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Contraceptive Claims

Whatever else may be said about contraception and the controversy surrounding it, one thing is clear: The Church’s official teaching always has condemned the practice. 

The condemnation has been made explicitly by popes in this century–consider Pius XI’s Casti Connubii (1930) and Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (1968)–but is hardly new. Patristic teachers such as Ambrose, Justin Martyr, Jerome, Origen, and John Chrysostom condemned contraception. Typical is this remark by Augustine: “Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Judah, did this and the Lord killed him for it” (De Conjugiis Adulterinis, II, 12). 

In his Catholic Catechism Fr. John Hardon argues that the Church’s condemnation can be seen even earlier in Scripture. He writes, “Given the widespread contraceptive practice of the first century of the Christian era, euphemistically referred to as ‘using magic’ and ‘using drugs,’ it is logical to see in the New Testament prohibition of mageia and pharmakeia an implicit condemnation of contraception. This is especially true when the contexts (Gal. 5:20 and Rev. 21:8, 22:15) refer to sins against chastity” (p. 367). 

The clarity and persistency of the position that contraception is always immoral places the burden of proof on those who believe the magisterium is in error. As one might expect, some have taken on the burden happily. Theologians advocating the liceity of contraception have come forward with arguments which have at least a surface plausibility. Many of these arguments are repeated by those who wish to remain “good Catholics” while avoiding inconvenient Catholic moral teachings. 

Thomas Aquinas taught that not all the truths of the faith can be proved by reason, but all the objections to the faith can be disproved by reason. Perhaps this principle can be applied in the debate over contraception. With this in mind, let’s look at some objections against the official teaching and at possible responses to the objections. If the objections can be shown to be weak, the position of the Church is strengthened. 

Claim: Contraception must be licit since surveys show that more than 80 percent of Catholics in the United States do not follow the Church’s teaching in this area. The sensus fidelium (“sense of the faithful”) is a widely recognized indicator of the authenticity of the Church’s official teaching. Since the faithful reject the teaching of the magisterium in this area, the Church’s teaching is invalid and contraception is licit. 

Response: The “sense of the faithful” does not determine truth, nor does it determine the Church’s teaching. John Henry Newman, in his ground-breaking essay On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, says that though the sensus fidelium is to be respected, “[t]he gift of discerning, discriminating, defining, promulgating, and enforcing any portion of that tradition resides solely in the Ecclesia docens [the teaching Church]” (p. 63). 

He notes the “faithful” are those people who are literally “full of faith.” They abide in and with the Church. Catholics who identify themselves with the secularized culture’s acceptance of contraception and not with the Church’s rejection of it can hardly be considered “the faithful.” 

Claim: The Church’s teaching on contraception is not infallibly proclaimed. Non-infallible teachings may be in error and therefore do not have to be obeyed by Catholics. Theologians have shown the Church’s teaching is erroneous. 

Response: Even if the Church’s teaching on contraception was not infallibly proclaimed ex cathedra in Humanae Vitae, the teaching is infallible because it has been a universally-held doctrine, taught through the centuries by all the bishops in communion with the Holy Father. Humanae Vitae was repeating a teaching already infallibly taught elsewhere. 

(A growing number of Catholic Scholars–William May is one–assert that Humanae Vitae itself was an infallible document; one might say it infallibly repeated what was taught infallibly before.) 

Even if the teaching against contraception were not infallible (not that I’m suggesting it is, mind you), according to the Second Vatican Council the teaching must be obeyed: “Bishops who teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff are to be revered by all as witnesses of divine and Catholic truth; the faithful, for their part, are obliged to submit to their bishops’ decisions, made in the name of Christ, in matters of faith and morals and to adhere to it with a ready and respectful allegiance of mind. This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even if he does not speak ex cathedra” (Gaudium et Spes). This means a rejection of the Church’s teaching on sexuality implies a rejection of some of the teachings of Vatican II. 

Claim: In fact, the teaching about contraception is not the first of the Church’s official teachings to be in error. Centuries ago popes condemned usury, lending money at interest. Certain sixteenth-century theologians recognized that circumstances had changed, thereby making the papal bulls condemning usury out of touch with the current situation. The laity understood this and so continued lending money at interest as if the official teaching did not exist. Eventually Church teaching on usury changed. 

A similar situation exists now with regard to contraception. Times and circumstances have changed. The Church was wrong about usury, and now it is wrong about contraception. 

Response: The situations are not analogous. The teaching concerning usury was based on malleable economic conditions; the teaching concerning contraception is based on unchanging human nature. Economic conditions can and did radically change; thus economic teachings changed; human nature has not changed and can’t change. 

(Usury, in the medieval sense, was not simply interest taking, but interest taking on “unprofitable” loans–such as a loan to a friend so his wife could receive medical treatment. In the Middle Ages modern banking didn’t exist, so “profitable” loans hardly existed. Today economists use the word “usury” to mean any high rate of interest; in the Middle Ages a legitimate, “profitable” loan could have a high interest rate, while a usurious, “unprofitable” loan might have a low rate. The rates were immaterial. 

Claim: The reason the Church is wrong about contraception is that it has a mistaken understanding of nature. The natural law concept justifying Humanae Vitae portrays nature as something so mysterious and sacred that human intervention in it tends to destroy rather than perfect it. This type of reasoning impedes the progress of science, which can help men and women to overcome those natural characteristics which are not desired. 

The Church recognizes the legitimacy of alterations to human nature–eyeglasses and casts for broken limbs, for example. If such alterations are approved, why not the alterations implicit in contraception? Besides, “nature” is not a sacred entity but something over which mankind has been given stewardship. 

