Pope Paul VI’s Error on Birth Control

After conservative U.S. Catholic Bishops sued the Obama administration over its health-insurance requirement for contraceptives, many assumed the Bishops were upholding settled doctrine. But Catholic theologian Paul Surlis says Pope Paul VI incorrectly removed the issue from the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

By Paul Surlis

At the Second Vatican Council in 1965, on the day the Bishops were to debate birth control, a message was delivered saying that Pope Paul VI had reserved the issue to himself and asking that the Bishops move on without dealing with the important question of contraception. The Bishops applauded.

Later that day at a press conference held by representatives of the U.S. Bishops, a religious affairs correspondent (I believe from Time magazine) asked why the Bishops had applauded. The Bishops present simply hung their heads and fumbled an unconvincing response. (I was present at St. Peter’s in Rome assisting Bishop Thomas J. Drury of Corpus Christi, Texas, as peritus,a Roman Catholic theologian giving advice at an ecumenical council.)

Pope Paul VI (Official Vatican photo)

The Pope’s letter had made an unwarranted entry into Conciliar deliberations, since an ecumenical council is meant to be the highest teaching authority in the Catholic Church. But a conservative curia did not accept that view. The Pope’s intervention has since proven to be a major mistake that still causes suffering for Catholics and the Church.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI compounded the mistake by going against the view of the majority of his advisers and issuing a letter in which he asserted that every act of intercourse must be open to new life, meaning no birth control by artificial means.

The letter while authoritative was not infallible, as the pope himself pointed out. Many Catholics including theologians and priests dissented from the teaching. Bishops in national conferences intervened, but they too were divided. Some agreed with the pope, while others (about one-third of national conferences) stressed the legitimacy of dissent from the papal position.

In the Washington DC area, Father Charles Curran led the dissent from the papal teaching. He and other professors at Catholic University who joined in dissenting were fired by Cardinal O’Boyle but were later reinstated after student protests.

The Belgian Bishops, who along with other national conferences endorsed Curran’s dissent, wrote in 1968: “If someone competent in the matter and capable of forming a well founded judgment which necessarily supposes sufficient information after serious investigation, before God, reaches different conclusions on certain points, he has the right to follow his convictions in this matter, provided that he remains disposed to continue his investigations.”

This position has never been condemned or rescinded. At present, confusion is still being generated by the Catholic Church’s stance on birth control. There is no single position that would qualify for the status of Catholic doctrine.

As for Curran, Pope John Paul II deprived him of the title “Catholic theologian” in 1978 and Curran lost his job at CU. Subsequently, no U.S. Catholic university offered him a position. However, Southern Methodist University did, and he still teaches there.

Today, one may argue that the papal position as expounded in Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) has been rejected through non-acceptance. A majority of Catholic couples follow their consciences in electing to practice contraception. Some bishops and a majority of moral theologians accept the legitimacy of this practice.

And all of these are part of the People of God, namely the Church, and what they advocate is Church teaching also. So at most there are different positions being argued even at the highest levels in the Church.

What is sometimes called “fundamental Catholic teaching” has now changed. And as is customary, when disputes exist, the legitimacy of conscience and obedience to conscience prevail.

Paul Surlis taught moral theology and Catholic Social teaching at St. John’s University, New York from 1975-2000. He is now retired and living in Crofton, Maryland.

9 comments for “Pope Paul VI’s Error on Birth Control

  1. rosemerry
    May 30, 2012 at 17:20

    Very interesting.Having given up religion in 1962 I did not realise all these changes!
    It seems that Catholics in the USA are normal people using their brains. I find the extremists are those like Michelle and Jimbob Duggar and their 19 children, allegedly Baptists, who actually claim it is immoral to use “natural family planning” by avoiding a woman’s fertile days of the month, and avoiding extended breast-feeding which reduces fertility. I really wonder how God thought that one up!

    • Hillary
      May 31, 2012 at 10:52

      “It seems that Catholics in the USA are normal people using their brains.”

      Wishful thinking I’m afraid.

      Mumbo jumbo that Catholics are indoctrinated with may include believing that any Pope speaking on “spiritual” matters is infallible and speaks the “direct words of God”.

  2. Robert Charron
    May 30, 2012 at 14:07

    Daniel Maquire believes evidently that Catholic “theologians” alone have the authority to determine what church teaching should be, and their views shoud overrule what the Pope and what the bishops say. Maybe he views Catholic Theoolgians as a sort of Supreme Court that should be the ultimate decider of what constitutes legitimate church teaching. Well in the U.S. lawyers, the secular equivalent of catholic theologians, have been the ultimate deciders of what is constitutional, and we see what a farce that has become.

    Now the Catholic church wobbled a bit on contraception, which emboldened those who support it, but the Pope did finally come down against it, which is consistent with Church teaching.

    Finally let us look at the historical record. The major mainline Protestant sects opposed contraception along with the Catholic church up until 1933 I believe, the date of the Lambeth Conference of the Episcopalian Church. Prior to this, I repeat the major Protestant churces were opposed to contraception, so we can assume from this that the Catholic church had a longstanding opposition to contraception. Opposition to contraception is not something the current crop of bishops decided to introduce. Anyway in 1933 or so at the Lambeth conference the Episcopal Church decided to allow contraception. And look what happened since then to the Episcopal Church.

    Yes Fr. Maquire, it seems to be there is some reason for instituting a forbidden fruit, even though it may not make sense to Catholic theologians, it is something God evidently realizes is necessary for humans to observe.

  3. May 30, 2012 at 14:05

    Can Doctor Surlis tell us where the pope himself pointed out that his letter “while authoritative was not infallible”? Is the interpretation his or the pope’s that “every act of intercourse must be open to new life”, meaning no birth control by artificial means. I agree with Bebe99 that at least 1% of us could tell the pope that artificial birth control methods are still open to life: read the label. Please tell us what is Catholic Teaching on the issue – use your conscience or abide by the letter of Paul VI’s opinion? If the teaching differs from the view of conservative bishops, can you suggest why it should be so?

  4. May 30, 2012 at 12:48

    Father Surlis’s article refers to a time when Catholic theologians had the courage to take a stand when the hierarchy were wrong. Unlike Doctor Surlis, most Catholic theologians today sit on their hands as the bishops pretend to be the authentic voice of the church. The bishops are not professional theologians and few, if any of them, could pass a graduate exam in theology. They are pastors, administrators, and lobbyists. The shame is mainlly on the Catholic theologians and The CAtholic Theological Society of AMerica for letting them get away with it.

    • Hillary
      May 30, 2012 at 16:05

      “as the bishops pretend to be the authentic voice of the church.”

      Don’t you mean

      “as the bishops pretend to be the authentic voice of God”.

      God being the recognized “space wizard” creator of the many universes ?

  5. Hillary
    May 29, 2012 at 19:50

    We live in a world polluted by people .

    More and more carbon foot prints as humans multiply and multiply, until every resource is consumed.

    Another organism on this planet follows the same pattern…its called a virus.

    Old fashioned to say having no children or only 1 or 2 is selfish.

    Something wrong with the Christian Bible’s God plan to go forth & multiply and dominate the earth ?

    Just how long will it take humans to destroy the space ship we live on?



  6. Bebe99
    May 29, 2012 at 16:00

    About 1% of birth control users could have assured the pope that intercourse while using birth control is still “open to new life.”

    If religions embrace the unworkable values of the past simply because they are traditional, they will doom themselves to either being ignored or forgotten. 98% of Catholic women are already ignoring the bishops on birth control. Who do they think they are kidding with this drama?

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