An Instrumentum laboris (working paper) was prepared for the XIV Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops and published on June 23, 2015. It covers a range of topics germane to the Synod’s theme of the family. Paragraph 137 addresses a key document of the modern Magisterium, Humanae Vitae, in a way that both calls the force of that teaching into question and proposes a method of moral discernment that is decidedly not Catholic. This approach to discernment contradicts what has hitherto been taught by the Magisterium of the Church about moral norms, conscience, and moral judgment, by suggesting that a well-formed conscience may be in conflict with objective moral norms.

As Catholic moral theologians and philosophers, we feel morally obligated to speak out against the distortion of Catholic teaching implicit in paragraph 137. If endorsed by the Synod, the defective text of the Instrumentum laboris would lead to confusion among the faithful. Paragraph 137 should be removed and replaced by a paragraph that speaks of the conscience in a more precise fashion, that celebrates the wisdom and beauty of Humanae Vitae, and that helps spouses to appreciate that the graces are available to them to live out God’s plan for the gift of sexuality.

The Moral Norm

The official English translation from the Vatican website is as follows:

In relation to the rich content of Humanae Vitae and the issues it treats, two principal points emerge which always need to be brought together. One element is the role of conscience as understood to be God’s voice resounding in the human heart which is trained to listen. The other is an objective moral norm which does not permit considering the act of generation a reality to be decided arbitrarily, irrespective of the divine plan of human procreation. A person’s over-emphasizing the subjective aspect runs the risk of easily making selfish choices. An over-emphasis on the other results in seeing the moral norm as an insupportable burden and unresponsive to a person’s needs and resources. Combining the two, under the regular guidance of a competent spiritual guide, will help married people make choices which are humanly fulfilling and ones which conform to God’s will.

While the English translation is in itself highly ambiguous, the original Italian is, if anything, even more problematic. Our own extremely literal translation reads as follows:

Keeping present the richness of wisdom contained in Humanae Vitae, in relation to the questions treated by it, there emerge two poles that need to be constantly brought together. On the one side, there is the role of conscience understood as the voice of God that resounds in the human heart that is educated to listen to it; on the other side, there is the objective moral indication that prevents us from considering generativity as a reality on which to decide arbitrarily, prescinding from the divine design for human procreation. When reference to the subjective pole prevails, one easily risks egoistic choices; in the other case, the moral norm is perceived as an unbearable burden that is not in keeping with the needs and possibilities of the person. The conjunction of the two aspects, lived with the accompaniment of a competent spiritual guide, can help spouses to make choices that are fully humanized and in conformity with the will of the Lord.

If the English translation softens the implicit divide between conscience and norms by speaking of “two principal points,” the Italian hardens this division as “two poles.” If the English translation speaks of “over-emphasis,” the Italian speaks of one of two sides “prevailing.” The working language of last year’s Synod was Italian, so we presume it will be the same this year. The original Italian would therefore seem to be the more important version of the text.

Whichever of these two versions is used, however, paragraph 137 presents neither the role of conscience nor the significance of norms well. The paragraph’s phrasing is deeply ambiguous, and it tends to portray the moral norm as exterior to human persons and the good life we are called to live. It thereby suggests that the norm is exclusively negative and, as it were, coercive. This emphasis on the norm’s prohibitive function ignores the norm’s positive role in promoting the moral actor’s personal growth and fulfillment in the good. Because the passage fails to teach that the norm itself, in all its objectivity, discloses something crucial for the beauty and goodness of a human life well lived, it also leaves the impression that moral norms might in fact be “an insupportable burden” that is “unresponsive to a person’s needs and resources.”

The paragraph’s manner of presenting the moral norm disregards what Veritatis Splendor says in n. 15: “Jesus shows that the commandments must not be understood as a minimum limit not to be gone beyond, but rather as a path involving a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection, at the heart of which is love (cf. Col 3:14).” An understanding of moral norms exclusively as constituting external limits potentially in competition with the good of the moral subject ignores Jesus Christ’s way of speaking about the commandments as pregnant with the fullness of life he promises.

