Contraception and Heresy part 3: the Latin text of Humanae Vitae

1. Introduction

A number of commentators are now claiming that the Magisterium has no teaching on the immorality of contraception outside of marriage. Some commentators base this claim in part on another claim, that the document Humanae Vitae has a translation error. They say that the Latin word ‘conjugale’ must always be translated as referring to marital sexual relations, never as referring to sexual intercourse in general, and never as referring specifically to non-marital sexual relations. And from this premise they conclude that Humanae Vitae only condemns the use of contraception in marriage, as if the Magisterium were entirely silent on its use outside of marriage.

Already in previous articles on this topic, I’ve refuted the claim that the Magisterium has no teaching on the immorality of contraception outside of marriage. There are magisterial teachings that clearly imply condemnation of the use of contraception regardless of marital state. But the commentators who say otherwise, who make the sweeping assertion that no such teaching of the Magisterium exists anywhere, typically narrow their analysis of the magisterial to Humanae Vitae and perhaps also one or two other recent documents.

To the contrary, the magisterial teaching against contraception does not depend entirely on the document Humanae Vitae. In fact, Germain Grisez argues that the magisterial teaching against contraception was already infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium prior to Humanae Vitae.

‘Germain Grisez on Humanae Vitae, Then and Now’

Grisez: “With ‘Humanae Vitae,’ Paul VI reaffirmed the constant and very firm teaching of the Church excluding contraception. I believe and have argued that teaching had already been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium — that is, by the morally unanimous agreement of the bishops of the whole world in communion with the popes. Together, they had taught for many centuries that using contraceptives always is grave matter. Their manner of teaching implied that what they taught was a truth to be held definitively. Thus, the teaching on contraception met the conditions for infallible teaching, without a solemn definition, articulated by Vatican II in ‘Lumen Gentium,’ 25.”

From the time of Humanae Vitae, the Magisterium has continued to teach against contraception, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in documents of the Holy See and of the Roman Pontiff, and in the teachings of the individual Bishops dispersed through the world. So even if one were to disagree with Grisez’ opinion that the magisterial teaching on contraception was already infallible before Humanae Vitae, it is abundantly clear at the present time that the ordinary and universal Magisterium has taught this doctrine definitively and infallibly. And to reject an infallible doctrine of the Magisterium is to commit the sin of heresy.

The claim that the Magisterium has no teaching on the morality of contraception outside of marriage is fundamentally incompatible with the constant teaching of the Pope and the Bishops against contraception — a teaching which has never allowed any exceptions. Contraception is intrinsically evil, and intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. And this teaching on intrinsic evil is also infallible under the Universal Magisterium. So anyone who believes or teaches that the Magisterium has no teaching on the morality of contraception outside of marriage, believes and teaches heresy.

The claim of a mistranslation in an official Vatican document is not sufficient, even if it were true, to support a false and heretical claim about the magisterial teaching on contraception. Even if there were such a mistranslation, no doctrine of the Church, much less an infallible one, revolves around the (alleged) dictionary definition of any single word or phrase. If it did, then the doctrines of the Magisterium would be founded on the fallible dictionary, and not on infallible Sacred Tradition and infallible Sacred Scripture.

Very many Bishops know Latin, and the document Humanae Vitae is one of the most prominent encyclicals in the history of the Church’s moral teaching. So this claim of a translation error implies that none of these many Bishops noticed this alleged translation error, despite its longstanding prominence.

The teaching of the Magisterium is not dependent on the Latin language. The Bishops of the world teach the same truths in virtually every language on earth. The English version of Humanae Vitae has been used by English-speaking Bishops to teach against contraception for over 40 years. The claim that all the faithful in the world, or all the Bishops, have been led astray by the mistranslation of a single word, from Latin into English, is not only absurd, but accusatory, as if these many Bishops and many faithful souls are unable to know the teaching of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium on an important matter of morality apart from the work of the translators of Humanae Vitae.

