CONTRACEPTION, ABSTINENCE, AND RESPONSIBLE PARENTHOOD
We live in a culture in which contraception is widely accepted, even by
many Roman Catholics, as a perfectly natural and intelligent way of coping
with serious difficulties. The attitude expressed in 1969 by Robert Hoyt,
then managing editor of the "National Catholic Reporter," is surely one
that is shared by many: "contraception doesn't seem to hurt anyone and it
helps solve some serious problems; what could be wrong with it?"1 In
addition, many people claim that there is no moral difference between
contraception and periodic abstinence as a means of regulating conception.
This view is particularly common among Roman Catholic theologians who
oppose the Church's teaching on the immorality of contraception.2 These
people regard periodic continence, sometimes referred to as "rhythm" or
"Vatican roulette," as an especially "unnatural" and "insensitive" way of
meeting the difficulties married persons encounter in their struggle to
exercise parenthood responsibly. One theologian, James Burtchaell, C.S.C.,
of the University of Notre Dame, voices this view in this way: "Of all
these methods of contraception I should be tempted to think of rhythm as
the most unnatural of all, since it inhibits not only conception, but the
expression of affection. It is . . . a base theology that would want
intercourse to harmonize with the involuntary endocrine rhythm of ovulation
and menstruation, while forsaking the greater spiritual and emotional ebbs
and flows which should also govern sexual union."3
Many Roman Catholic writers, furthermore, including such well-known and
influential individuals as Bernard Haring4 and Louis Janssens,5 argue that
contraception is morally justifiable when there is a real need to avoid
conception precisely because "rhythm" or periodic continence is morally
acceptable. They hold that periodic continence is simply one form or method
of contraception; it is "natural" contraception as opposed to "artificial"
contraception. Since the magisterium of the Church has already approved
periodic continence or "natural" contraception as a way of regulating
births, they continue, it is illogical to exclude other forms of
contraception such as the pill, the use of condoms and diaphragms and
spermicidal jellies. In their opinion the choice of a method of
contraception ought to be left to the married couple involved.6 There is
little doubt that the views described here are widely held by many in our
culture and by many Roman Catholics.
It is therefore imperative for anyone who wishes to live by the truths
taught by the Church throughout its history and reaffirmed in our day by
Pope Paul VI in "Humanae vitae" and by Pope John Paul II in many addresses
and in his challenging Apostolic Exhortation on the Christian Family,
"Familiaris Consortio," to know why the following propositions are true:
(1) there is a crucial moral difference between the choice to contracept
and the choice to abstain periodically from conjugal relations in order to
regulate conception; (2) contraceptive intercourse is inherently wicked;
and (3) the choice to avoid pregnancies by freely choosing to abstain from
relations during fertile periods while freely choosing to express marital
love in the marital act during infertile periods can be a morally right way
of fulfilling spousal and parental responsibilities.
These three propositions are obviously interrelated; and the purpose of
this chapter is to show why they are true. Yet before I attempt to do this,
it is advisable to make some preliminary observations that will help the
reader to distinguish the substantive question at issue between those who
defend and those who reject contraceptive intercourse.
The debate is "not" over the need to regulate the conception and birth of
children. Parties to both sides of the debate recognize that there can be
valid, indeed morally obligating reasons, for avoiding a pregnancy. It
could be irresponsible for a married couple to allow, through their own
free choice, a child to be conceived, not because the conception of a child
is an evil--far from it--but because the parents could not, for various
reasons, give this child the care and love it needs and to which it has a
right, or because the pregnancy might be a serious threat to the life of
The debate is "not" over the need of married persons to express their love
and affection for each other. Husband and wife are obliged to care for each
other and to manifest their love for each other. This is particularly true
of Christian husbands and wives, for the love meant to exist between them
is a love intended to be both a sign and a participation in the love that
exists between Christ and His bride, the Church.
The debate is over the means or human acts that husband and wife choose in
order to be responsive to their call to share their life and love and to
communicate this life and love to a new generation of human persons.