The suggestion that the objective content of a moral norm can be “unresponsive to a person’s needs,” so that conformity to its commands might not promote a person’s moral good, i.e. the “good of the person” (cf. VS 50), is contradictory to a Catholic understanding of morality. The view that moral norms might not promote human happiness suggests a nominalist and arbitrary view of the moral law, according to which an act is bad for no other reason than its being forbidden. Such a perspective in no way corresponds to the reality of God’s creation. Rather, the moral law, corresponding to the truth of God’s creative act, expresses anthropological truths about the human person that cannot be ignored or violated without doing harm to our “needs and resources,” which is to say without doing harm to ourselves.

To hold that the objective content of moral norms as found in Scripture and expounded by the Magisterium can be unresponsive to the person’s “resources” denies the explicit, consoling and hopeful teaching of the Council of Trent: “But no one, however much justified, ought to consider himself exempt from the observance of the commandments, nor should he employ that rash statement, forbidden by the Fathers under anathema, that the commandments of God are impossible of observance by one who is justified. For God does not command the impossible, but in commanding he admonishes you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot, and he gives his aid to enable you. His commandments are not burdensome (cf. 1 Jn 5:3); his yoke is easy and his burden light (cf. Mt 11:30)” (Session VI.11). Paragraph 137 of the Instrumentum laboris does not counsel relying on God for the strength to conform to His commandments, but instead suggests that a moral agent might be able to find a middle point on which to balance self-discerned subjective “needs and resources” against the actual content of the moral law. What is completely missed here is the Council’s understanding of the grace of Christ’s redemption, which is reiterated in Chapter III of Veritatis Splendor: “Lest the Cross of Christ Be Emptied of Its Power.”

Authentic pastoral care does not seek to adapt the moral law to the perceived abilities of the spouses (“gradualness of the law”), but rather to accompany them on a—perhaps long and arduous—way of moral growth, which by the power of God’s grace it is possible for them to undertake (“law of gradualness”) (cf. FC 34). The law of gradualness will be practiced by confessors who are not harsh with spouses who repeatedly fail to be faithful to God’s plan for sexuality. The spouses will be encouraged to seek more ardently the graces needed to order properly their sexual desires.


Paragraph 137’s presentation of conscience is no less ambiguous and incomplete: We are told that conscience is “God’s voice resounding in the human heart which is trained to listen.”

This definition appears to be a distortion of Gaudium et Spes n. 16, which says: “Deep within their consciences men and women discover a law which they have not laid upon themselves and which they must obey. Its voice, ever calling them to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells them inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For they have in their hearts a law inscribed by God. Their dignity rests in observing this law, and by it they will be judged.Their conscience is people’s most secret core, and their sanctuary. There they are alone with God whose voice echoes in their depths.By conscience, in a wonderful way, that law is made known which is fulfilled in the love of God and of one’s neighbor.”

The Instrumentum laboris fails to emphasize that conscience makes reference to the law inscribed on our hearts, which is how “God's voice” should be interpreted. The “voice” of God does not tell one person one thing about morality and another person another, and it never speaks against an objective norm taught by the Church. To speak of a voice of God in a manner that seems detached from the moral law, or that appears to lack a reference to it, is grossly inadequate. It is wrong to speak of a subjective pole outside the law, which must then be combined with the law.

What follows from the errors of paragraph 137 would seem to be not merely the risk of “selfish choices,” but rather a radical subjectivism in our understanding of the moral life, inasmuch as conscience is detached from the illuminating internal presence of the moral law. Once conscience is separated from the law, it is no longer a way of standing before God. Rather, by this way of thinking, in one’s conscience one will stand only before oneself. Veritatis Splendor’scomment on Romans 2:14-15 expresses the way in which conscience, properly understood, brings us into God’s presence: “According to Saint Paul, conscience in a certain sense confronts man with the law, and thus becomes a witness for man: a witness of his own faithfulness or unfaithfulness with regard to the law, of his essential moral rectitude or iniquity” (para.57).

The idea that conscience makes an intrinsic reference to an objective truth about the good is completely absent from paragraph 137. By presenting conscience as a subjective faculty standing in dialectical opposition to the law, the Instrumentum laboris proposes a concept that is incompatible with the teaching of the Church’s Magisterium and that diminishes the spiritual dignity of the human person as one who is able to conform his actions to objective truth.

