Monday, October 18, 2010

The Catholic View of Artificial Contraception

Look around at twenty-first century America.  Pornography is a multi-billion dollar business.  Television, movies, and advertisements are sexualizing girls in their teens, or even younger.  Roughly 3700 abortions are performed every day in the United States alone.  Divorce is endemic in American society.  AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases pose a significant health risk to the population.  According to the proponents of artificial birth control, these problems should be declining, yet they have been on a steady increase since 1965.  The birth control pill was supposed to end STDs and unwanted pregnancies.  Readily available birth control was supposed to strengthen marriages.  The pill was supposed to liberate women.  What went wrong?  Artificial contraception became the progenitor of the very problems its proponents claimed it would solve.  Even if this were not the case, artificial contraception would still be intrinsically disordered, as it is contrary to the ancient teachings of the Church, dating back to the Early Fathers and the Scriptures.
Artificial birth control has various benign-sounding euphemisms, such as reproductive freedom, family planning, and reproductive technology.  This must be distinguished from natural family planning (NFP), sometimes referred to as fertility awareness methods (FAMs) as the philosophies between the two differ radically.  Whereas the former is forcing the body to work in a way that is conducive to an individual’s lifestyle, the latter works with the body and those who practice NFP become intimately more familiar with how their body works, and shape their lifestyle around the natural function of their bodies.  This is not to say that NFP cannot be misused.  NFP should not be used selfishly, as to become little more than “Catholic contraception.”
Although historically contraception has been used for thousands of years, it has become a serious issue in the United States only within recent history.  In fact, many aspects of the debate have only come to the fore within the last one hundred years.  The real push for the acceptance of contraception and abortion began in 1917, through the efforts of a woman named Margaret Sanger.  It was at this time when she founded the group that would become Planned Parenthood:  the Birth Control League.  Part of her agenda was for the Church to accept birth control and abortion.  Her first success came in 1930, when, at the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Church accepted the use of artificial contraception for serious reasons.  Pope Pius XI, in 1931, responded to this issue in his encyclical, Casti Connubii, upholding the traditional Catholic teaching prohibiting artificial contraception.  Through the years, various Protestant denominations started to accept the use of artificial contraception and in 1961, the National Council of Churches approved the use of these methods of family regulation.  The watershed moment for the contraceptive culture came in 1965, in the form of Supreme Court case Griswald v. Connecticut.  In this case,   the Court ruled that the banning the sale of contraceptives to married couples violated their privacy rights, and this same doctrine was applied to unmarried people in the 1972 case Eissenstadt v. Baird.  It should be noted that these “privacy rights” were not in force before Griswald, and were used again in 1973 to overturn every abortion law in the country with Roe v. Wade.  The Catholic Church made its definitive pronouncement against artificial contraception on 25 July, 1968, with the promulgation of Humanae Vitae by His Holiness Pope Paul VI.[1]
One may wonder if a discussion on artificial contraception is relevant in the present, more than forty years after Humanae Vitae.  The answer is a resounding “Yes!”  In both Humanae Vitae and Casti Connubii, predictions were made that are relevant issues today.  Since 1965, when the Supreme Court handed down the Griswald decision, the United States has seen a veritable explosion in divorce, promiscuity, abortion, and pornography, while at the same time seeing a general decline in overall morality.  It would be foolish to claim this as coincidence.  Also worthy of note is the increased objectifying of women.  It could be argued that more than ever, women are seen as objects for sexual pleasure, rather than as human beings.  Again, this trend accelerated after the Griswald decision.  The Catholic position on artificial contraception does not date back to Humanae Vitae, or even to Casti Connubii. The position dates back to the Scriptures and the Apostolic Fathers.