1. THE MORAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CONTRACEPTION AND PERIODIC ABSTINENCE
Those who claim that contraception and periodic abstinence are morally
equivalent frequently bring forward two principal considerations. They
first allege that the activities are morally the same because the
"intentions" of both contracepting couples and of spouses who practice
periodic continence in order to regulate conception are the same. They then
assert that the two are morally equivalent because they lead to the same
result, namely, the avoidance of conception.7
The first of these assertions is plausible only because those who make it
play on the ambiguity of the term "intention," thereby confusing the whole
matter. The fallacious character of this allegation has been lucidly
demonstrated by the brilliant English philosopher Elisabeth Anscombe, who
puts the matter this way:
"The reason why people are confused about intention, and why they sometimes
think there is no difference between contraceptive intercourse and the use
of infertile times to avoid contraception, is this. They don't notice the
difference between 'intention' when it means the intentionalness of the
thing you're doing--that you're doing 'this' on purpose--and when it means
a 'further or 'accompanying' intention 'with which you do the thing. For
example, I make a table; that's an intentional action because I am doing
just 'that' on purpose. I have the 'further' intention, of, say, earning my
living, doing my job by making the table. Contraceptive intercourse and
intercourse using infertile times may be alike in respect of further
intention, and these further intentions may be good, justified, excellent.
This the Pope (Paul VI in 'Humanae Vitae') has noted. He sketched such a
situation and said: "It cannot be denied that in both cases [contracepting
couples and spouses using infertile times] the married couple, for
acceptable reasons," (for that's how he imagined the case) "are perfectly
clear in their intention to avoid children and mean to secure that none
will be born."8
Anscombe's point is quite clear. The term "intention" can refer either to
the intention to do "this" (in this case, either to contracept or to
abstain from marital relations during fertile times) or to the further
intention with which one does "this intentional deed." The further
intention is one thing (and it can be either good or bad) and the present
intention to do this is another (and it can be either good or bad). The
contraception advocate seeking to show the moral equivalence of
contraception and periodic abstinence fails to distinguish between the two
sorts of intentions and claims fallaciously that the "acts chosen" (the
intention to contracept and the intention to abstain during fertile times)
by contraceptors and by periodic abstainers are the same because the
further intentions of both may well be, as Pope Paul VI himself
acknowledges, the same.
Further clarification of this matter may be possible if we call the further
"intentions" of both contracepting couples and those practicing periodic
continence their "motives" for acting and call their "present intentions"
to do what they do (namely, contracept or abstain at fertile times) the
"acts" or "means" they choose to attain their further intentions or
When the motivations for avoiding conception are good, we can then say that
contraceptors and periodic abstainers equally "mean" well.9 But one's
motive or one's meaning well is not the only nor indeed the morally
decisive consideration in determining the morality of one's acts. Motives
and their meaning are one thing, whereas the acts that one chooses to do in
order to realize one's motives are another.
It is obviously possible for a well-motivated person to do something that
he or she ought not to do. Let me illustrate this by looking at ways in
which we may choose to express our compassion and love for a dying person.
We may unfortunately choose to kill him "mercifully" in order to relieve
him of the suffering he may be experiencing. If we do so, our act may
indeed have been well motivated (our "further" intention may have been
good), for we are choosing to kill him not because we dislike him but
rather because we want to end his suffering. But the act we choose to do
(our present intention) is without question an act of killing, and it is
this act that we here and now intend and cannot not intend, and in choosing
to do this specific act we are choosing to make ourselves to be killers. We
may, of course, in order to express our compassion and mercy for our dying
friend, choose to accompany him in his dying, to care for him in his dying.
We may even choose to stop using procedures that are no longer obligatory
and in this way "permit" or "allow" our friend to die his own death, but we
do not choose to kill him or to make ourselves to be killers. In both
instances our motives ("further intentions") may be the same, but the acts
we freely choose to do (our "present intentions") are quite different sorts
The same is true with respect to contraceptive intercourse and periodic
abstinence during fertile times as acts freely chosen in order to be
responsive to spousal and parental obligations. At this point I am not
interested in analyzing the moral meaning of these acts of choice (this
will occupy us in subsequent sections), but simply in showing that there is
a real difference between the choice to contracept and the choice to
abstain periodically from marital relations as a means of attaining the
goal of responsible parenthood (the further intention or motive).
From this it should be quite clear that the first assertion made by those
who seek to show the moral equivalence of contraception and periodic
abstinence is fallacious and misleading. What of the second assertion,
namely, that the two ways of exercising responsible parenthood are morally
the same because both have the same results, i.e. the avoidance of
This claim too is fallacious; moreover, it indicates the
consequentialistic, ends justify-the-means mentality of the proponents of
contraception. Our acts indeed "get things done," that is, have results or
consequences, but the moral meaning or intelligibility of our acts is not
determined by their consequences. For in addition to getting things done,
our acts "get things said," and what they have to say is of paramount moral
significance.10 We can get the same thing done through quite different
actions, and while the thing done may be very good the action through which
it is done may be very bad. It was, for instance, good to bring an end to
the Second World War. Yet the choice to end this war by devastating the
cities and populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not a good choice, and
the acts of devastating them were not morally good acts.
