of morals in certain circumstances; in other words, that, in those circumstances and only in regard to the very precise point of doctrine directly involved, they then teach infallibly (without the possibility of error) because, in those same circumstances, the assistance of the Holy Spirit which the Magisterium always enjoys in its teaching on faith and morals is such as to guarantee freedom from error in their teaching of that precise point of doctrine. Thus, it is the persons, the Pope or the Pope and bishops of the Catholic Church in full communion with him, and neither documents nor even doctrines, who are infallible. Of course, the whole point is that, in those precise circumstances and with regard to that precise point of doctrine, the faithful would then know that the content of that doctrine was absolutely true, without any possibility of the opposite being the case. 

There are three different ways in which infallibility can be exercised by the Magisterium in its teaching, according to Vatican II (Lumen gentium, n. 25). One is that a General Council of the Church or the Pope solemnly define a doctrine, i.e., as a dogma. This Paul VI did not do in Humanae vitae; there is nothing to suggest it and much to indicate the opposite. Secondly, the Magisterium could teach a doctrine to be held absolutely and definitively by the universal Church; some have suggested that this is so in Humanae vitae. The third possibility is that the Magisterium, even if ‘dispersed throughout the world’ (i.e., not together in a General Council), can teach infallibly when it ‘concurs’ in a judgment on faith or morals to be held absolutely and definitively by the universal Church; a number of theologians and philosophers are of the opinion that the condemnation of contraception is taught in this way, but, if they are right, Humanae Vitae would be a particular example of that general exercise of their universal ordinary infallibility on responsible parenthood, not an (extraordinary) exercise of infallibility in and of itself on this matter. These writers say, that the Magisterium ‘concurred’ in this judgment of moral doctrine in the past and that those bishops who reject the teaching are thus dissidents. 

Of course, infallibility in teaching on faith and morals is a charism of the Magisterium which would be exercised relatively rarely in the first two forms noted. More important to my mind about Humanae Vitae is the question of the truth of the moral doctrine itself. Most of the teaching of the Church’s Magisterium on faith and on morals does not involve infallibility, but the assistance of the Holy Spirit is still there and there is always the presumption of truth in what the Church’s Magisterium teaches in these areas. Teaching given in this ‘authentic’ or ‘authoritative’ Magisterium demands a response of obsequium religiosum [religious assent] of the mind and of the will, namely acceptance and a real willingness and effort to put that teaching into practice. Even if the reasons given for the doctrine do not convince of themselves, then the obedience or obsequium would be ‘religious’ in that it would be followed because it has been given in the Name of Christ, with his authority and under the assistance of the Holy Spirit. 


How concerned are you that this anniversary will be used to re-interpret the document, despite assurances it won’t be?

I suspect that there will be attempts to use the fiftieth anniversary to undermine its essential teaching. Unfortunately, the campaign against it was unleashed by those who had not even been able to read it (Cardinal Stafford has spoken of this in connection with the condemnation of the encyclical by many American theologians and others, as the text was coming off the teleprinter – i.e., before it could possibly have been read by the signatories of its condemnation). 



The list below of 10 “uncomfortable” points to reflect on appeared in the Italian bishop’ newspaper Avvenire, written by its editor in chief, Luciano Moia, an advocate for a softening of the encyclical’s teaching. It was then tweeted by the coordinator of the Vatican commission, Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo. Do you have any concerns about the points listed?

“1. There is no ongoing revision of Humanae Vitae, no plot, no attempt to erase the founding nucleus of Paul VI's encyclical which, recalling the inseparable relationship between conjugal love and fecundity, proposes a doctrine that has always belonged to the thought of the Church.”