            From the very beginning, the purpose of the marital union was procreation.  In the very first chapter of the very first book in the Bible, we read:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.  And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it…”[2]
At the dawn of all Creation, men and women were supposed to procreate, as an aspect of the Adamic Covenant.  The same command is repeated to Noah, at the establishment of that particular covenant, after the Flood.[3]  The argument could be posited that although there is a command to procreate, there is no indication that frustrating procreation is to be found.  This argument is clearly refuted in the thirty-eighth chapter of Genesis.  There is an account involving Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar, and his son, Onan:
Then Judah said to Onan, “Go into your brother’s wife, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went into his brother’s wife he spilled his semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother,.  And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he slew him also.[4]
This passage demonstrates that actively trying to prevent a pregnancy, at least for solely personal reasons, is displeasing to the Creator.
            Further argument could be made that these are attitudes in the Old Testament, and were displaced by the Christian teachings in the New Testament.  Even though much of the New Testament is devoted to salvation and eschatological issues, these Scriptures are not silent on moral issues, including issues surrounding sexuality.  The most direct passage dealing with sexuality is to be found in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  In the first chapter is a long list of various transgressions, and although “artificial contraception” is not mentioned specifically, it can be implied, specifically with in the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth verses:  “Therefore God gave them up to the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves because they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”  Would not rejecting a teaching of the Church, described as the “pillar and bulwark of truth,” fall under this condemnation?[5]  At the same time, the Scriptures praise periods of abstinence by married couples, which is an integral part of NFP, though it does carry a condition:
Do not refuse one another [of marital relations] except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control.[6]
This is not to be considered approval for abusing NFP to prevent pregnancy indefinitely, but it does allow for periodic abstinence, when both parties agree, for the purpose of deepening their relationship with God through prayer.
            Catholics are not limited to the Scriptures as a source of doctrine, but also draw upon a long tradition dating back to the first century.  The Early Fathers of the Church identify the procreation of offspring as a primary purpose of Holy Matrimony.  In his work On Marriage and Concupiscence, St. Augustine writes, “In matrimony, however, let these nuptial blessings be the objects of our love—offspring, fidelity, and the sacramental bond.”[7] The object, that is, the end result, of matrimony is the begetting of children.  This is expanded further by St. Augustine in his work On the Good of Marriage:
Marriages have this good also, that carnal or youthful incontinence, although it be faulty, is brought unto an honest use in the begetting of children, in order that out of the evil of lust the marriage union may bring to pass some good.[8]
In this passage St. Augustine presents children as an objective good, even when the parents are serving disordered passions.  Lust within the confines of marriage is likewise condemned by St. Ambrose, when he writes, “There is hardly anything more deadly than being married to one who is a stranger to the faith, where the passions of lust and dissension and the evils of sacrilege are inflamed.”[9] Even in marriage, sexual relations are not to be based on simple lustful pleasures.
            The Holy Fathers have further defined the prohibition on birth control, as well as warned of the dangers associated with laxity in this area of the Christian life.  In 1880 Pope Leo XIII promulgated an encyclical entitled Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae, on the topic of Christian Marriage.  Where the Scriptures and the Early Fathers have established that procreation is the principle purpose of marriage, Leo XIII went further to explain why:
More than simply bearing and educating children for the sake of participating in the creative work of God, Christian parents are also bringing future saints into the world.  In essence, Christian parents have the privilege of producing new beings for the worship of God.  This encyclical was issued at a time when artificial contraceptives were illegal in most of the Christian world, and as such, did not need to be addressed at length.  What Leo XIII did do, however was reinforce the ancient responsibility of producing and educating children.
