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Is contraception really immoral? (Yes!)
10 September 2000
Thank you for writing to me about the Crossfunction meeting we had last week on contraception. I wish you had been there as I'm sure your insights would have been a valuable part of the discussion. And there certainly was lots of interesting discussion. Several of the attendees indicated an interest in continuing the topic at the next Crossfunction meeting. It certainly is a topic relevant to many people these days.
No, I didn't prepare any handouts for this presentation, although I brought a number of fine books on the topic and offered them on loan. Several are in circulation now, but I have more, if you're interested. At the end of this letter I'll include a few references to good, relevant sources.
Responding to your letter to me on the "Brothers of the Lord" is weighing on my mind, and so I don't want to get too deeply involved in any new discussions until I keep my promise to respond to your letter. However, I'll try to respond your three questions below without forgetting that I still owe you a response on a previous topic:
1) Q: "Why do you make a distinction between 'artificial' and 'natural' birth control? As long as a method does not destroy a fertilized egg, why would it be wrong?"
A: That, of course, is the essence of the discussion. The distinction between "natural" and "artificial" basically amounts to a distinction between methods that respect the truth of God's design of man, marriage, sex, and the family, and those that do not respect the truth. By "truth", here, I mean the reality and the meaning of what God has written into our very nature, and which is an aspect of the image of God in which we are created. God has revealed to man various truths about man, woman, and marriage, and these truths light a path for us to follow in how we relate to our spouses in the covenant of marriage and to our God in a covenant of grace. The Gospel truth about marriage is glorious and too deep to fathom in one or many letters. But let me comment on one aspect which helps highlight how artificial contraception is intrinsically contrary to love and marriage.
First, one paragraph on explanation of terms: by "conjugal act" and "marital act" I mean sexual intercourse in the context of marriage. The term "sexual intercourse" itself is inadequate in this discussion, because it describes a merely physical action in which even animals may engage. But humans, having an intellect and will, can never engage in this act in a way that is purely physical. For humans there is an added intellectual and spiritual dimension which makes the physical act a "human act", and opens the discussion to consideration of how God designed humans, and how God's design of human nature gives meaning to the sexual act. And if the physical, sexual act in humans has spiritual significance, then how does the truth which God has imprinted in man reveal moral norms governing our use of the marital act?
Written by the Creator into the very structure of the conjugal act is a rich revelation of conjugal love: it is exclusive; it is indissoluble; it is a total self-gift of one to the other; it accomplishes such a profound communion between spouses that "two become one flesh". It really is an image of the love of God, who is love (1 Jn. 4:8), "the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named." (Eph. 3:15)
"Marriage is not, then, the effect of chance or the product of evolution of unconcious natural forces; it is the wise institution of the Creator to realize in mankind His design of love. By means of the reciprocal personal gift of self, proper and exclusive to them, husband and wife tend towards the communication of their beings in view of mutual personal perfection, to collaborate with God in the generation and education of new lives... Then, this love is total, that is to say, it is a very special form of personal friendship, in which husband and wife generously share everything, without undue reservations of selfish calculations. Whoever truly loves his marriage partner loves not only for what he receives, but for the partner's self, rejoicing that he can enrich his partner with the gift of himself... And finally, this love is fecund for it is not exhausted by the communion between husband and wife, but is destined to continue, raising up new lives. 'Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents.'" (Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae).
What I'm trying to get at is this: God designed the conjugal act to be a total gift of oneself to one's spouse. By "total", I mean that one offers one's entire self, including one's God-given gifts, faculties, potentialities, goods, and faithfulness to the covenant of marriage. These God-given gifts include one's procreative power: the ability to cooperate with God's creative action through openness to the possibility of new life. When we understand that God has designed the marital act to be a "total" self-gift, it is not hard to see that for one to withhold oneself from one's spouse in a way that makes this gift less than "total", less than God intended, is to distort the conjugal act and contradict the meaning and truth which God has written into the marital act.
The previous paragraph gives a basis for understanding contraception as contradicting the nature of the marital act as a total self-gift. The next paragraph looks at the issue from a slightly different perspective: that of the "meanings" and "structure" of the marital act...
"Nonetheless the Church... teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life. That teaching, often set forth by the magisterium, is founded upon the 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 and the procreative meaning. Indeed, by its intimate structure, the conjugal act, while most closely uniting husband and wife, capacitates them for the generation of new lives, acording to laws inscribed in the very being of man and of woman. By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination towards man's most high calling to parenthood. We believe that the men of our day are particularly capable of seizing the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle." (Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, n. 12).
