The Big Chill

'Humanae Vitae' Dissenters Need to Find Voice

Over the past quarter-century, Catholics who support Humanae Vitae have done a superb job articulating the ways their adherence to church teaching against contraception fits into their view of family life. For example, Helen Alvaré, professor at George Mason Law and former spokeswoman for the U.S. Catholic bishops, recently edited a volume titled Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves. The book showcases ten accomplished women who fully accept church teaching on sexual morality, situating their lives and vocations within a larger context of religious belief.

Are we likely to see a similar volume from Catholic women who believe the responsible use of birth control is compatible with their faith and their vocations as wives any time soon? I doubt it. This large cohort of Catholic women is largely silent. And who could blame them?

The ecclesiastical climate has chilled considerably in the forty years since Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae. At the time the encyclical was published, the use of contraception by married couples was still seen by most prelates as a matter on which people of good faith could disagree. That began to change under John Paul II, who treated contraception as the doorway to the “culture of death.” Proponents of his “Theology of the Body” maintain that spouses who use contraception are lying to one another with their bodies and withholding themselves from one another in the sexual act. This hardly encourages respectful conversation with Catholic couples who find contraception morally acceptable.

The theological climate has shifted too. Many of today’s emerging Catholic moralists were drawn to their field by the examples of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. They accept and defend the teaching against contraception. And those who don’t accept it do well to maintain a prudent silence. The ecclesiastical actions taken against Charles Curran, Elizabeth Johnson, and Margaret Farley have had a chilling effect on academic discussion of sexual morality.

In short, over the past twenty years, Catholic bishops have largely squelched open debate among their people about the morality of contraception. Many have worked to thwart frank discussion about what Catholic parents owe their marriages, their children, and other vocational commitments they have apart from family. If the price of admission to this crucial conversation is adherence to Humanae Vitae, then nine out of ten Catholic couples aren’t qualified to say a word.

Obviously, those who dissent from Humanae Vitae have cause to lament this state of affairs. But those who support church teaching also have reason to be worried, because it encourages a type of compartmentalization that is fundamentally foreign to the Catholic tradition. If people are not encouraged to reflect on their normative commitments in a holistic manner, they tend to segregate them from one another. They put the church in one box, marriage and family life in another. Catholics who compartmentalize their moral commitments risk isolating themselves from the considerable wisdom of the tradition on matters of sex, love, and embodiment. A church that encourages such compartmentalization is hardly catholic. How can that kind of church interpret the complexities of our world? How can it avoid being seen as one more commitment among many others, just something to do for an hour on Sundays?

So instead of ignoring ordinary Catholics who use contraception, it would be better for the church to encourage them to articulate how their views can be seen as consistent with the deepest insights of the tradition. Encourage them to read Humanae Vitae. But also encourage them to read the Majority Report of the Birth Control Commission—convened by Paul VI—which tried to show that church teaching on contraception could be authentically developed.

Most progressive Catholics hope the Majority Report position will eventually win the day, just as Vatican II’s defense of religious liberty superseded the condemnation of that freedom in the Syllabus of Errors. But winning the day takes work. John Courtney Murray, SJ, worked to show how religious liberty was consistent with the Catholic tradition. John Noonan’s magisterial volume Contraception (1968) did much the same thing for birth control. As that book approaches its fiftieth anniversary, it’s time to reread it.

Progressive Catholics need to make sure that the next generation can situate their argument within the Catholic moral tradition, rather than presenting it in a purely secular manner. Does that mean a lot of conservatives—including “John Paul II” bishops—are going to welcome such arguments with open arms? Of course not. They’ll still call those Catholics dissenters. But at least they will be dissenters engaged in the tradition, not cordoned off from it.



Commenting Guidelines

IMHO, an extremely well worded post.  Excluding for the moment love and all the remarkable notions and realities it makes possible, the path to pregnancy is one very easily traveled.  The ability to usefully define much less understand "church teachings" is not.  It is, in fact, a life long challenge.  In as much as "church teachings" serve as a conduit to God but are not God one can in reality fail to grasp or find useful a great deal of its complexity without risking disaster.  Not so of pregnancy.  Its results are real, tangible, inescapable.  It is sheer madness to suggest the most important aspects of raising a child can be understood primarily as a belief, a great mystery.  We do that very thing with "church teachings" not merely on the notions but on the reality of God.

As, I believe, others on Commonweal have suggested in ways beyond my ability, until the Dolan's and Lori's are no longer allowed to conflate worrying with doing and are required to raise children from birth to college while still being required to attend to all their other responsibilites "church teachings" are unlikely to change.  And a significant amount of the avoidable tragedy of unwanted childen will continue.

Cathleen, you make a good point.  Problem is I'm afraid the two sides of what used to be called this "debate" no longer speak the same language.  Back in the 60s and 70s, there were numerous thoughtful articles in the Catholic press presenting rational arguments against the old natural law system of morality undergirding the teaching against contraception.  (There were also the usual human-interest pieces in the secular press that caused more heat than light, but that's a whole other problem.)  Today, I'd guess most Catholic women who disagree with the Church position are largely unfamiliar with how it is argued, much less how to counter it on any but totally practical terms.  As a result, they don't even try, which leaves them at least a bit unmoored from the Church even if they attend Mass on a weekly basis.  

And, as if that weren't bad enough, the general silence has left those who uphold the teaching, many of whom are converts, with the impression that there is no rational argument against it within Catholic tradition.  That only contributes to their unfortunate tendency to see themselves as the last faithful Catholics on earth.   Sad.

