See our websites!

"It is through conscience that human beings see and recognize the demands of the divine law. They are bound to follow their conscience faithfully in everything they do."

Religious Liberty, no 2.

Experience and Moral Theology:

Reflections on Humanae Vitae Forty Years Later

by Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler

in INTAMS review 14 (2008) 156-169.

(published on our website with the necessary permissions)


Prof Todd SalzmanI.          Introduction

Two years ago, in a discussion with church officials on Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, we cited examples from human experience that might justify a married couple choosing to use contraception. That choice, of course, violates Humanae Vitae’s prohibition of artificial contraception as intrinsically disordered (intrinsece inhonestum). A diocesan chancellor responded that human experience has nothing to do with magisterial teaching. This statement demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the Catholic natural law tradition and the role and function of human experience as a source of moral knowledge. On the 25th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Richard McCormick noted the importance of “the place of experience and human reflection” (1) for analyzing the encyclical’s teaching. Analyzing the role of human experience in the formulation of Church teaching continues to be of central importance on the encyclical’s 40th anniversary. This essay engages such an analysis, which develops in two sections. First, it explains human experience as a source of moral knowledge; second, it investigates and critically analyzes three types of human experience relevant to magisterial teaching on contraception.

II.        Experience as a Source of Moral Knowledge

Prof Michael LawlerCatholic moral theology generally accepts a quadrilateral of sources of moral knowledge, scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. (2) Any Catholic moral theology seeking to be normative will, of necessity, have to prioritize, interpret, and coordinate these four sources into a comprehensive and comprehensible moral theory. In this essay, we focus only on one dimension of that quadrilateral, namely, human experience, which Gaudium et spes lauds as opening “new roads to truth.” (3) We note here without dwelling on it that there is a quasi-schism in contemporary Catholic moral theology, spawned in large part by Humanae Vitae’s absolute prohibition of artificial contraception, between theologians who are generally called traditionalists and theologians who are generally called revisionists. “Traditionalist” is the label assigned to moral theologians who support and defend absolute magisterial norms; “revisionist” is the label assigned to moral theologians who question some absolute magisterial norms. (4) These two schools differ in their use of experience in the construction of their moral theology. Traditionalists argue that human experience is to be judged by moral norms derived from moral principles; revisionists argue that experience can help to formulate moral norms and contextualize moral principles. The traditionalist approach to experience is deductive, from principles and norms to experience; the revisionist approach is inductive, from experience to norms and principles.

The Catholic natural law tradition teaches (5) and Pope John Paul II affirms (6) the relevance of experience for formulating moral norms and criteria to judge the rightness or wrongness of an act.  For example, how do we know that adultery is intrinsically wrong? Is it because God says so? Is it because the magisterium says so? Or is it because human experience has demonstrated that performing such an act damages one’s relationship to one’s self, to one’s spouse and family, to the spouse and family of another, to the social or community fabric, and ultimately to God? Critically and theologically interpreted human experience, of both past and present, helps to formulate norms to judge experience; it serves as a window onto the normative. To deny the validity and moral relevance of human experience for assisting in the formulation of norms and criteria for judging the rightness or wrongness of acts reflects a reductionist methodology where the only legitimate human experience is that which conforms to, and confirms, established norms. It was such a methodology, in large part, which allowed the magisterium’s approbation of slavery until Pope Leo XIII’s rejection of it in 1890 and the denial of religious freedom until the Second Vatican Council’s approbation of it in 1965. Noonan comments with respect to the magisterium’s late condemnation of slavery: “it was the experience of unfreedom, in the gospel’s light, that made the contrary shine clear.” (7)

Both traditionalists and revisionists are challenged to discern what human experience may lead to the revision of norms and what human experience is to be judged immoral by those norms. The former is authentic human experience that leads to human flourishing; the latter is inauthentic human experience that does not lead to human flourishing. We maintain that a deeper reflection on, and integration of, human experience into Catholic ethical method would lead to the revision of some absolute sexual norms, among them  the norm on artificial contraception. Before we consider three types of experience relevant to the teaching on contraception and before we provide specific examples  distinguishing authentic and inauthentic experience, we define experience and explain a common misuse of experience in the social sciences to support normative conclusions.

II A.        Human Experience Defined

As an incarnational theology, our ethical method recognizes that values are known as experienced realities. Values may be defined in revelation, but they are so defined in dialogue with experience, culture, history, context, linguistic and conceptual frameworks. It is out of this dialogical process that criteria for judging the rightness or wrongness of an act must be discerned. Humanae Vitae and subsequent Church teaching on contraception tend towards a narrow definition of human experience to affirm the preestablished norm. We allow for a broader hermeneutic of experience and concur with Rahner’s methodological insight, “the house of Christian meaning lies in the experience of the Christian subject.” (8)

