Questions Answered – October 2022

Church Teaching and the Theological Ethics of Life

Question: There has been much talk about the Church changing her teaching on Humanae Vitae. This apparently is due to a recent document from the Pontifical Academy of Life: Theological Ethics of Life. More orthodox publications maintain that one should see this as a development of doctrine which is heterodox on the part of the papacy. Can you explain the teaching again?

Answer: The new text published by the Pontifical Academy of Life is not in any sense binding on the Catholic conscience even if it results from a pontifical agency. One should be clear that the Holy Spirit cannot give sanction to a teaching which contradicts the constant teaching of the Magisterium. This is not the result of mental gymnastics but a straightforward analysis of the Catholic truth.

Since Pope St. Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in 1968, there has been nothing but a concerted attempt on the part of certain ecclesiastics and the universities to make exceptions. This began on the day it was issued and has continued unabated even through the pontificates of Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The head of the academy, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, says in his English introduction to Theological Ethics of Life that it represents “a paradigm shift” in thinking for the Catholic Church. It implies that the discussion in this new initiative of the present pontificate is merely the culmination of this constant teaching. This suggests that our settled teaching on a subject is now open to modification. The primary area which is affected by this paradigm shift is anything connected to Moral Theology.

As should be well known, in the wake of the encyclical Humane Vitae all acts which seek to preclude birth in sexual acts by artificial means are condemned as contrary to be the natural law and the constant teaching of the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church presents that teaching well when it calls such acts “intrinsically evil.” (2370) This teaching is absolute, and though everyone is aware that many Catholics participate in such acts, democratic vote does not determine a Church teaching. It is rather determined by divine revelation and objective reason.

This is because the complete gift of self which is involved in spousal love demands that the sexual act be open to life. As the couple each represents the Trinity, the sharing of the goodness of God in the Trinity is first and foremost seen in the existence of human life. This is because God wants to share his goodness by peopling heaven and this intention of his in creating the world cannot be realized if there are no people. The selfless self-love which is expressed in the physical act of birth is the natural application of the spiritual union of marriage, so that the physical sexual relationship reflects the complete gift of self already made in the spiritual communion of marriage. This is why even natural marriage is indissoluble. When a couple, either married or unmarried, decides to deny as such either the spiritual union or the possibility of the gift of children, they introduce natural utilitarianism into a relationship which should be gift and love. As John Paul II said in: Theology of the Body, from the judgement: “It is good that you exist” one communicates “You are good only because you make me feel good.”

Dr. Conrad Baars, a famous Catholic psychiatrist who had been sent to a concentration camp during World War II, once expressed the true paradigm shift which the approval of contraception causes: “Once on the battlefields of World War I, now in the concentration camps of World War II, France paid the price for taking the lead in one of the most successful campaigns in modern history some one hundred and twenty five years earlier: the campaign of birth control. Successful their campaign had been, because birth control appeals so much to the selfish element in every human being. It eliminates the responsibilities and duties of love. It decries the consequence of romance and it educates young people in their own selfish interest and indulgence of their selfish pleasures. France, in destroying the morality of its youth, had led the way to the destruction of its own existence; it had removed from its children the backbone of perseverance against evil.” What was true of France then is now the legacy of the Western World.

It is a truism that the great poverty of the West is a spiritual poverty and this is witnessed in the destruction of marriage and family, the backbones of society. Paul VI has proven prophetic when he predicted that the divorce of sex from children would produce this destruction which extends to wholesale divorce and now even attacks the very foundation of the sexes in transgenderism. One can see the further erosion of the whole idea of the person in the almost psychotic hatred demonstrated by many Americans when Roe vs. Wade was overturned.

Into all this sad scenario, the new research of the Pontifical Academy of Life suddenly finds that under certain circumstances there is a paradigm shift which now permits couples to practice contraception. Not only is this objectively impossible to justify morally but it flies in direct opposition to entire Catholic tradition on the subject of human sexuality and Paul VI taught even in the face of the majority report of the Vatican Commission on birth control in the late 60s. There can be no paradigm shift in this teaching chosen by some commission. To do this will call into question all of objective morals. One must remember and I am sure Pope Francis recognizes that development in doctrine must be homogeneous and not heterogeneous. The Church cannot deny a previous teaching. One must also remember that the sensus fidei includes not just Catholics now but Catholics for the last 2000 years. Even if a Pope did hold an opinion contrary to the Magisterium, this could only be an opinion held as a private person and not as Pope. It could not therefore bind the Christian conscience.

