HOMILETIC & PASTORAL REVIEW
PAPAL ERRORS IN THE ORDINARY MAGISTERIUM?
By Regis Scanlon
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Did Pope St. Gregory the Great really teach that the presence of pleasure
in marital sexual intercourse is sinful?
PAPAL ERRORS IN THE ORDINARY MAGISTERIUM?
By Regis Scanlon
Many Catholics are now familiar with the claim that popes have made errors
in their ordinary Magisterium. Since a detailed investigation into all
these alleged papal errors would take too much time, this writer has chosen
one case to show how these alleged papal errors withstand scrutiny. The
chosen sample is the claim by Fr. Charles E. Curran, John T. Noonan, Jr.,
and R. Van Allen that Pope Gregory (I) the Great taught that it is a sin
for a married couple to have pleasure in the act of sexual intercourse.1
The validity of this claim will depend upon the status of the Gregorian
teaching involved and the accuracy of its interpretation. Hopefully, this
investigation will also elucidate the Church's teaching on marital sexual
ethics as found in the teachings of popes like Paul VI and John Paul II.
Curran, Noonan, and Van Allen cite Gregory the Great's "Pastoral Rule" when
they claim that Gregory erred in marital sexual ethics.2 First of all, is
the "Pastoral Rule" an "official" teaching? The "Pastoral Rule" was written
as a reply to John, the Archbishop of Ravenna, who chided Gregory for his
reluctance to assume the responsibility of a bishopric (perhaps even the
Papacy). The introduction to the "Ancient Christian Writers'" translation
of the "Regula Pastoralis" states: "By way of reply to John's letter, the
Pope wrote the present treatise, in which he deals with the great
responsibility of the episcopal office and its onerous nature."3 This would
hardly be the way any pope would issue an "official teaching."
Official papal teachings are found in authoritative documents written for
the guidance of the Church. Mere theological works, on the other hand, are
nonauthoritative treatises which a theologian writes for the consideration
of others. Now Gregory states:
"Nor do I wish that what I have happened to write, should be
known to men while I am in the flesh. For I was much displeased
when the deacon Anatolius, of blessed memory, obeyed the command
of our lord the emperor, and gave him the book of "Pastoral
Rule," which my holy brother and fellow- bishop, Anastasius of
Antioch, translated into the Greek language, and which, as was
written to me, pleased him greatly. But it displeases me much,
that they who have better books should occupy themselves with
While it is likely that a very humble theologian might not wish that his
theological works be read and praised during his own lifetime, it is not at
all likely that a Pope would issue an official teaching for the guidance of
the Church and then tell people not to read it until he passed beyond the
grave. The "Pastoral Rule" was merely one of Gregory's many theological
works which he completed shortly before or after becoming Pope.5
The "Pastoral Rule" then, "was in no way an official teaching" of a Pope.
But let us examine the "Pastoral Rule" to see if Curran and company have
interpreted Gregory correctly.
EXAMINE THE CONTEXT
Citing Chapter 27 in Part 3 of Pope Gregory's "Pastoral Rule," Charles E.
Curran, John T. Noonan, Jr., and R. Van Allen all claim that according to
Pope Gregory " . . . if any pleasure is 'mixed' with the act of
intercourse, the married couple have transgressed the law of marriage; they
have 'befouled' their intercourse by 'their Pleasures."'6 While the above
interpretation of Pope Gregory's teaching is Curran's work, it appears to
have originally belonged to John T. Noonan, Jr. and to have subsequently
been used by R. Van Allen in the "New Catholic Encyclopedia."
Since it would have been ridiculous for a Pope and Doctor of the Church to
have taught that the "mere presence" of pleasure in marital sexual
intercourse is sinful, it would be good to directly examine the text of the
"Pastoral Rule" in question. Pope Gregory states:
"Admonendi sunt conjuges, ut suscipiendae prolis se meminerint
causa conjunctos, et cum immoderatae admixtioni servientes
propagationis articulum in usum transferunt voluptatis,
perpendant, quod licet extra non exeant, in ipso tamen conjugio
conjugii jura transcendunt? Unde necesse est, ut crebris
exorationibus deleant, quod pulchram copulae speciem admixtis
The Ancient Christian Writers' translation is:
"The married must be admonished to bear in mind that they are
united in wedlock for the purpose of procreation, and when they
abandon themselves to "immoderate intercourse," they transfer
the occasion of procreation to the service of pleasure. Let them
realize that though they do "not" then pass beyond the bonds of
wedlock, yet in wedlock they exceed its rights. Wherefore, it
is necessary that they should efface by frequent prayer what
they befoul in the fair form of intercourse by the admixture of
When one compares Curran, Noonan, and Van Allen's interpretation of Pope
Gregory's teachings to the Pope's actual statement, discrepancies are
evident. First of all, these theologians all give the impression that Pope
Gregory is speaking about sexual pleasure in relation to moderate marital
sexual intercourse, but Pope Gregory is actually speaking about sexual
pleasure in relation to "immoderate" marital sexual intercourse. Thus Pope
Gregory is not criticizing the mere presence of pleasure in moderate
marital sexual intercourse, rather he is criticizing the act of making
pleasure the "primary" purpose in marital sexual intercourse by means of
"immoderate" copulation ("et cum immoderatae admixtioni servientes
propagantionis articulum in usum transferunt voluptatis").
