The Catholic Church is a global family, but that hardly spares it the messiness of a household. One recent source of squabbles has been Pope Francis’s off-the-cuff comments on sex and marriage. Last month, for example, he guessed aloud that most Catholic marriages are invalid (while some cohabiting couples might, in some way, be married). That issue has been covered. But an earlier intervention failed to get a similar measure of attention. It came during an in-flight press conference, in which the pope’s discussion of contraception and the Zika virus lit a blaze of controversy. The Church has held on to the historic (and once universal) Christian condemnation of contraception. Was Francis making exceptions? Might the whole teaching be scrapped? If the pope was wrong, what about papal infallibility?
The exchange also raised broader questions. Which sources of Christian moral teaching are authoritative? Is Christian sexual morality a matter of arbitrary rules laid down by the Bible or the Church, or does it reflect objective moral truth?
These are questions that Pope Francis’s remarks often raise for Catholics. But the answers also matter to Orthodox and Evangelical Christians and to others concerned about our culture’s ethic of sex and marriage. Even nonbelievers may benefit from knowing how the Church understands its own teachings on these matters of public import—as an assurance of how firmly committed to them it remains, even in the face of strong cultural pressure.
As Catholics see it, the pope is the vicar of the true, heavenly head of our Catholic family. He deserves our filial affection; family harmony demands it. This requires openness in all matters, and ready obedience in those defined as essential. But sometimes what promotes the family’s harmony on essentials is critical feedback, and then filial affection demands that, too.
Morality and Infallibility
Rules can be changed when they’re in some way arbitrary. But moral principles—against adultery and contraception as much as, say, lies or betrayals of trust—aren’t arbitrary at all. They specify the real demands of loving others, of willing their good. Just as duplicity violates integrity, and adultery marriage, so contraception violates marriage, as I explained yesterday. The Church’s teaching against it isn’t just a bylaw for the Catholic community—like the rule about going to confession at least once a year. It states a natural, rational, objective moral principle. The Church can’t repeal those or grant exemptions. Indeed, as we also saw, the Church has firmly taught that it is always immoral for spouses to contracept. So did every Christian body—East and West, Protestant and Catholic—for more than 1900 years. And as I will show below, the Church has always opposed any choice to do something that is wrong in itself, even to avoid harm. The end, in such cases, cannot justify the means.
But in the Church’s self-understanding, the Holy Spirit prevents it from definitively teaching falsehoods on faith or morals. So as a Catholic, I am certain that neither Pope Francis nor his successors will commit the Church to a different view; they won’t because they can’t. And Francis hasn’t.
His offhand comments mark no such change. As I will also show here, they were expressions of opinion, not exercises of his teaching office. So they don’t implicate papal infallibility, which is about Christ’s promise and the Holy Spirit’s power, not any mortal’s wisdom or mental prowess. As Catholics see it, the Church teaches infallibly. It does so through its members believing in unison, or through their leaders (the bishops, successors of the Apostles) when speaking with one voice, and only sometimes through the bishops’ leader, the pope.
Could There Be Exceptions?
Even if contracepting is wrong, as I argued yesterday, might it be the thing to do in extreme cases? Can we ever choose one sin as the “lesser” evil, if the harms of avoiding it are bad enough?
In his interview Francis alluded to the common belief that Pope Paul VI had approved the use of contraceptives by nuns at risk of being raped. In fact, Paul VI never did. But I think he could have done so without contradicting the Church’s teaching on contraception, and without suggesting that it’s okay to sin if the costs of fidelity are high. Faithful Catholic theologians and bishops’ conferences have long approved using anovulent pills after rape where there is no risk of causing abortion. What the Church has firmly taught, after all, is that it’s immoral to intend to sterilize what would otherwise be a marital act. But no rape can be a marital act. Coerced sex (even between spouses) isn’t even a candidate for expressing marital love, which must be mutual and free. So taking the pill after rape can’t be anti-marital; allowing it is no exception to moral or theological principles.
