Humanae Vitae: Questions of Conscience

Kevin Aldrich - HV4


This is the fourth in a six-part series on Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s profound and heroic 1968 encyclical. The series’ introduction is here. The question of “responsible parenthood” as the Church defines it is taken up here. Questions about the unitive and procreative meanings of sex and why they should not be separated are discussed here.

Two decisions of responsible parenthood

The aim of this essay is to clarify the “question of conscience” spouses need to answer when it comes to responsible parenthood. I will argue that it is a true question of conscience for a couple to decide not to have a child now. On the other hand, I will assert that the choice of what means to choose to use to not have this child, while a serious moral question, is not really a question of conscience. Rightly seen, there is nothing to decide beyond whether the couple will obey the moral law or not.

Responsible parenthood means the on-going judgment of the spouses about whether they should have a child. One reason this judgment, if made, is on-going is that it can change many times during the wife’s fertile years, depending on circumstances. For example, the couple might decide to delay another pregnancy for a full year after the birth of a baby. After that year, they may decide there is no longer a serious reason. Another reason the judgment is on-going is that if the decision is not to have a child, and the means chosen are moral, the will to stick to this decision must be continual, since the couple will want to perform the marital act anyway. They will need to practice the virtue of temperance in regard to this passion and the pleasure of satisfying it.

If a couple wishes to limit their family size, according to Humanae Vitae, they must fulfill two criteria. First, responsible parenthood requires they must take into account God’s plan for marriage and the family. Second, they must consider their duties toward themselves, each other, their family, and society. Another way of putting this is that (1) what they do to space their children must be moral and (2) they must have “just reasons” to act accordingly.


Conscience comes into the decision to limit family size because the decision is moral. Conscience is a person’s judgment of reason. It is one’s reason sitting in judgment over one’s acts, concluding that they are either morally right or morally wrong.

Reason makes its judgment according to the moral law. Reason does not decide what the moral law is. Reason discovers it and agrees with it.

To illustrate—when it comes to directly killing an innocent person, conscience does not decide whether it is right or wrong to kill an innocent person. If one’s reason is not warped, it simply sees that the moral law prohibits this. It is always wrong. What is the role of conscience then? Legitimate questions and decisions of conscience are of the following kind:

• Am I planning to kill an innocent person? If yes, then I am planning a wrong action.
• Am I in the process of killing an innocent person? If yes, then I am doing wrong.
• Have I killed an innocent person? If yes, then I have done wrong.

Bad Theologians

Dissident Catholic theologians began distorting the idea of conscience in the 1960s. Their aim was to twist the understanding of conscience to justify intrinsically evil acts. They claimed that in the case of contraception it could be justifiable, good, or even obligatory for a couple to perform certain acts, even though the Magisterium of the Church had defined them as evil in themselves.

This is wickedly ironic because when it comes to responsible parenthood, it is not really a question of conscience whether contraception or natural family planning are right or wrong. As means to prevent having another child, contraception and similar acts are objectively wrong, while natural family planning or periodic continence is morally licit. The only question is whether the couple will recognize and obey the moral law.

The Legitimate Question of Conscience

The normal situation for married couples should be to have sex when they want to and to let God and their fertility decide if they will have a child. The couple need not think about responsible parenthood. However, if they think they should not have a child now, their decision is a question of conscience. They need a good reason for setting aside the default position of married couples.

The criterion for making a good judgment of conscience in regard to having another child has variously been translated into English as having a reason that is serious, just, grave, or sufficient. The Church does not provide examples of a good reason. Neither can a couple get an answer to the question of what is a good reason from a priest. It is up to the couple and they must answer for their decision to God.

Trivial and selfish reasons are ruled out, but important personal, family, financial, health, and other reasons may come into play.

If a couple has a serious reason not to have a child, must they act on it? No. A couple may have an objectively serious reason for not having another child right now, and they may choose to not act on it, because limiting family size is not obligatory. As mentioned above, the default for married couples is simply having sex when they both want to and letting God and their fertility decide if they will have a child.


The essence of the moral means to not have a child is continence, that is, not having sex. This continence might be total if the couple believes that the danger a pregnancy imposes is so grave that they must have a one hundred percent certainty the wife will not become pregnant. Fortunately, for most couples in most circumstances, periodic continence is sufficient. Periodic continence means the couple does not have sexual relations when the wife could become pregnant and they are free to have sexual relations when she cannot.

What is Next?

Next time, I will discuss why natural family planning and artificial birth control may look very similar but are in fact profoundly different. Briefly, the most critical difference is this. With artificial birth control, the couple has sexual relations and they do something to make the act infertile. In natural family planning, the couple doesn’t do anything.