Frequently, in both moral and systematic theology, experience, without further specification, is used to embrace the broad range of human cognitional and emotional operations. That is a vast category, which must be further defined. We concur with Schner’s definition. Experience is “the conscious apprehension of inner or outer reality through senses and participation in specific events and the knowledge gained by such participation...the undergoing of life and the accumulation of knowledge thereby...experimentation, testing, or trial.” (9) We emphasize that experienceis never a stand alone source of moral theology, and that “my experience” alone is never a source at all. Authority is granted to communal experience as a source of moral theology only in constructive conversation with the three other sources, scripture, tradition, and reason. Such experience, as consciously apprehended by and actively participated in by humans is never neutral, pure, unadulterated experience. It is always construed or socially constructed by the interpretation of both individuals and communities in a specific socio-historical context. It is, therefore, also dialectical, differently construed, perhaps, by “me,” by “us,” and by “them,” traditionalist and revisionist theologians, for instance. In a Church that is a communion of believers, (10) some of whom are laity, some of whom are theologians, and some of whom are bishops including the Bishop of Rome, the resolution of different construals of experience to arrive at moral truth requires an open, respectful, charitable, and prayerful dialogue, such as that lauded and rhetorically embraced by Pope John Paul II. (11)   

Susan Secker highlights the importance of value-based, interpretive human experience, that is, reflections on the meaning of daily living, as a source of moral knowledge that serves as a “window onto the normative.” (12) This type of experience reveals “patterns of meanings” that are shaped by the values of a tradition but have not yet been fully integrated into that tradition. (13) We seek patterns of meaning shaped by the values of tradition reflected in the lived experiences of married couples who, for morally legitimate reasons, use contraceptives to regulate fertility and practice responsible parenthood. The social sciences and statistical analysis can provide insight into these patterns. But, first, an important caveat.

II B.        Causation vs. Correlation

Anyone familiar with statistical analysis knows that statistics can be, and have been, used to defend varied and even contrary positions. Such is the case too with the statistical use of human experience (14) to defend or challenge magisterial teaching on a host of issues. While the danger of misuse undoubtedly exists, it does not render accurate statistical information useless. We must be controlled in collecting and analyzing data, and particularly controlled in the prescriptive conclusions we draw from such analysis. A common misuse of  statistical analysis is to confuse causation and correlation. Causation claims a cause and effect relationship between two variables, which can be determined only by an experimental research protocol that successively controls for a series of variables that could be the cause of the effect. It is extremely difficult to establish a causal relationship between two variables that happen to follow one another. Correlation claims only an interrelationship between two variables, which can be easily determined by non-experimental studies or simple observation. Such studies and observation do not establish any cause and effect relationship between two variables that happen to follow one another. Correlation studies “merely establish relationships that exist between variables and define these relationships in terms of their strength and directionality.” (15) Correlation is frequently misconstrued as causation, especially by non-statisticians and already-convinced observers, and such misconstrual leads to inaccurate conclusions and the citing of false “evidence” to support a particular position. Such misconstrual is a logical fallacy, coded as post hoc ergo propter hoc, after this therefore because of this; A follows B, therefore B caused A. Not quite so simple.

I walk along the shoulder of a freeway and, as I walk along, there is a crash. Post hoc ergo propter hoc? After I was walking along the shoulder of the freeway, there was a crash. Therefore, I caused the crash? Not at all. There is temporal correlation between my walking and the crash but no demonstrated causality between my walking and the crash. There is another possible scenario. As I am walking  along the shoulder of the freeway, I suddenly decide to dash across the freeway to the other side and, in an effort to avoid hitting me, a car swerves and crashes into another car in the neighboring lane. Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Yes, definitely. Because I dashed across the freeway, a car swerved and crashed into another car. There is a clear causal connection between my dashing across the freeway and the crash. By dashing across the freeway, I caused the crash.Sometimes, when A follows B, B has caused A, but not nearly as often as we might think.

We find correlation posing as causation in Humanae Vitae’s defense of its teaching against contraception. Reflecting “on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control” the encyclical notes that people need to consider “how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” (16)   We may reasonably ask, however, what is the relationship between contraception and “marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards”? Does contraception cause adultery and the general lowering of moral standards or is there merely a correlation between contraception and these other variables? Do contraception and adultery simply exist at the same time, much as my walking along the shoulder of the freeway and the crash that happens as I walk but not because I walk?  Since no causal relationship between contraception and the general lowering of moral standards was or has ever been proven, we can reasonably ask what is the strength and directionality of any correlation between them compared to the strength and directionality of other correlations relevant in analyzing human experience to derive a moral norm on contraception? Is there any correlation that might militate against magisterial teaching, especially within a just and loving marital relationship? The magisterium clearly and absolutely prohibits pre-marital sex, adultery, and more generally any sexual objectification of men and women. Since the focus of the encyclical, however, is on responsible parenthood within a marital relationship, we would expect magisterial teaching to focus on variables that facilitate or detract from responsible parenthood?

Studies indicate a strong directional correlation between the variables of increased fertility rates, poverty, and death, whereas the strength of the correlation between the variables of “marital infidelity” and the “general lowering of moral standards” is unclear. This is especially true within a just and loving marital relationship. To fail to make the distinction between causation and correlation is a serious statistical error. To legitimately select certain correlated variables over others in order to justify the absolute norm prohibiting contraception demands a determination of the strength and directionality of the correlations and criteria and justification for why these variables and not others are prioritized. While marital infidelity is certainly an important issue, the correlation between actual human life (as distinct from potential life or a contralife will), human dignity, and responsible parenthood appears to us higher in the hierarchy of values and, therefore, more relevant than any vague “general lowering of moral standards.”  

