Birth Control and the Catholic Church
A Divisive Teaching in Need of Revision

This document is published to assist in the formation of conscience concerning matters pertaining to marital sexuality. Contributors are anonymous. Permission to reproduce this document is granted, however 50% of all net profits obtained from doing so are to be distributed in the service of the poor and the homeless.


Does the Pill Cause Abortions?
Duties of a Catholic to the Teachings on Birth Control.
A Short History of Catholic Teaching on Birth Control
Why the Pope Really Said "Nope"
Natural Law and Human Sexuality
Pope John Paul II and the "Language of Love"
Natural Family Planning and Artificial Contraception: Are They the Same?
Can the Present Teaching Be Changed?
Is Artificial Contraception a Mortal Sin?
Birth Control and Marital Chastity
Birth Control and Society
Summary and Conclusions
Recommendations and Contacts
Logical Fallacies of the Anti-ABC Critics

Links and References
Contact and Bibliographic Citation Information


"The ban on artificial birth control is total and absolute." Fr. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, The Catholic Answer, a best-selling Catholic magazine.

". . . (Fr. Richard McCormick maintains that) there are many Jesuits who do not accept the thesis that every contraceptive act is morally wrong. I can vouch for the fact that very many bishops share the same conviction. However, sadly enough, fewer and fewer are willing to say this publicly." Thomas J. Gumbleton, Auxilliary Bishop of Detroit, in America, November 20, 1993.

These two quotes reflect something of the tension and diversity of opinion among Catholics regarding the Church's teachings on birth control. Some, like Fr. Stravinskas, seem to regard artificial contraception as morally wrong in all circumstances. Others, like Bishop Gumbleton (and the many bishops and Jesuits to whom he alludes), question the very basis for considering artificial contraception to be immoral. The attitudes of priests and other ministers entrusted with providing moral guidance at the parish level also reflect this diversity. When asked about the morality of artificial birth control, some say that it is a mortal sin regardless of the circumstances of the couple. Others tell couples that they are to learn the Church's teachings and make up their own minds about what to do. In places where a freedom-of-conscience approach is lacking, no teacher is free to present guidelines for chastity in marriage outside of a context of Natural Family Planning.

The response of the laity (in the Western world, at least) has been mixed. The Natural Family Planning movement is stronger than ever, with salaried teachers in many dioceses. Nevertheless, over 80% of Catholic couples within the child-bearing years use some form of artificial contraception at some time to regulate the births of their children. These couples are often regular church-goers who do not seem especially concerned about living in mortal sin. What is interesting is that even though they have turned a deaf ear to the Church's teachings on birth control, a majority of these same people love Pope John Paul II and value his leadership (Associated Press Poll, 6/5/96). This split between Catholics' love of the Pope and their blatant disregard for his teachings on human sexuality is one of the most significant (and baffling) signs of the times within the Church.

The purpose of this website is to provide a forum for a cyberspace discussion on Catholic teachings regarding human sexuality. It's contributions are offered by several Catholic lay ministers and scholars (some of whom are married) from various educational institutions who choose to remain anonymous for various reasons. The space and webite management is generously donated by a person who does not necessarily agree with the information on this website, but who believes in the importance of an open discussion on these issues. Anyone who wishes to contribute an article, letter or testimonial (friendly or critical) may do so by sending an email to . All letters submitted shall be considered for publication unless the contributor requests otherwise (real names will be omitted).

Does the Birth Control Pill Cause Abortions?

We receive more inquiries (and confrontations) about this topic via email and on the Discussion Board than any other, and so it has become a topic which we feel needs to be addressed in this (newest) addition to the web site.

For the record, we hold, as the Church teaches, that life begins with conception, and so any contraceptive method which works by deliberately killing an embryo or fetus is to be considered taking a human life, and, hence, of a different moral order than preventing conception. Obviously, surgical abortion is not contraceptive, and neither is the Intra-uterine Device (IUD), which works by preventing implantation of the embryo in the uterus, resulting in its abortion.

A comprehensive report on this issue of whether one or more of the various kinds of birth control pills ought to be considered abortificent is in process and will be published on this web site soon. In the meantime, we recommend the excellent artcile by Walter L. Larimore, MD, DABFP, Associate Clinical Professor of Family Medicine, University of South Florida, which covers the various ethical issues raised in a highly nuanced manner. Click here to read his article.

This article on's web site is also worthy of consideration, although it does not provide the depth of reflection that Dr. Larimore's article manifests.

Our initial, preliminary conclusion is that combination pills (estrogen + progestin) with high levels of estrogen are most likely to prevent ovulation, while progestin-only pills (the so-called mini-pills and Norplant) are less likely to prevent ovulation, relying more on thickened cervical mucous to restrict sperm mobility, and through preventing implantation of any embryo that might be formed in an unprepared/unreceptive uterine lining. Taking birth control pills according to directions helps to reduce ovulation and, hence, the possibility of fertilization taking place. Even so, there is never 100% success in preventing ovulation, and so there is always a possibility that fertilization can occur and the embryo be aborted because the uterine lining could not support implantation and growth. Just how often this might happen seems impossible to predict. Whether this ought to be considered an abortion is also a debatable issue.

Those who have scruples in this area should definitely consider other contraceptive methods: Natural Family Planning, barrier methods (condom, diaphragm), or contraceptive foam, for example.

Duties of a Catholic to the Teaching on Birth Control

Disclaimer: this document represents the opinion of the contributors to this web site and our understanding of the duties of a Catholic to the moral teachings of the Church. If you have doubts about its "Catholicity," please print a copy of it and take it to your priest or bishop for a "second opinion."

Context: there are all kinds of teachings in the Catholic Church, and some are more important than others. The teaching of the Church which forbids artificial contraception is a moral teaching. It has not been proclaimed infallible by the Catholic Magisterium (teaching authority), but it has been reaffirmed several times during the last decades of the 20th Century.

The authors are much indebted to the web page by Albert Caprio, OP, on Conscience. All quoted material on this web page by Fr. Caprio shall be designated with the reference, A.C.

"Are all members of the Church obliged to obey all official moral teachings of the Church and to assume almost as a matter of course that their consciences are necessarily erroneous and not to be followed if they are in conflict with the Church's moral pronouncement?

"a. If after appropriate study, reflection and prayer, a person is convinced that his or her conscience is correct (well formed ), the person not only may, but MUST follow the dictates of conscience rather than the teachings of the Church.

"b. The Church has never explicitly claimed to speak infallibly on moral questions; so there is probably no question as yet of a conflict between an individuals fallible decision in conscience and a teaching of the Church which is immune from error.

"c. No teaching of the Church can hope to account for every moral situation and circumstance. Every teaching still has to be applied in particular cases. One is not necessarily repudiating the values affirmed in the teaching if one decides that the teaching does not bind or apply in this matter.

"d. The teachings themselves are historically conditioned. What may have been perceived as morally wrong in one set of circumstances, e.g. charging interest on a loan today, in the context of modern commercial life." (A.C.)

The duty of a Catholic, then, is to learn what the Church teaches about human sexuality, marriage, and birth control. Catholics also ought to study these teachings, preferably with other Catholics and qualified teachers, reflect on their meaning, and prayerfully consider before God how to put these values into practice in their own concrete situation in marriage and family life.

Q. If a Catholic couple does this and decides to use some non-abortive form of artificial contraception, is it a sin?

A. Even though the objective nature of artificial contraception will be considered sinful by some, a couple acting with according to what they believe to be a correct conscience on this matter will not be committing a sin.

Q. How can one know if one's conscience is well-formed if it is at odds with the teaching of the Church?

A. It is sometimes difficult to arrive at absolute certainty concerning what is good and right. In general, there is a sense of more peace concerning the "rightness" of one course of action over another. In the context of marriage, there is also a sense that the action taken will lead to a greater growth in love in the marriage relationship, and greater responsibility to the needs of children who may already be born, or yet to be born.

"Because we never know ourselves completely (self knowledge is something one works to acquire; it is not ready made), decisions are necessarily incomplete and partial; and because our own circumstances are always historically, socially and culturally defined, decisions of conscience are necessarily fallible and subject to correction and change. Conscience is never stagnant; it is always in development." (A.C.)

Q. Doesn't this open the door to anyone using the concept of "freedom of conscience" to justify almost any kind of action? Why not just say that a good conscience is one that does what the Church teaches, and anything else is sinful?

A. Please note that the process of conscience formation presumes sincerity on the part of the one who studies, reflects, dialogues, prays, and decides. This process honors the nature of human beings as intelligent and free agents called by God to goodness and holiness. Emphasizing conformity with Magisterial teaching as the only measure of a good conscience fails to properly honor the nature of human beings.

Q. Are there ever circumstances when we should discourage people from acting according to their consciences?

A. "A person should not be prevented from following even an erroneous conscience, unless the action is seriously injurious to him or herself, or to others. Thus a person should be prevented from committing suicide if possible, or from killing another person." (A.C.)

Hence, a couple ought to be discouraged from having an abortion, which clearly harms another, the unborn child. But as to whether or not artificial contraception hurts anyone is a debatable situation--nothing which ought to warrant active discouragement by others.


Relevant quotations: (apologies for the non-inclusive language)

"Conscience is what summons us to love good and avoid evil; to do this and to shun that; To obey it is the very dignity of man. According to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. But conscience is no infallible guide. It frequently errs from invincible ignorance (ignorance for which we are not responsible). We Christians search for truth and for the genuine solution of problems in collaboration with others and in fidelity to our own conscience . (Vatican II document, The Church in the Modern World, #16 ).

"Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings." (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1783).

"In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witnesses or advice of others and guided by the authroitative teaching of the Church." (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1785).

"Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct." (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1792).

"A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his (her) conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroaneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed." (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1790).

"Man is sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgments less assured and decision difficult. But he must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law." (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1787).

