Where do the Vatican authorities really stand on contraception?

A recent book, Theological ethics of life: scripture, tradition, practical challenges, edited by the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, has raised new concerns about the adherence of the current Vatican authorities to key moral teachings of the Church.

The book, published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana, collects the proceedings of an interdisciplinary study seminar promoted by the Pontifical Academy for Life. Archbishop Paglia, well known for his dissenting views on the Church’s teachings on sexual ethics, explained that the seminar was aimed at:

“opening a dialogue between … different opinions, including on controversial topics, offering many points for discussion. So the perspective is that of rendering a service to the Magisterium, opening up a space in which to speak that makes research possible and encourages it. This is how we interpret the role of the Academy.” 

The discussion, according to Paglia, would take place in a manner analogous to the traditional dialectic form of quaestiones disputatae (“disputed questions”): “to put forward a thesis and open it up to debate”, in the hope that the debate might thereby lead to “glimpses of new paths, in order to advance theological bioethics.”

The debate which the book promises to open appears to concern artificial contraception and fertilisation — for example, regarding “conditions and practical circumstances” that could make it permissible to resort to contraceptive techniques, while excluding techniques that are abortifacient.

According to Catholic moral teaching, as reaffirmed in the encyclical Humanae vitae (nº 14), any use of artificial birth control is intrinsically wrong. Attempts to “open the debate” on such fundamental moral teachings of the Church, can serve only to threaten her key teachings on marriage and on its primary end: the procreation and education of children.

Archbishop Paglia indicates in the foreword of the new volume that the study was prompted by the many solicitations made by Pope Francis in his speeches and documents to theologians: 

“So we asked ourselves, are we really listening to the teaching of Pope Francis? Are we taking his words seriously in a systematic way, and not just using some of his singular expressions outside the context of his overall reflection? Are we examining the implications that his considerations have for theological thought? If we consider Evangelii gaudiumLaudato si’Amoris laetitia, and Veritatis gaudium in this perspective, we realise that the proposals contained therein open up a new horizon for theology and for the task of theologians, with a strong emphasis on dialogue and the mutual enrichment between different types of knowledge.”

Heeding Archbishop Paglia’s call to examine Pope Francis’s words and actions in the context of his pontificate, it is worth revisiting some of the previous concerns which have been raised regarding the Holy Father’s assent to the teaching of the Catholic Church on questions of sexual ethics. This list, first published by Voice of the Family in February 2017, is not intended to be exhaustive, but only to signal the direction of the pope’s thinking based on the evidence of which we are aware. 


5 March 2014 — Pope Francis is interviewed by Corriere della sera. He is asked “At half a century from Paul VI’s Humanae vitae, can the Church take up again the theme of birth control? Cardinal Martini, your confrère, thought that the moment had come.” In his reply Pope Francis stresses that “Paul VI himself, at the end, recommended to confessors much mercy, and attention to concrete situations”. The pope also stated that “the question is not that of changing the doctrine but of going deeper and making pastoral [ministry] take into account the situations and that which it is possible for people to do.” The full implications of these words became clearer during the two year synodal process which followed.

13 October 2014 — The heterodox relatio post disceptationem of the Extraordinary Synod is published, after having received the personal approval of Pope Francis. This document adopts an ambiguous approach towards contraception, and an approach to conscience and the natural law which undermines the Church’s moral teachings. The alternation between orthodox restatements of Catholic doctrine and ambiguous and erroneous statements is followed in all succeeding synodal documents.

19 October 2014 — The final report of the Extraordinary Synod makes the approach of the above relatio its own. The treatment of contraception and the natural law is examined in more detail in Voice of the Family’s analysis of the document.

16 January 2015 — Pope Francis makes reference to Humanae vitae in an address to families in the Phillipines, once more laying emphasis not on the central doctrine of the encyclical but on his contention that Paul VI “was very merciful towards particular cases, and he asked confessors to be very merciful and understanding in dealing with particular cases. But he also had a broader vision: he looked at the peoples of the earth and he saw this threat of families being destroyed for lack of children.” The implication of this passage, especially in light of the comments of 19 January below, is that contraception might be tolerated in particular cases, and that the Church’s teaching is a “broader vision” or ideal. This would be reflected in the “gradualism” adopted in the synod documents and in Amoris laetitia.

