Catholic Teaching on Contraception: For Married Couples Only?

Author: E. Christian Brugger


Catholic Teaching on Contraception: For Married Couples Only?

Condemnation of Contraception Is a Universal Norm

Here is a question on bioethics asked by a ZENIT reader and answered by the fellows of the Culture of Life Foundation.

Q: Does the Catholic Church’s condemnation of contraception bind only on married couples or is it a universal moral norm?

E. Christian Brugger replies:

The Church’s teaching on contraception can only be rightly understood in the context of its wider teaching on the nature and goods of marriage.  But the norm itself against contraceptive acts, taught and defended since the early Church, binds universally — in the language of moral theology, semper et pro semper, without exception.  It singles out a particular type of freely chosen behavior, namely, deliberate acts intended to render sexual intercourse infertile.  

Sexual intercourse, the tradition holds, is legitimate and good (and, for Christians, grace-imparting) when and only when it is marital.  Marriage is a one-flesh communion of persons with two defining goods: the unity and perfection of the spouses and the procreation and education of children.  Intercourse that is marital will always respect the full one-flesh significance of the marital relationship by retaining a unitive and procreative character.  

The normative work this does in sexual ethics is primarily negative.  Sexual acts that intentionally disregard either the unitive or the procreative goods of marriage are non-marital and therefore wrongful acts.  Intercourse between non-married partners violates the unitive good, as do all coercive sexual acts.  Contraceptive acts will against the procreative good; they are therefore non-marital, even if between married persons, and so wrongful.  They are wrongful precisely because by definition they entail a will against the procreative good of marriage.  Let me repeat: all non-marital sex is wrongly chosen, both inside and outside of marriage.  Fornication is sex between non-married persons. Masterbatory acts are non-unitive.  Contraceptive acts are non-procreative and non-unitive, insofar as rejecting the procreative meaning of sexual intercourse they do not realize between couples an integral one-flesh union.

Therefore, whenever a man or woman, married or unmarried, engaging in sexual intercourse, believe they will or might bring into existence a new human life, and consequently adopt any action — before, during, or after intercourse — specifically intended as an end or means to prevent procreation, they violate the procreative significance of sexual intercourse.  They contracept.  And contraceptive acts in Catholic tradition have always been judged to be intrinsically evil.  (The method adopted to render sex sterile is incidental to the application of the norm.) 

If contraceptive acts were wrong for married persons, but legitimate for unmarried persons, they would not be wrong per se, would not be intrinsically evil, but circumstantially evil.  Although some Catholics hold this, the view seems clearly to be inconsistent with both the Church’s theological and doctrinal traditions.

Doctrinally speaking, John Paul II taught in Veritatis Splendor (1993) that “contraceptive practices” are intrinsically evil, by which he meant that “the choice of this kind of behavior [by which “the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile”] is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbor” (nos. 52, 80).  

He was teaching no more than his predecessor Pope Pius XI taught in Casti Connubii (1930):“But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good.  Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious” (no. 54).  

It is true that when Pius XII in his Address to Italian Midwives (1951), Paul VI in Humanae Vitae (no. 12, 14; 1968), and John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio (no. 32; 1981) reformulate the negative norm against contraceptive acts, they do so in the context of discussions of conjugal chastity in marriage.  But this is, as I have said, because the Catholic teaching on contraception cannot possibly be understood without an understanding of the nature and goods of marriage.  Its consideration therefore should always take place — whether for academic or pastoral purposes — within a wider consideration of marriage.

But not one of their teachings is formulated in such a way as to exclude the application of the norm to non-married couples.  Pius XII for example teaches: “Every attempt of either husband or wife in the performance of the conjugal act or in the development of its natural consequences which aims at depriving it of its inherent force and hinders the procreation of new life is immoral.”  But since he is addressing a gathering of Italian midwives, who are delivering babies for married couples, his reference to “husband or wife” makes perfect sense.  His statements should not be interpreted as absolutely circumscribing the scope of the negative norm to married persons.  

Similarly, when John Paul II teaches in Familiaris Consortio (FC) that the “language” of contraceptive acts between married persons objectively contradicts the language of marital self-giving, he intends to single out the objective harm that these acts do within marriage and to spouses.  But since he taught later in Veritatis Splendor that contraceptive acts are intrinsically evil, semper et pro semper, we know he did not intend his teaching in FC to specifically settle the wider question of whether contraceptive acts are legitimate for non-married persons.

If however doubt still lingers as to the scope of the authoritative Catholic teaching on contraception, an appeal to older formulations should dispel it.  A penitential manual in the 10th century written by the Benedictine monk, Regino of Prüm, includes all persons, married and unmarried, within the scope of the negative norm: “If anyone (si aliquis) for the sake of satisfying sexual desire or in deliberate hatred does something to a man or to a woman so that no children may be born of him or her, or gives something to drink so that he cannot generate or she conceive, let it be held as homicide” [1].  This text was incorporated into canon law in the 13th century in the form of the decretal Si aliquis.  The collection of moral norms in which this is found remained part of Western Catholic canon law up to the twentieth century (nearly 700 years!). 

The theological tradition is similarly consistent.  When Thomas Aquinas formulates his argument against contraceptive-type acts, he singles out every deliberate attempt to render a male ejaculatory act (“emission of semen”) incapable of generating.  In fact, his discussion of contraceptive acts is in the context of a discussion of why intercourse between non-married persons is wrong [2].  For Aquinas, this type of act is contra naturam (against nature).  Aquinas’ contra naturam argument against contraceptive acts dominates Catholic theological literature on the question up until the middle of the 20th century.

Since texts of canon law going back 700 years, papal encyclicals in the 20th century and the most influential theological arguments in Catholic history formulate the norm against contraceptive-type acts as universal, applied to every act by every person intended to render sexual acts sterile, the view that the Church’s condemnation only applies within marriage — and therefore does not apply to (i.e., the acts can be legitimate and even obligatory for) fornicators, adulterers and prostitutes — ought to be set aside as inconstant with Catholic traditional teaching.


[1] Churchly Disciplines and the Christian Religion 2.89, PL 132:301; see Noonan, Contraception, 1965, p. 168.
[2] Summa Contra Gentiles, book III, ch. 122, nos. 5, 9. 

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E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics and director of the Fellows Program at the Culture of Life Foundation; and the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.

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