Father Maurizio Chiodi, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, recently gave a speech at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome defending the use of contraception.
Father Chiodi’s address, entitled “Rereading Humanae Vitae in the Light of Amoris Laetitia,” was given at a conference dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth). Does this portend a doctrinal push similar to what we’ve seen on the matter of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried? If we look at the speech in the light of two other recent Vatican events, the answer is unavoidable.
The first is the revelation that Pope Francis has established a new birth-control commission on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. The commission’s charge is to “reinterpret” the encyclical’s teaching “in the light of Amoris Laetitia.” Heading the four-man commission is Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo, a bitter critic of Paul VI’s great encyclical. In 2015, in the magazine Vatican Insider, Msgr. Marengo suggested “abandoning a conception of doctrinal patrimony of the Church as a closed system, impermeable to questions and provocations of the here and now.”
From what he said later, we see he includes within this “closed system” the teaching of Humanae Vitae. In an address in March 2017, entitled “Humanae Vitae and Amoris Laetitia,” Msgr. Marengo stated:
“Every time the Christian community falls into error and proposes models of life derived from too abstract and artificially constructed theological ideals, it conceives its pastoral action as the schematic application of a doctrinal paradigm.”
This is what happened, he says, with Humanae Vitae: It “presented a too abstract theological ideal on marriage, almost artificially constructed, far from the concrete situation and the effective possibilities of families as they really are.” So says the priest chosen to head the commission charged with rereading Humanae Vitae.
Second, last September, the Holy See announced that the once-great John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family was being redesigned into a new institute for “Marriage and Family Sciences,” with the specific charge of carrying forward the reasoning of Amoris Laetitia. Its president, Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, is also no friend of Humanae Vitae.
Edward Pentin, the Register’s Rome correspondent, recently reported that Msgr. Sequeri wrote an introduction for a new book, Amoris Laetitia: A Turning Point for Moral Theology, which argues that Amoris Laetitia represents a “paradigm shift for all moral theology and especially in interpreting Humanae Vitae.” Msgr. Sequeri is also a member of Pope Francis’ four-man commission.
Returning to Father Chiodi’s “rereading” of Humanae Vitae, the papal theologian begins by saying that although the norm against contraception taught in Humanae Vitae “officially” remains in place, the bishops of the Church “seem to be very embarrassed” by it, which is why we see that the “pastoral urgency” of the contraception question “has been diminishing.” What light, Father Chiodi asks, can Amoris Laetitia shed on the actual application of that norm?
He argues we find “two theoretical nodes” in Chapter 8 of the document that assist us in answering this question. The first is “the objective relevance of extenuating circumstances,” and the second is “the subjective responsibility of conscience.” I will consider here only the first — “circumstances.”
How do “circumstances” help us understand the relevance of Humanae Vitae’s teaching to the family-planning decisions of ordinary Catholics? We understand that sometimes it’s just not possible for couples to conform their behavior to the teaching of Humanae Vitae. Many find themselves “in the tangle of human affairs … in many difficult situations.” They struggle to see how an “objective system of morality” applies to their concrete situation. And so, “escaping the absolute opposition between good and evil,” they seek “the path” that leads to the “possible good.” Sometimes this means choosing natural family planning (NFP). But natural methods reveal a purpose that “transcends” the methods themselves — namely, “responsible procreation.” Therefore:
“In situations where natural methods are impossible or impracticable, other forms of responsibility need to be found. Under such ‘circumstances,’ responsibility requires other methods for the regulation of birth [i.e., contraception]. In these cases, the ‘technological’ intervention does not deny the responsibility of the generating relationship, just as a conjugal relationship that observes natural methods is not automatically responsible.”
He concludes that using contraception might be precisely what responsible procreation requires of us. Thus, in light of the higher truth to which NFP points, abandoning natural methods in favor of contraception would not be unfaithful to the magisterium because NFP was never “an end in itself,” but, rather, a means “to preserving the responsible quality of the sexual act,” which under such “circumstances,” he thinks, contraceptive choices better realize.
Although he scrupulously avoids using the term, Father Chiodi’s reasoning here is proportionalist through and through: If we determine that it is “impossible or impractical” to conform our behavior to some objective moral norm taught by the Church — such as the one that prohibits “any action which, either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation, whether as an end or as a means” (Humanae Vitae, 14) — then we are not bound by that norm. Father Chiodi never says how we determine whether obedience to a norm is “impossible or impractical.”
Although the cleric presents his form of reasoning as new and pastorally farsighted and a great improvement over the “rigidity” of traditional Catholic morality, it is in fact an age-old method for justifying evildoing for the sake of achieving good — reasoning that’s been rejected by the Church countless times over the centuries, beginning with St. Paul in Romans 3:8.
Pope John Paul II condemned this form of reasoning in Veritatis Splendor, precisely because it leads to the justification of actions traditionally condemned as evil by the divine laws and natural laws and so by the Church:
“Such theories are not faithful to the Church’s teaching, when they believe they can justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behavior contrary to the commandments of the divine and natural law. These theories cannot claim to be grounded in the Catholic moral tradition” (76).
E. Christian Brugger is a moral theologian who writes from Jacksonville, Florida.