Secondly, all three theologians claim that Pope Gregory states that by the
presence of this sexual pleasure in intercourse "the married couple have
transgressed the law of marriage." But Pope Gregory actually states about
the married couple that by making sexual pleasure the primary purpose of
intercourse " . . . they do 'not' then pass beyond the bonds of wedlock
('quod licet extra non exeant') yet in wedlock they exceed its rights ('in
ipso tamen conjugio conjugii jura transcendunt')." While the theologians
claim that Gregory is saying that the couple are breaking the "law" of
marriage, Gregory actually says that the couple do "not" break the law of
marriage ("quod licet extra non exeant").
THE POPE IS TEACHING ASCETISM
According to Pope Gregory, then, a husband has a right to moderate sexual
intercourse with his wife, but he does not have a right to "immoderate,"
excessive, or unrestrained sexual intercourse, or the right to obtain
sexual intercourse from her every hour of the day (if it were possible).
Nor does she have to comply with sexual intercourse every hour of the day.
But if the wife concedes to this immoderate sexual intercourse, the couple
still do not thereby transgress the law of marriage. Thus, while marriage
does not give the couple the right to make pleasure the primary purpose of
their sexual intercourse through immoderate copulation, still, in doing so,
the married couple do not formally commit the sin of lust.
The last sentence of the quotation from Gregory the Great's "Pastoral Rule"
is: "Wherefore, it is necessary that they should efface by frequent prayer
what they befoul in the fair form of intercourse by the admixture of
pleasure." One must admit that if this last sentence of the full quotation
is taken out of context and considered alone, then, as the translator of
the "Pastoral Rule," Henry Davis, S.J., says: Pope Gregory " . . . appears
to say that married people pass beyond the bonds of wedlock, when they seek
pleasure in marital intercourse."9
This, however, is definitely not Pope Gregory's intended teaching. In fact,
as mentioned earlier, Pope Gregory, himself, explicitly states in the very
preceding sentence that when a married couple seek pleasure in marital
sexual intercourse " . . . they do "not" then pass beyond the bonds of
wedlock." Pope Gregory, therefore, must be interpreted as saying that
married couples "befoul" the "fair form" of marital intercourse by seeking
pleasure through excessive copulation and, consequently, should pray and do
penance to wipe out the selfishness caused by their immoderate approach to
this marriage act. The Pope is teaching a point of "asceticism" in regard
to a "venial fault" rather than accusing the couple of breaking the law of
marriage and committing the sin of lust.
When examining Pope Gregory's teaching on pleasure in marital sexual
intercourse in his "Pastoral Rule," therefore, Curran, Noonan, and Van
Allen seem to have taken one of Pope Gregory's sentences out of its 6th
century "Pastoral Rule" context and given it a 20th century American
context and interpretation. In so doing they seem to have misinterpreted
immoderate intercourse to mean moderate intercourse; primacy of pleasure to
mean presence of pleasure; and marital rights to mean marital law.
GREGORY AND JOHN PAUL CONCUR
Curran repeated the same claim, that Pope Gregory erred in his ordinary
teaching on marital sexuality, when he said that Pope Gregory taught that
"It was as impossible to have intercourse without sin as to fall into a
fire and not burn."10 To prove that this alleged Gregorian "analogy" is an
error of Pope Gregory's ordinary Magisterium, however, Curran must prove
that these are Pope Gregory's "official" words and that the exact meaning
of the analogy contradicts a teaching of the ordinary Magisterium.
But minimal research already reveals that a number of scholars attribute
this analogy to " . . . a homily given at Canterbury, probably by
Archbishop Theodore, drawing on authentic work of Pope Gregory,"11 and it
would be expected that many Churchmen would attempt to put Gregory's very
popular "Pastoral Rule" into their own words.