Moral Judgment

According to the logic of paragraph 137, then, moral judgment is no longer a judgment of conscience illuminated by the law, but rather the “combination” of two poles, one subjective and one objective. We must emphasize that the conjunction of the two dialectical elements occurs without any criteria. With conscience and the law being the two poles that need reconciliation, neither of them can provide criteria for how their combination can be worked out. In other words, the Instrumentum laboris seems to imply that the ultimate criterion of morality is arbitrary.

External help from a “competent spiritual guide” is no solution for this difficulty. While faithful spiritual direction undoubtedly can have many benefits, the need for appealing to it in this context is nothing but a way of acknowledging a lack of criteria—other than the spiritual director’s guidance—on which to base a final decision. It should be pointed out that few spouses in fact have access to regular spiritual direction. More fundamentally, this solution makes married people dependent on the moral judgment of pastoral experts, a dependence that contradicts the very nature of conscience.

A spiritual guide will have no fuller access to objective criteria than does the well-formed (“trained to listen”) conscience, and the mission of a spiritual director is never to recommend or condone violating God’s moral law. Indeed, Humanae Vitae itself insists that those who guide spouses must never compromise the truth: “Now it is an outstanding manifestation of charity toward souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ” (HV 29).

St. John Paul II, the Pope of the Family, clarified the impossibility that a private subjective evaluation of goods could outweigh objective goods:“To speak of a ‘conflict of values or goods’ and of the consequent necessity of weighing them against each other, choosing one and rejecting the other, is not morally correct and only causes confusion in the conscience of the spouses.”

Yet by presenting moral judgment as a possible conflict between conscience and objective morality, paragraph 137 falls into the error rejected in Veritatis Splendor, para. 56: “Beyond the doctrinal and abstract level, one would have to acknowledge the priority of a certain more concrete existential consideration. The latter, by taking account of circumstances and the situation, could legitimately be the basis of certain exceptions to the general rule and thus permit one to do in practice and in good conscience what is qualified as intrinsically evil by the moral law. A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept.”

John Paul II’s encyclical anticipates, as it were, the language of the Instrumentum laboris and its concerns about burdens on our “needs and resources”:“The Church’s teaching, and in particular her firmness in defending the universal and permanent validity of the precepts prohibiting intrinsically evil acts, is not infrequently seen as the sign of an intolerable intransigence, particularly with regard to the enormously complex and conflict-filled situations present in the moral life of individuals and of society today; … In fact, genuine understanding and compassion must mean love for the person, for his true good, for his authentic freedom. And this does not result, certainly, from concealing or weakening moral truth, but rather from proposing it in its most profound meaning as an outpouring of God's eternal Wisdom, which we have received in Christ, and as a service to man, to the growth of his freedom and to the attainment of his happiness” (VS 95).

The ambiguous and imprecise formulations of paragraph 137 suggest a rejection of the existence of intrinsically evil acts. The text implies that there are no moral norms that have absolute, universal, and immutable validity and that prohibit intrinsically evil acts always and without exception. In this way, the passage appears to call into question the Tradition of the Church and the explicit teaching of the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (79-82; 115).

The True Content of Humanae Vitae

Paragraph 137 characterizes the teaching of Humanae Vitae in a way that permits a serious misinterpretation of its meaning. The Instrumentum laboris summarizes the encyclical as teaching “the objective moral norm which does not permit considering the act of generation a reality to be decided arbitrarily, irrespective of the divine plan of human procreation.”

The phrase “to be decided arbitrarily” invites the idea that contraceptive practices are acceptable so long as they are not undertaken for “arbitrary” reasons. Unfortunately, this phrase, especially in light of the other concerns of the paragraph, suggests that “non-arbitrary” reasons might permit the use of contraception in some circumstances. The paragraph could certainly have made clearer that Humanae Vitae does not allow for this (cf. HV 11). Humanae Vitae teaches that God’s plan for marital intercourse “[excludes] 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” (HV 14).

