Catholic Medical Quarterly

The Journal of the Catholic Medical Association (UK)

Building knowledge. Building faith. Protecting the vulnerable.

Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 63(2) May 2013




Photo of Ian JessimanIt was my privilege to have been in Rome for a couple of years during the second Vatican Council. I was there when it opened, sang in the choir for the closure of the first session and was present for the Coronation of Paul VI. The Council had come to us all as a complete surprise and we must not forget that it was John XXIII and, subsequently the hierarchy of the world, who asked us all to change. And what a change it was to be! The whole church, certainly in western Europe, moved from initial bewilderment through joyful elation to a tremendous feeling of enthusiasm and mutual love. The laity were, at last, being treated like full members of the church rather than as ‘the simple faithful’ and there was a feeling that we were all going forward together.

Sadly the curia, the Vatican civil service, whose initial drafts for the Council documents had been largely thrown out by the Bishops, both resented and resisted any proposals for change. John XXIII had set up the Papal Commission on Population, Family and Birth, and Paul VI introduced liturgical changes based on the early practices of the Church. An era of close cooperation between the hierarchy and laity began to take shape with the institution of pastoral councils, finance committees, etc, both in parishes and dioceses. Sadly some matters seem to have been left to take their course without any guidance, and some aspects of Church teaching, notably religious education, seem to have been the subject of new and uncoordinated methods which led to &/or followed from uncertainty over what to teach.

Into the centre of this, and almost completely out of the blue came Humanae Vitae. It was contrary to expectations, insofar as the deliberations of the Papal Commission had become known. It sought to show that it was possible by the exercise of reason to deduce from natural law that contraception was wrong. The majority of the the Papal Commission, which eventually comprised nearly 80 members from cardinals to married laity and from both sides of the debate, was understood to have concluded that this was not possible. The encyclical postulated that certain matters were apparent from natural law, but failed to give reasons why. It was stated that the unitive and procreative aspects of the individual act of intercourse were inseparable, and that to do so was intrinsically evil under any circumstances. It also stated that there is an indissoluble bond decreed by God between the meaning of unity in marriage and the meaning of procreation. In so doing it took as given that which it claimed to demonstrate. If these conclusions were so clear it seems remarkable that the papal commission had not already pointed them out.

More notably, it was not claimed at the time that the document was infallible, nor that the Pope based his conclusions on authority. Perhaps it would have resolved some of the argument had he done so, but the outcome could, if possible, have been even worse. At the same time it made it glaringly obvious that, for all the promise (?) of the Council, the opinions of the laity were of little or no significance, even where they had been specifically sought (the Papal Commission).

Pia Matthews’ paper is an excellent resume of the whole picture. I agree with her that ‘traditional moral theology had been found wanting and was in need of renewal.’ It still is. Many in the Church have been waiting 50 years for this.

From a medical or scientific viewpoint, the Church’s position on contraception can be readily understood in the light of St Thomas Aquinas’ knowledge of biology and reproduction. St Thomas did not, as has sometimes been claimed, consider the semen to have “contained” a human life – an idea (“a homunculus”) which only appeared long after his death with the invention of the microscope in the 17th Century. It is instructive to try to put ourselves in the shoes of St Thomas as we look at the process of human reproduction. Translation from his Latin is made doubly difficult by the fact that modern English words inevitably carry connotations of our modern scientific understanding of the world. However, it is clear that he regarded the moment of ejaculation (or immediately thereafter) as the critical instant or key event in reproduction. This is, of course, a long way from modern scientific understanding. As a result ‘the disordered emission of the seed’, that is by ‘acts against nature’ (amongst which is masturbation) was seen as a sin second only in gravity to homicide. (Summa Contra Gentiles III, 122) Sins against nature were also more serious than (amongst others) fornication, adultery, or rape (Summa Theologica, 2-2, 154, 11-12)

The Encyclical was intended to address the question of the use of contraception in marriage, and certainly not to facilitate its use in transient liaisons. In no way did the debate call into question the Church’s teaching on abortion or euthanasia, which I endorse. I do not accept the ‘morning after pill’ and recognise, as did the Commission, that ‘the pill’ as now available is not just contraceptive but also has an anti-implantatory effect. You rightly commend Natural Family Planning which has none of the moral uncertainties of other methods, though in general practice I did not find many who wanted to use it.

Sadly there can be little doubt that Humanae Vitae was a disaster for the western Church. We can never know the exact figures, but large numbers left the Church, including, it has been estimated, 100,000 priests. Some had left the Church because of the Council, but my personal experience suggests they were many fewer.

I am disappointed that the Catholic Medical Quarterly seems to disregard the conscientiously held position of many of the older members of the Catholic Medical Association, let alone the views of the larger part of the Catholic population. We will never heal the fracture in the Church if we are not able to discuss such matters openly and without acrimony. Unlike the Editor I sincerely hope, for the sake of the Church in the future, that Humanae Vitae can still be modified and amended.


See also
Ian Jessiman, Contraception and Honesty, Catholic Medical Quarterly, August 1983, p 130,

Ian Jessiman St Thomas Aquinas and Procreation, Catholic Medical Quarterly, February 1985, p 35).

and Invited response