Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(3) August 2017


Humanae Vitae.
‘An Affirmation of the Church’s Teaching on the Gift Of Sexuality’.

All correspndence below refers to article by Helen Watt and others in the May 2017 edition of the CMQ:  An affirmation of the Church’s Teaching on the Gift of Sexuality

As retired GP I was interested to read the above article. The affirmation fails to face up to the ‘elephant in the room’ namely the fact that in the Western Church the majority of the Laity do not accept or follow the Church’s teaching. Surely we all need to understand why this is?

From the high ideals of Humanae Vitae, why is there such a discrepancy between the Teaching of the Church and what happens in day to day life of the Laity? To be fair the authors recommend reading a more extended response, in which paragraph 5.2 refers to Sensus Fidelium but fails to explain the discrepancy.

I would hope future issues of the CMQ will look at this problem. Rightly or wrongly it really does undermine the Church’s teaching authority. Might I start the ball rolling by recalling that as a 4th year Medic in 1968 I attended a meeting of the then Guild (predecessor to the CMA) when an uncle of mine, a Prof. of Canon Law, gave a talk clarifying HV to the local catholic doctors.

I remember that the explanation (much as now) failed spectacularly to convince the doctors. The majority were GPs who cared for the inner city slums of Manchester, where real poverty was exacerbated by the lack of a reliable method of controlling the size of families. They could not understand why using human reason and the intervention of science was not acceptable in this area, perceiving that women were often trapped in a situation beyond their control.

At the coal face of human experience, we are all endowed with an over generous sex drive and often lack the self-control that requires intelligence, education and unselfishness to live up to the high ideals put forward by the Church. In addition women have so often to put up with emotional, sexual and physical abuse by men.

Surely the Church needs to point to the ideal but show understanding of the frailty of the human condition?

Surely there is room for a middle ground – e.g. accepting non-destructive methods where personal circumstances mean the married couple cannot match the ideal?

James Flood


A Comment from the Editor

I find myself frequently in agreement with Dr Flood. On this issue, we differ. While I welcome other responses to Dr Flood's letter, I would like to make two observations for the present.

Firstly, I am certain that none of the medics at the 1968 conference mentioned by Dr Flood would have campaigned for "gay marriage." But, logically, once we accept contraception, we have to accept "gay marriage." The great philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe said so many years ago. She has now been proved right.

Secondly, the Sensus Fidelium does not mean majority opinion. It refers to the sense of faith when it is deeply rooted in the people of God when, and only when, they live the Word of God in the Church. The Sensus Fidelium has now virtually ceased in Germany, Holland, Belgium and other parts of Europe.

To paraphrase G K Chesterton, Humanae Vitae has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried.

Pravin Thevathasan

Dear Sir,

Dr Helen Watt's article rightly states that "Humanae Vitae speaks against the distorted view of human sexuality and intimate relationships that many in the modern world promote." Contraception does not protect women from exploitation by men; it simply protects the men from having to support any children that result from irresponsible sexual activity. Why would the Church provide such men with moral justification for rape – even marital rape?

The views of those who advocate contraception for women in exploitative relationships recall those of Professor Dugald Baird, a eugenicist and David Steel’s medical advisor; Baird’s guidance helped shape the Abortion Act, and he would allow abortion for practically any reason.[2] Baird was particularly keen to help poor women with large families, and famously announced a 'fifth freedom' from the 'tyranny of unwanted pregnancy',[3] especially "[i]n the lowest socio-economic group”, because such women were “less accustomed to long-term planning. They leave school at 15, take a post which requires very little skill or training, marry early (often after becoming pregnant), and have little or no money. ... By the time three or four children have arrived in quick succession they may find themselves in a local-authority house, but possibly unable to cope physically and financially with the situation.” [4] Baird saw poor women who wanted to marry and have a family as inherently problematical, and his solution for such women was sterilization, [5] because poor women had “neither the ability nor the education needed to control the size of their family, and termination of pregnancy by curettage of the uterus is not enough, since it does not remove the constant fear of another pregnancy.”[6] For the eugenicist, if a poor woman wanted children against their economic interests, they must be mentally unfit, and the mentally unfit should not have children. While they claimed that women actually wanted abortion and sterilization, their real concern was that among the poorer classes, an unwed pregnancy would lead to marriage, and after that to more children.[7]