"They put the church in one box, marriage and family life in another. Catholics who compartmentalize their moral commitments risk isolating themselves from the considerable wisdom of the tradition on matters of sex, love, and embodiment."

Dissenting Catholics are the ones who "put the church in one box, marriage and family life in another."  They want to have it both ways, but they cannot.  Their placement of marriage and family life outside of the guidance of the Church is responsible for the destruction of family life that we see today at every turn.

Professor Kaveny - Thank you for providing the essential reading list for Catholic women who want to better understand the Church's position on artificial birth control. I've managed to track down all of the sources you mention in your article, but am having trouble finding the actual Majority Report of the Birth Control Commission of Paul IV.  Can you or anyone help me with a link. Thanks!

Well said Patricia McCarron.  The dissent is also a huge part of the acceptance of gay 'marriage'.  After all, if contracepted  sex is non sinful for married Catholics, what could possibly be wrong with lustful, non- procreative sex between two 'married' folks of the same sex?

As one who has lived life on both sides of the fence so to speak, let me assure you, none of this is about the theological nuances of church teaching, only lifestyle.  In my case, and most certainly in my younger dissenting years, no one or anything stood in the way of how I chose to life my life, especially sexually.

Consequently, the price I paid for that false freedom is beyond the scope of a combox. 

Perhaps as in my case, God just lets us get miserable enough that we finally get beyond the entitlement stage, where the consequences outweigh the forbidden thought of obedience, only to finallly discover that the obedience was by far the "better way." 

As some have already noted, legal same sex marriage in America is one of the consequences of our disobedience to both divorce and contraception, spiritually speaking. Don't believe me, wait 5-10 years and take another good look at what we have become as a culture, and worst of all, what we have left our children.  Nothing by the way, that Pope Paul VI didn't prophasize.


The flaw is that acceptance of so-called "rhythm methods" allows couples to distance themselves from each other and the procreative act during those dangerous times of the month when a woman might get pregnant. Added to her mensturating period, almost 1/2 of the month is lost to intimacy. Uses of artificial methods actually increase intimacy and erase the fear of pregnancy that keeps couples apart. That is the practical advice from couples who use preventative birth control methods. Vatican roullette is a scary game when you are poor and stressed. One more mouth to feed, educate, nuture and support is not always a blessing.

The wisdom of the Holy Spirit is in The Church. For Catholics that means Christ's people and their spiritual leaders. With longer and healthier life, marriages need to offer maximum opportunities for tenderness and intimacy both for each member of the couple and to benefit their children. Artificial contraception can offer this support to couples.
The church needs to listen to some of us who, remaining open to life and conception, practiced birth control carefully and raised Families we could afford, supported marriages of over 40 years, and contributed to the presence of Christian values through our professional lives. The secret has been "eyes on Christ".

Mike with all respect, you couldn't be more wrong. 

Trust me that I know a bit about "intimacy."  That said, NOTHING is more proof of intimacy than a man who actually loves a women beyond his hormones.  That's not to say that good sex isn't intimate, only that the best bellwether of real intimacy is being able to enjoy/love a partner when sex isn't an option. 

Many relationships, and often the ones that quickly end in divorce, are based on sexual pleasure (even if mutual), not the person. Before easy on demand birth control pills and no consequence sex via legal abortion, it wasn't possible to simply have anytime anywhere M/F "sex relationships."  Consequently, people actually had to get to know, and enjoy each other (imagine that).

FYI, the divorce rate among Catholics who use NFP is less than 2%, compared with 45-50% of the average American Population.  Why?  Because "objective" sex is as artifical as ABC.

Patricia, you have a right to believe that but just a little bit of research among the faithful would reveal that those who use NFP are simply called "parents."  Neither Jesus nor the church should require heroic abstinence by the majority of God's people. Clearly rates of divorce are not in any way correlated with couples who chart a woman's monthly cycles to avoid an unwanted  pregnancy. And since over 90% of Catholic couples use some form of artificial birth control, your sample size would be skewed severely, probably based on other fundamentalist beliefs.

No Mike, my "sample" size is based on both life expereince and church teaching.  As for "heroic abstinence", it's simply nothing more than how God designed a women's body.  If you did your research, you would find many  women (non religous, especially in Europr) who don't want their bodies full of chemicals and hormones qho  very successfully use NFP. 

As for the "90% of Catholics who use ABC"  means nothing more than 90% of disobedient Catholics, and btw, that is unique to the tiny percentage of Catholics in the Western World.  It makes my head spin that people use the "mass sin" argument over and over, as if enough people sin, it trumps official Church teaching.  On that note, 80% of the country is addicted to pornography, so does that make pornography (albeit legal), morally acceptable?  Just ask someone from a family destroyed by it. 

If we have learned anything from the days of our Lord when the crowds wrongfully cried, "crucify him," it's that "the crowds" are almost always wrong, as they are almost always with the world and not Christ.   

Marina:  I found one copy of the papal birth control commission documents online at the New Blackfriars site:

I'm not sure about the readability of that site.  The majority and minority reports were originally published by the National Catholic Reporter press, if that's any help.

You'll find several links to what's called "new documentation" on the birth control commission, but all that boils down to is a claim by Fr. John C. Ford, a minoirty report member, that the commission was "stacked" by those in favor of a change in the teaching.  Pope Paul called on Fr. Ford late in the game to represent the tradition because he feared both sides weren't equally represented.  Fr. Ford was really the only well-known Catholic theologian in America who continued to support the traditional

 natural law position.

BTW, the late Fr. Ford was the author of the papal commission's minority report.

Fwiw, I found a story about Fr. Ford and Germain Grisez, the two US moral theologians best known for their support of Humane Vitae in 1968, with a link to commission documents included (I think).  In any case, the story's worth reading as it is:

Patricia:  "FYI, the divorce rate among Catholics who use NFP is less than 2%, compared with 45-50% of the average American Population.  Why?  Because "objective" sex is as artifical as ABC."

As a Notre Dame sociologist (otherwise favorable to NFP) points out, claiming a causal relationship  isn't all that easy.  See:

"More research on the impact of NFP on relationships is clearly needed.  While the above study shows clear differences between women using NFP and women not in the NFP study to what extent NFP is the causal influence of these differences is unknown.  Indeed, the USCCB lists some criteria as to how Catholics can be “good consumers of NFP research,” as well as some examples of possible NFP divorce studies that could be done using good research methodologies.   Catholic speakers and organizations promoting NFP should be aware of this.  While research has looked at the ways NFP users say NFP has brought them together (VandeVusse et al. 2003), others have struggled greatly with NFP, as evidenced by a quick perusal of a popular Catholic online forum (e.g. see here).  If NFP is promoted as a sure-fire way to prevent divorce, couples for whom practicing it is difficult and/or for whom their marriage is strained, might feel misled by Catholic leaders."

Hi Beverly:


As for "more research needed", it appears to be pretty obvious that the facts speak otherwise.  A quick google search will show countless references to the fact that couples who use NFP have a divorce rate less than 2-5%.

In addition to the obvious reason of the fact that no one enjoys feeling objectified, there is also substantial evidence that the birth control pill changes a women's response to phermones.  Consequently, during plannned pregnancies, many women who have  used the pill have found that they are much less sexually attractive to their spouses during the times they stop using it.  There are also countless references on this masking of the phermones .  Here is one such exmaple from Scientific American

Lastly, here's an excerpt from a great article I just found on Why do NFP couples have such a low divorce rates; a great read for all of the naysayers.

Why do NFP couples have such low divorce rates?

    The low divorce rate among couples practicing NFP reflects a combination of factors.

First, couples with strong relationships may be more likely than other couples to choose to practice NFP. After all, NFP depends on some of the same virtues as marriage itself: commitment, communication, consideration, and self-control. Couples who reject NFP as “too much trouble” or “too restrictive” all too often turn out to be the same couples who ultimately find the demands of marriage itself to be too much to handle.

Second, NFP helps strengthen marital relationships. On the most basic level, since the spouses are not constantly sexually available to the other, it keeps them from taking the other for granted. Often women rightly complain that the use of contraception has lowered their sense of worth.

I recently received a letter from a woman who said that while she and her first husband were using contraception, she felt like a “toy or a recreational vehicle.” The contraception made her husband assume that she was always sexually available, and she felt used and taken for granted. She has since been married in the Church and has used NFP for years. In her words, “a chaste marriage is the ultimate!” After abandoning contraception and switching to NFP, another woman said, “I now know the true meaning of the word ‘intimate.”’[1] When was the last time you heard a woman say that using a spermicide is “the ultimate!” and that after using a condom she finally knew the meaning of intimacy? The enthusiasm has never been there because no woman wants to be at war with her body.  





I just want to make one last point on this thread, specifically to the naysayers against Humane Vitae and those "90 % of Catholics" who use ABC."

It's fair to say that most people who fall into this group also fall more on the left, consequently, more heavily on social issues than church dogma/doctrine.

Now consider the fact that the divorce rate among couples using NFP is 40-45% less than couples using ABC.  Isn't a 40% decrease in divorce rate enough of a reason to give some pause that maybe, just maybe, the church has this right? 

Ask any kid of  divorced parents if he or she would have perfered that their parents not be divorced. 

Perhpas it's not so ,much that NFP can save a loveless marriage as much as preventing one in the first place. Divorce is not only horrible for kids, but also a major cause of poverty; a pretty big price to pay when an alternative, that yes requires a little self-disipline, is a viable option.

There has been not one widely respected scientific organization that has concluded that the increase use of contraceptives in a marriage causes the increase in divorce, abortion, spousal abuse, et al. If you want to consider human experience, we must balance assertions with existential reality when we find no evidence whatsoever that NFP couples treat each other as loving subjects, while couples that use artificial brith control are claimed to have a utilitarian attitude and a diabolic love grounded in concupiscence.

The causes of divorce, et al, are many and contraception is not one of them. Those that study moral theology, and disagree with Humanae Vitae, base their legitimate disagreements on its underlying philosophy and theology. This debate has been going on for 45 years. We should take a lesson from Pope Francis. Jesus' teachings were based on the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law. All we have witnessed for the past 45 years the harsh demonizing of faithful Catholics that do not receive every Church teaching. 

This blog is not the place for a heavy theological debate, but JP II claimed that spouses that practice artifical birth control, even when couples have children and want no more for good reasons (the same good reasons that Pius XII said exempted married couples from their procreative obligation even for a lifetime) are expressing a false, evil and destructive love. This flies in the face of human experience.

JP II's Theology of the Body is based on his philosophical anthropology, pesonalism and the use of symbolism. Such claims of moral certitude are a metaphoric leap. JP II had a creative moral imagination, but imagination enables theology to resist the constant temptation towards absolutizing. And if we are to accept the the priority of symbol over intellect, then theology has an important role to play in ensuring that the image does not become the only word, or the last word. This means that we must resist the temptation of proclaiming we know God's procreative plan with moral certainty based on symbolic speculation.

