Action Alert!

Contraception and the doctrine of discovery

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 03, 2022

My title may seem like an odd pairing, but both parts of it come from the news of the past few days, and both were alluded to in Pope Francis’ latest press conference, held as usual in flight, this time on his way home from Canada. It is important, I think, to consider both the potential development of doctrine on contraception—recently called for in the results of a conference held by the Pontifical Academy for Life—and the abrogation of the “doctrine of discovery”, demanded by those protesting the Canadian residential schools which were used to break up families and erase the culture of the indigenous peoples there.

The problem, as so often, is that people don’t know what they are talking about, and this seems to affect scholars as much as political activists. That’s reason enough to clarify these two points.

Contraception and Moral Theology

Deliberate contraception to prevent pregnancy in the marital act is a grave evil. This had already been taught by Pius XI in the encyclical Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage) in 1930 before Pope St. Paul VI issued a more thorough statement in Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) in 1968, following the development of “the Pill”. Then Pope John Paul II confirmed the teaching and refuted a number of faulty objections in his own encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), in 1995. You can read all three encyclicals, and listen to Casti Connubii in three parts, at these links on

Here we have three heavy-duty magisterial statements in the preceding century specifically designed to forestall this constant academic whining. Yet our allegedly Catholic scholars are still looking for ways to get the camel’s nose under the tent! Of course finding even a small wedge to topple the consistent teaching of Christ and His Church on human sexuality is very high on the modern agenda. This is not surprising, because (as I have often said) the passions of the dominant culture tend always to drive and color discussions even within the Church and, depending on who is doing the arguing, the motivation may be either for or against the truth, and rooted either in virtue or moral turpitude.

Now, in his most recent interview in the clouds, Pope Francis responded to a question about this. He responded by assuring everyone that theological inquiry must, by its very nature be always open, and that it is the job of the Magisterium to determine when things have gone too far, and to call the theologians back. It is not that the Pope thinks there are no rules that ought to guide theology. As he has in the past, he cited the principle enunciated by St. Vincent Lerins in the 10th century.

True doctrine, in order to go forward, to develop, must not be quiet, it develops “ut annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate”. That is, it is consolidated over time, it expands and consolidates, and becomes always more solid, but always progressing.

Unfortunately, this somewhat imprecise explanation raises many questions, because it is so easy to interpret the consolidation and the solidity as a feature of “progressing”, or progress—that is, the inevitable arrival at a greater understanding of the truth through changes which end up contradicting the original teaching. However, St. Vincent wrote somewhat more precisely than the Pope’s informal translation and commentary in this interview might suggest:

The dogma of the Christian religion must also follow these laws [of nature]. It progresses, consolidating with the years, developing with time, deepening with age. It is necessary, however, that it always remain absolutely intact and unaltered.... Moreover, if one begins to mix the new with the old, foreign ideas with domestic ones, the profane with the sacred, this will necessarily spread everywhere, and with it, in the Church, nothing will remain intact, uncontaminated, inviolate, immaculate. [First Commonitory, ch. 23; PL 50, 667-668]

What St. Vincent was getting at is what St. John Henry Newman spelled out so fully and beautifully in his own Essay on the Development of Catholic Doctrine (in this case, the “essay” was a long and justly famous book, written just before his conversion and entry into the Catholic Church). Newman’s point was that each legitimate development will tend toward greater precision in a way that more clearly illuminates the doctrine in question. In other words, while this may sometimes serve to correct what some erroneously thought the doctrine to imply, it will do so by corroborating, confirming and more fully explicating the truth of the Church’s authoritative earlier form of expression.

It is for this reason that during the turbulent course of the late twentieth century, the best theologians began to more fully understand that they are not free to make up their faith and morals out of whole cloth—as if they can propose whatever they please (as so many have done) in the hope that the Magisterium will not call them back, or that their opinions will become the cultural norm, over and against the Magisterium. Rather, the best theologians have understood that to be a Catholic theologian is precisely to work with what has actually been revealed by God, that is, with the guaranteed data provided by Christ through His Church—namely, Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium.

These are the basis of Catholic theology. Anyone who claims to theologize out of thin air is nothing but a cultural speculator; he or she is not doing Catholic theology at all. Every discipline has its proper object of study, and Catholic theology must remain in all senses a discipline. Of course, this does not mean a great and faithful theologian cannot make mistakes. St. Thomas Aquinas himself did not, on the whole, think that Mary was immaculately conceived. But that was before this doctrine was defined by the Church. The point is rather that St. Thomas (like any truly Catholic theologian) took Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium as the legitimate and controlling data of theology. If a theologian is going to be wrong, he must be wrong about something not yet clarified by the Magisterium, else he is not a Catholic theologian at all. And if he claims that name, while failing to stick to his legitimate objects of study, he must be either a knave or a fool.