Humanae Vitae’s apologists also confuse causation and correlation when citing data to defend its teaching. In their defense of natural family planning (NFP), the only morally acceptable form of birth control according to Catholic teaching, Flannery and Koterski cite with approval Ronald Lawler’s (17) attempt to draw a causal connection between Catholic sexual teaching and marital stability: “Every study shows,” they say, without referencing a single study, “that marriage goes better for couples who practice what the church teaches about sexuality. Their divorce rate is less than 5 percent while the rate for Catholic couples in general is over 40 percent.” (18) This is a very sweeping assertion that specifies neither what church-approved sexual practices couples are following nor the study design that isolated the variables “Catholic sexual teaching” and “marital stability” and determined a statistically causal relationship between them. Post hoc ergo propter hoc? After I walked on the shoulder of the freeway, there was an accident; therefore, I caused the accident. After some spouses followed some Catholic sexual teaching (NFP?), their marriages were found to be stable; therefore, following Catholic sexual teaching caused their marriages to be stable. This causal relationship has not been proven. It takes a study much more statistically sophisticated than any ever cited by Ronald Lawler to establish a causal relationship. Besides, there are a host of other variables correlated with marital stability, having parents who have not divorced, level of education, mature age at marriage, level of religiosity, to name only a few. These variables would have to be factored in along with Catholic sexual teachings and all of them would have to be carefully controlled in relation to each other before any valid conclusion about causation could be made.  It is much more likely that the unreferenced studies show no more than a correlation between marital  stability and Catholic sexual teaching, and that already convinced observers have jumped to an easy but false conclusion. General census studies at the time indicate a lowered divorce rate for those who attend church regularly and an even lower rate for those who attend church and pray at home. (19) It might be that church attendance and prayer-life are more directly related to marital stability than any following of Catholic sexual teaching in general and the norm prohibiting artificial contraception in particular.

Given the countless number of variables found in human experience, highly sophisticated research is required to isolate and directly compare one variable to another while controlling for the impact of yet other variables. Without such controlled research, all one can claim is correlation rather than causation. (20) For correlation analysis leading to the formulation of norms, it is important to develop criteria to interpret and to prioritize correlational variables. The establishment of criteria for interpreting and prioritizing variables to be used in formulating norms to guide sexual behavior is an important methodological consideration as Catholic ethical method seeks to use human experience to formulate its teaching on sexual morality. Contraception and adultery undoubtedly coexist in American Catholic lives, that is, they are correlational, but there is no credible research that demonstrates that contraception causes adultery. A question then arises: is the correlation between contraception and adultery, which might support Catholic teaching on contraception, to be given greater priority than the correlation between high fertility rates, poverty, and early death in developing countries, which might challenge that teaching? Some criteria for selecting variables for moral prescription will become evident in our exploration of the different types of experience that should inform Catholic teaching on contraception.

III.       Experience and Contraception: A Critical Analysis

A.        Cultural Experience and Contraception

One type of experience that provides a basis of reflection for the formulation of moral norms is cultural experience. Gaudium et spes teaches that “thanks to the experience of past ages, the progress of the sciences, and the treasures hidden in the various forms of human culture, the nature of man himself is more clearly revealed and new roads to truth are opened.” It goes on to add that “from the beginning of [the Church’s] history, she has learned to express the message of Christ with the help of the ideas and terminology of various peoples.” (21) It is undoubtedly true that the Church is called on occasion to be countercultural, to confront cultural theories and actions that do not lead to human flourishing, for example, the rabid individualism rampant in the cultures of the United States and Europe. It is also undoubtedly true, however, that reflection on cultural experience can lead to insight into moral truth and facilitate the communication of that truth within the culture and from one culture to another. This second case is especially true when a particular cultural context requires specific norms to address specific moral problems. The pastoral letters of the Bishops of the United States on the economy and nuclear war are examples of the dialectic between culture and the development of moral norms. The letters draw on the traditional Catholic principles of justice and fairness to formulate culturally specific norms, but the understanding of justice and fairness they evince is transformed in light of the specific and cultural experiences to which they respond.

There is a serious disconnect between the universal teaching prohibiting artificial contraception and particular cultural and contextual issues that the teaching does not  consider. We briefly explore two of those issues. First, the Bishops of Canada note the following in their statement preceding the 1994 U.N. Conference on Population and Development in Cairo: “We are convinced that unchecked growth in population is a function of poverty.” (22) There is substantial evidence indicating a strong correlation in developing countries between high birth rates and extreme poverty leading to disease and early death. (23) There is also evidence that family planning policies that use contraceptives have reduced fertility rates in many developing countries by more than half. (24) The populations in these countries are least able to provide adequate nutrition, care, and basic needs for children born into poverty as a result of, among other factors, failed “natural” attempts to regulate reproduction. It is arguable that not using artificial birth control in these cases is irresponsible and reflects a contralife will. More than 20,000 people die every day due to extreme poverty. (25) It would seem that in many cases artificial contraception would actualize and realize the good of life, not directly attack it as some traditionalist theologians claim. (26)

