Contraception, Abstinence & Parenthood

Author: William May


We live in a culture in which contraception is widely accepted, even by many Roman Catholics, as a perfectly natural and intelligent way of coping with serious difficulties. The attitude expressed in 1969 by Robert Hoyt, then managing editor of the "National Catholic Reporter," is surely one that is shared by many: "contraception doesn't seem to hurt anyone and it helps solve some serious problems; what could be wrong with it?"1 In addition, many people claim that there is no moral difference between contraception and periodic abstinence as a means of regulating conception. This view is particularly common among Roman Catholic theologians who oppose the Church's teaching on the immorality of contraception.2 These people regard periodic continence, sometimes referred to as "rhythm" or "Vatican roulette," as an especially "unnatural" and "insensitive" way of meeting the difficulties married persons encounter in their struggle to exercise parenthood responsibly. One theologian, James Burtchaell, C.S.C., of the University of Notre Dame, voices this view in this way: "Of all these methods of contraception I should be tempted to think of rhythm as the most unnatural of all, since it inhibits not only conception, but the expression of affection. It is . . . a base theology that would want intercourse to harmonize with the involuntary endocrine rhythm of ovulation and menstruation, while forsaking the greater spiritual and emotional ebbs and flows which should also govern sexual union."3

Many Roman Catholic writers, furthermore, including such well-known and influential individuals as Bernard Haring4 and Louis Janssens,5 argue that contraception is morally justifiable when there is a real need to avoid conception precisely because "rhythm" or periodic continence is morally acceptable. They hold that periodic continence is simply one form or method of contraception; it is "natural" contraception as opposed to "artificial" contraception. Since the magisterium of the Church has already approved periodic continence or "natural" contraception as a way of regulating births, they continue, it is illogical to exclude other forms of contraception such as the pill, the use of condoms and diaphragms and spermicidal jellies. In their opinion the choice of a method of contraception ought to be left to the married couple involved.6 There is little doubt that the views described here are widely held by many in our culture and by many Roman Catholics.

It is therefore imperative for anyone who wishes to live by the truths taught by the Church throughout its history and reaffirmed in our day by Pope Paul VI in "Humanae vitae" and by Pope John Paul II in many addresses and in his challenging Apostolic Exhortation on the Christian Family, "Familiaris Consortio," to know why the following propositions are true: (1) there is a crucial moral difference between the choice to contracept and the choice to abstain periodically from conjugal relations in order to regulate conception; (2) contraceptive intercourse is inherently wicked; and (3) the choice to avoid pregnancies by freely choosing to abstain from relations during fertile periods while freely choosing to express marital love in the marital act during infertile periods can be a morally right way of fulfilling spousal and parental responsibilities.

These three propositions are obviously interrelated; and the purpose of this chapter is to show why they are true. Yet before I attempt to do this, it is advisable to make some preliminary observations that will help the reader to distinguish the substantive question at issue between those who defend and those who reject contraceptive intercourse.


The debate is "not" over the need to regulate the conception and birth of children. Parties to both sides of the debate recognize that there can be valid, indeed morally obligating reasons, for avoiding a pregnancy. It could be irresponsible for a married couple to allow, through their own free choice, a child to be conceived, not because the conception of a child is an evil--far from it--but because the parents could not, for various reasons, give this child the care and love it needs and to which it has a right, or because the pregnancy might be a serious threat to the life of the mother.

The debate is "not" over the need of married persons to express their love and affection for each other. Husband and wife are obliged to care for each other and to manifest their love for each other. This is particularly true of Christian husbands and wives, for the love meant to exist between them is a love intended to be both a sign and a participation in the love that exists between Christ and His bride, the Church.

The debate is over the means or human acts that husband and wife choose in order to be responsive to their call to share their life and love and to communicate this life and love to a new generation of human persons.


Those who claim that contraception and periodic abstinence are morally equivalent frequently bring forward two principal considerations. They first allege that the activities are morally the same because the "intentions" of both contracepting couples and of spouses who practice periodic continence in order to regulate conception are the same. They then assert that the two are morally equivalent because they lead to the same result, namely, the avoidance of conception.7

The first of these assertions is plausible only because those who make it play on the ambiguity of the term "intention," thereby confusing the whole matter. The fallacious character of this allegation has been lucidly demonstrated by the brilliant English philosopher Elisabeth Anscombe, who puts the matter this way:

"The reason why people are confused about intention, and why they sometimes think there is no difference between contraceptive intercourse and the use of infertile times to avoid contraception, is this. They don't notice the difference between 'intention' when it means the intentionalness of the thing you're doing--that you're doing 'this' on purpose--and when it means a 'further or 'accompanying' intention 'with which you do the thing. For example, I make a table; that's an intentional action because I am doing just 'that' on purpose. I have the 'further' intention, of, say, earning my living, doing my job by making the table. Contraceptive intercourse and intercourse using infertile times may be alike in respect of further intention, and these further intentions may be good, justified, excellent. This the Pope (Paul VI in 'Humanae Vitae') has noted. He sketched such a situation and said: "It cannot be denied that in both cases [contracepting couples and spouses using infertile times] the married couple, for acceptable reasons," (for that's how he imagined the case) "are perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and mean to secure that none will be born."8

Anscombe's point is quite clear. The term "intention" can refer either to the intention to do "this" (in this case, either to contracept or to abstain from marital relations during fertile times) or to the further intention with which one does "this intentional deed." The further intention is one thing (and it can be either good or bad) and the present intention to do this is another (and it can be either good or bad). The contraception advocate seeking to show the moral equivalence of contraception and periodic abstinence fails to distinguish between the two sorts of intentions and claims fallaciously that the "acts chosen" (the intention to contracept and the intention to abstain during fertile times) by contraceptors and by periodic abstainers are the same because the further intentions of both may well be, as Pope Paul VI himself acknowledges, the same.

