July 2018 Print

Fifty Years Later--Can the Pope Authorize Birth Control?

Can the Pope Authorize Birth Control?

by Fr. Bernard de Lacoste

When Pope Paul VI published the encyclical Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968, one might have thought it would be the final word on the morality of birth control. On the contrary, there were many, many priests and bishops who refused to follow the encyclical’s conclusions and taught their faithful that birth control is morally permitted in some cases. Fifty years later, the debate is as hot as ever. Does Pope Francis have the power to modify Humanae Vitae and thus allow the use of artificial means that prevent the conjugal act from resulting in fertilization?

Can It Be Undone?

What has been done by one pope can be undone by another pope, they say. If Paul VI forbade birth control, why couldn’t Francis authorize it? To answer this question correctly, we have to consider that the pope has the power to modify purely ecclesiastical laws, for example, the law that imposes fasting on Ash Wednesday, but he does not have any power over divine law, be it revealed or natural. Indeed, the author of this law is God, and therefore, no human authority can modify it or grant a dispensation from it.1 For example, it is this law that forbids killing an innocent or lying. No pope has the power to allow killing an innocent or lying. Is the law against birth control a purely ecclesiastical law or is it part of the natural law?

Let us take a close look at what exactly birth control is: to facilitate the preservation of the individual, the Creator joined a certain pleasure to nutrition. In the same way, to facilitate the preservation of the human race, the Creator joined a certain pleasure to the conjugal act. Without the pleasure involved in eating, human beings would let themselves waste away. In the same way, without the pleasure involved in reproduction, the human race would have disappeared a long time ago. The pagans of ancient Rome separated eating from the pleasure it offered. When they could eat no more, they would go to the vomitorium to empty their stomachs of their contents, so they could continue eating. They sought the pleasure of eating, but excluded its natural end which is nourishment. In the same way, Onanist couples—that is, those who use birth control—seek the pleasure of the conjugal act, but exclude its natural end, which is procreation. Birth control thus goes directly against the natural law. It is a mortal sin because it prevents a new human life, which is a grave matter. Thus, spouses that use a condom or the pill or who practice withdrawal to interrupt the act, make themselves guilty of a grave sin.

The Angelic Doctor Weighs-In

St. Thomas Aquinas explains2 why contraception is contrary to natural law: he recalls that the emission of the male semen is ordained to generation. If the emission of this semen is done in such a way that it cannot result in generation, then this goes against the end and the good of the semen. But as this semen is a part of the man, this goes against the good of the man. And if it is done intentionally, it is a sin that goes against nature. And the holy doctor concludes: “After the sin of homicide, whereby a human nature already in existence is destroyed, this type of sin appears to take the next place, for by it the generation of human nature is precluded.”

Note that sometimes the conjugal act cannot end in procreation for reasons independent of the spouses. This is the case, for example, when one of the spouses is sterile. The conjugal act remains perfectly licit because is it conducted naturally. If it does not result in a fertilization, it is because of a natural cause, and not because of an intervention on the part of the spouses. This is not birth control.

As we have just seen, reason can demonstrate that birth control goes against the natural and divine law, but this is also what the Church has always taught. In 1853, the Holy See was consulted on the morality of birth control. The answer was clear: “It is intrinsically evil.”3 In other words, if contraception is immoral, it is not just because the ecclesiastical legislator has forbidden it—in this case it would be extrinsically evil—but because its very nature contains a grave disorder. In the encyclical Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI wrote in 1930: “Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”

The Teaching of Pius XII

And Pope Pius XII, in a speech on October 29, 1951, said: “Every attempt of either husband or wife in the performance of the conjugal act or in the development of its natural consequences which aims at depriving it of its inherent force and hinders the procreation of new life is immoral; and that no “indication” or need can convert an act which is intrinsically immoral into a moral and lawful one. This precept is in full force today, as it was in the past, and so it will be in the future also, and always, because it is not a simple human whim, but the expression of a natural and divine law.”

Some will object that this morality is completely outdated. It is true that it is not consistent with the mentality of our times. We live in an atmosphere of pleasure and egoism. It is therefore only normal for birth control to be so widespread. If we consider that the first end of marriage is the personal satisfaction of the spouses, then the law of God and of the Church does indeed seem unbearable. But if we understand that the sacrament of marriage was instituted primarily for the procreation and education of children, then it is birth control that becomes unbearable: it locks the spouses up in their selfishness instead of opening them to life.

Others will remark that sometimes certain spouses find themselves in dramatic situations. A new birth would be tragic and perfect continence is impossible or risks endangering their conjugal love. We answer with St. Paul that God never tempts us beyond our strength. To spouses who pray and make sacrifices, God always grants the grace they need to live their marriage vows in a Christian way. Pope Pius XII also explained4 that periodic continence is authorized for grave medical, economic, social or eugenic reasons. In these situations, spouses can licitly limit the conjugal act to days when the wife is sterile.

We must therefore conclude that the law against birth control is not a purely ecclesiastic law that can be modified, but that it is indeed a natural law with God for its author. It is therefore immutable and eternal. If a pope were to authorize such a practice that goes against nature, his decision would be null and void.


1 St. Thomas, quodlibet 4, art. 13: “The pope does not have the power to dispense from the divine or natural law.”

2 Contra Gentes, book I, ch. 122.

3 Answer from the Holy Office, April 6, 1853.

4 Address to Midwives, October 29, 1951.