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When Can Married Catholics Use the Pill?

When it comes to birth control within marriage, we have to be well versed in what it means to cooperate in grave evil

Tim Staples

A constituent recently asked me a difficult question—difficult to deal with intellectually, and most difficult on the emotional and practical levels. “Is it ever morally licit for a married Catholic man to have conjugal relations with his non-practicing Catholic wife who is contracepting via the use of the Pill?”

When there are just reasons, the Pill can be used for therapeutic reasons, such as to address physical maladies stemming from a woman’s irregular cycle. The principle of double effect would apply—that is, a woman can use the Pill not for contraception, but for its medicinal value, even though there may be a contraceptive or even abortive double effect not intended by the woman taking the Pill as medicine.

Due to advancement in science, the regulation of hormones can today virtually always be accomplished by means other than the contraceptive pill, which places future babies in peril. And some women choose to take the heroic path and refuse what would be a licit option. Couples prayerfully employ the use of NFP, or abstain entirely from marital relations, to avoid pregnancy when the wife is licitly using the Pill for genuine therapeutic reasons. Praise God for these! But for our purpose here, we want to emphasize the Church’s teaching that therapeutic usage of the Pill is morally licit.

There are many different scenarios I could think of concerning culpability. I will consider one of these wrinkles when I conclude below. But I have found that the best thing to do in cases like this is to establish an impenetrable moral foundation upon which and from which we can make moral choices in accordance with natural law and the teaching of the Church.

According to Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii 59 and Vademecum for Confessors 3:13, in grave situations, a cooperating spouse may have conjugal relations with his or her non-faithful spouse who voluntarily decides to use some form of contraception, but that contraception can only involve actual sin to be committed by the non-faithful spouse. It cannot involve sin on the part of the cooperating (Catholic) spouse. In these cases, the Vademecum for Confessors declares that the cooperating spouse can continue relations:

  1. when the action of the cooperating spouse is not already illicit in itself;

  2. when proportionally grave reasons exist for cooperating in the sin of the other spouse; and

  3. when one is seeking to help the other spouse to desist from such conduct (patiently, with prayer, charity and dialogue; although not necessarily in the moment, nor on every single occasion).

If it were a case of formal cooperation, it would be unacceptable. But where a spouse voices disapproval of the act of contraception and is cooperating in it only for a proportional good—for example, where the other spouse threatens to end the marriage otherwise—this material cooperation may be permissible.

This general moral and pastoral approach to one spouse’s use of contraception helps us to establish that moral foundation I spoke of from the start. Given that foundation, let’s now consider the specific question of the Pill.

Remember that the question is whether a faithful husband can have conjugal relations with his non-faithful wife who is using the Pill, which can cause abortions, and not for therapeutic reasons (so there is no recourse to double effect). In this case, there has been ipso facto introduced an essentially different moral situation. Because we are now considering an act of both spouses together that of itself is ordered toward the real possibility of conceiving and then killing an innocent pre-born child, this goes beyond formally involving only one spouse. This act becomes tantamount to formal cooperation in evil by both spouses.

In a scenario where a husband uses condom, the wife can be open to life even as the husband effectively “blocks” conception. She remains open to life by the nature of her action; the husband does not. But in the second scenario, both are necessarily and essentially involved in both the conception and concurrently the death of the conceived child. This is a textbook example of formal cooperation in grave evil: it fails to meet criterion number one in the list from Vademecum for Confessors above, notwithstanding whether it meets the other two. And no person can ever formally—and at the same time licitly—cooperate in evil, no matter the situation. This is true for any evil, whether it is grave (as in this case) or venial.

Here is the key: Vademecum for Confessors 3:14 footnotes Pope St. John Paul II to explain how “it is necessary to carefully evaluate the question of cooperation in evil when recourse is made to means which can have an abortifacient effect.”

From the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil. Such cooperation occurs when an action, either by its very nature or by the form it takes in a concrete situation, can be defined as a direct participation in an act against innocent human life or a sharing in the immoral intention of the person committing it (Evangelium Vitae 74).

So the faithful wife who tolerates a condom (a barrier method) does not commit the actual sin. But the couple using the Pill, regardless of the husband’s personal openness to life, give their sexual act a quality equivalent to the death of an innocent, because that is precisely what an abortifacient contraceptive like the Pill can cause. There is never a situation where this is morally permissible.

One could think of multiple scenarios where culpability could be reduced in similar situations, such as a wife on the Pill who threatens divorce unless her husband has sex with her. Certainly, culpability for this grave offense could be greatly reduced in the husband, if not eliminated. But because we are talking about the killing of an innocent human being, the act itself can never be considered licit.

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