Further clarification of this matter may be possible if we call the further "intentions" of both contracepting couples and those practicing periodic continence their "motives" for acting and call their "present intentions" to do what they do (namely, contracept or abstain at fertile times) the "acts" or "means" they choose to attain their further intentions or motives.

When the motivations for avoiding conception are good, we can then say that contraceptors and periodic abstainers equally "mean" well.9 But one's motive or one's meaning well is not the only nor indeed the morally decisive consideration in determining the morality of one's acts. Motives and their meaning are one thing, whereas the acts that one chooses to do in order to realize one's motives are another.

It is obviously possible for a well-motivated person to do something that he or she ought not to do. Let me illustrate this by looking at ways in which we may choose to express our compassion and love for a dying person. We may unfortunately choose to kill him "mercifully" in order to relieve him of the suffering he may be experiencing. If we do so, our act may indeed have been well motivated (our "further" intention may have been good), for we are choosing to kill him not because we dislike him but rather because we want to end his suffering. But the act we choose to do (our present intention) is without question an act of killing, and it is this act that we here and now intend and cannot not intend, and in choosing to do this specific act we are choosing to make ourselves to be killers. We may, of course, in order to express our compassion and mercy for our dying friend, choose to accompany him in his dying, to care for him in his dying. We may even choose to stop using procedures that are no longer obligatory and in this way "permit" or "allow" our friend to die his own death, but we do not choose to kill him or to make ourselves to be killers. In both instances our motives ("further intentions") may be the same, but the acts we freely choose to do (our "present intentions") are quite different sorts of acts.

The same is true with respect to contraceptive intercourse and periodic abstinence during fertile times as acts freely chosen in order to be responsive to spousal and parental obligations. At this point I am not interested in analyzing the moral meaning of these acts of choice (this will occupy us in subsequent sections), but simply in showing that there is a real difference between the choice to contracept and the choice to abstain periodically from marital relations as a means of attaining the goal of responsible parenthood (the further intention or motive).

From this it should be quite clear that the first assertion made by those who seek to show the moral equivalence of contraception and periodic abstinence is fallacious and misleading. What of the second assertion, namely, that the two ways of exercising responsible parenthood are morally the same because both have the same results, i.e. the avoidance of pregnancy?

This claim too is fallacious; moreover, it indicates the consequentialistic, ends justify-the-means mentality of the proponents of contraception. Our acts indeed "get things done," that is, have results or consequences, but the moral meaning or intelligibility of our acts is not determined by their consequences. For in addition to getting things done, our acts "get things said," and what they have to say is of paramount moral significance.10 We can get the same thing done through quite different actions, and while the thing done may be very good the action through which it is done may be very bad. It was, for instance, good to bring an end to the Second World War. Yet the choice to end this war by devastating the cities and populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not a good choice, and the acts of devastating them were not morally good acts.

Human beings, as Eric D'Arcy has noted,11 have a propensity to redescribe their actions in terms of their intended consequences or results. Thus advocates of contraception, in particular Roman Catholic theologians who dissent from the teaching of the Church, like to "redescribe," as Richard A. McCormick, S.J., does, the act, of contraception as a "marriage-saving or stabilizing act."12 Now, while it may, at times, be quite truthful to describe an act in terms of its results (for instance, it's quite truthful to say that Macbeth killed Duncan instead of saying that Macbeth stabbed Duncan and as a result Duncan died), it is not always truthful to do this. And when we redescribe an act in such a way that we fail to reveal or even conceal the nature of the activity in question, then we are simply being dishonest. I suggest that the effort to describe the act that contracepting couples choose to do as a "marriage-saving or stabilizing act" is quite disingenuous, for in saying this one conceals from the mind "what it is" that the couple is choosing to do (intention in the first sense).

That there is a real difference between contraceptive intercourse and periodic abstinence is demonstrable. In contraceptive intercourse there is a double-barrelled choice: one chooses (a) to have sexual intercourse, the sort of action known to be "open to the transmission of life" and (b) to make this action to be closed to the transmission of life, i.e., to set aside or destroy its procreative character. Choice (b) is what makes the intercourse contraceptive; it is the choice to do something which, as Pope Paul VI put it, "either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible."13 This is what the contraceptor chooses to do. This is what the contraceptor's "intention," in the sense of the "present intention" to do "this," bears on, no matter what his or her "further intentions" may be.

Spouses who choose to exercise their responsibilities through the practice of periodic continence choose to do quite different deeds; they execute entirely different choices. They choose, first of all, "not" to have conjugal relations when there is some probability that conception will result. They obviously choose to do this not because they regard conjugal relations as wrong. Quite to the contrary, they recognize that the marital act is a great good, worthy of human love and respect, for this act is meant to be the expression of the love they bear for each other. Nor do they choose to refrain from this act because they consider conception as an evil; rather it too is a great good, but it is a great good that one can rightly respect and love only when the life conceived can be properly educated and cared for. They thus choose to forego the good of marital relations here and now because they recognize that it would be irresponsible to cause a pregnancy at this time. They likewise choose to forego marital relations here and now because they are unwilling to choose to engage in the marital act, the act "open to the transmission of human life," and to make it closed to this good. They are unwilling, in other words, to contracept, to act in an anti-procreative way. They refuse to regard their fertility as a disease or curse that they must get rid of.

From the above it should be evident that different sorts of "intentions" are manifested in acts of contraceptive intercourse and in periodic abstinence. Contracepting couples and spouses who seek to regulate conception through periodic abstinence execute different sorts of choices. The difference between their ways of acting are not, as Charles E. Curran and others endlessly assert,14 rooted in the "physical structure' of the acts chosen but rather in the human intentions and choices that are executed. Why the one sort of intention and choice (the contraceptive choice) is morally wicked and why the other (the choice to abstain periodically) is not will occupy us in later sections of this chapter. But I believe that it should now be clear why the allegation of advocates of contraception that the two sorts of acts are morally equivalent is fallacious.