Given the strong correlation between fertility and poverty, the Canadian Bishops’ proposal is eminently reasonable and reflects the principle of responsible parenthood:  “We recognize that a couple’s responsibility to decide the number and spacing of their children must take into account a number of factors: the family’s own limits in regards to health as well as their material resources; the demographic reality of the country where the couple lives, and also the world’s demographic context. This discernment will be based on the couple’s own ethical and religious convictions, as well as the moral implications of the family planning methods being considered.” (27) Archbishop Renato Martino, head of the Holy See’s delegation to the Cairo conference and head of the Vatican’s observer mission at the United Nations, concurs. “Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person must be the ultimate guiding norm for such a [population] policy. This policy should foster the family based on marriage and must sustain parents, fathers and mothers, in their mutual and responsible decisions with regard to the procreation and education of children.” (28) Martino does lament the fact that “the natural methods of family planning receive only passing mention” in the conference’s draft plan of action, and notes that the Vatican’s joining the consensus should in no way be seen as condoning methods of birth control that the Catholic Church considers morally unacceptable. (29) However, the emphasis in these statements is on “contraception policies that are coercive” as governmental policies (30) and do not respect the freedom of couples to decide such practices responsibly. The method for approaching contraception in both the Canadian Bishops’ and Archbishop Martino’s statements demonstrates sensitivity to cultural and relational contexts, socio-economic realities, and a serious attempt to incarnate the universal principles of responsible parenthood, human dignity, and respect for individual consciences in light of these unique circumstances. This method for analyzing and allowing human experience to inform, if not the formulation of the norm guiding marital reproduction, at least its application, is in stark contrast to the universalist, contextless, a-cultural ethical method grounding the absolute norm prohibiting contraception in Humanae Vitae.

A second disconnect between the universal teaching prohibiting contraception and the diverse existential cultural contexts in which marital relationships exist is evident in another statement by Martino at the Cairo conference. He laments the fact that the document “does not give due attention to the mutual love and decision making that characterize the conjugal relationship” and further asserts marriage as “an equal partnership between husband and wife.” The Church’s only approved method of birth regulation, NFP, presumes “mutual love and decision making” between the spouses within the marital relationship. While this may be the ideal of a marital relationship, it does not reflect the cultural and relational reality of the vast majority of married couples throughout the world whose relationships exist within, and are shaped by, patriarchal cultures. (31) In these cultures, the husband is the authority in the household and in the marital relationship, and the fundamental equality required to freely practice NFP is absent. In this existential context, it may be oppressive for the Church to prescribe an approach to regulating birth that is counter-cultural and creates an undue burden, especially for women. Given the varied existential contexts of lived marital relationships across the world, sexual norms, much like social norms, cannot be a “one size fits all” morality. Just as justice and fairness are general principles that must be adapted to a specific historical, cultural context, so too responsible parenthood must be adapted to a specific historical, cultural context. In that adaptation, it can be irresponsible and oppressive to teach an absolute norm that can actually damage human dignity within the marital relationship.


III B.        Scientific Experience and Contraception

Another type of experience is contemporary scientific experience and the expansion of scientific knowledge. New discoveries and technologies challenge traditional moral answers based on inaccurate or incomplete scientific knowledge and raise new moral questions that require new answers. Some answers will be drawn from traditional moral principles, but in a new, nuanced way that may lead to the revision of a norm. While the magisterium has emphasized the need to integrate the discoveries of the human sciences in formulating moral truth, (32) it seems to be selective in this commitment. This selectivity may be indicated in three distinct ways: first, when it ignores what the sciences have to contribute to the discernment of moral truth when such a contribution would challenge a pre-established norm; second, when it allows science, defined in a narrowly biological sense, to disproportionately inform the normative; and third, when it misrepresents or falsifies scientific evidence. We consider each case in turn.

First, Kevin O’Rourke notes that in Pope John Paul II’s 2004 allocution on Artificial Nutrition and Hydration (ANH) and the Persistent Vegetative State (PVS) patient, scientific studies are virtually ignored in informing the allocution. This lacuna leads O’Rourke to assert that one of the assumptions of the allocution could be stated as follows: “The medical facts and findings of several professional societies, study groups, research papers, court findings and decisions, are not to be considered valid scientific evidence.” This assumption he finds disturbing since generally the Holy See “encourages and values scientific research.” (33) In the case of ANH and the PVS patient, the science is ignored. In the case of poverty and fertility rates, while the science is acknowledged as noted above in the case of the Canadian Bishops, its logical implications are not embraced and allowed to transform a preestablished norm. We have to state, in all fairness, that studies indicating the correlation between high fertility, poverty, and early death, and the strength and directionality of this correlation, were not as many or as well known when Humanae Vitae was published. However, as this  information has become more established and readily accessible, and even recognized by the magisterium, we would expect that such insights would be incorporated into the (re)formulation of norms. In the case of the contraception norm as a means for facilitating responsible parenthood, much like the teaching on ANH and the PVS patient, such insights seem to be ignored.

Second, it is interesting that the only exception for the use of contraception is for “therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from ‘provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.’” (34) While contraception can never be justified regardless of the relational strain an unplanned pregnancy places on a marital relationship or the prospect of a child being born into abject poverty with a high probability of early death, treating a woman’s bodily disease justifies its use. This is the type of reasoning that has correctly warranted the label of physicalism or biologism in magisterial teaching. One finds this same type of physicalist reasoning in the papal allocution (35) and recent Statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) (36) on ANH for PVS patients. Investigating this reasoning will shed light on Humanae Vitae’s (and the CDF’s) use of scientific experience to warrant an exception to the absolute norm prohibiting contraception and the inconsistency of this reasoning with regard to other teachings.

