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No. 103Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study ProgramJanuary 2003


by Brian W. Harrison

When we hear the Church's teaching on the transmission of human life coming under attack, the attackers are usually those who want to justify contraceptive practices. They denounce especially the alleged "rigorism" or "obscurantism" of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, who have continued to insist, like all their predecessors in the See of Peter, that it is always gravely sinful for spouses to manipulate, pervert or interfere with the conjugal act in such a way as to impede the possibility of procreation.

However, in recent times there has also been a growing tendency among some traditionalist Catholics to attack the encyclicals of the above Popes from the opposite direction. There are now quite a few magazine articles, booklets, and websites which loudly complain that recent papal teaching on this subject is not too severe or rigoristic, but too lax and permissive. They denounce Paul VI and John Paul II and "the post-conciliar Church" for explicitly permitting and encouraging those procedures now known generically as 'periodic continence' or Natural Family Planning (NFP). As is well known, these expressions refer to the identification and exclusive use of the naturally infertile period of the wife's cycle for having conjugal relations, in circumstances where a married couple has sufficiently serious reasons for wanting to avoid the conception of a new child. Ironically, such traditionalists often join forces with those at the opposite end of the theological spectrum – the liberal 'Catholic' dissenters – in claiming that there is no moral difference between NFP and the use of condoms, pills and other contraceptives. Using the self-same epithet employed by many of their liberal arch-enemies, they refer sarcastically to NFP as "Catholic contraception", claiming that if the Church were logically consistent she would either allow all methods of birth regulation (the liberal proposal) or forbid all methods (the traditionalist proposal).

This 'traditionalist' criticism of NFP exists in various degrees. And I should begin by acknowledging that, in its milder forms – that is to say, when it is directed more against some modern pastoral policies and practices rather than at the Church's authentic doctrine about NFP as such – the criticism seems to me reasonable and just. From what I have seen and read in my years as a priest, I agree with such critics that, among those promoting NFP, there is sometimes a one-sidedness or lack of balance. Married or engaged couples are often taught the legitimacy and the technique of the ovulation or sympto-thermal methods of NFP, but with little or no mention of that other part of the Church's teaching which insists that couples need "just reasons" (Humanae Vitae, 16; Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], #2368) for using NFP if they wish to be free from blame before God. (Indeed, quite frankly, I think we really need now from the Magisterium some less vague and more specific guidelines as to what actually constitutes a "just reason".) Very often, such couples hear nothing at all of the fact that "Sacred Scripture and the Church's teaching see in large families a sign of God's blessing and the parents'generosity" (CCC no. 2373). Still less frequently are they informed that, according to the Magisterium, merely temporal or worldly considerations are in themselves inadequate criteria for deciding when NFP can be justified: "Let all be convinced that human life and the duty of transmitting it are not limited by the horizons of this life only: their true evaluation and full significance can be understood only in reference to man's eternal destiny" (Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, no. 51, cited in CCC no. 2371). Taking into account the whole spectrum of biblical and Church teaching in this area, I personally think that we need to bring back the word "grave" into the discourse about family planning. That is, we should be teaching that the temporal or worldly problems to be anticipated by another pregnancy and birth (mainly of health or poverty) need to be really grave in character before a married couple is entitled to conclude that they have a "just reason" for them to use NFP. (I said "bring back" above, because, as I shall show in this article, that key adjective, "grave", has in fact been used by the Magisterium in this context, in certain decisions that have been generally forgotten, but by no means repudiated.)

Having said that, we must now go on to point out the serious error of those Catholic "traditionalists" who go much further than simply to rebuke an unduly lax, permissive and one-sided pastoral approach to NFP, and who claim that the practice is, in principle, immoral, and that it also stands condemned by the previous ordinary (or even extraordinary) magisterium of the Church. Never has the use of quotation marks around the word "traditionalist" been more apt than in this case, because, as we shall see, there was never at any stage a Catholic "tradition" – not even a lower-level, 'non-infallible' tradition – against the use of periodic continence. Practically as soon as the first rudimentary methods of estimating the infertile period arose, with the advance of medical science in the mid-19th century, the See of Peter immediately and explicitly gave its blessing to this practice!