Yet before turning to an examination of the morally evil character of contraceptive intercourse, I think it worthwhile to dispose of another argument employed by some, for instance, Louis Janssens and Michael Novak,15 to equate periodic abstinence with contraception.

This argument alleges that spouses employing periodic abstinence are placing a "temporal" barrier between sperm and egg, in contradistinction to those who place "spatial" barriers between sperm and ovum by use of condoms and diaphragms or "chemical" barriers by use of pills and spermicidal jellies. While the kinds of barriers erected may differ, so this argument holds, the actions are morally equivalent insofar as they entail the choice to erect barriers between sperm and ovum.

This argument is utterly fallacious. First of all, it does not take experience seriously, and secondly it ignores the distinction between what is directly willed or intended and what is not directly willed or intended. It does not take experience seriously because it is an entirely inadequate and misleading description of what spouses who regulate conception by abstaining from marital relations are doing. If one were to tell them that "what" they are choosing to do is to place a spatial barrier between sperm and ovum, they would be quite astounded. For what they are choosing to do, as we have already seen, is something quite different. They are choosing, for legitimate reasons, to abstain from the marital act during fertile times, and they then choose to engage in this act, to which they surely have a right, during infertile times. They are not executing a choice to erect any barriers, temporal, spatial, or chemical.

This argument also fails to recognize the morally significant difference between what is directly willed and intended and what is not. Contraceptive intercourse involving the placing of "spatial" or "chemical" barriers between sperm and ovum--and I think that this is, once again, a "redescription" of the deed chosen in terms of consequences--of necessity includes the choice (intent) that this act of intercourse be closed to the transmission of human life, that it be anti- and not merely non- procreative. We have already seen this in analyzing the nature of the contraceptive choice. The direct intention of persons who regulate conception by periodic abstinence is precisely the intent not to have sexual relations and not to contracept; it is precisely the intent to "abstain" from coition rather than make coition anti-procreative. Any alleged "temporal" barrier between sperm and ovum is definitely not directly willed or intended by them.

In the foregoing pages I have tried to show that there is a real difference in the sorts of human choices executed and acts intended ,by those who practice contraception and those who practice periodic continence. Theologians who advocate contraception insist, and rightly so, that it is imperative to take seriously the experience of people in assessing the moral character of human acts.16 Their problem is that they fail to take seriously--or rather caricature--the experience of married couples who seek to express their love and respect for one another and for their personal, sexual power of procreation (which advocates of contraception depersonalize to the level of a "reproductive function."17) by refusing, through the choice to contracept, to rid themselves of it and regard it as here and now not a blessing but a curse, not a good but a disease.


Contraceptive intercourse, as we have seen, of necessity requires the twofold choice (a) to engage in sexual intercourse, an act known to be the sort of kind of act "open," as Pope Paul VI put it, "to the transmission of human life,"18 and (b) to make this act to be another sort or kind of act, one "closed" to the transmission of human life; and it is choice (b) that makes the act to be contra-ceptive, anti-procreative. And it is choice (b) that is, as we shall see more clearly as we proceed, morally wicked. Anscombe has put the matter quite succinctly by saying

"contraceptive intercourse is faulted, not on account of this further 'intention' [to avoid a pregnancy for legitimate reasons], but because of the kind of intentional act you are doing. The action is not left by you as the kind of act by which human life is transmitted, but is purposely [i.e. intentionally] rendered infertile, and so changed to another sort of act altogether."19

In this passage Anscombe does not give the reasons why the choice to make the act open to the transmission of human life to be an act opposed to its transmission is an immoral choice. This is a matter that will be made clear below. Yet it is important to recall here a truth that I sought to develop in Chapter 4 ("Conjugal Love"), where I argued that the "marital act" is one open to the goods of marriage, to the goods of marital faith and love and of children and that the choice to repudiate, in this act, any of these marital goods makes the act not to be the "marital act" but rather simply a sexual act between spouses.

I think it important, prior to setting forth the reasons, grounded in human intelligence and central to the teaching of the Church, behind the judgment that contraceptive intercourse is inherently wicked, first to comment on the defective moral reasoning employed by those who defend contraception. In my judgment there are two serious errors that the defenders of contraception make in their analyses, and both errors are integrally associated with their proportionalistic, consequentialistic mode of moral reasoning.20 These two errors are "extrinsicism" and "dualism."

In analyzing the principal reasons why many advocates of contraception allege the moral equivalence of this way of acting and periodic continence, we have already noted the consequentialistic characteristics of their reasoning. They confuse the two senses of intention and they seek to "redescribe" the choice to contracept in terms of the further intention accompanying the intention to do this, i.e. to contracept. Thus McCormick "redescribes" the act of contraception chosen by married persons as a "marriage-saving or marriage-stabilizing act"21 (surely something good), and the Sulpician moralist Philip S. Keane would seem to "redescribe" the choice of non-married sexual partners, particularly teenagers, as "preventing an-irresponsible-pregnancy"22 (again, surely something good). This move to redescribe actions in terms of hoped-for results is, as we have seen, a typical consequentialist ploy.