Following the publication of John Paul II’s papal allocution requiring, “in principle,” ANH for the PVS patient, the United States’ Bishops were struggling to discern the allocution’s pastoral implications for the faithful. Questions for clarification were posed by Bishop William S. Skylstad, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a letter of July 11, 2005. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its response to those questions on August 1, 2007, affirming the fundamental stance of the allocution. In regards to the question of whether or not ANH are required for a PVS patient, the CDF’s response is yes, “the administration of food and water even by artificial means is, in principle, an ordinary and proportionate means of preserving life.” There are, however, two exceptions to the norm.

First, when nutrition and hydration “cannot be assimilated by the patient’s body,” and second, when they “cannot be administered to the patient without causing significant physical discomfort.” (37) It is significant that the two exceptions are granted on the basis of biological processes determined by a physician that would warrant the withdrawal of ANH. In effect, the normative is determined by the biological and decision-making is reserved for the physician as technician. In earlier statements on this issue, however, a more relational approach is taken. While there is a presumption in favor of ANH it may be discontinued “in light of a careful assessment of the burdens and benefits of nutrition and hydration for the individual patient and his or her family and community.” (38) Treatment may be considered excessively burdensome physically, psychologically, and economically for the patient, the patient’s family, or the community. (39) Thus, relational and biological considerations are central in analyzing the patient’s situation and applying the norm. In the later allocution and CDF statement, these considerations are reduced to the biological. Similarly, in Humanae Vitae, the only exception for the use of artificial contraception is the biological exception. In both the CDF statement on ANH and the PVS patient and Humanae Vitae, a disproportionate normative value is placed on the biological considerations to warrant an exception to the norm. Both normative stances opt for a biological and physicalist, over a personalist and relational, interpretation of human experience.

A third issue that the Church’s official teaching on contraception does not adequately consider is the reality of HIV/AIDS, especially in developing countries. It continues to discourage the use of condoms to prevent HIV, within or outside of marriage, and has even falsely represented scientific evidence to defend its stance.  The late Cardinal Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, claimed publicly that the HIV virus can penetrate through a condom. He also claimed that promoting condom use leads to sexual promiscuity. (40) The first claim is blatantly false. Latex condoms, when used properly, do prevent the spread of the HIV virus. The second claim raises what is no more than a correlational relationship up to a causal relationship, though there is no scientifically demonstrated causal connection between contraception and sexual promiscuity.

There are at least two distinct issues regarding HIV and the use of condoms: protecting life and contraception. Given the cultural, socio-economic context of people in developing countries as well as in developed countries where HIV medications are unaffordable for many, the principles of human dignity, responsible parenthood, and marital love would certainly justify the use of condoms within a marital relationship where one spouse is HIV positive. (41) While attempts to rationally and theologically justify the teaching against contraception (a teaching that seems rationally and theologically indefensible) is problematic, the attempt to defend that teaching by using false “scientific” evidence and unsubstantiated statements of correlation is scandalous, especially when human life hangs in the balance.

III C.        Theological Experience and Contraception

The United States’ Bishops are currently in the process of writing a pastoral letter on marriage. While many bishops support the draft as “a realistic assessment of the challenges faced by married couples today…critics charge that it relies too heavily on social sciences and not enough on Catholic theology.” (42) While the critics seem to be ignoring magisterial statements on the importance of the social sciences and human experience in discerning moral truth, they also seem to be overlooking a third type of experience that unites theology and human experience and sheds further insight on the teaching on contraception. Theological experience designates the interconnected theological reality called sensus fidei and reception. We consider each in turn.

Sensus fidei is a theological concept which denotes“the instinctive capacity of the whole Church to recognize the infallibility of the Spirit’s truth” (43) and the spontaneous judgment of loyal and faithful Catholics that has “theological weight.” (44) Sensus fidei is a spiritual charism of discernment, possessed by the whole Church, which knows and receives a teaching as apostolic truth and, therefore, to be believed. The concept was sharply focused for moderns by John Henry Newman’s famous essay On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine. Newman suggested that sensus fidei was “a sort of instinct, or phronema, deep in the bosom of the Mystical Body of Christ,” and cited with approval Moehler’s opinion that the Spirit of God arouses in the faithful “an instinct, an eminently Christian tact, which leads it to all true doctrine.” (45) Sensus fidei belongs in the realm of knowledge, but it is not rational, discursive knowledge. Whether one calls it “instinct” or “spontaneous judgment” or “intuition,” its locus is the lived experience we articulated above: “the conscious apprehension of inner or outer reality through senses and mind…the undergoing of life and the accumulation of knowledge thereby…experimentation, testing or trial.” It “entails a structure of beliefs, opinions, affective attractions, and behavioral tendencies” considered valid because “it is testified to by the Spirit as a requirement and way of following Christ.” (46)

The Second Vatican Council declared, in words that could be considered a practical description of sensus fidei, that the teaching of the Catholic Church is preserved by the Holy Spirit in all the faithful, laity, theologians, and bishops together. “The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. 1 John 2:20; 2:27), cannot err in matters of belief [they are infallible].  Thanks to a supernatural sense of the faith (sensus fidei) which characterizes the people as a whole, it manifests this unerring quality when, ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful,’ (47) it manifests universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.” (48) John Paul II adds his authority to this position in the case of marriage, teaching that the discernment of the full dignity of marriage “is accomplished through the sensus fidei, and is therefore the work of the whole Church according to the diversity of the various gifts and charisms.” (49) He cites the above text from Lumen Gentium and 1 John 2:20 in support of this teaching. John could not be clearer: “You, no less than they, are among the initiated; this is the gift of the Holy One and by it you all have knowledge” (1 John 2:20). He is even clearer a few verses further on: “The anointing which you have received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you, as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie” (1 John 2:27).  Catholic tradition enshrines this belief in the doctrine that the Spirit of God is gifted to the whole Church.