Human beings, as Eric D'Arcy has noted,11 have a propensity to redescribe
their actions in terms of their intended consequences or results. Thus
advocates of contraception, in particular Roman Catholic theologians who
dissent from the teaching of the Church, like to "redescribe," as Richard
A. McCormick, S.J., does, the act, of contraception as a "marriage-saving
or stabilizing act."12 Now, while it may, at times, be quite truthful to
describe an act in terms of its results (for instance, it's quite truthful
to say that Macbeth killed Duncan instead of saying that Macbeth stabbed
Duncan and as a result Duncan died), it is not always truthful to do this.
And when we redescribe an act in such a way that we fail to reveal or even
conceal the nature of the activity in question, then we are simply being
dishonest. I suggest that the effort to describe the act that contracepting
couples choose to do as a "marriage-saving or stabilizing act" is quite
disingenuous, for in saying this one conceals from the mind "what it is"
that the couple is choosing to do (intention in the first sense).
That there is a real difference between contraceptive intercourse and
periodic abstinence is demonstrable. In contraceptive intercourse there is
a double-barrelled choice: one chooses (a) to have sexual intercourse, the
sort of action known to be "open to the transmission of life" and (b) to
make this action to be closed to the transmission of life, i.e., to set
aside or destroy its procreative character. Choice (b) is what makes the
intercourse contraceptive; it is the choice to do something which, as Pope
Paul VI put it, "either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its
accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences,
proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation
impossible."13 This is what the contraceptor chooses to do. This is what
the contraceptor's "intention," in the sense of the "present intention" to
do "this," bears on, no matter what his or her "further intentions" may be.
Spouses who choose to exercise their responsibilities through the practice
of periodic continence choose to do quite different deeds; they execute
entirely different choices. They choose, first of all, "not" to have
conjugal relations when there is some probability that conception will
result. They obviously choose to do this not because they regard conjugal
relations as wrong. Quite to the contrary, they recognize that the marital
act is a great good, worthy of human love and respect, for this act is
meant to be the expression of the love they bear for each other. Nor do
they choose to refrain from this act because they consider conception as an
evil; rather it too is a great good, but it is a great good that one can
rightly respect and love only when the life conceived can be properly
educated and cared for. They thus choose to forego the good of marital
relations here and now because they recognize that it would be
irresponsible to cause a pregnancy at this time. They likewise choose to
forego marital relations here and now because they are unwilling to choose
to engage in the marital act, the act "open to the transmission of human
life," and to make it closed to this good. They are unwilling, in other
words, to contracept, to act in an anti-procreative way. They refuse to
regard their fertility as a disease or curse that they must get rid of.
From the above it should be evident that different sorts of "intentions"
are manifested in acts of contraceptive intercourse and in periodic
abstinence. Contracepting couples and spouses who seek to regulate
conception through periodic abstinence execute different sorts of choices.
The difference between their ways of acting are not, as Charles E. Curran
and others endlessly assert,14 rooted in the "physical structure' of the
acts chosen but rather in the human intentions and choices that are
executed. Why the one sort of intention and choice (the contraceptive
choice) is morally wicked and why the other (the choice to abstain
periodically) is not will occupy us in later sections of this chapter. But
I believe that it should now be clear why the allegation of advocates of
contraception that the two sorts of acts are morally equivalent is
Yet before turning to an examination of the morally evil character of
contraceptive intercourse, I think it worthwhile to dispose of another
argument employed by some, for instance, Louis Janssens and Michael
Novak,15 to equate periodic abstinence with contraception.
This argument alleges that spouses employing periodic abstinence are
placing a "temporal" barrier between sperm and egg, in contradistinction to
those who place "spatial" barriers between sperm and ovum by use of condoms
and diaphragms or "chemical" barriers by use of pills and spermicidal
jellies. While the kinds of barriers erected may differ, so this argument
holds, the actions are morally equivalent insofar as they entail the choice
to erect barriers between sperm and ovum.
This argument is utterly fallacious. First of all, it does not take
experience seriously, and secondly it ignores the distinction between what
is directly willed or intended and what is not directly willed or intended.