FR. WOODALL: The claim that Paul VI recalled the ‘inseparable relationship between conjugal love and fecundity’ in Humanae Vitae, the so-called ‘foundational core of the encyclical’ (il ‘nucleo fondaente dell’enciclica’), and thus represented the doctrine which was always part of the Church’s thinking is both correct and yet also profoundly misleading. It is the same terminology used in the documents in preparation for the synods of 2014-2015 and it is repeated in Amoris Laetitia

Although the connection between conjugal love and fruitfulness can be affirmed of the Church’s Tradition, more precisely it must be acknowledged that there was very little attention paid to conjugal love directly as such in the doctrinal and moral theological Tradition prior to the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, the absence of adequate attention to this dimension of marriage was a criticism leveled against an otherwise very valuable encyclical on marriage of Pius XI, Casti Connubii, of 1930. 

The Council had brought the good of the spouses into focus, characterising marriage as an irrevocable covenant of life and love (GS, n. 48) and for the first time in a Magisterial text gave direct attention to indicating what conjugal love might imply (GS, n. 49). In Humanae Vitae Paul VI stated expressly that he did not need to repeat all of the rich conciliar teaching on marriage, which was indeed the presupposition for what he taught in the encyclical. Here Paul VI teaches: ‘… through the mutual gift of self which is proper and exclusive to them, spouses pursue that communion of persons by which they perfect one another mutually, in such a way that they associate their action with God, for the procreation and for the education and upbringing of new living beings.’ (HV, n. 8). In this important text, conjugal love, expressed in the language of the Council (GS, nn. 48-49), is associated very closely, indeed clearly with reference to the conjugal act itself, with the procreative dimension of that love. What the pre-synodal documents, Amoris Laetitia and these observations in Avvenire present is this doctrine of HV n. 8. 

However, this is not the whole truth, nor even the whole core of the truth about ‘conjugal love’ and ‘fecundity’. After teaching that ‘each and every conjugal act must remain open to new life’ (HV, n. 11), Paul VI undertakes a true and authentic development of doctrine. He teaches that there are two ‘essential meanings’ of the conjugal act, the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning, which are ‘inseparably connected’ to each other in the sense that they may never be deliberately separated from each other (HV, n.12). He adds that it is this principle which lies behind the doctrine on the responsible parenthood – ‘The doctrine on this matter is rooted in the indissoluble bond …’ (Ibid.), as to the morally upright means that may be undertaken to give effect to an upright intention of the couple to distance births for important reasons (cf. HV, n. 10). The Council did not use the terminology of an ‘inseparable connection’ even between ‘conjugal love and fecundity’, although it certainly affirmed their close inter-relationship and as something stemming from the very nature (‘indole sua natura’- GS, nn, 48, 50) of marriage and of conjugal love. The Council had elaborated greatly on the unitive meaning of marriage in general and indeed of the conjugal act, although it never used the expression ‘unitive meaning’ and much less spoke of an ‘inseparable connection’ with the procreative meaning of that act.

The principle of inseparability refers to these two ‘essential meanings’ of the conjugal act and it is the basis on which the condemnation of contraception is expressed (HV, n. 14). It is true that this implies that marriage has these same two inseparable meanings and that conjugal love likewise entails these two meanings and their inseparable connection. However, to speak of an ‘inseparable relationship’ (HV, n. 12 uses ‘nexus indissolubilis’- an ‘inseparable’ or ‘unbreakable bond’, ‘link ‘or ‘connection’) neither about conjugal love in general nor about fruitfulness or fecundity in general, but about these two essential meanings of the conjugal act, unitive and procreative. The various texts mentioned above seriously mis-represent Church doctrine on this point. It is not that the principle of inseparability is never mentioned; it is quoted, but fecundity or fruitfulness is addressed in a very broad sense, the fruitfulness of the spouses’ relationship for each other, for their immediate family, for the family more broadly, for society in general and for the Church. There is nothing wrong with the assertion of a responsibility of the married couple to make their love fecund or fruitful in all of these dimensions, but that is not what Humanae Vitae stated in regard to the principle of inseparability and in regard to the doctrinal specifications which followed, including on contraception.