Finally, paragraph 137 is very far from promoting the robust anthropology on which Bl. Paul VI, and after him St. John Paul II, based the precise normative teaching of the Church: Human beings are meant to love and be loved. Contraception, in fact, is incompatible with loving and being loved. By the use of contraceptives, not only is the procreative meaning of the conjugal act rejected, but the act’s meaning as a truly “unitive,” genuine act of love is also radically compromised (cf. HV 12). In his catechesis on human love (“Theology of the Body”), John Paul II laid out a scripturally based defense of the teaching of Humanae Vitae, one founded on the spousal meaning of the body. The sexual act is one of self-giving that completes one’s self and another and is intrinsically ordered to marital love’s proper fruitfulness. Sadly, the Instrumentum does not draw upon John Paul II’s profound theology of the body, a theology that refuses to view objective moral norms as in tension with the human good or with a consciousness of the goodness of the marital act.

While paragraph 137 speaks of Humane Vitae’s “rich content,” in fact it undermines the encyclical’s central purpose. According to Paul VI’s declared intentions (cf. HV 4), and following the wishes of the Second Vatican Council in calling for this kind of document (cf. GS 51), Humanae Vitae aims at offering nothing less than a normative interpretation of the natural moral law.


In light of the above, we believe that the text of the Instrumentum laboris is seriously defective. It appears to stand in direct tension with the magisterial teachings contained in Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor. While paragraph 137 presents itself as an explanation of Humanae Vitae’s meaning, in fact it empties the encyclical of its central teaching. What is at stake here is not a minor detail, but a serious distortion of the basic content of Paul VI’s document. The inadequacies and misrepresentations contained in the Instrumentum laboris may have devastating consequences for the faithful, who are entitled to know the truth of the depositum fidei. Indeed, paragraph 137, if endorsed by the Synod, will sow seeds of confusion among the faithful. The faithful will not be led to appreciate and live by the beautiful and affirming teaching about sexuality set forth in Humanae Vitae. They will be confused about the relation of the conscience to objective moral truth. Ultimately, this confusion will not be confined only to the teaching of Humanae Vitae. Allowing the formulations of paragraph 137 to stand as part of the Synod’s teaching would imply that its logic could be applied to other areas in which the Church’s teaching concerning intrinsically evil acts is at stake, such as abortion or euthanasia.

We have been down this path before. The failure of theologians and even bishops and priests to give a robust endorsement to the teaching of Humanae Vitae has led to decades of weak allegiance to Church teaching, not only in sexual matters but across the board. The Synod is an opportunity to correct that deficiency. Paragraph 137 should be rejected and replaced with a strong endorsement of the teaching of Humanae Vitae and a clear explanation of the relation between conscience and objective moral norms as taught by Veritatis Splendor.

We issue this statement in our capacity as Catholic moral theologians and philosophers, wishing to make a contribution to the Synod’s success. May it always be guided by the truth. It is truth itself that permits dialogue, inasmuch as it provides the just parameters within which dialogue may occur. With this appeal we exercise the parresía, the frankness in speech, desired by Pope Francis for the progression of the Synod of Bishops. We also seek to carry out our role in the discernment of the moral good at the service of the Church and the entire faithful (cf. VS 113).


David S. Crawford is the Associate Professor of Moral Theology and Family Law, and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Washington, DC.

Stephan Kampowski is the Professor of Philosophical Anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome, Italy.


Rev. Dr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P.
Providence College, Providence, RI

Dr. Michel Bastit
University of Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Rev. Dr. Jaime Ballesteros
Universidad San Dámaso, Madrid, Spain

Rev. Dr. Thomas V. Berg
St. Joseph's Seminary (Dunwoodie), Yonkers, NY

Rev. Dr. Stephen L. Brock
Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome, Italy

Rev. Dr. Basil Cole, O.P.
Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, Dominican House of Studies,Washington, DC

Rev. Dr. Leo Elders
Major Seminary, Rolduc, Netherlands

Most Rev. Peter Elliott
John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family, Melbourne, Australia

Dr. Maria Fedoryka
Ave Maria University, Ave Maria, FL

Dr. John M. Finnis
University of Oxford, England and University of Notre Dame du Lac, Notre Dame, IN

Rev. Dr. Kevin Flannery, S.J.
Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, Italy

Rev. Dr. Robert Gahl
Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome, Italy