Now, let's consider the two above aspects together, regarding both the concept of total self-gift, and the inseparability of the unitive and procreative meanings of the marital act. This is summed up brilliantly by Pope John Paul II:
"When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings [procreative and unitive] that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion, they act as arbiters of the divine plan and they manipulate and degrade human sexuality -and with it themselves and their married partner- by altering its value of 'total' self-giving. Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality." (Pope John Paul II, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, n. 32)
The Gospel has implications for contraception that go far beyond the question of intentional abortion. Scripture and the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, teach together that marriage is rich in its meaning and in its vocation, and that the marital act has a noble and glorious purpose that may rightly be respected only according to the design of its Creator. And according to this design, the unitive and procreative meanings of the marital act are inseparable, and man has no right to attempt to obtain the benefits of one of these aspects while denying or contradicing the other. Therefore, to engage in the marital act while deliberately preventing either of these meanings from being manifest is to distort and pervert the act, to violate the natural law, and to engage in an objectively evil act.
2) Q: "Do you believe that a person reading the Bible without preconceived ideas would arrive at the Roman Catholic's position on birth control? If so, on the basis of what passages?"
A: "A person reading the Bible without preconceived ideas"? What does that mean? Do you mean a person to whom the Gospel has never been preached, who has never received good Christian teaching, and whose first and only knowlege of Christianity is what he gleans from Scripture? God help such a person. Jesus didn't design His message to be transmitted that way, and apparently for good reason. We are practically sinking in a sea of Christian "rugged individualists", who seem to believe that they have been given the mission to infallibly distill from Scripture those truths which Christians must believe. But it is difficult to justify this approach in light of some plain facts set out in Scripture: Jesus taught His message to a group of men whom He then appointed teachers and pastors. He gave them and their successors the power and authority to teach and interpret this message. They did so, and won thousands of souls to Christ. Years later, they got around to writing various letters to instruct and reprove local churches on doctrinal and disciplinary matters. Centuries later their successors determined which letters were inspired and which weren't, and determined likewise which of the pre-Christian writings belonged in the canon of Scripture. Nowhere during all that time -nor for more than a millennium afterward- do we find Christians believing that they were able (or should even try) to reconstruct the faith purely from Scripture. This was quite a novel notion and completely contradicts the pattern of the early Church, which is the Church Jesus founded. But we have already discussed this at some length.
The short answer to your question is No, I'm not confident that an individual of our day, of normal intelligence but ignorant of the authentic Christian faith, would reliably discover from Scripture alone the truth that contraception is an evil practice. Such a person, if he were ignorant not only of the Christian faith, but also of plain old history, might not even realize that contraception was universally condemned by all churches -not just the Roman Catholic Church- until the year 1930, when it was accepted first by the Anglican church. He also might not realize that the Anglican church was founded by a man who for self-seeking reasons rejected the constant Christian doctrine that marriage is indissoluble, and abused his power as king to divorce an entire nation from right doctrine. Not surprisingly, the many churches that now deny the indissolubility of marriage are generally the same ones that have since rejected the constant doctrine that contraception is immoral, now claiming it is a matter of personal "choice". Some of them now even tolerate elective abortion as a matter of personal "choice", for when man becomes the arbiter of the moral law, no evil remains outside his grasp. History clearly indicates that tolerance of contraception (and abortion) did not emerge from authentic Christian teaching, but rather infiltrated the churches like a cancer only very recently, having had its actual origin in the modern birth control movement and in the immoral teachings of pagans like Margaret Sanger.
So if our hypothetical Bible reader were at all aware of these historical facts, this knowledge might cause him to read his Bible a little more thoughtfully, alert for important underlying principles -perhaps subtle and implicit- rather than only explicit statements.
But let's suppose he did his best to understand Scripture, and still concluded that there was nothing there that clearly taught against contraception. What about his other beliefs? Do you suppose that you and he would share the same "central" beliefs? Perhaps you would like to think so, but I have serious doubts. Dan, do you think that after two or three times through Scripture he would have formulated a clear and correct doctrine of the Trinity? If so, I'd be interested in your identifying those passages which make this doctrine unmistakably clear. Do you suppose he would have a clear belief that each and every one of the books of the Bible is inerrant? From which passages would he have learned this? Do you think he would be certain that aside from the Bible there are NO inspired books on par with the canon of Scripture? How would he have determined this? Do you think that he would be able to refute the many heresies that arose during the centuries after the Apostles died? Arianism? Modalism? Manichaeism? Monophysitism? Nestorianism? Pelagianism? Donatism? I do not believe it is likely he would successfully navigate such a thorny field of traps as this; no, I don't think his chances would be good at all. Nor do I think it wise to regard an unevangelized, uncatechized private interpreter of Scripture as a reliable authority on Christian doctrine or Biblical interpretation. Do you? If so, we simply disagree. If not, why is his opinion on this matter important, and why would you even ask the question you raised?