            Half a century later, when Casti Connubii was issued, some significant changes had taken place.  The first birth control clinic had opened, Margaret Sanger had formed the Birth Control League, and the Anglican Church had decided that artificial contraception was permissible for serious reasons.  Pope Pius XI knew that contraception had to be addressed in his document usually translated as “On Christian Marriage.”  In the encyclical the first subject he addresses is the growing animosity towards childbearing:
And now, Venerable Brethren, we shall explain in detail the evils opposed to each of the benefits of matrimony. First consideration is due to the offspring, which many have the boldness to call the disagreeable burden of matrimony and which they say is to be carefully avoided by married people not through virtuous continence (which Christian law permits in matrimony when both parties consent) but by frustrating the marriage act. [11]
He connects the animosity towards children directly with artificial means of contraception, and not the periodic abstinence associated with NFP.  Furthermore, the Pope issued a statement which would be echoed in future generations.  He said that the artificial means of birth control were to be considered intrinsically evil:
This statement also ran directly counter to the statement issued by the Anglican Church earlier that same year.  Whereas the Church of England had allowed for artificial birth control for serious reasons, the Catholic Church maintained the teaching that the prohibition against contraception could not be abrogated under any circumstances.  He defends his argument by quoting St. Augustine, who notes the “wickedness” of intentionally preventing conception.[13]  He closes the topic with an exhortation drawn from the Council of Trent.  He reminds the faithful that the precepts of the Church can be adhered to when strengthened by the grace of God.[14]
            The date of July 25, 1968 marks the watershed moment of the contraceptive debate in the Catholic Church.  It was on this date that Pope Paul VI promulgated what was likely the most controversial encyclical in the post-reformation era.  Prior to the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, a commission was established to investigate the question of artificial contraception.  The majority of the bishops involved in the commission felt that the Church should change the teaching on artificial contraception.  But as the commission was not unanimous, the Pope prayerfully considered the findings, but in the end declared that the teaching of the Church would not change.[15]
            Unlike the previous encyclicals that addressed the subject of contraception, wherein the topic was one aspect of a larger issue, Humanae Vitae’s treatment placed contraception as the primary concern.  In doing so, Paul VI put forth a comprehensive explanation of not only what the Church taught, but also the underlying principles that guided the Church to this conclusion.  It is this comprehensiveness that raises Humanae Vitae above previous treatments of the subject.  Given the pressure the Church was facing to change the teaching, it must be concluded that the in-depth treatment of the doctrine was a necessary in order to give authoritative weight to the encyclical.
            The first underlying principle is the nature of married love.  Married love, he explains, is not merely a result of natural or evolutionary forces, but is an act of will which entails the complete sharing of the total being between husband and wife.  This totality of sharing, by its very nature, implies an exclusive, dissoluble bond.  In addition,  Paul VI describes the marital union as fecund, or productive.  He explains that the nature of married love is ordered to the transmission of new life.[16]
            Given the propensity of the use of the terminology “responsible parenthood” used in attempts to justify the use of artificial contraception, Paul VI defined the true essence of responsible parenthood from the perspective of the Church:
Responsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.[17]
Responsible parenthood, as understood by the Church, was not to limit family size by any means desired,  but implied a responsibility not only to the family, but also to God and His Church, of which the family is a representation.[18]
            The key to the teaching on artificial means of birth control falls to the dual nature of the marital act.  Conjugal love between husband and wife is both procreative and unitive.  To separate the two natures is not permissible:
The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason.[19]
Not only is this teaching consistent with what the Church had taught in the past, but this position, according to Humanae Vitae, can be arrived at solely through the application of reason.  In other words, the contraception debate was not a conflict between faith an reason, but was an example of where faith and reason come together in agreement.
            One argument for artificial birth control that Humanae Vitae dealt with directly was the idea that the entire sexual life was to be viewed as a whole, and therefore, as long as contraception was not being used all of the time, it was an acceptable practice.  The response is direct and to the point:
…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. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.[20]
Pope Paul VI is reinforcing the consistent Church principle that no matter what good is to be attained, evil means are never justified.  That being said, there is a caveat allowed for in the encyclical.  If a legitimate condition is being treated with a form of contraceptive, it can be allowed, although the intention to correct the condition must be paramount.[21]
            Another charge directly answered by Humanae Vitae is with respect to the spacing of births.  This end is in no way condemned.  What is condemned is the use of artificial contraception to achieve this end:
If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.[22]
This is both a concession and an admonition.  Where the Church concedes to the fact that there are legitimate reasons for spacing births and regulating family size, and that observance of infertile periods can be utilized, a proportionate reason must exist for spacing the births.  In other words, to utilize NFP for strictly personal reasons, as opposed to reasons for the benefit of the family, would still be a disordered practice.