Ignorant of this fact, not a few "traditionalists" are now claiming that, from an orthodox Catholic viewpoint, the very notion of "regulating" or "planning" births and family size is an affront to God, and betrays a lack of trust in his loving Providence. They claim that married couples are always morally obliged either to engage in regular conjugal relations without any intention of "planning" their family size (and so leaving that entirely up to God's Providence); or, if they are really convinced there are grave reasons for avoiding another pregnancy, to abstain totally from conjugal relations for as long as that situation lasts, without making any attempt to identify, and make use of, the naturally infertile moments of the wife's cycle.

Perhaps the most outspoken and uncompromising proponent of this pseudo-traditional view is Mr. Richard Ibranyi, a prolific 'sedevacantist' writer whose booklets, bulletins and website articles ceaselessly denounce the "apostate" Church of Vatican II and the "anti-Popes" who lead it. Ibranyi has recently published a 32-page booklet1 whose conclusions are nothing if not forthright and unambiguous. He declares: "All those who use Natural Family Planning commit mortal sin. There is a natural law upon all men's hearts and the practice of NFP violates the natural law. Pope Pius XI [in the encyclical Casti Connubii] teaches there are no exceptions and no excuses. No exceptions, even if your priest or bishop says it can be used."2

Well, did Pius XI in fact teach this doctrine in his 1930 document? To answer that question, we first need to set Casti Connubii (CC) in its historical context, since that encyclical was by no means the first statement coming out of the Vatican on this subject.

At this point we need to open a little parenthesis in order to clarify what sort of document does in fact constitute a genuine Vatican intervention. This is because some "traditionalists", including Ibranyi, refuse to accept as official, or even as authentic, any Vatican statement which is not published in its official journal, the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS). Many readers will be aware that in recent years there has been something of a revival of the late Fr. Leonard Feeney's rigorist interpretation of the dogma "outside the Church, no salvation". And those who have kept abreast of this controversy will probably be aware that one of the main Feeneyite strategies is to deny the official character, and even the authenticity, of the famous 1949 Letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston. Since this Letter, which rejects Fr. Feeney's doctrinal position, was never published in the AAS, his followers claim that it simply doesn't count as an authentic intervention of the Magisterium. (The Fathers of Vatican II obviously thought otherwise, since they cited it along with other magisterial sources in the Council's most solemn document.3) In another of his many publications, Richard Ibranyi, who happens to be a Feeneyite as well as a sedevacantist, refers to this document as "the so-called Holy Office Letter against Fr. Feeney" and brands it (in large, bold type) as "fraudulent".4

The Feeneyite error on this point is evidently based on a misapplication of canon 9 in the 1917 Code of Canon Law (paralleled by canon 8 in the 1983 Code), which states (among other things) that "universal ecclesiastical laws" must be promulgated in the AAS in order to be binding. Now, "ecclesiastical laws" are exercises of the Church's governing office. They are above all 'practical' decisions, establishing that something specific is to be done, or not to be done. Such decisions need to be carefully distinguished from those of the Church's Magisterium, or teaching office, which are above all concerned with the 'theoretical' task of clarifying the difference between true and false doctrine. Now, the 1949 Holy Office Letter clearly fell into the latter category. It decreed no penalty for Fr. Feeney or his 'St. Benedict Center', and issued no command to the Archbishop of Boston to take any specific action in this case. It limited itself to distinguishing authoritatively between true and false interpretations of the dogma under discussion. So there was absolutely no requirement for this Letter to be published in the AAS in order to be both genuine and official.

