The following comes from an April 28 Chiesa Espress Online article by Sandro Magister:

ROME, April 28, 2015 – The controversy broke out at the end of January, after the journey of Pope Francis to the Philippines.

It was ignited by the Jesuit Joseph Fessio. Who is not an unknown. Formed in the theological school of Joseph Ratzinger – and a prominent member of the circle of his disciples, the “Ratzinger Schülerkreis” – he founded and directs the publishing house Ignatius Press in the United States, in San Francisco, which recently made an impression with the book “Remaining in the Truth of Christ,” with contributions from five cardinals against communion for the divorced and remarried.

And the target of his polemic was another renowned Jesuit, the Frenchman Pierre de Charentenay, a former president of the Centre Sèvres, the Paris institute of higher education of the Society of Jesus, director from 2004 to 2012 of the magazine of the Jesuits of France, “Études,” and since last year part of the team of writers of “La Civiltà Cattolica,” the magazine of the Rome Jesuits printed after inspection by Vatican authorities and directed by a man very close to the pope, Fr. Antonio Spadaro.

In a book on the Church in the Philippines published in conjunction with the pope’s visit, Fr. de Charentenay had harshly criticized the bishops of that country for their opposition to the law on “reproductive health” with its support for contraception, backed and steered through the legislature by President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, who is a Catholic.

Fr. de Charentenay charged the Filipino bishops with being “backward” and “closed off” not only toward the insights of modernity by also toward the appeals of Pope Francis:

Fr. Fessio reacted to the positions of Fr. de Charentenay with a letter to www.chiesa, which was published with his consent:

So then, among the “errors of reason and of fact” that Fr. Fessio charges against his confrere Charentenay is one that took not a few readers by surprise.

While for Fr. de Charentenay abortion is always and in every case a greater evil than contraception, and therefore it is fine to permit the lesser evil if it serves to reduce the greater evil, for Fr. Fessio this is not at all the case:

“Is it true that abortion is a greater evil than contraception, even ‘decidedly more serious’? Not necessarily.”

And this because – Fr. Fessio continued – “it is a greater evil to deprive someone of existence than to deprive someone of temporal life.”

It was foreseeable that this idea – neither customary nor a given – would prompt reactions. Which in fact have come.

The most measured and thoroughly argued came from Canada, with two letters to this site from Michel Fauteux, a professor of philosophy and theology and the father of 13 children.

Starting with the second, Father Fessio has responded to both letters point by point, as in a brilliant and compelling “quaestio quodlibetalis” between early theologians, recognizing that “the question is one that has not been definitively decided by the Church and therefore one on which faithful Catholics can disagree.”

Below are some excerpts of the correspondence between the two.


Hi Sandro,

If I understand well, according to John-Paul II, contraception and abortion are fruits of the same tree, but abortion is a graver evil than contraception. Father Fessio, on the contrary, says that abortion is not necessarily a greater evil than contraception.

John Paul II, “Evangelium vitae”, 13: “Certainly, from the moral point of view contraception and abortion are specifically different evils: the former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment ‘You shall not kill’. But despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree.”

Michel Fauteux
Québec, Canada

Hello, Sandro

Here are a few reflections on the letter from Joseph Fessio published on the site on January 29, 2015.

It is at the least bizarre to maintain that contraception is a more serious evil than direct abortion.

(JF: I don’t think “bizarre” is a relevant category here).

Contraception, as contraception, is always an objective moral evil. This is why Paul VI declared, in “Humanæ Vitæ,” that it is to be excluded (no. 14). But one must not maintain, as Joseph Fessio does, that it is a more serious moral evil than direct abortion, under the pretext that it impedes the procreation of a new life for eternity, while direct abortion is limited to shortening this life.

(JF: Ok. That’s your thesis. But I didn’t say contraception was in se always more serious. I said abortion is “not necessarily” more serious than contraception in some cases).

The omission of procreation (not contraception, which is always a moral evil) can sometimes be good, in cases in which it is dictated by responsible paternity. The omission of procreation is not always a moral evil.

(JF: And I never said that it was).

For example, a couple that already has 12 children and could have another in a responsible way is not obliged in justice to have a thirteenth child. If this couple brings another child into the world, it will be through a form of heroic generosity. In this case, the fact of omitting to have a child would not be a moral evil, and certainly not a moral evil more serious than direct abortion, under the pretext that this omission would impede the existence of a human being for eternity.

(JF: I agree entirely. And nothing I wrote suggests otherwise).

The omission of procreation through contraception must be excluded, according to Paul VI, but this does not mean that the omission of procreation is itself a moral evil, as we have now shown. On the contrary, it can be a moral evil not to omit procreation, in the case for example in which generating a new life would be irresponsible. Omitting the procreation of a new life can be very praiseworthy morally, even if contraception must be excluded as a means for reaching this end.

(JF: Again, I agree entirely. Your comments are not “on the margin” of my letter. They are completely off the page).

But can there be an unjust omission of procreation?

(JF: This again is posing a question that is quite different from the one I asked. I did not frame my example as one of “injustice”. There can be no question of an injustice towards someone who does not exist. Although one can consider every sin, whether of commission or omission, as an injustice toward God).

Of course there can. This omission is not always unjust, but it can be. Married persons capable of having children, who have sexual relations and have no serious reason not to procreate, would commit a serious injustice if they omitted to procreate.

Meanwhile, just when this dispute was posted online, it has already been enriched with new back-and-forths, as can be seen in this further exchange reproduced in the original French and English:

> Il seguito della disputa tra Joseph Fessio e Michel Fauteux