The ethics of using contraceptives

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, August 2016
The official papal teaching banning the use of “artificial” contraceptives for family planning is based on the belief that the biological “laws of conception” show that each and every act of sexual intercourse has procreation as their natural “finality” and “significance.” From such a belief, the moral requirement is inferred that couples engaging in sexual intercourse must always be open to procreation.
However, the vast majority of acts of sexual intercourse do not have the biological “capacity” for procreation, and therefore they cannot have procreation as their “finality” or “significance.”
As for the intention of the agents, the Bible identifies a variety of morally worthy non-conceptive motives for engaging in sexual intercourse. This is confirmed by the evolutionary biology of human reproduction, and sociology, among other disciplines.
The use of modern contraceptives can facilitate one or more of sexual intercourse’s non-conceptive meanings, as well as have additional morally worthy purposes – e.g. family planning, following the requirements of responsible parenthood (HV §10).
Therefore, the decision to use modern contraceptives can be taken for a variety of morally worthy motives, and so it can be responsible and ethical.
The Catholic Church’s ban on using “artificial” contraceptives for the purpose of family planning is based on the arguments advanced in the 1968 encyclical letter Humanae Vitae – On the Regulation of Birth (HV) by Pope Paul VI. Such arguments have been repeated often, and never substantially modified, in later magisterial pronouncements over the last 50 years. This statement evaluates their correctness.
Humanae Vitae’s Argument from Natural Law

  • 1. The main argument of HV comes can be summarized as follows:
  • 1.1. The biological “laws of conception” regulating human reproduction show that sexual intercourse has a “capacity to transmit life” (HV §13).
  • 1.2. For that reason, each and every act of sexual intercourse has a procreative “significance” (HV §12), “meaning and purpose” (HV §13), “finality” (HV §3), and an “intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (HV §11).
  • 1.3. The above mentioned “laws of conception” have been established by God. Therefore, intentionally thwarting the procreative capacity, significance and finality that said laws have endowed each and every act of sexual intercourse with “frustrates His design […] and contradicts the will of the Author of life” (HV §13).
  • 1.4. Consequently, “sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive [is] intrinsically wrong” (Lat. “intrinsece inhonestum”) and so is “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” (HV §14).
  • 2. From the above, HV draws additional moral norms:
  • 2.1. Using “artificial” contraceptives to avoid conception is absolutely banned. The reason is that they “obstruct the natural development of the generative process” (HV §16).
  • 2.2. Using Natural Family Planning (NFP) methods with the same intention of avoiding conception is morally legitimate. The reason is that in so doing a couple stand “within the limits of the order of reality established by God” and “use a faculty provided them by nature” (HV §16).

Assessment of the Argument from Natural Law

  • 3. HV’s argument is not supported by the relevant evidence.
  • 3.1. HV’s argument is that because the biological “laws of conception” reveal that sexual intercourse has a “capacity to transmit life” (HV §13), each and every act of sexual intercourse has a “procreative significance” (HV §12) and “finality” (HV §3), and an “intrinsic relationship” to procreation (HV §11).

This misinterprets the biological evidence. The causal relationship between insemination and, on the other hand, fertilization, implantation, and ultimately procreation, is statistical, not necessary. The vast majority of acts of sexual intercourse do not have the biological “capacity” for procreation, and therefore they cannot have procreation as their “finality” or “significance.”

  • 3.2. Secondly, it is mistaken to derive a moral prescription directly from a factual description, i.e. a judgment of value (about what morally ought to be) directly from a judgment of fact (about what is).

However, this is what HV does when it infers that people engaging in sexual intercourse must always be open to the possibility of procreation from the (incorrect) fact that each and every act of sexual intercourse has a procreative finality.
For the same reason, it is also incorrect to deduce a divine command directly from the existence of a law of nature, contrary to what HV does when asserting that the above mentioned moral prescription is God’s will.

  • 3.3. The affirmation that human beings may not interfere with the biological laws regulating human reproduction because they have been established by God is in contradiction with observational evidence on how human beings interact with the created order.

As agents of reason, human beings have a unique capacity to intentionally alter the schedule of probabilities inherent in the physical, chemical and biological laws of nature. This is a reality of daily life: for instance, any sort of medical intervention, from something as insignificant as taking pain-killers to something as consequential as performing cardiovascular surgery, affects probabilities – of healing, survival, death, etc. Furthermore, the decision not to intervene in natural processes also affects those probabilities, just as choosing to intervene does.
The moral question is not whether to alter the schedule of probabilities within natural processes, but rather whether, when, and how doing so is conducive to human flourishing and the flourishing of all creation.

  • 4. Furthermore, it is contradictory to affirm, on the one hand, that as a general principle “sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive [is] intrinsically wrong,” and on the other that it is morally legitimate to practice NFP with the “intention to avoid children and [the] wish to make sure that none will result” (HV §16).

Assessment of the Arguments from Authority

  • 5. Although HV contends that its main argument is valid on the strength of natural law alone, it also complements it with two arguments from authority. Both of them might be interpreted as arguing in favor of the infallibility of the magisterial teaching that contraception is immoral.
  • 6.1. In one, HV argues that the Church magisterium has a God-given duty to proclaim the “natural moral law” (HV §4), which includes the ethics of contraception. It further affirms that the “natural law […] declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men’s eternal salvation” (HV §4).

This has sometimes been interpreted as entailing that HV must be infallible because the magisterium could not err in something which is necessary for people’s eternal salvation.

  • 6.2. Secondly, Pope Paul VI states the reason he rejected the final report of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control was because “certain approaches and criteria for a solution to this question had emerged which were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church” (HV §6).

Again, the implicit assumption seems to be that the constant teaching tradition by the magisterium of the church on that subject cannot be reformed, and is therefore infallible.