Which Teachings Have What Authority?

Question: I’m told that when a pope speaks it can be as Bishop of Rome, private theologian or universal doctor. Can you explain and when is a Catholic free to dismiss something a pope says?

Answer: This question has become urgent again due to renewed interest in the doctrinal status of Humanae Vitae occasioned by the Pontifical Academy of Life which suggests that contraception might be approved in direct contradiction to the teaching of three popes. When Paul VI issued it, he was very specific that it did not fall under the ex-cathedra papal magisterium as described in the decree on infallibility of the Pope in Vatican I. Subsequent reflection maintains this teaching falls under the ordinary Magisterium of the College of Bishops with the Pope as the head of the College and so is infallible teaching.

What is a Catholic to make of this then? The Pontifical Academy for Life does not have binding teaching authority and its recent conference was only a theological discussion, not a magisterial teaching of any sort (as even the new document’s introduction by Archbishop Paglia acknowledges). The intent behind it is to render a service to the PAV and to the Church by discussing topics that are very much felt in the ecclesial community, concerning even controversial aspects of the theological ethics of life. This is a process similar to medieval disputations or quaestiones disputatae: once a thesis was presented, the debate was conducted by theologians. That was an indispensable service to the deepening of the faith so that it could be understood and transmitted.” Therefore, even the introduction recognizes that this publication is not a magisterial teaching, even if no Catholic theologians ought to be trying to debate the contraception question again. This is important to stress.

A recent Doctrinal Commentary by Cardinal Ratzinger on the Profession of Faith now required for those who teach in the Church lists three distinctions in the exercise of the teaching of the Magisterium. The first distinction is both the extraordinary Magisterium and the ordinary Magisterium teaching in a solemn manner taken together.

 These doctrines are contained in the word of God, written or handed down and defined with a solemn judgment as divinely revealed truths either by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks ‘ex cathedra’ or by the college of bishops gathered in council, or infallibly proposed for belief by the ordinary and universal magisterium.1

Examples of this are:

 […] the articles of faith of the Creed, the various Christological dogmas and the Marian dogmas; the doctrine of the institution of the sacraments by Christ and their efficacy with regard to grace; the doctrine of the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacrificial nature of the Eucharistic celebration; the foundation of the Church by the will of Christ; the doctrine on the primacy and the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff; the doctrine on the existence of original sin; the doctrine of the immortality of the soul and on the immediate recompense after death; the absence of error in inspired sacred texts; the doctrine of the grave immorality of the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being.2

The assent which is required for this type of declaration is “theological faith,” a lack of which is punished by a censure of “heresy.3

Lumen Gentium speaks of this kind of authoritative teaching in paragraph 25, where the teaching of Vatican I, which applies this to the Pope, is then expanded to include the College of Bishops. Indeed, this is the purpose of the decree in Vatican II. The Doctrinal Commission clearly states that:

The infallibility with which Christ willed his Church be instructed is absolutely (prorsus) identified with the infallibility of the teaching Church; and in fact (quidem): either of the whole episcopate or uniquely (singulariter) of the Roman Pontiff.4

Vatican II, therefore, did not change this manner of teaching doctrine in any way. What the Council did address was the question of the relation of the bishops’ magisterium to this extraordinary Magisterium. In fact, this relation is dealt with in the second and third distinction made by Cardinal Ratzinger, which reflects the innovative teaching of Vatican II on this matter.

The second distinction respects a further distinction in the ordinary Magisterium. The formula in the profession of faith on which Ratzinger comments is, “I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.” Notice that in relation to the doctrines in the first distinction, these are “definitively taught” but not taught “in a solemn manner.”

