Contraception, What's Allowed?

Author: Fr. Augustine Mary

Contraception, What's Allowed?

Fr Augustine

Totus + Tuus Maria

(The following is Father's response to a question asked on EWTN Online Services about the licity of artificial contraception.)

Thank you for your question. There are certain moral norms which are exceptionless. Two of these are that contraception, properly understood and vasectomies may never allowed. It sounds as though you have been trained in proportionalism.

The following imaginary conversation between a priest and a lay person may be of some assistance.

------------------------------------------------------------------------ -------------------- What follows is a dialogue between Fr. Emmanuel Vita, a parish priest and Mr. Joseph Clemens, a Catholic physics teacher at a local university. Joe visits this priest because he wants to gain a better understanding of the Church's teaching on contraception.

Fr. Vita: Welcome Joe! Thanks for coming to talk.

The two sit down before a gently burning fire in the hearth of the rectory.

Joe: Thank you Father for taking time to see me.

Fr. Vita: You mentioned on the phone that you wanted to talk about your married life. Specifically you mentioned your desire to live a marital chastity, yet the issue of birth control is troubling you.

Joe: Yes, Father. Why does the Church forbid couples to exercise birth control?

Fr. Vita: Well, first of all, there is a difference between birth control and contraception. "Birth control" can be applied to several different practices. It can indicate anything from the observance of continence, to conjugal acts during a woman's infertile period, to the use of contraceptive devices such as condoms or the pill. In certain circumstances the Church permits the regulation of births, yet in every circumstance the Church forbids contraception.

Joe: The Church permits one to regulate births? I was told that couples are to have relations without interfering with the natural processes, generously accepting children as they come and depending on God's providence.

Fr. Vita: It is true that we should depend on God's providence; it is also true that married couples are called to be generous in raising their children without arbitrarily limiting their family size to one or two children because of a desire to maintain a certain ‘standard of living.' Yet, the Church teaches that the gift of self in conjugal union is a human act, which means that it involves the use of our reason. Paul VI teaches that "the Church is the first to praise and recommend the intervention of intelligence in a function which so closely associates the rational creature with His Creator; but she affirms that this must be done with respect for the order established by God."

Joe: What does "the order established by God" mean?

Fr. Vita: God has ordered marriage toward the procreation and education of children in the context of a faithful and permanent union between man and wife. Men and women abuse God's gift of sexuality and therefore themselves whenever they choose to act against the way God has ordered marriage.

Joe: When does the regulation of births not violate God's plan for marriage?

Fr. Vita: The Church offers the following general guidelines: "If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way to regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier."

Joe: Before we discuss further the moral principles which ground the difference between the lawful regulation of births and contraception, let me open up some of the practical questions that my wife and I are discussing. We have used condoms in the past, Father . . .

Joe looks at Father to test his response. Seeing a note of understanding and respect, Joe continues.

but they always seemed artificial, unnatural and disruptive. We switched to the pill which is much more natural and allows for a greater spontaneity in our love-making. Yet it is my understanding that the Church doesn't approve of the pill when it is used to regulate births. Why on the one hand does the Church say that women can use the pill for serious medical reasons but forbids it when it is used toward what I call a more ‘rational fecundity' which doesn't leave intelligent people at the mercy of biological processes?

Fr. Vita: Your last insight is good in the sense that sexual intercourse is not merely to be left to the instincts and urges of biology. "It is the prerogative of the human intellect to dominate the energies offered by irrational nature and to orient them towards an end conformable to the good of man."

In regard to your question as to why the pill is so bad if it is permitted by the Church to be used sometimes and at other times it is forbidden. The answer is that the pill is not intrinsically evil, of itself. It is made up of varying levels of the hormones called progestogens and estrogens. There is nothing evil about these hormones; God Himself created them! Yet He created them with a biological purpose of giving the female body the potential for fertility . . .

Joe: Do you mean to say that the obstruction of the biological processes which render a woman fertile is intrinsically wrong?

Fr. Vita: Knowing that a woman is fertile (generally speaking) only for about three to five days out of the month and that her fertility is naturally obstructed (e.g. by the sticky mucous produced by progesterone around the cervix) the other days of the month, I do not want to say that the mere fact of a woman's fertility being obstructed is intrinsically wrong. Otherwise God would be immoral for creating a cycle which includes infertile periods!

