John Finnis to Pontifical Academy for Life: Church’s Infallible Teaching Against Contraception Is ‘Certainly True’

The renowned professor of natural law spoke last month at a Rome conference, convened in response to a recent Pontifical Academy for Life publication that challenged this teaching.

Professor John Finnis speaks to the attendees of a conference of international  Catholic theologians and jurists in Rome last month.
Professor John Finnis speaks to the attendees of a conference of international Catholic theologians and jurists in Rome last month. (photo: National Catholic Register / International Catholic Jurists Forum)

VATICAN CITY — One of the world’s leading professors of the natural law has given a robust defense of the infallibility of the Church’s teaching on contraception, saying it should always be regarded by all Catholics as “certainly true,” even though “the episcopal unity that guaranteed that judgment as irreversible has subsequently shattered.”  

John Finnis, professor emeritus of law and legal philosophy at the University of Oxford, explained to a conference of international Catholic theologians and jurists in Rome last month that the Church’s doctrine on contraception fulfills the four conditions required for a teaching to be infallible even if it has not been formally defined. But a “new paradigm,” driven by an alleged “consensus of the majority of moral theologians,” emerged after 1968, to justify dissenting from that teaching. 

This led to a loss of unity in judgment among bishops on the infallible nature of the teaching — a fact that Finnis said “is a problem for them and for the sees they govern” but “not for the truth of a teaching” which their predecessors had been united in teaching as infallible.

Finnis, a Catholic scholar who once taught Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, was speaking at a Dec. 8-10 Rome conference entitled “A Response to the Pontifical Academy for Life’s Publication: Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition, Practical Challenges” co-hosted by Ave Maria University and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 

The Pontifical Academy for Life text, published last year, proposes that Catholics may resort to using contraceptives under certain circumstances. The academy’s president, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, called it a “paradigm shift” in moral theology. Nine international experts wrote an open letter complaining about serious errors in the book. 

The Magisterium of the Church has always taught that use of contraceptives is wrong, a teaching which was reaffirmed in St. Paul VI’s landmark 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that every action is intrinsically evil which, “whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible (2370).”

In his talk, entitled “The Infallibility of the Church’s Teaching on Contraception,” Professor Finnis began by recalling that the “wrongness of contracepting conjugal intercourse” is a truth that even the progressive German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner “stated straightforwardly” before the Second Vatican Council.

Finnis said the German theologian “articulated well” the infallibility of the Church’s teaching in this area when he stressed that if a specific moral rule is taught by the Church “everywhere in the world as a commandment of God, she is preserved from error by the assistance of the Holy Ghost.”

The Australian-British law professor, who has faced heated opposition for voicing orthodox Catholic positions on the natural law, then recalled the four necessary and sufficient elements for Church teaching to be infallible even though not formally defined by a pope or Church council, as set out in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. These are that bishops, provided they are in communion with each other and with the Pope, infallibly proclaim the teaching of Christ when “[i] authoritatively teaching [ii] matters of faith and morals, they [iii] agree in one judgment [iv] as that to be held definitively,” Finnis summarized.

Finnis also argued that Vatican II’s own statements on contraception confirm it as a teaching that “any Catholic must definitively hold — that is, as an inseparable and on the evidence irreversible element in adhering to the Catholic faith as true.” 

To buttress his case, Finnis pointed to the work of two distinguished American professors of moral theology: Jesuit Father John Ford and the lay philosopher Germain Grisez, who wrote jointly in 1978, “demonstrated with precision” that “all four conditions for infallible teaching” in this area “are certainly fulfilled.” 

Finnis explained how Ford and Grisez listed “six kinds of evidence” confirming the infallibility of the Church’s teaching on contraception. The evidence included the long history of opposition to contraception from bishops, saints, doctors of the Church and moral theologians; canon law’s penalization of the “moral crime” of artificial contraception from the 13th century until 1917; and the “absence of any significant negative reaction” within the Church to the statements in which Pius XI and then Pius XII authoritatively reaffirmed the teaching against contraception as constant “from the beginning” and unchangeable.

As to whether the fourth condition set out in Lumen Gentium is satisfied — that the Church’s teaching in this area must be held definitively — Finnis noted Ford and Grisez’s reference to the fact that the teaching that intentionally rendering intercourse sterile is a “matter of mortal sin endangering salvation” has always been considered to be a “received and certain part” of the Church’s moral teaching. And, when it was challenged, it was “insisted upon as true, certain and integral to Catholic belief” and “as not only required by human reason (‘nature’)” but also as “revealed — a thesis which, regardless of its correctness, implied that the teaching was to be held definitively.”

The theological pushback against the Ford-Grisez thesis, Finnis continued, came from the “new paradigm” of dissent that developed in the decades after 1968, and that John Paul II condemned in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor. That encyclical did not address the question of infallibility, but did point to the Vatican’s 1990 “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,” signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That CDF document, referencing “moral teachings which per se could be known by natural reason,” had stated that “it is a doctrine of faith that these moral norms can be infallibly taught by the Magisterium.”

Professor Finnis also defended the truth of the teaching about contraception, independently of its infallibility. He argued that “apostolic tradition conveying the teachings of Christ” regarding sex and marriage “constitute a revealed unity of developing and developed doctrine” which centers on the propositions that “sex is exclusively for marriage.” Furthermore, “within marriage, it is reserved to acts that in their culmination are authentically expressive of ­– signify, without willed separation — each of marriage’s two defining goods of marriage: proles and fides, offspring and marital commitment.”  

Finnis recalled how, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he witnessed first-hand how an Anglican group of theologians “were thinking their way from the acceptance of contraception” to “the acceptance of the moral permissibility of homosexual sex acts” — an acceptance reached “explicitly on the basis that acceptance of contraception as permissible blocks and nullifies moral objection to many other kinds of sex acts.”

But he said such a theory, “within the frame of a transformed (imaginary) Catholic sex ethics of accepting contraception, has in practice not survived,” because proponents of it instead mostly treat Humanae Vitae and other papal and Church documents that state the Church’s teaching on sex and marriage as being false and reversible in many of their elements, not just with respect to contraception. Finnis said they also view as false Rahner’s pre-conciliar writings on conscience and the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium in teaching moral norms applicable to some specific kinds of act without exception. 

“So we are left with the conclusion that because it was everywhere taught as to be held definitively, it should be regarded by all Catholics as certainly true, now as always, even though the episcopal unity that guaranteed that judgment as irreversible has subsequently shattered,” Finnis concluded. 

With respect to those bishops who have broken with the Church’s settled teachings on contraception, “That loss of unity in judgment is a problem for them and for the sees they govern,” he added, “[but] not for the truth of a teaching which predecessors of theirs, dispersed about the world at some ascertainable period, had by their unity in a certain kind of judgment taught infallibly.”