Reacting to Pontifical Academy for Life, Theologian Says Teaching of Humanae Vitae Can’t Change (2023)

Father Petri noted that St. John Paul II had confirmed Humanae vitae’s teaching as part of the ordinary and universal magisterium.

The teaching of Humanae vitae on contraception is an instance of the ordinary and universal magisterium, and as such is irreformable, a moral theologian has said in response to a statement from the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Dominican Father Thomas Petri, president of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., noted that even critics of the teaching on contraception have “acknowledged that this was always the Church’s teaching” and that nowhere in the Church’s teaching has there been permissiveness, of any form, of contraception.

“This suggests that this has always been the teaching of the Church, so it‘s part of the ordinary, universal magisterium,” Father Petri said. “So even if it’s the case that any particular encyclical” such as Humanae vitae “is not infallible, the teaching that it presents is in fact irreformable, because it's part of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church.”

In Humanae vitae, his 1968 encyclical on the regulation of birth, St. Paul VI wrote that “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means” is “excluded,” as an unlawful means of birth control.

The Pontifical Academy

The Pontifical Academy for Life, an institution associated with the Holy See but which is not itself a magisterial body, hosted a 2021 seminar on ethics in which a participant discussed “the possible legitimacy of contraception in certain cases.”

A synthesis of the seminar was recently published by the Vatican Publishing House, which has given rise to questions about whether the Church’s teaching on birth control is reformable.

The Pontifical Academy for Life has defended the discussion it hosted of the permissibility of contraception, tweeting Aug. 5 that “History records by Abp. [Ferdindando] Lambruschini confirmed that Paul VI said him directly that HV were not under infallibility.”

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Then in an Aug. 8 statement, the academy wrote that “many people on Twitter seem to believe that Humanae Vitae is an infallible and irreformable pronouncement against contraception.”

It noted that “when the moral theologian of the Pontifical Lateran University Msgr. Ferdinando Lambruschini presented Humanae Vitae in a press conference … he stated under the mandate of Paul VI — that the encylical Humanae Vitae is not to be considered part of the infallible pronouncements. Lambruschini stressed that Humanae Vitae did not express a definitive truth of faith granted by ‘infallibilitas in docendo.’”

The statement added that as Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyła asked Paul VI to define Humanae vitae’s teaching as infallible. “Pope Paul VI did not do it and neither did Pope John Paul II during 26 years of his pontificate," the academy's statement said.

Father Petri’s Response

Father Petri noted that St. John Paul II had confirmed Humanae vitae’s teaching as part of the ordinary and universal magisterium.

“In Veritatis splendor — which the Pontifical Academy does not note — in Veritatis splendor John Paul II does say that contraception is an intrinsically evil act, so there can be no reason or purpose for contraception. Benedict XVI gave several speeches in which he spoke about contraception, and it can't be changed. What was true yesterday is true today.”

While there can be “legitimate discussions of how to present it or how to help people understand it, or how to help people who are in difficult situations, whether medically or even because of moral pressure,” the teaching itself is not a topic for debate, explained Father Petri, author of Aquinas and the Theology of the Body (Catholic University of America Press, 2016).

“There could be a real discussion about how to do that, but there can‘t be any sort of rollback of the teaching, because it’s what’s always been taught, and that's how Catholic theology, and Catholic doctrine, works.”

“These things aren‘t really meant to be argued over Twitter,” he reflected. “It’s not the forum to sort of put these things out there.”

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Father Petri added that “It's not helpful to simply focus on infallibility and what is named infallible in an extraordinary way. The First Vatican Council, when it spoke about papal infallibility, was very clear that it was supposed to be an extraordinary act.”

Father Petri compared an infallible statement to an ecumenical council. He described it as “a very extraordinary act, and which usually only happens when the matter at issue, whether it's a doctrinal matter or a moral matter, has become so entirely embroiled in conflict … that it requires such an extraordinary act as a pope or a council declaring something infallibly.”

“That‘s not normally how Church teaching works — that’s why the ordinary magisterium is important.”