The Church has proclaimed certain teachings as truth for centuries only to responsibly reform them. Let's hope the responsible use of contraception is one of them. Incidently, I have been married for 41 years, have two wonderful children, practice my faith and love my wife more today than when I first married her. This does not make me the perfect husband, but my wife and I have worked out the many difficulties in our marriage, as thousands of othe faithful married couples do, and thank God each day for his blessings.




We should keep in mind that the sole reason Paul VI went against the Birth Control Commission is because Cardinal Ottaviani convinced him that this would bring into question the infalliblility of the church since Pius XI came out strongly in Casti Conubbi against contraception. But we know that encyclicals are not infallible. 

The fact is that the position of the hierarchy on birth control is a real act of cruelty by men who never had to raise or support a family. It is a shame that poor African women have to beg for birth control as they are helpless against a partiarchal society which will not use condoms. What a travesty it is that  Bill and Melinda Gates are doing more for women than the Catholic hierarchy. This is a herculean biunder on the part of the RCC which has foisted misery on so many families. This partriarchal hierarchy has found ways to justify war as just but has failed miserably in bringing justice to women. It is really short sighted to blame women who have responsibly raised children because they have wisely limited the amoun of children they could afford to give a decent life.

Finally, lets get off this kick once and for all that the popes do not mistakes. They have made plenty of them . The truth of the church is not in popes and bishops but that the gospel is preached to the poor and that healing salvation comes to God's people. 

Well said Bill,

On a practical level, consider the fact that many women have difficult pregnancies and some are told that another pregnancy will be life threathening. In these cases, the Church asserts that such women cannot use the most prudent and effective means of "safe-guarding their life, not to mention their marriage. They cannot be sterilized, the obvious and most prudent moral decision. They must practice a life time of sexual abstinence, called "heroic virtue". How absurd.

The problem is that most people think these cases are legitimate exceptions that don't invalidate Humanae Vitae. Wake up! Humanae Vitae is a moral absolute and claimed to be divine law by the Church. That is the problem. A moral absoulute does not allow for exceptions because once you allow for an exception based on good reasons and virtue, you have to allow for other so-called exceptions. 

This encylical was based on pre-conciliar theology. It was wrong when it was published in 1968 and it is wrong today. Those that disagree with this teaching are demonized by the Church as: dissenters, unfaithful, cafeteria Catholics, misguided, or inflicted by some type of diabolicial secular cancer that prevents them from recoginzing the truth. Let's hope this teaching is reformed.



I agree  - I was amazed when I learned of how most at V2 wanted contraception to be accepted, when I read about the Papal Commission, and read about all the dissent from theologians and bishops just after Humanae Vitae.  People have given up trying to reason with the leaders of the church now because reason doesn't seem to matter anymore to those making the decisions.  So, the discussion on contraception has died out, but almost all Catholics do use contraception.  The discussion about marriage/divorce/annulments doesn't happen, but about a third of Catholics get divorced, and only about 15% of those even apply for annulments.  The hierarchy spends millions to defeat marriage equality but a majority of Catholics are for same-sex marriage.  Church teaching has failed in these areas, but church leaders don't care and now, neither do most Catholics.

Crystal, Michael, and Bill:

Most certainly you are entitled to you opinions, but how anyone can continue to rationalzie against  both  a 1900 year old church doctrine, and the fullment of the prophecy of Pope Paul VI and Humane Vitae, is right up there with the folks who saw Christ raise from the dead and still didn't believe. 

For goodness sakes, the "proof" is now before our eyes, having caused many of the original priests and bishops (including Winnipeg), who originally disagreed, to now totally agree.

Also, are you aware that Pope Paul VI's favorite feast day was the Feast of the Transfiguration (Aug 6th)?  It was also the day that  PP VI  died, August 6th.  That isn't a coincidence.  God often rewards the holy and devout with their favorite feasts (e.g. John Paul II died both on the Marian (Fatima), "First Saturday" but also after Vespers, technically making it in the eyes of the Church, Divine Mercy Sunday, also the feast next year when his canonization of sainthood will occur.

Pope Paul VI was a holy and courageous pope, truly guided by the Holy Spirit as the Vicar of Christ in regards to his (almost) solo certitude of HV, proving once again the power and inerrancy of the papacy.

p.s.  to Michael:

No one is claming that contraception causes divorce, only that NFP couples have almost a 50% lower divorce rate. 




Give us a break. The bishops are not excited about conraception. They virtualy ok it. They veil behind what they call the  "internal forum" (confession). In other words, as long as you confess it it is alright. Which is a hypocritical way of dealing with it. It makes married people feel guilty when they are doing their best for their children. The bishops used contraception as a political weapon with the health care law. Otherwise they do not talk about it. 

On this point every Catholic university is hypocritical in that they do not confront the Vatican on it. Privately or individually they approve contraception. But publically they will not disagree with Rome. So maybe it is time for the universities to stop their hypocrisy. 

I doubt many of the theologians who dissented have changed their minds - over 600 US theologians and academics signed a statement against HV.  If the bishops in the US changed their minds, I think that's partly due to them wanting to advance in their jobs.  Bishops in other countries continue to dissent on HV, according to Helmut Schuller, and  <I>Paul VI himself, in a letter to the Congress of German Catholics (Aug. 30, 1968), stated: "May the lively debate aroused by our encyclical lead to a better knowledge of God’s will." </I> - "Humanae Vitae 25 years later" ...

