Excerpts on Family Planning from the NEW LEADER 1972/1973

by John Wijngaards

New Leader 12-11-1972

….. However, it would be altogether wrong to assume, as some have done in the past, that total abstention is the only, or only correct, means of birth control for a Christian. The reason for this lies in the function of the marriage act itself. The purpose of the act of marriage is not only to produce new life, but also to be the expression of the love the one partner feels for the other.

Regarding questions under discussion by the theologians and experts, it is known that secular organisations that promote family planning have introduced a variety of means that directly interfere with conception or fertility. Such contraceptive means are external. To the use of such external means there has always been a strong Christian opposition. The reason is that these measures seem to interfere with life itself. It was generally acknowledged by moral theology of the past that these external interferences could, however, become legitimate if they were unavoidable and a necessary consequence of another good action.

Since the last fifteen years renewed discussion on this point has been opened. The commission to study Catholic family planning called for by Pope Paul VI after the Vatican Council and consisting of experts from all over the world, was seriously divided over the question whether external means of contraception are always forbidden to the Christian. In fact the majority of theologians and experts of the commission brought out a report in which they urged a reconsideration of the present practise.


There are a variety of reasons for this new option. First, however good periodical abstinence maybe, it does not seem to solve everyone’s problem. Secondly, it is not so clear what constitutes an interference with nature and what does not. Some theologians will argue that God has given human beings the right to rule their own bodies according to their own reason. That is why, for instance, we can have ourselves operated on, shave or cut our hair or bind our feet to remain small as was the custom for Chinese women. We are constantly interfering with our body by taking medicines and pills to regulate our chemical make-up. Why then, they argue, are we not allowed to regulate our fertility by taking a pill? From a theological point of view the question indeed is very difficult to answer.

In his encyclical “Humanae Vitae” Pope Paul VI expressed his view against these new theological opinions. Stating explicitly that he did not want to decide the matter as an infallible teaching, but that he was merely giving his own personal guidance, the Pope left open the possibility of a different point of view.

This has indeed taken place. Quite a few bishops and hierarchies all over the world have explicitly stated that in this matter they are not excluding another theological point of view than the one defended by Pope Paul. It is clear that on both sides, both with the more conservative and the progressive theologians the same values of marriage are at stake. But in their application of these values to contraceptive means there is a kind of deadlock which can only be resolved by future discussion and reflection.

As in all moral problems, we have to distinguish here the objective external standard and the individual decision of the person. While theologians and shepherds in the Church are studying the objective external standard by which external contraceptives have to be judged, the individual parents of today will have to make their own decision. They should be guided by principles of Catholic marriage, of respect for life and supernatural love, values that are accepted by all.

John Wijngaards

New Leader 21-1-1973

Recent letters in your weekly and some personal encounters force me to speak out once more on the question of Humanae Vitae.

The authority of Humanae Vitae

I pointed out on December the 10th that “Humani Generis” clearly states that encyclicals are NOT infallible.

Father A.Gomes wrote to say that I misquoted “Humani Generis” (December 24th). He interprets the phrase regarding the limited teaching value of encyclicals as the subjective opinion of a possible opponent. As a Latinist he should know that Latin cum can both mean “because” and “although”, and is always followed by the subjunctive. From a syntactical point of view Father Gomes’ interpretation is also possible (a fact I had overlooked), but in the light of the total argument of the Holy Father it is more likely to accept cum as concessivum namely: “Although in them the popes do not exercise their authority to the full, yet encyclicals claim authority”.

My quotation (December 10) was based on the official translation of the Catholic Truth Society of England which says : “Nor is it to be supposed that the position advanced in an encyclical does not, ipso facto, claim assent. In writing them, it is true, the popes do not exercise their teaching to the full” (CTS, London 1950, number 20). This is also the interpretation of an eminent author such as P.Harris (“On human life”, London, Burns & Oats, 1968, p.88).

However, by all this hair-splitting argumentation we allow ourselves to be side tracked from the real issue involved. We are concerned here with the very serious matter of decision of conscience to be made by Catholic couples, a decision that affects their very life or death in grace. I know that this decision should not be made light-heartedly and that the guidance of the Church has to be followed and presumed right, unless reason and necessity forces us to a different position. At the same time when guiding some such couples we are responsible before God that we do not bar anyone from the sacraments who could be saved by them. We may not impute mortal sin or impose factual excommunication on anyone unless we are absolutely certain that we are right. Not only people’s happiness on earth but their eternal salvation is at stake.

Seen from this angle we have to admit in all fairness that there are at present two possible opinions in the Church. Apart from the guidelines of Pope Paul in HV, there is another valid opinion in the Church explicitly recognised by at least ten national hierarchies (Austria; Belgium; Canada; East Germany; France; Indonesia; The Netherlands; Scandinavia; Switzerland; Germany) and supported by prominent theologians (for instance K.Rahner and B.Häring).

The opposing view is, therefore, strong enough to be a true “probable opinion” in the terminology of classical moral theology. According to the principles of moral theology we are bound in conscience to allow our penitents to follow either of these two opinions, in harmony with the sincere conviction of their own conscience.

I respect the view of those who simply want to abide by “Humane Vitae”. I share with everyone genuine concern about authority and obedience in the Church. But it gets on my nerves when a more thoughtful approach to the encyclical is automatically branded as a rejection of papal authority or of authority in general. This all the more so if some of these “champions of authority” think nothing of trampling under foot such outspoken values as co-responsibility, dialogue, ecumenism, freedom of conscience, lay involvement and adaptation to the times.

I firmly believe and accept the teaching authority of the Church, both of the Holy Father, the bishops and the whole Church as stated in the Council decrees. At the same time I hold with Vatican II that true loyalty demands “mature freedom” with the duty to “urgently expose the needs of the flock” (Presbyterium Ordinis, no.15), and that “within the limits of morality and general welfare, a person be free to search for the truth, voice his mind and publicise it” (Gaudium et Spes, no.59). In the light of the particular history of “Humanae Vitae” and the anguish of many souls, it may be greater loyalty to speak out than to allow many sincere persons to drift away from God and the Church. If each one of us should take seriously “who hears you, hears me” (Lk 10,16), should we not be equally anxious not to “close heaven for others”? (Mt 23,13).

John Wijngaards

Read also: The Impact of Humanae Vitae. First published in The Making of Moral Theology, A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition, The Martin D’Arcy Memorial Lectures1981-2.Published by the Clarendon Press. Oxford (1989)