  • 6.3. However, according to Catholic theology, for a doctrine – including a moral doctrine – to be able to be defined infallibly and thus irreformably it must be either revealed or required for the defense or explanation of revealed truth (Cf. CDF: Mysterium Ecclesiae (1973), DH 4536 [AAS 65 (1973) 401]). If it is not, then it cannot be defined infallibly.

The teaching that using “artificial” contraception is an intrinsic wrong always and everywhere is not revealed, nor has it ever been shown to be essential for the truth of the Christian revelation. Accordingly, it cannot become the object of an infallible definition.
Hence, the appeal to a supposed constant tradition of magisterial teaching on the subject cannot by itself settle the question and foreclose the discussion, because the requirements for an infallible definition are not met.
Finally, because the ethics of using contraceptives is a matter pertaining to the so-called non-revealed “natural moral law” (HV §4), its correctness can only be proved by reason.

The Moral Evaluation of Using Modern Contraceptives for Both Family Planning and Prophylactic Purposes

  • 7. The morality of any human action is determined by the motives and intentions of the agent, the circumstances of the situation, and the consequences of that action.
  • 8. The Bible identifies a variety of morally worthy non-conceptive motives for engaging in sexual intercourse. This is confirmed by evolutionary biology and modern sociological surveys, among other disciplines.

Those non-conceptive motives for sexual intercourse include pleasure, love, comfort, celebration and companionship. They are morally worthy even without the concurrent occurrence of either a “procreative significance” of the biological “laws of conception,” or the agents’ procreative intention.
The use of modern contraceptives can facilitate one or more of sexual intercourse’s non-conceptive meanings, as well as have additional morally worthy purposes – e.g. family planning, following the requirements of responsible parenthood (HV §10).
Therefore, the decision to use modern contraceptives can be taken for a variety of morally worthy motives, and so it can be ethical.

  • 9.1. HV permits NFP. The encyclical admits that NFP can be used with the same intention as modern contraceptives, namely, to avoid conception for family planning purposes. To that extent, and all other things being equal, the two contraceptive methods are morally equivalent.
  • 9.2. Abortifacient methods should ordinarily be avoided, unless there is a proportionate reason for doing otherwise. In evaluating the proportionate reason, the traditional moral principles of the “lesser evil” and “double effect” can be applied.
  • 10. Using modern contraceptives has many proven benefits: among other things, it makes it much easier for both men and women to plan a family, it substantially lowers maternal morbidity and mortality, infant and child mortality, and abortion. Conversely, it can increase maternal, infant and child health.

Evidence also suggests that family planning via modern contraceptives leads to substantial increases in women’s education and contribution to the common good. In turn, the resultant greater investment in children improves their cognitive development, health, educational achievements, and future opportunities to contribute to the common good.
Because of the exceptional breadth of its potential benefits, promotion of family planning via modern contraceptives was regarded as an essential contributor to all eight Millennium Development Goals.

  • 11. The use of barrier methods of contraception for prophylactic purposes – namely in order to minimize the probability of spreading the HIV virus or other STIs from one person to another, or via the pregnant woman to the unborn child – can be not only responsible but even morally imperative.
  • 12. Those who subscribe to the condemnation as morally wrong of the use of contraceptives for family planning purposes can still argue in favor of the morality of using of barrier methods for prophylactic purposes, e.g. on the basis of the principle of the “double effect.”


  • 13. In conclusion, there are no grounds, either from the Bible or from nature, to support current Catholic teaching according to which each and every act of sexual intercourse has a procreative significance and finality, and that consequently using “artificial” contraceptives for the purposes of family planning is always wrong, or “intrinsically wrong” (HV §14).

On the contrary, the choice to use contraceptives for either family planning or prophylactic purposes can be a responsible and ethical decision and even, at times, an ethical imperative.

  • 14. With regard to the use of modern contraceptives as prophylactic.

In view of the magnitude of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the fact that Catholic-run health care centers and schools constitute approximately 25% of the total worldwide, and that the topic has already been extensively researched, we recommend to the competent authorities in the Catholic Church that the following two steps be implemented as a matter of urgency:

  • 14.1. The 2006 document by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers which suggested that barrier methods of contraception can be morally legitimate when used by married Catholic couples for prophylactic purposes should be made public.
  • 14.2. An official magisterial document should be published affirming that the use of non-abortifacient modern contraceptives for prophylactic purposes can be morally legitimate and even morally obligatory.

The statement could include an explicit provision allowing for the distribution of such modern contraceptives for prophylactic purposes by Catholic-run health care facilities, with the provision of adequate guidance.

  • 15. With regard to the use of modern contraceptives for family planning.

In societies such as the Catholic Church there are many specialized and complementary domains of expertise. The collaboration between those different domains is important for the common good of the society.
Therefore, we recommend that the Catholic magisterium seek the opinion of Christian theologians and experts in other relevant disciplines with regard to the ethics of using modern non-abortifacient contraceptives for the purposes of family planning.
We also recommend that their opinion be sought on the other areas of Catholic sexual ethics which will likely be affected by a revision of the present teaching banning the use of contraceptives for family planning, namely the negative evaluation of masturbation, homosexual relationships, and in vitro fertilization.
Regardless of the consultation process adopted, the opinions gathered should be independent, representative of the majority view of the pertinent academic communities, and made public.
In case of a lack of unanimity, the names and arguments of those who disagree with the majority opinion should also be made public.
The present report can be regarded as the initial step towards such a consultation.