I prefer to follow the pattern set down in Scripture: Jesus appointed apostles and teachers, and gave authority to them and their successors in order that the Church in the second century, as well as in the third, sixteenth, and twenty-first, would have visible, authoritative teachers just as She did in the first century. Jesus made Her His Spouse and His ambassador to the world, and it is She who has delivered the Scriptures into our hands for our benefit: not that we should misuse them, but that in Her company we should read and study and believe them according to Her sure direction.
Dan, your question seems to imply that you think that an unbiased reader of Scripture would not arrive at the doctrine that contraception is immoral. Let me ask you, then: why did luminaries of private interpretation of Scripture such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, and many others condemn contraception as a wicked practice? If you haven't read some of their writings on this matter, you should do so: they do not mince words in their energetic denunciation of artificial birth control.
3) Q: "Is the position you are expounding a 'de fide' doctrine? If not, can one believe otherwise and still be a member of the Roman Catholic Church in good standing? Since we have agreed that there is no list of infallible teachings, how can a teaching be categorized as essential versus something that Christians can disagree upon in good faith."
A: Yes, Dan, when I say that contraception, as a deliberate act, is morally disordered and intrinsically evil, I am repeating a doctrine that the Church continues infallibly to affirm in the strongest terms. Any person, Catholic or not, who believes otherwise believes an error, and embracing grave moral error jeopardizes and can ultimately destroy one's relationship with God. Culpability for believing an error depends on various things, including whether the person is invincibly ignorant of the truth. Let's not get into all of that right now. However, there is no ground for doubt that artificial birth control is emphatically condemned by the Church.
Now, as to your comment about a "list of infallible teachings", I don't know where this concept originates. Is a "list" the only possible means that God or His Church are free to use in teaching doctrine? Then why isn't doctrine presented in the Bible in "list" form? Does the Bible categorize doctrines alphabetically or systematically? Is Scripture divided with some chapters containing "central" teachings, and others containing "peripheral" doctrines? My Bible certainly doesn't do this. If the Bible does not fit your notion of a doctrinal checklist, then why should the Catholic Church necessarily maintain one?
However, the Church can offer you something better than a list. You may be aware of the existence of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, published just a few years ago. The Pope has declared it "a sure norm for teaching the faith". If the Pope declares it a sure norm, I also consider it a sure norm. (If you disagree, whose claim do you think I should believe: yours or the Pope's?) You may or may not consider the Catechism a list. However, it does contain a systematic and highly readable presentation of the faith, confirmed by the authority of the Pope and the constant teaching of the Church: Further, it contains many references to other solemn doctrinal teachings offered by the Church over the centuries. I'm not aware of anything equal to it in Protestantism.
You know, I don't recall ever being unable to determine from Church teaching whether a belief was solid doctrine, well founded theological opinion, or speculation. When you've got a living, authoritative teacher of a divine message, and splendid helps such as the Catechism and two millennia of councils and papal teachings, it's not often hard to get answers to hang one's hat upon. It's those people who don't recognize these treasures from God who are the ones most frequently at a loss to answer doctrinal questions with certainty. And it's precisely this problem that has yielded the situation today in which we Roman Catholics are outnumbered, so to speak: we still have only one Church, yet the United Nations claims that there are now more than 20,000 Christian denominations. The inability to recognize an authority outside the Bible to interpret the Bible has caused post-Reformation churches to shatter and splinter again and again. This is a sad state of affairs.
The Catholic Church has its share of problems too, with dissenters inside the Church who apply that same mentality, claiming that the Pope is not infallible but acting as though they believe they themselves are! We Catholics are familiar with doctrinal controversy, for sadly it exists among some of our members, priests, and bishops. I understand how this can lead to schism and denominational splintering in churches lacking the visible, apostolic foundation that Christ gave His Church. This is why I thank God for the permanent protection He gives His Church, and the guidance He provides through the successors of the Apostles, in communion with the successors of Peter, the first Pope.
But, back to contraception and whether I as a Catholic can know that it's a true doctrine of the faith that must be believed and obeyed. As I claimed earlier, the Anglican church was the first in history to accept the use of contraception, and this was in 1930. In the following year, Pope Pius XI published an encyclical on marriage, Casti Connubii, and responded in quite forceful terms to the unprecedented doctrinal change adopted by the Anglicans at their Lambeth Conference. As a postscript, I'll quote a relevant passage of Casti Connubii; perhaps you could comment on whether you think any reasonable person would have any doubt as to whether the Pope was expressing his personal opinion, or a most solemn doctrinal teaching binding upon all Christians.
But, before the quote from Casti Connubii, I want to offer a word on the consequences of contraception. The modern birth control movement has promised to liberate parents -especially women- and let them enjoy more freely the wholesome benefits of a fulfilling sexual relationship without suffering the burden of supporting a family larger than their resources allow. Has this promise been fulfilled?