The object taught by this formula includes all those teachings belonging to the dogmatic or moral area, which are necessary for faithfully keeping and expounding the deposit of faith, even if they have not been proposed by the Magisterium of the Church as formally revealed.5

The assent demanded by these teachings is not one that falls directly under the virtue of faith, but an assent which is a “firm and definitive.6 A person who did not assent to these teachings “would no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.7

Examples of this sort of teaching are those connected “by logical necessity”8 with revelation. This necessity can also be an historical necessity. Some concrete examples are:

 [. . .] the development in the understanding of the doctrine connected with the definition of papal infallibility, prior to the dogmatic definition of the First Vatican Council. [. . .] the doctrine that priestly ordination is reserved only to men. [. . .] the illicitness of euthanasia [. . .] the illicitness of prostitution and of fornication [. . .] the legitimacy of the election of the Roman Pontiff or the celebration of an ecumenical council, the canonization of saints (dogmatic facts), the declaration [. . .] on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations [. .  .]9

It would seem that Humanae Vitae and the teaching on birth control could be added to this, because this teaching involves a conclusion of logical necessity on the data of revelation concerning sexual ethics, even though contraception is never specifically mentioned in Scripture. This is because Scripture includes in its moral teaching all that is contained in the Natural Law. Here the true relation between reason and faith is very evident, as is clear in many of the reflections of Pope John Paul II on sexual ethics.

Both sorts of teaching — namely, that which is divinely revealed, and that which is held definitively by logical connection to what is divinely revealed — are taught infallibly. In the case of the second kind of doctrine, one held definitively in a non-defining act by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of bishops, “such a doctrine can be confirmed or reaffirmed by the Roman Pontiff, even without recourse to a solemn definition.10 Ex cathedra infallibility spoken of by Vatican I described a solemn definition by a Pope alone. However, Vatican I did not limit the infallibility of the Church to teach doctrine to this one act. This act was merely a special instance of the action of the Holy Spirit.

Vatican II addressed the second instance of the action of the Holy Spirit in Lumen Gentium. Though this discussion did not involve a solemn definition, because Paul VI was clear that no doctrines were defined in Vatican II, still this teaching of the Council must be considered a teaching presented to be held definitively under the rubric of this second distinction.

Although the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ on the following conditions: namely, when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that among themselves and with Peter’s successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning faith and morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely.11

As the Council points out, this is most clearly seen in an ecumenical Council, but infallible teaching can be presented in less solemn, but nonetheless definitive ways. One is the Pope’s the special office to speak for the college of bishops, even though he does not intend to make a solemn pronouncement. This would be exemplified in the kinds of teachings placed under distinction two.

In addition to these two kinds of teaching, which are both infallible, there is a third. These are “all those teachings — on faith and morals — presented as true or at least as sure, even if they are not defined by a solemn judgement or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.12 The assent demanded of these teachings would be a “religious submission of will and intellect.13 Teachings contrary to these truths are certainly erroneous and must not be taught.

As examples of doctrines of this sort, Cardinal Ratzinger quotes Lumen Gentium almost verbatim. “[O]ne can point in general to teaching set forth by the authentic ordinary Magisterium in a non-definitive way, which require degrees of adherence differentiated according to the mind and will manifested […] by the nature of the documents, by the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or by the tenor of the verbal expression.”14 Such doctrines would be those generally taught in the manner of theological discussions, or, e.g. encyclicals on devotion to the Sacred Heart. These are not definitive teachings, but they still require religious submission of the will and intellect because they are made by a religious authority.

I have answered your question at some length because it is complex and very relevant to current problems. A teaching may never be dismissed. Respect for the Pope demands respectful consideration of matters involving faith and morals. But some statements of the Pope on this subject are merely private opinions which bind no one in conscience. These would include anything not concerned with faith and morals or deviations from the traditional teachings taught in these other ways.

  1. Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, Doctrinal Commentary of the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei, Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, June 29, 1998, 5.
  2. Professio, 11.
  3. Professio, 5.
  4. “Infallibilitas qua Christus Ecclesiam instructam esse voluit prorsus identificatur cum infallibilitate Ecclesiae docentis; et quidem: sive totius Episcopatus, sive singulariter Romani Pontificis.” Synopsis, 458.
  5. Professio, 6.
  6. Professio, 6.
  7. Professio, 6.
  8. Professio, 11.
  9. Professio, 11.
  10. Professio, 9.
  11. “Licet singuli praesules infallibilitatis praerogativa non pollent, quando tamen, etiam per orbem dispersi, sed communionis nexum inter se et cum Successore Petri servantes, authentice res fidei et morum docentes in unam sententiam tamquam definitive tenendam conveniunt, doctrinam Christi infallibiliter enuntiant.” LG, 25.
  12. Professio, 10.
  13. Professio, 10.
  14. Professio, 11. Cf. “This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way to the authentic teaching of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which is made know principally either by the chartacter of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated.” LG, 25.
Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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