By John-Henry Westen
Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner WASHINGTON, DC, October 23, 2007 ( – In what is likely the most significant contribution to date in the debate over the use of the so-called “emergency contraception” pills at Catholic hospitals, renowned theologian Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner has written on the subject.  The Doctor of Sacred Theology who has been teaching theology in Franciscan universities and seminaries in the US and Italy for forty years, has questioned the basis on which the whole issue is based – namely whether it is permitted for Catholics to administer Plan B even if it acted as a contraceptive rather than causing abortions.

  Fr. Fehlner, who was the North American Superior for the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate in the United States from 1996 to 2002, dismissed outright the use of Plan B at Catholic hospitals where there is any doubt as to a possibility of causing an abortion.  “The fact is, if we have any doubt about whether a given action would directly risk someone’s life, entail a violation of justice or threaten the salvation of a soul, we may not act on the basis of a scientific probability,” he writes.  “That means even if the pill in Plan B is only ‘dubiously’ abortive, we simply may not use it at all.”

  The same point in the debate was made by the Catholic Medical Association and by pro-life groups which have been involved in the debate.  However, Catholic bioethicists working for hospitals have advised bishops that it is good enough to have “moral certainty” rather than absolute certainty that the pills will not cause an abortion.

  However, beyond the question of the abortifacient effects of the pills, Fr. Fehlner – a familiar name to those who watch EWTN points out that the Church teaches that contraception is intrinsically evil and thus is not permissible even in cases of rape.

“Prevention of procreation is intrinsically evil prior to and independently of any good end which might be achieved thereby, such as avoiding further violence at the hands of a rapist”, explains Fr. Fehlner.  “The woman may certainly resist and should resist to the limit permitted by divine law any sexual assault. But she may not do this by using a means which is intrinsically evil, in this case considering the conception of a child an act of violence justifying the use of contraception.”

  The stance of Fr. Fehlner calls into question not only the decision of the Connecticut Bishops, but also that of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services put out by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

  The document permits contraception in cases of rape.  It says specifically that in cases of women who have been raped: “If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization.”

  Nonetheless, Fr. Fehlner is standing on firm ground since several Popes have also taught that contraception is “intrinsically evil” and thus impermissible regardless of circumstances.

  In Pope John Paul II’s encyclical The Splendor of Truth (Aug. 6, 1993) the Pope reaffirmed the intrinsic evil of contraception as taught by Pope Paul VI.  John Paul II wrote: “With regard to intrinsically evil acts, and in reference to contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile, Pope Paul VI teaches: ‘Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf.Rom.3:8) – in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.’” (n.80).

  On March 1, 1997 the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family issued a Vade Mecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life. Included in this document is the following statement: “The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreforrmable.”

  Further, John Paul II was quoted in L’Osservatore Romano on Oct.10, 1983 making this statement: “Contraception is to be judged objectively so profoundly unlawful, as never to be, for any reason, justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life, situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God.”

  Fr. Fehlner warns that should contraception be permitted for hard cases such as rape, the Church’s prohibition of it would then logically apply in other ‘emergency’ circumstances.  “Why, then, on such grounds, should contraception be intrinsically evil for married couples, should they happen to have a sufficiently urgent reason to use these means to avoid conception,” he asks.

“The ‘emergency’ consists in the need, not to prevent conception, but to prevent forced intercourse”, writes Fr. Fehlner.”Should this not be possible the resulting conception of a child, like every conception, in itself is a blessing, not an evil to be prevented even by the use of chemical contraceptives which have so far all been shown also to “contracept” via abortion.”

  If Fr. Fehlner’s points on the intrinsically evil nature of contraception even in cases of rape be accepted by the Bishops of the United States, it would require a revision of the Ethical and Religious Directives and put an immediate halt to the use of Plan B at Catholic hospitals for any reason.

  Editor’s note:  Fr. Fehlner’s two essays on the topic also address the ‘lotio’ and the concepts of natural and unnatural sins which are key to a full Catholic theological understanding of this debate.  Interested readers may read Fr. Fehlner’s essays on the subject here: (Part 1) (Part 2)