Oddvar Moi

Church Teaching on Human Life

A study on Conciliar, Papal and Vatican teaching from Vatican II, on the manipulation of human life, assisted reproduction and contraception.

An essay presented for a course in Moral Theology at Allen Hall Seminary, London.

November 1997 - Oddvar Moi


It has been very interesting to read all the documents dealt with in this essay, but I apologize for the (extremely brief) treatment I have given most of the documents - due mainly to the maximum length set for the essay.


Contraception is a well known topic in the church as in the history of our society - so are abortion and infanticide - but assisted reproduction and manipulation of human life are more recent possibilities. Mainly for this reason there is a lot more material to be found about contraception than about the two other issues of my chosen topic, and the essay itself has the same 'imbalance'.

As an introduction to Vatican II's pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, I have looked at three documents that precede it.

Casti connubii. Encyclical of Pope Pius XI On Christian Marriage, December 31, 1930

Here contraception is described in this way: "(T)he conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious." [1] Assisted reproduction and manipulation of human life is not mentioned, but abortion is described as "taking of the life of the offspring hidden in the mother's womb" [2] for selfish, but even for medical, therapeutic and eugenic reasons, and this is strictly condemned.

Allocution to Midwives, Pope Pius XI, October 29 1951.

Pius XII speaks about contraception here, in these words: ".. every attempt of either husband or wife in the performance of the conjugal act or in the development of its natural consequences which aims at depriving it of its inherent force and hinders the procreation of new life is immoral." [3] Nothing can make such an action lawful, and it can never become lawful, since it is an expression of a natural and divine law. The same applies to sterilization whose aim is to make procreation impossible. [4]

Mater et magistra Encyclical of Pope John XXIII, May 15 1961

On the background of the new and very much growing concern for a steadily increasing world population, pope John XXIII still writes: "The transmission of human life is the result of a personal and conscious act, and, as such, is subject to the all-holy, inviolable and immutable laws of God, which no man may ignore or disobey. He is not therefore permitted to use certain ways and means which are allowable in the propagation of plant and animal life" ... "(Instead of using these means, the parents) must instill in them an unshakable confidence in Divine Providence and a determination to accept the inescapable sacrifices and hardships involved in so noble and important a task as the cooperation with God in the transmitting of human life and the bringing up of children." [5]


The most important document in my research is undoubtedly Gaudium et spes. Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution On The Church In The Modern World, confirmed by the council after a very thorough debate and proclaimed Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965.

The document deals with a whole range of issues related to the church in the moderns world, talks about respect for the human person in paragraph no. 27 and more extensively about the dignity of Marriage and the Family in no. 47 - 52. Even though Paul VI had reserved for the pope to make a decision about contraception, Gaudium et spes is very clear about what criteria such a decision should be built upon. (I have highlighted some words in the following quote for clarity.)

"For God, the Lord of life, has conferred on men the surpassing ministry of safeguarding life in a manner which is worthy of man. Therefore from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes. The sexual characteristics of man and the human faculty of reproduction wonderfully exceed the dispositions of lower forms of life. Hence the acts themselves which are proper to conjugal love and which are exercised in accord with genuine human dignity must be honored with great reverence. Hence when there is question of harmonizing conjugal love with the responsible transmission of life, the moral aspects of any procedure does not depend solely on sincere intentions or on an evaluation of motives, but must be determined by objective standards. These, based on the nature of the human person and his acts, preserve the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love. Such a goal cannot be achieved unless the virtue of conjugal chastity is sincerely practiced. Relying on these principles, sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law." [6]

The most well known document on contraception after this is of course; Humanae Vitae, En-cyclical Letter of his Holiness Pope John Paul II On the Regulation of Birth, July 25 1968.