The fact is, as anyone familiar with standard Vatican procedures knows, that ever since the AAS was established by Pope St. Pius X in 1909, there have always been a great many official statements and decisions of the Popes and Vatican Congregations, including doctrinal documents from the Holy Office and Sacred Penitentiary (in moral questions especially relevant to confessors in the Sacrament of Penance), that never get to be published in the aforesaid journal. Often they are first sent privately by Rome to bishops, and perhaps only years afterwards (as in the case of the 1949 Letter) get published in some Catholic journal or other. The fact that such a journal is not itself an official Church publication by no means implies (as Feeneyites often claim) that the Roman document which it publishes is unofficial. Apart from "universal ecclesiastical laws", which do indeed have to be published in the AAS, the inclusion or non-inclusion of other types of papal and Vatican statements in the AAS is a measure, not of their "official" or "non-official" character, but rather, of the degree of public importance which the Holy See attaches to them.5

Let us now return to the subject of Natural Family Planning. It was first necessary to clarify the question about the necessity or non-necessity of AAS promulgation, in order to forestall a ready-made 'traditionalist' objection to the argument that follows below. For it so happens that several key magisterial documents approving NFP were never published in the AAS. And since they were never even published in the English-language version of Denzinger (a key source of pre-Vatican II doctrine for laymen such as Mr. Ibranyi, who has publicly admitted his own ignorance of Latin), these decisions have apparently remained unknown to those Catholics who denounce NFP as a recent 'modernist' aberration or heresy. At least, I have never seen any of those decisions cited, or even referred to, in 'traditionalist' attacks on the use of periodic continence.

The first time Rome spoke on the matter was as long ago as 1853, when the Sacred Penitentiary answered a dubium (a formal request for an official clarification) submitted by the Bishop of Amiens, France. He asked, "Should those spouses be reprehended who make use of marriage only on those days when (in the opinion of some doctors) conception is impossible?" The Vatican reply was, "After mature examination, we have decided that such spouses should not be disturbed [or disquieted], provided they do nothing that impedes generation"6 By the expression "impedes generation", it is obvious the Vatican meant the use of onanism7 (or coitus interruptus, now popularly called 'withdrawal'), condoms, etc. For otherwise the reply would be self-contradictory and make no sense.

The next time the issue was raised was in 1880, when the Sacred Penitentiary on June 16 of that year issued a more general response (i.e., not directed just to an individual bishop). This time the Vatican goes further: not only does it instruct confessors not to "disquiet" or "disturb" married couples who are already practising periodic continence; it even authorizes the confessor to take the initiative in positively suggesting that method, with due caution, to couples who may not yet be aware of it, and who, in his prudent judgment, are otherwise likely to keep on practising the "detestable crime" of onanism. One could not ask for a more obvious and explicit proof that already, more than eighty years before Vatican II, the Holy See saw a great moral difference between NFP (as we now call it) and contraceptive methods (which Catholic moralists then referred to globally as 'onanism' of different types). The precise question posed was this: "Whether it is licit to make use of marriage only on those days when it is more difficult for conception to occur?" The response is: "Spouses using the aforesaid method are not to be disturbed; and a confessor may, with due caution, suggest this proposal to spouses, if his other attempts to lead them away from the detestable crime of onanism have proved fruitless."8 The editorial notes in Denzinger indicate that this decision was made public the following year (1881) in the respected French journal Nouvelle Revue Théologique, and in Rome itself in 1883 in the Vatican-approved series Analecta Iuris Pontificii.

Now, this was the doctrine and pastoral practice that all priests well-formed in moral theology learned in seminary from the mid-19th-century onward. So before Pius XI was elected, Blessed Pius IX, Leo XIII, St. Pius X and Benedict XV all clearly approved of this status quo established by their own Sacred Penitentiary, and never showed the slightest inclination to reverse its decisions of 1853 and 1880. The future Pius XI himself was not born until 1857, four years after the initial Vatican permission was given for periodic continence. So, like all other obedient and studious priests of his era, Fr. Achille Ratti would have learned and accepted this authentic Vatican-approved teaching which allowed NFP as a means of avoiding offspring. Hence it is seems most unlikely a priori that after being elected Pope he would have had any intention of condemning that practice. It is well known that the main thing prompting him to speak out about contraception at all was the fact that the 1930 Lambeth Conference of the Anglicans had scandalized all morally upright folks by teaching, for the first time ever in the history of those claiming the name "Christian", that unnatural practices, i.e., 'onanism', could be morally acceptable. Periodic continence simply was not the issue in 1930, and in fact, Pius XI did not choose to address that issue in Casti Connubii.

The clearest proof that Richard Ibranyi's interpretation of CC – namely, that it condemns NFP as just another form of contraception – is incorrect is the fact that Pius XI himself very obviously did not interpret his own encyclical that way. Only a year and a half after it was promulgated, the Sacred Penitentiary yet again issued a statement on periodic continence, dated July 20, 1932. (Quite possibly this was because someone, somewhere, was trying to give an Ibranyi-style rigorist interpretation to CC.) This time the ruling, which simply referred back to the same dicastery's previous and positive response of half a century earlier, was eventually made public in the Roman documentary journal Texta et Documenta, series theologica (vol. 25 [1942], p. 95). The decision reads as follows (my translation):

"Regarding the Exclusive Use of the Infertile Period

"Qu. Whether the practice is licit in itself by which spouses who, for just and grave causes, wish to avoid offspring in a morally upright way, abstain from the use of marriage – by mutual consent and with upright motives – except on those days which, according to certain recent [medical] theories, conception is impossible for natural reasons.

"Resp. Provided for by the Response of the Sacred Penitentiary of June 16, 1880."9

Now, it would clearly be preposterous to plead that perhaps Pius XI "never knew" about this 1932 decision, right up to his death seven years later! In all probability he was the first to know about it! Certainly, it was made right under his own nose in the Vatican, and would have been mailed out promptly to the bishops of the world for the benefit of their moral theologians teaching future priests in their seminaries! How could the only Catholic bishop in the world not to know of this 'heretical distortion' (in Ibranyi's view) of his encyclical be the Bishop of Rome himself? Approved moral theologians everywhere continued to teach this settled and authentic doctrine about the legitimacy of NFP for just and grave reasons.10

If we look at what Pius XI actually says in CC, it is clear why he himself saw no contradiction whatever between his own encyclical and the settled doctrine of the Sacred Penitentiary decisions, both before and after the encyclical, which approved NFP. To begin with, if the Pope had wanted to get through a clear message to theologians and the Church in general that he was reversing the doctrine of his four predecessors, i.e., condemning that NFP which they had all permitted, he would never have used the language that he does in fact use in CC. He would almost certainly have used, for the sake of clarity, the accepted language of the theologians of that time, which was practically universal in speaking of sinful onanismus on the one hand (sub-divided into "strict" or "natural" onanism, meaning 'withdrawal', and "artificial" onanism, meaning condoms, chemical means, vaginal sheaths, or any other such 'appliances'), and on the other hand, continencia periodica or usus exclusivus temporum agenneseos, to refer to what we now call NFP. The Pope would have stated unambiguously that the latter, as well as the former, was now to be judged sinful and unacceptable.

It is interesting to note the difference between what Ibranyi says in order to expound his personal (and un-Catholic) doctrine on this matter, and what Pius XI says to expound the true and Catholic doctrine. Ibranyi's doctrine11 again and again repeats words like "plan" and "goal". It is summed up on p. 7, where he says that the essence of sinful contraception (defined by Ibranyi so as to include NFP as well as 'withdrawal' and condoms, pills, etc.) is "the desire to have marital relations while having deliberately planned to prevent conception". But nowhere does Pius XI stress "plans" or "goals" to avoid having children. He does not teach that such a "desire", or such a "deliberate plan", is essentially sinful. What the Pope brands as sinful is "frustrating the marriage act"12, that is, "frustrating its natural power and purpose". But when couples carry out conjugal acts on the infertile days exclusively, they are not "frustrating" the "natural power and purpose" of those acts which they perform on those days. For those particular acts do not have any "natural [procreative] power and purpose" to begin with! You cannot "frustrate" a non-existent power or purpose – or a non-existent anything!