It is also, I submit, a form of "extrinsicism" in ethics. Those who argue that a human act is morally good if the act chosen is the one that will realize the greater proportion of good over evil--and this is the key claim of proportionalists/consequentialists23--claim that no human acts, described in nonmoral terms, are intrinsically wicked in a "moral" sense.24 The act is morally good or morally wicked, they assert, on the basis of the "proportionate good" for the sake of which the act is chosen, and this proportionate good is itself the "further" intention (e.g., in contraception, "saving" the marriage or "preventing" an irresponsible pregnancy) accompanying the intention here and now to do "this" (e.g., in contraception, to contracept). The proportionate good, in other words, is "extrinsic" to the act one is presently choosing to do. I submit that the proportionalist/consequentialist, by making the good one hopes to achieve as a result of choosing to do this specific act the morally decisive factor, eviscerates our choices and acts of their intelligibility. He is interested in what our acts "get done" and ignores what they have to say.

When I first raised this criticism against the proportionalist/consequentialist mode of moral reasoning, one of its leading proponents, Richard A. McCormick, author of the exceptionally influential "Notes on Moral Theology" that appear annually in the prestigious journal Theological Studies, reacted by asserting that "it no longer serves the purpose of constructive moral discourse to argue" in this way.25 I believe that his response simply fails to answer the criticism. McCormick himself had written, and it was partially on the basis of what he had written (and never subsequently retracted) that the criticism of extrinsicism was raised, that "it is the presence or absence of a proportionate reasons," i.e., of the "further" good to which the present act is ordered, a good "further" intended by the one "now intending" this act, "which determines whether my [present] action" is morally good or evil.26 Thus to claim that the mode of moral reasoning advocated by McCormick and other champions of contraception entails a form of extrinsicism does not, in my opinion, destroy the purposes of constructive moral discourse. It is simply to take the position seriously as it is presented by its advocates. If it is not a form of extrinsicism to redescribe the contraceptive act as a "marriage-saving or stabilizing act" or as a "preventing-an-irresponsible-pregnancy act," then it is not a form of extrinsicism to describe the act of devastating Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a "war-ending act."

The arguments used to justify contraception are, moreover, rooted in a dualistic understanding of the human person. Proportionalists hold that it is necessary to arrange the various goods of the human person into a hierarchy, to "commensurate" them, and, in cases of conflict (such as the conflict experienced by married persons in carrying out their responsibilities) to choose that alternative way of acting that will serve the "higher" good. The consequentialists contend that the unitive good of marital intercourse is "higher' than the procreative good, and that the latter, too, is served by the choice to contracept in the marriage as a whole.27 The difficulty with this aspect of proportionalistic/consequentialistic reasoning is that it requires us to "commensurate" diverse kinds of human goods. As Germain G. Grisez, John Finnis, and others have noted, it is simply impossible to carry out this commensuration in the way the proportionalists require, simply because the goods in question are incommensurable. To commensurate the good of procreation with the good of friendship, for example, is like trying to compare the length of a rainbow with the number of pages in this book. One could do this only if one could reduce the things to be compared to a common denominator, and there is simply no common denominator to which basic human goods like life or friendship can be reduced.23

McCormick, in fact, has now admitted that it is not possible to compare the different goods of human persons. Yet after admitting this, McCormick continues to affirm that nonetheless, "in fear and trembling, we commensurate." In affirming this, however, he really admits that the proportionalism he advocates is in fact incapable of doing the job for which it was designed. It was intended as a moral method for determining, prior to choice, by intelligent judgments, which alternative courses of action are right and wrong.

Yet he now admits, by saying that "we adopt a hierarchy," that basic choices or commitments "precede" our judgments. What the consequentialist/proportionalist does, in short, is to state his preferences. And it is here that the dualism of this position, with respect to contraception, is made manifest. For, as I have said, the consequentialist/proportionalist considers the "procreative" dimension of our sexuality to be measurably inferior to its "unitive" dimension. It is now necessary to substantiate this charge.

Contraceptive intercourse, as we have seen, is contra-ceptive because it necessarily includes the choice to set aside or destroy the openness of the act of sexual union to the good of transmitting life. The person who chooses to have intercourse contraceptively is saying that it is not good that this act is open to life, that it is not good that he or she is fertile. Rather the contraceptor is saying that his or her procreative power, his or her fertility is, here and now, not something good, but to the contrary a disvalue or disease or evil. He or she is saying that fertility is not a wonderfully good power of the human person, something participating in the goodness of the human person. It may be a useful good, or "bonum utile," something good for something other than itself, a "functional" good that can and indeed ought to be destroyed when it comes into conflict with what is really humanly and personally good, namely the unitive good of human sexuality.

Those who advocate contraception recognize that this is so. The so called "Majority Report" of the papal commission on the regulation of natality, which sums up practically all the arguments ever given to justify contraception, makes this abundantly clear. For it is evident that the authors of this report consider the procreative power of the human person "merely" a biological good, a "bonum utile," not a personal good, a "bonum honestum" or "personale." They regard it as a "subpersonal" or "subhuman" aspect of the human person that "becomes" personally and humanly good "only" when it is assumed into consciousness and made the object of personal choice.30 To regard the procreative dimension of our sexuality as of itself merely biological, is, I submit a form of dualism, a dualism that eventually leads to the position that some "living human bodies" are not persons e.g., the unborn child, the comatose dying individual). This dualist is blatant in one prominent Catholic advocate of contraception, Daniel C. Maguire, who claims that contraception was also, for a very long time, impeded by the physicalistic ethic that left moral man at the mercy of his biology. He had no choice but to conform to the rhythms of his physical nature and to accept its determinations obediently. Only gradually did technological man discover that he was morally free to intervene and to achieve birth control by choice."