"To this purpose, man strives to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy Spirit and his gifts." (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1788).

A Short History of Catholic Teaching on Birth Control

In presenting this chronology of Catholic teaching on human sexuality and birth control, we ask the reader to keep two facts in mind:
1. The woman's natural cycle of fertility and infertility was not well understood until the 1930s, after which time only do effective methods of natural family planning become available.
2. Effective devices for artificial contraception did not exist until the 18th century, and even these were rather crude. The birth control pill was made available only in the 1960s.

Biblical Perspective

The Bible has virtually nothing to say about birth control per se. The story of Onan (Gn 38: 1-11) being condemned to death for practicing coitus interruptus pertains more to his refusal to father children for his deceased brother (as Jewish Law required) than the practice of a form of birth control.

Biblical teaching does affirm, however, the goodness of human sexuality, the covenantal nature of married love, and the primacy of love in human relationships.

The Early Years

306-Council of Elvira, Spain, decree #43: a priest who sleeps with his wife the night before Mass will lose his job.
325-Council of Nicea: decreed that after ordination a priest could not marry.
385-Pope Siricius left his wife in order to become pope. Decreed that priests may no longer sleep with their wives.

The Teaching of St. Augustine (354-430)

Prior to St. Augustine, the teaching of the Church on marriage and human sexuality was more pastoral than philosophical. The early Fathers affirmed marriage as an institution blessed by Christ, and stressed the importance of fidelity and lifelong commitment. Augustine the philosopher and theologian gave the Church its first (and persisting) codified teaching on human sexuality.

Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Augustine was a lustful youth who lived for years with a woman who bore him a son. He was also enamored with a dualistic philosophy called Manichaeism, which viewed matter as an evil opposed to spirit. Unquestionably, these experiences colored his views on marriage and sexuality. Some of the key features of Augustine's teaching on sexual morality are summarized below:

1. The primary end of marriage and human sexuality is the procreation of children. This reasoning is based more on stoic philosophy (a chief reservoir of natural law teaching) than reflection on the biblical/covenantal view of marriage and sexuality. It will dominate magisterial teaching on sexuality up to Vatican Council II.
2. The purpose of human sexuality is to be found in the end to which it is ordered: the procreation of children. Augustine condemned periodic abstinence when it was used to avoid conception (a practice now accepted by the Church). He also condemned coitus interruptus for this reason.
3. Pleasure was an acceptable by-product of sex, but not as a primary motive for sex (There isn't really much in Augustine about sex as a means of expressing and celebrating love).
4. Although the sex act itself is not inherently evil, it is the means by which original sin is transmitted from one generation to the next. Later writers, using Augustine as their source, will build on this point to the extent that sex itself becomes viewed as inherently tained with sexual pleasure as the chief sign of the fallen nature of sex.

Fifth Through Tenth Centuries

567-2nd Council of Tours: any cleric found in bed with his wife would be excommunicated for a year and reduced to the lay state.
580-Pope Pelagius II: his policy was not to bother married priests as long as they did not hand over church property to wives or children.
590-604-Pope Gregory &Mac179;the Great&Mac178; said that all sexual desire is sinful in itself (meaning that sexual desire is intrinsically evil?).

Seventh Century
France: documents show that the majority of priest were married.

Eighth Century
St. Boniface reported to the pope that in Germany almost no bishop or priest was celibate.

Ninth Century
836-Council of Aix-la-Chapelle openly admitted that abortions and infanticide took place in convents and monasteries to cover up activities of uncelibate clerics.
St. Ulrich, a holy bishop, argued from scripture and common sense that the only way to purify the church from the worst excesses of celibacy was to permit priests to marry.

The Scholatic Period (11th to 15th Centuries)

The scholastic writers (chief among whom was St. Thomas Aquinas) affirmed the goodness of sexual pleasure, provided it was not divorced from reason. The primary procreative end of marriage and sexuality was also affimed. Basing their understanding of sexuality on the philosophy of Aristotle, they taught that the made semen was the active principle in transmitting life, while the female was merely a passive receptacle who provided the matter for the fetus. Manuals for moral and pastoral guidance based on Scholastic theology encouraged leniency toward couples who struggled with sexual impulses, however.

Eleventh Century
1045-Pope Boniface IX dispensed himself from celibacy and resigned in order to marry.
1074-Pope Gregory VII said anyone to be ordained must first pledge celibacy: 'priests [must] first escape from the clutches of their wives.'
1095-Pope Urban II had priests' wives sold into slavery, children were abandoned.

Twelfth Century
1123-Pope Calistus II: First Lateran Council decreed that clerical marriages were invalid.
1139-Pope Innocent II: Second Lateran Council confirmed the previous council]s ds decree.

Sixteenth Century
1545-63-Council of Trent states that celibacy and virginity are superior to marriage.

Renaissance Period (16th to 19th Centuries)

Writings reaffirmed the primacy of the procreative end of marrage and sexuality. Manuals for moral and pastoral guidance assumed a highly legalistic context with respect to sexual acts. St. Alphonsus Liguori (a doctor of the Church) affirmed that one of the purposes of marriage was to provide an outlet for sexual expression.

Twentieth Century

1930. The Lambeth Conference. Anglical bishops formally declare that couples are free to decide for themselves which methods of contraception they wish to use for purposes of family planning. They also condemned the use of contraceptives for "motives of selfishness, luxury or mere convenience."

1940. Casti Connubii. Encyclical by Pope Piux XI. Reaffirmed procreation as the primary end of human sexuality. "Our voice promulgates anew: any use of marriage whatever, in the exercise of which the act is deprived of its natural power of prcreating life, violates the law of God and nature, and those who commit anything of this kind are marked with the stain of grave sin." The encyclical was ambiguous in condoning natural forms of contraception, affirming the importance of love between husband and wife, "provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a while and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof."

1951. Address to the Midwives. Pope Pius XII. Condemned the use of artificial contraceptives. "This precept is as valid today as it was yesterday; and it will be the same tomorrow and always, because it does not imply a precept of the human law but is the expression of a law which is natural and divine." The Pope seems to be saying that the teaching cannot be changed. In this address, he also affirmed the lawfulness of natural methods of contraception (rhythm and NFP) in a clear, unambiguous manner. This was the first time in the history of the Church when sex apart from an explicit procreative intention was condoned in a magisterial teaching.

1965. Vatican Council II. Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Poposed that the governing principle in human sexuality be "the nature of the human person and his acts." Pope Paul VI requested that no developed teaching on sexuality be presented until he heard from a commission on birth control that had been established by Pope John XXIII.

1963-1966. Meetings of the Birth Control Commission established by Pope John XXIII. The Commission consisted of theologians, priests, bishops, cardinals and laypeople from a variety of professions. They met to consider issues of marriage and sexuality, with special emphasis on the birth control question. After numerous meetings, prayer, and consultation with professionals on all sides of the issue, the commission agreed that the current teaching of the Church was not infallible, that artificial contraception was not intrinsically evil, and that Catholic couples ought to be given the liberty to decide for themselves concerning methods of family planning. The report was taken to the Pope on June 28, 1966 after the Comission agreed that there was to be no majority or minority report. Two Commission members broke this agreement and issued a so-called "minority report," in which they disagreed with the conclusions of the Commission and urged Pope Paul VI to uphold the traditional teaching lest the Papal authority be diminished.

1968. Humanae Vitae. Pope Paul VI's response to the Birth Control Commission, in which he re-affirmed the pre-Vatican II teaching that "the Church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law, as interpreted by her constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life." The encyclical also affirmed the unitve aspect of human sexuality, giving it equality with the procreative. Theologians and even councils of bishops criticized the teaching for its heavy reliance on a narrow interpretation of natural law, and for rejecting the recommendations of the Birth Control Commission.

1975. Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics. Published by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, this work also distances itself from maintaining that human sexuality is primarily procreative. It did reaffirm the ban on artificial contraception, however.

1981. Familiaris Consortio. Pope John Paul II's encyclical on the family reflects a more personalist approach to moral theology in considering sex to be a "language of love." The Pope condemns artificial contraception because "the innate language that expresses the toal reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, anamely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a postive 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 (#32)." In other words, what the Pope is saying is that those who use artificial contraception are not really capable of giving themselves fully to one another in sexual lovemaking.

1993. Veritatis Splendor. Pope John Paul II's encyclical on "The Splendor of Truth," in which he forcefully argues for the existence of moral absolutes. About this encyclical, Rev. Bernard Haring, CSSR (one of the chief architects of Vatican Council II), wrote: ". . . the whole document is directed above all towards one goal: to endorse total assent and submission to all utterances of the pope--and above all on one crucial point: that the use of any artificial mens for regulating birth is intrinsically evin and sinful, without exception, even in circumstances where contraception would be a lesser evil." (National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1993).

1994. The Catechism of the Catholic Church. The modern compendium of Catholic teaching upholds the ban on artificial contraception while affirming the unitive and procreative apsects of marriage and sexuality to be equally important.

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Why the Pope Really Said "Nope"

On June 28, 1966, the Papal Commission on Birth Control submitted their final report to the Vatican. The Commission was comprised of lay people, theologians, bishops and cardinals, representing a range of conservative and progressive positions. They had prayed together, listened to presentations from experts, reviewed surveys taken from over 3,000 dedicated Catholic couples from 18 countries, and argued among themselves about numerous matters pertaining to human sexuality. In the end, the vote was 30-5 in stating that the Church's teaching on the intrinsic evil of artificial contraception was in a state of doubt. In its report, the Commission recommended that the procreative aspect of sex should not be tied to every sexual act, but belong to marriage as a whole. They also recommended that couples be free to choose the non-abortive method of family planning that would work best for them.