The teaching of the Magisterium on contraception is not dependent solely or even mainly on Humanae Vitae. As Germain Grisez explains in the above quote, the Magisterium has taught against contraception for many centuries prior to Humanae Vitae. And the Magisterium continues to teach against contraception since Humanae Vitae. So an allegation of a translation error is not sufficient to support the claim that the doctrine of the Magisterium on contraception has been misunderstood.

Saint Augustine, a Bishop in the Church, taught that contraception is immoral “even with one’s legitimate wife”, thereby implying that contraception is immoral regardless of marital state. He did not say “only with one’s wife”. This teaching by Augustine — a Bishop, Saint, and Doctor of the Church — is quoted by Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii, without disagreement, correction, or qualification: “As St. Augustine notes, ‘Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it.’ ” (Casti Connubii, n. 55). Here Pope Pius XI is teaching the universal Church through the words of Saint Augustine. And the teaching against contraception is not dependent on the marital state.

The burden of proof is on those who claim that there is a translation error, for several reasons. (1) The official Vatican translation translates ‘coniugali congressione’ and ‘coniugale commercium’ and ‘coniugales actus’ as sexual intercourse (n. 11, 14). (2) This translation has been approved by the Holy See, and has stood unchanged for many years. (3) No Bishop has claimed that this point of translation is an error. (4) None of the prominent persons who claim that there is a translation error in Humanae Vitae are experienced translators of Latin; none cite any experienced translator of Latin by name as agreeing with them. (5) And most importantly, they claim that this translation error results in a misunderstanding of doctrine on a grave matter of morals.

As an experienced translator of Latin, I’ve looked at the Latin text and I find no error in this translation. And I will show at length below that this claim about a mistranslation is provably false.

2. The Latin text of Humanae Vitae

The passages of Humanae Vitae most often cited to support this claim are these two:

Revera, ut usu noscitur, non ex unaquaque coniugali congressione nova exoritur vita.
“The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse.” (n. 11)

Item quivis respuendus est actus, qui, cum coniugale commercium vel praevidetur vel efficitur vel ad suos naturales exitus ducit, id tamquam finem obtinendum aut viam adhibendam intendat, ut procreatio impediatur.
“Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation-whether as an end or as a means.” (n. 14)

However, this next sentence in Humanae Vitae also has the same issue: the English text translates ‘conjugales’ with the general term sexual intercourse, and not the specific term marital intercourse.

Neque vero, ad eos coniugales actus comprobandos ex industria fecunditate privatos, haec argumenta ut valida afferre licet: nempe, id malum eligendum esse, quod minus grave videatur; insuper eosdem actus in unum quoddam coalescere cum actibus fecundis iam antea positis vel postea ponendis, atque adeo horum unam atque parem moralem bonitatem participare.
“Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these.” (n. 14)

The claim that we are examining here is that the Latin word ‘conjugale’ (in any of its various forms) is restricted in its meaning to marital intercourse. This premise is used by some persons to argue that the magisterial doctrine on contraception is restricted to marital intercourse, as if the Magisterium had no teaching on the immorality of contraception outside of marriage.

But notice the second term in bold above (procreative acts/actibus fecundis). This term refers generally to sexual intercourse without regard for marital state. For human persons certainly are able to procreate outside of marriage; non-marital sexual acts are just as fecund as marital sexual acts. The term used is not restricted to marital sexual acts. But this point is ignored by the commentators who claim a translation error resulting in a doctrinal misunderstanding. It is the procreative nature of the act of sexual intercourse that is frustrated (thwarted, deprived) by contraception, and this is the basis for the immorality of the moral object.

So the basis for the immorality of contraception is a deprivation in the procreative meaning, not in the marital meaning. The teaching that moral sexual acts must be marital does not change the teaching that moral sexual acts must also be procreative and unitive. All three meanings (unitive, procreative, and marital) must be present in each and every sexual act in order for that act to have a good moral object. The deprivation of any one meaning makes the act intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. The deprivation of two or three of these meanings makes the act graver still.