What I want to say is that a woman's cycle, on a biological level, is ordered toward fertility, toward the procreation of life. For example, the purpose the follicle stimulating hormone is to cause the maturation of an inchoate egg which is to be released into the fallopian tubes after ovulation. As the egg is maturing, the follicle which contains it releases estrogen which builds up the endometrium to prepare a home for the possible child that is conceived when the egg is fertilized. Furthermore, about day fourteen in a normal cycle, the luteinizing hormone causes ovulation, the egg is released into the fallopian tubes, the follicle where the egg had been is transformed (also by the luteinizing hormone) into the corpus luteum which then secretes progesterone which further prepares the endometrium to receive the child and also causes a change in the mucous around the cervix . . .

Joe: I can't believe a priest knows so much about a woman's cycle! Excuse me for interrupting, please continue. . .

Fr. Vita: . . . the mucous becomes thick, sticky, infertile; it will not allow sperm to pass through the uterus into the fallopian tubes where fertilization of the egg occurs. If fertilization does not occur the corpus luteum dies and therefore no longer secretes progesterone, the endometrium is no longer sustained by the progesterone; it is sloughed off, menstruation occurs, and a new, fresh release of the follicle stimulating hormone begins the cycle all over again. However, if fertilization did occur then the zygote floats down the fallopian tube, implants itself in the blood-rich endometrium with hair like roots; these roots (villi) just so happen to produce human chorionic gonadotropin which just so happens to keep the corpus luteum alive which just so happens to continue to secrete progesterone for the three months necessary before the placenta develops to the state where it can secrete a hormone to keep the endometrium intact so that they baby can grow and flourish.

My point is that a woman's biological cycle is ordered marvelously, wondrously toward life. Yet, this cycle is not merely a biological phenomena; it is part of who the woman is. The human person does not ‘have' a body. The human person "is an incarnate spirit: a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit"

Joe: How does all that relate to the pill?

Fr. Vita: One must let one's mind to be influenced by God's thoughts which are high above ours. The Psalmist has something to tell us about appreciating the beauty and splendor of the means God has set up for the transmission of life: "Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother's womb. I give you thanks that I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are your works" (Ps. 139:14).

When one approaches the cycle of a woman's body from the standpoint that God made it and has made it for a purpose, one can then understand the relation of the pill to this cycle.

To be blunt, a woman's cycle is ordered toward fertility, toward life. The pill, when used as an oral contraceptive, is ordered toward infertility, toward death. The pill (made up of estrogen and progestogen) is ordered toward infertility because it inhibits the release of the follicle stimulating hormone and stops the luteinizing hormone from triggering ovulation. The pill is ordered toward death because both estrogen and progestogen "change the endometrium in such a manner that even if ovulation did take place, implantation of the fertilized egg would be unsuccessful." In some cases, a child is conceived, and the pill acts as an abortifacient. This is the murder of an innocent!

Joe, who always considered abortion to be murder, was not aware that some contraceptives act as abortifacients. He also never really reflected on what Father Vita had been assuming in his discussion, that life began with conception. He knew from his pro-life aunt that this was the Church's teaching. He was stunned and his mind began to open to the fact that there is something seriously wrong with contraception. Father Vita had continued talking while Joe was pondering. Joe began listening again with greater attentiveness.

Fr. Vita: . . . you see Joe, contraception is wrong because it involves an act separate from the marriage act which directly contradicts what that marriage act is all about. Contraception means, ‘against conception.' It is an anti-life attitude; part of what marriage is all about is new life: children!

Joe: I can see what you're saying. But isn't the regulation of birth through natural family planning (sympto-thermal method) also directed against life?

Fr. Vita: It is true that natural family planning, if used with the intention of never having children can be used out of a selfish mentality. However, with this method the married couple always remains open to the transmission of life. Also, John Paul II explains this matter very well when he distinguishes between contraception and natural family planning properly used.

Fr. Vita gets up, walking past the fire to the bookcase where he finds Familiaris Consortio. He returns to his seat.

Fr. Vita: Joe, in this Apostolic Exhortation of our Holy Father, John Paul II comments on Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae noting how he excludes contraception on the basis of "an integral vision of man and his vocation." Part of what Paul VI meant by this integral vision was that the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act must remain integrated. This is what John Paul II says:

"When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings [the unitive and procreative] 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."

"When instead, by means of recourse to periods of infertility, the couple respects the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of human sexuality, they are acting as ‘ministers' of God's plan and they ‘benefit from' their sexuality according to the original dynamism of ‘total' self-giving, without manipulation or alteration (cf. Humanae Vitae, 13)."

John Paul II goes on to say that the difference between contraception and recourse to infertile periods involves a difference "which is much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one which involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality."