A married couple does not have an obligation to have sex all the time. Periodic continence and contraception are different because not doing something you don’t have to do is very different from doing something you ought not to do.

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest

33 thoughts on “Humanae Vitae: Questions of Conscience”

  1. Hi Kevin,
    Interesting article. How would you reconcile ‘responsible parenthood’ when spouses differ on the reasons to postpone pregnancies or to avoid them all together? Which spouse ought to be obeyed? The husband, because wives are to be obedient to their husband? Or either one who desire to postpone pregnancy? In which case it can be either husband or wife, but since the burden of another child is mutually shared, then this means the one who’s wishes are to postpone is the one what is obeyed? Further, what about the idea that ‘the wife doesn’t own her body but her husband and vice versa”? In other words, on the day of the wedding vows man and woman vow and give themselves to the other that should the one desire to express intimacy then the other is bounded by duty (of which denial would be a grave sin, at least prolonged denial)? I’m curious as how you would answer these questions…

  2. The difference between contraception and NFP is like the difference between bingeing and purging and sensible dieting. In both cases the goal is achieved, but the means used are quite different.

  3. Kevin,
    Your notes on dissident theologians are understandably tinged with anger but they are designed for light readers. Fr. Corapi over simplified this history. Avoid his example. Your notes fail to explain why Popes since 1968 did not censure or even restrict to pre-censorship both internationally known Fr. Karl Rahner ( peritus at Vatican II on Lumen Gentium) and Fr. Bernard Haring ( peritus at Vatican II on Gaudium et Spes) both of whom dissented on Humanae Vitae and urged laity to follow a sincere prayerful conscience attended by reading. Pope John Paul II had 15 years in which to censure Karl Rahner and did nothing. Pope John Paul II had 19 years in which to censure Bernard Haring but investigated him for one year at which point the CDF dropped the investigation ( Haring believed in some of the very things Francis is now doing against careerism in the clergy and wrote about it). We are to believe that the issue is settled in the universal ordinary magisterium but no Pope was willing to censure two famous key theologians of Vatican II who said it was not infallible in the universal ordinary magisterium. The behaviour of Popes after 1968 towards the best educated European dissenters ( not Curran of the US) does not send the signal that those Popes really believed that matter is settled in the universal ordinary magisterium.

    1. It is speculation on your part that JPII did not censure Rahner or Haring because he thought the matter of HV was not settled.

      The vast majority of dissidents from 1960 until today have not been censured. They are, however, dying off quickly, and the episcopacy, Catholic theologians, and the lay faithful are accepting HV like never before.

    2. Authorities responsible for a billion people, unlike fathers of families, can’t be prudentially inactive on an issue if they think it equates to abortion in several of its techniques. So we differ. Fathers need not consider the commonweal of a neighborhood in private sins of their children. With the US bishops announcing three years ago a 96% dissent rate, Popes must consider the group over the individual.

    3. You comment makes no sense to me.

      “With the US bishops announcing three years ago a 96% dissent rate.” What do you mean?

    4. I mean your prudential judgement theory means that in the long run ( take the 2012 Harris poll of 82% Catholic support for contraception)… in the long run papal non censuring of theologians led to an increase of in some cases abortifacient use. I suspect support for contraception right after HV was much lower than 82% but grew after 40 years of what you say is prudential silence.

    5. There was no prudential silence on the immorality of contraception. Every modern pope has reiterated this. There was prudential non-censuring.

    6. You are correct in that Popes were not silent on the issue toward laity but were silent and non censuring toward theologians. It is the latter silence’s meaning that we differ on. Have a good day.

    7. For the faithful Catholic who understands the call to magisterial obedience, the matter was settled in 1968 by the ordinary papal magisterium, with no need to appeal beyond that.
      Only those in dissent need retreat to the “yeah, but is it infallible?” mentality as cover for the dissent….

    8. Jim,
      Dissent of a struggled type actually is permitted in the Catholic moral theology tomes that no one reads. Next time you are in a large Catholic book store, ask for Germain Grisez’s ” Way of the Lord Jesus” volume one and go to page 854 and that vicinity. You’ll see it reluctantly explained by conservative Grisez who saw this issue infallible in the uom. Popes and Vatican periti knew that tradition and it is part of the mystery of the papal non censure.