When a Pope does not intend to teach infallibly, “that doesn‘t mean we’re supposed to ignore what he's teaching, or to act like his opinion is just one opinion among many," Father Petri said.

“Even if he‘s not intending to proclaim something infallible, especially when he’s teaching things that popes have been teaching for centuries, it has a certain weight to it.”

While one might disagree with how things are expressed, “that doesn‘t mean that what he’s teaching is up for grabs," Father Petri said.

“All the more so when you're talking about a teaching which multiple popes have repeated over multiple decades. And in the case of contraception we could say centuries," he said.

"You simply can't say, ‘Well, Humanae vitae wasn’t declared infallible, Paul VI didn’t declare it infallible, therefore because it’s not infallible, it’s up for grabs.' This is not a binary.”

A similar point was made in a 2019 article by Augusto Sarmiento.

Sarmiento wrote about the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1990 instruction on the ecclesial vocation of the theologian, which discusses various levels of magisterial statements. The article appeared in “Dizionario su Sesso, Amore e Fecondità,” edited by Father José Noriega and René and Isabelle Ecochard.

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A professor at the Univerisity of Pamplona, Sarmiento noted that “the Pope, with Humanae vitae, did not will to propose an extraordinary teaching of the Magisterium ex cathedra.”

To support this, he quoted from Lambruschini’s comments at the press conference presenting the encyclical: “However, it is always an authentic pronouncement, especially since it is part of the continuity of the ecclesiastical magisterium.”

Sarmiento wrote: “On the nature of the authority with which the norm of Humanae vitae is proclaimed, there is no doubt that it is part of the ordinary, universal magisterium,” and that the encyclical “is a teaching of the ordinary universal Magisterium of the Pope and of the bishops that must be considered definitive.”

Humanae vitae and its Precedents

In Humanae vitae St. Paul VI taught that “sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive” is thereby “intrinsically wrong.”

The pope discussed artificial birth control in the context of defining and analyzing marital love and responsible parenthood.

“The Church … in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life,” St. Paul VI wrote, adding that this doctrine has been “often expounded by the magisterium of the Church.”

He presented his statements as a reply, given “by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ,” to questions on the moral doctrine of marriage.

(Video) Consequences of Ignoring Humanae Vitae | Fr Linus Clovis

St. Paul VI referred especially to the teaching of Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world.

Gaudium et spes stated that spouses “must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church's teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel … Thus, trusting in divine Providence and refining the spirit of sacrifice, married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate.”

This statement, in turn, referred in a footnote to Casti connubii, Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical on Christian marriage, which proclaimed “any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”

In that encyclical Pius XI referred to “frustrating the marriage act” as a “criminal abuse," and said that “those who in exercising [the conjugal act] deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.”

Casti connubii also states that “Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime,” and cites St. Augustine’s interpretation of Scripture as such.

The Present Day

Pope Francis was asked about a re-evaluation of the Church’s doctrine on contraception, or whether the use of contraceptives may be considered, on his July 29 flight from Canada to Rome.

The Pope responded that “dogma, morality, is always on a path of development, but always developing in the same direction.” He cited St. Vincent of Lerins as saying “that true doctrine, in order to move forward, to develop, must not be still, it develops … it is consolidated over time, it expands and consolidates, and becomes always more solid, but always progressing. That is why the duty of theologians is research, theological reflection. You cannot do theology with a ‘no’ in front. Then it is up to the Magisterium to say, ‘No, you’ve gone too far, come back.' But theological development must be open, that’s what theologians are for. And the Magisterium must help to understand the limits.”

He referred to the acts of the Pontifical Academy for Life’s seminar, saying, “those who participated in this congress did their duty, because they have sought to move forward in doctrine, but in an ecclesial sense, not outside of it, as I said with that rule of Saint Vincent of Lérins. Then the Magisterium will say, ‘yes, it is good’ or ‘it is not good.'”

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Mónica López Barahona, a board member of the academy, told ACI Prensa last month that “It’s not true that the Church or the Magisterium have changed their moral criteria regarding some questions of bioethics; not even that the Vatican has begun a process of reviewing these issues.”

