Knowing when it is permissible to space births is crucial for Catholic couples and they ought to have accurate moral direction.
A friend recently called with questions about childbirth, timidly confessing that she was pregnant with her fourth baby in six years while her youngest was eight months old. “It was unexpected,” she said quietly, “But I can’t tell my best friend that we were trying to avoid having another baby. She says the Church teaches that NFP can only be used when having another child would cause some kind of disaster in the family.”
This opinion pervades the American Catholic landscape and imposes, for some, a great burden. The message that many Catholics receive about the legitimate use of periodic abstinence is that they must have “grave motives” to use it. Even the term “serious reasons,” which is sometimes used instead of “grave motives,” communicates the same negative, but uncertain, meaning. In response to this, some Catholics never practice periodic abstinence no matter what the circumstances, while some silently agonize with guilt and uncertainty when they do use it and feel pressure to conceive before their youngest child turns two. Some ignore the Church’s teaching entirely because it seems unreasonable, while, at the other extreme, many reproach themselves (or worse, others) for “not trusting God enough” when they do use periodic abstinence.
This characterization of the Church’s teaching and its resulting uncertainty and guilt are understandable based on a literal reading of two sentences in the widely used translation of Humanae Vitae (HV) published by the Daughters of St. Paul (“the Pauline edition”).1 One sentence in paragraph ten and another in paragraph sixteen are often used as proof texts to support severely limiting the use of periodic abstinence. The sentences are, however, transliterations of the Italian text, not authentic translations of the official Latin. They also contain seven linguistic problems that change their meaning and can mislead the reader.
The NC News Service made the Pauline edition translation for quick publication in the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano newspaper when HV was promulgated. This very first version in English is still the most widely published and used in the United States, despite the later emergence of better translations which are based on the Latin, including one published by the Vatican. The Pauline edition relies heavily on Italian to English cognates and it copies the Italian sentence arrangement without proper regard for English structures. While it adequately presents the Church’s teaching against contraceptive use, it inaccurately communicates the Church’s teaching on periodic abstinence.
For one whose conscience has been formed based on his own literal reading or others’ strict interpretation of the Pauline edition it is hoped that the following explanation of its considerable translation problems could mark the beginning of a critical examination of his or her own stance. HV in Italian, Latin and in the official Vatican English does offer a clear set of criteria to follow when deciding about spacing births that can satisfy those who rightly insist that spouses may not do whatever they please. However, because HV, properly translated, does not challenge the faithful to simply obey a rule about how difficult a situation must be to pardon periodic abstinence, it is also hoped that this analysis of the Pauline edition’s linguistic deficiencies would console those who are troubled by the confusion caused by its vast use.
Imagine a concerned Catholic couple that picks up Humanae Vitae to see when it is permissible to use periodic abstinence. They would never use contraceptives but struggle with discerning their motives for spacing births because they do not want to use it with a “contraceptive intent.” Periodic abstinence only for grave reasons seems completely accurate according to a sentence in paragraph ten in the Pauline edition:
In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth. (Italics added to words to be discussed).
Conscientious Catholic couples that take this sentence literally as a moral obligation would conclude that there are only two options. Either a couple can make a deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or, if they have grave motives they can avoid a new birth for the time being or for an indeterminate period. From this it is easy to infer that in the absence of grave motives spouses should not avoid a new birth, even for the time being.2 In fact, a casual reader might even guess that raising a numerous family is the default requirement for all couples unless the presence of grave motives exempts them.
Now, what if they read the Vatican translation of that sentence? It says:
With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time. (Italics added)3
This sentence cannot be reduced, like the first one can, to a moral statement about when periodic abstinence is permitted, because the words “prudently” and “certain…time” rightly appear in the second translation. Prudently having a larger family, after all, will likely require that couples use periodic abstinence from time to time while serious reasons may require it for certain or indefinite periods. This sentence also implies that imprudently raising a numerous family is outside the definition of responsible parenthood, whereas the Pauline edition does not.