In general, the Catholic and natural law traditions have held that acts that violate bedrock human goods are always wrong, whatever their benefits. That we must sooner suffer evil than commit it was defended by Socrates centuries before Christ’s birth, and by Paul in Romans decades after His ascension. Reason demands moral absolutes, and faith confirms them. A humane ethic and civilization are impossible without them.
Legitimate references to “lesser evils” in moral theology are about choosing to minimize bad consequences without oneself intending harm to any basic good. To try to get drunkards in a bar fight to use a fist, not a bat; to choose, of two dreadful presidential candidates, the one who will do less damage—these are fine choices of the “lesser evil.” Neither involves violations of any commandment or basic good or form of love.
The Church’s Teaching: Continuity and Development
So the Church’s teaching against contraception in marriage is constant, based on the human good, and—properly understood—free of exceptions. But doesn’t the Church change its teachings? Didn’t Francis change this one on a plane flight?
Answering these questions requires some background. Catholics believe that God’s revelation to humanity reached its fulfillment in the life and ministry of Jesus. It came to an end with the death of the last of the twelve Apostles. All that remains is to develop, clarify, and defend against errors the teaching completed in Christ.
And for that (and much else), Christ founded the Church. It is His mystical body with many members and Christ Himself as its head. So the Church as a whole—as a single corporate reality, distinct from any particular members—cannot err. It is a supernatural institution whose firm beliefs on faith and morals are guaranteed to be true. Like any corporate body, its beliefs can be gleaned from the consensus of its members or the pronouncements of those empowered to speak for it.
Who are those? Only Christ could decide, and Catholics believe He did. He appointed His Apostles and their successors as the Church’s leaders; we call them bishops. And as the earthly leader of those leaders, He appointed Peter, the Bishop of Rome, and his successors. We call them popes. Christ gave Peter the “keys of the Kingdom of heaven.” He said that on Peter, the “rock,” He would build his Church, which He promised to protect against the gates of hell. He gave Peter the mission of “strengthening” his “brethren,” the other Apostles—of unifying the bishops who unify the Christian flock. He promised Peter personally, and the Apostles as a group, that whatever they bound on earth would enjoy divine guarantee. He promised them the Holy Spirit to lead them “into all truth.” Whoever listened to them, He said, would be listening to Him. Apostolic teaching, as Paul wrote, comes through men but from God. The Scriptural roots of this vision of authority run deep.
So besides the virtual consensus of all (the sensus fidelium) that X is a truth of Christian faith, the Church’s beliefs can be gleaned from the official teaching of its bishops in unison, or—in the limiting case—that of their leader, the pope. Whenever the pope or all the bishops as one formally propose a principle of faith or morals as binding on all the faithful, it is the Church that speaks through them, and the Spirit that keeps the Church from error. So Christ has promised.
Bishops and popes may be geniuses or ignoramuses, saints or extravagant sinners. They have been all of these things. As private citizens of the Church, so to speak—as disciples—they might be sublime or terribly confused. They might even preach theological errors. Across the ages, some have. They have received no special knowledge by some secret game of telephone from bishop to bishop across the millennia. Even their definitive teachings don’t have the status of Sacred Scripture, which is not only infallible but inspired. Bishops are only men, who must study and pray and discern, praise God for their gains, and seek His mercy for their sins.
What’s special is their office. By His providence, the Holy Spirit sees to it that when the whole body of bishops together, or the pope himself, teaches a point of faith or morals as binding on the whole Church, what they teach is true. Not a brand new truth, but a reiteration, clarification, or application of what was revealed in Christ. Not for their glory, but for the Church—for the integrity of its faith in God’s revelation, from Christ’s ascension until His return.