  • 16. Should the evidence and arguments put forward in the present report be accepted, the recommended official magisterial document should revoke the absolute ban on the use of “artificial” contraceptives, and allow the use of modern non-abortifacient contraceptives for both prophylactic and family planning purposes.
  • 17. As soon as possible after the publication of that official magisterial document, and conditional on its conclusions, national episcopal conferences should recommend that Catholic-run health-care facilities make modern non-abortifacient contraceptives available for both prophylactic and family planning purposes, with the provision of adequate guidance.
  • 18. Acceptance of HV as a mark of orthodoxy should be removed from all selection procedures, including that of bishops and the teaching staff of Catholic academic institutions.
  • 19. Where possible, damage to the career of Catholic scholars who have been censured for speaking out in defense of the ethical use of modern contraceptives should be undone.

Authors of the Academic Report on the Ethical Use of Contraceptives and Principal Signatories of the Statement

  • Prof Giuseppe Benagiano, Gynecology and Obstetrics (Emeritus), La Sapienza University, Rome, Italy;
  • Prof Mark Joseph Calano, Philosophy & Marriage and Sexuality, Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City, the Philippines;
  • Dr Luca Badini Confalonieri, Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, London, UK;
  • Prof Roger Burggraeve, Systematic and Moral Theology (Emeritus), Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium;
  • Prof Ricardo Chica, Development Economics, Economic Development Consultant, Cartagena, Colombia;
  • Prof Christine Gudorf, Christian Ethics, Florida International University, Miami, USA;
  • Dr Nontando Hadebe, Theology, University of South Africa, Pretoria;
  • Prof Jan Jans, Moral Theology, School of Humanities, University of Tilburg, the Netherlands;
  • Emily Kahm, Practical Theology/Lived Religion, doctoral candidate at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver, Colorado, USA;
  • Prof William Lemaire, MD. Emeritus Professor. Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine;
  • Prof Michael G. Lawler, Amelia and Emil Graff Chair in Catholic Theology (Emeritus), Creighton University, Omaha, USA;
  • Dr Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, Microbiology, Medicine and Theology, Head, Tissue Bank, Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, India;
  • Dr Aloma Lobo, General Practitioner, Chair of Adoption Consultancy Services, Bengaluru, India;
  • Prof Gerard Loughlin, Moral Theology, University of Durham, UK;
  • Prof Dietmar Mieth, Theological Ethics (Emeritus), University of Tübingen, Germany;
  • Dr Irina Pollard, Associate Professor, Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia;
  • Dr Cristina Richie, Health Care Ethics, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Boston, USA;
  • Virginia Saldanha, BA Economics, for many years Executive Secretary of the Office of Laity, Family and Women’s Desk of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, Mumbai, India;
  • Prof Todd Salzmann, Amelia and Emil Graff Chair in Catholic Theology, Creighton University, Omaha, USA;
  • Prof Joseph Selling, Moral Theology (Emeritus), Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium;
  • Prof David Stronck, specialization ‘Sexuality Education’, Biology and Science, Department of Teacher Education, California State University, USA;
  • Dr Agneta Sutton, Associate Lecturer, Christian Ethics, University College Chichester, UK;
  • Dr John Wijngaards, Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, London, UK.