The inseparability spoken of by Paul VI does not mean at all that every conjugal act must in fact give rise to a new conception, something which would be impossible in any case, but it is quite definitely stated by the Pope to be a moral inseparability: ‘The doctrine on this matter … is rooted in the indissoluble bond, established by God, which it is not allowed for the human person on his or her own initiative to break (my emphasis) between the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning, which are both contained in the conjugal act’, speaking then of ‘each essential meaning’ (HV, n.12). Thus, what has been presented in the pre-synodal texts, in most of the references in Amoris Laetitia and in these observations in Avvenire, as an inseparable connection between conjugal love and fecundity is not of itself false, nor is it unimportant. However, it fails to present correctly or adequately what Paul VI taught on this matter, repeated expressly by John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio, n. 32, and by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in a new application of the principle to exclude those acts which substitute for the conjugal act as the effective causes of procreation (Donum Vitae, II, B, n. 4). 

In the context, possibly, of ‘a new pastoral application’, it is deeply regrettable that those responsible for advising the Pope appear once more not to have taken the proper care to present Paul VI’s doctrine as the Pope articulated it. Such carelessness cannot give anyone confidence that what they may propose to him on this delicate matter will be correct, reliable and helpful.


“2. However, it was wrong to think of the normative indications of the encyclical as the 'truth of faith'. Paul VI himself did not want the declaration of infallibility.”

FR. WOODALL: On the question of infallibility, see above. 


“3. Even John Paul II, who also defended and promoted "Humanae Vitae", was careful not to declare its infallibility throughout his long pontificate.”

FR. WOODALL: John Paul II did not release any ex cathedra definition of the condemnation contained in Humanae Vitae, that is true, nor did he state it in a context or in a way that would necessarily imply infallibility. However, he certainly taught the doctrine as a truth constantly taught by the Church’s Magisterium, which she had not established, but had only recognised and proclaimed. Such points had been stated succinctly by Paul VI (HV, n. 18). 


“4. But now, 50 years later, through two Synods and two world-wide consultations, the Church has come to propose another document on these themes (Amoris Laetitia) which, far from erasing Humanae Vitae took up its founding nucleus, developing its indications. But on the pastoral level, not on the doctrinal one.”

FR. WOODALL: There would be no problem about a document putting forward some pastoral proposals for the implementation of the doctrine of Humanae Vitae. However, the points mentioned refer again to the ‘foundational core of the encyclical’ (points 1 and 4), which, as noted here in point 1 is a partial and hence distorted version of what Humanae Vitae taught. 


“5. To be amazed at the positions of the then Bishop of Vittorio Veneto, Albino Luciani [later Pope John Paul I who recently Avvenire reported put his name to a document of a regional bishops’ conference advocating use of the contraceptive Pill in some circumstances], is to ignore the history of the Church. Forty episcopal conferences (the overwhelming majority of the world's episcopate) thought the same way as him (albeit with diversified approaches).”

FR. WOODALL: Albino Luciani was a bishop, who had his own personal opinions. As Cardinal Eijk has expressed it superbly in a recent letter, truth is neither a matter of majority opinion nor even of unanimous opinion. Many bishops, like many priests and others at the time of Humanae Vitae and since, have perhaps never read the text of the encyclical fully or attentively and/or often do not understand it. It should be added, since Luciani later became Pope, that the personal opinions of the person who is the Pope do not constitute doctrine, nor is their expression an exercise of Magisterium. This is so even if they were to express their opinions in the midst of an encyclical, which is a teaching document (eg., John Paul II’s comments on ‘the year 1989’ in Centesimus Annusare not Magisterium; he recognised this himself (cf., CA, n. 3), but, even if he had not done so, this would have been so. Neither interviews given to individuals or granted during Papal journeys, nor books or articles written by the person who happens to be Pope constitute acts of Magisterium. They are no more than his personal opinions. Of course, if he is himself an expert on the issue under discussion, as a theologian, philosopher or other, if he is addressing a topic in which he is expert, then his remarks will carry the authority of an expert in that area and, if the matter concerns doctrine, these may be of great help to people in understanding better the doctrine under discussion, but they would still not be an exercise of Magisterium as such. In most cases, they will be the mere opinions of the one who is Pope.