That was why he and other eugenicists campaigned for abortion – so that first pregnancies would be aborted rather than leading to marriage and thereafter to large families. And that is exactly what has happened. The same campaigners were involved in the movements for birth control and abortion because they knew the former inevitably led to the latter; according to BPAS it still does. While eugenics was implicated in the Holocaust and has been responsible for millions of abortions worldwide, the Church was one of very few institutions that have stood up for the right to life. In 1930 Casti Connubii condemned sterilization, and Humanae Vitae is yet another example of the Church being on ‘the right side of history’.

Yours faithfully,

Ann. E. Farmer


  1. Watt H. (2017). An affirmation of the Church’s Teaching on the Gift of Sexuality. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(2) May 2017
  2. Dr A.M. Thomson, in Abortion in Britain: proceedings of a conference held by the Family Planning Association at the University of London Union on 22.4.1966 (London: Pitman Medical Publishing Co. Ltd., 1966), p.106. The RCOG stated: "We are unaware of any case in which a gynaecologist has refused to terminate pregnancy, when he considered it to be indicated on medical grounds, for fear of legal consequences" (RCOG Report (1966) 'Legalized Abortion: Report by the Council of the RCOG', p.850).
  3. Potts, M., Selman, P., Society and Fertility (Plymouth, Devon: Macdonald and Evans, 1979), p.258; p360.
  4. Abortion in Britain: proceedings of a conference held by the Family Planning Association at the University of London Union on 22.4.1966 (London: Pitman Medical Publishing Co. Ltd., 1966), pp.16-17.
  5. Abortion in Britain: proceedings of a conference held by the Family Planning Association at the University of London Union on 22.4.1966 (London: Pitman Medical Publishing Co. Ltd., 1966),
  6. Abortion in Britain: proceedings of a conference held by the Family Planning Association at the University of London Union on 22.4.1966 (London: Pitman Medical Publishing Co. Ltd., 1966),
  7. Abortion in Britain: proceedings of a conference held by the Family Planning Association at the University of London Union on 22.4.1966 (London: Pitman Medical Publishing Co. Ltd., 1966),p.19.


I was greatly interested and encouraged to read the article in the May issue CMQ sent in by Helen Watt,  As a GP conscientious objector in the field of contraception, it is easy to feel oneself to be a lone voice and, at times, the object of ridicule. The scientific advances of the last fifty years frequently offer a ready solution to many of our day to day problems such that the privations of the early twentieth century are now fading memories of a former, seemingly quaint way of life. Secular society, therefore, often throws up its arms in disbelief at the continued stance of the Church on contraception. The pill and its relatives seem to offer such a neat solution.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about advances in automobile technology observing that, although the internal combustion engine was around in the early 1900s, reliability could be haphazard even up until comparatively recently. My recollection of the mid 1970’s, when I first owned a car, was that winter mornings, in particular, were filled with a certain dread centred on whether the vehicle would actually start. Often, I seemed to wake to a cacophony of engines in the street outside endlessly turning over but never firing up. Not uncommonly, we would abandon our cars and journey to work by bus where the music for poor timekeeping would have to be faced yet again . Those horrors have essentially passed now; we may hold a preference for a certain make or model but reliability is virtually guaranteed whichever car we choose these days. We accept and embrace this type of advance warmly – our lives are made better by it; why would anyone even begin to question it.