To put it briefly, those who accept contraception recognize that it requires an anti-procreative choice, the choice to set aside or get rid of or destroy fertility and the openness of the act of coition to the good of transmitting human life. Yet they argue that this choice is morally good "because" the procreative aspect of our sexuality is not, for them, a personal good but rather a merely functional good dependent for its "human, personal" goodness on other aspects of the human person.32

It is ironic that the advocates of contraception, whose thought is quite dualistic, accuse Pope Paul VI, in his reaffirmation of the Church's judgment that contraception is intrinsically immoral, of "physicalism." They claim, as evident from the citation from Maguire, that this Church teaching makes "moral man" the puppet or slave of his "biology."33 The truth is that the advocates of contraception are guilty of physicalism, for they reduce the human body and the human, personal power of giving life to a new person to mere material instruments meant to serve consciously experienced goods, which for them are the "higher" goods of human existence.34

The Church and human intelligence both insist that the human body, bodily life, and the procreative dimension of our sexuality are "personal" goods, goods of the human person, not goods for the human person. Human intelligence insists on this, as Hans Jonas has eloquently stated in his reflections on the views of those who would reduce personhood to cerebral consciousness:

"My identity is the identity of the whole organism, even if the higher functions of personhood are seated in the brain. How else could a man love a woman and not merely her brains? How else could we lose ourselves in the aspect of a face? Be touched by the delicacy of a frame? It's this person's and no one else's. Therefore, the body of the comatose, so long as . . . it still breathes, pulses, and functions otherwise, must still be considered a . . . continuance of the subject that loved and was loved, and as such is still entitled to . . . the sacrosanctity accorded to such a subject by the laws of God and man."35

The Church insists on this, for the Church teaches that God's eternal Word took on human flesh, and the Risen Lord, bodily resurrected, is the first fruits of the dead, and that we, made to be His brothers and sisters in baptism, will rise from the dead and be, with Him, risen living bodies.

The personal goodness of the human body and, in particular, of human fertility, is a theme that runs throughout the writings of Pope John Paul II on human existence, sexuality, and marriage.36 He teaches us, and teaches truly, that our fertility, far from being a mere biological function, is an integral aspect of the "nuptial meaning' of our bodies, the living human bodies that are made in the image and likeness of God and are in truth gifts from our loving Father.37

The choice to contracept, therefore, is a morally wrong choice because it is the choice to set aside or destroy something that is really good, namely our own fertility and the openness of the act of sexual union to the great good of transmitting human life.38 It is just as wrong to set aside this good as it is to set aside the good of friendship in the act of sexual union, a point that Pope Paul VI makes quite effective in his perceptive account of the meaning of marital life and of the marital act.39

For Christians, there is yet another reason why spouses ought not to contracept. As Pope John Paul II has noted, the choice on the part of married couples to contracept entails a falsification of the "language" of marital intercourse:

"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."40

The marital act, which ought to participate in and renew the marriage itself, is made to be non-marital insofar as the spouses hold back something of themselves.

Contraceptive intercourse is, in short, an instrumentalist or pragmatic devaluing of the great human good of fertility and of openness to the goodness of human life in its transmission. It is thus an anti-life sort of act, one incompatible with a love for all that is good and with a love for human life itself.

In concluding this section of this chapter I wish to make some observations on the type of thinking reflected in the quote from Robert Hoyt cited at the beginning of the chapter. Hoyt claimed (and in doing so expressed a very widespread view) that "contraception doesn't seem to hurt anyone and it helps solve some serious problems." I believe that the thinking represented by Hoyt is utterly superficial.

People cannot contracept simply by taking thought. In order to contracept they must choose to do something. Some, in choosing to contracept, choose to employ IUD's or pills. It is now clear that IUD's definitely achieve their goal, birth prevention, not by inhibiting conception but by preventing the implantation of human life already conceived with the womb of the mother.41 They are thus abortifacient in character, and they surely bring harm to the child conceived. In addition, they frequently cause terrible harm to the women in whom they are implanted. The pills currently used in the United States prevent births in a threefold way. First they inhibit ovulation. Yet, since ovulation may occur, they seek to block conception by rendering the mucus of the woman spermicidal. But, since so many sperm are released, the pills are also designed to change the endometrium of the uterus so that human life already conceived cannot be implanted.42 Thus the pill too may work by causing abortion, and this is something that cannot be ignored. And the pills hurt not only unborn human life but the women who take them. It thus seems to me that a husband has little love for his wife if he requires or permits her to take pills or have IUD's inserted. His love, it seems to me, is focused more on what he can get from her than on what he can give her.

With respect to condoms and diaphragms, it is strange that persons who are seeking to love each other should employ them. Does one put on gloves when one wishes to touch a beloved? One does not, unless one is afraid that a disease may be communicated. And this is the problem, for it shows that contraceptors regard their fertility as a disease, something that it surely is not.

Since contraceptive practices place burdens on women that they do not place on men, it is not surprising that the practice of divorce has increased along with the practice of contraception.43 And surely people "get hurt" in divorce. The list of ills that follow the choice to contracept could be continued, but enough has been noted here to show the utter superficiality of Hoyt and those who, like him, opine that contraception "doesn't seem to hurt anyone."


We have already seen that there is a real difference between contraceptive intercourse and periodic abstinence from intercourse as a means of regulating conception. We have also seen why contraceptive intercourse is intrinsically evil. And we have also seen that it is possible for persons to abuse fertility awareness and to avoid children by misusing periodic continence. But it is now necessary to show that the choice to abstain from the marital act at fertile times can be morally good.

It ought to be evident that there is nothing inherently wrong in the choice either to abstain from the marital act for morally good reasons or to engage in this act during infertile times. Yet it may be helpful to explain why this is so. I take it for granted that it is "morally" wrong for spouses to practice periodic continence for base purposes (here their further intentions vitiate their "present" intentions to restrict the marital act to infertile times).

