Contraception and Infallibility – Part 2

COMMENTARY: Some Pontifical Academy for Life theologians seem to fail to take into account the other way that Church teaching can be proclaimed infallibly: worldwide teaching by the ordinary magisterium.

Paul VI makes Karol Wojtyła (future Pope John Paul II) a cardinal in 1967.
Paul VI makes Karol Wojtyła (future Pope John Paul II) a cardinal in 1967. (photo: Vatican Media / Public Domain)

Editor's Note: The first part of this commentary can be read here.

Ten days after the commission’s final report was delivered to Paul VI by the commission’s general secretary, the outvoted chairman of the commission (and of the Holy Office), Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, received a dossier from Jesuit Father John Ford and Germain Grisez. For, half an hour after the report was taken from the Holy Office to the papal apartments across St. Peter’s Square, the cardinal sat down with these two scholars — one of them a long-standing and important, though in the end outvoted, member of the commission — and asked them to give him a dossier of lucid, fundamental observations on the commission’s call for practical reversal of the perennial teaching, a dossier precisely for the attention of the Pope. 

This dossier, like the report itself, and several other key preliminary or accompanying documents, and an explanatory narrative of events, can be read on Grisez’s posthumously maintained website. Grisez’s account of the commission’s proceedings is much more reliable than the quirky narrative in the 2018 article linked to in the PAV tweet.

At is a typewritten Latin memorandum central to the Ottaviani dossier. The last of its substantive pages (pages IV.16-18) begin by pointing out how the commission’s majority moves seamlessly from stating that Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical did not “contain an infallible declaration” to stating that “therefore one must proceed to examine the worth of the argument” — the natural-law or moral-theological argument — advanced for the perennial teaching. The majority report is caught in the act of omitting to take into account the other way that Church teaching can be proclaimed infallibly: worldwide teaching by the ordinary magisterium. 

Having pointed out this glaring omission — now repeated by the PAV — the Ford/Grisez dossier went on:

 “If the substance of the prohibition of contraception, [a condemnation] perduring through every century, through so many declarations of the ordinary Magisterium, of bishops dispersed throughout the world [the concept used in LG 25’s statement of the ordinary magisterium’s infallibility]
... if that is not infallibly transmitted [infallibiliter tradita], there can scarcely be any doctrine of faith or morals that should be recognized as infallibly propounded by this source.”

By “this source [hoc fonte]” the paper meant, of course, the infallible ordinary magisterium, as warrant for the reliable truth of any of the many teachings it has handed on in ways that satisfy the five conditions spelled out in LG 25.

When the relevant archives were opened to a three-man team nearly 50 years later, it became clear that the dossier did indeed reach Paul VI and was persuasive to his closest relevant adviser. The archive-based write-up in G. Marengo, La nascita di un enciclica (Vatican, 2018) is summarized, with citations, in Finnis, “The Dual Foundation of Humanae Vitae” (Anthropotes 2018, at 270-271). 

The dossier’s reminder of the infallible ordinary magisterium was not, of course, needed to recall what was certainly clear to Paul VI, the first and only essential signatory of LG 25: the irreversible stability of such widely resisted precepts of Catholic moral doctrine. So the dossier was here highlighting the would-be reformers’ utter failure to acknowledge, or attempt, a rational response to the fact that the ordinary universal magisterium, without formal definitions, has on some matters taught moral truths as to be held definitively (definitive tenendae) by the faithful, not only about general principles and virtues but also about requirements of specific virtues (such as chastity), including requirements that exclude some kinds of chosen action whatever the circumstances. (That failure is replicated in the relevant pages, few and windy, of the “517-page book” presented in the PAV tweet as if it equipped “the magisterium” to “reform” the substance of the Church’s teaching on “contraception and sexual matrimonial morality.”) 

It was out of such failure of theological attention and doctrinal fidelity that, as HV 6 put it, “within the Commission certain ways of resolving the question emerged that were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage which the Church’s magisterium has taught with firmness and constancy.” For in vain did the commission’s majority claim that treating contraception as sometimes or often right (and sometimes obligatory) would leave intact all the many other precepts of that firm, constant and arduously maintained moral doctrine that sex is always to be within marriage and marital in kind; and in vain did they specifically (and rightly) protest that homosexual sex acts are contrary to human dignity. We say “in vain,” because, when thought through with care and honesty, the majority’s “ways of resolving the question” — ways now again propagated by PAV-favored theologians — entail that one can rightly “discern” away to practical irrelevance, or even deny, most or all of the exceptionless negative precepts that the Church in and since the apostolic age has taught are definitively applicable to everyone as requirements of reason aided and even unaided by the Gospel.

LG 25’s conditions or criteria for recognizing that a teaching has been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium of bishops throughout the world (not least the bishop of Rome) were certainly satisfied by the teaching that contracepting is intrinsically wrong. John T. Noonan, who neglected the ordinary magisterium’s infallibility and wanted the teaching on contraception changed, surveyed the history from the earliest Christian times down to the early 1960s in his large 1965 book Contraception (Harvard University Press). He found no wavering. Throughout all those many centuries, “the teachers of the Church have taught without hesitation or variation that certain acts preventing procreation are gravely sinful.” Ten years after HV, Ford and Grisez’s Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium” (Theological Studies, 1978) showed how fully the Catholic teaching on contraceptive acts meets all five conditions for an infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium. This, too, is on Grisez’s website, along with his cogent published replies to theologians who published counter-arguments. 

The Ford-Grisez article concludes (p. 286), after outlining and documenting seven kinds of evidence: 

“We think the facts show as clearly as anyone could reasonably demand that the conditions articulated by Vatican II for infallibility in the exercise of the ordinary magisterium of the bishops dispersed throughout the world have been met in the case of the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception. At least until 1962, Catholic bishops in communion with one another and with the pope agreed in and authoritatively proposed one judgment to be held definitively on the morality of contraception: acts of this kind are objectively, intrinsically and gravely evil.  Since this teaching has been proposed infallibly, the controversy since 1963 takes nothing away from its objectively certain truth.”

Indeed. If something has at some time been infallibly taught, the defection of later bishops cannot change the truth of the teaching so taught, however many those bishops, or however high their office.