Paraphrasing both sentences into imperatives also illustrates how different they are. The Pauline edition says, “Everyone should deliberately and generously have a numerous family, unless there are grave motives to avoid a birth.”4 The Vatican translation (and the Italian and Latin) say, “Everyone should be prudent and generous when having a numerous family and should respond to serious conditions by limiting births for the appropriate amount of time.” The Pauline edition seems to take a stand about when it becomes permissible to use periodic abstinence while the Vatican translation does not. An explicit statement about when it is legitimate to use periodic abstinence comes later in paragraph sixteen, which also contains translation problems in the Pauline edition.
Three linguistic observations explain the differences between the Pauline edition and the Vatican translation of the sentence in paragraph ten. First, the Italian and the Latin communicate the same teaching, but the sentences are structured very differently with divergent language.5 Second, the Pauline edition follows the Italian word-for-word, phrase-by-phrase, employing simple cognates throughout while omitting the word “prudent.” The Vatican version, on the other hand, is a thoughtful translation based on the Latin. Third, and most important, the Pauline edition commits understandable errors when passing from Italian into English. The sentence in paragraph ten is nuanced and complex, and it seems that the translators forced it to make sense without grasping the complete thought.
This sentence in the Pauline edition contains five translation problems. There are also two problems in a key sentence from paragraph sixteen. These seven difficulties change the meaning of the sentences and coalesce into the misleading message that makes “NFP only for grave reasons” plausible.
It is helpful to begin unraveling the problems by providing a good translation of the Italian sentence in paragraph ten.6 Some of the Italian words are ambiguous, but are easily clarified by the Latin. The translators, however, do not seem to have used it to guide them. The sentence should have been translated something like the following:
Regarding physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised both by those who raise a numerous family with prudent (Latin=prudent) and generous deliberation, and by those who, for weighty reasons (Latin=serious causes) and with due respect to moral precepts, decide to avoid a new birth for a defined period of time (Latin=certain time) and even indefinitely.
The first problem in the Pauline edition renders the words “sia…sia” as “either…or.”7 Those words actually mean “both…and.”8 Going back to read the Pauline edition, the use of “either…or” conveys a separation between the two options where the presence or absence of “grave motives” becomes the deciding factor as to which category a couple falls into. Either a couple has a numerous family, or, if they have “grave motives,” they can avoid conception. However, when the Italian is translated correctly the sentence sounds inclusive, as if to say: “responsible parenthood can be exercised both by having more children and by having fewer children, depending on the circumstances.” In fact, here the Pope seems to challenge the secular notion that parents of large families are prima facie irresponsible, since he pointedly includes prudently raising a numerous family in his discussion of responsible parenthood.
One might object that the Latin version does say “either…or.” However, the Latin reasonably uses it without making the stark separation between options because it expresses more nuances. Also, the Pauline edition is not likely representing the Latin here, because the Latin is not represented when translating any other word in this sentence that differs from the Italian. In order to avoid accusing the translators of intentionally singling out words from both primary texts to deceptively construct a one-dimensional, restrictive norm, it is wise to assume that it is a simple mistake with an immoderate outcome.
The second and third problems go together when translating the phrase “con la deliberazione ponderata e generosa.” The Pauline edition renders it “with the deliberate and generous decision.” In Italian, the phrase literally, though awkwardly, means: “with the prudent and generous decision made with deliberation.” This is a difficult phrase because “ladeliberazione” is a noun (not an adjective) that means “the phase of coming to a specific decision wherein one examines the reasons which bring him to that decision.” The definition of the word in Italian includes the process and the decision. Yet, to fit the words “deliberate decision” into that phrase is tricky in English because there are already two adjectives, “ponderata” and “generosa,” that modify the “deliberate” decision. A way to solve this problem is to render the phrase: “with prudent and generous deliberation” and assume that the word “decision” is implied. The Pauline edition translators, however, adopt “deliberate…decision.” This can be vague for the reader, because an accurate perception of what this phrase means requires him to be particularly mindful that “deliberate” in English signifies “characterized by or resulting from careful and thorough consideration.” However, colloquially, the word “deliberate” can convey that the decision is intentional and purposeful, but not necessarily made carefully and for good reasons.