    9. Here’s something on dissent: ****32. The Magisterium has drawn attention several times to the serious harm done to the community of the Church by attitudes of general opposition to Church teaching which even come to expression in organized groups. In his apostolic exhortation Paterna cum benevolentia, Paul VI offered a diagnosis of this problem which is still apropos.(25) In particular, he addresses here that public opposition to the Magisterium of the Church also called “dissent”, which must be distinguished from the situation of personal difficulties treated above. ****
      The whole section from this resource on “The Problem of Dissent” is worth reading. It originates in the document from 1990 in which *all* dissident theologians received the same “censure” (including Haring and Rahner): the “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian” (CDF, 1990).
      There is an important distinction between “dissent” and one’s own personal struggle with Church teaching–even when one is a theologian.
      The public dissent following HV was of the destructive and impermissible variety. And it still is…

    10. On my ipad2, after your first colon is the following ****32. In short your link is invisible to ipad folks. And in 2002 Archbishop Amato, second at the CDF at that time, at the Lateran restrospective of Rahner’s theology called Rahner orthodox to John Allen…easily googled. I don’t think Rahner nor John Paul nor Benedict were orthodox on Judas possibly not being damned….but that’s just me.

    11. I got a chuckle regarding your postscript re the lying issue! The difference there is the essential difference between common teaching of theologians and magisterial teaching. Might have to get a post going on that subject sometime here at Catholic Stand!
      As to “censure”, I put that term in quotes relative to the CDF document on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian because, you’re correct, no formal censure exists there–but rather the document is obviously a clear response (and in some sense a rebuke) of dissident theologians publicly dissenting.

    12. Jim,

      Can you help me understand what is the argument the “yeah, but is it infallible” folks would put together against Humanae Vitae?

    13. Hi–it’s the basic idea that as long as the teaching is not infallible then it “might” actually be wrong and therefore we can in conscience dissent from HV. But the Church teaches that the faithful are not to form conscience in this way (against the magisterium)….

    14. Yes, this baffles me, so with two encyclicals (Casti Conubii and Humanae Vitae) how can someone who claims to be Catholic claim dissidence? I don’t get it. … Do they think we should claim all encyclicals possibly fallible? You see, why do these get set apart from everything else?

      Have you read the book What went wrong with Vatican II by Professor McInerny?

    15. Haven’t yet read the McInerny book, unfortunately. But as to your other questions, rationalizing dissent–particularly from HV and Church teaching on sexuality–has been in my view getting less and less sophisticated since 1968. Moral relativism greased the wheels nicely in recent decades. But, back in 1990 this CDF document sought to clarify for theologians (particularly to rein in dissent, I think) what their proper role really is in the Church and might be worth a look if you haven’t read through it previously:
      God bless!

    16. Yes I read this document. It is a sad reality when the Church has to guide and in a way defend herself from her own theologians. The very ones that ought to be defending and propagating her stunning reality and mission on this temporary earth! (Thanks for the chat!)
      God bless.

    17. Dear nannon31,

      I politely disagree with you. There are Church Fathers (ie Tertullian) who later became a schismatic. This does not mean that all he wrote should be ignored, right?

  4. Pingback: Francis, and the Coming Passion of the Church -

  5. The UN reports that 1.3 million children die of starvation each year. In the US there are 3 million reports of child abuse each year with 5 to 6 children dying each year. The global data for child sexual abuse is 19% for females and 8% for males. And on and on….Unfettered breeding results in millions of child deaths and incidence of abuse. The poor and many indigent in 3rd world countries should never be asked to be abstinent and curb all urges for intimacy nor are many poor capable of practicing NFP nor Billings. Control of breeding saves much needless death and suffering hence Humane Vitae is a death sentence for many….the ban on artificial contraception is poor morality. Some people can be abstinent, some people can afford and care passionately for large families…many, many cannot, which is why most Catholics ignore this teaching.

    1. Phil you have failed to provide any evidence that practicing responsible parenthood as the Church understands it results in child starvation or sexual abuse. You won’t be able to either, because there is no connection.

      You also have not provided any evidence that may poor are incapable of practicing nfp. Again, there is no evidence.

    2. Make no mistake about it. NFP is behavioral birth control. Gaming the menstrual cycle is dicey, stressful and thus not for everyone. There’s plenty of evidence around for this, too. One size does not fit all. Total abstinence, also behavioral birth control, does not support marriage. There must be more than these two ways to space and limit family size. Mercy, justice, and love require it.

    3. There must be more ways to have enough money besides working for it or inheriting or being given it. I know! Let’s steal it! There *must* be more ways to make a living. Mercy, justice, and love require it!

      On a more serious note, every kind of responsible parenting is “behavioral.” It takes a judgment of reason and an act of the will to contracept.

    4. Yours is a silly, sorry, and insulting response to a very serious, sane, and carefully measured comment. Shame on you!!!

    5. You have the last word, although it is highly debatable because rules are made for people, not people for rules.

    6. You can have the last word, but the precepts of the moral law are not “rules” but expressions of what is really good or bad according to human nature.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: