Catholics are often confused by reports of high churchmen, or even representatives of a Vatican dicastery, who say things that seem contrary to an absolute opposition to the use of contraception.
We’ve recently been hearing statements from some churchmen that sound "soft" on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, but these are only the most recent such statements. They’ve been going on for years.
One of the most well-known cases occurred several decades ago, when nuns in the Congo (which was undergoing civil strife) were permitted to use contraception to prevent pregnancy in case they were raped.
"How can things like this be squared with the Church’s teaching in Humanae Vitae?" many wonder. "Don’t these churchmen recognize that they’re in obvious dissent?"
I think I can shed some light on what they’re thinking, but first I need to issue
THE BIG RED DISCLAIMER: What follows IS NOT TO BE CONSTRUED AS MY PERSONAL OPINION. I am trying to provide a window into the minds of those who make the kinds of disturbing statements described above. I am trying to explain a phenomenon that perplexes orthodox Catholics, NOT expressing my own view. Thankyew.
Let’s look at the Congo nuns story. In that one, the argument was made that it was legitimate for the nuns to use contraception because they did not will the sexual act. It was being imposed on them by force, and so their lack of consent to the sexual act means that they were not consenting EITHER to its unitive OR its procreative aspect.
Thus it is argued that it was just for them to do what they could to avoid the procreative aspects of the act just as much as it was just for them to do what they could to avoid the unitive aspect of the act. The use of contraception, in their case, would constitute a form of legitimate defense against the consequences of an act that were imposed on them, not the frustration of the consequences of an act in which they freely engaged.
At least that was the argument that was made. (SEE HERE AND SCROLL DOWN.)
Now, how could anybody think that this squares with Humanae Vitae? If you look at the translation of Humanae Vitae on the Vatican web site, it clearly says:
Similarly excluded is 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 (HV 14).
This is very blunt. It precludes doing anything before, during, or after sexual intercourse that would thwart procreation. No exceptions are made for whether the act of sexual intercourse is willed by both parties or whether it is an act of rape.
Unfortunately, this passage contains a mistranslation.
Here’s the Latin original:
Item quivis respuendus est actus, qui, cum coniugale commercium vel praevidetur vel efficitur vel ad suos naturales exitus ducit, id tamquam finem obtinendum aut viam adhibendam intendat, ut procreatio impediatur.
I’ve highlighted the words that the English translation gives as "sexual intercourse." Even if you don’t have a background in Latin, the meaning of these words is pretty clear via their cognates in English. They literally mean "conjugal commerce" or–to make them slightly more idiomatic–"marital exchange."
In any event, they don’t mean simply "sexual intercourse." They mean a specific kind of sexual intercourse: Sexual intercourse which is conjugal or between married persons.
This understanding of the Latin is reflected in the English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (also on the Vatican’s web site), which quotes this same passage from Humanae Vitae and renders the (highlighted) Latin phrase more accurately:
CCC 2370 Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, "every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" is intrinsically evil.
Now, it’s easy to gloss over the word "conjugal" and interpret it as simply meaning "sexual," but that is not its meaning. It really does mean "marital."
And that sheds light on some of the mystifying statements that get made by churchmen and theologians that seem soft on the use of contraception.
In the case of the Congo nuns, for example, they weren’t married to the people who were likely to rape them and so for them using contraception would not be an "action which . . . in anticipation of the conjugal act . . . proposes . . . to render procreation impossible." There could be no conjugal act for these nuns because they were not married.
It’s kind of eye-opening when you realize that, as Humanae Vitae 14 is worded, it is condemning the use of contraception within marriage and not really going into its use outside of marriage, but the entire framework to which Paul VI is addressing himself is to "the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage," and he does not address the question of whether the principles he is articulating also apply to sexual relations outside of marriage.
The same tends to be true of other Church documents. The framework in which contraception is addressed tends to be marital: If you look in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, the discussion of contraception occurs under the major subhead "The Love of Husband and Wife" and under the minor subhead "The fecundity of marriage."
Contraception is not mentioned at all in the sections on adultery and fornication and other forms of extra-marital sexuality.
This is the pattern in Church documents: They tend to condemn contraception in connection with marital sex, but they don’t mention it when it comes to extra-marital sex.
The reason for this, I assume, is that the folks at the Vatican are waiting for doctrinal development to occur on this point, and so they’re staying closed-mouth about how contraception relates to extra-marital sex. Either that or they (some of them) don’t want to appear to be saying, "If you’re going to fornicate, at least take precautions," which would have the effect of encouraging fornication.
Now, as I said THE ABOVE DOES NOT REPRESENT MY PERSONAL OPINION. I would be happy if B16 or a future pope issued an encyclical that said "All of the principles contained in Humanae Vitae 14 apply to extra-marital sex as well as marital sex."
But this does shed light on some statements that otherwise mystify orthodox Catholics who want to fully accept the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.