Catholic Co-Signatories of the Statement

  • Prof Mario Aguilar, Chair of Religion and Politics at the School of Divinity, University of St Andrews, Scotland;
  • Prof Subhash Anand SJ, Philosophy and Religion (Emeritus), Pontifical Athenaeum Jnanadeep Vidyapeeth, Pune, India;
  • Prof Maria Pilar Aquino, ‘Theology and Religious Studies’, San Diego University; co-founder of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians, USA;
  • Prof Antonio Autiero, Moral Theology (Emeritus), University of Münster, Germany;
  • Prof Juan Barreto Betancort,New Testament, University of La Laguna, Santa Cruz, Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain;
  • Prof Paulo Agostinho N. Baptista, Doctor in the Sciences of Religion & Post-Doctorate in Demography, State University of Juiz de Fora, Brazil;
  • Prof Gregory Baum, Religious Studies (Emeritus), McGill University, Montreal, Canada;
  • Prof Tina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, UK;
  • Prof Peter Beisheim, Religious Studies & Director Catholic Studies Program, Stonehill College, North Easton, MA, USA;
  • Prof Eugene C.Bianchi, ‘Sexism and Woman-Man Liberation’, Religion (Emeritus), Emory University, Atlanta GA, USA;
  • Prof Alberto Bondolfi, Ethics (Emeritus), Theological Faculty, University of Geneva, Switserland;
  • Prof Sharon Bong, Religious Studies , Monash University, Malaysia;
  • Prof Sidney Calahan, Paul J. McKeever Chair of Moral Theology (Emerita), St. John’s University, Queens, New York, USA;
  • Prof Deirdre Carabine, previously International University of Health Sciences, Kampala; now Director of Programmes at the Virtual University of Uganda, Kampala;
  • Prof Juan Masiá Clavel SJ, Theology (Emeritus), Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan;
  • Prof John J. Collins, Theology and Scripture, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA;
  • Dr Paul Collins, Church Historian and writer, Australian National University (Emeritus), Canberra, Australia;
  • Prof Michael L. Cook SJ, Religious Studies (Emeritus), Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA; now Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, Los Gatos, CA, USA;
  • Prof Charles E. Curran, previously professor of Moral Theology, the Catholic University of America; at present Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, USA; see endorsement;
  • Prof Gabriel Daly OSA, Theology, Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland;
  • Associate Prof María Teresa Dávila, Christian Ethics, Andover Newton Theological School, Newton, MA, USA;
  • Prof Paul E. Dinter,, Religious Studies, Manhattan College, New York, USA;
  • Dr Donal Dorr, Irish independent scholar and activist, Dublin, Ireland;
  • Prof René van Eijden, ‘Women and the Church’, Dogmatic Theology (Emeritus), University of Utrecht, the Netherlands;
  • Prof John Esposito, Religion and International Affairs, Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA;
  • Prof Juan Antonio Estrada PhD & ThD,, Catedrático de Filosofía, Campus de Cartuja, Universidad de Granada, España;
  • Prof Benjamín Forcano, ‘Moral Theology’ for many years at Universities in Spain, Italy, Colombia and Mexico; now retired in Spain;
  • Prof Marcio Fabri Dos Anjos, Theology & Bioethics, coordinator of Doctorate program, Catholic University, San Camilo, Brazil;
  • Dr Edward McGlynn Gaffney, founding member, Council on Law and Religion, Journal of Law and Religion; Senior Research Scholar, Valparaiso University School of Law, Indiana, USA;
  • Prof Robert Gascoigne, Moral Theology (Emeritus), Australian Catholic University, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia;
  • Prof Frederick Glennon, Religion, Social Ethics and Society, Le Moyne College, Syracuse NY, USA;
  • Prof Mary Grey, ‘Feminist Liberation Theology’, ‘Theology & Social Justice’ (Emerita), St Mary’s University, Twickenham, UK;
  • Prof Hermann Häring,, Systematic Theology (Emeritus), Radboud University, Nijmegen, Netherlands;
  • Prof Wilfrid Harrington OP, Theology and Scripture (Emeritus), Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy & the Church of Ireland Theological College, Dublin, Ireland;
  • Prof John F. Haught, Senior Fellow, Science & Religion, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA;
  • Prof Karin Heller, Theology, Whitworth University, Westminster, Spokane WA, USA;
  • Baroness Françoise Holvoet Bourguignon, BA Law & MA Philology, previously lecturer in Zaire, Tunisia, Paris and Toronto, Brussels, Belgium;
  • Prof Michael Hornsby-Smith, Sociology (Emeritus), University of Surrey, UK;
  • Raymond Hervey Joliffe Lord Hylton, Doctor h.c. Southampton University, member of the British House of Lords since 1971, London, UK;
  • Dr Albert Jaxa-Chamiec, Director Medicinal Chemistry (until 2007), GlaxoSmithKline; Head of Medicinal Chemistry (Emeritus), Drug Discovery Centre, Imperial College, London, UK;
  • Prof Erik Jurgens, Government Law (Emeritus), Free University of Amsterdam, former Assistant President of the Upper House of Parliament (Eerste Kamer), the Netherlands;
  • Prof Othmar Keel, History of Religion, Theology and Exegesis (Emeritus), University of Fribourg, Switserland;
  • Prof David Kelly, Theology and Health Care Ethics (Emeritus), Duquesne University, Pittsburgh PA, USA;
  • Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, twenty-six honorary doctorates in law, Member of the House of Lords, London, UK; see endorsement
  • Dr Ad Krijnen, Sociology (Emeritus), Central Government Planning Body for the Province of Brabant in the Netherlands;
  • Prof the Hon Kristina Keneally, Director of Gender Inclusion at Macquarie Graduate School of Management and 42nd Premier of New South Wales, Australia;
  • Prof Ursula King, ‘Theology and Religious Studies’ (Emerita), Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Bristol; Professorial Research Associate, Department of the Study of Religions,School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; Fellow of Heythrop College, University of London, honorary doctor of the Universities of Oslo (Sweden), Dayton Ohio (USA) and Edinburgh, UK;
  • Prof Gerhard Kruip, Christian Anthropology and Social Ethics, University of Mainz, Germany;
  • Prof Paul Lakeland, Professor of Religious Studies & Director Center for Catholic Studies, Fairfield University, Fairfield CT, USA;
  • Prof Bernard Lang, Biblical studies (Emeritus), University of Paderborn, Germany;
  • Prof Paul Lauritzen, Theology and Religious Studies, John Carroll University, University Heights OH, USA;
  • Prof Michel Lejeune, founder of the Institute of Medical Ethics and Law, Makerere University, Kampala; now Vice Chancellor of the Virtual University of Uganda and Chairman of the Uganda Vice Chancellors’ Forum, Kampala, Uganda;
  • Dr Aloysius Lopez Cartagenas, formerly Rector of San Carlos Seminary and professor in Theological Ethics and Catholic Social Teaching, School of Theology, Cebu City, Philippines; at present an Independent Scholar;
  • Prof Kathleen Maas Weigert, ‘Women and Leadership’, Loyola University, Chicago IL, USA;