Also, natural family planning requires self-control and the practice of the virtue of chastity (in other words that the married couple act in a human way guided by reason, not enslaved to their passions). Paul VI teaches, "To dominate instinct by means of one's reason and free will undoubtedly requires ascetical practices, so that the affective manifestations of conjugal life may observe the correct order, in particular with regard to the observance of periodic continence. Yet this discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort, yet thanks to its beneficent influence husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one's partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love, and deepens their sense of responsibility. By its means, parents acquire the capacity of having a deeper and more efficacious influence on the education of their offspring" (Humanae Vitae, 21).

I must be honest with you Joe, Christian marriage is arduous and ultimately involves a real conformity to the cross of Jesus Christ. Yet even in this life we experience the fruits of joy, peace and an abundant love-filled life which comes from self-mastery and giving of oneself in love to others.

Well, I've given you a lot. Does any of it make sense?

Joe: I will have to think more about this. But it still seems to me that the pill is more natural and less artificial than a condom or diaphragm.

Fr. Vita: Yes, there is nothing physical to get in the way; there is no worry about the condom ripping or whether or not one used enough spermicide. So for you the pill allows for what you described earlier as a ‘greater spontaneity.' The pill may feel more natural, but, using nature in a different way, it is not at all natural in that it violates the nature of the marital act. What does your wife think of the pill?

Joe: Well, it's interesting that you mention that Father. Lately my wife has been wanting to get off the pill. She says that the only time she feels normal emotionally is when she is menstruating. She kept having her doctor switch her to different types of pills, but nothing seemed to help her. She has kept on it this long, she says, because it was more convenient than a condom or a diaphragm. Furthermore, she is becoming more aware of the probable side effects which are more than a little scary. They include nausea, bloating, vomiting, fluid retention, breast tenderness, headaches, increased blood pressure, thrombophlebitis, myocardial infarction and that's just the beginning. Some women have even died from using contraceptives!

Fr. Vita: Joe you are right to be concerned for both the emotional and physical health of your wife. But there is something even more crucial here, and that is your life of love, the spiritual health of your marriage. Contraceptives have ‘improved' as the understanding of the human body grows, but even if there were a contraceptive that was totally safe, it would still hurt both you and your wife.

I know you love your wife Joe. Do you know how love is defined? Josef Pieper described it in this way: Love is a fundamental YES to the existence of the beloved. Well, you know what contraception is? First of all it is a NO to your wife's fertility which is not something she has, but something she is [therefore contraception is a fundamental NO to your wife because of the intimate union between her body and her soul]. Secondly, contraception is a fundamental NO to the potential existence of the child. Therefore, this fundamental NO, inserted in the most intimate expression of conjugal love, contradicts the very nature of love [the YES to the existence of the other] and as such will inexorably erode the love between any husband and wife who practice contraception.

Joe looks at his watch and realizes that it is time to go. He mentions this to Father.

Joe: Well, I'll have to be going Father. I thank you very much for your time. I ask especially for your prayers.

Fr. Vita: You're welcome Joe. One last thing. You see this fire here?

Joe: Yes, I enjoy its warmth on a cold night like tonight.

Fr. Vita: Well, sexuality and marriage are like this fire and this hearth. Fire is powerful and because of this it can be dangerous. However, as long as it is contained within the proper limits of the fireplace, it brings warmth and light. However, if that fire somehow got outside of its proper limits, the house would begin to catch fire and that which illumined and warmed the house would become a source for its destruction. In the same way, sexuality, when it is practiced within the proper limits of marriage, which God instituted from the beginning, is a source of great charity and fruitfulness, even to the degree that it is an image of Christ's unfailing love for His bride the Church. All married men and women must be careful, however, that the fire of their sexuality, which has great potential for good, is not exercised outside of the rules and context of marriage that God has set up.

Joe: That's a good analogy Father.

Father Vita shows Joe to the door.

Joe: Have a good evening Father. I'll see you Sunday and maybe we can set up another time to talk. Until then, God bless!

Father Vita says the Hail Mary for Joe, entrusting him to the Virgin of Nazareth who gave birth to Jesus, He who is life itself (cf. John 1:4; 5:21,26; 8:12; 10:10; 11:25; 14:6).


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Haas, John M. Sexuality and Marriage (course taught at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary) 1993.

John Paul II. Familiaris Consortio. Washington D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1982.

Meagher, Paul; Aberne, Sister Consuelo. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion. Washington D.C.: Corpus Publications, 1979.

Paul VI. Humanae Vitae. Mass.: Daughters of St. Paul, 1968.

Pius XI. Casti Connubii in Papal Encyclicals, 1930.

Second Vatican Council. Gaudiem et Spes. New York: Costello Publishing Company, 1988.

Shapiro, Howard. The Birth Control Book, New York: Avon Books, 1977.

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