Gaudium et spes had said very clearly that total self-giving and procreation was an integral part of conjugal life, but it was still not quite clear what this would mean for the use of contraception. Paul VI mentions the possibility of relaxing the Church's teaching in the beginning of his Encyclical: "(B)y extending to this field the application of the so-called 'principle of totality,' could it not be admitted that the intention of a less abundant but more rationalized fecundity might transform a materially sterilizing intervention into a licit and wise control of birth? Could it not be admitted, that is, that the finality of procreation pertains to the ensemble of conjugal life, rather than to its single acts?" [7]

The Pope in looking at these possibilities, notes four characteristic marks and demands of conjugal love; that this love is; fully human, total, faithful and exclusive until death and fecund - destined to continue, raising up new lives. [8] He also notes that the faithful have never been free to proceed completely at will in these matters and that the "teaching, often set forth by the magisterium, is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning." ... (By safeguarding these aspects,) "the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination towards man's most high calling to parenthood." [9]

His conclusion about regulating births is that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun - abortion - is excluded, and so "is direct sterilization, whether perpetual or temporary, whether of the man or of the woman. Similarly excluded is every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible." [10]

A conscientious regulation of births in marriage is no problem for the church, but this must be done without offending the moral principles. It is e.g. "licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions." [11] Paul VI finally mentions some of the good effects that will come the practice of natural birth regulation. "(T)his discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. ... (It) bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one's partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love; and deepens their sense of responsibility." [12]

The next document I have looked at, is Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics. Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, December 29 1975. This document deals mostly with "the corruption of morals" indicated by the "unbridled exaltation of sex" which is even "infecting the general mentality". [13] It also talks about acts proper to conjugal life, explicitly confirms the teaching of Casti connubii, Gaudium et spes and Humanae vitae on contraception. It focuses on "the finality of the sexual act" [14] rather than on the intentions, but doesn't really want to add anything on this issue.

The document speaks more about the problem of sexual union before marriage, homosexual relations and masturbation. The main argument used against masturbation is interestingly enough the same as the argument against contraception: "masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act. The main reason is that, whatever the motive for acting this way, the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty. For it lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order, namely the relationship which realizes 'the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love.' (Gaudium et spes, no. 51)" [15]

Familiaris consortio Apostolic Exhortation of His Holiness Pope John Paul II On the Family, November 22, 1981. This Exhortation came out of the meeting of the Synod of Bishops, held in Rome from September 26 to October 25, 1980. The synod among other things confirmed the teaching of Humanae vitae. "This sacred synod, gathered together with the successor of Peter in the unity of faith, firmly holds what has been set forth in the Second Vatican Council (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 50) and afterward in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, particularly that love between husband and wife must be fully human, exclusive and open to new life (Humanae Vitae,ll:cf.9,12)." [16]

New in this document is the criticism of governments or other public authorities which attempt to limit in any way the freedom of couples in deciding about children. "..(A)ny violence (or other kind of coercion) applied by such authorities in favor of contraception or, still worse, of sterilization and procured abortion must be altogether condemned and forcefully rejected." [17]

At this point we see a document dealing explicitly with the new possibilities of studying and manipulating the human embryo. Addressing a Meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 23, 1982, pope John Paul II says: "I condemn, in the most explicit and formal way, experimental manipulations of the human embryo, since the human being, from conception to death, cannot be exploited for any purpose whatsoever." [18]

Next year there was an occasion to mention a related issue; The Dangers of Genetic Manipu-lation, when John Paul II addressed a meeting of the World Medical Association on October 29 1983.

Here the pope deals specifically with genetic engineering. He speaks of the value of human life and that the goal of medicine always has been to respect and protect the human person. When it comes to the new technics of genetic manipulation he says: "A strictly therapeutic intervention whose explicit objective is the healing of various maladies such as those stemming from deficiencies of chromosomes will, in principle, be considered desirable ... (But there is a question) if an intervention on genetic inheritance that goes beyond the limits of the therapeutic in the strict sense should be regarded likewise as morally acceptable. For this to be verified, several conditions must be respected and certain premises accepted." [19] The conditions mentioned then are; that the biological nature of each person is untouchable, one must not infringe on the origin of human life (avoid manipulations that tend to modify genetic inheritance), the intention must not be of a racist or materialistic mentality and human life must never be reduced to an object.