  • Prof Darryl Macer, Director Eubios Ethics Institute, New Zealand, Japan and Thailand; President American University of Sovereign Nations, San Carlos AZ, USA;
  • Prof Joseph Martos, previously ‘Religion and Philosophy’ at various Catholic Universities; now independent author and scholar, Louisville, Kentucky, USA;
  • Prof Joseph Mattam SJ, founder Gujarat Jesuit Regional Theologate; Theology (Emeritus), Vidyajyoti University, Delhi, India;
  • Luis Carlos Marrero MA Theol & MA Religious Studies, Interreligious Dialogue, Religion and Gender, Contextual Theology, Instituto Superior Ecuménico de Ciencias de las Religiones, Vedado, La Habana, Cuba;
  • Prof Mary McAleese, previously Director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies, and Pro-Vice Chancellor, Queen’s University, Belfast; President of the Republic of Ireland (1997-2011); see endorsement;
  • Assistant Prof Dr Rosemary McHugh, ‘Reproductive Endocrinology’ and ‘Family Medicine’, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, USA;
  • Prof Michael McKale, Philosophical and Religious Studies & Director, Institute for Ethics, Saint Francis University, Loretto PA, USA;
  • Dr David B. McLoughlin, Senior Lecturer, Newman University, Birmingham, UK;
  • Dr Gina Menzies, lecturer in Medical Ethics, The Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin, Ireland;
  • Prof Norbert Mette, Religious Pedagogy and Practical Theology, University of Dortmund,Germany;
  • Dr Sr Amirtham Metti, Theology, writer and guest lecturer at many colleges in India, visiting fellow Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA;
  • Assistant Prof Alex Mikulich, ‘Theology of social and political transformation’, Loyola University, New Orleans, USA;
  • Prof Joseph O’Leary, Theology (Emeritus), Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture; English literature (Emeritus), Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan; see endorsement
  • Prof Francis Oakley, President Emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies, New York; Edward Dorr Griffin Professor of the History of Ideas & President Emeritus , Williams College, Williamstown MA, USA
  • Prof Stanisław Obirek, Religion in Modern Cultures, Interreligious Dialogue, American Studies Center, University of Warsaw, Poland;
  • Prof Joseph Pathrapankal CMI, New Testament Studies (Emeritus), long-time President Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram University, Bengaluru, India;
  • Prof Jesus Peláez del Rosal, New Testament Philology, University of Córdoba, Spain;
  • Prof Peter C. Phan, , three doctorates: ‘Sacred Theology’ (Salesian University, Rome), ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Divinity’ (both University of London); now ‘Catholic Social Thought’, Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA;
  • Dr Pat Pinsent, Senior Research Fellow, University of Roehampton, London, UK;
  • Associate Prof Gunter Prüller-Jagenteufel, ‘Moral Theology’, the University of Vienna, Austria;
  • Dr Mary Racelis, Research Scientist, Institute of Philippine Culture & Professorial Lecturer, Sociology and Anthropology, School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University, the Philippines.
  • Prof Michael Raske, Practical Theology (Emeritus), Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt a. M., Germany;
  • Geoffrey Robinson PhL STL DCL, Professor Emeritus of Canon Law at the Catholic Theological Institute of Sydney; Emeritus Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, Australia;
  • Prof Amando Robles Robles OP, Coordinador del Programa Maestro Eckhart, Centro Dominico de Investigación, Heredia, Costa Rica;
  • Prof Susan K. Ross,, Theology, Loyola University, Chicago, USA;
  • Prof Flavio Senra, philosopher and researcher of religion, Brazil;
  • Prof Thomas A. Shannon, Religion and Social Ethics (Emeritus), Worcester Polytechnic Institute, MA, USA;
  • Prof Thomas Sheehan, Religious Studies, Stanford University, California, USA;
  • Prof David Smith, Healthcare Ethics, Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin, Ireland;
  • Prof Brian Stiltner, Theology and Religious Studies, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield CT, USA;
  • Prof Peter Steinfels, Professor (Emeritus), Fordham University, founding co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, New York City, USA;
  • Dr Bridie Stringer, Lecturer, Pastoral Theology, St Mary’s University, Twickenham, UK;
  • Prof John Sullivan, Christian Education (Emeritus), Hope University, Liverpool, UK;
  • Prof Edward Sunshine, Moral Theology (Emeritus), Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida, USA;
  • Prof Luiz Carlos Susin, Religion and Theological Anthropology, Catholic Pontifical University, Rio Grande del Sol, Porto Allegre, Brasil;
  • Prof Len Swidler, ‘Catholic Thought & Interreligious Dialogue’, Temple University; Founder/President, Interreligious, Intercultural, International Dialogue Institute; Founder/President of the ‘Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church’; Philadelphia, USA;
  • Prof Faustino Teixeira, Sciences of Religion, Federal University of Juiz de Fora, Mato Grosso, Brazil;
  • Prof Sam J. Thomas, History (Emeritus), Michigan State University, East Lansing MI, USA;
  • Prof Margaret Susan Thompson, ‘History, Religion and Women & Gender Studies’, Syracuse University, Syracuse NY, USA;
  • Prof Milburn Thompson, Theology (Emeritus), Bellarmine University, Louisville, Kentucky, USA;
  • Prof Luiza Tomita, Theology, Salesian University, São Paulo, Brazil; see endorsement
  • Prof Edward Vacek SJ, Religious Studies, Loyola University, New Orleans LA, USA;
  • Prof José María Vigil, Theology, previously at the Centro Regional de Estudios Teológicos de Aragón, of the Pontifical University of Salamanca,Spain; and the Central American University, Managua, Nicaragua; coordinator of the Latin-American Theological Commission of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians;
  • Prof Evaristo Villar Villar, Biblical Theology and the Science of Religion, “Lumen Gentium” Institute & la Escuela Bíblica de Madrid, Spain;
  • Dr Michael Walsh, historian and author, former Librarian, Heythrop College, University of London, UK;
  • Aloys Wijngaards MA (Doctorandus), ‘Pastoral Theology’ (Emeritus), Diaconal Training College Dijnselburg, Zeist, the Netherlands;
  • Nelleke Wijngaards-Serrarens MA Soc (Doctoranda), Sociology & Family Guidance (Emerita), Diaconal Training College Dijnselburg, Zeist, the Netherlands;
  • Prof Guus Wijngaards, previously Secretary General of AEDE (l’Association Européenne des Enseignants), Deputy-Director of EUN (European Schoolnet in Brussels); ‘eLearning’ (Emeritus), InHolland University, Rotterdam, the Netherlands;
  • Associate Prof Tobias Winright, ‘Health Care Ethics’, Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics, and ‘Theological Ethics’, Dept of Theological Studies, Saint Louis University, USA;
  • Prof Werner Wolbert, Moral Theology (Emeritus), Salzburg University, Austria;
  • Prof Leslie Woodcock Tentler, History (Emerita), Catholic University of America, Washington DC, USA;
  • Prof Hans-Georg Ziebertz, Practical Theology, Würzburg University, Germany.