These texts make two theological points clear. First, sensus fidei of virtually the whole Church is a gift of grace; its source is the Spirit of God. Second, this gift of grace is given to the whole Church, laity, theologians, and bishops alike; it is not a gift given only to a hierarchical few. “The entire People of God is the subject that receives.” (50) The Church has always been convinced that authentic sensus fidei and reception require universalis ecclesiae consensus (consent of the whole Church), (51) totius mundi reverentia (the reverence of the whole world), (52) universalis ecclesiae assensus (the assent of the whole Church), (53) and that this reverence and assent is a sign of the presence of the Spirit in the whole Church. (54) This tradition supports Soede’s claim that sensus fidei is actually sensus fidelium ecclesiaeque, sense of the faithful and of the whole Church. (55)

Reception is an ecclesial process by which virtually (56) all the members of the Church assent to a teaching presented to them as apostolic truth and ecclesial faith, thereby assimilating the teaching into the life of the whole Church. (57) The teaching may come to them internally from their own Church, for instance, from an ecumenical council or a decision of the Magisterium, or it may come to them externally from another religious community, as ecumenism came to the Catholic Church from the Protestant traditions. In either case, though it is not what makes the teaching true or false, reception flows from a critical judgment of the existential data and a responsible and prudential decision that the teaching is good for the whole Church and is in agreement with the apostolic tradition on which the Churchis built. It is important to be clear that reception is not a judgment about the truth or validity of a teaching, but a decision about its usefulness in the life of the Church. A non-received teaching is not eo ipso false or invalid; it is simply judged by a large majority of believers to be not recognized in, and therefore irrelevant to, their own lives and the life of the Church. As culture, time, and place necessarily inculturated the gospel, the good news of what God has done in Jesus the Christ, so too do they also inculturate every doctrinal and moral teaching and every reception of that teaching. (58) The act of reception, therefore, cannot and does not receive the tradition of the past unchanged; the past is always re-appropriated or re-received in the present. (59) In Catholic history, there are many examples of both reception and non-reception.

We argue that reception of magisterial teaching, both doctrinal and moral, is not the task of the magisterium alone but “of the whole people...from the Bishops to the last of the faithful.” (60)   In the case of infallible statements, that “assent of the Church can never be lacking to such definitions on account of the same Spirit’s influence, through which Christ’s whole flock is maintained in the unity of the faith and makes progress in it.” (61) If “Christ’s whole flock” is involved in receiving infallible teaching, it is a safe theological conclusion that the whole flock is involved also in receiving non-infallible teaching. The instances of dramatic development in both Catholic doctrinal and moral teachings suggest one obvious reason why this must be so: authoritarian pronouncements do not necessarily assure correct understanding or freedom from error. (62)

The social sciences provide substantial evidence of non-reception of magisterial teaching on contraception among the faithful, theologians, and even many bishops and priests at the time Humanae Vitae was promulgated and in its aftermath. (63) The vast majority of Catholic couples, some 85% of them, use a form of contraception prohibited by Catholic teaching. This use reflects radically changed attitudes towards contraception over the last forty-five years. In 1963, over 50% of American Catholics accepted Church teaching on contraception; in a 1987 survey, that number dropped to 18%; in a 1993 survey only 13% affirmed that teaching. (64) This overwhelming non-reception indicates that the sensus fidei does not assent to the teaching on contraception.

Not only do the faithful overwhelmingly not receive the teaching on contraception but surveys indicate that the majority of Catholics look towards themselves rather that Church leaders as the proper locus of moral authority on contraception and other sexual ethical issues. (65) This is a sad consequence of the Humanae Vitae legacy. The magisterium’s loss of credibility due to its absolute stance on sexual norms and the sex abuse scandal has silenced the beautiful reflections Humanae Vitae articulates on conjugal love and the unitive meaning of human sexuality.           

While non-reception of the faithful does not prove that the teaching on contraception is false, it does prove that it is irrelevant to the vast majority of married couples and the theological experience of the church. These statistics, combined with the countless Catholic theological arguments challenging the reasoning to defend this norm, warrant a reconsideration of the norm. Bernard Lonergan’s commentary made immediately after the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968 remains apposite today. Having pointed out the biologically obvious, namely, that the connection between sexual intercourse or insemination and conception “is not the relation of a per se cause to a per se effect” but rather “a statistical relationship relating a sufficiently long and random series of inseminations with some conceptions,” he goes on to assert that “marital intercourse [or insemination] of itself, per se, is an expression and sustainer of love with only a statistical relationship to conception.” While there is no per se causal relationship between intercourse or insemination and conception, there is a per se causal relationship between intercourse and conjugal love. That is enough to argue for not only the separability but also the natural separation of what the magisterium calls the procreative and unitive meanings of the conjugal act. Phrases like “each and every marriage act [intercourse or insemination] must remain open to the transmission of life,” (66) Lonergan argues, therefore make no sense. Such phrases reflect a transition between the old, discredited Aristotelian biology and modern biology. “The issue,” Lonergan concludes, “is not whether or not people have to have reasons for accepting the Pope’s decisions. The issue is that, when there is no valid reason whatever for a precept, that precept is not of natural law.” (67) On yet another anniversary of Humanae Vitae, we align ourselves with Mieth’s statement: “Forty years of non-acceptance that goes into very considerable detail should suffice to consider a revision” (68) of the Catholic contraceptive norm.