19 January 2015 — Pope Francis, during a press conference on his return flight from Manila, tells journalists that the encyclical letter Humanae vitae, was not about “personal problems, for which he then told confessors to be merciful and understand the situation and forgive, to be understanding and merciful” but rather about “the universal Neo-Malthusianism that was in progress”. Thus, he frames Humanae vitae not as being principally about a universally binding norm but rather as a political response to an ideological movement. During the same press conference he criticises a mother who had eight children by Caeserean section and accuses her of being guilty of “tempting God”. He goes on to say that Catholics should practise “responsible parenthood” and should not “breed like rabbits”.

17 June 2015 — Pope Francis appoints climate scientist Hans Schellnhuber to the Pontifical Academy of Science. Schellnhuber believes that there is a “population problem” and has previously stated that the “carrying capacity of the planet” is “below 1 billion people”. Schellhuber’s positions have been analysed in more detail by Voice of the Family in this article.

18 June 2015 — Pope Francis promulgates the encyclical letter Laudato si endorsing the theory of climate change and the environmentalist agenda. The encyclical makes no direct reference to contraception despite the close interrelationship between the environmental and population control movements. This connection is exemplified by the Vatican’s selection of Hans Schellnhuber and Carolyn Woo, then president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, an American organisation that has funded groups that promote abortion and contraception, to present Laudato si at its launch.

23 June 2015 — The Instrumentum laboris of the Ordinary Synod on the Family is published. This document, which was approved by Pope Francis prior to its release, gravely undermines the Church’s teaching on contraception, and her moral teachings in general. This is explained in detail in Voice of the Family’s analysis of the document. 

10 September 2015 — 65 academics appeal to the fathers of the upcoming Ordinary Synod on the Family to reject “the distortion of Catholic teaching implicit in paragraph 137” of the Instrumentum laboris. They write:

“Paragraph 137 addresses a key document of the modern Magisterium, Humanae vitae, in a way that both calls the force of that teaching into question and proposes a method of moral discernment that is decidedly not Catholic. This approach to discernment contradicts what has hitherto been taught by the Magisterium of the Church about moral norms, conscience, and moral judgment, by suggesting that a well-formed conscience may be in conflict with objective moral norms.”

24 October 2015 — The final report of the Ordinary Synod continues to adopt a gravely problematic approach to the moral law, and to the issue of contraception in particular.

30 November 2015 — Pope Francis asserts, in the context of a question regarding the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV, that there could be a conflict between the fifth and sixth commandments. A German journalist asked:

“Is it not time for the Church to change its position on the matter? To allow the use of condoms to prevent more infections?”

In his response Pope Francis stated:

“Yes, it’s one of the methods. The moral of the Church on this point is found here faced with a perplexity: the fifth or sixth commandment? Defend life, or that sexual relations are open to life?”

In fact there can never be any conflict between the commandments of the decalogue. Pope Francis further implies that the Church’s teaching on this matter is not a priority:

“[T]his question makes me think of one they once asked Jesus: ‘Tell me, teacher, is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Is it obligatory to heal?’ This question, ‘is doing this lawful’ … but malnutrition, the development of the person, slave labor, the lack of drinking water, these are the problems. Let’s not talk about if one can use this type of patch or that for a small wound, the serious wound is social injustice, environmental injustice, injustice that … I don’t like to go down to reflections on such case studies when people die due to a lack of water, hunger, environment … when all are cured, when there aren’t these illnesses, tragedies, that man makes, whether for social injustice or to earn more money, I think of the trafficking of arms, when these problems are no longer there, I think we can ask the question ‘is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’”

10 December 2015 — Cardinal Turkson suggests that the world might be overpopulated and states that “this has been talked about and the Holy Father, on his trip back from the Philippines, also invited people to some form of birth control, because the church has never been against birth control and people spacing out births and all of that”. He later stated that he should have used the term “responsible parenthood” rather than “birth control”.