The fact that only about 2% of Catholic follow the church's teaching on contraception, and yet the US bishops are trying to derail the ACA on that basis is somewhere between ludicrous and heinous.

Catholics who compartmentalize their moral commitments risk isolating themselves from the considerable wisdom of the tradition on matters of sex, love, and embodiment. A church that encourages such compartmentalization is hardly catholic. How can that kind of church interpret the complexities of our world? How can it avoid being seen as one more commitment among many others, just something to do for an hour on Sundays?

That's a bit fast. I don't see at all how dismissing the clergy's inferior knowledge of sex, of pregnancy, and of parenting, implies that one will view the Mass as one commitment among many others.

Are we likely to see a similar volume from Catholic women who believe the responsible use of birth control is compatible with their faith and their vocations as wives any time soon? I doubt it. This large cohort of Catholic women is largely silent.

Actually my interpretation is that they do not need to speak out. They do not need to convince: for the most part, Catholics are already convinced. Why fight yesterday's battle? It is a better use of their time to instead turn their attention to more interesting matters, that are not yet settled.

While more than 90% of Catholics practice contraception, a significant percentage of priests also disagree with this Church teaching. In the 2002 New York Times Survey of U.S. Priests, 40% of all priests believe that contraception is seldom or never a sin for married couples; and 31% of younger priests (those in the priesthood less than 21 years) have the same beliefs. They are not all misguided hypocites or invincibly ignorant. 

Two years ago, I asked my parish priest about contraception because I disagreed with the teaching and never confessed it as a sin. In fact, I told him that my local priest in 1975 told me not to worry about it because I had two children and wanted no more for good reasons, and followiing my informed conscience was ok. My current parish priest said that all young couples considering marriage are required to attend a NFP session, however, after that "the choice of birth control is up to them".




Are we likely to see a similar volume from Catholic women who believe the responsible use of birth control is compatible with their faith and their vocations as wives any time soon? I doubt it. This large cohort of Catholic women is largely silent.

Again, why should we discuss contraception? We don't discuss racism, do we? It's settled, in most people's minds. It seems like a waste of time to try to argue why people are equal regardless of skin color; that would be letting ourselves be dragged into a sterile discussion. 


I welcome your voice because we all benefit from respectful dialogue as we strive to recognize, understand and live the truth. However, I disagree with the implication that because NFP couples have a lower divorce rate than couples who practice contraception, they are somehow standing on the moral higher ground. Before anyone can drawn any conclusions about divorce rates and the use of a birth control method, several things must be resolved:

1. The sample size must be statistically significant and the samples of NFP couples and contraceptive couples must be matched along a series of variables to ensure we are comparing apples and apples.

2. More importantly, all other factors that influence and correlate with divorce must be "normalized" so that one factor, such as use of birth control method, can be declared highly correlated but also that this correlation has a high statistical probablility of causation.

Traditionalists like to talk about the prophetic vision of Paul VI when he issued Humanae Vitae, in particular the "consequences of contraception". Unfortunately, pointing to increasing divorce rates, spousal abuse, a more promiscious society, et al, is not a substitute for a proper scientific study that can validate that these observations of human experience is indeed statistically accurate conclusions regarding contraception.  

Apart from the common sense arguments already mentioned, there is an important moral theological principle at stake here that seems to be forgotten: abusus non tollit usum: the abuse of a thing does not take away from its legitimate use. Examples from daily life abound. The fact that alcohol and other drugs are abused by several millions of people does not mean that their responsible use by the rest of us should be forbidden. Ditto for the responsible use of contraception.




 responsible use of contraception.

What's an irresponsible use of contraception? In what situation do you consider someone using contraception and judge that, all other things being equal, they ought to not have used contraception? Offhand I cannot think of one. (On the other hand it is easy to think of irresponsible lack of use of contraception...)


Good question. I can only think of an extreme case of a married couple "with no good reasons for having children". For example, a married couple who hates children and does everything they can to prevent the act of sexual intercourse from being procreative. In such a case, one could question the use of contraception (and her motives, intentions and ends) as irresponsible from the standpoint of the "ends of marriage", one of which is procreation. This does not mean that couples don't have good reasons for not having children. For example, the good reasons that Pius XII said exempted a couple from their procreative obliagtions in marriage even for a lifetime as noted below:

"Serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise from medical, eugenic, economic and social so-called "indications," may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life."

There is no explit definition of medical, eugenic, economic and social. One must use their common sense here. Some couples cannot have children because of fertility issues, physical difficulties, emotional issues, financial problems, a marriage late in life, difficulties with pregnancies that may be life-threatening or harmful to one's health...the list goes on.

On the other hand Claire, as you pointed out, there can be an irresponsible lack of use of contraception. For example, the majority of unintended pregnancies and abortions are caused by the lack of and inconsistent use of contraception.



Michael despite the many good and holy priests, we can all find the priest who will tell us what we want to here.  I've been there too.

The church couldn't be more clear on it's teaching on contraception.  To try to tap dance around it is simply willful ignorance.  It's also crystal clear that the "well formed" conscience only applies to a "well formed  teaching (s) of the church" conscience.  To live otherwise is to do so our own peril.  Even athiests in this country know what the CC teaches on contraception.  It's the most known teaching in Catholicism, objectifully serious sin.

The 50 years of "prophetic evidence" is so overwhelming many of the dissenters have publically changed their positions.  For any clergy still holding that position, they too do it at their own peril, and at even a much great accountability as members of the clergy.   We should all pray for them.