It is surely not wrong to abstain from the marital act for morally good reasons. One good reason to abstain from this act is the recognition that it would not be responsible, here and now, for a pregnancy to take place, and there are various reasons why a pregnancy, which of itself is something good, is not advisable here and now: the financial condition of the family, the health of the mother, etc., etc. Of course, were one to abstain from this act because one considers it something vile or dirty, something to be "used" only for the generation of children or the avoidance of fornication, then the choice to abstain would be immorally motivated. And the same is true, as we have seen, if the choice to abstain is motivated by the desire (the "further" intention, again) to reject the good of children. Yet it is surely the case that many spouses who choose to abstain periodically from the marital act do so not because of these base further intentions or reasons but for morally good purposes.

Nor is there anything morally wrong in the choice of spouses to engage in the marital act during infertile times. The marital act, as the Church teaches and as theologians have recognized since the time of the great medieval thinkers, 44 is good not only because it is open to the transmission of life but also because it is an expression of marital love. In choosing to have marital relations during the infertile times spouses in no way reject or repudiate the procreative good of human sexuality and of marriage. They do not choose to make their act anti-procreative; they do not choose to close it to the goodness of human life in its transmission. It is true that they are being non-procreative because they are not pursuing the good of procreation here and now, but they are not being anti- procreative. They let the marital act "be" marital, open to both love and life, and refuse to make it, by "their choices," to be anti-life.

Here it is important to note, I believe, that whenever a man, who is continuously fertile from puberty until death, and a woman join in coition, there is the possibility that life may be conceived, for the sort of act they choose is the sort of act that is open to the transmission. It is thus possible that spouses who choose to regulate conception by practicing periodic continence may conceive a child. While it is true that natural family planning methods are just as effective in regulating conception as the anti-life contraceptive methods are,45 there is always the possibility of a method or user "failure." There will be what contraceptionists call "unplanned" or "unwanted" pregnancies, but what in truth should be recognized (and are recognized, by those who practice periodic abstinence in a morally upright way) as "surprise" pregnancies. Even though this possibility may be low, it is still present, and any spouses who use properly their fertility awareness as a way of meeting spousal and parental responsibilities must realize this.

It is, in fact, the case that those who use periodic abstinence in a morally upright way employ it not only for avoiding a pregnancy when there is good reason but also for achieving a pregnancy. Natural family planning (or the use of periodic abstinence) is, after all, family planning: it is predicated upon a respect for the goodness of human fertility, on a love for life and the openness of the marital act to the good of human life in its transmission. It is not the same as planned unparenthood.

From all this it ought to be clear that the choice to regulate conception by periodically abstaining from the great good of marital intercourse for morally good reasons, coupled with the choice to engage in this great good during infertile times, can in no way be inherently or intrinsically wicked. It may be abused and made wicked because of "further" intentions, but for morally upright spouses who respect the nuptial meaning of their bodies and the great good of procreation it can be a rightful way of exercising both spousal and parental responsibilities. The discipline and personal love that it requires, unlike the undisciplined and pleasure- loving practice of contraception, will enable spouses to grow in their love for each other and to realize that there is a time to embrace and a time to express love in non-coital ways.

The moral issues at stake in this chapter are of tremendous significance to the human and Christian community. The arguments used to justify contraceptive intercourse are precisely the same sorts of arguments used to justify premarital, extramarital, and homosexual intercourse,46 something that the more perceptive champions of marital contraception have themselves recognized.47

The Catholic Church has consistently held that contraception is inherently wrong, despite enormous pressures to change this teaching. The courage of the magisterium in resisting these pressures, reflected perhaps most nobly by Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, something for which we ought to be grateful, for at stake is the meaning of human sexuality, of marriage, and of the human person. The human person is inescapably and essentially a body person. Our body, with its sexuality and procreative power, is inherently personal, and contraceptive intercourse is an attack on the inherent goodness of the integral human person.

It is true that the need to abstain from the marital act in order to meet spousal and parental responsibilities and in order to avoid the rejection of the procreative good brings with it "problems" for married persons. Yet it is, I believe, better to say that it brings to them a great opportunity to deepen their love for one another and for the God who gave them the great gift of sexuality, who gifted them with the "nuptial meaning" of the body. It challenges them to put first things first and to shape their lives according to the loving requirements of God's reign.


1. Robert Hoyt, in "The Birth Control Debate," ed. Robert Hoyt (Kansas City: National Catholic Reporter, 1969), p. 11.

2. For example, Anthony Kosnik, a al., in their "Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought" (New York: Paulist Press, 1977) classify "abstinence" as a "contraceptive method." See pp. 114, 292-295.

3. James Burtchaell, "'Human Life' and Human Love," originally published in Commonweal, Nov. 15, 1968; reprinted in Paul Jersild and Dale Johnson, eds., "Moral Issues and Christian Response" (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 139-140.

4. See Bernard Haring, "Ethics of Manipulation" (New York: Seabury 1975), pp. 92-96. He explicitly terms "rhythm" a method of contraception.

5. Louis Janssens, "Morale conjugale et progestogenes," "Ephemendes Theologicae Lovanienses" 39 (October-December, 1963) 809-824.

6. In addition to the authors already noted, see Michael Novak, "Frequent, Even Daily Communion," in Daniel Callahan, ed., "The Catholic Case for Contraception" (New York: Macmillan, 1969), pp. 92-102, especially pp. 94- 95.

7. See the essays by James Finn, Michael Novak, William Birmingham, Sally Sullivan, and Mary Louise Birmingham in William Birmingham, ed., "What Modern Catholics Think About Birth Control" (New York: Signet, 1964).

8. Elisabeth Anscombe, "Contraception and Chastity" (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1977), pp. 17-18.

9. On the difference between meaning well and speaking well through one's choices and actions see James O'Reilly, "The Morality of Contraception" (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1975), p. 17. O'Reilly's short booklet is an unusually clear and perceptive work.

10. On the importance of human acts as revelatory of our being see Herbert McCabe, "What is Ethics All About?" (Washington: Corpus Books, 1969), pp. 92-101; also my own "Becoming Human: An Invitation to Christian Ethics" (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1975), Chapter Four.