The advent of efficient and convenient contraception is undoubtedly seen by the majority in the same light and hardly worthy of ethical discourse; modern secular society is far more likely to see the pill as a moral good rather than evil. Unfortunately, this view is also now ubiquitous within the Church. However, the scholars who author this counterstatement, headed by the great and good Janet Smith, courageously point to the many advances in theological and philosophical research which support and expound the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and continue to conclude contraception to be innately immoral even if apparently convenient. In Veritatis Splendor, St John Paul II reminds us that certain human acts are objectively wrong by their very nature and, although circumstances may alter both gravity and culpability, the actions themselves remain fundamentally illicit. He warns against the, now pervasive, doctrine of consequentialism – the notion that ends justify means ­ one that much of society has signed up to. Recent generations have never known anything different and are therefore, perhaps, unlikely to see any spark of wisdom in Catholic teaching on family planning.

As a medical student in the mid 1980’s, even though determined to adhere to Humanae Vitae, I never ever felt able to explain and defend it coherently. At that time, I had not yet discovered John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (we now know, of course, that Paul VI used “Love and Responsibility”, a much earlier work of the then Cardinal Wojtyla, as a key reference in constructing his encyclical). When finally I was introduced to this, the fog lifted or, at least, thinned out. Whilst I feel unable to fully grasp the deep philosophical language used in the work, the basic ideas of personalism and self-donation hold a beautiful appeal and there have been many commentaries on St John Paul’s work rendering it more accessible – Janet Smith being among those producing such fine works. At times we may see the eyes of the skeptical widen as these concepts are conveyed in simple terms; mostly however it seems that hearts remain hardened and the, now entrenched, contraceptive culture will be with us for some time to come. Where else might we turn for support of our seemingly obsolete teaching?

Point 8, headed “Humanae Vitae as Prophetic”, in Helen Watt’s article speaks of the harms predicted by Paul VI and goes on to list some of the negative social effects of contraception identified in numerous studies. These include increased incidence of unwed pregnancies, abortion, single parenthood, cohabitation, divorce, poverty and the exploitation of women. Whilst we cannot claim direct causation by contraception for these ills (although there is a very obvious correlation), they are a definite feature of the permissive culture developed over the past fifty years and it is difficult to see how that culture could have arisen without freely available contraception. In former times there may well have been a greater moral sensitivity but, certainly, fear of pregnancy alone would have been a strong deterrent for many. Are these trends, which seem to be related to a contraceptive culture good for women? Is anyone really liberated by all of this?

I remember a talk given by Janet Smith in which, echoing Veritatis Splendor, she strongly proclaimed the concept of objective morality as taught by the Church and denounced consequentialism as a guiding principle. At the same time however she observed that, generally speaking, if we do wrong things then harm will follow. In other words recognizing that, whilst consequentialism cannot form the basis of our moral code, serious scrutiny of the outcomes of our chosen behaviours can often indicate which neck of the moral woods we find ourselves in. In my work as a GP serving a relatively deprived community, I repeatedly encounter all of those social ills listed above. I am convinced that, were I to provide contraceptive services, I would be contributing to the chaos which has taken hold among poorer women in particular. Whilst the pill may limit the number of children actually born, it is all too common for its users to be left holding whatever babies do come along, falling into the poverty trap and often spiraling into serial, uncommitted relationships with inevitable disastrous consequences on many levels.

We may not always feel able to communicate the truth and beauty of Humanae Vitae satisfactorily but, by opting out of the contraceptive culture in our professional lives, we will, at least, be able to look back in years to come and plead “not guilty”; opting in rather to that guiding principle of medical ethics, “first do no harm”. Critics may argue that we are burying our heads since we offer no ready alternative. In one sense it is true that we have no quick-fix. Natural family planning requires a major personal readjustment by individuals and couples accustomed to the modern approach to relationships and sex and the commonplace, pressured, ten minute GP-consultation is hardly the appropriate setting for the in-depth process required to enlighten and guide our patients in this area. Arguably, the world will not appreciate Humanae Vitae until the world is re-christianised. As catholics in healthcare we are challenged to make that process a focal point of our professional lives even though progress may seem painfully slow. If we acquiesce in the face of pressure to abandon Humanae Vitae, further harm is bound to follow.

Dr Mike Delany,
GP, Stevenage