As for divorce and contraception, it's merely another one of the prophetic consequences of PPVI.  The reason is more likely owing to lustful relationship rather than loving relationships.  I referenced an article earlier in the thread that addresses that issue.  Now it has trickled down to our youth's "hook up" culture, and what an emotional mess it's also having on that group.

I have no further interest in discussing what is clearly a 1900 year old church teaching, as nothing outside of the church changing (which will never happen) its teaching would ever open my mind to believe otherwise.

  I pray for the grace for all "too see."



My conscience is peaceful, joyful and well informed. I look not for a priest who will tell me what I want to hear, for I am not a fool. I use my God-given faith and reason, much prayer, continous education, the advice of moral theologians, my priest advisor, and most of all Jesus to transform me into the man He wishes me to be. I respect the Church but I disagree with some teachings for legitmate philosophical and theological reasons.

You are entitled to your opinion but not my agreement. As to your reference to tradition and indirectly to Scripture, you should try to see the spirit of the law and not merely the letter of the law. That is the real message of the Gospels.



 but I disagree with some teachings for legitmate philosophical and theological reasons.


And that sadly, makes you a Protestant Michael.  It's one thing to not have the faith to believe, quite another to "agree to disagree" and be satisfied with it, especially by your own rationalization.  What you are in essense saying is that "I know more than the Pope." 

Good luck with that, I'll pray for you.



It seems to me that the sensus fidelium concept  indicates that the prohibition of contraception is wrong. If a large majority of Catholics do not support the prohibiition, then the "understanding  of believers" is that the prohibition is faulty. Much of that rejection of Humanae Vitae is motivated by love, love of the spouse, love of the already born children.

There is no Scriptural justification for the prohibition, which is simply a human idea. One might take this type of reasoning, that God and nature require every sex act to be open to life, to its absurd conclusion and say that human beings should never interfere in any way with nature; that would mean no operations, no pacemakers, no vaccinations. But Natural Family Planning is hardly "natural." As one observer has remarked, it is almost a trick to fool mother nature. If it were "natural," then uneducated people would, of course, know about it and use it. Its existence is due simply to the hierarchy's desperate need to make an unreasonable and "unnatural" prohibition marginally palatable to some believers. I think the Church leaders have inadvertently fallen into the trap of the Pharisees of laying impossible burdens on people (Luke 11:46). Unlike the Pharisees, Church leaders have lifted a finger to lighten the burdens; that is NFP. The more rational solution is to drop the entire issue.

That the bishops would push the issue of contraception to the point that they now provide moral support for those who oppose the affordable health care law for other reasons reminds me of President Woodrow Wilson's refusal to make any changes to the Versailles Treaty; his refusal meant the League of Nations, his cherished dream, was crippled from its birth, and the strangling of the League at its birth led in part to a second horrendous world war with its attendant atrocities. 

On the Commonweal blog Ms Oaks tells us in her piece about the Faithless Generation. that, the women who are fertile have already abandoned Church practice and could care less about the prohibition against it. ?.. so what does this mean for us to prattle on about birth control.? My guess is all us posters are way beyond child conceiving age, somewhat like the celibates who condemn the pill. .


Your desparaging and implied remarks about Protestants are in step with your misguided moral superiority. You can disagree and remain a faithful Catholic. I hope when you pray for me, you will pray for yourself as well. 

John Dahmus,

Great posting. I would add something that the great Bernard Hering once said. In paraphrase, NFP separates the unitive and procreative dimensions of the marital act by ensuring that every act of sexual intercourse is non-procreative. Therefore, either NFP and artificial birth control violate Humanae Vitae, or they do not. This obvious fact, among many, is something the Church refuses to address.



Michael I don't know what is so "disparaging" about calling you a Protestant for "protesting" from an official Chruch Teaching.  That's what Protestantism is, protest from the official teachings of the Catholic Faith.  You clearly admitted that you do, and that you are "at peace" with your decision.  The Catholic Faith calls anyone not in agreement to accept and live the teaching while at the same time, praying for the grace to understand the truth.  This is very common with new converts, usually on Marian Issues.  Of course I don't know what is in your heart, only what you write.  My guess, and hope, is that you are NOT at peace with it, or it wouldn't be such a big issue for you.  In that case, hopefully you will keep you heart open, because in your dissent, you not only put your own soul in danger, but case scandal to others. 

The comparison between the Syllabus and the declaration of Vatican II on religious freedom is both anachronistic and, frankly, superficial. The Syllabus was written in the framework of an objectivist notion of freedom, such that freedom of religion coincided logically with theological and moral relativism. Its crucial mistake was not doctrinal but expressive, since by then the Western cultural mainstream had already largely embraced a subjective-historical use of the word freedom. Vatican II simply expressed in modern language something (the rights of conscience) which in fact had always been part of Catholic doctrine. One can blame various Churchmen for not putting it into practice at various point in history, but not that the doctrine was denied.

"NFP separates the unitive and procreative dimensions of the marital act by ensuring that every act of sexual intercourse is non-procreative"

I believe the point in HV is that NFP uses the natural female cycle, which the encyclical regards as providentially ordained. NFP does not DO anything to prevent conception.

Having said that, obviously also NFP can be used selfishly.

Patricia, it's easy for the pope and the cardinals to say "no artificial contraception" when they're not paying child support.  Until they do, I say let married couples use any contraceptive method that works for them.  



My objection to your remarks were largely a reaction to your syle of argument and tendancy towards name calling and desparagement. 

