Professor Janet Smith clarifies the meaning of conscience in the context of Humanae Vitae
The section of the interim report on contraception (54) is unproblematic and even good, in that it speaks about the beauty of being open to new life, of the goodness of natural methods, of the challenge of a declining birth rate and the need for spouses to receive formation that can help them become ever more self-giving.
There is, however, one cryptic, problematic, line. That line states: “We should go back to the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI, which underlines the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control.” (54)
What is problematic about this line is that no such “message” appears in Humanae Vitae. Of course, the interim report was written hastily and perhaps there is a bit of sloppiness of expression here, for it seems to state that the dignity of the person means that the person has the freedom to morally evaluate the methods of birth control. And “moral evaluation” here seems to mean, “has the right to decide which methods are moral and which are not.” This interpretation seems to follow one that was advanced by many theologians after Humanae Vitae that stated that spouses were free to do what their consciences dictate in respect to contraception.
Whether that is what the authors of the interim report meant or not, it is surely not a concept present in Humanae Vitae.
The conscience, of course, is not the same as our opinion or judgment about whether a certain kind of act is right or wrong. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
Humanae Vitae speaks of the law of God, that man’s conscience is able to know. In section 10, the section on Responsible Parenthood (better translated “Conscious Parenthood),* we read:
[conscia paternitas ]
of which we speak here has another intrinsic foundation of utmost importance: it is rooted in the objective moral order established by God – and only an upright conscience can be a true interpreter of this order. For which reason, the mission [munus]
of conscious parenthood [paternitatis consciae]
requires that spouses recognize their duties toward God, toward themselves, toward the family, and toward human society, as they maintain a correct set of priorities.”
Humanae Vitae echoes constant Church teaching that there is an objective moral order – and that human dignity rests in our ability to discern that objective moral order and freely conform our actions to it. The role of the conscience is not to determine whether abortion, adultery, murder, or contraception are wrong, but it is to determine whether various actions qualify as abortion, adultery, etc. The Church, which has the power to interpret the natural law, teaches us that contraception violates the objective moral order in respect to both the procreative and the unitive meanings of the marital act (HV, 12). After it condemns abortion and sterilization, Humanae Vitae 14 states: “Similarly, there must be a rejection of all acts that attempt to impede procreation, both those chosen as means to an end and those chosen as ends. This includes acts that precede intercourse, acts that accompany intercourse, and acts that are directed to the natural consequences of intercourse.” Here Humanae Vitae makes it clear that all forms of contraception are not in accord with God’s plan for marital love.
A well-formed conscience would know this, a conscience likely formed by reading Humanae Vitae or learning what the Theology of the Body is all about. Someone who has prayerfully read Humanae Vitae and learned the concepts of the Theology of the Body and who still believes that impeding the baby-making power of the marital act is fully in accord with God’s will and constitutes an act of complete self-giving to one’s spouse, would need to ask a priest or a knowledgeable Catholic for further guidance. Should he or she still not understand/accept the Church’s teaching, this person would be in the same predicament as a person who thought abortion or slavery or rejection of immigrants is moral. For a Catholic, a key question is: if/when I disagree with the Church about some teaching, who is more likely to be right, the Church or I?
Clearly, I am not advocating blind obedience here; I am advocating that Catholics become fully informed but also that they be humble if they find it difficult to accept a teaching. My recommendation would be to spend a lot of time in front of the Blessed Sacrament and ask Jesus to enlighten them when they find a Church teaching objectionable.
The conscience of the spouses does have a role to play in decisions regarding use of birth control, the moral form of birth control, known as Natural Family Planning. Other methods attempt to render infertile an act of marital intercourse that otherwise might be an act that God chooses to gift with new life, whereas NFP couples do not interfere with the fertility of a marital act. Spouses, through prayerful discernment, through consulting their consciences, are to discern when it is moral for them to attempt to limit their family size, when it is moral to use some form of abstinence to limit their family size. Only they can truly know their motives and their circumstances.
I am hoping the final report of the synod will speak of the need for priests, professors, teachers, DRE’s and parents to teach the truth of Humanae Vitae; to teach that the use of contraception is incompatible with the great gift of sexuality that enables spouses to make a complete gift of themselves to others and to be cooperators with God in the creation of a new human person. I believe Saint John Paul’s Theology of the Body provides a superb explanation of the truths of Humanae Vitae and am grateful that so many organizations have produced excellent materials for many age groups, for married people, for the single and for those in consecrated life.
Janet E. Smith, Ph.D. holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair in Life Ethics and is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She is the author of Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and of the Right to Privacy, and the editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader. She has coauthored Life Issues, Medical Choices, Questions and Answers for Catholics, with Chris Kaczor. She has published in The Thomist, The Irish Theological Quarterly, Nova et Vetera, The American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, The National Catholic Bioethics Journal, among other publications. Professor Smith is serving a third term as a consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family.
* Readers interested in learning more about “conscious parenthood” are referred to Professor Smith’s essay, “Conscious Parenthood,” Nova et Vetera, 6:4 (92008) 927-950.