On July 29, 1968, Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), the encyclical in which he essentially denied the recommendations of the Commission. Why did he not follow their recommendations? Let's look at a few possibilities:

1. "The conclusions at which the commission arrived could not, nevertheless, be considered by us as definitive. . . (because) no full concordance of judgments concerning the moral norms to be proposed had been reached." (H.V, #6)

Response: No unanimous concordance, but a 30-5 vote is a pretty strong consensus!

2. "Not much experience is needed in order to know human weakness, and to understand that men--especially the young, who are so vulnerable on this point--have need of encouragement to be faithful to the moral law, so that they must not be offered some easy means of eluding its observance. It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anticonceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion." (H.V., #17)

Response: Valid concerns, to be sure, but these are no completely countered by natural methods of contraception. If the Pope is really concerned about chastity, here, then he could have resorted to the Commission's recommendations in this regard.

3. "Let is be considered also that a dangerous weapon would thus be placed in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies. Who could blame a government for applying to the solution of the problems of the community those means acknowledged to be licit for married couples in the solution of a family problem? Who will stop rulers from favoring, from even imposing upon their peoples, if they were to consider it necessary, the method of contraception which they judge to be most efficacious?" (H.V., #17)

Response: Surely the Pope does not think such governments will be dissuaded from their intrusive policies by his encyclical? In fact, they have not been in China and other countries.

4. The Real Reason: "Nevertheless the Church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law, as interpreted by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act (quilbet matrimonii usus) must remain open to the transmission of life. That teaching, often set forth by the magisterium, is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning." (H.V., #11-12).

Response: The Pope reaffirmed the teaching given by Popes Pius XI and Pius XII. As Cardinal Montini, he had served as undersecretary of state under Pope Pius XII, and he had publicly supported the Pius XII's teachings on the immorality of artificial contraception. The Pope thus chose to defend the tradition of Papal teachings, which were largely based on principles concerning natural law. He chose to assert the power and authority of his office over the collegially discerned recommendations of the Commission, which had acted in the spirit of Vatican Council II. He chose to say that he knew better what was for the good of married couples than the 3,000 or so couples consulted by the Commission, and he understood theology and the moral law more clearly than the bishops, cardinals and theologians serving on the Commission. The consequence of this has been a loss of respect for the teaching office of the Church, and the marginalizing of countless thousands of Catholics.

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Natural Law and Human Sexuality

Nonetheless the Church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law, as interpreted by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must remain open to the transmission of life. (Humanae vitae, #10).

What is the "natural law" which forms the basis forms the basis for Pope Paul VI's statement above? Where does it come from? What does it teach us about human sexuality? And, finally, how can the Pope draw moral implications from it? These are the issues we will address in this web page. We will use the FAQ approach to allow readers to skip around to the issues that interest them most, and to present the material in the form of a dialogue.

Q. What is the natural law?

A. "The sum of the rights and duties which of themselves follow directly from the nature of man, as a being endowed with reason and free will, is . . . called natural law in Catholic ethics; the mutability or immutability of the law and the possibility of knowing it are an important theme in Greek and Christian philosophy." (Dictionary of Theology, by Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler. Crossroads Publ. New York. 1981. p. 329).

Another way of putting it is that natural law refers to what human reason can discover about human nature and its moral duties apart from the gift of divine revelation.

Where does natural law come from?

A. Human reason, common sense, and ancient philosophers like the stoics and Aristotle are resources for natural law. Increasingly, the secular sciences are also considered as a resource.

Q. Is the natural law written down anywhere?

A. Not really. In developing the teaching on human sexuality, for example, there was no single book on "natural law" used by the Magisterium. There was, however, a tradition of Church teaching on human sexuality based, in part, on the natural law to which Pope Paul VI appealed when writing Humanae vitae.

How can the Magisterium claim to speak authoritatively about natural law?

A. In Humanae vitae #4, Pope Paul VI stated that the teaching set forth in the encyclical "is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation. Let no Catholic be heard to assert that the interpretation of the natural moral law is outside the competence of the Church's Magisterium. It is in fact indisputable. . . the reason being that the natural law declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men's eternal salvation." In other words, the same Spirit who imparts divine revelation through Scripture also reveals truth through the natural law, and the Magisterium is affirming, here, its authority in interpreting that law.

Q. With respect to human sexuality, what does natural law teach us?

A. That the purpose of human sexuality is both reproductive and unitive. Therefore, the Magisterium concludes that every sexual act ought to embody both aspects.

Granted that human sexuality has both a unitive and reproductive aspect! But why does every sexual act have to embody both aspects? How does this conclusion derive from natural law?

A. The ancient philosophers examined what human sexuality had in common with other animals, and noted that for most animals, sex was used for reproductive purposes only. Therefore, they concluded, the primary purpose of sex in nature was procreative. When they observed human sexual behavior, however, they noted that we were open to sexual experiences without always intending procreation. Some concluded from this that there was something unnatural about human sexuality. A number of the early Fathers of the Church expressed this view and suggested, further, that sex without intent to reproduce was inherently sinful. Clement of Alexandria, for example, stated that "To have coition other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature." Origen and the Didascalia forbade sex during pregnancy because it could only be for pleasure, and hence it was lustful.


Q. Is this what the Church still teaches--that sex during pregnancy, or that sex without procreation is sinful?

A. No, it is not. Through the centuries, and especially during the 20th century, there has been a growing appreciation of the unitive, or love-making aspect of sex. Humanae vitae was the first official teaching that put the procreative and unitive aspects on an equal plane. However, Pope Paul VI is trying to preserve the older teaching by in stating that every sexual act ought to be open to procreation.


Q. Why did the teaching come to affirm the unitive good as equal?

A. Because of the reflection of theologians, the findings of modern social sciences, and, especially, the experiences of married couples. This latter source is sometimes called the existential tradition as opposed to the essential--or natural law--tradition of moral teaching..


Q. It took the Magisterium over 1,900 years to recognize that the unitive good was equal to the reproductive good in marriage?

A. It was always recognized, but not affirmed so formally as in this century.

Q. The Church's understanding of the natural law with respect to the purpose of marital intercourse has changed, then. Might it not continue to change?

A. Possibly, although every Magisterial teaching on human sexuality since Humanae vitae (1968) has affirmed the conclusions reached in that encyclical. It seems as though the Magisterium views its teaching on this matter as definitive!

What if the natural law were understood differently?

A. As I've just mentioned, the Magisterium considers its position on the matter final, or so it seems. But, just for the sake of discussion, what would you suggest as a different understanding?

It seems that modern science makes it abundantly clear that the sexual behavior of animals in the wild is not nearly so consistently procreative as the early philosophers concluded. Among the higher apes, for example, instances of non-procreative sex, masturbation and even homosexuality have been well documented.

Furthermore, there is something wrong with the view that non-conformity with other animals' behavior is unnatural, or, worse, immoral. There are many aspects of human behavior that are qualitatively different from animals'--conscious reflection, for example. What philosopher or theologian would conclude that this is unnatural? It is natural for human beings to be consciously reflective, even though other animals give no evidence of this.

Why not say the same about human sexuality? Why not say that the sexual behavior of human beings gives evidence to a spiritually-procreative meaning for sex? Why not consider this a unique feature in our understanding of human nature and its naturally lawful inclinations? It is perfectly obvious that married couples do not intend reproduction in over 99% of their sexual experiences, and that this is how it goes with human nature. The Magisterial position that every sexual act must be open to reproduction, and that this is in keeping with the natural law, seems indefensible in the light of these truths!

A. Your point is well-taken, nevertheless the Magisterium teaches that every sexual act ought to be open to the possibility of new life.

But not even nature itself makes this possible! In the woman's monthly cycle, there are periods of fertility and infertility. If every sexual act were to truly be open to the possibility of new life, then couples should be forbidden to have intercourse during the infertile periods, when there is no possibility of new life resulting. Using the logic of natural law morality as it is presently stated, couples should be permitted to have intercourse only during the fertile periods, for only then could they truly say they were open to new life! Does this not follow?

A. Yes, what you say is logical. Nevertheless, the Magisterium allows for sex during the infertile period of the month.

. I don't understand this at all! If every sexual act ought to be open to procreation, then why does the Magisterium permit sex during the infertile periods of the month?

A. The first response to this is that the Church did not even know about fertile and infertile times of the month until the 20th Century, when it was finally well documented. Therefore, earlier teachings did not address the matter of lawful sex during the infertile period. Unquestionably, some of the early Fathers of the Church (St. Augustine, Origen, Clement of Alexandria) would have considered sex during such times to be unnatural, even sinful! When knowledge of the fertile and infertile periods in the monthly cycle became known, a large number of theologians advised against permitting sex during the infertile period.

The reason why Popes Pius XII and Paul VI permitted sex during the infertile period was to recognize the growing testimony and influence in the existential tradition concerning the unitive aspect of human sexuality. They saw the woman's monthly cycle as an ideal way to honor both the existential and essentialistic traditions, and began to speak of "making legitimate use of a natural disposition" (Humanae vitae, #16).

Q. This still does not answer my question. If every sexual act must be open to the possibility of procreation, then why allow sex during the infertile time? Why allow couples to use Natural Family Planning methods (which are 98% effective) to avoid conceiving a child? In what sense can couples using such practices be said to be open to procreation?

A. They aren't, of course, not at the level of intention or practice. This particular point you are making has been one of the problem areas of the teaching from the time of Casti conubii (1940). It is, as already mentioned, an attempt to accommodate both the essentialistic, natural law and the existential traditions.

Q.It seems there is another contradiction as well: if the unitive and procreative aspects of human sexuality are regarded as equally important, and if no sexual act is to be closed to procreation, then what happens when couples abstain from sex during the fertile periods? Are they not suppressing the unitive good in their sexual relationship? If they are not free to act against the procreative good, why not condemn equally acting against the unitive good?