If you have something to say about my specific argument, I would be happy to debate you civily. However, your argument "from authority" and your specify judgment about the state of my soul and that it will lead others to scandal leads nowhere. I will leave such judgment to God.




Spouses who practice NFP deliberately and willfully perform the physical acts of measuring basil temperature and cerval mucus and plotting them on a calendar in order to determine infertile times and to restrict all acts of sexual intercourse to those times to ensure that all marital acts are non-procreative. This is their explicit intention and end. HV explicits prohibits spouses from performing any physical act before, during or after sexual intercourse to prevent its procreative consequences. It is hard to imagine that spouses practicing NFP are doing nothing physical to ensure every act of sexual intercourse is non-procreative. 

The Church's argument is like describing a glass of water that if half filled with water. The Church says the glass is half full, and most Catholics, theologians and a significant percentages of priests say the glass is half empty. In other words, you cannot dismiss one description of reality while calling the other description the absolute moral truth.

As for God's will and divine law, there is nothing in tradition (before 1960) or scripture that teaches that the marital act has two meanings that cannot be separated (e.g,, the inseparability principle). The inseparability principle was never a constant teaching of the Church but a novum per Karol Wojtyla's opinion expressed in his book Love and Responsibility.




I might add that until 1951, deliberate and systematic programs of periodic continence (e.g., NFP) was never a teaching of the Church. No pope or bishope every mentioned or written anything proclaiming NFP or periodic continence was God's Procreation Plan. Who knowns God Procreative Plan with moral certainty? If we don't know God's Procreative Plan with moral certainty, especially based on symbolic speculation, then HV cannot be a moral absolute.



Nobody needs to write any more books or even any more articles on this subject. It is a teaching that has not been "received" and that is because it is not a teaching that reflects the reality of married love.  Catholic couples have been expressing the sensus fidelium for decades now, but the male celibates have chosen to ignore it.   And in return, most Catholic couples ignore the male celibates.

Patricia, it is interesting that you say this to Michael Barberi  " My guess ... is that you are NOT at peace with it, or it wouldn't be such a big issue for you."

I had thought pretty much the same thing about your comments - that this is such a big issue for you because you are not at peace with it. This attitude is often seen in those who loudly and insistently defend NFP to the point of attacking and judging those who don't agree with them. There are probably many reasons for this, but for some it is perhaps because in their hearts they know (but don't want to examine this knowledge too closely) that those who have foisted this teaching on married men and women really don't have any lived or real knowledge of marital love, including the sexual component. But they were taught to "obey" men instead of their own consciences if their consciences do not conform to what these men say it should conform to - and so they become quite angry with those who have the courage and faith to trust their own experience of marital love to guide them in choosing the method of family planning that best supports their marriage and family.

Anne Chapman is absolutely correct.  The Church's teaching on birth control, as expressed in Humanae Vitae, is as relevant today as are the debates over the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin.  It has not been recieved by the laity.  The battle is over.  Pope Paul VI and John Paul II lost.  It will never return to the pre-pill days.  Given that reality, I think most people in the 90% who don't have a problem with safe effective birth control, don't really care enough to "make their case."  It doesn't matter to them, they accept contreception as a normal part of married life regardeless of the histrionics coming from Baltimore or St Patrick's. They might as well be asked to make the case for burning heretics. 

Barberi is correct.

When I was married in 1955 while in college,  I was told by a Jesuit in class that I needed confessional permission to practice the rythym method. . I countered,  did I need confessional permission to pass up a begger on Market street. answer.

To those who know me on the blog and others like America Magazine.

First, thank you Anne, Jim and Ed for your comments. However, as Cathleen Kaveny's article makes clear, those of us that believe HV should be reformed need a voice. Our voices must not only be heard through non-reception, but also through the right theological forums. 

About 7 years I had an email exchange with Janet Smith, one of the Church's traditionalist defenders of HV. It was at a time when I wanted to understand the principles and philosophy that underpin this teaching, not just what was written in the encyclical and proclaimed as truth. She said "if only Catholics would read HV and study its theology they would all come to realize the truth". Well, I took that challenge. For the next 7 years I dedicated myself to studying moral theology 24/7, reading to date 84 books on this subject and securing the mentoring from two theologians representing both ends of the theological divide. I wanted to understand both sides of this argument, to keep an open mind and to see clearly the truth that might exist on both sides. Only then, would I make up my mind for then and only then could I argue for and against it.

After about 4 years, I started to understand moral theology and Aquinas. Fortunately, over the past last 3 years I made great progress to the point where I could adquately challange essays by various theologians.

I did all of this because HV and its underlying principles and philosphy is the cornerstone of most of the other sexual ethical teachings of the RCC. If HV should be responsiblly reformed, then other teachings would have to be revised by the RCC. I had to reach a point in my education where I could argue my case in a theological manner that demonstrates contributory scholarship. I knew that many people spend their entire careers teaching moral theology and my contribution had to find a voice and something contributory to the 40 years of scholarship and debate that ensured after 1968. After submitting a jointly written essay this year to 4 independent theologians and with their publication recommendation, I submitted it for publication. If it goes nowhere, I will thank God for teaching me how to think and understand, but I will never give up trying to move the conversation forward towards a better understanding of the truth and God's Will. So, the light burns in me and for that reason I push on.

Thanks to all for your kind and informed comments in support of a responsible reform of this teaching.