Ecumenical Co-signatories

  • Prof David Carr, Ethics and Education, School of Education, University of Birmingham, UK;
  • Prof Cynthia Crysdale, Christian Ethics and Theology, School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee, Canada;
  • Revd Duncan Dormor MA MSc BA, Director of Studies, Faculty of Divinity, & Dean, St John’s College, University of Cambridge, UK; see endorsement;
  • Prof Esther Dusabe Richards, Religion, Reproductive Health Rights and International Development, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, UK;
  • Dr Gabor Szegedi, Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease, Durham University, Stockton-on-Tees , UK;
  • Prof Manuela Kalsky, Edward Schillebeeckx Chair for Theology and Society, Free University, Amsterdam; and director of the Dominican Study Centre for Theology and Society, Amsterdam, the Netherlands;
  • Prof Jennifer Knust, Associate Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins, Boston University School of Theology, and Director of Graduate Studies, Graduate Division of Religious Studies, Boston University, USA;
  • Prof Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church College, University of Oxford; previously Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and Director of the Lincoln Theological Institute, UK;


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  1. I wouldn’t be into that at all. I’ll stick with the tried and tested Magisterial teachings.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Martin, what do you mean by “tried and tested”? Who tried and tested the declaration of Paul VI? If they passed the trial and test, why did the Synod and the Pope remain so silent about this?

  3. Very large families are a thing of the past. I am afraid Humanae Vitae is dead in the water as can be observed by the present generations much smaller families. There was scant regard for the health and wellbeing of women. Another Learning Curve is needed by the Hierarchy so hurry up you have had fifty years to think about it.

  4. Bob Hayes says:

    Is ‘learning curve’ the new Baal? Why, why, why are Catholic (and other) folk so in thrall to the jaded language of 1990s ‘total quality management’?

  5. This is an excellent and enlightened initiative. Thanks to the ACP for sharing it with us. Many who contribute to this site will already be aware, I am sure, that all recent research has shown that 90% of practising Catholic couples in America and Europe do not accept the core teaching of Humanae Vitae. This work by the Wijgaards Institute will affirm their decision, if affirmation is indeed needed.

  6. For many years I kept all my Tablets. However, it was a very space consuming practice and eventually I had to discard my archive. I did, however, keep those with especially interesting articles and this one below, by Clifford Longley in December 2013, really made me sit up and take notice. Clifford has on numerous occasions written very insightfully about HV. I thought this was an appropriate time to share it especially for people with Bob and Martin’s mindset. I also think tonight of Tesesa who has, on occasions, mentioned the angst HV has caused her. By some miracle, I managed to access this online tonight in the Tablet’s digital archive. For me to achieve this digital feat the Holy Spirit must have been on my side.
    ‘Across the developed world, not one in 10 Catholics accepts Humanae Vitae’
    What if Cardinal Martini was right? One of the most revered church leaders of his generation, who almost beat Pope Francis as the first Jesuit on the throne of Peter, said in an interview published in German in 2008 that Pope Paul VI was guilty of dishonesty when he issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968.
    Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Archbishop of Milan from 1979 to 2002, died in retirement last year, and the interview in question was republished in English in 2012 under the title Night Conversations with Cardinal Martini (Paulist Press).
    The cardinal said Pope Paul had explained to his friends his state of mind when preparing the encyclical: “One is forbidden to lie and yet sometimes it cannot be avoided; perhaps one must conceal the truth or cannot prevent a necessary lie from occurring.” And so he felt he had to reaffirm the Catholic Church’s official teaching against artificial birth control.
    What was the truth that Pope Paul was withholding? Cardinal Martini refers to the way the Pope had withdrawn the issue from consideration by the bishops then assembled for the Second Vatican Council, set up an expert commission to advise him, and then ignored its advice. The implication is that he knew the advice that the ban on contraception could no longer be sustained theologically was right, but to accept it was too risky.
    “Seen in the long term”, Cardinal Martini continued, “this solitary decision was certainly not an auspicious basis for dealing with the topic of sexuality and the family.”
    To soften the blow, he emphasises his esteem for Pope Paul. But he declares: “I am firmly convinced that the church leadership can show a better way than Humanae Vitae has managed to do.” It has, he said, alienated many from the Church.
    All the evidence suggests that in the developed world, not one in 10 Catholics accepts Humanae Vitae. In the developing world, where a conservative priesthood promotes the teaching, the encyclical is still a rod with which they can chastise the laity. But it is not a pretty situation either way.
    The recently concluded consultation process prior to next year’s international synod on marriage and family life has uncovered, we may be sure, deep unease about this doctrine everywhere in the Church except perhaps among bishops, who are vetted for their faithfulness to Humanae Vitae before they are appointed. This is one of many ways that Humanae Vitae has introduced a habit of dishonesty into Catholic thought and practice.
    And if Cardinal Martini was right in his contention, that is sadly what one would expect. One can also expect, I’m sorry to say, that every effort will be made to bend the conclusions of the consultation to make it suit the official line. In this respect the Vatican has form.
    The difficulty about reopening the issues discussed in Humanae Vitae is that the very integrity of the Church’s official Magisterium has been mortgaged to the strict line laid down by Pope Paul VI, which was made even stricter, as the cardinal said in the interview, by Pope John Paul II. The further that grass-roots Catholic opinion drifted from the teaching of Humanae Vitae, the harder the powers-that-be insisted it was quasi-infallible. As a way of undermining the Church’s credibility it could hardly have been bettered.
    Nevertheless, the cardinal’s remarks could point to a way forward. In a series of cases including the definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, papal infallibility in 1870, the Assumption in 1950 and even the doctrine that life started at conception in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae in 1995, the Pope of the day consulted the bishops and asked them what was the faith of the Church on the matter in question. In each case, as far as we know, the papal decision was in line with the great weight of the advice he received even if, in the case of papal infallibility, there were some who thought the moment inopportune.
    So is Humanae Vitae the singular exception, because the process that Pope Paul VI followed when preparing the encyclical was dishonest and failed to take the necessary steps for discerning the mind of the Church? Cardinal Martini seemed to think so. “It is a sign of greatness and self-confidence if someone can acknowledge the mistakes and limited visions of the past,” he said.
    When asked in the interview how the Church could move on, Cardinal Martini replied: “Let us open the Gospel and listen to the voice of Jesus’ And the prize? “The Church will regain credibility and competence To which there is not much one can say but “amen

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    I cannot believe Paul VI thought he was lying in issuing his ban on contraception. That would be the ultimate ecclesiastical scandal. I prefer to think that he made an honest mistake. Note that he reaffirmed his conviction on this at the very end of his life.

