Errors in the Ordinary Magisterium?

Author: 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?


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 unimportant ones."4

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.


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 voluptatibus foedant."7

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 pleasure."8

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").


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.


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.


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 and unity.

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.

2. "Ibid."

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.), p. 308.

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. 167.