Teaching infallible?


In a recent RCIA session in my local parish, one of the candidates asked the priest about the church’s teaching on contraception. I don’t think he really wanted to talk about it and only replied that it is not an infallible teaching. He did not attempt to explain the “why” of this church teaching either. We were all left with the impression that since it is not an infallible teaching, then we were all free to decide for ourselves.
I am confused because I thought this was an infallible teaching. Which is it?


He made a mistake. It has been the constant teaching of the church since the beginning that contraception is wrong. That makes it infallible. Sorry you received wrong information. Priests are human and can make mistakes or lack knowledge.



I agree with your Priest, but not with the comment it is up to you to decide. History is not the standard for infallibility. When the Church uses the word contraception it does not used in the common definition of that word. In the Church teaching it requires outside intervention of a physical type (see that definition could change). The Church teaching is binding meaning the Church has authority. “Open to Life” again is the reverse of the Church definition on contraception. “Open to Life” means no external physical means were used. So the infallibility section does not prevent couples from preventing pregnancy through many actions specifically designed to prevent pregnancy (clear as mud). The Church teaching is the actions must be with in the normal scope of the body (again the definition of this could change). Normally temperature and mucus are used as indicators.


to give the priest the benefit of the doubt he may have been taken by surprise by a question out of context for the lesson he had prepared, and not willing to enter into the discussion without the opportunity to present the teaching completely and thoroughly. In that case he should have said, yes this is unbroken teaching of the Church, and we will be discussing it more depth when we get to the lesson on marriage and family. He could have added a reminder than in RCIA we do not discuss people’s personal situations with the entire group, but offer separate pastoral counselling for those discussions.


This understanding sow by so many of the faithful is erroneous and is in no small part due to the misunderstanding as to what power an encyclical has over the faithful.

Pius XII in his encyclical “HUMANI GENERIS” on 12 August 1950 stated in paragraph 20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me”;[3] and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.

Therefore, those matters addressed in the Encyclicals of the Holy Father demand consent since they serve to expound on matters already defined as matters of Catholic Doctrine.

Nowadays, sadly, many Priests and faithful do not read what is being written by the Holy Father and many of those who do read them see them as nothing more as nice letters.


If you wish to know more about what the Church teaches about contraception, a very good encyclical is available at the following link: vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae_en.html

Pay particular attention to paragraph 4 - 6. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses the purpose of marriage in paragraph 2363 : scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s2c2a6.htm#2399

I hope this helps.




No, the current teaching on contraceptive techniques has never been proclaimed ex cathedra. There is still room for personal conscience in the matter.



Methinks the Church does not agree with you. See below. Please do not do others the disservice of proclaiming your personal contradictions to Church teaching as something the Church accepts.



Wishful Thinking

Ignoring the mountain of evidence, some maintain that the Church considers the use of contraception a matter for each married couple to decide according to their “individual conscience.” Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. The Church has always maintained the historic Christian teaching that deliberate acts of contraception are always gravely sinful, which means that it is mortally sinful if done with full knowledge and deliberate consent (CCC 1857). This teaching cannot be changed and has been taught by the Church infallibly.

There is no way to deny the fact that the Church has always and everywhere condemned artificial contraception. The matter has already been infallibly decided. The so-called “individual conscience” argument amounts to “individual disobedience.”



In “Humanae Vitae” the Pope taught, with the divine assistance he enjoys (cf. “Lumen Gentium”, n. 25a), what the Church’s ordinary Magisterium had always held to be true and right, and what had been reconfirmed by the extraordinary Magisterium of Vatican II. The arguments of those who claim to pass judgment on the basis of their knowledge do not stand up against this Magisterium: between the two teachings there is a substantial difference of quality and not only of degree. The teaching of “Humanae Vitae” is Magisterium - though ordinary - which contains decisions belonging to a divinely established authority (cf. canon 331; “Lumen Gentium” nn. 18a, 20c, 22b, 23c; “Christus Dominus” n. 2a) and exercised in order to interpret and teach (as in our case) the moral norms of human conduct. If he were not the Pope, he would lose his legitimate power and the intrinsic reason for his ministry; at most he could carry out a scholarly magisterium, which, however, would not be of use to the Church and to which he has not been appointed by the Church’s Founder; he would lack the supernatural “virtus” of assisting and confirming his brethren in the faith and in the moral law (cf. Lk. 22:32, Mt. 16:29; Vatican I, Dogm. Const. “Pastor Aeternus”, DS 3074).