Dr. Jorge L. A. Garcia
Boston College, Boston, MA

Rev. Dr. Fernando García Alvaro
Diocesan Seminary of Valladolid, Spain

Dr. Véronique Gay-Crosier
University of Fribourg, Switzerland

Prof. Luke Gormally
The Anscombe Bioethics Centre (The Linacre Centre), Oxford, England

Dr. Oana Gotia
Pontifical John Paul II Institute, Rome, Italy

Rev. Dr. Daniel Granada Cañada
University of Navarra, Spain

Dr. Germain Grisez
Emeritus, Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, MD

Rev. Dr. Benedict M. Guevin
Saint Anselm College, Manchester, NH

Dr. Michael Hanby
Pontifical John Paul II Institute, Washington, DC

Dr. Margaret Harper McCarthy
Pontifical John Paul II Institute, Washington, DC

Dr. Reinhard Hütter
Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC

Dr. Steven Jensen
University of St. Thomas, Houston, TX

Dr. Mark Johnson
Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI

Rev. Dr. Tomasz Kraj
Pontifical University of John Paul II, Cracow, Poland

Rev. Dr. Juan de Dios Larrú
Universidad Eclesiástica San Dámaso, Madrid, Spain

Most Rev. Andreas Laun
Auxiliary Bishop of Salzburg, Austria

Rev. Dr. Raúl Sacristán López
Universidad San Dámaso, Madrid, Spain

Dr. Norbert Martin and Renate Martin
Members of the Pontifical Council for the Family (since its foundation in 1981), Germany

Rev. Dr. Livio Melina
Pontifical John Paul II Institute, Rome, Italy

Rev. Dr. Jarosław Merecki
Pontifical John Paul II Institute, Rome, Italy

Rev. Dr. Rodrigo Muñoz
Facultad de Teología, Pamplona, Spain

Dr. William Murphy
Pontifical College Josephinum, Columbus, OH

Rt. Rev. Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B.
Abbot of the Abbey of Saint-Wandrille, France

Rev. Dr. José Noriega
Pontifical John Paul II Institute, Rome, Italy

Dr. Eduardo Ortiz
Universidad Católica de Valencia, Spain

Dr. Michael Pakaluk
Ave Maria University, Ave Maria, FL

Rev. Dr. José María Pardo Sáenz
University of Navarra, Spain

Rev. Dr. Juan José Pérez-Soba
Pontifical John Paul II Institute, Rome, Italy

Rev. Dr. Marian Pokrywka
The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland

Rev. Dr. Helmut Prader
Philosophisch-Theologische Hochschule Benedikt XVI, Heiligenkreuz, Austria

Rev. Dr. Martin Rhonheimer
Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome, Italy

Rev. Dr. Angel Rodríguez Luño
Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome, Italy

Rev. Dr. Augusto Sarmiento
University of Navarra, Spain

Rev. Dr. Carlos Alberto Scarponi
Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Rev. Dr. Peter Schallenberg
Theologische Fakultät Paderborn, Germany

Dr. Michele Schumacher
University of Fribourg, Switzerland

Dr. Walter Schweidler
Catholic University of Eichstätt, Germany

Dr. Josef Seifert
Instituto de Filosofía Edith Stein, Granada, Spain

Dr. Mary Shivanandan, Emeritus
Pontifical John Paul II Institute, Washington, DC

Msgr. Robert Sokolowski
The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC

Dr. Robert Spaemann, Emeritus
University of Munich, Germany

Rev. Dr. Josef Spindelböck
Philosophisch-Theologische Hochschule, St. Pölten, Austria

Dr. Aude Suramy
Institut Catholique de Toulouse, France

Rev. Dr. Juan Andrés Talens Hernándis
Facultad de Teología Valencia, Spain

Dr. Steven Craig Titus
Institute for the Psychological Sciences, Arlington, VA

Dr. Christopher Tollefsen
University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC

Dr. Mats Wahlberg
Umeå University, Sweden

Rev. Dr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P.
Dominican House of Studies, Washington, DC

Rev. Dr. George J. Woodall
Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, Rome, Italy

Rev. Dr. Luigi Zucaro
Pontifical John Paul II Institute, Rome, Italy

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Articles by David S. Crawford and Stephan Kampowski


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