The Humanae Vitae Translation Error cohort

This post is part one of a series.

Cohors

What is a “cohort”? Noun: “1. a group or company … 5. an accomplice; abettor”. [1]

The HV Translation Error cohort, as I have dubbed them, are a relatively small group of Catholics who promote the claim that the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae contains a translation error — one which substantially affects the magisterial doctrine on contraception. Specifically, they claim that the current translation, as it stands in the official Vatican translation into English, contains translation errors which have thereby introduced a grave doctrinal error, on the doctrine of contraception, into the teaching of the Church, and that a “correct” translation would substantially change the doctrine, correcting the error.

Who are the members of this cohort? I can’t decide if I should curate an online list of its members. It is a loose association of individuals, who are influenced by one another. Some of them know each other, in person; some have communicated among themselves by e-mail. Other members are only influenced by one another, without direct communication, via their online writings. It is not a discrete group, with a leadership and monthly meetings (AFAIK). It is a group in the sense that they all teach grave errors on contraception, including, but not limited to, the claim that the teaching of Humanae Vitae has been misunderstood, very widely, for a long time, due to an allegedly blatant translation error.

If you know of anyone who is promoting this idea, about an alleged translation error in Humanae Vitae that substantially affects the doctrine on contraception, please post their name in the comments below.

[1] “cohort” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/cohort

Prima Facie

Before I deal with the substance of the doctrine and the proper translation of the text, consider for a moment what this claim, at first glance, implies about Church teaching. Humanae Vitae was published in July 1968, about 48 years ago. Are we to believe that a translation error introduced a false doctrine into at least the English-speaking world, and that no Pope, Cardinal, or Bishop who knows magisterial teaching as well as Latin, noticed the alleged translation error, nor the spread of a grave doctrinal error based on said error? The claim itself implies a stunning lack of faith in the Magisterium as well as a lack of confidence in the successive Popes, and the successive Bishops dispersed through the world.

On its face, this claim is quite similar to past claims made by heretics and schismatics. There is the Protestant claim that certain Bible passages are mistranslated by Catholics, such that the passages, correctly translated, would support Protestant theology and undermine Catholic theology. Then there is the claim of some sedevacantist that the documents of the Second Vatican Council contain translation errors. In each case, a dispute about doctrine is reformulated as a dispute about translation, as if doctrine depends entirely on translation. But are not the teachings of the Faith understandable in any language? Is it not true that various wordings can each express the same truth?

This claim of a translation error is a convenient way to alter Church doctrine, twisting it to conform to the fallen sinners own misunderstanding, by changing the documents of the Magisterium themselves — on the excuse of translating correctly. But someone could conceivably do the same thing to any teaching and any document.

In fact, I’ve seen this same approach used when traditionalists are arguing against Pope Francis. (See, for example, a number of posts at Fr. Z.’s blog.) Essentially, what happens is that a person claims that their own understanding of doctrine is supported by their own translation of the text, in contradiction to the official translation. But their revised translation is biased by that doctrinal contention. This results in a type of circular reasoning, where the new translation is heavily influenced by a claim about the doctrine, and then that doctrinal claim is supported by the biased translation.

The Claimed Error

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

“The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse [conjugali congressione].” (n. 11)

“Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse [conjugale commercium], 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 “conjugal-” with the general term sexual intercourse, and not the specific term marital intercourse.

“Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse [conjugales actus] 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 [actibus fecundis] of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these.” (n. 14)

The first claim that we are examining here is that the Latin word “conjug-” (in any of its various forms) is restricted in its meaning to marriage (or marital intercourse), and should therefore always be translated into English as “marital” or “conjugal”. The second claim is that the magisterial doctrine on contraception is itself restricted to marital intercourse because of the use of the Latin word “conjug-“.

First of all, the Latin word “conjug-” does not solely refer to marriage, nor solely to marital intercourse. My lengthy explanation on this point is found here: Contraception and Heresy — Part 3 — On the Latin text of Humanae Vitae. In summary, the term refers to a close joining, in marriage, or in any sexual union, or other types of joining. As for those who claim that the Magisterium only uses “conjug-” to refer to marriage, have they never read the papal encyclical Casti Connubii? Humanae Vitae is not the only document to condemn contraception. And Casti Connubii twice uses the same Latin word (“conjug-“) to refer to illicit sexual unions outside of marriage (Casti Connubii n. 7 and 8), <a href="“>explained at length here.

The same document of the Magisterium also quotes a work by Saint Augustine, which condemns contraception when used “even with one’s lawful wife” — implying that contraception is also immoral outside of marriage. And 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”.

Thus, the claim is false that “conjug-” in Latin always refers solely to marriage, and that therefore it must always be translated as “conjugal” or “marital” in English.

The Official Translation

“The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse [conjugali congressione].” (n. 11)

It is a fact that sexual intercourse can produce offspring, even if the couple is not married. It is a fact that not every act of sexual intercourse produces offspring, regardless of marital state. So the use of the phrase “sexual intercourse”, in the above quote, is fitting. There is no dogmatic translation rule that “conjug-” must always be translated as “marital”.

“Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse [conjugale commercium], is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means.” (n. 14)

Contraception is immoral because it is the deliberate (intentional, knowing) choice of an act which is inherently ordered to thwart procreation. We know that procreation occurs regardless of marital state. And so this prohibition applies regardless of marital state.

Now if the Magisterium had instead taught that contraception is immoral solely because it offends against the marital meaning, then the teaching could be restricted to marriage. For example, when two unmarried persons unfortunately commit the sin of pre-marital sex, it is nevertheless not the sin of adultery — for they do not offend against a martial vow which neither of them has taken. But contraception is immoral because it offends against the procreative meaning. And procreation occurs regardless of marital state.

“Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse [conjugales actus] 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 [actibus fecundis] of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these.” (n. 14)

Notice the term in bold above (procreative acts/actibus fecundis). This term refers to sexual intercourse without regard to 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. For the deliberate and knowing choice of an act of contraception is intrinsically evil. But its evil moral object is the deprivation of the procreative meaning of the sexual act, and procreation occurs regardless of martial state.

Translating Latin

So the official Vatican translation is not erroneous, and the claimed translation errors are not errors at all. But then most of the persons who promote this translation error claim do not know Latin well.

They see a Latin word that resembles the English word “conjugal”, and so they assume that the correct translation must be “conjugal”. They know that the English word “conjugal” means “marital”, and because most of them have little or no experience translating Latin, they assume that the Latin word should always be translated by the English world which is derived from that Latin word. But these are false assumptions.

When a particular Latin word gives rise to a similarly spelled English word, the latter is not always the correct translation of the former. For example, the Latin word “mandatum” gives rise to the English word “mandate”, but the former is usually translated as “commandment”. As another example, the Latin word “incrementum” gives rise to the English word “increment”, but is usually translated as “increase” or “growth” or “development”. Finally, the Latin word “gratia” is sometimes translated as “grace” and other times as “free”: alioquin gratia iam non est gratia — “otherwise, grace is no longer free” (Romans 11:6).

Thus, the Latin word “conjug-” does not always mean marital, can refer to sexual unions outside of marriage, and should not always be translated as “marital” or “conjugal”.

My experience with Latin: I worked nearly every day for 5 years, translating the entire Clementine Vulgate Bible from Latin into English. I also produced a new edit of the Latin text of the Clementine Vulgate. I was one of the proof-readers for the Tweedale edition of the Clementine Vulgate (London, 2005). See my work with the Bible here: SacredBible.org.

See also my translation of Unam Sanctam. And I am currently working on a translation of the doctrines of the Council of Trent.

As an experienced Latin translator, I am telling you, the reader, that there is nothing wrong with the official Vatican translation of Humanae Vitae, and the alleged translation errors are not errors at all.

Other Documents

Another problem with the arguments used by the Humanae Vitae translation error cohort is that Humanae Vitae is not the only magisterial document on contraception. And when we examine other documents (e.g. Quaecumque Sterilizatio), it is clear that contraception is condemned regardless of marital state. I’ll go into this point at length in a subsequent post. But for now, let me say that, even if Humanae Vitae were translated with “conjugal” or “marital” instead of “sexual”, the teaching of the Church would still condemn contraception, both within marriage and outside of marriage. For Humanae Vitae bases its condemnation on the separation of the unitive and procreative meanings, not on an offense against the marital meaning. And plenty of other documents make it clear that contraception is intrinsically evil, and is always immoral, even in marriage, even outside of marriage.

Teachers with Itching Ears

Why is this ridiculous claim about Humanae Vitae spreading among Catholic teachers, authors, and bloggers? It is because they have itching ears [2 Tim 4:3]. They know that most married Catholics use contraception. They know that many unmarried Catholics have sex outside of marriage and use contraception. They know that most Catholics utterly reject the teaching of the Magisterium against contraception. And so, when they say anything that undermines Church teaching on contraception, they obtain a lot of support from Catholics. But if they were to unswervingly support magisterial teaching against contraception, they would lose that support and take a lot of flak from their supporters (or former supporters). There is a subtle pressure on all Catholic teachers to say something, anything, in favor of contraception. And some Catholic teachers give in to that pressure, either out of a weak mind, having badly misunderstood magisterial teaching, or out of a weak faith, which is not willing to tell their fellow Catholics the whole truth, when it is not what they want to hear.

And what does Jesus say about such teachers?

[Mark]
{8:38} For whoever has been ashamed of me and of my words, among this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of man also will be ashamed of him, when he will arrive in the glory of his Father, with the holy Angels.”

Notice that our Lord and Savior specifically mentions sexual sins (“this adulterous…generation”). For the teachings of the Church against sexual sins — of which contraception is one — are the most common teachings about which Christians are unduly “ashamed”.

[James 3]
{3:1} My brothers, not many of you should choose to become teachers, knowing that you shall receive a stricter judgment.

This post is part one of a series.

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

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

Gallery | This entry was posted in contraception. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Humanae Vitae Translation Error cohort

  1. Francisco says:

    There is a saying in Spanish “Le tratan de buscar la quinta pata al gato”. They are simply “trying ways in order to find a fifth leg to the cat”.

Comments are closed.