The third problem in this sentence works against a correct perception of “deliberate,” because the translators exclude the word “ponderata” which means “reflective and prudent.” Perhaps the translators judged that “reflective and prudent” was redundant here since they already used the word “deliberate.” This is a critical omission, however, because “ponderata” in this sentence further underscores the requirement that the decision to have a larger family be made thoughtfully. The Pauline edition phrase — “with the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family”— loses the emphatic, doubled accent on careful consideration and prudence. The Pope goes out of his way to stress this, even to the point of making a somewhat awkward construction in Italian. To drop “prudent” from the sentence is also a significant error when translating the Latin because the phrases “by prudent consideration” and “by a generous spirit” are joined with the most binding “and” in the language. In the Latin, “que” at the end of “magno” (“generous”) unites the words in a way that strongly suggests equality and inseparability. This stresses that prudent consideration and a generous spirit must both be present in the decision to accept a larger family.
The fourth and fifth problems are less obvious but occur because the translators do not look at the Latin to clarify two words that possess multiple meanings in Italian. First of all, the translators render the very general and widely used Italian word “gravi” with the false cognate “grave,” which in English possesses a very limited, archaic meaning. Secondly, they use the wrong phrase for “temporaneamente.”
The words “grave motives” are probably the most commonly quoted when defending the position that the use of periodic abstinence is only permitted in extreme cases or dire necessity. This is because the common English understanding of “grave” reminds people of death, mortality, great danger and the like. A survey of the relevant definitions for “grave” in English, however, offers a wider appreciation of this word, which is even broader in Italian:
1 a: obsolete: authoritative, weighty b: meriting serious consideration; important c: likely to produce great harm or danger d: significantly serious; considerable, serious.
In Italian the word “grave” has a much greater semantic range. Consulting an Italian dictionary is helpful when translating a word like this. The first four pertinent definitions are:
1. something that has significant weight
2. weighed down, as if by fatigue, exhaustion; heavy, oppressive;
3. difficult to sustain insofar as it creates pain and suffering; and
4. implying an onerous or notable responsibility.
Only the last three definitions can support the daunting interpretation that is often given in English:
5. worrisome, serious;
6. relevant because of gravity or implies very negative consequences;
7. of a sickness, wound or the like that represents serious damage to physical integrity or danger to one’s life; in danger of one’s life.
Exploring the different meanings of the word in English and in Italian seems to convey, firstly, that the Italian has a wider semantic range, and secondly, that the root meaning of the word refers to weightiness.9 In the Italian version of HV “gravi motivi” can denote motives for spacing births that possess moral weight, not necessarily only negative outcomes. In fact, the fourth meaning: “implying an onerous or notable responsibility,” seems to be the most fitting, especially since all of paragraph ten is describing responsible parenthood.
The Latin text supports this last interpretation, because it uses the word “seriis,” which means “earnest, serious,” in place of the Italian word “gravi.” “Seriis” in Latin conveys moral seriousness. The Vatican English translation uses “serious” here. A quick look at some relevant definitions of “serious” in English might be helpful:
1. a: requiring much thought or work b: of or relating to a matter of importance ;
2 a: not joking or trifling: being in earnest b: archaic: pious c: deeply interested; devoted ;
3 a: not easily answered or solved b: having important or dangerous possible consequences .