López stressed that “the book is not an official declaration of the Pontifical Academy for Life on these issues” and that it does not represent “the moral criteria of all its members,” adding that “some were disconcerted when they saw the news about the publication of the book and the seminar, about which they knew nothing until that moment.”


What are the teachings in the encyclical Humanae Vitae? ›

In the papal encyclical entitled Humanae Vitae ("Of Human Life"), Pope Paul VI ended the speculation over oral contraceptives and birth control once and for all. He reaffirmed the Church's traditional teachings and classified the Pill as an artificial method of birth control.

What is the main controversial issue of Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae? ›

This encyclical defended and reiterated the Roman Catholic Church's stance on family planning and reproductive issues such as abortion, sterilization, and contraception. The document continues to have a controversial reputation today, as its statements regarding birth control strike many Catholics as unreasonable.

Is Humanae Vitae infallible? ›

That is, that the Church had always unanimously taught that birth control was sinful and thus Pope Paul had no authority to change the teaching. Humanae Vitae, these Catholics argued, while not per se infallible, was a clear papal reaffirmation of truths already taught infallibly by the ordinary magisterium.

What is Humanae Vitae and why is it important? ›

Humanae vitae (Latin: Of Human Life) is an encyclical written by Pope Paul VI and dated 25 July 1968.
Humanae vitae.
Humanae vitae Latin for 'Of Human Life' Encyclical of Pope Paul VI
Signature date25 July 1968
SubjectAbout birth control
Number7 of 7 of the pontificate
TextIn Latin In English
2 more rows

What is Humanae Vitae and why is it important quizlet? ›

According to Humanae Vitae, why is the church involved in people's concerns about the transmission of life? The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. Although there are hardships, human life has been a sense of great joy.

Does Catholic church believe in birth control? ›

The Catholic position on contraception was formally explained and expressed by Pope Paul VI's Humanae vitae in 1968. Artificial contraception is considered intrinsically evil, but methods of natural family planning may be used, as they do not usurp the natural way of conception.

What does Evangelium Vitae say about abortion? ›

As stated in “Humanae Vitae”, the Church finds that “direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder.”

What is responsible parenthood as stipulated in Humanae Vitae? ›

The most basic meaning of"Humanae Vitae's" teaching on responsible parenthood is that a married couple must be willing to cooperate with the creative intention of God in the totality of their marriage and family life, in all their various dimensions, and in each and every act of marital intercourse.

How did the Catholic Church come to oppose birth control? ›

Regarding his frank 1930 pronouncement on birth control, “Casti Connubii,” Pope Pius XI declared that contraception was inherently evil and any spouse practicing any act of contraception “violates the law of God and nature” and was “stained by a great and mortal flaw.”

Is Humanae Vitae ex cathedra? ›

Paul VI's 19963 Humanae Vitae is reportedly affirmed. John XXIII's spiritualism and concern with conscience is ignored. This encyclical is identified as not spoken "ex cathedra" or from the throne, which would have made the pronouncement true, unarguable forever, and subject to excommunication for those disobeying.

Is Evangelium Vitae infallible? ›

The teachings of Evangelium vitae on the immorality of murder, directly willed abortion, and euthanasia are considered infallible by Catholic theologians including "liberals" (Richard Gaillardetz, Hermann Pottmeyer), "moderates" (Francis A. Sullivan), and "conservatives" (Mark Lowery, Lawrence J. Welch).

Is the Church infallible? ›

The ordinary and universal episcopal magisterium is considered infallible as it relates to a teaching concerning a matter of faith and morals that all the bishops of the Church (including the Pope) universally hold as definitive and only as such therefore needing to be accepted by all the faithful.

Is contraception a mortal sin? ›

ISSUE: Are contraception and sterilization always mortal sins? RESPONSE: The Catholic Church has always taught that contraception and sterilization are sinful and that those who engage in such practices with full knowledge and consent commit mortal sins, severing their relationships with Jesus Christ.

What does open to life mean? ›

Catholic teaching says that sex is supposed to be “open to life,” meaning that when it comes to sex, the procreative and pleasurable aspects of sex should be one and the same thing. Intentionally severing either aspect misses the point of what sex is supposed to be.