18 February 2016 — Pope Francis seems to suggest that condoms are a “lesser of two evils” that can be used to prevent the transmission of the Zika virus and again makes the erroneous assertion that there can be “conflict between the fifth and sixth commandments” of the decalogue. He also seems to suggest the question of contraception is a “religious problem” rather than a “human problem”. This incoherent approach to the moral law was anticipated by Voice of the Family, in our analyses of the synodal documents.

19 February 2016 — The Vatican press office confirms that Pope Francis intended to approve the use of condoms in certain cases in his remarks of the previous day.

8 April 2016 — The Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia is promulgated. This document builds on the erroneous approach adopted in the synodal documents towards conscience and the natural law and pursues false approaches to moral theology, including gradualism, situation ethics and fundamental option theory.

1 September 2016 — Pope Francis states that he is “gratified” by the adoption of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is important to note that Goal 3 of the SDGs includes as one of its targets “universal access to sexual and reproductive health” which is a term understood to include contraception and abortion by UN agencies, national governments and international agencies. A few months earlier, on 25 May 2016, Archbishop Jean-Marie Mupendawatu, of the Pontifical Council of Healthcare Workers, made an intervention at the World Health Assembly in Geneva in which he stated, without referring to any reservations, that the Holy See welcomes the SDGs. He specifically welcomed goal 3 saying that it “has 13 targets that are underpinned by universal coverage as the key to the achievement of all the others.”  Goal 3, as stated above, includes a target calling for universal access to “sexual and reproductive health”, that is, access to abortion and contraception. The pope’s assertion that he is “gratified” by goals that will lead to further killing of unborn children threatens to destroy the credibility of the strong statements that he has made in opposition to abortion during his pontificate.

19 September 2016 — Four cardinals write to Pope Francis asking him to resolve five dubia they have about the doctrine of Amoris laetitia. These dubia, which raise questions regarding the nature of conscience and the existence of intrinsic moral evils, are of great relevance to the Church’s teaching on contraception.

24 October 2016 — Pope Francis praises Bernard Häring, a moral theologian and influential Humanae vitae dissenter.  He told the 36th general Congregation that Häring was the “first to start looking for a new way to help moral theology to flourish again” and that “in our day moral theology has made much progress in its reflections and in its maturity”.

14 November 2016 — The four cardinals make the text of the dubia public after Pope Francis informs them that he does not intend to give an answer. The pope’s decision not to explain clearly the meaning of his own text strengthens the common perception that his teaching is deliberately ambiguous and intended to undermine the Catholic faith.

24–28 January 2017 — During the Vatican’s disturbing interference with the internal affairs of the Order of Malta, which is a sovereign entity, Pope Francis asks Fra Matthew Festing to resign as Grand Master of the Order and restores Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager as Grand Chancellor of Malteser International (the humanitarian arm of the Order of Malta). Von Boeselager had been found responsible for programmes that involved the distribution of condoms and abortifacient drugs; Fra Matthew Festing was trying to ensure that Malteser International remained faithful to Catholic teaching. Further to the comprehensive article by the National Catholic Register on the subject, an investigation by the Lepanto Institute found that MI distributed over 100,000 condoms in Burma (Myanmar) in 2005 and 2006; a World Health Organisation report from 2006, entitled Reproductive Health Stakeholder Analysis in Myanmar 2006 included “family planning” among MI’s “areas of expertise”, “contraception” amongst its “activities” and “birth spacing” amongst its “future plans”; the report also stated that MI provided oral contraceptives to 2,500 women in one Burmese township; between 2007 and 2016, MI received substantial grants to continue the distribution of condoms in Burma. 


The examples listed above demonstrate the extent to which the pontificate of Pope Francis has caused widespread doubt and confusion concerning the teaching of the Church on questions relating to moral law, such as contraception. In this hour of great crisis for the Church we must turn to God, with ever greater confidence, doing penance and praying that he will soon manifest His almighty power and deliver His Church from confusion.