This new attack on Humanae Vitae is either ignorant or disingenuous

Blessed Paul VI on copies of the Vatican newspaper prior to his beatification Mass in 2014 (CNS)

The UK-based Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research has released a ‘Catholic Scholars’ Statement on the Ethics of Using Contraceptives’. It says that “there are no grounds, either from the Bible or from nature, to support current Catholic teaching” on contraception.

Catholic theology being a fairly small world, I’m good friends with several of the signatories (and Facebook ones with rather more). During recent ill health, one prominent signee sent me a lovely message of prayers and good wishes; I once shared an office with another.

Still, as Aristotle pointed out long ago, when pleasing friends and pursuing truth come into conflict, it is the latter which must take precedent.

I’ve no intention here of offering a full, point-by-point critique of the Wijngaards statement (which is, in fact, only the summary of a promised longer text). But let me make three brief observations.

The first is simply to say that, well, “Some Catholic scholars disregard the Magisterium” hasn’t exactly constituted “news” for some decades. Nor, for that matter, is it surprising that the Wijngaards Institute – whose self-proclaimed “full independence from external pressures” evidently includes the norms and constraints of Catholic theology – should promote a view explicitly at odds with the established teaching of the Church. From its website, that would appear to be almost its sole raison d’être.

Nonetheless, if it’s international collections of scholars commenting on the rectitude and relevance of Humanae Vitae you’re after, then other providers are indeed available. (Like, say, this recent gathering of philosophers, theologians, sociologists, economists, lawyers, and biochemists – all under fifty, and several of them converts.)

Secondly, the Wijngaards statement (see §6) trades a great deal on the assertion that the Church’s opposition to artificial modes of contraception (the statement itself insists on putting “artificial” in inverted commas, as though the artificiality of either plastic sheaths or fertility-disrupting doses of hormones was an urban myth) has not been taught infallibly. Now, the infallibleness or not of a given teaching is a technical matter beyond my direct concern here – and on this precise matter, I have seen the case argued both ways. But for the sake of argument, suppose we conceded the point: the substance of HV is not infallible in the same sense that the Immaculate Conception is. Well, so what?

This imagined dichotomy between “infallible” and “theological free-for-all”, which one sees depressingly often, strikes me as the reddest of herrings. Sorry to go all “Vatican II” on you, but infallible or not, the sheer fact that something is taught by the Magisterium is a very strong, prima-facie argument in its favour (see Dei Verbum 10, among others). Furthermore, this particular teaching has been consistently taught by the Church since ancient times – and indeed was taught by pretty much every church until essentially, in the words of Mary Eberstadt, “the day before yesterday”. So simply to say, as does the Wijngaards statement, that “The Catholic Church’s ban on using ‘artificial’ contraceptives for the purpose of family planning is based on the arguments advanced in the 1968 encyclical letter Humanae Vitae”, is at best historically myopic, and at worst wildly disingenuous.

Thirdly and finally, in what looks, on the surface, to be a detailed engagement with the minutiae of Humanae Vitae, it is noteworthy that article 17 of that short document is passed over in total silence. For that is where Blessed Paul VI – he of “humble and prophetic witness” (h/t Pope Francis) fame – makes three predictions for the future if artificial contraception becomes the accepted norm. These are: i) the widespread prevalence (and acceptance) of infidelity and family breakdown; ii) the unremitting degradation and objectification of women; and iii) governments and other “public authorities” being unable to resist using these new methods and technologies for outrightly eugenic ends. Now, it strikes me that a persuasive case could be made that Pope Paul was stone-cold correct on all three points. And in fact it has been, several times (not least here).

(Incidentally, of relevance to the third point, I recently came across a truly remarkable article, by two University of Pennsylvania sociologists, showing in exhaustive detail that the volte-face on contraception by many American Protestant churches in the early twentieth century was precisely, and explicitly, due to fears about degenerate immigrants from southern Europe – i.e., Catholics – weakening the American gene pool.)

Anyway, that will have to do for now. Among other reasons, the principal fruits of my own “openness to life” – aged two and five – have some legitimate claims to my attentions.

But fear not. There is just under two years to go until the fiftieth anniversary of Blessed Paul’s seventh encyclical. (It was also his last, having – as I like to say – perfected the genre.) And I dare say that I will have occasion to say much more on the subject between now and then.

After all, what are friends for?