More importantly, one must never forget that the rules for interpreting
analogies are not the same as the rules for interpreting precise
theological statements. Since it is understood that "omnis similitudo
claudicat," this analogy of sexual intercourse and fire must not be taken
literally. If this alleged Gregorian analogy is authentic, it would be
necessary to interpret it in light of Pope Gregory's more exact theological
statements on the same subject in his more famous "Pastoral Rule," which we
have already shown to be morally correct.
So, Curran is basing this claim of Papal teaching error on an alleged
Gregorian analogy that is doubtful in both origin and meaning. Therefore
Curran has not proved that Pope Gregory the Great erred in his ordinary
Magisterium through this alleged Gregorian analogy.
The teaching of Pope Gregory the Great on marital sexuality can be better
understood when it is compared to John Paul II's teaching on the same
subject. John Paul II describes lust as " . . . 'reducing' the riches of
the perennial call to communion of persons . . . to mere satisfaction of
the sexual 'need' of the body."12 Furthermore, John Paul II states that
"Man can commit this adultery 'in the heart' also with regard to his own
wife if he treats her 'only' as an object to satisfy instinct."13 For
example, this would be the case if a married couple would deliberately have
sexual intercourse only on the woman's presumed infertile days without the
willingness to accept unexpected children if pregnancy should occur. To
practice periodic continence without this willingness on presumed infertile
days, would be to intentionally reduce one's partner to "only an object" of
pleasure and consequently, to violate the law of marriage and commit the
sin of lust.14 John Paul II teaches, therefore, that this seeking of
pleasure by means of marital sexual intercourse can become the sin of lust
if the married couple make the seeking of pleasure the 'exclusive' purpose
in performing the act of marital sexual intercourse.
Putting the teachings of these two Popes together, one can say: according
to Pope Gregory, if one makes the seeking of pleasure the primary purpose
in marital sexual intercourse through excessive or immoderate copulation,
then one exceeds the rights of marriage but not the law of marriage.
However, according to John Paul II, if one makes the seeking of pleasure
the exclusive purpose of marital sexual intercourse, by "reducing" one's
partner to "only an object" of pleasure, then one exceeds both the rights
and law of marriage (in lust). As one can see, these papal teachings are in
perfect harmony and complement each other.
HUMANAE VITAE ALSO AGREES
Perhaps now one can see how Paul VI's teaching in "Humanae Vitae"
consistently fits into the teachings of Pope Gregory and John Paul II.
First of all, however, one must recall what God has revealed concerning
human sexuality and marriage through a dual account of creation in the book
of Genesis. In the first account of creation God created human beings,
"male" and "female," blessed them, and said: "Be fertile and multiply"
(Gen. 1:27-28). In the second account of creation the Scriptures relate
that God created man and woman out of one "flesh" and "That is why a man
leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them
become one body" (Gen. 2:23-24). The dual account of creation of man and
woman reveals that the two goods or purposes of marriage are procreation
Paul VI teaches, therefore, that there is an "inseparable connection,
willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between
the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the
procreative meaning."15 Consequently, one cannot appeal to love (the
unitive meaning of sexual intercourse) in order to exclude children (the
procreative meaning of sexual intercourse) through the use of
contraception.16 Because of the "inseparable connection" between the two
meanings of the conjugal act, one cannot exclude the procreative meaning
without also excluding the unitive meaning. Married couples, therefore, who
wish to forgo conception during periods of fertility, may not reduce each
other to "only an object" of sexual pleasure by using contraception. They
must love each other without the use of their organs of generation and
hence, without the benefit of sexual pleasure. They must respect the
integrity of each other through mutual abstinence.17
Thus the Catholic Church does not condemn the presence of pleasure in
marital sexual intercourse, but she does condemn the use of sexual
intercourse exclusively for the sake of pleasure. And this use of sexual
intercourse exclusively for the sake of pleasure occurs when a spouse
excludes the unitive and procreative goal of the conjugal act through the
use of contraception, sterilization, abortion, or by practicing periodic
continence without the willingness to accept unexpected children on
presumed infertile days.18
So the teachings of Popes Gregory (I) the Great, Paul VI, and John Paul II
are all consistent and complementary. The Church has consistently taught
that "only" when a spouse "exclusively" seeks pleasure in marital
intercourse, does the seeking of pleasure in marital intercourse violate
the "law" of marriage and become the sin of lust.
The claim, that Pope Gregory (I) the Great taught that the mere presence of
pleasure in marital sexual intercourse is sinful, is clearly false. Nor is
Curran correct when he claims that Pope Gregory erred in his ordinary
Magisterium in the matter of marital sexuality.