Why then are there still so many of these at every level of Catholic education, in so many pulpits, and in so many different religious orders? Why are so many bent on changing rather than deepening our understanding of revealed truth? For the same reason, I presume, that the vast majority of those who claim to be Catholic use contraceptives: A Church without discipline, and frequently without clarity, in a hostile culture.

The Doctrine of Discovery

Some leaders and proponents of Canada’s indigenous peoples have made recent public demands that the Church must rescind the “doctrine of discovery” which permitted the European powers to divide up the new world for themselves. It is hardly surprising that, when first asked about this doctrine, Pope Francis had no idea what the journalist was talking about. There is, after all, no Catholic “doctrine of discovery”.

This fallacy grew out of a convenient and fairly malicious understanding of a (probably ill-advised) attempt by Pope Alexander VI to help settle a dispute between Spain and Portugal about which country could claim which parts of the recently-discovered Americas. Truly devout and pious worldly rulers are always the exception rather than the rule, but by the end of the fifteenth century, the massive secularization characteristic of the Renaissance was already fairly far advanced. We are a long way here from the Catholicism of St. Louis IX and the Crusades, and even the devotion of that era was decidedly mixed among worldlings.

In any case, the Spanish and the Portuguese were in the forefront of early exploration, and it was all too humanly natural for their explorers and their rulers to view the Americas (not entirely unreasonably, after all) as largely unpopulated and uncultured new territories which were essentially up for grabs. The Church, of course, has never taught anything along these lines, but before the rise of Protestantism, even the European rulers often sought papal adjudication of conflicting claims, so as to avoid military conflict. When Spain and Portugal besought Alexander VI’s intervention to settle conflicting territorial claims in 1493, the pope famously drew a line on a primitive map of the Americas and pubished his diplomatic decision in the Papal Bull Inter Caetera. On one side of the line, Spain could make claims, and on the other, Portugal.

There was at least one other Bull of Alexander VI addressing the respective claims of Spain and Portugal, but the two kingdoms changed their agreement the very next year anyway, making the Treaty of Tordesillas. Of course in time the other European powers—especially England and France—would play catch-up, but by then the Protestant Revolt had largely put an end to seeking papal help in settling political disputes.

In any case, clearly there was nothing “doctrinal” in the Catholic sense about any of this. The popes in those days still retained a semblance of their worldly interests and worldly influence. They often had significant influence over monarchs and nations, arising from the reverence in which they were held by these Catholic populations. But for that very reason, both popes and bishops were often too engaged in worldly affairs, even in the name of “diplomacy”. As we know from our own modern history, some popes see their fundamental duties more clearly than others. But a Doctrine of Discovery? No, this is sheer ignorance.

Would that all ignorance of Catholicism and the Church could be dispelled forever, and especially the feigned ignorance which arises from spiritual rebellion against Christ Himself—whether from theologians who do not know what theology is, or from Catholics in high political positions, or from those of us who are so eager to justify the spiritual laxity that has become the hallmark of our generation. One day at a time, one issue at a time: This endless task of clarification will not end before we see God face to face.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Aug. 04, 2022 5:38 PM ET USA

    CorneliusG: The alleged doctrine of discovery is that Pope Alexander VI said the Portuguese and the Spanish could claim territories they discovered in the New World by indicating that they should compromise and make their claims in different regions. A political solution for the claimants; not a doctrine.

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Aug. 04, 2022 4:13 PM ET USA

    So what IS the doctrine of discovery? Did I miss it?

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 04, 2022 10:55 AM ET USA

    What is this? The half dozenth time in the last couple of years that Pope Francis has cited St. Vincent Lerins out of context? Thanks for posting the actual quotation so that the context, precision, and indispensable qualification of adherence to what has come before are laid out plainly and forcefully. Dare I say that, as quoted, St. Vincent can come across as "rigid", "black and white", and even a lover of "tradition"? Note that the notions of "expansion" and "solidity" are not of St. Vincent.

  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Aug. 04, 2022 6:02 AM ET USA

    Like Ralphie sneaking a Red Rider BB gun ad into his mother's magazine, it sure would be nice if someone would sneak this article into Pope Francis's reading pile, apropos his most recent lauding of Father Martin.