IV.       Conclusion

In this essay, we define human experience as a source of moral knowledge and introduce a critical distinction between statistical causation and correlation. Recognizing, analyzing, and determining the strength and directionality of the variables that relate to the magisterial teaching on artificial contraception offer a strong base for an argument for revising that teaching and resituating it within a hierarchy of interpersonal and familial values. Three types of experience, cultural, scientific, and theological, offer additional arguments for revising this norm. The use of human experience as a source of moral knowledge and as something that impacts the formulation of moral norms must be reached through careful discernment of the quadrilateral of sources of moral knowledge in dialogue with the whole Church, “from the bishops to the least of the faithful.” Since we belong to a Church grounded in hope, it is our hope that by Humanae Vitae’s golden jubilee, the insights of human experience, the evidence of sensus fidelium ecclesiaeque, and the arguments of countless Catholic theological studies will be heeded, and the norm prohibiting artificial contraception will be re-vised and re-received in a less physical, more personalist, familial, and relational way.



1. R.A. McCorrmick:  “‘Humanae Vitae’ 25 Years Later”, in: America 169/2 (July 17, 1993), 10.

2. See C.E. Curran: The Catholic Moral Tradition Today: A Synthesis, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999 (Moral Traditions Series), 48.

3. Gaudium et spes, 44. Unless otherwise indicated, all citations of church documents are to those found on the Vatican Web site,

4. For a full explication and analysis of these two schools with respect to sexual norms, see T.A. Salzman and M.G. Lawler: The Sexual Person: Towards a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2008 (Moral Traditions Series), 48-123; and T.A. Salzman: What Are They Saying About Catholic Ethical Method?, New York: Paulist, 2003.

5. See Gaudium et spes, 13, 21, 33, 37, 44, 46, 52; and Lumen gentium, 37.

6. See, e.g., Redemptor hominis,17; Familiaris consortio, 32, 73; and Veritatis splendor, 53, 86, 98.

7. J.T. Noonan: “Development in Moral Doctrine”, in: Theological Studies 54 (1993), 674-675.

8. R. Haight: “Lessons from an Extraordinary Era: Catholic Theology since Vatican II”, America 198/9 (March 26, 2008), 12. Emphasis deleted.

9. G.P. Schner: “The Appeal to Experience”, in: E.F. Rogers  Jr. (ed.), Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, 31-32.

10. For the explanation of church as communion, see J. Hamer: The Church Is a Communion, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965; G. Martelet: Les idees maitresses de Vatican II, Paris: Desclee, 1966; J.M.R. Tillard: Church of Churches: The Ecclesiology of Church as Conmmunion, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992; M.G. Lawler and T.J. Shanahan: Church: A Spirited Communion, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995. 

11. John Paul II: Ut unum sint, 28-39.

12. S.L. Secker: “Catholics and Their Church’s Ethics: Whose Experience Is It? Which Church Do We Mean?”, in: New Theology Review 6 (1993), 38.

13. Ibid., 36–37.

14. In the Weslyan Quadrilateral, reason or “secular disciplines of knowledge” (M. Farley: Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, New York: Continuum, 2006, 188–89) and experience are distinct sources of moral knowledge. In this essay, since human experience is at the root of the social sciences, the rational and systematic reflection on human experience, we treat the social sciences and human experience together, recognizing that they belong to distinct sources of moral knowledge.

15. K. DEVROOP: “Correlation Versus Causation: Another Look at a Common Misinterpretation”, in: Paper Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Southwest Educational Research Association (Dallas, TX: January 27-29, 2000), 5.

16. Humane vitae, 17. Emphasis added.

17. Ronald Lawler is no relation to Michael G. Lawler, co-author of this essay.

18. K. Flannery and J. Koterski: “Paul VI was Right”, in: America 169/8 (September 25, 1993), 9.

19. check horizons article, July/August 1992, p. 10, for statistics for U.S. Census.

20. See, “What is the Difference between Causation and Correlation?”, in: (accessed July 11, 2008).

21. Gaudium et spes, 44.

22. Bishops of Canada: “Population and Poverty: The Cairo Conference”, in: Origins 24/14 (September 15, 1994), 249.

23. See J.D. Sachs: The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, New York: Penguin Press, 2005, 64-66, 323-26; B. Schoumaker: “Pauvreté et fécondité en Afrique sub-saharienne: une analyse comparative des enquêtes démographiques et de santé”, in: African Population Studies /Etude de la population Africaine 19 (2004) (Supplement A), 13-45; and Population Reference Bureau (PRB): Poverty Fuels Developing World’s High Birth Rate,Washington, D.C.: 2002 Aug., (accessed July 14, 2008).

24. See W.C. Robinson and J.A. Ross: “Family Planning: The Quiet Revolution”, in: Robinson and Ross (eds.): The Global Family Planning Revolution: Three Decades of Population Policies and Programs, Washington DC: World Bank, 2007, 421-449.

25. Sachs: The End of Poverty, 1.

26. See G. Grisez: The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2. Living a Christian Life, Quincy, IL: Franciscan Herald Press, 1993, 509.