This word also possesses more meaning than the worrisome situations some apply when attempting to explain the Church’s teaching.10 When the definitions of important words in the Italian and the Latin are fully understood, HV seems to be saying that couples should not space births by using periodic abstinence for certain periods of time or indefinitely based on insignificant reasons but should do so earnestly because of weighty, important matters in their lives. These certainly include negative situations but are not limited to them. The motivation could also be, perhaps should be, framed positively, to promote positive values and goals, such as: physical and/or emotional integrity, financial stability, the proper exercise of the responsibilities one has towards one’s existing children, or for any number of pure motives truly in service of the Church or mankind.11
The final translation problem renders the phrase “temporaneamente, od anche a tempo indeterminato,” as “for the time being or even for an indeterminate period.” This phrase seems to communicate that avoiding a new birth even for a moment—that is, for right now—or for an “indeterminate” time that simply lacks definition requires “gravi motivi.” Instead, the Italian phrase, when it is translated well, regards the extended use of periodic abstinence. When speaking informally “temporaneamente” can mean “for the time being.”12 However, the word properly signifies “for a limited amount of time, not indefinitely.” The Latin supports this by using the words “per certum . . . tempus,” that is, “for a certain (or sure, or defined)… amount of time.” The Italian phrase “od anche” literally means “or also” and connotes “and even further” or “in addition.” The word “indeterminato” can mean “indeterminate” or “indefinite.” When putting all the definitions of the words together in a way that makes the most sense, the phrase says “’for a limited amount of time, not indefinitely’ or even indefinitely.” This seems to communicate that “gravi motivi” are required for those who intend to avoid conception for a defined time or, perhaps, for the remainder of the marriage. 13
One can reasonably misinterpret HV when relying on the Pauline edition. What impact does looking closely at the Italian have? The use of “both…and” is inclusive, as if to say that having a numerous family as well as limiting family size can be responsible, depending on the circumstances. The word “la deliberazione” communicates a responsibility to weigh one’s concrete situation when making decisions. The word “ponderata” cautions spouses to act with reflection and prudence. The word “gravi” in Italian conveys that couples should be motivated by weighty and important circumstances, perhaps flowing from onerous or notable responsibilities, to prevent the selfish pursuit of lesser goods above higher goods. Finally, to consider that the Pauline phrase “for the time being or even an indeterminate period” should be translated “for a certain time or even indefinitely” means that the second half of the sentence requires couples to have “gravi motivi” (properly understood) when defining an amount of time to avoid conception, including the decision to avoid it indefinitely.
The clear statement about when it is appropriate to use periodic abstinence is in paragraph sixteen, which also contains problems in the Pauline edition:
If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way to regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier. (Italics added).
While the Vatican English says:
If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained. (Italics added).14
The first difference occurs because the Pauline edition renders the Italian words “seri motivi” as “serious motives,” while the Vatican translation renders the Latin words “iustae…causae” as “well-grounded reasons.” The Pauline edition translators would have benefited from consulting the Latin text and an Italian dictionary, especially because “serio” and “serious” are not exact cognates. When interpreting the use of “serio” one should be aware that in Italian it strongly suggests acting with responsibility and should also observe that the third definition regards weight and importance:
1. demonstrating effort, prudence (‘ponderatezza’) and a sense of responsibility in one’s attitude, behavior or in a particular situation or circumstance; one who faces life and its problems conscientiously and aware of his duties and abilities;
2. having a preoccupied expression or attitude, pensive or even sad;
3. regarding a situation or circumstance, weighty or important;
4. regarding a sickness, worrisome because of its gravity or eventual outcome;
5. something that is not a joke.
The misapplication of the word “serious” here also corroborates “periodic abstinence only for grave reasons” because the words “grave” and “serious” can be synonymous. They are often used interchangeably in this context, and together can communicate a somewhat alarming standard. But “serio” was not intended to refer only to challenging or troublesome situations, especially because the Latin word “iustae” in the place of “serio” connotes a specifically moral, not negative, meaning. In English “iustae” signifies: “Just, equitable, fair, lawful, justified, proper; regular, perfect, complete and suitable.” The excellent choice of “well-grounded” by the Vatican English translation captures both the Italian and the Latin senses of the words.