            The final point with regards to Humanae Vitae that will be addressed is the predictions of the characteristics of a society accepting of artificial contraception.  The Holy Father made three general predictions: an expansion of infidelity and lowering of moral standards, a devaluing of women and the increasing view of women as objects for sexual gratification, and the abuse of and enforcement of the use of contraceptives by civil authorities.[23]  It is obvious that these things have come to pass since Griswald v. Connecticut in 1965. The so-called “sexual revolution” exploded onto the scene within a year after Griswald.  Even in the “Bible belt,” pornography retailers and strip clubs dot the landscape.  Abortion is strictly enforced in the People’s Republic of China, and the largest provider of abortions and birth control in the United States, Planned Parenthood, receives significant funding from the federal government.  The warnings of Humanae Vitae went unheeded, and the price is being exacted.
            A great deal of information has been presented here, but information on its own is of little use.  The information must be drawn together and applied to be of real value.  To truly apply the principles of why artificial contraception is wrong, an examination of the proper ordering of sexuality must first be conducted.  One misconception must immediately be discarded: sex is evil.  Sex and sexuality is anything but evil.  Properly ordered, sexuality is a good, for it is the means by which God provided for is creation to continue.  Theologically, as mentioned in Humanae Vitae, conjugal relations are both procreative and unitive.  On a personal level a third dimension exists: pleasure.  One must remember that pleasure is not an end to the conjugal union, but serves as a motive and benefit.  Perhaps this concept is put forth best by moral theologian Janet Smith:
There are lots of things that have pleasure attached to them. Pleasure is not the purpose; pleasure is the motive; pleasure is the consequence; but it's not the purpose. As a matter of fact, God attached pleasure to the things that he really wants us to do, that are necessary for our survival and for our happiness… So, God attached pleasure to everything he wanted us to do for, not our salvation, so much, as just our well-being. But we have to do it … in the right way. Sure, eating is pleasurable, but there are limits to what you should be eating. Sexual intercourse is pleasurable, but there are limits to what you should be doing, and you have to seek that pleasure in accord with the nature and reality of what you're dealing with.[24]
The point Dr. Smith is trying to express is that our sexuality is a good thing, it is a gift from God, but like all gifts, it can be misused, and the common misuse of our sexuality is to focus on the pleasure, and forget the true purposes of sexual relationships: procreation and human bonding.
            This concept is completely lost on the proponents of birth control and abortion.  Artificial contraception has contributed to the devaluing of pregnancy.  For evidence, one needs to go no further than Planned Parenthood (emphasis added):
Planned Parenthood believes that all people deserve access to birth control and other preventive health care, including breast and cervical cancer screenings, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. In fact, more than 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood health centers do is preventive and primary health care, helping women and families make responsible decisions about their sexual and reproductive health, their lives, and their futures.[25]
When contraception is described as “preventative care,” it infers that pregnancy is a disease or condition to be avoided, rather than a gift of life. This is reinforced by the inclusion of birth control in the same category of preventative care as cancer screenings.
 This may lead one to ask, “What is the difference between preventing pregnancy with artificial means and natural means? Since the end is the same aren’t they equivalent?”  The answer is a resounding “No!”  The underlying philosophy of artificial birth control is this:  “The manner in which my body functions is getting in the way of the way I want to live my life.  Since it is my own body, I can do with it as I please, so I am going to force it into functioning in the way I desire.”  The motivation behind artificial contraception is self.  Whether the contraceptive is a barrier, like a condom, chemical, like the pill, or abortifacient, like the intra-uterine device (IUD), the motive is the same: to impede the creation of God.  The philosophy behind NFP is altogether different.  Natural Family Planning requires both parties to be dedicated to the system.  It is complex, and formal training is highly recommended.  The philosophy behind NFP says “We respect God’s creation and rather than mold it to fit our desired lifestyle, we will change our lifestyle around the natural function of our bodies.”  NFP does require discipline.  Dr. Smith makes a very interesting observation about critics of natural family planning:
Now, a lot of people say, "What's the difference?" You have two couples who don't want to have a baby and want to have sex and they're doing the same thing. They're trying to have sex without trying to have babies or without wanting to have babies... And that's a very common confusion and a very common complaint, and I'm going to try and help you think about it.
