Thursday, May 20, 2010

Is the Church's Teaching on Contraception... Infallible?

Contraception is a quick fix all right. As it turns out, three priests I know seem to think that the Church's teaching on contraception is optional. They have compassion for the couples who come to them for counsel on this issue and typically go on to tell them that they should "follow their conscience," that they clearly have "serious reasons" to exempt themselves from the teaching, or that the Church's teaching on contraception is not infallible and therefore up for debate.

I ponder these arguments with incredulity. Not too long ago, I had the chance to listen to Janet Smith's talk Humanae Vitae and Conscience, which deals with the "conscience clause" and touches on the infallibility of the teaching.

If a couple goes to a priest for advice on contraception, it's clear that their conscience is bothering them and they're looking for a get-out-of-jail-free card. Instead of getting information on alternative NFP methods that will work better for them, words that will encourage them to offer up their sacrifice, or information that will help inform their consciences, all they get is . . . that get-out-of-jail-free card. Some priests have even reassured their parishioners after hearing their confession.

On the struggle between conscience and Church authority, John Henry Newman writes:
And further, obedience to the Pope is what is called "in possession;" that is, the onus probandi (burden of proof) of establishing a case against him lies, as in all cases of exception, on the side of conscience. Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction, he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in disobeying it.
The problem is, most Catholics tend to put their conscience (usually, what they think they should do) above the teaching authority of the Church whose beliefs they claim to profess, especially if they have "serious reasons" to do so.

If we take a look at the words of Humanae Vitae, we will see the teaching clearly stating that the spouses may use natural methods to postpone pregnancy if they have serious reasons to do so. Nowhere does it say that those serious reasons give the spouses the license to contracept--it simply allows them to use natural methods. It seems that my three priest friends may have forgotten or overlooked this distinction.

Whether or not they are aware of the above distinction, though, some priests flat-out question the infallibility of the teaching, saying an encyclical is not infallible. Janet Smith, however, cites the document Lumen Gentium, from Vatican II, which says that there are three ways to determine if a teaching is infallible or not, absent an ex cathedra statement from the pope. It would depend on:
  • the character of the document
  • the frequency of the teaching being articulated, and
  • the manner by which the doctrine is formulated.
Not only has the teaching on contraception been articulated frequently, consistently and forcibly (from the early days of the Church to Casti Connubii, various speeches by Pius XII, Humanae Vitae, Familiaris Consortio, Gaudium et Spes, Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae, and John Paul II in almost every occasion), but the text of Humanae Vitae proclaims this unchanging teaching as an interpretation of natural law and the law of the Gospel. As Janet Smith so eloquently puts it, "It’s not a decision the Church has made, it’s a discovery that the Church has made through the vehicles given to us, through natural laws and through Scriptures."

The Church's teaching on contraception does fit the guidelines for an infallible teaching, putting the teaching right up there with abortion and adultery: it is never right.

So, what is behind the laxity of these priests in the area of contraception? Do they still believe, erroneously, that Natural Family Planning is the very imprecise "rhythm method"? Do they think it is a burden for the spouses (particularly the husband) to suppress their sexual attraction until the timing is better? (Who better than a celibate priest to hold married men to a higher standard!) Do they fear that people will leave the Church when confronted with a truth they do not like?

I don't know.

What I do know is that the Church has never and will never change its teaching on contraception--a teaching that states that contraception is intrinsically evil. And yet, some priests will continue to exempt practicing Catholics from this infallible teaching.

Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 11:27)

Longing for God,

The Catholic Wife


  1. Oh man, I love this post! I wish everyone would read this, especially my Catholic friends who contracept! And they've been told the same thing by their priest...and the problem is that people who already want to contracept, but feel a little guilty--once a priest tells them to follow their conscience, that is the green light for them...they feel like if a priest says it's okay, then they can do it! I pray that priests will seriously consider the moral implications of not following the teaching of the Church. People are so scared to trust God sometimes...but trusting Him in all these situations is what makes our life full of His peace and joy. We just have to keep praying! Great post!

  2. Hi, and welcome to the Catholic blog directory. I'd like to invite you to participate in Sunday Snippets--A Catholic Carnival. We are a group of bloggers who gather weekly to share our best posts with each other. This week's host post is at

  3. I just stopped in from Catholic Mother's our Diocese, there is a priest who at one time left contraception up the individual couple. By the grace of God, he realized his error and then contacted each and every couple he had ever prepared for marriage, counseled, etc...and apologized for his error and then met with them (if possible) to explain the Church's teaching.

  4. Wow, Jenny, that's amazing and wonderful! Your comment encourages me to just keep on praying. May God bless this humble priest.

  5. Wow! Excellent post!

  6. Thank you for such a wonderful post!

    I just want to share this with you: my husband and I recently had a conversation about our hopes for our family now that our son is nearly a year old. After a lot of discussion, my husband has agreed to use NFP!

    Previously this was a bit of an issue for him, and I'm so thankful we're both on the same page now, and that he's so open to God's Will in our life for our family!

    And if he comes to me with doubts about NFP, I'll be directing him here!

  7. I saw a priest for awhile who advised me to use any means of birth control. Every time he saw me with my 4 children a look of sadness and sympathy would come over his face. I never felt quite right about him despite his kindness, and it turns out that I should never have trusted him. He betrayed my confidence in the confessional.

    I ran quick and far from that priest and parish and have found a wonderful priest who delights in large families and never fails to stand up for the truth. Deo Gratias.

  8. Yes, thank God for good and holy priests. I never realized that there was a difference...

  9. Very, very late to the party here. But I wanted to add that even IF you could argue that HV does not use infallible language, Casti Canubii is much more clear and forceful (and very obviously fulfills the requirements of LG):

    "56. Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: 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."

    Stacey Johnson