The point comes through clearly in the most solemn (and, in my judgment, infallible) passage of the encyclical. After referring to the recent decision of the Anglicans to permit contraception (though without mentioning them by name), Pius XI declares:

The Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and the purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately deprived of its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.13

The above is for the most part the standard English translation of this passage. However, I have used the words "deprived of" at the point where that translation uses the words "frustrated in". This makes the Pope's true meaning a little clearer. The Latin verb which he uses here is destituere. And as Latin dictionaries show, this verb, when used with the ablative, as in this case (naturali sua . . . vi), means precisely "to deprive of", "to strip" or "to rob". In such constructions, the accompanying noun in the ablative case is that thing of which the rightful owner has been "deprived", or which has been "stripped" or "robbed" from him. Now, of course, you cannot "deprive" anyone of something he never possessed to begin with. You cannot "rob" a man with no money, any more than you can "strip" him if he is already naked. Likewise, since conjugal acts carried out precisely in the infertile period do not, by the very nature of the case, have any natural procreative potential to begin with, it is obvious that they cannot be "deprived" or "robbed" of that potential.

Hence it is clear that Pius XI's solemn censure cannot be referring to NFP (periodic continence). He must be referring only to those conjugal acts which, if it were not for the unnatural intervention of one or both spouses, would have retained the said "natural power to generate life". In other words, the Pope's condemnation applies exclusively to conjugal acts carried out during what the spouses understand to be the wife's fertile period, but which they deliberately pervert (whether by 'withdrawal', condoms, pills, or any other technique) so as to deprive them of that fertility. They thus dare to raise their hands, as it were, against the approach of the Creator Himself; as if they were traffic policemen with the right to signal orders to the Lord, obliging Him to take a detour: "Stop! Halt! Go back! Not now! No entry allowed here for you!" Couples using NFP, on the other hand, are not guilty of any such presumption. They are respecting God's sovereignty over human life and death, and are simply following their God-given instincts, and using their God-given conjugal right, at those times when the Creator Himself has already made it clear, by the way He has fashioned human female biology, that He has no will to use their spousal love in order to create new life.


Pius XI's successor, Pope Pius XII, confirmed yet again the moral acceptability of NFP, for "grave reasons", in two allocutions of 1951 (on October 29, to the Italian Catholic Union of Midwives, and on November 26, to the National Congress of the 'Family Front' and the Association of Large Families). Since then, of course, we have had still further confirmations of the same doctrine from Popes Paul VI (in Humanae Vitae) and John Paul II (in Familiaris Consortio and many other statements). We are looking here at a long and totally unbroken tradition by which the See of Peter has approved the use by spouses of periodic continence in order to avoid conception, when their personal circumstances truly constitute a just cause for that avoidance. That sort of Catholic tradition ought to be enough to satisfy any Catholic traditionalist.


1. R.J.M. Ibranyi, Natural Family Planning Is Contraception (Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, 2002). I here refer to Ibranyi as the author of this work, although his title page informs the reader that it is actually "by" the following array of divine and heavenly influences: "The Precious Blood of Jesus Christ, the Grace of the God of the Holy Catholic Church, the Mediation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Good Counsel & Crusher of Heretics, the Protection of Saint Joseph, Patriarch of the Holy Family [and] the Intercession of Saint Michael the Archangel". Only at the very bottom of this list of supernal (and clearly infallible) authorities does Mr. Ibranyi reveal that the little book was also produced with his own "cooperation". It is good to see that the virtue of modesty is still alive and well out in the town of 'TorC', New Mexico.

