Saturday, July 28, 2012

Questions arising from the church's teaching on birth control

Lately church hierarchy finds literally re-translating things from source Latin to English a very important activity.  They did this for the Mass, telling the faithful it rendered a more accurate and beautiful translation.  Like the Mass text, papal encyclicals are written originally in Latin and then translated.  I am sorry to report that the current English translation of the papal encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae, suffers from dynamic translation issues much like the former Mass translation did.  Surely the same Vatican officials who forced the new Mass translation have endured many sleepless nights regarding this.  Therefore, in the interest of easing the worries of those literal Latin enthusiasts and since today ends National “Natural Family Planning Awareness Week” in the U.S., I thought a literal re-translation of Humanae Vitae was very fitting. 

Humanae Vitae contains a few key statements, one of which supposedly pertains to every occasion of sexual intercourse needing to be open to conception.  The official Latin text says this:
Verumtamen Ecclesia, dum homines commonet de observandis praeceptis legis naturalis, quam constanti sua doctrina interpretatur, id docet necessarium esse, ut quilibet matrimonii usus ad vitam humanam procreandam per se destinatus permaneat.

Humanae Vitae’s English translation appearing on the Vatican website, reads:
The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.

But a literal translation actually finds the document says this:
The truth however, the Church, urging humans to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which constant is interpreted by her doctrine, teaches that it is necessary that each use of marriage, by itself to the procreation of human life, was destined to continue.

The literal translation has a different meaning than the current English translation.   Awkwardly or perhaps as the traditionalist Catholic might say, “More poetically” the corrected translation asserts that each use of marriage by itself was destined to continue the procreation of human life, i.e. result in bringing forth offspring, i.e. conceive.  This statement actually contradicts the immediate preceding statements in the document. 
Revera, ut usu noscitur, non ex unaquaque coniugali congressione nova exoritur vita. Deus enim naturales leges ac tempora fecunditatis ita sapienter disposuit, ut eadem iam per se ipsa generationes subsequentes intervallent.

Literally translated this says:
The fact is, as experience shows, not out of each and every act of conjugal union arises a new life. For God and the times of the natural laws of fertility so wisely arranged that the generations of the same by itself now spaced.

Unfortunately the Vatican’s English translation again employs a more dynamic translation that must be considered as offensive to the hierarchy as the former dynamic Mass translation.
The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws.

A couple of things to observe:
1.  Humanae Vitae pertains only to married people.  It repeatedly speaks about conjugal union or the marriage act.  The word “coitus” refers to “sexual intercourse” in general.  The word “conjugal” means, “of or pertaining to marriage or the relations between husband and wife.” 
2.  Reassembling the paragraph’s flow, Humanae Vitae says that not every act of conjugal union arises in new life due to natural spacing of fertility but the church has always taught that each use of marriage is destined to conceive.  Simplified even further, it says that although each act of conjugal union doesn’t result in conception, we’ve always taught it does.  Oh, o.k…. 

By the way, the church teaches that each and every act of sexual intercourse (versus conjugal union) should remain open to the conception of children.  However, that is not what the Latin actually says.  Yet that is what church leaders teach.

Another key statement in Humanae Vitae is this:
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.

Literally translated, it means this:
Likewise to be spat out, is any act which in anticipation of or after conjugal relations, or effected by or to its natural outcomes proposes whether as an end or the way it intends to be applied in order to render procreation impossible.

Sadly again I must show the English translation from the Vatican website, exposing its deviances from a literal translation:
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.

Much like the literalist believes metaphorical phrases like “dewfall” are so important to recapture in the Mass translation, I think we should insist upon the literal translation of Human Vitae that preserves poetic phrases like “spat out.”  Anyway, simply stated, literal translation of the Latin tells us that married people should not do things that make it impossible to procreate, i.e. conceive.

This is a very interesting statement to ponder.  The church teaches that God is all-powerful, even causing a virgin to conceive.  Mary doubted this asking the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “How is this possible since I haven’t had relations with a man (LK 1:34)?”  But the angel of the Lord reassured her, “…for nothing will be impossible for God (LK 1:37).” 

