By Jake Kohlhaas
Numerous commentators have reacted to Pope Francis’s statements on his return flight from Mexico concerning the use of artificial contraceptives in light of the Zika outbreak. Their responses seem to range from fear that Francis has contradicted unchangeable Catholic dogma to jubilation that Catholic sexual morality may finally be entering the twentieth century. But no matter if they view Francis’s comments as prescient or misguided, most everyone seems to agree that the comments were anything but clear.
Francis’s response began by condemning abortion as a legitimate moral option in uncharacteristically direct and absolute language. He then contrasted the exceptionless moral opposition to abortion against the appropriate discernment involved in avoiding conception. Finally, Francis drew what seems to be universally admitted as an odd parallel between the legitimate use of contraceptives for nuns living in danger or sexual assault and the use of contraceptives out of concern for Zika virus.
As the attempts at papal-mindreading have produced no clear verdict as of yet, this post will instead sketch developments in the history of modern Catholic moral teaching in an effort to shed some light on why the Pope’s statement has been so controversial. Let us begin with the basics, in contemporary Catholic moral teaching, (1) contraceptives are not evil in and of themselves, (2) conception may be legitimately avoided, but (3) contraception is an intrinsic evil.
- Contraceptives are not evil in and of themselves.
This first principle is perhaps the easiest to explain, though I suspect it is widely misunderstood. Catholics are not dualists but instead believe in one good creator God who declared creation good. Consequently, Catholicism recognizes all material things, contraceptive devices included, as essentially good on the sole basis of their material existence. This judgement has implications for ethics inasmuch as ‘good’ things may still be used for evil purposes. We might also observe that some material things are so prone to misuse that humans ought to abandon making or using them all together. Nonetheless, the Catholic theological conviction about the nature of reality itself is that no material thing is evil in and of itself. This view has strong scriptural roots and emerged victorious after hard fought early Christian controversies with Gnostics, Manichees, and Docetists.
- Conception may be legitimately avoided.
In the early centuries of Christianity, many Christians struggled to see how marriage, sexual intercourse, and procreation could be understood as Christian goods. These activities brought people into intimate participation with the material world in a way that seemed to contradict hope for salvation. While St. Augustine is often blamed as the source of much undue anxiety around sexuality, he was quite moderate given the controversies of his time. Historian Peter Brown credits Augustine with effectively defending the inherent goodness of human sexuality itself even as he inaugurated a deep Christian suspicion of sexual desire. The early Christian fear of cooperation with the material world was eventually overcome by an understanding of generation as cooperation with the creative power of God. Conception itself became the driving Christian justification for human sexuality for centuries.
In recent centuries, the association between moral sexual acts and conception developed further. Prior to the seventeenth century, whether or not sex resulted in procreation was widely held to rest on a direct act of God. Modern science brought increased knowledge of what was required for reproduction and in turn led to new moral questions about how this knowledge might be used.
In the 1950s, Pope Pius XII, judged that, in certain restricted circumstances, the use of periodic abstinence to avoid conception was morally licit, despite the spouses’ full knowledge that conception would be unlikely. The implications of this judgement was that couples were not only not morally required to intend to procreate with each sexual act, but could actively use knowledge of fertility to avoid conception. This significantly altered the longstanding connection between conception and moral sex activity but was defended as based on precedent.
Pius XII’s judgement was widely held to build of Pius XI’s earlier encyclical Casti Connubii. Yet Casti Connubii may offer only ambiguous support. Casti Connubii’s, which was written directly in response to the Anglican Communion’s decision to permit contraception, is strangely silent on the topic of periodic abstinence. This lacuna is often defended on the grounds that little was known about the method in the 1930s, despite the fact that the Penitentiary of 1860 suggests some knowledge of the method. Still, specific knowledge of how periodic abstinence works was really not required as the essential moral judgement rests on whether or not a couple can legitimately intend to avoid conception and intentionally make use of available information to do so.
Casti Connubii Paragraph #59 was used as a precedent for Pius XII’s judgment on periodic abstinence. It offers examples of permissible non-procreative sex, but these are drawn from a long tradition of defending the validity of marriages among the infertile and those past childbearing years. This defense stems from Augustine who also happened to weigh in on avoiding pregnancy through periodic abstinence. Though he referenced phases of the moon, not the yet-unknown menstrual cycle, Augustine judged that using such knowledge to avoid pregnancy would be immoral. Casti Connubii #109 hints that Pius XI may have been disposed to agree.
Pius XII’s conclusion that sex may be legitimately separated from an intent to procreate marks a significant moment of clarification, or depending how one views it, reinterpretation within the tradition. His judgement rested on a distinction between utilizing knowledge of natural processes to avoid pregnancy and directly interfering with those processes. At the dawn of Vatican II, this judgement was just over a decade old and handful of influential churchmen remained unconvinced. Although their views did not prevail at the council, the impulse to justify sexual activity through an intention to procreate lies not far beneath the surface in many Catholic discussions of contraception.
- Contraception is an intrinsic evil.
When Paul VI again addressed the morality of avoiding conception, he also distinguished between natural and artificial means and agreed that artificial means are not morally permissible. But Paul VI’s judgement in Humanae Vitae went beyond simply reaffirming the status quo. He summarized the argument for revision offered by the majority of the study commission that had been established by John XIII to study the issue and directly contested its central arguments. Moreover, he wrote that no action is morally permissible “which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation.” And, definitively closing the door to any future argument, Paul VI taught that contraception constitutes an “intrinsic evil” in and of itself. As such, it can never be morally justified.
After Humana vitae, the only moral ambiguity related to contraception concerns instances in which the use of a contraceptive may not fit the moral category of contraception. This can be a difficult determination and may explain Paul VI’s silence on the use of contraceptives for nuns living under threat of sexual assault. But the judgement that contraception is intrinsically evil has been held firmly by the Catholic magisterium since Humanae Vitae and plays a significant role in the self-understanding of many Catholics today.
How might such a history help one to interpret Francis’s comments? First, it shows that developments have taken place gradually but persistently in Catholic teaching. Whether one views these as clarifications or reinterpretations, the fact that the explicit teachings of the Catholic Church today are not exactly the same as those in centuries past is an important starting place for any historically informed perspective. Second, these developments may be read as an unfolding trajectory which we now inherit. Whether this trajectory peaked with the clear teaching of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, or is still unfolding along a more circuitous path is, of course, a topic of disagreement among Catholics.
This second observation is at the heart of the various responses to Pope Francis’s remarks. He clearly reaffirmed that contraceptives are not evil in and of themselves, but may have justified uses in certain circumstances. He also clearly reaffirmed that conception is not an absolute good, but must be undertaken with serious discernment by spouses. And yet, he does not clearly reaffirm that contraception is the kind of thing that is always and everywhere wrong. Although Pope Francis does introduce the topic of discernment when speaking of artificial contraceptives, it is not entirely clear if he imagines using these in ways that would not fit the moral category of contraception, or if he is suggesting that contraception itself may be the object of moral discernment. If it is the latter, Francis finds himself in direct conflict with one of the most controversial judgements made in Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. Whether this is bad, good, or even possible, depends on which Catholic you ask.
Jake Kohlhaas, Ph.D. is assistant professor of moral theology at Loras college in Dubuque, IA. His research interests include theology of children and parenthood, sexual ethics, and environmental ethics.