Bishops who remain in communion with Peter can exercise this teaching authority in two ways. They might, though dispersed, agree in explicitly teaching that X is required for Christian faith. Or they might assemble in a single council to define X as a dogma. (Such councils have given us canonical teachings on the Trinity, Christology, ecclesiology, and more.) Likewise, the pope can definitively teach X by declaring it a requirement of the faith while invoking his Petrine authority.
The Church’s authority is attested from its earliest years. In the book of Acts, the Apostles settle disputes about revelation by discerning the truth in council. They publish their conclusions as ones that seemed fitting “to the Holy Spirit and to us.” And they transfer their authority by ordination: the laying on of hands.
The pope’s authority, too, is attested from the Church’s earliest decades. Peter’s successors in Rome, at least as early as Clement in A.D. 90, were asked to settle disputes in other regions—and did so, without protest from others—while other bishops were not. As means of communication improved, so did the popes’ ability to exercise authority from a distance, in real time. And this authority—like every Christian tenet, in every age of the Church—was made explicit and sharpened and clarified over centuries only as challenges to it arose. (As with teachings on Christ and the Trinity, its most solemn affirmation came from a global council of bishops, this one in the nineteenth century. If that seems suspiciously late for an ancient and Biblical teaching, consider that the same council affirmed the equally ancient teaching of St. Paul that we can know God’s existence by reason alone. Like every council, this one was responding to current challenges.) And yet a theologian as early as Augustine could declare that whenever Rome spoke, the case was closed; indeed, many early Church Fathers affirmed the special authority of Rome.
History has also witnessed a tight correlation between Christian groups’ unity with Rome and their harmony with each other on faith and morals. Where groups—for whatever reason, and no matter the distribution of fault—split off from Peter, they split off from each other in an endlessly ramifying fractal. Thousands of sects now seek the truth but disagree. They can’t all be right. Sincerity, prayer, and a Bible simply aren’t enough to preserve the whole of Christian truth.
They weren’t even enough to preserve what some Christians today call the doctrines of “mere Christianity.” The Bible’s table of contents itself didn’t fall from the sky. Why do Christians agree on these twenty-seven New Testament books as God’s inspired Word (despite early debate over, e.g., the Book of Revelation)? For that matter, why do we agree on the natures and divine personhood of Christ? Or on the Trinity? Not because the answers were obvious. Heresies over centuries have challenged the truth on each. Nor are all the teachings we agree on today more important to the spiritual life than those that divide us. Some are, some are not.
Rather, these debates are settled because they were clarified centuries ago by the institution that today still condemns contraception: the Church in union with Peter. Of course, denominations have also challenged some teachings that were settled before they split off. But only one thing sets the doctrines of “mere Christianity” apart from all the Catholic teachings that other groups now reject: They had the good fortune to be disputed—and thus formally clarified by the Church—early enough for today’s denominations to have inherited them generally without protest.
To see if the Church has taught something definitively, and hence infallibly, look to what the popes and bishops have taught and under what conditions. I think, as others have argued, that the norm against contraception in marriage has been taught definitively. No one would say that Pope Francis was even attempting to exercise his teaching office in casual remarks on a plane. He offered them as back-of-the-envelope casuistry based on analogies to other teachings as he recalled them. They’re to be judged by whether they cohere with those teachings—as Pope Francis would be the first to insist, having identified as a loyal son of the Church.
The Church’s constancy confirms that when Peter firmly takes the helm, the Spirit steers. And this makes all the difference. For the Christian, to love Christ is everything. Vows embolden lovers to surrender themselves. Christ’s promise to His bride, the Church, emboldens souls to stake everything on her words, in which they hear the Bridegroom’s voice. That promise has brought me and countless others into the Church and kept untold numbers aboard. It has enabled the cheerful defiance of the Church’s martyrs and the flamboyant courage of her confessors and saints. And nothing confirms it so dramatically today as the Church’s unswerving witness, against every headwind, to the high moral demands of marital love.
Sherif Girgis is a Yale Law School graduate and a PhD candidate in philosophy at Princeton.