A. Many couples and theologians have asked the same. The Magisterial response is that by choosing to abstain from sex during the fertile period, a couple is not acting against the unitive good, but is cultivating that good in other ways. The counsel given to couples is that this exercise of self-discipline is also for the good of the relationship.

Q. But many studies have shown that women are most interested in sex during the fertile period of the month--that their hormonal cycle disposes them to openness to sex during such times! Why not let the couple decide for themselves when they need to find periods of abstinence to strengthen their self-control? What do these celibate old men really know of married couples' struggles with self-discipline and sexuality anyway? Their advice seems arrogant and terribly self-righteous!

A. Points well taken again. I have no answer, except to say that the Magisterium saw the woman's monthly cycle as providing some "objective" basis for regulating human sexual behavior. As for their arrogance and self-righteousness. . .

Q. The monthly cycle and its periods of fertility and infertility was not understood until the 20th Century. If one of the purposes of this cycle is to provide an objective basis for securing chastity in marriage, why did it take so long for it to be discovered?

A. From a biological point of view, the purpose of the monthly cycle actually has nothing to do with regulating sexual behavior. The shifting of hormone levels is in the interest of preparing the egg for release, preparing the womb for implantation and, that failing, voiding the uterine lining to begin another cycle. There really isn't a morality about sexual behavior intrinsic to this process.

I have a hard time accepting the reasoning behind the Magisterium's teachings. It seems clear that human sexuality has both a reproductive and unitive aspect, and that human sexuality on the whole ought to respect these two potentialities. This is a better understanding of the natural law, and it should supplant the present teaching--that every sexual act ought to be open to reproduction. Doesn't this make more sense?

A. The Birth Control Commission suggested as much to Pope Paul VI in its final report. Many theologians and bishops are in agreement with you, here.

Q. Yes, but Catholics who agree with this and who decide to use artificial contraception are nonetheless said to be committing an "objectively evil act," and are in a state of sin. Correct?

A. Correct! That is the way things stand under the present teaching. But the seriousness of the sin cannot be judged by anyone but God.

It angers me that the Magisterium's narrow view of the natural law with respect to human sexuality has created this climate of anxiety and guilt regarding sexuality in marriage! What can I do about this?

A. Talk or write to your parish priest and/or bishop.

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Pope John Paul II and the "Language of Love"

Among recent documents from the Vatican on human sexuality and birth control, most significant is Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), written by Pope John Paul II and published in 1981. This encyclical is beautifully written, emphasizing the importance of marriage and family life in the Church and society. It also includes a brief discussion on the morality of birth control, in which the Pope introduces his idea of a "language of love" with regard to sexual expression. Found in point #32 of the encyclical, the quote is as follows:

"When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings (the unitive and procreative aspects of sexuality-Editor's note) that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communition, 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 respect 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."

This is certainly a new way of talking about the morality of sexual acts, thanks in large part to the highly personalist approach of the Pope's theology. Nevertheless, when reflecting on this reading, one is left with a number of questions and issues:

1. The Pope is clearly saying that couples who use artificial contraception are incapable of giving themselves totally to one another, that they are guilty of a "falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love." What can he mean by this?
a. If the couple is using some sort of barrier form of contraception which prevents the semen from reaching the uterus, then this "blockage" of the semen could be construed as inhibiting total self-giving. Is that what the Pope means--that total self-giving is possible only if the semen is allow to reach the womb? This point is doubtful, for not only does it overly identify contraception with barrier methods, but also fails to consider that the semen does reach the womb in other, non-barrier methods.
b. If the Pope means that it is the non-procreative intent of the couple that constitutes the obstacle to total self-giving, then he must likewise condemn couples using rhythm and NFP to avoid conception, for they, too, are choosing to express their love in the context of a non-procreative intentionality that is "a positive refusal to be open to life," especially since NFP boasts of a 98% effectiveness rate in this regard.
c. One is also forced to ask whom the Pope consulted before making such a statement about contraception and the "falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love." How many married couples did he interview--especially couples using artificial contraception who give evidence to a healthy, growing relationship? Upon what basis can he say that contracepting couples are incapable of giving themselves totally to one another when their very experience belies his statement?

2. As though to respond to the issue raised in 1b, the Pope approves of natural forms of contraception because "the couple respect the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of human sexuality." Thus are they "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."
a. What basis does the Pope have for saying that couples using artificial contraception disrespect the connection between the unitive and procreative aspects of sex? This is a judgment of couples' motives, and, as such, it is highly irresponsible and judgmental!
b. What is the basis for the Pope's view that couples using natural methods of contraception maintain a link between the unitive and procreative aspects of sexuality? They suppress the unitive good of sex during the fertile period of the month when procreation is possible, and choose to have sex during the infertile period when it is not possible. Thus do they separate the unitive and procreative aspects of sex in their overall sexual relationship.
c. How can the Pope speak so confidently of natural methods of family planning reflecting "God's plan" when such methods have only come to light in the 20th Century?

It turns out that Pope John Paul II's approach to sex as a "language of love" contains the same inherently contradictory principles as Humanae Vitae. Indeed, it is naught but an attempt to present the traditional teaching using the highly personalist language of Gaudium et spes and some of the Pope's earlier writings. Despite the many good points in Familiaris Consortio, this part of the encyclical is unable to persuade reason in favor of the Pope's vision for married couples and their sexual relationship. Indeed, it is highly judgmental in places, and, for the most part, uninformed by the experiences of couples who are really living married life.

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NFP and Artificial Contraception: Are They The Same?

"What does the language of sex say? In its natural form it says: 'I find you attractive. I trust you with my most intimate self. I would never hurt you. I desire to be with you completely and absolutely, even to have a child with you. By contrast, the language of contracepted ('protected') sex says: 'I desire to be one with you, but not fully. I want to engage in an act of great but momentary pleasure with you, but I am unwilling to accept responsibility for anything that may follow; I do not want my life that tightly bound with yours."

"Whether Norplant or the pill, contraception communicates a certain disdain for one's natural fertility."

(Comments from speakers at the "International Humanae Vitae Conference" in Omaha, Nebraska (July 25-30, 1993. Reported in America: September 25, 1993)

The above quotes amply demonstrate the kinds of judgmental distinctions arch-conservative theologians try to make between Natural Family Planning (NFP) and artificial contraception. They pull no punches in implying that sex for couples using artificial contraception is shallow, lustful, and irresponsible, while sex for couples using NFP is good and holy because it is supposedly open to procreation.

This web page examines the supposed differences between NFP and artificial contraception, especially in the light of the Church's teaching that every sexual act ought to be open to the possibility of life. In presenting these arguments, we do not wish to discourage Catholic couples from using NFP, but only to expose the emptiness of the supposed distinctions between NFP and artificial contraception. We also wish to express our outrage at the judgmental language used by NFP teachers when they try to justify their practice.

Q. What is Natural Family Planning? Isn't it just the old "rhythm method" in an updated form?

A. Not exactly! There are various approaches to NFP, and they are all much more successful in determining the fertile and infertile periods in a woman's monthly cycle than the old "rhythm method," which merely counted guessed at the fertile and infertile days. Couples practicing NFP use this information to either plan a pregnancy, or to avoid having sex during the fertile periods if they want to delay having a child.

How many days would a couple have to abstain from sex if they used NFP to avoid pregnancy?

A. It varies from woman to woman, but in general, NFP requires 5-8 days of abstinence from intercourse during the fertile period. In addition, most couples abstain for 3 to 5 days during the woman's menstrual cycle.

That seems like a long time! Isn't a woman most interested in sex during the fertile period of the month?

A. Many studies indicate that this is so.

Isn't it rather cruel, then, to ask a couple to abstain from sex for 5 to 8 days during a time of the month when the woman is most interested in sex?

A. Cruelty is besides the point, here. Fidelity to the natural law is what the Magisterium of the Church is concerned about. To go against the natural law by using artificial contraception during the fertile period would be a violation of the natural law, and, hence, an objectively evil act. Then there is this "language of love" value which Pope John Paul II has also linked with the traditional teaching, and which NFP supposedly honors more fully than artificial contraception.

Doesn't all this abstinence during the fertile period frustrate what the Church calls the unitive good, or the love bond between the couple?

A. Many couples would say from experience that it does, and it would seem that only couples can speak for themselves about what constitutes the unitive good in their relationship. It is much easier to identify violations of the reproductive/procreative good: namely, artificial contraception and abortion. In acknowledging the struggles that couples will have in being faithful to this teaching, the Magisterium notes the value of self-sacrifice and periodic abstinence to cultivate the friendship and spiritual dimensions of the relationship.

Why could a couple not choose to be abstinent during other times of the month to cultivate friendship and spirituality?

A. They could! The time of menstruation, for example, is generally a time of abstinence for most couples. Several days before menstruation are also a time of low sexual interest for most women. The Church recommends the fertile days as well because couples who do not want to conceive, and who want to follow the Church's teachings, will be choosing abstinence during the fertile days. There is no reason to assume that the woman's monthly cycle was intended by God to provide an "objective, moral basis" for governing sexual activity.

Wouldn't it be more "natural," then, for couples to use the fertile period to deepen their love bond?

A. It would be more natural in the sense that the woman is more naturally interested in sex.

What's "natural" about Natural Family Planning, then? It seems to require that couples act contrary to the inclinations given them by nature?

A. The term "natural" is in contrast to "artificial." NFP makes use of the woman's natural cycle of fertility and infertility to avoid conception (or to conceive, if that is what the couple intends).

How can a couple using NFP to avoid conception claim to be open to conception when they are using a method that is 98% effective in preventing conception (this is the claim, at least)?