It is Jesus himself who wanted the Pope to have a Magisterium of authority, having entrusted him with the mission of teaching men the truths to be believed and the duties to be fulfilled. In promulgating “Humanae Vitae” Paul VI acted within and by force of this Magisterium. He proposed anew “a teaching which is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation.” Paul VI therefore says: “Let no Catholic be heard to assert that the interpretation of the natural moral law is outside the competence of the church’s Magisterium. It is in fact indisputable, as our Predecessors have many times declared (Pius XI, St. Pius X, Pius XII and John XXIII are cited), that Jesus Christ, when he communicated his divine power to Peter and the other Apostles and sent them to teach all nations his commandments (cf. Mt. 28:18029), constituted them as the authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the natural law, the reason being that the natural law declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men’s eternal salvation” (“Humanae Vitae”, n. 4)…

The Servant of God Paul VI’s Encyclical “Humanae Vitae” thus has the authority of the Church’s ordinary Magisterium and therefore its teaching must be given “a religious submission of intellect and will; the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid whatever is not in harmony with that teaching” (canon 752). Vatican II had already expressed it well: “This loyal submission of will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ‘ex cathedra’ in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and that one sincerely adhere to decisions made by him, in conformity with his manifest mind and intention, which is made known principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated” (“Lumen Gentium”, n. 25a)…Archbishop Vincenzo Fagiolo, President of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts


There are a LOT of defined infallible teachings that have never been the subject of an ex cathedra pronoucement. In fact, extremely few ex cathedra statements have EVER been made at all.

The idea held is some quarters that they can disobey until and unless the pope proclaims it that particular way is nothing more than self-deception.


History is the standard for infallibility if the Magisterium has always taught something!

Just to be clear on the role of “history” in Church teaching, in Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1998, he states that doctrine taught by the Magisterium of the Church that is “non-defining”, meaning not taught ex-cathedra, such doctrine "…is taught *infallibly *by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Bishops dispersed throughout the world who are in communion with the Successor of Peter."
So all teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium is infallible, whether ex-cathedra or not.

Article 25 of Lumen Gentium is also frequently cited as a source for the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church.



                       by Fr. John Hardon



There seems to be a great deal of confusion regarding the scope of infallibility as defined by Pastor Æternus, which granted as the very least that “religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” This is further expounded by the CDF in Mysterium Ecclesiæ which, in referencing the passage from LG, stated: “According to Catholic doctrine, the infallibility of the Church’s Magisterium extends not only to the deposit of faith but also to those matters without which that deposit cannot be rightly preserved and expounded.”

Thus, it is to be accepted that the Holy Father and those bishops speaking in unity with him, enjoy infallibility not only in dogmatic promulgation but also in the discernment of the proper natural law that descends from it. Indeed, the sheer volume of situtational possibility requires infallibility to be present in both a strict doctrinal sense, but also in those situations for which divine revelation is silent.

As to whether Humanæ Vitæ constitutes an infallible declaration, let’s look at the requirements of infallibility, especially that of being ex cathedra as set down by Vatican I: it must be promulgated by the Pope as universal pastor of the Church, concern faith and morals and be addressed the Church as a whole. A papal encyclical by definition is a promulgation not of a priest, or the bishop of the See of Rome, but that of the successor of St. Peter. There can be no question that it involves faith and morals, as it deals with the subject of natural law over which the charism of infallibility enjoys mastery. And lastly, as the document explicitly forbids the use of contraceptions, direct sterilization or abortion by any of the body of the faithful, it is thus directed at the whole of the Universal Church.

Humanæ Vitæ is an infallible document, fulfilling the requirements for ex cathedra pronouncement, operating in both that capacity and as a re-iteration of ordinary Magisterium taught throughout the Church’s history. Rome has spoken; the cause is ended.