The first thing I want to say to such couples, such people, is, "Well, if contraception and Natural Family Planning are the same, why not just use Natural Family Planning?" And you know what they say, "But that would be completely different. I'd have to change everything." I say, "Wait a second. You just told me there's no difference and now you tell me it'd be completely different." But, of course, what they mean is no moral difference, but they recognize that there'd be an enormous lifestyle difference. I say, "But wait a second. If there's an enormous lifestyle difference, then that may be a hint that there's some kind of a moral difference as well." [26]
Dr. Smith was illustrating an important ethical principle in Christian thought:  “The ends do not justify the means.”  Just as Using NFP for selfish reasons is unacceptable, using artificial contraception for a just end is also unacceptable.  Both the ends and the means must satisfy moral requirements.
            In closing, the Catholic teachings on artificial contraception are not a means of controlling the sexuality of the faithful.  The Church recognizes the dangers that flow out of artificial contraception: the devaluing of women and children, a general decline in morality, and the emphasizing of selfish pleasure over communal spousal bonding.  The promises of marital stability and reduced unwanted pregnancies have proven to be wildly false.  The prohibition against artificial contraception is nothing more than a call to embrace chastity.  Chastity, which flows from the virtue of temperance, is nothing more than properly ordering sexuality to glorify God.  Artificial contraception elevates lust over procreation and unity.  The philosophy behind artificial contraception is oriented towards self.  Above all, contraception is in direct conflict with the apostolic teachings of the Church, and as such, has no place in the lives of faithful Catholics.

Physicians for Life. “Timeline: Abortion on Demand in the USA.” Physicians for Life, (accessed November 17, 2009)
Pius XI. Casti Connubii. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2001.
Planned Parenthood. “Affordable Birth Control and other Preventative Care” Planned Parenthood Federation of America. (accessed November 18, 2009)
Smith, Janet. “Contraception: Why Not?” Catholic Education Resource Center. (accessed November 18, 2009)
Willis, John R., SJ, editor. The Teachings of the Early Church Fathers. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002.

[1] Physicians for Life, “Timeline: Abortion on Demand in the USA,” Physicians for Life, (accessed November 17, 2009)
[2] Gen. 1:27-28
[3] Gen. 9:1
[4] Gen. 38: 8-10
[5] See 1 Tim. 3:15
[6] 1 Cor. 7:5
[7] St. Augustine, “On Marriage and Concupiscence” in The Teachings of the Church Fathers, ed. Fr. John R. Willis, S.J., (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 438.
[8] St. Augustine, “On the Good of Marriage” in The Teachings of the Church Fathers, ed. Fr. John R. Willis, S.J., (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 440.
[9] St. Ambrose, “Letters, No. 19” in The Teachings of the Church Fathers, ed. Fr. John R. Willis, S.J., (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 439.
[11] Pius XI, Casti Connubii, (Boston: Pauline Press, 2001), 53.
[12] Ibid, 54.
[13] Ibid, 55.
[14] Ibid, 61.
[16] Ibid, 9
[17] Ibid, 10
[18] Eph. 5:21-33
[20] Ibid, 14.
[21] Ibid, 15.
[22] Ibid, 16.
[23] Ibid, 17.
[24] Janet Smith, “Contraception: Why Not?”, Catholic Education Resource Center, (accessed November 18, 2009)
[25] Planned Parenthood, “Affordable Birth Control and other Preventative Care” Planned Parenthood Federation of America, (accessed November 18, 2009)
[26] Janet Smith, “Contraception: Why Not?”, Catholic Education Resource Center, (accessed November 18, 2009)


  1. Thank you for well researched posting on contraception. Among Catholics this is the proverbial elephant in the room that the clergy doesn't want to discuss.

  2. Thank you for your kind words. To be honest, I was expecting comments that are critical of the Catholic position on artificial contraception.