A. At the level of intention, the two practices are the same, for both intend to use sex for the unitive good only. Humanae vitae, #16 states that the difference is that in the case of NFP, "married couples rightly use a facility provided them by nature. In the latter (artificial contraception) they obstruct a the natural development of the generative process." According to the Magisterium, the difference is one of willful intent and deliberate obstruction. Couples using artificial contraception are doing something to make sure that conception won't happen while couples using NFP are not-doing-something, i.e. not having sex during the fertile period. As noted above, Pope John Paul II has also introduced the "language of sex" rationale to supplement the teaching of Humanae vitae.

How can couples who use NFP claim that they are not willfully and deliberately "doing something" to avoid conception? They are charting the days, examining vaginal mucous to discern fertility--using their reason and will to make darned sure that there is a 98% chance that their intercourse will not result in conception! They are "doing something" when they choose to not have sex during the fertile period, and when they choose to have sex instead during the infertile period.

A. The key issue, as noted above, is not intentionality, but their making use of a natural rhythm. Again, the reasoning of the Magisterium is largely informed by its understanding of natural law. For a sexual act to be considered moral, it must be open to the possibility of new life, and it must express love.

But couples who use NFP to avoid conception are not open to new life, and their sexual expression during the infertile period cannot be said to be open to new life! It's as though they are saying, "OK God, we're open to having children, but we're going to have sex only when we're 98% sure that conception won't take place. See how open we are to your gift of new life, God?" Give me a break! A condom is considered only 95% effective, at best. Why not say that couples using a condom are more open to new life?

A. Your points are well-taken, but the response of the Magisterium is that NFP couples are making use of a natural cycle, and therefore their sexual expression is more in conformity with the natural law, and therefore more moral.

Q. I just don't get the language of love distinction, either! Those quotes at the top of the page suggest that couples using NFP are open to having a child, when, obviously, they aren't, or else they would not be practicing NFP. It also suggests that couples using artificial contraception are doing something that is dirty, and that such couples are selfish.

A. The above quotes portray an unduly harsh and judgmental stereotype of couples using artificial contraception! The article from which these quotes were taken was a response to an earlier piece in America by Jesuit Father Richard McCormick. The Editor of America gave Fr. McCormick an opportunity to respond to his critics, and, regarding the above quotes, this is what he had to say:

"Most married couples would rightly be insulted by this (the quotes at the top of the page). They would judge it to be the arbitrary imposition of meaning on sexual language by those determined to defend a position. Why could they not read a contracepted act as follows: 'I desire to be with you completely and absolutely, now and forever. Our sexual intimacy expresses and nourishes this resolve. If must, of course, be responsible and take into account serious proportionate motives mentioned by Pius XII That is the meaning of our present avoidance of children"?. . .

"The notion that any form of contraception, but not NFP, may express 'an anger toward God for having made me and my spouse fertile' is the type of wild and desperate salvo that brings ridicule on a whole movement.

"In conclusion, then, we are left with a prohibition still searching for an argument, what Lonergan referred to as 'no valid reason whatever for a precept." (America. September 25, 1993. p. 25)

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Can the Present Teaching Be Changed?

The teaching of the Catholic Church on birth control and human sexuality has a long and colorful history. Those who would like to see these teachings change to at least allow for the provisions recommended by the Papal Birth Control Commission might feel disillusioned about any such change coming about. After all, the teaching of Pope Pius XI in Castii Conubii (1940), which summarized the traditional teaching that every sexual act must be open to the possibility of procreation, has been most uncompromisingly reaffirmed by every Pope since. The word "infallibility" has even been used by Catholic ultra-conservatives with regard to these teachings.

Nevertheless, the teaching can be changed, and we shall explain why.

1. The teaching is not infallible. Pope Paul VI did not proclaim Humanae Vitae as infallible doctrine. His public spokesman, Monsignor Ferdinand Lambruschini, stated that the teaching is not irreformable ("Statement Accompanying Encyclical Humanae Vitae, Catholic Mind, Vol. 66, No. 1225; September 1968; pp. 54-55). Nevertheless, the teaching is part of Catholic Tradition.

2. The teaching depends quite heavily on natural law, the understanding of which can change. "From the theological point of view, there is, in the concrete order determined by Jesus Christ, no 'pure nature'. A fundamental problem of natural law, then, is whether 'nature' is a suitable key-concept for moral directives that are valid for all men (sic) . . . It would, however, have to be borne in mind that, in this process, there could be no unity with regard to what is 'in accordance with nature', 'contrary to nature', 'valid beyond time' or 'historically relative'. In these cases, the Church is making (in the form of interpretations of the commandment of love) authentic pronouncements which are promulgated by the magisterium, which are not infallible and are, for their arguments, dependent on justifications and proofs taken from the secular sciences and universal human reason." (Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler. Dictionary of Theology. Crossroads. New York. 1981. Section on "Natural Moral Law."

3. There are precedents in other equally important moral teachings that were strongly affirmed, and then changed.

For example, the Church not only recognized the legitimacy of slavery for centuries, but also actually authorized enslavement of certain groups of people at times. In 1089, Pope Urban II gave princes the authority to enslave the wives of clerics. In 1454, Pope Nicholas V granted Portuguese rulers "full and free permission . . . to capture, conquer and subjugate all Saracens and pagans whatsoever and other enemies of Christ. . . and to bring their persons into perpetual slavery. (This permission the pope granted) with full knowledge by our Apostolic power." (Quoted in Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic, by Philip S. Kaufman, OSB. Crossroads Publ., New York. 1988. p. 23). Kaufman also writes that "as late as 1866, after slavery had been abolished in the United States and several Latin American countries, the Holy Office issued an instruction reaffirming the moral justification of slavery (ibid., p 23)." Needless to say, the Catholic Church was not a great leader in the abolitionist movement. It was only in 1891 that Pope Leo XIII condemned the abuse of human rights that slavery implied (he did not mention slavery by name in order to preserve the illusion that previous teachings were not wrong).

The issue of usury--lending money at interest--also has a colorful past. Condemned several times in Scripture (Neh. 5: 10; Ps 15: 5; Ez 18: 8; 18: 13; 18: 17; 22: 12) and in formal Councils of the Church (Arles in 314, Nicea in 325, Carthage in 345, Lateran in 1179, Second Council of Lyons in 1274, Vienne in 1311--this one stated that people who taught otherwise were to be considered heretics), the Church reversed itself in the 19th Century, declaring through 14 decisions of the Congregations of the Holy Office (the Penetentiary) that "faithful who lend money at moderate rates of interest are not to be disturbed." Indeed, the Holy See itself now puts forth funds with interest, as do most dioceses.

Why were the teachings on usury and slavery reversed? Because of a new understanding of natural law? Partly, but moreso because the culture in which these teachings had once been affirmed had changed so that the teachings were no longer tenable.

4. The teaching of Humanae Vitae has not been received by the faithful. An overwhelming majority of Catholic laity use artificial contraception in spite of the teaching; numerous theologians and even conferences of bishops have expressed reservations, if not outright disagreement with the principle that every contraceptive act is intrinsically evil.

Most telling of all is a letter written by Auxilliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton to America magazine (November 20, 1963), in which he says, "I can vouch for the fact that very many bishops share the same conviction (that not every contraceptive act is intrinsically evil). However, sadly enough, fewer and fewer are willing to say this publicly. there is no doubt in my mind that so few are willing to voice their opinion on ctraception out loud because they are familiar with the criteria used in developing a profile for any priest who is to be recommended to the Holy See to be named a bishop. Clear and ardent support for Humanae Vitae is one of the requirements. Since 1978 more and more bishops have been ordained who meet that criteria."

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Is Artificial Contraception a Mortal Sin?

Reflections on birth control and mortal sin
Frequently asked questions

At this time in Catholic history, priests and others involved in preparing engaged couples for marriage are not free to teach guidelines for chastity outside of the context of Natural Family Planning. Indeed, the impression is often given that only in the context of NFP is it possible for love to flower, and that couples using artificial contraception cannot really escape the taint of serious sin. Engaged couples are often told that artificial contraception is a mortal sin, even when it is obvious that there are thousands and thousands of Catholic couples using artificial contraception who evidence none of the consequences of mortal sin (destruction of the personality, alienation, lack of reverence, etc.). To listen to some teachers, one would think that the only behavior that is always a mortal sin, regardless of circumstance and intentionality, is artificial contraception. In some circles, it seems to have become almost a litmus test of one's Catholicity. All of this is highly lamentable, not to mention a unwholesome milieu for the formation of conscience.

In this reflection, we do not wish to suggest that couples should ignore Church teaching on birth control. The proper formation of conscience requires that Catholics learn and prayerfully reflect on the Church's teachings. It is only by doing so that they can be said to form their conscience in the light of Church teaching. The guidelines for chastity (presented in another file on this website) are offered for all, whether or not they practice artificial contraception. To use NFP without practicing something like these guidelines will bring negative consequences to the marriage. But couples who have decided to use artificial contraception are in special need of these guidelines, for they will not be able to receive guidance from Church officials on how to preserve the goodness of their sexual relationship. Such teachers (especially those who work for the institution) are not free to teach about chastity in marriage outside of the context of NFP. They simply cannot openly say that artificial contraception and marital chastity can be mutually compatible, for this, to some, would be tantamount to saying that mortal sin is good for the soul.

This threat of mortal sin is heard in many places these days. In responding to a question about using a condom versus catching the HIV virus, a well-known Catholic columnist stated that he would rather die of AIDS than commit a mortal sin. Our response to this is, first, that no act can be judged a mortal sin apart from the knowledge and intention of the person who commits the act. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1857-1859, notes three requirements for a sin to be mortal:

1. It must be grave matter. Neither Humanae vitae nor the Catechism mention the words grave matter in reference to artificial contraception. Some of the older documents did, however.

