I have been surprised and dismayed lately, in the wake of the distorted news coverage of the Pope’s comment on condoms, to read several different prominent Catholics making the claim that the Magisterium is unwilling or unable to teach and to answer questions on certain grave moral matters.
Jimmy Akin: “To start exploring the question of contraceptive use outside of marriage would put the Church in a really weird position that could lead to the subversion of the very moral values it is trying to promote…. ” [source]
The ability of the Magisterium to teach on the subject of the entire moral law is a dogma of the Faith. It is heresy to claim that there are questions on grave matters of morality (such as whether contraception use outside of marriage is moral) that the Church cannot or should not answer. The argument that, even by exploring such questions, the Church would subvert its own moral values is absurd. The Church has always taught moral truth on every type of question in every area of morality.
Pope John Paul II: “The Church, in her life and teaching, is thus revealed as ‘the pillar and bulwark of the truth’ ( 1 Tim 3:15), including the truth regarding moral action. Indeed, ‘the Church has the right always and everywhere to proclaim moral principles, even in respect of the social order, and to make judgments about any human matter in so far as this is required by fundamental human rights or the salvation of souls’.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 27).
Pope John Paul II: “The Church’s Magisterium intervenes not only in the sphere of faith, but also, and inseparably so, in the sphere of morals. It has the task of “discerning, by means of judgments normative for the consciences of believers, those acts which in themselves conform to the demands of faith and foster their expression in life and those which, on the contrary, because intrinsically evil, are incompatible with such demands”. In proclaiming the commandments of God and the charity of Christ, the Church’s Magisterium also teaches the faithful specific particular precepts and requires that they consider them in conscience as morally binding. In addition, the Magisterium carries out an important work of vigilance, warning the faithful of the presence of possible errors, even merely implicit ones, when their consciences fail to acknowledge the correctness and the truth of the moral norms which the Magisterium teaches.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 110).
The Church teaches that all sexual acts outside of marriage are gravely immoral. Does this imply that the Church is unable to discuss the morality of any acts or elements of an act that occur during extramarital sex? Not at all. For example, the Magisterium teaches that rape is gravely immoral, but that rape of a child is graver still (CCC, n. 2356). In another example, the Magisterium not only condemns artificial procreation, but also condemns various immoral acts that occur as part of the process used to achieve it (see Donum Vitae).
Therefore, the Magisterium is able to explore and answer the question of contraceptive use outside of marriage. Akin errs by claiming that the Magisterium cannot or should not do so. But he also errs by speaking as if the Magisterium has not already answered the question. In fact the Magisterium has taught that the use of contraception is always immoral, regardless of marital state. See my article here for an explanation (points a. through g.)
Why do Akin and other commentators claim that the Magisterium has not yet condemned the use of contraception outside of marriage? It is partly because they have a distorted understanding of the teaching of the Magisterium. They view the teachings of the Magisterium as if these were rulings, rather than teachings. And so all of the teachings of the Magisterium on the basic principles of ethics (e.g. in Veritatis Splendor) carry little weight with them. They require an explicit statement on each question. If the basic principles of ethics taught by the Magisterium necessarily imply that an act, such as the use of contraception outside of marriage, is always gravely immoral, it seems to them only an opinion or a dubious interpretation. Or if the many explicit teachings of the Magisterium on a subject, such as sexuality, necessarily imply certain conclusions on particular points, they do not accept it. They do not believe the implicit teachings of the Magisterium, but only what is explicit.
And so, persons like this often say that we must wait for an answer from the Magisterium on various moral questions.
But the Magisterium teaches that the whole moral law is accessible to reason alone, even apart from Divine Revelation. And with Tradition and Scripture and the teachings of the Magisterium for the past 2000 years, how is it possible that important questions on morality are supposedly unanswerable until the Magisterium provides an explicit ruling? In truth, there is no question of morality that is not answerable today, from reason and from Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. The Magisterium, of course, can and should and will continue to teach on morality. But the Holy Spirit, in His teaching through the Magisterium, is really only reminding us of what we already know (John 14:26).