If the promise of contraception has been fulfilled, then we should expect to have observed a marked decrease in divorce and abortion rates during the past several decades, now that contraceptives have become so readily available. Shouldn't we find that children now find themselves in loving, secure families more than ever before, now that every child can be a "wanted" child? Naturally, marital harmony should have blossomed as well, with fewer couples divorcing over the burdens imposed by large famillies and the necessity to abstain from sex periodically in order to regulate birth. And shouldn't we find that more women have been freed from the burden of having to work outside the home to support a too-large family?
But what is the picture we see vividly painted in modern society? The truth is that although contraceptives are more widely available than ever, the traditional family is in steep decline in the most affluent nations. Divorce, broken families, fatherless children, abortion, unwed mothers, are dramatically more prevalent than when contraception and abortion were illegal and culturally taboo. Today, promiscuity among singles is rampant, and this includes even children. Sexually transmitted diseases are at epidemic levels. Despite great gains in our economy, huge numbers of American women now have chosen (or been driven) to work outside the home to support families whose fathers have abandoned them, and care of the children is relegated to others. And this does not even begin to address the more hidden consequences: the mutual isolation and erosion of respect which degradation of the marital act insidiously but inevitably sows between spouses. Contraception clearly has not delivered to families and individuals the goods it promised. Rather it has proved to be a Trojan horse delivering horrendous ills to the family and society.
So who are the real beneficiaries of the modern birth control revolution? They include those men who wish to use women for sexual gratification without accepting responsibility for their own actions. And it is pharmaceutical corporations that are willing to produce harmful products -if the money is good. And it is seekers of power in government, willing to use social engineering practices to manipulate the demographics of their own population and of foreign nations. And it is Satan, who is willing to use anything to combat life, to destroy individuals, marriages, and families. Contraception has brought far more misery than good to the world, far more exploitation and bondage than freedom, and it is women who have paid the highest price.
Yet a great part of population still swallows the lies that contraception tells: that it's OK to gratify our sexual urges without restraint; that in marriage (and even before marriage and outside of marriage) we can abandon the virtues of chastity and purity; that we can place our own desires above God's law written upon our hearts and in our nature; we need not seriously contemplate the implications of our "partner's" lifegiving potentiality, nor our own, nor how this power may require us to carry the sober but sweet burden of sacrificial love. The lie of contraception has ruined many marriages, wounded others, and has excluded from the world a great wealth of blessings which true, self-giving love always brings.
Finally, the good news is that it is possible for married couples to regulate births in ways that do not violate the moral law. So-called Natural Family Planning ("NFP") provides a highly reliable means to regulate childbearing in a way that is morally acceptable, has no ill side-effects, and offers very positive benefits to the deepening of intimacy and love between spouses. I highly recommend visiting a great NFP website produced by the Couple to Couple League: http://www.birthcontrol.org/index.html. From personal experience, I can testify that my wife and I have reaped great benefits -both physically and spiritually- from embracing NFP in our marriage.
Dan, thank you for your questions and your consideration. I hope you will join us for the continuing discussion at our next Crossfunction meeting. Until then, I remain
"But no reason, however grave, may be put forth by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children. Those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature, and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.
"Small wonder, therefore, if Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with great detestation this horrible crime, and at times has punished it with death [Gen 38], as in the case of Onan, who died practicing it. Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterupted christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: Any use, whatsoever, of matrimony, exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God, and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.
"We admonish, therefore, priests who hear confessions and others who have the care of souls, in virtue of Our supreme authority and in Our solicitude for the salvation of souls not to allow the faithful entrusted to them to err regarding this most grave law of God. Much more, that they keep themselves immune from such false opinions, in no way conniving in them. If any confessor or pastor of souls which -may God forbid- lead the faithful entrusted to him into these errors, or should at least confirm them by approval or by guilty silence, let him be mindful of the fact that he must render a strict account to God the Supreme Judge, for the betrayal of his sacred trust, and let him take to himself the words of Christ, "they are blind and leaders of the blind, and if the blind lead the blind, they both fall into a pit."
- Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii. Encyclial letter, 1931.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994.
Charles D. Provan, The Bible and Birth Control. 1989, Zimmer Printing, Monongahela, PA 15063. This is a good non-Catholic reference that addresses Scripture's position on contraception. He also documents dozens of prominent Protestants over the centuries who condemned contraception, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, etc.
Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (On Human Life). Encyclical letter, 1968.
Pope John Paul II, Reflections on Humanae Vitae. 1984, St. Paul Editions.
Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World). Apostolic Exhortation, 1981.
Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii. Encyclical Letter, 1931.
Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), Love & Responsibility. English translation 1981, William Collins Sons & Co., Ltd., London.
Ramón Garcia de Haro, Marriage and the Family in the Documents of the Magisterium. 1989, Ignatius.
John Kippley, Sex and the Marriage Covenant. Couple to Couple League.
William E. May, Sex and the Sanctity of Human Life. 1984, Christendom Publications.