3. Analysis of the word: conjugalis

Latin makes use of various endings in accord with a word’s grammatical role in the sentence. So in the text from Humanae Vitae above, the word used is coniugale, then coniugali, then coniugales, in the three different sentences in question. These are three different forms of the same word. The essential meaning of the word is unchanged. The ending indicates the grammatical role of the word.

The word conjugal- is an adjective, which is why the terms in question (in bold above) are each a two word phrase, an adjective followed by a noun (coniugali congressione / coniugale commercium / coniugales actus). The ‘al’ portion of the word conjugal- is what makes the root word into an adjective. But the meaning of the root word is not essentially changed; it is merely applied to the associated noun.

The adjective conjugal- is derived from the noun conjugium. The noun conjugium is used to refer to marriage, and so is the adjective conjugalis. Converting the noun into the adjective by adding ‘al’ does not change the meaning of the word. Does this point establish the claim that conjugalis refers only to marriage? No, it does not, because (as is explained below) conjugium is often used to refer to unions other than marital union and other than marital sexual union.

The con- prefix is often translated, in various words, as ‘together’. For example, conferre means to bring together, and contrahere means to draw together. In other cases, the con- prefix intensifies the meaning of the root word. For example, vallis means valley, and convallis means steep valley.

Now we arrive at the very root of the word, which we might express as a noun (jugum) or as a verb (jugare).

The noun jugum refers to something that joins two things together. This word is used to refer to the wooden bar (a yoke) that joins a pair of draft animals (e.g. oxen). A yoke binds two into one. It is also used to refer to the two that are so joined, a jugum would then be a pair of oxen (e.g. Jer 51:23; Lk 14:19). The word jugum in Latin is also used to refer to a ridge that joins two mountain tops, to the crossbar that joins the two sides of a scale (a balance), and to the wooden yoke that was used in past centuries to bind a slave. This last meaning also gives rise to a figurative use of the term in Latin, as a type of submission. The ‘yoke of slavery’ is not necessarily a literal yoke, but any means of submission.

Finally, the noun jugum can refer to marriage. This usage is derived from the prior described meanings. In marriage, the couple are bound together; the two are united as one by the bond (the yoke) of holy matrimony. The term can refer to the bond of marriage, or even to the couple themselves. This usage is figurative, and is based on the aforementioned literal uses of the same term.

The con- prefix can be understood as intensifying the root word, such that conjugium refers to a close union. So even though the root word by itself, jugum, can refer to marriage or to the married couple, or even to an individual spouse, the word is more often used in the intensified form: conjugium. Marriage is a close union of two into one.

However even the intensified form, conjugium, still retains its multiplicity of meaning. The word still refers to two things that are joined together, to a general close connection or close union, and not exclusively to marriage.

The term conjugium is also sometimes used to refer to sexual union. As such, it is a discrete term; the type of close union is implied, not stated. But the range of meaning includes marital and non-marital sexual unions, and even the mating of animals. Neither the word conjugium, nor its root word jugum, refers solely to marriage or solely to marital sexual union.

The same root word as a verb (jugare) has the same range of meaning. The word jugare means to join or to bind; it is used to refer specifically to joining in marriage, but also generally to other types of joining. And its intensified form, conjugare, likewise means to join together in marriage, but also refers to other types of joining together, even merely in friendship. Essentially, the verb conjugare means to join or to bind two things together. The term is even used so broadly as to apply to a connection between, or a joining of, different words. Although the term is used to refer to marriage, it is also used more broadly.

Neither the noun, jugum, nor the verb, jugare, are used exclusively to refer to marriage, nor exclusively to refer to marital sexual union.

The adjective conjugal- (or jugal- without the con- prefix) is derived from the noun conjugium (jugum). Adding the part ‘al’ makes the noun into an adjective. But the core meaning of the word is unchanged. As a noun, the term refers to a joining together (in marriage, or in any sexual union, or other types of joining). As an adjective, the term specifies that its associated noun is to be understood in the sense of a close union. This close union, as applied to the noun, might be a marital union, or a marital sexual union, or any type of sexual union, or another type of joining.

