Vatican Academy for Life sparks debate over infallibility of ‘Humanae Vitae’

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ROME — Over the past few days, the Vatican’s supreme body on life issues has caused a stir in the digital world for arguing that one of the Church’s most influential and controversial magisterial documents over the of the last century is not covered by papal infallibility.

The wider debate began last month with the publication by the Pontifical Academy for Life of a new volume entitled, Theological ethics of life. Scripture, tradition, practical challengeswhich includes papers presented at an academy-sponsored conference last year.


Upon its release, the volume was criticized for contributions by some theologians who argued for a distinction between moral standards, such as the Church’s condemnation of artificial birth control, and the practical pastoral application of those standards.

In the book, some theologians seemed to suggest that in certain limited circumstances, couples might be justified in choosing artificial contraception or artificial reproductive methods.

The academy defended the volume, saying its role as a pontifical academy is to facilitate dialogue among the best theological thinkers of the day on contemporary issues of key interest. Critics, however, argued that it was inappropriate for an official Vatican entity to include voices questioning some of the Church’s fundamental moral teachings.

Debate erupted again over the weekend over a tweet sent from the official Twitter account of the Pontifical Academy for Life claiming that Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae – which reinforced the church’s teachings on marriage and upheld its condemnation of artificial contraception – was not covered by the doctrine of papal infallibility, meaning it may be subject to change.

One of the most controversial doctrines of the Catholic Church, papal infallibility insists that the pope, in speaking ex cathedra, is preserved from error when teaching on matters of faith and morals.

In its Aug. 6 tweet, the Academy argued that Humanae Vitae, and therefore its teachings, do not fall under papal infallibility, and that this was affirmed by Bishop Ferdinando Lambruschini during the press conference of July 29, 1968 presenting the encyclical to the press. Lambruschini was a moral theologian who taught at the Pontifical Lateran University.

In response to the backlash to their August 6 tweet, the Academy issued a statement on Twitter on Monday defending the publication of last month’s volume and reiterating their assertion that Humanae Vitae was not covered by papal infallibility, but the tweet containing this statement was later deleted.

Since Humanae Vitae first appeared in 1968, there has been active debate over exactly what level of authority it possesses and, by implication, whether one can oppose it and still be a good Catholic.

In general, conservative theologians say no, insisting that the simple fact that the birth control ban has never been officially declared infallible does not mean that it is not.

They point out that such statements are usually reserved for matters of faith, not morals – for example, the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary, the only examples of formal assertions of infallibility in the 150 years – and that just because no pope has ever proclaimed the church’s moral teachings against lying or stealing as “infallible” doesn’t mean they’re up for grabs.

In 1997, a Vatican office called the birth control ban “definitive and irreformable.”

Liberal theologians, on the other hand, insist that there has been no pope since Paul VI wanted to declare Humanae Vitae infallible as he could have been, but no one did.

They also point out that a 1998 apostolic letter from John Paul II titled Ad Tuendam Fidem, expanding the scope of infallibility to include the “ordinary and universal magisterium”, i.e. something taught by popes and bishops even without solemn declaration, did not refer to contraception, and a comment from accompaniment of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.

The status of Humanae Vitaetherefore, is still widely disputed, and if this latest digital dust with the Pontifical Academy for Life is any indication, it likely will be for some time to come.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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