In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul IV addressed the entire body of the faithful, invoked Christ’s mandate of Magesterial authority, specified that this was a matter of morals and that the intent of the document was to provide a conclusion that was “definitive and absolutely certain”, and declared that“the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.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.”
It sure looks to me like this fulfills the criteria for being an infallible declaration.


Can you please elaborate …as you leave the implication that unless a teaching matter is proclaimed ex cathedra, that the faithful are allowed to determine which Church teachings in matters of faith and morals are binding on one’s personal conscience. How does this not set up the faithful to a false sense and arrival at autonomy of personal conscience?


We live in a culture where artificial birth control (ABC) is considered not just morally neutral, but actually good. Today the CC stands alone in the world when it condemns ABC as intrinsically evil, so I can understand why so many Catholics have trouble with this teaching especially if they have not explored the reasons behind it. Yet there are very good reasons why the Church teaches what she does, and up until the 1930’s all Christians stood with Catholics on the issue of ABC.

Here’s an excellent article that explains the CC teachings:

A lot of Catholics have a “blind spot” in their faith when it comes to artificial birth control (ABC). They usually claim that the Church can change her teachings (over time) and imply that she will change her teachings about ABC eventually.

However, there is no supporting evidence for the opinion (among some Catholics) that the Church is ambiguous on the issue of ABC or that she will change her teaching. The Church’s teaching is solidly against ABC and will always be against it. There are 3 encyclicals that classify ABC as “intrinsically evil” and against natural law. These encyclicals are Humanae Vitae, Evangelium Vitae, and Veritatas Splendor. Also, Pope JP II wrote about the contraception mentality and how it as contributes to the culture of death (in his Theology of the Body discourses).

While ABC is condemned, natural family planning (NFP) is a morally acceptable way to regulate pregnancy. This is from the CCC:

*2370 Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self- observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. 158 These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, “every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil: 159 *

Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality… The difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle . . . involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality. 160

*2399 The regulation of births represents one of the aspects of responsible fatherhood and motherhood. Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception). *

  1. Humanae Vitae contains no infallible statements
  2. This does not mean you are “free” from it, the Church is your teacher, the informant of your conscience.
  3. You will be judged upon your conscience (cf. GS 16)


I’m afraid the Church disagrees with you. It is considered, at the very least, infallible by virtue of ordinary magisterium. Secondly, there is ample evidence it is an ex cathedra pronouncement, by virtue of the fact that it addresses faith and morals (contraception being an extension of natural law which falls under the purview of infallibility Mysterium Ecclesiae referencing Lumen Gentium 25]), addressed the universal Church (as evidenced by the fact that it inhibits all members of the faithful) and pronounced by the Holy Father as the pastor of the universal Church (an encyclical by definition being a document promulgated not by the Bishop of Rome, but by the Vicar of Christ, given that the Holy Father is Bishop of Rome by virtue of his position, not the converse).


I’m not even Catholic, but after reading Pope Paul VI’s Humanae
Vitae, and listening to Dr. Janet Smith’s views and resulting stats of artificial birth control (see here: catholiceducation.org/articles/sexuality/se0002.html ), my wife and I were both convinced that ABC was not only unhealthy physically and relationally, it was morally wrong. I let my friend who is also a Protestant (who had previously had a vasectomy) listen to it and he wished he had heard this before. Why do Protestant churches remain silent on this issue? Because it’s inconvenient and because they haven’t investigated this through to its end.

I am impressed with the CC’s view on contraception and it’s a major reason why I’m considering converting. In an age when virtually all denominations are succumbing to society’s pressures, the CC has remained steadfast.

Pope Paul VI heard from the Holy Spirit on this issue and although it fell like a bomb on the Church, he faced the onslaught of criticism.

Pope John Paul II expanded on Humanae Vitae with his Theology of the Body, and again, it explained how confused our society is about our sexuality. He reiterated Jesus’ words to the Pharisees, “In the beginning, it was not so” and he went on to thoroughly explain why the church stands where it does.

The Catholic Church will not change its views on contraception. If it was considered wrong in the past, what could possibly make it right today? God’s principles do not change, but unfortunately, when we stray from Him, ours do.

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