Full text of the Majority Report can also be found in Robert Mc Clory: Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission and How Humanae Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church. An interesting way to structure a volume might be to engage the arguments "back in the day" and see if they have developed. For example, one argument made in the commission was to ask why it was permissible to put a temporal barrier between sperm and egg, (NFP,) while a physical barrier (a condom) is impermissible. Further, isn't the pill another form of temporal barrier, preventing ovulation for a time, but not permanently? Why was it described as a form of sterilization rather than a form of temporal barrier, a form of avoidance of conception permitted with NFP? 

One argument that's developed since HV but not new is the reaction of married people to the experience of NFP and contraception. One example is Christina L. Traina's splendid "Papal Ideals, Marital Realities: One View From the Ground" which addresses questions of the unity of the procreative and unitive in sex, complementarity of the sexes, and thoughts on using experience in ethics. This essay can be found in Pattricia Beattie Jung with Joseph Andrew Coray, eds, Sexual Diversity and Catholicism, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2001) 269-281.

One argument that may be more recent is that, with the development of more and more elaborate forms of NFP, the claimed efficacy has gone way up, rivaling--its proponents say--the efficacy of the Pill. If one practices NFP so diligently that conception is all but impossible, in what way is that compatible with being somehow "open" to the possibility of conception? At least this is no more likely than with other contraceptive methods. Indeed, couldn't one argue that a couple using, say, spermicide alone is more "open" to procreation than those practicing NFP, given that spermicides are a less effective contraceptive means? (The CDC reports unintended pregnancy 24% of the time with "Fertility Awareness Based Methods" and 28% with spermicide alone. Note that diligent NFP may be more efficacious than the broader category the CDC describes

Bravo Professor Kaveny!!!         Immutable doctrine is an intellectual corner uber-convervative Catholics have painted the Church into ... where doctrine is understood as a set of essential propositions unaffected by pastoral application.
Pope Francis doesn't think about doctrine as a set of absolute truths. In an open letter to an Italian intellectual and nonbeliever, Francis admitted his reluctance to speak of "absolute truth," not because he was a "relativist" but because for Christians truth is mediated through a person, Christ, and is encountered in history. Here the pope stands firmly within the theology of revelation articulated in Vatican II's Dei Verbum.
Vatican II offered a new way of thinking about doctrine; it presented doctrine as something that always needed to be interpreted and appropriated in a pastoral key. This is why Francis can insist, "The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent." Rather, they find their true pastoral significance within "proclamation in a missionary style [that] focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things." This is why he doesn't think he is compromising on doctrine when he suggests we may need a more compassionate pastoral response to the divorced and remarried. Being pastoral, in short, is not a matter of overlooking doctrine; it is how pastoral "style" makes doctrinal "substance" meaningful and transformative.

Will this pope rewrite controversial church doctrines? No, but that isn't how doctrine changes. Doctrine changes when pastoral contexts shift and new insights emerge such that particular doctrinal formulations no longer mediate the saving message of God's transforming love. Doctrine changes when the church has leaders and teachers who are not afraid to take note of new contexts and emerging insights. It changes when the church has pastors who do what Francis has been insisting on for the last six months: Leave the security of your chanceries, rectories, parish offices and episcopal residences. Set aside the "small-minded rules" that keep you locked up and shielded from the world. Go meet the people where they are.


Great comments Lisa. A few other arguments that were never adquately addressed (and to ponder) are the following:

1. "If" God's Procreative Plan is NFP where the only licit means of birth regulation is to abstain from sexual intercourse on fertile days, then the litmus test must be the maxium fertility window for spouses (4-6 days per month). However, if this is God's plan why is it impossible to achieve? Did not Aquinas say that God never asks us to do the impossible? For example, science has not found an easy and accurate way for spouses to determine the moment or day of ovulation, much less the 4-6 day fertility window each month. In fact, the average number of days of sexual abstinence called for by NFP programs is not 4-6 days, but 12 days per month...2-3 times the maxium feritiliy window.

The Church's answer is for spouses to bite the bullet and practice the virtue of Chastity/Temperance "heroically". However, Aquinas and Aristotle called for the individuals to discern and practice the mean of a virtue, not its extreme. Is 12 days the "mean" of the virtue of Chastity/Temperance or more of an extreme? In the practice of responsible parenthood, is God pleased when spouses abstain for 4-6 days per month and more pleased when they abstain for 12? 

2. NFP does not work for about 30% of women who have irregular menstrual cycles. Their "heroic virtue" might be 18-20 days per month of sexual abstinence. Would this endanger a marriage, or is this the cross they must bear? 

3. The Church says that if the marital act is open to procreation, it is unitive as well. If the marital act is not open to procreation, it is not unitive. In other words, if sexual intercourse is not open to procreation, then the unitive love meaning is a false, evil and destructive love. Does this not shortchange the breath and mulitdimentiality of the significance of sexual relations within a marriage that includes other obvious unitive love aspects of sexual intercourse such as: relieving stress, improving intimacy, boosting self-esteem, and helping spouses to bond and build trust? Does not the marital act has other aspects of unitive love including: the expression of becoming one flesh, respect, affection, appreciation and gratitude? How is the unitive love meaning of sexual intercourse defined as merely fertility?

If contraception violates the unitive meaning of the marital act, because spouses are holding back their fertility during sexual intercourse, then spouses who intentionally and willfully practice NFP are also holding back their fertility, as well as ignoring the important role played by sexual relations in a healthy marital relationship.




That site requires membership to access the article. I was able to read only the first page, and it was unclear to me whether the full article includes the actual reports or only summaries of them. Ms Caveny, where can we find these reports?



About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.