“6. There had been an ecumenical Council, concluded a few years before, from which indications had come to the fore on the specific theme of the conscience of the spouses, not the inviolability of the norm.”

FR. WOODALL: This interpretation of the Vatican II is highly tendentious. The statement here says that the Council ‘gave priority to the consciences of the spouses’ over the ‘intangibility of the (moral) norm’. 

This claim is questionable both in general and specifically in relation to conscience and responsible parenthood. In general, the very rich doctrine on conscience presented in Gaudium et Spes, n. 16, is often partially cited and interpreted. Yet, while emphasising the indispensable need to examine matters in one’s conscience, sincerely and before God, the objective truth which must direct conscience is ever present: the ‘a law which man finds in his heart, which he has not laid upon himself’, to ‘do good and avoid evil’ and to ‘love God and neighbour’ and the obligation to seek the truth sincerely and seriously, in order not to make an error of judgment of conscience which could have been avoided (vincible ignorance). The requirement of conscience to seek the truth is the basis for the teaching on the liberty of conscience and on religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae, nn. 1-2), but this does not guarantee that the truth will be attained and the Council further states that no-one can claim to be acting in good conscience if he ignores the certain teaching of the Magisterium in forming his conscience or if he treats that teaching as a mere opinion (Ibid., n. 14). In other words, sincerity of conscience and acting in a way that is coherent with one’s judgment of conscience is never enough. It is enough to think of the firmly held opinions of ruthless dictators and of others, who have put their judgments of conscience into action in a coherent policy of murder and oppression (eg. Hitler in the concentration camps or Stalin in the gulags).

The misinterpretations and the distortions of the conciliar doctrine on conscience, which emerged, led to the doctrinal clarifications of Veritatis Splendor (nn. 54-64) on conscience. That this major text on fundamental moral theology was systematically ignored in the Instrumentum Laboris prior to the 2015 synod and in the passages prepared for the Pope in readiness for Amoris Laetitia cannot but give rise to suspicions of manipulation by those charged with such responsibilities. The impression might be given of attempting to avoid what is awkward, to downplay what does not coincide with the political will of the moment, but, whatever the explanation, it cannot provide confidence that the truth is being properly recognised and expressed. Were such grave omissions to recur in any proposals for a ‘pastoral’ implementation of Humanae Vitae, this would have the damaging effect of reinforcing such suspicions. 

The role of conscience is more specifically related to the question of responsible parenthood. In fact, the clearest statement in this direction was in the section of the Council’s pastoral constitution on economic questions (GS, n. 87) and, indeed, it was repeated by Paul VI himself in his encyclical on the development of peoples, Populorum Progressio, n. 37, but in both cases it was to insist that it is the couple who must judge (in their consciences) on the matter of responsible parenthood and neither governments, with programmes of abortion, sterilisation or contraception, nor international aid organisations, making programmes and campaigns of sterilisation or contraception the condition for the acceptance of ‘aid’ or investment. It was not to place ‘conscience’ above the truth expressed in moral norms. When speaking of responsible parenthood in the section on marriage and family, the Council again stated that the spouses were to judge the matter (GS, n. 51), as did Paul VI in Humanae Vitae (HV, n. 10), but in both cases said this could not be interpreted to mean acting as they see fit or as they please. Rather, they were to follow objective criteria of moral truth (i.e. moral norms). It was Paul VI himself who then intervened in the Council, precisely in regard to this section, to insist that the text refer expressly to the condemnation of contraception and that it list at least some of the Magisterial texts which expressed this moral truth; they are noted in footnote 14 to GS, n. 51.