4. Three examples

In the document Casti Connubii, there are two uses of conjugium to refer to sexual unions that are specifically non-marital, and a third usage in the title of a quoted work from Saint Augustine.

“Hence the nature of this contract, which is proper and peculiar to it alone, makes it entirely different both from the union of animals entered into by the blind instinct of nature alone in which neither reason nor free will plays a part, and also from the haphazard unions of men, which are far removed from all true and honorable unions of will and enjoy none of the rights of family life.” (n. 7)

Quae contractus huius natura propria omnino et singularis, eum toto caelo diversum facit cum a coniunctionibus pecudum solo naturae caeco instinctu factis, in quibus nulla ratio est nec voluntas deliberata, tum ab iis quoque hominum vagis coniugiis, quae ab omni vero honestoque voluntatum vinculo remota sunt et quovis domestici convictus iure destituta.

In the quote above, the Latin word coniugiis is used to refer specifically to non-marital sexual unions. The type of unions being compared are true marriage versus various haphazard unions. These non-marital unions would include a couple living in sin (cohabitation), or a couple having a sexual relationship without living together, or even a one-time sexual encounter. All of these sinful unions include grave sexual sin, and yet they are all subsumed under the term vagis conjugiis. Certainly, the Pontiff is not condemning a non-marital union that has no sinful sexual acts, for example: mere friendship, or the dating or engagement of a chaste couple.

“From this it is clear that legitimately constituted authority has the right and therefore the duty to restrict, to prevent, and to punish those base unions which are opposed to reason and to nature; but since it is a matter which flows from human nature itself, no less certain is the teaching of Our predecessor, Leo XIII of happy memory….” (n. 8)

Exinde iam constat legitimam quidem auctoritatem iure pollere atque adeo cogi officio coercendi, impediendi, puniendi turpia coniugia, quae rationi ac naturae adversantur; sed cum de re agatur ipsam hominis naturam consesequente, non minus certo constat id quod fel. rec. Leo XIII decessor Noster palam monuit….

In the quote above, the Latin word ‘coniugia’ is used to refer specifically to non-marital sexual unions. For the word ‘turpia’ is a strong word in Latin often used to refer to grave sexual immorality. For example, the word ‘pornography’ is represented in the Latin text of Familiaris Consortio (n. 24, Latin text) as ‘turpia scripta imaginesque’ (shameful writings and images). So the phrase ‘turpia conjugia’ cannot possibly refer to natural marital relations open to life; it refers to non-marital sexual unions.

A third example of this usage is also found in Casti Connubii, in the title of a well-known work by Saint Augustine that is quoted by Pope Pius XI.

“Small wonder, therefore, if Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death. As St. Augustine notes, ‘Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it. [45]’ ” (n. 55)
[45. St. August., De coniug. adult., lib. II, n. 12, Gen, XXXVIII, 8-10.]

As already noted, the quote from Saint Augustine explicitly states that contraception is immoral “even in marriage”, implying that contraception is immoral regardless of marital state. The Pontiff cites these words as part of his official magisterial teaching. So it is not true that the Magisterium has never taught that the use of contraception is immoral outside of marriage, or regardless of marital state.

The title of the quoted work by Augustine is “De Conjugiis Adulterinis”, which is usually translated as “On Adulterous Unions.” So here is an example of a use of the term in question to refer to sexual intercourse that is specifically non-marital, as is implied by the term “adulterous”.

Therefore, the word conjugali/conjugium (in any of its many forms) does not refer solely to marital unions, nor solely to marital sexual unions. It can refer to sexual intercourse in general, as Humanae Vitae translates the term, and it can even refer to specifically non-marital sexual intercourse as is clear from Casti Connubii.

The above explanation of the meaning of the word conjugalis, and the three citations from Casti Connubii, are sufficient to refute the claim that conjugalis can only possibly refer to marital unions, or to marital sexual unions.