2. It requires full knowledge. One must appreciate the gravity of the sin, and be cognizant of what one is doing.

3. It requires complete consent of mind and will.

If these three criteria were taken alone, then missing Mass on Sunday to care for a sick child would always be a mortal sin. So would killing another person in self-defense, or in war. That is why the issues of circumstance and intentionality are also considered: one would gladly go to Mass, but circumstances require that one remain home with the child. For some strange reason, however, no such consideration is officially accorded to couples who decide that they would practice NFP if they could, but circumstances (very irregular cycle, economic hardship, sexual frustration, dangerous to health to bear a child, etc.) mitigate against it being for the good of the marriage and family. Such couples are frequently told that they are only deluding themselves, or that they should just "try harder." Some are even encouraged to consider celibacy (very bad sacramental theology, here).

What we say, then, is for couples to form their conscience according to the teachings of the Church, and to act accordingly--even if this includes the use of artificial contraception. Although Church teaching on artificial contraception might seem highly inflexible, the Church is just as adamant in insisting on the duty of people to act according to their conscience (see #1777-1802 of the The Catechism of the Catholic Church). Your local priest may not agree, telling you that what you have is a deluded conscience, or that you must comply with Church teaching anyway. Never you mind! Read the Catechism on conscience, and make your decision before your God about how you believe you should act in this area of your life. If the outcome of this is that you should begin to use some non-abortive form of artificial contraception for the good of your marriage and family, then follow the guidelines for chastity in marriage described on another page in this website, and strive to love your spouse and family more and more each day.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Must all Catholic couples practice NFP to form their conscience?

A. Catholic couples who want to avoid conceiving a child, and who want to be faithful to the Church's teachings on human sexuality, are permitted to use only rhythm, or its updated form, Natural Family Planning. Catholic couples who do not use natural means of contraception are not forming their consciences in the light of Church teaching, but they are nonetheless going through a process of conscience formation based more one experience.

Q. Is it a mortal sin for Catholics who have never tried to follow the Church's teaching to use artificial contraception?

A. From the above reflection, you can see that it's impossible to say if one is committing a mortal sin. The Church says it is grave matter, but the couple must know that this is so, and they must willfully choose to reject the Church's teaching without a good reason for doing so. It is doubtful that most couples meet these conditions. Most, it would seem, do not really study the Church's teaching, and so their decision to use artificial contraception is not based on willful rejection.

Q. It would seem that educating people about artificial contraception and grave matter would be setting them up, as it were, to commit mortal sin. Do you know what I mean?

A. If you mean that making them aware that the Church considers it grave matter is creating the context in which it is possible for them to commit mortal sin, you are correct. The magisterium's response would be that this education is an act of charity, for it is alerting them to a grave danger (just as a parent warns a child about the danger of crossing a busy highway).

Q. What is the consequence of committing a mortal sin?

A. If one dies in this state, the consequence is eternity in hell.

Q. You mean to tell me that Catholics could go to hell just because they use artificial birth control, even if in other areas of their lives they were faithful to the Church?

A. Only God knows if a person meets the subjective requirements for mortal sin.

Q. If it is really such a grave danger, then why is it that only the Catholic Church out of all the Christian religions (including the Orthodox Church) forbids the use of artificial contraception?

A. As we discuss in another file, the reason for this is because of a principle of natural law which maintains that, since human sexuality embodies both a procreative and unitive aspect, then every sexual act ought to be open to the possibility of life (this reasoning is discussed and criticized in other files on this website). Other Christian traditions do not rely so heavily upon natural law in formulating their teaching on human sexuality.

Q. I understand the reason for the Church's teaching, but you haven't explained why this breach of the natural law (artificial contraception) is considered grave matter. Why not something less serious?

A. The answer is simply because that is the interpretation given by the popes through the centuries.

Q. It would seem that there would be a better reason. If something is really grave matter in an objective sense, then it should be spiritually deadly, regardless of one's religious tradition. A Protestant who gets drunk will hurt himself just as much as a Catholic, for example.

A. This is very true, and the fact is that many couples using artificial contraception don't seem to be showing the signs of spiritual deterioration one would expect to see if what they were doing was clearly grave matter. On the other hand, since the introduction of artificial contraceptives, we have seen a rise in divorce, abortion, and sexual immorality in this culture. To what extent there is a causal relationship between artificial contraception and these destructive factors is difficult to establish. The NFP people are proud to point out that very few people who practice NFP have divorces. If, on the other hand, one examines couples using artificial contraception who are also faithful to prayer and spiritual disciplines, one would find a similarly low rate of divorce, I'm sure.

Q. Suppose, then, a couple tries to practice NFP and comes to a point where it seems to be hurting the marriage relationship, or else it would be dangerous to get pregnant, are they obliged any way to follow the Church's teaching and refrain from artificial contraception?

A. Some would agree with this, but other moral theologians (even those working out of a natural law approach) would say that, for such couples, the decision to use artificial contraception would be a "lessor of two evils." In other words, they regard artificial contraception as an evil, but they view the diminishment of loving expression in the marriage as a greater evil.

Q. Doesn't this kind of reasoning leave one open to delusion and self-justification? Can't any couple just say that they need to use artificial contraception for the good of their marriage and family?

A. We have to assume the good-will and integrity of couples in all of this. There are no objective criteria for establishing what constitutes the unitive good in a couples' sexual relationship, and so only the couple can decide this for themselves. This decision ought to be the outcome of prayer, discussion, reflection on experience, and, of course, reflection on the Church's teachings.

Q. Can it be said that couples who do all this and decide to use artificial contraception are acting in good conscience?

A. Just as surely as a person who misses Mass to care for a sick family member is acting in good conscience!

Q. Is it necessary, then, for such couples to confess the sin of artificial contraception every time they go to confession?

A. If a person is acting in good conscience with regard to a certain act, then it is not a sin, and so there is no need to confess it. If the couple is unsure about this, however, they should consult with their confessor.

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Birth Control and Marital Chastity

General Remarks on Birth Control and Chastity
Guidelines for Chastity in Marriage

Chastity (American Heritage Dictionary)
1. Morally pure in thought and conduct; decent and modest.
2. a. Not having experience sexual intercourse; virginal. b. Abstaining from unlawful sexual intercourse. c. Abstaining from sexual intercourse; celibate.
3. Pure or simple in design or style; austere.

One of the points frequently made by opponents of artificial contraception is that it would undercut the virtue of chastity in marriage (in the sense of meanings 1, 2b and 3, above). Pope Paul VI seemed very concerned about this when he wrote, "It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anticonceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion (Humanae vitae, #17)." Putting aside the blatant sexism in the Pope's remark (why not the woman becoming too sexually selfish?), the following responses can be made to this point:

1. The reason for the Pope's prohibition of artificial contraception is not primarily to prevent lustful behavior among married people. If that were so, then infertile couples and couples beyond the childbearing years should be mandated to use something like an NFP cycle to regulate their sexual activity. The prohibition exists because of the Pope's interpretation of natural law--that because human sexuality expresses both a unitive and procreation function, then "each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life (Humanae vitae, #11)."

2. It is possible for couples using NFP to be sexually selfish and lustful. The periods of abstinence can be times of intense sexual preoccupation; the infertile times can be used to "make up for lost time." NFP does not guarantee chastity in marriage.

3. There are none too few cases in which a couple using NFP includes an unhealthy individual who prevails upon his or her spouse for intercourse during a fertile period. The consequence of this is bringing a child into an already-stressed or even abusive family system.

Guidelines for Chastity in Marriage

If chastity in marriage cannot be guaranteed by regulating sexual behavior according to the "objective criteria" of a woman's fertility cycle, then what guidelines should couples use to grow in this important virtue? In response to this question, we offer the following guidelines:

1. Sex is for married couples only. Scripture and Tradition make this clear. Because sex promotes deep and profound bonding, it presumes the kind of trust and vulnerability that is free to emerge and grow only in a marriage commitment. Outside of this context (especially in the modern "recreational" use of sex), the vulnerability awakened by sex cannot be supported by the trust which only marital commitment engenders. People become bonded without making commitments to one another and thus experience deep emotional pain when the relationship ends (or else they stay in the relationship too long to avoid this pain).

2. Within the context of marriage, whether one is using NFP or other methods of avoiding conception, chastity cannot be determined by objective criteria. The virtue of chastity safeguards and promotes growth in married love, and so it can only be measured from the growth in generosity of the couple as individuals and as couple. Certain disciplines can help to promote chastity, however, some of which are listed below:

A. Freedom and consent. The couple decides to have sex by mutual consent. This principle is not violated if one does not particularly feel like it, but decides to do so to please the other. It is violated when one forces the issue through manipulation or violence. Marital rape is a reality, and it is highly immoral (even when such sex takes place without the use of artificial contraception). Pope John Paul II was criticized a few years ago for making this point, but it is a good and important one. Freedom and consent, here, also apply to the kinds of sexual acts the couple experiences. Within the context of marriage and consent, it would seem that a couple is free to do whatever they so choose (oral sex, mutual masturbation, etc.) providing they evaluate their behavior as described below.

B. Love and Enjoyment. Sex is to express love. It is also to be enjoyed. Married couples ought to be creative in finding ways to give joy and pleasure to one another in their sexual lovemaking.

C. Abstinence. As with all enjoyments (eating, drinking, a special hobby), it is good to be abstinent from time to time, especially when sex has become "routine." The NFP cycle provides for this, but couples using artificial contraception can do the same when they discern the need. Periodic abstinence for the sake of self-mastery and spiritual growth is a valuable discipline, as the various encyclicals on human sexuality have noted.

D. Openness to new life. Although we do not believe that every sexual act ought to be potentially open to bringing forth new life (Nature Herself does not allow for this possibility), it is nonetheless obvious that procreation is one of the functions of human sexuality. Couples ought to consider bringing children into the world, and ought to pray and dialogue to discern when (or if) the time is right for this. Couples who discern that it is better for them not to have children ought to do something to help support those who have decided to be parents. Needless to say, this openness to new life requires that couples who experience an unplanned pregnancy see to it that the developing child is brought to term and placed for adoption if the parents do not want to raise the child. Abortion is unacceptable as a method of birth control, for it destroys a new life that has been conceived.