Response: The proponents of contraception are deeply mistaken when attacking natural law. The natural law reasoning justifying Humanae Vitae rightly portrays nature as something sacred, a sacrament of God’s presence, in opposition to a Manichaean or Gnostic contempt for the material order. Such things as eyeglasses and casts perfect nature whereas alterations such as contraception or suicide mutilate nature. 

Fecundity is a natural and innately good.aspect of the human person. To give this characteristic only functional value is to separate oneself from the Catholic idea of creation as sacrament and to flirt with a contempt for the material order manifested by the ancient Manicheans and Gnostics, who likewise advocated contraception. 

Claim: The Church’s teaching on birth control is not static but has grown and developed over time. Early patristic teachers taught that intercourse was exclusively for procreation. Later it was recognized that infertile couples could enjoy full conjugal relations. Still later the Church recognized that couples could have intercourse during times when conception was unlikely to occur. (From this latter development comes natural family planning.) With this, the Church recognized the legitimacy of birth control qua birth control. Now it should recognize that not every act of intercourse need be open to the possibility of conception. Approval of contraception is, or at least should be, the next step in the Church’s developing teaching. 

Response: Although it is true that the teaching on birth control is not static but has grown and developed over time, this is not to say that it will move in a particular direction, especially when this movement would be contradictory to early teaching. We can see the inherent weakness of the “development argument” by pursuing it to its end. If it is argued that the next logical step would be the recognition that not every act of intercourse need be open to the possibility of conception, then the following step is to say (as some Protestant ministers do) that some, many, or most acts of intercourse ought to be contracepted. The step after that would be to say that all acts of intercourse ought to be contracepted, an absurdity. 

Development of doctrine is not a strictly linear progression which moves ad infinitum in one direction. That is what is assumed by those advocating a change in the teaching. That an authentic course of development is not strictly linear is illustrated by the development of the doctrine of papal authority, which expanded in one direction from early centuries through Vatican I, then expanded in a new and different (but not contradictory) way at Vatican II. Some changes are true developments; others are corruptions. If a purported “development” contradicts the original teaching, it is no development at all, but a corruption. 

Claim: A more fully-developed doctrine would recognize that contraception is licit when the conjugal act is viewed in the larger context of love, family, children, and interpersonal relationships instead of as an isolated act. In this context, the use of contraception is justified when the consequences of prolonged abstinence or new children would deeply disrupt the family community. 

Response: Contraception is even more pernicious when the conjugal act is viewed in the larger context of love, family, children, and interpersonal relationships instead of as simply an isolated act. The use of contraception disrupts the family community, if only in subtle ways. 

Interestingly, the divorce rate among those who use natural family planning is only about three percent, compared to the national average of around 50 percent. If this is taken in account, one can hardly argue that contraception is needed to keep marriages intact. 

Claim: Even if one were to focus on the act itself, contraception should be declared lawful. Human sexuality in marriage is ordered not only to procreation, but also to fostering intimacy. This intimacy would be compromised if intercourse were to be avoided for any length of time, which is what natural family planning demands. To insure this.aspect of the relationship is not compromised, contraception may be used by a couple. 

Response: The Church does not assert that human sexuality in marriage is ordered only to procreation, excluding an interpersonal.aspect, but to say that marital intimacy would be compromised if intercourse were to be avoided for any length of time (as is demanded by natural family planning) is to say that intimacy depends solely on the act of intercourse, a dubious proposition. There are many ways to enhance intimacy in a marriage, and natural family planning does not in itself create insurmountable difficulties in marriage. (If it did, the divorce rate among practitioners would exceed the national average.) 

To focus so exclusively on one act is itself unhealthy and symptomatic of an attitude in which one has acclimated himself to accepting unbalanced societal norms. In fact, as people who use natural family planning attest, periodic abstinence invigorates the relationship by prompting a couple to explore other ways of loving and serving one another and by making them desire one another in the deep way they did in early courtship. 

Each of the arguments for contraception is flawed, but what is worse is that each fails to take seriously the reasons the Church teaches what it does. The immorality of contraception manifests itself in many ways. One consists in separating what has been joined together by God in the plan of creation. The sexual act, ordained at least in part for procreation, becomes subject to radical perversion when separated from one of its proper ends. If sexual acts are viewed in an exclusively “relational” context and are separated from any teleology (that is, if they have no purpose or end that extends beyond themselves), any and all sexual activity can be justified, from sodomy and masturbation to bestiality and pedophilia. 

There is another problem, which we might say is on the personalist level. Contraception reduces the gift of self between spouses. Fecundity, as a normal, healthy, and ontologically good.aspect of the human person, is withheld through contraception. This transforms an act which should signify total self-giving into a caricature of itself. At the least, people who engage in contracepted sex fail to value and accept their spouses as persons in their totality. Contracepted sex signifies an apprehension on the part of one or both spouses to commit fully to a permanent bond between them, the bond incarnated in a child. 

Another manifestation of contraception’s immorality is its perpetuation of the pernicious myth of the “unwanted” child. A child is no longer seen as an ontological good (a “gift from God”), valuable in every and all circumstances, but rather as one of many possible options, valuable only on a functional level. This is the contraceptive mentality, and it has many negative ramifications. Children who are conceived when contraception fails may become targets of abortion since they are “unwanted” or, to speak more accurately, since the parents are unwanting. 

Even children who are “planned” may experience the unfortunate effects of the contraceptive mentality. These children have become valuable to their parents and are sought only under certain circumstances.They do not experience unconditional love and acceptance; they experience affection only at their parents’ convenience. A lack of total love and acceptance must be disconcerting to a young child seeking affirmation and a sense of value. 

If a change in the Church’s teaching is desired, the burden of proof falls upon those wanting the change. But the burden of changing the laity’s attitudes falls upon those who support the official teaching. The surveys which proponents of contraception point to are not encouraging. They indicate much labor remains in the vineyard.


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