Our next stop is the Series of 15 General Audiences of Pope John Paul II given from July to November 1984, on morality, sexuality, family life. For about four years John Paul II gave a number of catechetical reflections on human love in the divine plan and concluded it with a concrete application in the sphere of marital and family morality in these 15 general audiences "under the guidance of .. the Encyclical Humanae vitae." [20]

At the very beginning he focuses on what he thinks is the most important part of Humanae vitae; the "two significances of the marriage act and their inseparable connection". These two "inseparable connections, established by God .. (are) the unitive significance and the procreative significance of the marriage act." [21]

Then John Paul II adds something often mentioned as his own contribution to the understanding this issue: "Here we are dealing with nothing other than reading the 'language of the body' in truth, as has been said many times in our previous biblical analyses. The moral norm, constantly taught by the Church in this sphere, and recalled and reconfirmed by Paul VI in his encyclical, arises from the reading of the 'language of the body' in truth. It is a question here of the truth first in the ontological dimension ('fundamental structure') and then - as a result - in the subjective and psychological dimension ('significance')." [22]

I can do no more than to give a little glimpse of this long series of reflections, but John Paul II's main point is all the time the serious consequences of dividing what must be a unity. Here is one clear example:

"It can be said that in the case of an artificial separation of these two aspects, there is carried out in the conjugal act a real bodily union, but it does not correspond to the interior truth and to the dignity of personal communion: communion of persons. This communion demands in fact that the 'language of the body' be expressed reciprocally in the integral truth of its meaning. If this truth be lacking, one cannot speak either of the truth of self-mastery, or of the truth of the reciprocal gift and of the reciprocal acceptance of self on the part of the person. Such a violation of the interior order of conjugal union, which is rooted in the very order of the person, constitutes the essential evil of the contraceptive act." [23]

What is God's good will for man and how can man find it? This is one of the most important questions in the last and concluding reflection on marriage. Here the Pope says. "The analysis of the personalistic aspects ... has an existential significance for establishing what true progress, that is, the development of man, is. In fact, throughout all modern civilization, especially in Western civilization - there is an occult and at the same time an explicit enough tendency to measure this progress on the basis of 'things', that is, material goods. .. (But) Paul VI's encyclical emphasizes a determined appeal to measure man's progress on the basis of the 'person', that is, of what is good for man as man - what corresponds to his essential dignity." [24]

The issue of procreation was (and is) a difficult but still important issue for the Church, therefore the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued on February 22, 1987: Donum vitae. Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation - Replies to Certain Questions of the Day.

Very early this document states that "From the moment of conception, the life of every human being is to be respected in an absolute way because man is the only creature on earth that God has wished for himself and the spiritual soul of each man is "immediately created" by God; his whole being bears the image of the Creator." [25]

From this basic understanding mainly two issues are discussed in the document; Prenatal diagnosis and Artificial fertilization. The question about the moral acceptability of prenatal diagnosis is answered in this way: "If prenatal diagnosis respects the life and integrity of the embryo and the human fetus and is directed towards its safeguarding or healing as an individual, then the answer is affirmative." [26] But there is also an addition: "If the embryos are living, whether viable or not, they must be respected just like any other human person; experimentation on embryos which is not directly therapeutic is illicit." [27]

The document also mentions situations like producing human embryos destined to be exploited as disposable biological material, cloning of embryos, freezing of embryos and attempts to influence chromosomic or genetic inheritance that are not therapeutic, but aimed at producing human being with some predetermined qualities. All these actions are condemned as being contrary to the human dignity proper to the embryo. [28]

When the document turns to Artificial fertilization it first of all says that the Church's teaching on marriage and human procreation affirms the "inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning. ... fertilization is licitly sought when it is the result of a conjugal act which is per se suitable for the generation of children ... from the moral point of view procreation is deprived of its proper perfection when it is not desired as the fruit of the conjugal act, that is to say of the specific act of the spouses' union" [29]

This excludes all kinds of In vitro fertilization, even the homologous kind, and also homologous artificial insemination, "except for those cases in which the technical means is not a substitute for the conjugal act but serves to facilitate and to help so that the act attains its natural purpose." [30] But the situation gets morally even more difficult when one considers that in the technique used for IVF several extra human embryos are produced and destroyed, and there are also other issues like heterologous artificial fertilization and surrogate motherhood to complicate the matter. Many of these issues are discussed in Donum vitae in great detail.