11. Eric D'Arcy, "Human Acts: An Essay on their Moral Evaluation" (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 1-39; also Paul Ramsey, "Deeds and Rules in Christian Ethics" (New York: Scribner's, 1967), pp. 193 ff.

12. Richard A. McCormick, "Commentary on the Commentaries," in Richard A. McCormick and Paul Ramsey, eds., "Doing Evil to Achieve Good" (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1978), p. 241. Here McCormick is actually speaking about contraceptive sterilization, but his description of contraceptive sterilization would seem also to be his description of contraception as such. See, for instance, the way he describes contraception by married persons in his "How Brave a New World? Dilemmas in Bioethics" (New York: Doubleday, 1981), pp. 426-428.

13. Pope Paul VI, "Humanae vitae," n. 14.

14 Charles E. Curran first levelled this charge against the teaching of the Church on contraception in his 1969 essay, "Natural Law and Contemporary Moral Theology" in the work he edited, "Contraception, Authority, and Dissent" (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), pp. 151-175. He has continued to make the same charge, despite the many significant rebuttals to it by others (e.g., Anscombe), throughout the years. He makes it most recently in his "Moral Theology: The Continuing Journey (Notre Dame, In.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 144.

15. This is the argument advanced by, among others, Novak in his essay "Frequent, Even Daily Communion."

16. Haring, for one, stresses the need to take experience seriously in many of his writings. See in particular his essay, "The Inseparability of the UnitiveProcreative Functions of the Marital Act," in Charles Curran, ed. "Contraception: Authority and Dissent," pp. 176-192. But note the title of Haring's essay. Instead of speaking of the unitive and procreative meanings or aspects of the marital act he calls them functions. For Curran's insistence on the need to take experience seriously into account see his essay "Divorce from the Perspective of Moral Theology" in his "Ongoing Revision" (South Bend: Fides, 1975).

17. This is, for instance, Curran's usual language. See the essays already noted. It is likewise the way Daniel C. Maguire speaks of our power to give life. For this see the citation from Maguire later in this chapter (cf. note 31, below).

18. Pope Paul VI, "Humanae Vitae," n. 11.

19. Anscombe, "Contraception and Chastity," p. 18.

20. Recently Catholic moralists who espouse the position that one can willingly choose to do evil to achieve good have sought to liberate themselves from the label "consequentialists." See, for instance, the following essays: Lisa Sowle Cahill, "Teleology, Utilitarianism, and Christian Ethics," "Theological Studies" 42 (1981) 601-629; McCormick, "Notes on Moral Theology," "Theological Studies" 54 (1982) 69-124g, at 82- 91 (in responding to criticisms made by John R. Connery, S.J.), and Philip S. Keane, "The Objective Moral Order: Reflections on Recent Research "Theological Studies" 43 (1982) 260-278, especially pp. 267-268, 270. They do not like the label "consequentialist" because it has connotations of utilitarianism, and they do not wish to be regarded as utilitarians. There are surely differences between the Catholic proponents of "proportionalism" and utilitarians. The Catholic advocates of this way of making moral judgments do not consider consequences the sole factor in determining the morality of human acts, as utilitarians do, nor do they accept the hedonistic calculus of classical utilitarianism. Yet they definitely hold that "proportionate reason" is the "decisive criterion" of the moral goodness or evilness of our actions (see Keane, p. 268), and this proportionate reason is identified with the good for whose sake one wills this evil. That is, it is identified with the good that one has as one's further intention in choosing to this deed that one presently intends.

21. See note 12, above.

22. Keane, "Sexual Morality: A Catholic Perspective" (New York: Paulist Press, 1977)

23. I take this as a fair way of summarizing the description of "proportionate reason" given by McCormick in his "Ambiguity in Moral Choice" (Milwaukee: Marquette University Theology Department, 1973); reprinted as the first chapter of "Doing Evil to Achieve Good" (see pp. 45- 50 in the latter volume). Keane, "The Objective Moral Order" (p. 274, note 42, holds that this is an accurate presentation of the basic idea of proportionalism.

24. Recently McCormick (e.g., in his essay, "Commentary on the Commentaries" in "Doing Evil to Achieve Good" and Keane ("The Objective Moral Order," p. 269) speak of intrinsically disproportionate acts and intrinsically evil acts respectively. What they mean is that if the description of the act includes as a built-in goal one that makes the choice to do the evil disproportionate, then the act in question is intrinsically disproportionate or inherently evil. For instance, they would agree that it is always wrong to choose to kill an innocent human person in order to placate a terrorist or to kill an unborn child in order to be free to travel to Spain. They would grant that such choices/actions can never be justified. Yet they deny that the proposition, it is always immoral to kill an innocent human person, is universally true. It is almost always true, they would grant, but for them it would be morally good to do if by doing so one could realize a proportionately higher good. They would similarly grant that it is always immoral to contracept in order to be free of the burden of a child, but they would not grant that it is always immoral to contracept. It all depends. If contracepting, in their assessment of proportionality, would be "marriage-saving or stabilizing," then it would be morally good. In short, all they are now admitting is that actions described in moral terms or in terms that embody some moral assessments may well be regarded as intrinsically wicked or disproportionate. This in no way changes their stance that actions described in non-moral terms cannot be so characterized. Cahill ("Teleology, Utilitariansim, and Christian," p. 615) even suggests that "innocent," may be a "value" term. I do not believe that it is.

251 first raised this objection in an earlier version of this essay, which appeared in "Faith and Reason" 3 (1977). I developed it in my "Modern Catholic Ethics: The New Situationism," "Faith and Reason" 4.2 (1978) 21-38 and again in "The Moral Meaning of Human Acts," "Homiletic and Pastoral Review" 79 (October, 1979) 310-327. McCormick offered his rejoinder, cited in the text in his "Notes on Moral Theology," "Theological Studies" 39 (1978) 101-102.