E. Generosity. Married love ought to help both individuals become more generous. This is the surest sign that the Spirit is working in the relationship. Relationships that become too exclusive because of sexuality issues do not evidence the Spirit.

These five guidelines together give a profile of chastity in marriage. No one of them should be followed without also considering the others. For example, if only guideline #2 were followed apart from the others, a couple could find their sexual relationship making them more exclusive and lustful. Taken as a whole, however, they do provide a means for balancing and correcting excesses.

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Birth Control and Society

This web page examines the relationship between artificial contraception and some of the ills facing society today. Opponents of artificial contraception are quick to note all kinds of problems that have arisen in family life since the widespread use of contraceptives began in the 1960's. Let's examine some of these issues more closely.

Q. Many proponents of NFP and defenders of Magisterial teaching on human sexuality have noted problems in society which they trace to artificial contraception. Consider, for example, the rising divorce rate.

A. This was caused by artificial contraception?

The divorce rate began to rise dramatically just about the same time that the pill and other contraceptives became widely available. Doesn't that tell you anything?

A. There were a lot of other developments which took off about that time, too: television, dual working families, the maturing of the baby boom generation and their somewhat anti-authoritarian attitudes, alcohol and drug usage. Have you factored in all those things?

No, I haven't. But there are studies which show that couples who use NFP have a very low divorce rate--less than 5%, I believe.

A. That's very good! And, by the way, we have no problem with couples choosing to use NFP (as we have already indicated in several places). The problem is the condemnation of those who choose to use artificial contraception. But about that divorce rate. . .couples using NFP are obviously very committed and dedicated. I wonder what the statistics would be for couples using artificial contraception who, say, spent at least 30 minutes in prayer each day, or who practiced other spiritual disciplines.

Good point. I don't know of any such studies per se, although the divorce rate does drop dramatically for couples who are actively involved in their religion.

A. That's what I mean. All these attempts to blame artificial contraception for the divorce rate and the ills of society are poorly nuanced.

What about the relationship between artificial contraception, premarital sex and abortions? Doesn't artificial contraception lead to what the NFP people call a "contraceptive mentality?" Abortion can then be viewed as just another way of contracepting!

A. Poorly reasoned again! This whole discussion between us is supposed to be about married couples and their sexual expression. We are not advocating for premarital sex or abortion. These are both wrong from the standpoint of various moral traditions. Nevertheless, there may be something to the contraceptive mentality that you mention. There is far too much irresponsible sex these days, and artificial contraception probably does contribute to some of it. Nevertheless, the incredible number of abortions that take place every year indicates that many people are having sex without using artificial contraception. Their decision to have an abortion cannot be blamed on the existence of contraceptives in our culture. That seems a weak point. At any rate, there is no question of artificial contraception ever being outlawed by the government. Such methods are here to stay!

Q. So you don't think there's a relationship between artificial contraception and abortion?

A. How would this be proven? We have parallel developments that suggest a correlation, but remember that there are also lots of other correlations that can be made, as noted above. What needs to be said here is that most Catholics who approve of artificial contraception also disapprove of abortion. People know that there is a qualitative difference between preventing a conception and destroying a life that has been conceived. The Church's prophetic stance against abortion is weakened by tying it too closely to artificial contraception, for most people do not see these two in the same light.

Back to married couples, then. If married couples don't practice something like NFP to avoid conception, then how are they to avoid being selfish and lustful with their sexuality?

A. That's one of the most absurd points made yet! Remember, the Church's prohibition of artificial contraception is not based on the point you just mentioned, but on the natural law morality we've already gone over. If NFP were necessary to safeguard marital chastity, then the Church would insist that married couples past the childbearing years and couples who are infertile should practice something like NFP. Let me ask you, now, why you suppose that couples using NFP don't get caught up in lustful activity? Why could they not be lustful in their sexual activity during the infertile periods? Why assume that they are not lustful in thought while they abstain during the fertile periods?

What you suggest is possible. Indeed, some of the contributors to this website have suggested as much. But what about the issue of marital chastity?

A. Chastity is very important, which is why we have dedicated a web page to this discussion. Indeed, it is possible that by tying marital chastity to a natural law foundation--which most couples have rejected--the Magisterium has diminished its influence in helping married couples come to a healthy and holy sexual relationship.

OK, but here's a good one! The Church's natural law approach to human sexuality has enabled Her to condemn artificial insemination, test tube babies, etc. If we do away with this approach, what can we stand on to condemn such practices?

A. It's one thing to say that a reproductive act ought to take place in an environment of love, but quite another to say that every sexual act ought to be open to reproduction.

But if you can separate the unitive from the reproductive, then why not vice versa?

A. First of all, you are already separating them with NFP, which the Church condones. Secondly, if we acknowledge the unitive aspect to be the more important, we can also affirm it as a necessary context for procreation. Children ought to be conceived in an environment of love, and that environment is furthered and deepened by the unitive aspect of human sexuality. An updated natural law approach which recognizes the unitive aspect as more important can still speak prophetically on this matter. Having said this, we note that the converse is not necessarily true. It does not follow that being open to procreation in every sexual act furthers and deepens the unitive good. The experience of countless couples suggests otherwise.

Q. If the Magisterium concedes the primary importance of the unitive aspect of human sexuality, won't more couples decide to remain childless?

A. If they want to remain childless, they can do so anyway by using NFP, which the Church condones. At any rate, the decision about when to bring a child into the world is very, very important, and one that couples should make carefully. "Surprises from God" are, more often than not, accepted by couples, but this is not the most rational way to conceive (and Humanae vitae, #16 does advocate the use of reason in governing the spacing of children). Frequently, such "surprises" create extreme hardships for a couple and, perhaps, siblings. Such unplanned pregnancies are more common among couples who do not use artificial contraception.

It needs to be said, here, too, that having a child is not the only way for a couple to be generative--even procreative! Some might want to remain childless to give themselves more fully to a ministry of some kind. In such cases, their marital relationship can serve as a support for one another, with the consequence of many being enriched. Then there are couples who know they would not make good parents, and so they choose to remain childless to pursue other interests and vocations. These are all valid--even spiritual--alternatives to having children. The Church does not affirm this very well, it seems to me..

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Summary and Conclusions

In this website, we have examined the Catholic prohibition against artificial contraception from a variety of angles. The conclusion we are left with is that this teaching has little ability to persuade reason in its favor. In such a context, the Magisterium is left with only one value to emphasize, and that is the issue of obedience to authority. This is a most un-Catholic alternative, for the Church has always insisted on the dignity of reason and the primacy of human conscience. What is obvious is that the Magisterium's ongoing insistence on the truth of its teaching in this matter is based more on authoritarianism than reason. It seems that, in the end, the issue for the Magisterium is more about preserving the illusion of papal inerrancy in this matter than truth itself.

The evils of abortion, euthanasia and other crimes against life are acknowledged and judged worthy of condemnation. They are indirectly connected with artificial contraception, but cannot be blamed entirely on it. Magisterial teachings which link these evils with contraception only weaken the Magisterium's prophetic voice against murderous practices.

We note that an overwhelming majority of Catholic married couples use artificial contraception. Does this not indicate that the present teaching has not been received by the Church? Is it not possible that the reason for this has more to do with the issues raised on this website than with human sinfulness? The Magisterium needs to reconsider a teaching that is so widely rejected.

Couples using NFP are to be commended, but not held out as the ideal. NFP and its sensitivity to natural cycles is perfect for couples who want to avoid the chemicals and devices used in artificial contraception. It should not be promoted as a "Catholic method of birth control," however, for the Church really has no rational basis for prohibiting the use of artificial contraception. Given the existence of the present teaching, however, couples who wish to form their consciences in the light of Church teaching are duty-bound to learn the present teaching, and to prayerfully reflect on its implications for their lives.

Young couples need to learn about marriage as a covenant, and marital intercourse as the celebration of that covenant. They need to learn to communicate about their needs and desires, to discipline themselves when necessary, and to enjoy themselves fully in their sexual relationship. Marital chastity is a value about which the Church has much to say in connection with its view of marriage as covenant, but there is no rational basis for linking chastity with NFP. A more covenantal approach to morality would be appropriate, here, not to mention more biblical. What kinds of sexual expression further the covenantal bond? How do children figure in? It seems that married couples themselves are best able to answer these questions, although the Church can surely supply them with wisdom.

In short, the Magisterium needs to revise its teachings on human sexuality to allow for artificial contraception in certain cases! At the present time, the celibate clergy from whom such teachings have ensued demonstrate little understanding of the real meaning of human sexuality in married life. This is why the teaching provided to date reflects such ignorance of marital sexuality and such insistence on abstract principles of natural law (and only a narrow version thereof). Church teaching on marriage and sexuality should, henceforth, reflect biblical principles concerning covenant and love. Much could be gained as well by consulting with married couples about their own experiences of sexuality. Such consultation was utilized on the commission authorized by Pope John XXIII to investigate the morality of artificial contraception. This commission--composed of married couples, bishops and theologians--recommended that the Magisterium allow couples to use artificial contraception, but Pope Paul VI took matters into his own hands and issued Humanae vitae. No teaching in modern times has divided the Church more than this one! Subsequent Popes have only worsened matters by upholding the encyclical.

Artificial contraception should be viewed as a gift to the people of this age which makes possible a deeper development of the unitive aspect of marital lovemaking. It is a rather new development in the history of human sexuality; ancient practices were crude and ineffective in comparison to what is available today. The Church applauds developments in modern medicine which have led to healing and the prolongation of human life. Why not so with artificial contraception, which is but another example of human reason surfacing tools to enhance the quality of human life? The answer to this, as we have seen, is the Magisterium's stubborn adherence to a natural law approach which is inherently contradictory and largely uninformed by modern science.