An underlying issue here is the question of a right to have children: "the desire for a child is natural: it expresses the vocation to fatherhood and motherhood inscribed in conjugal love. .... Nevertheless, marriage does not confer upon the spouses the right to have a child, but only the right to perform those natural acts which are per se ordered to procreation. A true and proper right to a child would be contrary to the child's dignity and nature. The child is not an object to which one has a right, nor can he be considered as an object of ownership: rather, a child is a gift ... (therefore the child has the right) to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents; and he also has the right to be respected as a person from the moment of his conception." [31]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also covers these fertility issues, but very briefly. On contraception (§2370) Humanae vitae no. 14 is quoted and the discussion on artificial insemination and fertilization in §§ 2376-2377 draws on Donum vitae. Heterologous methods as well as surrogate motherhood are said to be "gravely immoral", but homologous methods are also "morally unacceptable".

Gratissimam sane. Letter to Families, by Pope John Paul II, February 22 1994.

This document deals with several aspects of life in the family, and also briefly touches upon the "moment in which a man and a woman, uniting themselves, in one flesh can become parents" and here it confirms the teaching of Humanae vitae. [32]

Charter For Health Care Workers. Issued by the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance in 1994.

This document is different from the other documents I have considered for this essays, in the sense that it is more technical. The Charter constantly refers to the teaching of the Magisterium in its over 300 footnotes, and applies this teaching for Health Care Workers. After an introduction the document deals with genetic manipulation (no. 12-13), fertility control and contraception (no. 15-21), artificial procreation including IVF, surrogate motherhood and cloning (no. 21-32), the beginning of life (no. 35-36) and prenatal diagnosis (no. 59-60).

Evangelium Vitae, Encyclical letter on the value and inviolability of human life. John Paul II, 25 March 1995

This well known, very powerful and long document about the sanctity of human life, presents the reasons human life has unlimited value and deals with different ways this value is not respected in our time. Parts of the document deals specifically with the issues of this paper.

First the pope speaks about the (not often talked about) relationship between contraception and abortion. The Church is often accused of promoting abortion because of its view on contraception, he says. But "(w)hen looked at carefully, this objection is clearly unfounded. It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation of abortion. But the negative values inherent in the 'contraceptive mentality' .... are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived." [33]

The close connection which exists, in mentality, between the practice of contraception and that of abortion is becoming increasingly obvious. It is being demonstrated by the development of products which, distributed with the same ease as contraceptives, "really act as abortifacients in the very early stages of the development of the life of the new human being." [34]

The Pope also speaks about the various techniques of artificial reproduction, "which would seem to be at the service of life and which are frequently used with this intention, actually open the door to new threats against life". The problem is that they separate procreation from the fully human context of the conjugal act and they often produce 'spare embryos' that are then "destroyed or used for research which, under the pretext of scientific or medical progress, in fact reduces human life to the level of simple 'biological material' to be freely disposed of." [35]

Prenatal diagnosis is also mentioned. It presents "no moral objections if carried out in order to identify the medical treatment which may be needed by the child in the womb, (but it) all too often becomes an opportunity for proposing and procuring an abortion. This is eugenic abortion ... which accepts life only under certain conditions and rejects it when it is affected by any limitation, handicap or illness." [36]

The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality. Guidelines for Education within the Family. Pontifical Council for the Family, November 12, 1995.

This document starts by describing the situation today in this area before it talks about what true love really is. Then it says that: "The revealing sign of authentic married love is openness to life. (Here it quotes Familiaris consortio, no. 14) ... From this communion of love and life spouses draw that human and spiritual richness and that positive atmosphere for offering their children the support of education for love and chastity." [37] The parents' role in this educational process is then the content of the rest of the document.


I have discovered a very consistent teaching from the Magisterium on these issues of manipulation of human life, assisted reproduction and contraception. The arguments against these technics are also very consistent. They are; respect for the life of a human being from conception and the two necessary aspects of the conjugal act - the unitive and the procreative. From these basic but fundamental premises the same conclusions are easily reached, as seen in all these documents from the Magisterium.