In his encyclical, Paul VI repeats this: ‘…, in the responsibility of transmitting life, it is not open to them (the spouses) to act on the basis of their own will, as if they were allowed to define the morally upright ways they should follow in a completely free and autonomous fashion. Rather, they are obliged to adjust their behaviour to the … constant doctrine that the Church affirms’ (HV, n. 10). The norms which follow (HV, nn.11-16) provide key objective references, according to which spouses should form their consciences and conduct their lives in these matters. Only a selective reading of the Council’s doctrine on conscience and a questionable interpretation both of the conciliar treatment of conscience and contraception and of the encyclical’s treatment of the same could lead to the claim advanced in point 6 of your summary of the article in Avvenire.


“7. From a pastoral perspective, one cannot avoid asking oneself why the instructions of Humanae Vitae were so immediately disregarded.”

FR. WOODALL: The reasons why many of the norms of Humanae Vitae have often been ignored are not hard to discover. Bishops and priests have often failed to read the text itself of the encyclical or to seek elucidation of its contents from theologians and others, including scientists, doctors, gynaecologists, who have written to explain its contents and to propose ways of implementing it. Too many were left ‘at sea’ and never received any sympathetic explanation or they allowed themselves to be swept along by media pressure and public opinion. Persistent falsehoods, such as presenting natural method of regulating birth as all being the ‘rhythm method’, as being ineffective, as being forms of contraception, have continued, even in Catholic circles. 


“8. And how can we fail to raise the question again today, when the vast majority of practising couples (90-95%) no longer use "natural methods" for physiological, material, environmental or even cultural reasons?”

FR. WOODALL: Those involved in this commission would do better to try to find ways of combatting the falsehoods and partial truths just noted and disseminating the truth of Humanae Vitae among clergy, in parishes and more generally, to help couples to live their marital vocation more fully and to understand, accept and practise natural methods of regulating the cycle when there are morally cogent reasons either for spacing births or for seeking a conception which appears to be difficult to achieve.


“9. That is why, if it is wrong to think of solving the problem by simply proposing to go beyond the instructions of Humanae Vitae, so too is the pretext to close the door to any development of doctrine.

10. The reflection is urgent because the answers to the questionnaires of the Synods on the Family (2014-2015) tell how, for most couples, the problem of contraception has less and less ethical relevance.”

FR. WOODALL: It is typical of propagandists to suggest that they are putting forward a middle way between two extremes, here that of pretending that Humanae Vitae has been superseded and the opposite, that of ‘closing the door to any development of doctrine’. Notice the not-too-subtle move from ‘not changing doctrine, but merely proposing its implementation at a pastoral level’ to ‘development of doctrine’. Where the figure of 90-95% comes from, of couples not seeing any ethical relevance in the question of contraception, is not stated here, but it may be supposed that it emerges from the highly questionnaires circulated prior to the synods, which contained a number of ‘leading questions’ (inducing the person to give a particular answer) and others so badly expressed that they could hardly avoid causing confusion. What has been said above about majority opinion and even unanimous opinion (cf. Cardinal Eijk) and what has been said here about the lack of preparation of many clergy and laity on these matters over the years, for the reasons indicated, is a sufficient explanation of the alleged fact reported here. It does not mean at all that the doctrine of Humanae Vitae on contraception was wrong or defective. It demands that serious attention be given to presenting that teaching clearly, positively and fully, together with the ways in which it can be followed successfully and happily by those called to the vocation to marriage. 

Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Family of the Virgin,” ca. 1650

Why Do We Ask Mary to Pray for Us?

“After her Son’s Ascension, Mary ‘aided the beginnings of the Church by her prayers.’ In her association with the apostles and several women, ‘we also see Mary by her prayers imploring the gift of the Spirit, who had already overshadowed her in the Annunciation.’” (CCC 965)

Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Family of the Virgin,” ca. 1650

Why Do We Ask Mary to Pray for Us?

“After her Son’s Ascension, Mary ‘aided the beginnings of the Church by her prayers.’ In her association with the apostles and several women, ‘we also see Mary by her prayers imploring the gift of the Spirit, who had already overshadowed her in the Annunciation.’” (CCC 965)