Nearly 50 years after the “prophetic” papal document Humanae Vitae, the Catholic Church’s longstanding teaching against contraception continues to promote the human good, said a group of Catholic thinkers on Tuesday.
“We hold that Catholic teaching respects the true dignity of the
human person and is conducive to happiness,” said hundreds of Catholic
scholars in a Sept. 20 document.
“Humanae Vitae speaks against the distorted view of human sexuality
and intimate relationships that many in the modern world promote.
Humanae Vitae was prophetic when it listed some of the harms that would
result from the widespread use of contraception,” they said.
More than 500 Catholic scholars with doctoral degrees in theology,
medicine, law and other fields have signed the document in support of
Catholic teaching, titled “Affirmation of the Catholic Church’s Teaching
on the Gift of Sexuality.”
Signatories of the document included Fr. Wojciech Giertych O.P., the
theologian of the papal household; John H. Garvey, president of Catholic
University of America; Tracey Rowland, Dean of the John Paul II
Institute for Marriage & Family in Melbourne, Australia; Sister
Prudence Allen, philosophy professor at St. John Vianney Seminary in
Denver; Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., academic dean of the Pontifical Faculty
of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in
Washington, D.C.; and Helen M. Alvaré, law professor at George Mason
The scholars charged that a new U.K.-based statement opposing Church
teaching “offers nothing new to discussions about the morality of
contraception and, in fact, repeats the arguments that the Church has
rejected and that numerous scholars have engaged and refuted since
The statement in question, organized by the U.K.-based Wijngaards
Institute, claims there are “no grounds” for Catholic teaching against
contraception. It questioned the idea that openness to procreation is
inherent to the significance of sexual intercourse, and said that “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.”
Abortion-causing methods of contraception should “ordinarily be
avoided,” but can be accepted if “there is a proportionate reason for
doing otherwise,” the Wijngaards statement said. It credited access to
contraceptives for “substantial increases in women’s education and
contribution to the common good” and said the benefits of contraception
include easier family planning, a substantial decrease in maternal
morbidity and mortality, infant and child mortality, and abortion.
The Wijngaards statement was set to be presented at a meeting hosted
at the United Nations Sept. 20 to “encourage the Catholic hierarchy to
reverse their stance against so called ‘artificial’ contraceptives,” the
Organizers of the Wijngaards statement said they would promote their
claims to Catholic Church officials, ordinary Catholics and “opinion
leaders,” including bishops, priests, religious sisters, management and
medical staff of Catholic health care facilities, Catholic social
workers, and Catholic journalists. They said they would also promote
their claims and theological materials to “all U.N. departments and
development agencies who are trying to navigate the relationship between
religious belief and women’s health as they work towards the U.N.
Sustainable Development Goals.”
The Wijngaards Institute was founded in 1983 by Catholic priest John
N. M. Wijngaards, who was later laicized. His writings question Catholic
teaching on masturbation, homosexuality and abortion. He also wrote a
novel that promises “to liberate you from outdated Catholic sexual
Besides Wijngaards, the 138 Catholic signers of the dissenting
document include Mary McAleese, the past president of the Republic of
Ireland; Peter Steinfels, former New York Times religion columnist and
founding co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture;
Georgetown University religion and international affairs professor John
Esposito; Georgetown University professor of Catholic Social thought
Peter Phan; Fairfield University religious studies professor Paul
Lakeland; emeritus Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney Geoffrey Robinson; and
Baroness Helena Kennedy, a member of the United Kingdom’s House of
Another signatory is Prof Charles E. Curran, a former Catholic
University of America theology professor who played a key role in
dissent from Humanae Vitae. Two Creighton University professors, Michael
G. Lawler and Todd Salzmann, were among the statement’s 22 authors.
Blessed Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirmed the
traditional Christian rejection of contraception and said it applied to
the birth control pill. The move drew significant opposition from
non-Catholics and from some within the Church who had been campaigning
against Church teaching.
The Catholic Church holds that sex is designed by God to be both
unitive and procreative, and that attempting to separate these two
aspects of human sexuality through artificial contraception is immoral.
Normally, if a married couple faces a just reason to avoid pregnancy,
the Church teaches that they may do so through Natural Family Planning,
a process that works with a woman’s natural fertile cycles and
abstaining from sexual activity during the times that she is fertile.
In their counter-document, the 500 Catholic scholars maintained that
Church teaching is “true and defensible” on the basis of Scripture and
reason. They described Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross as “the
ultimate and complete self-gift” linked to the biblical spousal imagery
of Christ and the Church.
They charged that the Wijngaards statement’s authors “virtually
ignored” the work of St. John Paul II and his Theology of the Body.
“There he demonstrates that our very bodies have a language and a
‘spousal meaning’ – that they express the truth that we are to be in
loving and fruitful relationships with others,” the Catholic scholars
said in their document.
Human sexual relations fulfill God's intent only when they “respect
the procreative meaning of the sexual act” and take place as a “complete
gift of self” within marriage, they continued.
The Church asks the faithful to “deepen their relationship” with God,
to be open to the direction of the Holy Spirit, and to ask Jesus Christ
to “provide the graces needed to live in accord with God’s will for
their married lives, even the difficult moral truths.”
“The widespread use of contraception appears to have contributed
greatly to the increase of sex outside of marriage, to an increase of
unwed pregnancies, abortion, single parenthood, cohabitation, divorce,
poverty, the exploitation of women, declining marriage rates, as well as
to declining population growth in many parts of the world,” the
Catholic document said.
Critics of the Wijngaards statement said they would issue a more
detailed response in a forthcoming text called “Self-gift: the heart of
The 1968 revolt against “Humanae Vitae” followed several years of
global lobbying and organizing by wealthy foundations involved in
population control and other forms of birth control advocacy.
Donald T. Critchlow, in his 1999 Oxford University Press book
“Intended Consequences: Birth Control, Abortion, and the Federal
Government in Modern America,” said that in the 1960s, the wealthy heir
John D. Rockefeller III and others within the foundation community were
“astutely aware of the importance of changing the Catholic Church’s
position on birth control.”
They saw a series of meetings at the University of Notre Dame from
1963 to 1967 as an opportunity to ally with Catholic leaders who could
“help change opinion within the hierarchy,” Critchlow said. These
meetings, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford
Foundation, brought together selected Catholic leaders to meet with
leaders of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the
Population Council, as well as with leaders in the two foundations.