Recently, the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAL) published a document titled Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition, and Practical Challenges - a 528 page summary of the proceedings of a 2021 PAL-sponsored theological seminar. In the text, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the PAL since 2016, speaks of a “paradigm shift” in moral theology. This is where the first problem arises, since morality cannot change, moral theology cannot change. Any paradigm shift that occurs, occurs in the hearts and minds of human beings, not in the truth of moral theology. Jonathan Liedl, with National Catholic Register states, “Part of this shift from previous approaches in moral theology is tied, the text claims, to the guiding criteria of ‘wide-ranging dialogue,’ which intentionally incorporates the perspectives of not only various theological positions, but also non-Catholics and nonbelievers.” Why exactly is the Pontifical Academy for Life using the opinions of non-Catholics, and especially non-Christians when attempting to express Catholic thought?
Anyone who knows me knows that Pope Paul VI is one of my least favorite popes of the post-conciliar era. However, he got one thing right - Humanae Vitae - his 1968 Encyclical Letter reiterating the Church’s prohibition on the use of contraception. Jenna McGuire with Human Life International summarizes Humanae Vitae in seven points:
1. God is the Author of life, and the lives He creates are sacred. As God is the Author of life, and He has designed sex for procreation, who are we to attempt to change the nature of sex? When we decide what the nature of sex is, we begin to play God.
2. Procreation is the heart of marriage. In Genesis 2:24, and Ephesians 5:31, we read, “A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” The two becoming one flesh is not simply the husband and wife coming together as two separate individuals and becoming a couple. The two becoming one flesh is literally the husband and wife creating a new life. During Pre-Cana, the priest asks the couple if they intend on having children. If the answer is no, the priest is supposed to refuse to marry the couple. A Catholic marriage must always be open to the possibility of procreation.
3. Openness to procreation affirms the dignity of woman. When we remove a woman’s God-given gift to create life, she is reduced to an instrument of pleasure. Viewing women in this way contradicts the meaning and intention of conjugal love, which is meant to be a mutual gift of self from one spouse to another. In a contraceptive act, one cannot give one’s full and complete self to their spouse, as they hold back their greatest gift, their fertility.
4. This does not mean it is always God’s will for a couple to conceive. Anyone who has taken Biology or Human Anatomy and Physiology knows that a woman is not fertile 365 days a year. In fact, in any given month, there may only be 3 to 5 days where a woman is able to conceive. The Church does not expect all sexual unions between spouses to result in procreation. The Church does, however, expect all sexual unions between spouses to be open to the possibility of procreation.
5. Couples may take advantage of infertile periods provided by God to temporarily avoid conception. The Church approves of a method known as Natural Family Planning (NFP), using natural signs and symptoms within the female body, which can be used to determine when a woman is less likely to be fertile. This method was originally designed to help couples who were having difficulty with conception to determine when a woman is most fertile. While the Church approves NFP, it is important to understand that NFP can be abused and used by some couples as a sort of “Catholic contraception.” A couple must always remain open to the possibility that God may give them the gift of a child even if they think they are in an infertile period.
6. Artificial birth control is a recipe for cultural disaster. Pope Paul VI stated in Humanae Vitae that if procreation were to be separated from the marital act, moral standards would be lowered, marital infidelity would rise, and disrespect for womanhood would follow. He could not have been more prophetic. Many of the issues and problems we have in the world today are a result of these three things - all of which have become a reality in the wake of the proliferation of contraception and the separation of contraception from the marital act.
7. Change the culture instead of ignoring the moral law that “doesn’t fit” our culture. One of my favorite quotes comes from G.K. Chesterton. He said, “We do not want a Church that moves with the world. We want a Church that moves the world.” In other words our faith and morality should not be shaped by society, we should be using our faith and morality to shape society. God is truth. There is only one truth. We cannot change Church teaching just because a large number of people disagree with it.
Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae did not say anything new. Everything Paul VI spoke of had always been taught by the Church. However, in 1968, the world, especially the western world, was caught in the middle of the sexual revolution. Many bishops spoke out against Humanae Vitae claiming that this was an archaic teaching that did not fit into modern society. Fifty-four years later, members of the PAL are making a similar argument. Jesuit priest, Fr. Carol Casalone, stated in an interview with America magazine that this publication is an effort to apply the “organic vision” of Pope Francis’ moral approach to the issue of bioethics.
Here, again, is where a problem arises. There is no moral approach in Catholic theology which permits the use of contraception. It has been widely reported over the years, since the Guttmacher Institute conducted a study in 2012, that more than 98% of Catholic women of child-bearing age have, at some point, used some form of contraception. Even if 100% of Catholic women had used contraception, that does not make it morally permissible, nor should Church teaching be changed because of it.
It is sad that the institute which was created by Pope John Paul II, a pope who explained God’s purpose and design for human sexuality better than anyone else, is now seeking to change Church teaching with regard to the use of contraception - thus attempting to change our understanding of God’s purpose and design for human sexuality. I always explain it like this, sex is a procreative activity in which pleasure is a byproduct. Too many people in our society today - including many within the Church, now view sex as a pleasurable activity in which a potentially undesired and/or unnecessary byproduct is procreation
If the PAL gets its way, and the Church loosens its teaching with regard to the use of contraception, we will definitely see a paradigm shift. All those things Pope Paul VI foretold about society will become even more common among Catholics. We must pray that this proposal never becomes a reality. Pope Francis has already shown that he has no qualms about overruling a previous pope. He has attempted to overrule both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI by attempting to enforce new restrictions on the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) - after both popes made strides to give the faithful more access to the TLM. What is to stop him trying to overrule Pope Paul VI and Humanae Vitae?