What is a letter from the pope called? ›

Encyclicals are papal letters – the word “encyclical” means “circular letter” – usually addressed to Catholic clergy and the laity and containing the pope's views on church teachings and doctrine in a particular area.

What does responsible parenthood mean with regard to biological processes? ›

With regard to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means an awareness of, and respect for, their proper functions. In the procreative faculty the human mind discerns biological laws that apply to the human person.

What are the 2 inseparable aspects of the conjugal act by whose will is this? ›

Two Inseparable Aspects: Union and Procreation

12. That teaching, often set forth by the magisterium, is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning.

What is mortal sin in the Catholic Church? ›

A mortal sin is defined as a grave action that is committed in full knowledge of its gravity and with the full consent of the sinner's will. Such a sin cuts the sinner off from God's sanctifying grace until it is repented, usually in confession with a priest.

What religions are against birth control? ›

Today, the Catholic Church is the only Christian denomination that adheres to a historical standard on birth control/contraception, which is that any form of contraceptive use is against their religion. This includes any form of artificial contraception such as: The pill and all hormonal methods of birth control.

Why are there placebo pills in birth control Catholic Church? ›

In his 1963 book “The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor's Proposals to End the Battle Over Birth Control,” he argued that the pill was merely a scientific extension of the church-sanctioned “rhythm method.” It “completely mimics” the body's own hormones, he wrote, to extend the “safe period” in which a woman could have ...

What does Evangelium Vitae say about capital punishment? ›

Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), condemned capital punishment except “in cases of absolute necessity” which were said to be “very rare, if not practically non-existent.” He called for its abolition just four years later.

What is the main message of the encyclical letter Laborem Exercens? ›

Laborem exercens argued that the dignity of labor is such that laborers are entitled to co-own the goods they produce and thus share in the decisions regarding the use of these goods. Workers are also entitled to share in the decisions concerning the work process.

What is the meaning of Caritas in Veritate? ›

Caritas in Veritate is the name of the most recent encyclical letter of Pope Benedict XVI. The first two words mean Love or Charity in Truth. It is about all contemporary forms of human development in charity and truth as well as truth in charity.

What does the Catholic Church teach concerning contraception and human dignity? ›

The teachings of the Catholic Church on contraception are derived from Scripture, Natural law, Apostolic Tradition, The magisterium and human experience. Marriage is a sacrament with both unitive and procreative ends. Therefore, the fecundity of marriage is vital in the Church's teaching about contraception.

Can Catholic married couples use condoms? ›

Catholic church teaching does not allow the use of condoms as a means of birth control, arguing that abstinence and monogamy in heterosexual marriage is the best way to stop the spread of Aids.

Does the Bible allow birth control? ›

The Bible never explicitly approves of contraception.

Can Catholics get tattoos? ›

Tattoos are not forbidden in the Catholic church, however, your tattoos should not go against the teachings of the Catholic church. The Catholic church takes all of its teachings from the bible and the Old Testament does talk about tattoos, and how they are sinful.

What does ex cathedra mean in the Catholic Church? ›

Ex cathedra is a Latin phrase, meaning not "from the cathedral" but "from the chair." The phrase does have religious origins though: it was originally applied to decisions made by Popes from their thrones. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, a Pope speaking ex cathedra on issues of faith or morals is infallible.

When was the last infallible statement by a pope? ›

Since then, the only infallible “ex Cathedra” statement which a pope has ever made came in 1950, when in his Munificentissimus Deus papal bull, Pius XII defined the doctrine of the assumption of Mary.

Are encyclicals infallible? ›

Encyclicals are authoritative, not to be criticized or rejected lightly by members of the church, but they are not infallible.

Who promulgated the Evangelium Vitae? ›

John Paul II promulgated the encyclical Evangelium vitae, on the value and inviolability of human life.” Every human life, “unique and unrepeatable, valuable in and of itself, constitutes an inestimable worth.