As with any development, however, people need to use artificial contraception wisely, for unintended side effects and misuse is a great danger, here (as the Magisterium has been quick to point out). Unfortunately, the Church has contributed nothing to the discussion on the wise use of contraceptives, except to deny that the question has any validity whatsoever. The consequence of this has left the overwhelming majority of married couples without recourse to Church teaching on how to use contraceptives in keeping with Gospel principles of love, honor and respect. For this lacunae in pastoral guidance, the Magisterium itself is to blame! Its repressive spirit has also contributed to a silencing of priests and pastoral counselors who are in a position to offer guidance to couples in this matter. Its punishment of theologians who have critiqued the present teaching gives bad example to the world, and shows the Magisterium to be close-minded and mean-spirited regarding the issues at stake.

The Magisterium of the Catholic Church is in a real predicament regarding the issue of artificial contraception! Because reasonable men occupy this trust, one would think they would be aware of the force of reason informing the arguments of those who dissent from the present teaching. Because they have continually reaffirmed the this teaching, however, they are trapped by their own claims to authoritatively represent the will of God in this matter. As any student of Church history knows, Magisterial teachings have changed in the past, so a change here would not be unprecedented. One thinks of past teachings on usury and slavery, for example; these teachings have undergone complete reversals through time To grow is to expand one's understanding, and this has happened during the course of Church history in many areas. The current reluctance to change is a refusal to grow, thus giving evidence of a most unwholesome attachment to power and control. This, too, gives bad example to the rest of the world!

Jesus said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." May all those who have read through the reflections on this website be lead to a greater understanding of truth, and a greater willingness to make love a living reality in marital sexuality.

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Recommendations and Addresses

If, after reading some of the pages in this web site, you feel moved to take action regarding the Church's teaching on birth control, this is what we recommend:

1. Continue to inform yourself about this matter. See the links and references pages in this web site for recommended reading and web sites.
2. Write a letter or send an E Mail to Church leaders, expressing your views. Be respectful. A Bishop is to be addressed as The Most Reverend in address. A Cardinal may simply be called Cardinal. Start with your own Bishop, and then contact others.
3. What we recommend is that our Church leaders adopt the recommendations made by the Birth Control Commission in 1966, part of which is quoted as follows (you might consider copy-pasting this quote in your letter):

"A right ordering toward the good of the child within the conjugal and familial community pertains to the essence of human sexuality. Therefore the morality of sexual acts between married people takes its meaining first of all and specifically from the ordering of their actions in a fruitful married life, that is, one which is practiced with responsible, generous and prudent parenthood. It does not depend upon the direct fecundity of each and every particular act. . . So the Church, particularly through the teaching of Pius XII, has come to realize more fully that marriage has another meaning and another end besides that of procreation alone, even though it remains wholly and definitely ordered to procreation, though not always immediately.

"What has been condemned in the past and remains so today is the unjustified refusal of life, arbitrary human intervention for the sake of moments of egotistic pleasure; in short, the rejection of procreation as a specific task of marriage. In the past, the Church could not speak other than she did, because the problem of birth control did not confront human consciousness in the same way. Today, having clearly recognized the legitimacy and even the duty of regulating births, she recognizes too that human intervention in the process of the marriage act for reasons drawn from the finality of marriage itself should not always be excluded, provided that the criteria of morality are always safeguarded.

"If an aritrarily contraceptive mentality is to be condemned as has always been the Church's view, an intervention to regulate conception in a spirit of true, reasonable and generous charity does not deserve to be, because if it were, other goods of marriage might be endangered. So what is always to be condemned is not the regulation of conception, but an egotistic married life, refusing a creative opening-out of the family circle, and so refusing a truly human--and therefore truly Christian--married love. This is the anti-conception that is against the Christian ideal of marriage.

"As for the means that husband and wife can legitimately employ, it is their task to decide these together, without drifting into arbitrary decisions but always taking into account the objective criteria of morality. These criteria are in the first place those that relate to the totality of married life and sexuality." (Robert Hoyt, ed., "On Responsible Parenthood," and "Papal Approaches"--Documents from the Papal Commission, The Birth Control Debate, pp. 87, 106-107. Kansas City, MO. National Catholic Reporter)."

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Logical Fallacies of the Anti-ABC Critics

For more information on fallacies, see

ABC = Artificial Birth Control (emphasizing non-abortion means, here)
NFP = Natural Family Planning

What follows is a listing of poor arguments made by critics of artificial contraception which, taken as a whole, give evidence of a judgmentalism toward ABC users and an appeal to authority and emotion that fails to persuade reason in behalf of the Catholic Church's condemnation of this practice. One is even moved to inquire if positions that are often so extreme and so transparently fallacious can make any claim to a connection with the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth. It’s one thing to attempt to uphold the Church’s teaching, and quite a commendable thing at that. But it’s quite another to misrepresent the facts of the situation and to reason so poorly. Since many of the above positions seem to be promoted by teachers of NFP in diocesan programs, one must also inquire of the quality of catechesis that such teachers are receiving.
Diocesan leaders take note

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The Fallacious Statements:

1. ABC is a contraceptive practice but NFP is not.

2. NFP is natural; ABC is not.

3. The human fertility cycle was ordained by God to provide times for procreative and non-procreative sexual activity.

4. NFP users are open to new life; ABC users are not.

5. ABC users are “doing something” to render the sex act infertile; NFP does nothing to thwart fertility.

6. ABC users view fertility as a disease; NFP users view fertility as a blessing.

7. NFP users have a lower divorce rate; therefore the practice promotes a higher moral and spiritual standard for married couples.

8. NFP is more moral because it calls for more sacrifice and self-denial (the cross).

9. Pope Paul VI predicted all sorts of problems that have come true; therefore the moral reasoning in Humane vitae must be correct.

10. ABC opens the door to legitimizing gay marriages, adultery, fornication and other problems.

11. ABC use leads to more abortions.

12. If people really studied HV, they would better appreciate the Church’s teaching and would avoid using ABC (lack of proper catechesis is the primary problem).

13. More Protestants and talk-show celebrities like Dr. Laura are coming to appreciate NFP; therefore the moral reasoning in HV is correct for it has the kind of wide appeal you would expect from a teaching based on Natural Law.

14. The Church has rejected ABC for two thousand years, which goes to show that the teaching is consistent and cannot be changed.

15. People who use ABC are more selfish and sexually irresponsible than people who use NFP.

16. ABC users do not give themselves fully to one another in their sexual expression; NFP users do.

This point was made by Pope John Paul II in his 1980 encyclical, Familiaris Consortio. In this encyclical, the Pope is clearly saying that couples who use artificial contraception are incapable of giving themselves totally to one another, that they are guilty of a "falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love." A web page on the web site takes issue with the reasoning here, which we will recount below:

It turns out that Pope John Paul II's approach to sex as a "language of love" contains the same inherently contradictory principles as Humanae Vitae. Indeed, it is naught but an attempt to present the traditional teaching using the highly personalist language of Gaudium et spes and some of the Pope's earlier writings. Despite the many good points in Familiaris Consortio, this part of the encyclical is unable to persuade reason in favor of the Pope's vision for married couples and their sexual relationship. It is based on a gratuitous assumption that is logically inconsistent and uninformed by the experiences of married couples!

Links and References on Birth Control

This section contains links and references which pertain to Catholic teaching on birth control. Submissions are welcomed. Send to .

U. S. Catholic Survey on Birth Control. A leading Catholic magazine tells it like it is!
The Catholic Encyclopedia
: a first stop for any researcher. Be careful, however; the one on the web is from the turn of the century. The reactionary transcribers haven't seen fit to do the recent translation.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994). A superb compendium of the Catholic Faith, despite its
inexcusable use of sexist language. Watch out! The one on the internet put out by various groups is from the Council of Trent. I don't think the new one is online yet.

Kaiser, Robert Blair. The Politics of Sex and Religion. Kansas City. Leaven. 1985. An excellent piece of investigative reporting about the birth control commission established by Pope Paul VI. This commission recommended in favor of allowing Catholic couples to decide for themselves what family planning methods they were to use.

Kaufman, Philip. Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic. Bloomington, Ind.: Myers-Stone Press, 1989. An excellent discussion of the history of the birth control and annulment controversies.

Kosnik, Anthony, et al. Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought. Ramsey, NJ. Paulist Press. 1977. This book, condemned by the Vatican and criticized by bishops, is the fruit of a study commissioned by The Catholic Theological Society of America. It includes excellent summaries of the history of Church teaching and modern human sciences.

McClory, Robert. Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, and How Humane Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church. New York: Crossroad, 1995.

Contact Information

We receive several hundred e-mails each year, and we respond to them all. If you would like to join the theological discussion, or send your questions or comments, please use the link at the bottom of this page. You might review the sampling of letters published on the web site, however, to see if your remarks have already been addressed.

Note to Students: Many of the e-mails we receive inquire of the author of the web site for purposes of citing material from this web site in an essay or research paper. As noted on the Home Page, however, the contributors to this web site have chosen to remain anonymous--mostly because they work for the Catholic Church and would probably lose their jobs if their identity was known. All of them have doctorate degrees, however, and are experts in biology, moral theology, and Church history. The way to site an article from this web site is described below.

Bibliographic Citation: The appropriate MLA citation for an article in this web site is as follows:

"Pope John Paul II and the Language of Love." Birth Control and the Catholic Church. 29 December 2000. <>

- change page title and page url as needed;
- see home page for most recent date of web site revision
- MLA does not require the author's name when it is not given: (see MLA manual, #4.9.4, and 4.7.9)

E-Mail Address: we are no longer accepting email contacts.