Doesn’t this statement in Humanae Vitae directly contradict what the messenger of God stated?  Doesn’t it limit God, making God less than all-powerful?  Isn’t this grievously problematic from a theological standpoint: both refuting a message from the Lord, and limiting the power of God?  Indeed Jesus’ conception outside of the marriage act and Mary’s unwillingness to have sexual relations with her husband directly violate church teachings.  This seems problematic too.

Regardless, every method of birth control has incidences where conceptions still occur.  This seems to highlight that God is more powerful than human efforts to prevent pregnancy.  Thus, is it even possible to suggest married couples can render conception impossible if God wills a conception should occur?

The church teaches that married people cooperate with God to bring forth new life.  This is a very humbling and beautiful thing.  Humanae Vitae discusses what does or doesn’t constitute cooperating with God’s will for conceiving children.  Though it proposes to re-examine church teachings based upon new understandings, it actually doesn’t.  It just regurgitates centuries-old teachings and basically says they are right “because we always said they were right and we said we’re always right too so we were right”.  In the world of logic, this is a classic example of the logic error called, “circular logic.”

Nonetheless, Humanae Vitae examines some important concerns such as the possibility governments might try to control conception.  The Chinese government with its one-child law comes close to this regulating number of births though not specific timing of conception.  Therefore, Humanae Vitae does pose some valid questions for society to ponder.

Laying aside the debate about what does or doesn’t constitute married people cooperating with God’s will, aspects of Humanae Vitae are improperly taught.  For example birth control usage in any circumstance is declared evil though Humanae Vitae only applies to married relations.  In the meantime, more than 40% of births occur to unwed mothers.  Wouldn’t it seem reasonable for the church to encourage unmarried people who engage in sexual relations to use birth control as the lesser of two evils?  Promoting the lesser of two evils is regularly used within Catholic moral theology.

Finally, in honor of the week’s theme, I must say something about Natural Family Planning (NFP).  In Humanae Vitae, the church clearly teaches that NFP is o.k. even though its intention is to prevent conception.  As an aside, by definition, that is contraception – something that tries to avoid conception – though NFP advocates vehemently deny it is contraception.  Nonetheless, permission of contraception while banning contraception is another example of the document contradicting itself.  Humanae Vitae splits this hair by saying that in one case contraception occurs while open to conception though trying to avoid it, while in the other cases contraception occurs while trying to avoid conception.  This is curious because according to NFP resources, NFP methods have as high or higher effectiveness rates than the other contraceptive methods.  So it would seem that since other methods result in as many or more pregnancies, they are every bit as or more open to conception as NFP.  It would also seem that NFP is more capable of avoiding pregnancy and thereby frustrating God’s will, thus making it more evil than other forms of birth control.

The document also states that using contraceptive methods for non-contraceptive purposes is o.k.  For example someone with endometriosis is o.k. to use hormone therapy, i.e. the birth control pill.  Here’s a little table to summarize the church’s teaching:   

Husband and Wife Intend to Prevent Conception
Husband and Wife Don’t Intend to Prevent Conception
Natural Family Planning
Other forms of birth control

I also think “Natural Family Planning” is a misnomer.  A woman tracking the thickness of her cervical mucus and taking her temperature regularly are not natural parts of a woman’s day.  They are not natural precursors to marital relations.  These contraceptive methods are called “natural” because they are said to cooperate with nature versus other contraceptive methods that evidently are believed to not cooperate with nature. 

Again this raises serious theological questions.  The church teaches God is the creator of everything – everything – that includes contraceptive devices does it not?  Indeed scripture explains that humans have no power except that which God permits and that God reveals only that which God chooses to reveal.  Thus, is it not good theology to say that God has given us these contraceptive devices because God could have confused the minds of humans preventing them from discovering these capabilities?

I guess the thing that keeps plaguing me though as I reflect upon Humanae Vitae is this: Why does the church’s hierarchy believe in such a weak God?  How powerful is the God in which you believe?


  1. Birth control is very important thing to concentrate these days. many countries have less resource and more population. when the resources get exhausted there be a huge problem for this planet. Teaching Statements

  2. Thanks for the article. As happens with this topic, and many others, people seem to get their knickers in a twist and argue vehemently over things about which they have little understanding. Contraception/birth control/NFP/womens' rights/etc - lately these seem to be popular conversation points but more often just arguing points. Educated dialogue would be a boon.