The second problem is that the Pauline edition omits the word “minimamente,” which signifies “in the least,” and should appear in the phrase “…without offending in the least the moral principles…”15 Why this word was dropped is unclear, because it poses no translation problem. When it is included, however, it assures couples that they need not worry about whether their decision to space births through the use of periodic abstinence is in any way wrong as long as their actions correspond to the criteria in the document. This is important, because some Catholics consider the practice of periodic abstinence, no matter what the reasons, to be questionable.
The Pauline edition should be replaced by a good translation based on the Latin. It contains problems that alter the message and that can create confusion and misconceptions in the English speaker’s mind about what the Church truly teaches regarding the licit use of periodic abstinence. This question is crucial for Catholic couples that sincerely want to follow the Church, and they ought to have accurate moral direction. Using the correct language communicates commonly understood virtues, instead of undefined challenging circumstances, and therefore makes it easier for couples to more confidently discern whether their motivations are correct.
According to HV, the Church calls the faithful to examine their situations and be prudent, generous, serious, and, ultimately, just when putting responsible parenthood into practice. Because this particular set of good qualities and the way they can be manifested are so complex, it is unreasonable to reduce the question to moralistic formulas that focus only on how problematic a situation must be to excuse periodic abstinence. It is also out of place to form opinions about others based solely on how many or few children they have, since these virtues and the lack of them are oftentimes hidden from outsiders. The Church is a Mother who lovingly guides her children and exhorts them to fulfill their manifold responsibilities correctly and with the right priorities. These include embracing children as the supreme gift of marriage and having a generous disposition towards accepting more children than what is merely comfortable. At the same time, the Church does not require or sanction unwise behavior, especially because every child brings about additional, important obligations. When responsible parenthood is understood well and applied virtuously, with God’s help and to the best of one’s abilities, the criteria can and should be both heroically and judiciously integrated into concrete circumstances.
Schematic Comparison of Italian,
Pauline English and Latin of the Paragraph Ten Sentence
The Pauline English follows the Italian almost word-for-word (keeping in mind that in English adjectives always come before nouns, whereas in Italian the order varies). The translation depends so heavily on cognates that the parallel between the Italian and the English is striking. The Latin uses distinctly different terms from the Italian and mixes the word order significantly. In the following schema the first line is the Italian text, the second is the Pauline English (highlighted), the third is the Latin, and the fourth is a word-for-word of the Latin as an aid to reading it.
In rapporto alle condizioni fisiche, economiche, psicologiche e sociali,
In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions
Si postea ad condiciones physicas, oeconomicas, psychologicas et sociales respicimus,
If further to conditions physical, economic, psychological and social we look,
la paternità responsabile si esercita,
responsible parenthood is exercised,
ii paternitate conscia fungi dicendi sunt,
they with parenthood responsible exercise said are,
sia con la deliberazione ponderata e generosa
either by the deliberate and generous decision (a word for “ponderata” is absent here)
qui aut, prudenti consideratione magnoque animo ducti,
who either, by a prudent consideration by a generous-and spirit are led
di far crescere una famiglia numerosa,
to raise a numerous family,
statuunt numerosiores suscipere liberos,
they decide more numerous to accept children
sia con la decisione, presa per gravi motivi e nel rispetto della legge morale,
or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law,
aut, seriis causis moralibusque praeceptis observatis, animum inducunt ut,
or, for serious reasons and moral precepts having been observed, they resolve
di evitare temporaneamente, od anche a tempo indeterminato, una nuova nascita.
to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth.
vel ad certum vel ad incertum tempus, alium filium non gignant.
either for certain or uncertain time, another child not they generate.