It is well known that Curran, Hans Kung, and others claim that more
teaching errors exist in the ordinary Magisterium of various Popes.
However, if the proof behind these other alleged papal errors is no better
than the proof behind the alleged errors of Pope Gregory (I) the Great,
then the inerrancy of the ordinary papal Magisterium is not threatened in
the least. Fr. William G. Most, Professor of Scripture and Theology at the
Notre Dame Catechetical Institute in Arlington, Va., has examined and
explained these alleged errors of the so-called "noninfallible" papal
Magisterium--including the Galileo case--in his book, "Catholic Apologetics
Today." Fr. Most has concluded: " . . . there is not one case in nearly two
thousand years in which the Pope himself has erred in this noninfallible
type of teaching."19
This present writer has also independently investigated a host of
allegations of error involving the ordinary Magisterium of Popes. This
investigation included alleged errors related to: the condemnation of Pope
Honorius I; Boniface VIII's bull "Unam sanctam"; Galileo; usury; slavery;
Church membership; religious liberty; the statements of the Pontifical
Biblical Commission; and various others. It would be a long time before all
of this information could be published. Actually, this writer is fast
losing interest in publishing this material since the results are always
the same. In not one case can "papal" teaching error be established.
It takes little effort to allege that a deceased Pope has made a teaching
error in his ordinary Magisterium, but it takes some work to track down
these allegations to show that they are false. This writer would be quite
angry for having been led to chase a mirage, except for the fact that in
each and every case his own confidence in the ordinary Magisterium of the
Popes has been strengthened.
While this writer does not pretend to "prove" the inerrancy of the ordinary
Magisterium of all Popes, he certainly does claim that, particularly, it
has not been disproved by the allegations against Pope Gregory (I) the
Great. The burden of proof falls upon those who claim that Popes have made
errors in their ordinary Magisterium. This writer closes with a caution:
before you accept a theologian's allegation that some Pope has erred in his
ordinary Magisterium, do your own research.
1. Charles E. Curran, "Dissent, Theology Of," "New Catholic Encyclopedia,"
Supplementary Vol. 16, 127, Charles E. Curran and Robert E. Hunt, "Dissent
In and For the Church" (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969), pp. 73-74; John T.
Noonan, Jr., "Contraception" (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
1965), p. 150; R. Van Allen, "Sexual Morality," "New Catholic Encylopedia"
Supplementary Vol. 16, p. 414.
3. Henry Davis, S.J., "Pastoral Care," Introduction, in "Ancient Christian
Writers," No. 11, Translated by Henry Davis, S.J. (Westminister: The Newman
Press, 1950), p. 4.
4. Gregory the Great, "Book X," epis. 22, found in Rev. Reuben Parsons,
D.D., "Studies in Church History," Vol. I (Philadelphia: John Joseph McVey,
1886), p. 384.
5. "Ibid.," p.388; A.C. Rush, "Gregory 1, Pope St.," "New Catholic
Encyclopedia," Vol. 6, p. 768.
6. John T. Noonan, Jr., p. 150, Charles E. Curran and Robert E. Hunt, pp.
73-74; R. Van Allen, p.414.
7. St. Gregory the Great, "Regula Pastoralis," Part III, Caput xxvii, John
Cuthbert Hedley, O.S.B., "Lex Levitarum" (New York: Denziger Bros., n.d.),
8. St. Gregory the Great, "Pastoral Care," Part 3, Chapter 27, in "Ancient
Christian Writers," No. 11, pp. 188-189. My emphasis.
9. Henry Davis, S.J., "Ibid.," note 269, p. 263.
10. Charles E. Curran and Robert E. Hunt, p. 74; Michael Farrell, 11.
Mahoney, Curran debate dissent perimeter," "National Catholic Reporter"
(October 24, 1986), 20.
11. John T. Noonan, Jr., p. 150, ad. 9.
12. John Paul 11, "Interpreting the concept of concupiscence,"
"L'Osservatore Romano" (October 13, 1980), 7. My emphasis.
13. "Ibid." My emphasis.
14. Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II), "Love & Responsibility" (New York:
Farrar, 1981), p. 243.
15. Paul VI, "On the Regulation of Birth ("Humanae Vitae")," No. 12
(Washington D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1968), p. 7.
16. "Ibid.," No. 14, pp. 8-9.
17. "Ibid.," No. 16, pp. 9-10.
18. "Ibid.," No. 14, pp. 8-9.
19. William G. Most, "Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern
Critics" (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1986), p.