  8. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Paddy & Joe @6&7 – I too find it hard to believe that +Montini of Milan should be any more or less mendacious or truthful than +Martini of Milan, just because one became Pope and the other didn’t. I still have a good deal of time for Clifford Longley’s columns.

  9. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Bob @ 4, even TQM has its applications. Contraception is a balancing act. You have too many offspring today and you could be combating poverty. It’s not like the days of old where “more the merrier” was the standard. The Church’s teaching on family life (in proper TQM, ISO, or Six Sigma the Church would not be even responsible for such teaching) is based firmly on culture. Culture changes.
    Rules need to reflect the society we presently occupy. What was good 1000 years ago is not necessarily good today, especially where its application may determine the health and overall welfare of a family. We’re no longer living off the land but I’m glad to see Benedict and now Francis harvesting ideas that are in fresh soil.
    I disagree with hormonal methods of birth control. It is neither good for people nor the environment. Condoms on the other hand, well if you can’t see the good in that, from more than one perspective, your blindness is because you are living in the dark ages.

  10. The philosophy of Montini’s pontificate was that “the faithful have to be convinced not coerced” — (how things were to change after his time!)— but it seems to me he realised the arguments for keeping the teaching of Pius XI in particular in HM would not convince. It is worth remembering what he wrote in paragraph 28 of the encyclical;
    “Beloved Sons, you who are priests …..in the performance of your ministry you must be the first to give example of sincere obedience, inward as well as outward, which is due to the magisterium of the church. For, as you know, the pastors of the church enjoy a special light of the Holy Spirit in teaching the truth. And this, rather than the arguments put forward, is why you are bound to such obedience.”

  11. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Paddy @ 10, can you imagine “you must be the first to give example”? How could you ask someone to do something that you indeed weren’t willing to do yourself? Also, never take a “no” from someone who wasn’t in the position to give you a “yes” in the first place. These are two basic tenets of management. Is it too much to ask people to manage what they know? All the education in the world can only take one so far.
    This is a life via proxy – it’s simply an estimation of our values. It is wrong. Family strategy is informed upon by priests – we are pushed to the brink of world war by bureaucrats – the environment is being killed by business people. If there exists a special light of the Holy Spirit in teaching the truth, please let it shine through, the quicker the better.
    Civilians of the world are counting on the clergy to rise up and sort this thing out for us ; we’ve been looking for a large voice of reason (100,000 people) to come forward and do something drastic. It seems that all this is still a victimless crime – when does that stop? The laity begs of you. Children are crying out from the wilderness and due to your celibacy, you won’t truly hear their screams. Let me assure you, it is deafening.
    The most ethical use of contraceptives I’ve heard in recent times has certainly been “How could you justify bringing a child into the world at this time?” They’ve been inflicted with a title of “the generation not meant to last”.
    Is their future worth fighting for?

  12. Padraig McCarthy says:

    The document is a curate’s egg – good in parts. There are some surprising flaws:
    “7. The morality of any human action is determined by the motives and intentions of the agent…” These do not determine the morality of the action, but the culpability of the agent.
    “9.2. Abortifacient methods should ordinarily be avoided…” Poorly worded.
    “10. Using modern contraceptives has many proven benefits: among other things, it makes it much easier for both men and women to plan a family, it substantially lowers maternal morbidity and mortality, infant and child mortality, and abortion.” They reduce mortality by reducing maternity and births. It is hard to see how they have reduced abortions, when, according to The Lancet, there were 56.3 million procured abortions every year 2o12-2015. Over one million every week.
    All medical treatment carries risks. Pregnancy is not an illness to be prevented. Chemical contraceptives disrupt the endocrine system. We have insufficient information on how these affect coming generations in terms of fertility, sexual orientation and gender identity. The release of these into the environment affects not just human life, but also the other forms of life in our ecosystem. We do not know whether these are a factor in falling fertility rates in many countries around the world. Simply from a natural perspective, we should be far more cautious in use of such means, both for individuals and for the whole of humanity and our world.

  13. Bob Hayes says:

    Lloyd (no. 9), with your – seemingly positive (apologies if I misread you) – references to Six Sigma and ISO, you appear to reinforce my perception that this sort of management doublespeak is a new Baal. As a trade union rep in the ’80s and ’90s I well recall this language being used as an instrument to snuff out independent voices in the workplace and camouflage growing exploitation of workers. Surely the ACP is committed to openness not the charlatanism of a predatory branch of personnel management?

  14. Joe O'Leary says:

    Padraig, what you write above seems to me to refer to possible material side-effects of artificial contraceptives rather than to their intrinsic objective immorality, which is the point of contention. At most that would argue for an ontological deficiency in artificial contraceptives rather than a moral one (as Philip Keane argued in the 1970s in a book the Vatican disapproved of).
    There is nothing at all new in the Wijngaards document (nor in the riposte from the conservative scholars — Novak, Weigel… such names!). It is simply a call for reopening the discussion. Even to reopen it would kindle much discontent from those who think the answers have already been definitively or even infallibly given, and some even fear that any step back from HV would generate a schism.