5. Translation of the Latin phrases in Humanae Vitae

There are three phrases in Humanae Vitae in question. Each is translated, in the official Vatican translation, with the more general term ‘sexual intercourse’, rather than the specific term ‘marital intercourse’. In my opinion as a translator of Latin, the official translation is correct. Others claim first that the official translation should read ‘marital intercourse’, and second that the Magisterium has therefore only condemned the use of contraception within marriage. They are mistaken on both points.

The three phrases are: coniugali congressione, coniugale commercium, coniugales actus.

Revera, ut usu noscitur, non ex unaquaque coniugali congressione nova exoritur vita.
“The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse.” (n. 11)

The official Latin and official English are given above. I offer my own, somewhat more literal translation, as follows.

‘Revera’ is a combination of re (thing) and vera (truth), so this word literally means ‘true thing’, or ‘it is true’. The verb ‘noscitur’ is third person singular passive present indicative, and so can be rendered: ‘it is known’. This makes the phrase ‘ut usu noscitur’ translate thusly: ‘as is commonly known’. The word order for the rest of the sentence is quite different in English than in Latin. The subject of the sentence is ‘nova vita’ (new life). The verb ‘exoritur’ has the root meaning ‘to rise up’, and adding the prefix ‘ex’ gives it the meaning ‘to rise up from’. The ‘non’ at the start of this part of the sentence makes the assertion negative. So now we have ‘new life does not rise up from’ followed by the prepositional phrase: ‘ex unaquaque coniugali congressione’. The first part is simple ‘ex una-qua-que’, literally ‘from one-another-and’ or ‘from one and another’ or more loosely, ‘from each and every’.

In the explanation above, I give the literal meaning of the words before giving the somewhat looser final translation. This literal meaning is not so much the etymology of the words, but their plain meaning to any reader of Latin. For example, ‘etiam’ usually translates as ‘even’, but literally it is ‘et iam’ (and now). And ‘revera’ is often translated as ‘in fact’ (or some similar expression), but literally it is ‘re vera’ (thing true). Neither can the addition or omission of the spaces between these parts of words be considered to have much of an effect, since ancient Latin has no spaces between the words (as well as no punctuation, and no difference between capital and small letters). So ‘etiam’ reads as ‘and now’. But a looser translation into English is often smoother and no less accurate.

Now for the phrase ‘coniugali congressione’. The noun ‘congressione’ has a very general meaning, such as ‘encounter’, or such as the archaic meaning of the English word ‘intercourse’; that term in English used to refer to any type of interaction between persons. The more recent common usage of ‘intercourse’ in English is narrowed to mean specifically sexual intercourse. (And yet sometimes we say merely ‘intercourse’ and other times we say ‘sexual intercourse’, with the same meaning.) But in Latin congressione has the larger range of meaning. So the adjective ‘coniugale’ has the function of specifying the specific meaning within that range. Now granted, just as in English we can use a general word like ‘relations’ or ‘encounter’ and merely imply by the context that the ‘relations’ were sexual, we can do so also in Latin. But the use of a two word phrase to more exactly specify the meaning is not unusual in Latin, just as it is not unusual in English.

As already explained at great length above, coniugali refers to a joining together, not always a sexual joining, and not always a marital sexual joining. The adjective coniugali has the effect of specifying that the ‘intercourse [archaic]’ or ‘relations’ or ‘encounter’ is specifically a close union. As such, the phrase becomes a discrete modest term to refer to sexual intercourse.

And this translation is verified by the context of that phrase in the sentence as a whole, which I will render more literally than usual for the sake of clarity: “It is true, as is commonly known, new life does not rise up from each and every sexual encounter.” What is commonly known is that sexual intercourse can produce new life, but does not always produce new life. But we all know, too, that this procreation of new life can occur in or out of marriage. So this general assertion about sexual acts and procreation certainly fits the choice of the general term ‘sexual intercourse’. There is nothing in the wording of the Latin sentence that would necessitate the narrower phrasing ‘marital intercourse’.