27. Bishops of Canada: “Population and Poverty,” 249.

28. R. Martino: “Population and Development: The Issues, the Context”, in: Origins 24/15 (September 22, 1994), 261.

29. R. Martino: “Holy See’s Partial Association with the Consensus in Cairo”, in: Origins 24/15 (September 22, 1994), 262.

30.  Martino: “Population and Development”, 261.

31. See M.S. Van Leeuwen: “Teaching Equal Regard to the Abandoned Generation: Case Studies from a Psychology of Gender Class”, in: J. Witte, Jr., et al. (eds.): The Equal-Regard Family and its Friendly Critics, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007, 192-94.

32. See Gaudium et spes, 54.

33. K. O’Rourke, O.P.: “Reflections on the Papal Allocution Concerning Care for Persistent Vegetative State Patients”, in: Christian Bioethics 12 (2006), 92.

34. Humanae vitae, 15.

35. Pope John Paul II: “To the Participants in the International Congress on ‘Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas’” (March 20, 2004).

36. CDF: “Responses to Certain Questions of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Concerning Artificial Nutrition and Hydration” (August 1, 2007).

37. Ibid. Emphasis added.

38. National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities:  “Nutrition and Hydration: Moral and Pastoral Reflections”, in: R.P. Hamel and J.J. Walter (eds.): Artificial Nutrition and Hydration and the Permanently Unconscious Patient: The Catholic Debate, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 128-29.

39. Ibid., 122-24.

40. Human Rights Watch:  “Access to Condoms and HIV/AIDS Information:

A Global Health and Human Rights Concern: Part III: Condoms and the Vatican”, in: (accessed, July 11, 2008).

41. See J. Keenan (ed.): Catholic Ethicists on HIV/AIDS Prevention, New York: Continuum, 2000.

42. J. Allen: “Big Topics, Few Decisions as Bishops Meet”, in: National Catholic Reporter: (accessed July 31, 2008).

43. J.E. Thiel: Senses of Tradition: Continuity and Development in Catholic Faith, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 47.

44. J.W. Glaser: “Authority, Connatural Knowledge, and the Spontaneous Judgment of the Faithful”, in: Theological Studies 29 (1968), 742.

45. J.H. Newman: On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961, 73.

46. Z. Alszegy: “The Sensus Fidei and the Development of Dogma”, in: R. Latourelle (ed.): Vatican II: Assessment and Perspectives Twenty-Five Years After, New York: Paulist, 1988, 147.

47. Augustine: De Praed. Sanct. 14, 27, in: Patrologia Latina 44, 980.

48. Lumen gentium, 12. Emphasis added.

49. John Paul II: Familiaris consortio, 5. Emphasis added.

50. H.J. Pottmeyer:  “A New Phase in the Reception of Vatican II: Twenty Years of Interpretation of the Council”, in: G. Alberigo, J.P. Jossua, and J.A. Komonchak (eds.): The Reception of Vatican II, Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1987, 30.

51. Augustine: De Baptismo, VII, 53, in: Patrologia Latina 43, 243.

52. Leo The Great: Epist. 14, 2, in: Patrologia Latina 54, 672.

53. Gelasius: Epist. XIII, in: Patrologia Latina 59, 63.

54. See G. Bartelink: “The Use of the Words Electio and Consensus in the Church (Until about 600)”, in: Concilium 77 (1972), 147-154.

55. N.Y. Soede: “The Sensus Fidelium and Moral Discernment”, in: J. Keenan (ed.): Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church, New York: Continuum, 2007, 195.

56. In this essay, we embrace the ambiguity of the word virtual, and argue that it can be specified only by dialogue and consensus in the Church.  We have no doubt that 87% of any population is virtually all of it (see below), but is 80% or 75% or 68%?  Only dialogue and consensus can decide.

57. The foundational work on reception was done by Y. Congar: “La réception comme réalité ecclésiologique”, in: Revue des Sciences Philosophiques et Théologiques 56 (1972), 369-403; and A. Grillmeier: “Konzil und Rezeption: Methodische Bemerkungen zu einem Thema der ökumenischen Discussion der Gegenwart”, in: Theologie und Philosophie 45 (1970), 321-352.  See additional bibliography in R.R. Gaillardetz: Teaching with Authority: A Theology of the Magisterium in the Church, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997, 252-253.

58. See Second Vatican Council: Dei verbum,  11-20; CDF: Mysterium Ecclesiae, in: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 65 (1973), no. 5, 402-403; J. Zizioulas:  “The Theological Problem of Reception”, in: Centro Pro Unione 26 (Fall 1984), 6.

59. Pottmeyer: “A New Phase in the Reception of Vatican II”, 27-43.

60. Lumen gentium, 12.

61. Ibid., 25.

62. See J.T. Noonan: A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.

63. See R. McClory: Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, and How Humanae Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church, New York: Crossroad, 1995.

64. W.V. D’Antonio, J.D. Davidson, D.R. Hoge, and M.L. Gauthier: American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007, 91.

65. Ibid., 95-101.

66. Humanae vitae, 11.

67. B.J.F. Lonergan: “Letter to Father Ora McManus”, in: Lonergan Studies Newsletter 11 (1990), 7-8.

68. D. Mieth: “Humanae Vitae: A Global Reassessment after Forty Years: (A) Considerations beyond the Birth-Control Controversy”, in: M. Althaus-Reid, et al. (eds.): Homosexualities, London: SCM Press, 2008 (Concilium; 1), 128.