CHURCH DOCUMENTS (ordered chronologically)

  • 1930 Casti connubii. Encyclical of Pope Pius XI On Christian Marriage, December 31, 1930
  • 1951 Allocution to Midwives, Pope Pius XI, October 29 1951.
  • 1961 Mater et magistra Encyclical of Pope John XXIII, May 15 1961
  • 1965 Gaudium et spes. Pastoral Constitution On The Church In The Modern World Proclaimed By His Holiness, Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965.
  • 1968 Humanae Vitae, Encyclical Letter of his Holiness Pope Paul VI On the Regulation of Birth, July 25, 1968.
  • 1975 Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics. Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, December 29, 1975
  • 1981 Familiaris consortio Apostolic Exhortation of His Holiness Pope John Paul II On the Family, November 22, 1981
  • 1983 Dangers of Genetic Manipulation. Address by Pope John Paul II to members of the World Medical Association, October 29, 1983
  • 1984 A Series of 15 General Audiences of Pope John Paul II Fall 1984, on morality, sexuality, family life.
  • 1987 Donum vitae. Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation - Replies to Certain Questions of the Day Issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, February 22, 1987.
  • 1993 Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Geoffrey Chapman, London 1994)
  • 1994 Gratissimam sane. Letter to families by Pope John Paul II, February 22, 1994
  • 1994 Population Conference Draft Document Criticized. Talk given by Pope John Paul II during a March 18 meeting at the Vatican with Nafis Sadik, executive director of the UN Fund for Population Activities
  • 1994 Charter For Health Care Workers. Issued by the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance in 1994
  • 1995 Evangelium Vitae, Encyclical letter on the value and inviolability of human life. John Paul II, 25 March, 1995
  • 1995 The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality. Pontifical Council for the Family, November 12, 1995
  • 1997 Vademecum for confessors Concerning some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal life. Pontifical Council for the Family, February 12, 1997.
(All these documents have been quoted from an Internet version provided by Catholic Information Network and provided courtesy of Eternal Word Television Network, Manassas, Virginia, USA)


  • Anscombe, Elizabeth Contraception and Chastity. Catholic Truth Society, London 1977
  • Bishops Catholic bishops of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Joint Committee on Bioethical issues. Antenatal Tests - What you should know. Catholic Truth Society, London 1989.
  • Jarmulowicz, Michael Briefing on Contraception: Facts and Figures. Paper presented at the LIFE National Conference, October 1993
  • Jones, D. Gareth Manufacturing Humans. The Challenge of the New Reproductive Technologies. Inter Varsity Press, Leicester 1987
  • Maestri, William F. What the Church Teaches. A guide for the Study of Familiaris Consortio, Pauline & Books & Media, Boston 1995
  • O'Rourke Kevin D. (OP) & Boyle, Philip Medical Ethics: Sources of Catholic Teachings. (2nd ed.) Georgetown University Press, Washington DC 1993
  • Phipps, Terence Test-Tube Babies. Catholic Truth Society, London 1985
  • Reidy, Maurice (ed.) Ethical Issues in Reproductive Medicine, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin 1982
  • Smeaton, John Population and Development. Catholic teaching. Article in Faith Magazine, September 1996
  • Smith, Janet E. Why Humanae Vitae was right: A Reader. Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1993
  • Williamsson, David Persons and Embryos & bishop Conti, Mario: Body and Soul. Articles in the Tablet 1/8 and 5/9 1987


1 Casti Connubii, no. 54
2 Casti Connubii, no. 63, and n.64-71.
3 Allocution to midwives, (the doc. has no numbering) under heading; the Conjugal Act and Sterilization.
4 Ibid.
5 Mater et magistra, no. 193 and 195
6 Gaudium et spes, no. 51
7 Humanae vitae, no. 3
8 Humanae vitae, no. 9
9 Humanae vitae, no. 12
10 Humanae vitae, no. 14
11 Humanae vitae, no. 16
12 Humanae vitae, no. 21
13 Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, no. I
14 Ibid, no. V
15 Ibid, no. IX
16 Familiaris consortio, no. 29
17 Ibid, no. 30
18 Address to a Meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, no. 4
19 Dangers of Genetic Manipulation
20 General Audience, July 11 1984, no. 1
21 General Audience, July 11 1984, no. 3 and no. 5
22 General Audience, July 11 1984, no. 6
23 General Audience, August 22, 1984, no. 7
24 General Audience, November 28, 1984, no 3
25 Donum vitae, no. 5
26 Donum vitae, no. I,2
27 Donum vitae, no. I,4
28 Donum vitae, no. I,5-6
29 Donum vitae, no. II,4
30 Donum vitae, no. II,6
31 Donum vitae, no. II,8
32 Gratissimam sane, no. 12
33 Evangelium vitae, no. 13
34 Evangelium vitae, no. 13
35 Evangelium vitae, no. 14
36 Evangelium vitae, no. 14
37 The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, no. 15

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