2. Ibranyi, op. cit., p. 32.

3. See Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, article 16, footnote 19.

4. R.J.M. Ibranyi, The Salvation Dogma (Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, 2003), p. 63.

5. Thus, all one can reasonably conclude from the non-publication of the 1949 Holy Office letter in the AAS is that the Holy See, and almost certainly Pius XII himself, who was personally at that time the Prefect of the Holy Office, apparently did not think the local storm which had brewed up in Boston around Fr. Feeney was significant enough to bring to the attention of the whole Catholic world in a high-profile way. That does not, of course, imply that the doctrinal question raised in the Feeney controversy was unimportant in itself. But it seems that all the rest of the Catholic world by that time was peacefully holding the less rigorous view of the 'salvation dogma', which had long been taught explicitly by approved theologians and which had also been briefly taught by Pius XII in his 1943 Encyclical Mystici Corporis (see Denzinger-Schonmetzer [DS], #3821). And so Rome, it appears, did not want to create the impression that this was an issue causing serious division, confusion and controversy throughout the whole Catholic world.

6. Quoted in J. Montánchez, Teología Moral [Buenos Aires, 1946], p. 654, present writer's translation.

7. See Genesis 38: 8-10, wherein we read that God slew Onan for the practice of spilling his seed on the ground in order to prevent procreation.

8. "Qu:. An licitus sit usus matrimonii illis tantum diebus, quibus difficilior est conceptio?

"Resp.: Coniuges praedicto modo utentes inquietandos non esse, posseque confessarium sententiam de qua agitur, illis coniugibus, caute tamen, insinuare, quos alia ratione a detestabili onanismi crimine abducere frustra tentaverit" (DS 3148, present writer's translation given above). This decision was published in Nouvelle Revue Théologique, vol. 13 (1881), pp. 459-460, and then in Analecta Iuris Pontificii, vol. 22 (1883), p. 249.

9. "De uso exclusivo temporum agenneseos:

"Qu.:An licita in se sit praxis coniugum, qui, cum ob iustas et graves causas prolem honesto modo evitare malint, ex mutuo consensu et motivo honesto a matrimonio utendo abstinent praeterquam diebus, quibus secundum quorundam recentiorum theoremata ob rationes naturales conceptio haberi non potest?

"Resp.: Provisum est per Resp. S. Paenitentiariae, 16. Iun. 1880."

10. For instance, Heribert Jone, Moral Theology (1st edition 1929), section 760; J. Montánchez (op. cit., 1946), p. 654; F. De Larraga, O.P., Prontuario de Teología Moral, (Madrid & Buenos Aires, 1950), p. 449-450, citing the 1880 Vatican decision; A. Tanquerey, Brevior Synopsis Theologiae Moralis et Pastoralis (Paris, Desclée, 1933), p. 653. The great Fr. Adolphus Tanquerey was the author of some of the most widely used and universally approved theological textbooks of the early 20th century. So it is particularly significant that he, less than three years after the promulgation of CC, could write the following (on the page cited above). After explaining the mortally sinful character of onanism ('withdrawal', condoms, etc.), Tanquerey asserts (with emphasis added here): "Ab onanismo omnino differt praxis copulam solummodo iis temporibus quibus conceptio raro accidit. . . . Talis agendi ratio non est peccaminosa ex S. Paenitentiaria (16 Jun. 1880)". Translation: "Totally different from onanism is the practice of having conjugal relations only at those times when conception rarely occurs. . . . Such a practice is not sinful, according to the Sacred Penitentiary (June 16, 1880)."

11. Ibranyi, 2002, op. cit., pp. 6-7.

12. "vitiando naturae actum" (DS 3716, = Dz 2239).

13. In this standard English translation of the passage (with emphasis added here), I have replaced the words "frustrated in" by "deprived of". The original Latin text of the emphasized words is "quemlibet matrimonii usum in quo exercendo, actus de industria hominum, naturali sua vitae procreandae vi destituatur" (cf. DS 3717 or Dz 2240).

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