What is the meaning of Familiaris Consortio? ›

Familiaris consortio (The fellowship of the family; subtitled On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World) is a post-synodal apostolic exhortation written by Pope John Paul II and promulgated on 22 November 1981. Familiaris consortio. Latin for 'The fellowship of the family'

What is the message of Deus Caritas Est? ›

Titled Deus Caritas Est - "God Is Love" - the wide-ranging document also described what the pope called the "unity of love," a balance of eros, or erotic love, and agape, "love grounded in and shaped by faith." He warned that sex without love debases men and women.

What are the three states of the church? ›

the Church Triumphant, which consists of those who have the beatific vision and are in Heaven. These divisions are known as the "three states of the Church," especially within Catholic ecclesiology.

Can the pope change doctrine? ›

The Pope is not free to change the church's teachings with regard to the immorality of homosexual acts or the insolubility of marriage or any other doctrine of the faith.”

Did the early church believe in papal infallibility? ›

We do not find the concept of papal infallibility in ancient texts. Early Christians did not consider that even bishops might err until the Council of Antioch (264). Nevertheless, from the very beginning there has always been the idea of the Church's indefectibility – that it and its teachings will always survive.

What are the 4 mortal sins? ›

They join the long-standing evils of lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy and pride as mortal sins - the gravest kind, which threaten the soul with eternal damnation unless absolved before death through confession or penitence.

Why is sterilization a sin? ›

The church disapproves direct sterilization because it separates unnaturally the dual purpose of the marital act, contradicts the nature of man and woman and their intimate relationship, and oversteps the dominion a person has over his or her generative faculties.

Why is the Catholic Church against condoms? ›

The Catholic Church's opposition to contraception includes a prohibition on condoms. It believes that chastity should be the primary means of preventing the transmission of AIDS.

How can I become more open to the world? ›

By Leo Babauta
  1. Judge less, accept more. It seems natural to judge others, but in doing so we close ourselves the truth about these people. ...
  2. Let go of goals. ...
  3. Recognize defense mechanisms. ...
  4. Be like the sky. ...
  5. Watch your fears. ...
  6. Let go of control. ...
  7. Open hands.

What is the meaning of indissolubility in marriage? ›

“Indissolubility, the incapacity of being dissolved, is the truth of giving.” Indissolubility is the joyous affirmation that nuptial love is not at. the mercy of spouses' moods, nor of the unforeseeable good or. bad circumstances spouses may face, nor of the changing ideas.

What are the impacts of having children on a marriage? ›

Fundamental identities may shift – from wife to mother, or, at a more intimate level, from lovers to parents. Even in same-sex couples, the arrival of children predicts less relationship satisfaction and sex. Beyond sexual intimacy, new parents tend to stop saying and doing the little things that please their spouses.

How much does it cost to send a letter to the Vatican? ›

The easiest way to send letters from the USA to Vatican City is with Global Forever Stamps for $1.40 each. You can also use regular, domestic forever stamps as long as they add up to $1.40. Extra postage is required over 1 ounce.

Why is a papal bull called a bull? ›

The name is derived from the lead seal (bulla) traditionally affixed to such documents. Since the 12th century it has designated a letter from the pope carrying a bulla that shows the heads of the apostles Peter and Paul on one side and the pope's signature on the other.

Why was Elizabeth excommunicated? ›

In February 1570, Pope Pius V declared that Elizabeth was a heretic and, as such, she was excommunicated by way of a Papal Bull (order). The Bull released Catholics from any loyalty to Elizabeth and called upon them to remove her from the throne.

What is responsible parenthood as stipulated in Humanae Vitae? ›

The most basic meaning of"Humanae Vitae's" teaching on responsible parenthood is that a married couple must be willing to cooperate with the creative intention of God in the totality of their marriage and family life, in all their various dimensions, and in each and every act of marital intercourse.

What are the 3 goods and requirements of conjugal love? ›

It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility.

What is the meaning of the word encyclical? ›

An encyclical is an official letter written by the Pope and sent to all Roman Catholic bishops, usually in order to make a statement about the official teachings of the Church. COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary.

What does responsible parenthood mean with regard to man's innate drives and emotions? ›

With regard to man's innate drives and emotions, responsible parenthood means that man's reason and will must exert control over them.


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