  15. Padraig McCarthy says:

    Joe #14: Side-effects, yes, insofar as the intended aim of the chemical contraceptives is concerned; but also moral “deficiency” in their use if these are effects. Just as the aim of fracking is to produce fuel; but if the side-effects are contamination of water supplies, local geological instability, damage to various life forms, etc., that is very relevant to the morality of fracking.

  16. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Bob @13 – “seemingly positive” is a stretch but you are correct in stating that this is a branch of personnel management but it only becomes predatory when it is placed in the wrong hands. The canons are rife with it. The Catholic hierarchy has used it to snuff out independent voices and camouflage the exploitation of the laity. When placed in the hands of the truly orthodox, it becomes a weapon.
    Now within the ACP, we find the rationale that encompasses a trade union representative who is in the middle of the work culture. Catholic hierarchy represents the upper echelon of management who works tirelessly to distance himself from the ordinary worker (lay) but Pope Francis is trying to change that.
    The perfect example of management doublespeak is this :
    §2. The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.
    §3. According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.
    So what exactly does this mean to you Bob @ 13? This is a learning curve for most Catholics who think the Canons are absolute. Whatever is forbidden on earth, will be forbidden in heaven, sadly.

  17. Joe O'Leary says:

    HV gave one argument for banning all use of artificial contraceptives: that any contraceptive sexual act offends against the inseparability of the unitive and the procreative. Every single sexual act must be open to the transmission of life (except that in practice NFP can prevent that openness from being real openness.)
    Now people are dreaming up all sorts of other reasons for forbidding the use of contraceptives. The argument has become a bit like the “broken pot” argument: “I returned your pot unbroken: it was broken when you lent it to me; and in fact you never lent it to me at all.”
    A rational and open discussion of contraception is impossible in the Catholic Church, and such a discussion in some cases is a matter of real urgency: the prevention of Aids in Africa, the handling of the population explosion and mass child poverty in the Philippines, for example.

  18. Bob Hayes says:

    Joe (no. 17), I wonder how many of we contributors to this discussion would be around today if the Catholic Church had embraced Thomas Malthus’ thesis and advocated birth control to alleviate the ‘population explosion and mass child poverty’ in nineteenth-century Ireland?
    Lloyd (no. 16) – I suspect most Catholics have not a clue what Canon Law says on most topics. Sadly there has been a dearth of catechesis in so many areas, and responsibility for that falls to those bishops and priests who have neglected their responsibilities or who have chosen to peddle their personal agenda. I despair of the priests I have heard telling the laity to ‘eat fish on Friday’! Is it really that hard catechising Friday abstinence? Catechising the faithful should be a joy – but, then again, it is much easier to be a crowd pleaser than a teacher.

  19. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Bob @ 18, I guess what I’m trying to say is that this little slice of wisdom in the Canons is there for a reason. If “the Church” wanted me to have 15 children and I only wanted three for financial reasons, how are expectations met? I fully understand the ecological aspect of wanting a complete ban on oral contraceptives. I really do – Laudato si’ makes sense in this regard. People using their own judgement on how many children they decide to have is a topic the Church can’t easily insert itself in. It is between a husband and a wife, or common law partners, or however you prefer to proclaim your love for one another.
    “Peddling personal agendas” is dangerous wording because if it is meant to disrupt orthodoxy, telling people that their abilities lack in planning their own family structure might be disruption enough. The common person is now able to read, write, research, and reflect on all the finer nuances of child rearing and what it entails. You have a child, you begin to know what it takes today and what you can endure, mentally and financially. If you don’t have a child, then all your wisdom is merely speculation.

  20. Joe O'Leary says:

    “I wonder how many of we contributors to this discussion would be around today if the Catholic Church had embraced Thomas Malthus’ thesis and advocated birth control to alleviate the ‘population explosion and mass child poverty’ in nineteenth-century Ireland?”
    First, the Church today does embrace responsible family planning, but insists on NFP or what Pope Francis called “altre vie lecite — other licit ways” in his interview coming back from the Philippines. The argument turns entirely on the means by which this is attained, and it is thus a biologistic argument.
    Second, the population statistics of the Philippines are really alarming and correlate perfectly with masses of kids living and dying on rubbish heaps there. Not to attempt to think responsibly and rationally faced with this humanitarian crisis is criminal, and the Philippine Bishops are responsible for preventing a mature and responsible policy. Duterte’s Philippines seems to be sinking into generalized irrationality, something perhaps not unconnected with the population irresponsibility?
    Third, “Malthus” is a bit of a bogeyman, meant to conjure up images of heartless British parliamentarians who thought the Famine was an excellent means of population control. But “birth control” should not have this sinister overtone. We tried to control births by late marriages, a quite sensible social policy.
    The irrationality about population control infects even Pope Francis’s encyclical on ecology. It is obviously an important aspect of integral ecology, which he dismisses in a kneejerk, reactionary way.

  21. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Joe @ 20, do you personally feel that there is more need for population control in areas where income inequality is at its highest? In Canada, we can’t get enough people to serve the need. Our universities here have become international student trafficking schemes.
    The kids dying on rubbish heaps in the Philippines have nothing to do with births per female. It has to do with their robust economic growth meeting the working class Filipino. They have the highest income class rate in ASEAN. I know it’s hard for you to hear this but governments, the world over, have become corrupt.
    We are at the top of the food chain. Population control has to be a concern for us to manage because natural order ends one species below us. Guaranteed minimum income and free education are the best solutions.

  22. Joe O'Leary says:

    Certainly, the Philippines is looking more and more like a basket case, socially and politically, but the Church’s obstructionism about birth control is one of the elements in this.
    The Philippines is doing well economically just now, and this will help reduce poverty. However it is implausible to claim that “The kids dying on rubbish heaps in the Philippines have nothing to do with births per female.” The statistics for the Philippines population have nothing in common with Canada’s: it was 57, 356, 000 when I was there in 1987; now it is 102,627,485.

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