26. McCormick "Ambiguity in Moral Choice," in "Doing Evil to Achieve Good," p. 29 (it is on p. 53 of "Ambiguity in Moral Choice" as published by Marquette University Theology Department).

27. This is substantively the argument set forth in the paper popularly known as the "Majority Report" of the papal commission on natality. It is most clearly developed in the paper entitled "The Question Is Not Closed" and found in Hoyt, ed., "The Birth Control Debate."

28. Germain G. Grisez, "Against Consequentialism" "American Journal of Jurisprudence" 23 (1978) 21 -72; Grisez, with Joseph M. Boyle, in their "Life and Death With Liberty and Justice: A Contribution to the Euthanasia Debate" (Notre Dame, In.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978) pp. 346- 354; John Finnis, "Natural Law and Natural Rights" (Oxford: Clarendon Law Series; Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 111 - 118.

29. McCormick "Commentary on the Commentaries," in "Doing Evil to Achieve Good," p. 227.

30. See the "Majority Report," "The Question is Not Closed," in "The Birth Control Debate," pp. 70-71. The "Report" verbally affirms the unity of the person at the beginning of paragraph 3 (p. 70 of Hoyt), but succeeds in contradicting this affirmation in the course of paragraphs 3 and 4. For a more detailed critique of this "Report" see my "Sex, Love and Procreation" (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1976).

31. Daniel C. Maguire, "The Freedom to Die," in "New Theology Number 10," ed. by Martin Marty and Dean Peerman (New York: Macmillan, 1973), p. 188 (Maguire's essay originally appeared in the August 11, 1972 issue of "Commonweal").

32. Here it is worth noting the very perceptive (and prophetic) observations concerning "situationism" made by Germain G. Grisez in his "Contraception and the Natural Law" (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1964), pp. 53-60.

33. In addition to Curran (see notes 14 and 17) and Maguire (note 21), see Mary Perkins Ryan and John Julian Ryan, "Have You Thought It Out All the Way?" in Daniel Callahan, ed. "The Catholic Case for Contraception," pp. 103-127, especially pp. 107-110. They contend that the Church's teaching on contraception is based on a Stoic contempt for material reality. They are egregiously wrong!

34. Here it may be useful to consult my observations about a separatist understanding of human sexuality in my "Sex, Marriage, and Chastity: Reflections of a Catholic Layman, Spouse. and Parent" (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1981,) Chapter One.

35. Hans Jonas, "Against the Stream," in his "Philosophical Essays" (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, 1974), p. 139.

36. On this see the marvelous article by Rev. Richard M. Hogan, "Theology of the Body," "Fidelity" 1.1 (December, 1981) 10-15, 24-27, in which he presents a marvelous synthesis of the teaching of Pope John Paul 11 in his Wednesday Addresses.

37. John Paul II, Address of January 9, 1980, "Nuptial Meaning of the Body," in "The Original Unity of Man and Woman" (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1981) pp. 106-112.

38. It is wrong to set this good aside, as it is to set any true goods of the human person aside. As St. Paul teaches, we are not to do evil so that good may come about (Rom 3.8).

39. Pope Paul VI, "Humanae Vitae," n. 13.

40. "Familiaris Consortio," n. 32.

41. See Thomas Hilgers, M.D. "An Evaluation of Intrauterine Devices," "International Review of Natural Family Planning" 2 (1978) 68-85 and "The Intrauterine Device: Contraceptive or Abortifacient?" "Marriage and Family Newsletter" 5 (Jan,-March, 1974) 3-24.

42. See Virginia Gagern, "The Pill and the IUD: Contraceptive or Abortifacient?" (Collegeville, Mn.: Human Life Center Pamphlet, 1978).

43. See K. D. Whitehead, "The 'Responsibility' Connection: Divorce, Contraception, Abortion, Euthanasia," in his "Agenda for the Sexual Revolution" (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1981), pp. 101-115.

44. See St. Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Theologiae," Tertia Pars, Supplement, q. 49, a. 4. Here I wish to correct an error in the earlier draft of this essay ("Faith and Reason" 3, 1977); there I mistakenly said that Aquinas and other medieval theologians, in company with St. Augustine, required a procreative intent for the marital act to be fully act. It is quite clear that Aquinas and other medieval theologians recognized that the marital act, undertaken either to pursue the good of procreation or to pursue the good of "fides" or love, is not only good but holy and meritorious. One could not, of course, be opposed to either of these marital goods. For excellent studies of the thought of Aquinas and other medieval theologians see Fabian Parmisano, "Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages," "New Blackfriars" 50 (1969) 599-608, 649-660, and Germain G. Grisez, "Marriage: Reflections Based on St. Thomas Aquinas and Vatican Council II," "The Catholic Mind" 64 (June, 1965) 4-19.

45. See Hannah Klaus, M.D., "Use Effectiveness and Analysis of Satisfaction Levels with the Billings Ovulation Method: Two Year Pilot Study," "Fertility and Sterility" 28 (1977) 1039.

46. See the arguments, for example, of Keane in his "Sexual Morality." He argues that the "ontic evil" of contraception is justified by the greater good (proportionate good) of the marriage as a whole, and similarly that the "ontic evil" of homosexual and premarital activity is justified by the "greater good" of a stable relationship and avoidance of promiscuous kinds of homosexual and premarital activity.

47. Curran clearly recognizes this in a remark that he makes in his essay on divorce, noted previously in note 16. He observed: "History has clearly shown that those who were afraid that a change in the teaching on contraception would lead to other changes were quite accurate" (pp. 77-78).