- Encyclical Letter of Paul VI Of Human Life Humanae Vitae (Boston, Pauline Books and Media, 1968). Pauline Books and Media have undertaken to study this question further. They did not make the translation and are simply reproducing what was given to them by the old National Catholic Welfare Committee, which is now the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops. Pauline Books and Media say they must ask the USCCB for permission to publish a different translation. ↩
- Many who do not reach this conclusion are perhaps interpreting the text reasonably, not literally, by taking into consideration the Church’s other pronouncements on this question. ↩
- For purposes of comparison, the Vatican translation is being used because it is authoritative, is based on the official Latin and, presumably, was done by theologians and with more care than the Pauline edition. The Vatican translation has been criticized for not drawing exclusively from the Latin. It seems, however, that the Church for the sake of clarity can use an original language to help communicate the same meaning as the Latin. (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae_en.html). ↩
- Some might substitute “serious reasons” here, but any formulation that simply inserts “serious reasons” stays flawed without including “prudently.” ↩
- A schematic comparison of the Pauline edition to the primary texts is at the end of this article. A good translation of the Italian text might be helpful for interpreting what the Pope wrote. However, the Pauline edition’s corruption of the meaning renders it useless for understanding the legitimate use of periodic abstinence. ↩
- This study uses the Italian as its point of departure and references the Latin for clarification. This is reasonable because HV was written in Italian and subsequently translated into Latin. Under usual circumstances, however, using the official Latin or a good translation of it is preferable when studying Church teaching. ↩
- Multiple Italian, English and Latin dictionaries were consulted for this research. The definitions presented here are from one dictionary per language. Italian definitions come from the comprehensive De Mauro Dictionary and are translated into English by this writer. English definitions come from the Mirriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Latin definitions come from the University of Notre Dame Catholic Archives. ↩
- The Italian for “either…or” is “o…o.” ↩
- In addition it might be interesting to note that in Latin “gravis” has the following meanings: “heavy, low, deep, weighty, important, dignified, serious, elevated, burdened, laden, weighed down, pregnant, burdensome, oppressive, grievous, painful, unpleasant.” ↩
- In fact, the words “grave motives” should never have appeared in any English translation of HV because of the confusion it could (and did) create. It might be interesting to note that in a 1969 essay, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla provides his own good translation of the Italian sentence but omits the words “grave motives” and substitutes “serious causes” from the Latin. Wojtyla, Karol Cardinal, “Crisis in Morality.” Crisis in Morality: The Vatican Speaks Out. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1969) p. 4. Many Catholics look to Pope Pius XII’s 1951 Allocution to Italian Midwives to clarify what “grave” could mean. However, three things should be kept in mind: First, it was not written to the universal Church. Second, HV, Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church expand the responsibilities and circumstances that can allow the spacing of births. And third, it was written in Italian so that “grave” must be understood from within the Italian language. ↩
- Gaudium et Spes 50 enumerates several positive responsibilities: “Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself.” (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html). An excellent article that uses the Latin text and solid moral reasoning is: Smith, Janet E., “Moral Use of Natural Family Planning.” Why Humanae Vitae was Right: A Reader. Ed. Janet E. Smith (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1993), pp 445-471 (http://www.aodonline.org/aodonline-sqlimages/shms/faculty/SmithJanet/Publications/HumanaeVitae/MoralUseofFamilyPlanning.pdf). ↩
- “For the time being” is “per ora” in Italian. ↩
- One could object that the Vatican translation “indefinite period of time” and the Latin “incertum tempus” only mean “time that lacks definition” and not “indefinitely,” so that “serious reasons” would be required for any use of periodic abstinence, not just its extended use. It seems, however, that if that were the case, the phrases “certain time” and “indefinite period of time” would appear in reverse order. Nonetheless, the seriousness of one’s reasons can be supported by prudent consideration. If it is imprudent to have a larger family, then that is a serious enough reason to use periodic abstinence. ↩
- This teaching specifically regards periodic abstinence, where the marital act takes place for a time and then is interrupted by periods of abstinence. This sentence does not place limits on absolute abstinence as a method for spacing births, although this approach can be problematic for maintaining marital unity and fidelity. ↩
- In Latin: “haudquamquam,” “by no means, not at all.” ↩