Item quivis respuendus est actus, qui, cum coniugale commercium vel praevidetur vel efficitur vel ad suos naturales exitus ducit, id tamquam finem obtinendum aut viam adhibendam intendat, ut procreatio impediatur.
“Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means.” (n. 14)

What is forbidden is any intentionally-chosen action that thwarts procreation, regardless of whether contraception is the intended end (a contraceptive intention), or is merely a means to another intended end (a non-contraceptive intention). This sentence explains what makes contraception intrinsically evil. The moral object is the deprivation of procreation from sexual acts, preventing those acts from being procreative. Any act that is inherently ordered toward that end is an intrinsically evil act. The sin itself is the intentional choice of any act, at any time, that is intrinsically ordered (by the nature of the act apart from intention or circumstances) to prevent conception as a result of sexual intercourse. This sentence functions as a definition of contraception.

But notice that the moral object is not dependent on the marital state. The translation of ‘coniugale commercium’ does not affect this explanation of the moral object and the intrinsic disorder of any contraceptive act. Even if we translate that phrase as ‘marital intercourse’, the mere mention of marriage in a sentence or paragraph on contraception does not imply that the moral object and the intrinsically evil nature of the act is dependent on the marital state. Nothing makes an act intrinsically evil other than its moral object. It is always a sin to intentionally choose any intrinsically disordered act. When an act has an evil moral object, nothing can make that act good. The moral object of contraception is the deprivation of the procreative meaning, not the presence or absence of the marital meaning. For every evil moral object is evil due to the deprivation (the absence) of some good in the end toward which the act, by its very nature, is directed.

As for the translation of coniugale commercium, the same analysis explained at length above on coniugali congressione applies here. The term ‘commercium’ is a different word with much the same meaning as ‘congressione’; it refers to some type of interaction. And the term conjugali narrows the range of meaning to be specifically sexual, a close joining, as the root of the term implies. So it is not a translation error to translate this phrase with the general expression ‘sexual intercourse’. In fact, as I understand this Latin phrase, it lends itself more fittingly to the general term ‘sexual intercourse’, and less fittingly to the specific term ‘marital intercourse’, because ‘commercium’ is an even broader term than congressione.

Neque vero, ad eos coniugales actus comprobandos ex industria fecunditate privatos, haec argumenta ut valida afferre licet: nempe, id malum eligendum esse, quod minus grave videatur; insuper eosdem actus in unum quoddam coalescere cum actibus fecundis iam antea positis vel postea ponendis, atque adeo horum unam atque parem moralem bonitatem participare.
“Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these.” (n. 14)

In this third passage, again we see an emphasis on the procreative meaning, and its deprivation, as the basis for the immorality of contraception. The moral object is evil because of the sexual acts in question are non-procreative. Other procreative sexual acts of past or future cannot justify the sexual acts that are non-procreative. So again, the context indicates that the translation of ‘conjugales’ has no effect on the moral object. The translation of ‘actibus fecundis’ as ‘procreative acts’, not ‘marital acts’, is beyond dispute. This question of whether past or future procreative acts might justify the present use of contraception arises because the immorality of contraception is based on the deprivation of that procreative meaning. Procreative acts have that good moral object, and non-procreative acts are deprived of that good moral object.

Concerning the translation of ‘coniugales actus’, the same analysis as in the other two cases also applies here. Certainly the term ‘actus’ is a broad term, broader than commercium and much broader than congressione. So the adjective conjugales is needed to narrow the range of meaning. But that word specifies a close joining, and therefore functions as a discrete term for sexual union. The term does not uniquely specify marital sexual union.

Therefore, in accord with the above detailed explanation, based also on my knowledge and experience as a translator of Latin, I affirm that the official Vatican translation of Humanae Vitae did not err by translating the three phrases in question as sexual intercourse, rather than as marital intercourse. I also assert that I find no basis in the Latin text of any magisterial document on contraception to support the claim that those magisterial documents limit their condemnation of contraception solely to contraception used within marriage.

Contraception and Heresy: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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