It does not take experience seriously because it is an entirely inadequate
and misleading description of what spouses who regulate conception by
abstaining from marital relations are doing. If one were to tell them that
"what" they are choosing to do is to place a spatial barrier between sperm
and ovum, they would be quite astounded. For what they are choosing to do,
as we have already seen, is something quite different. They are choosing,
for legitimate reasons, to abstain from the marital act during fertile
times, and they then choose to engage in this act, to which they surely
have a right, during infertile times. They are not executing a choice to
erect any barriers, temporal, spatial, or chemical.
This argument also fails to recognize the morally significant difference
between what is directly willed and intended and what is not. Contraceptive
intercourse involving the placing of "spatial" or "chemical" barriers
between sperm and ovum--and I think that this is, once again, a
"redescription" of the deed chosen in terms of consequences--of necessity
includes the choice (intent) that this act of intercourse be closed to the
transmission of human life, that it be anti- and not merely non-
procreative. We have already seen this in analyzing the nature of the
contraceptive choice. The direct intention of persons who regulate
conception by periodic abstinence is precisely the intent not to have
sexual relations and not to contracept; it is precisely the intent to
"abstain" from coition rather than make coition anti-procreative. Any
alleged "temporal" barrier between sperm and ovum is definitely not
directly willed or intended by them.
In the foregoing pages I have tried to show that there is a real difference
in the sorts of human choices executed and acts intended ,by those who
practice contraception and those who practice periodic continence.
Theologians who advocate contraception insist, and rightly so, that it is
imperative to take seriously the experience of people in assessing the
moral character of human acts.16 Their problem is that they fail to take
seriously--or rather caricature--the experience of married couples who seek
to express their love and respect for one another and for their personal,
sexual power of procreation (which advocates of contraception depersonalize
to the level of a "reproductive function."17) by refusing, through the
choice to contracept, to rid themselves of it and regard it as here and now
not a blessing but a curse, not a good but a disease.
2. THE INHERENT WICKEDNESS OF CONTRACEPTIVE INTERCOURSE
Contraceptive intercourse, as we have seen, of necessity requires the
twofold choice (a) to engage in sexual intercourse, an act known to be the
sort of kind of act "open," as Pope Paul VI put it, "to the transmission of
human life,"18 and (b) to make this act to be another sort or kind of act,
one "closed" to the transmission of human life; and it is choice (b) that
makes the act to be contra-ceptive, anti-procreative. And it is choice (b)
that is, as we shall see more clearly as we proceed, morally wicked.
Anscombe has put the matter quite succinctly by saying
"contraceptive intercourse is faulted, not on account of this further
'intention' [to avoid a pregnancy for legitimate reasons], but because of
the kind of intentional act you are doing. The action is not left by you as
the kind of act by which human life is transmitted, but is purposely [i.e.
intentionally] rendered infertile, and so changed to another sort of act
In this passage Anscombe does not give the reasons why the choice to make
the act open to the transmission of human life to be an act opposed to its
transmission is an immoral choice. This is a matter that will be made clear
below. Yet it is important to recall here a truth that I sought to develop
in Chapter 4 ("Conjugal Love"), where I argued that the "marital act" is
one open to the goods of marriage, to the goods of marital faith and love
and of children and that the choice to repudiate, in this act, any of these
marital goods makes the act not to be the "marital act" but rather simply a
sexual act between spouses.
I think it important, prior to setting forth the reasons, grounded in human
intelligence and central to the teaching of the Church, behind the judgment
that contraceptive intercourse is inherently wicked, first to comment on
the defective moral reasoning employed by those who defend contraception.
In my judgment there are two serious errors that the defenders of
contraception make in their analyses, and both errors are integrally
associated with their proportionalistic, consequentialistic mode of moral
reasoning.20 These two errors are "extrinsicism" and "dualism."
In analyzing the principal reasons why many advocates of contraception
allege the moral equivalence of this way of acting and periodic continence,
we have already noted the consequentialistic characteristics of their
reasoning. They confuse the two senses of intention and they seek to
"redescribe" the choice to contracept in terms of the further intention
accompanying the intention to do this, i.e. to contracept. Thus McCormick
"redescribes" the act of contraception chosen by married persons as a
"marriage-saving or marriage-stabilizing act"21 (surely something good),
and the Sulpician moralist Philip S. Keane would seem to "redescribe" the
choice of non-married sexual partners, particularly teenagers, as
"preventing an-irresponsible-pregnancy"22 (again, surely something good).
This move to redescribe actions in terms of hoped-for results is, as we
have seen, a typical consequentialist ploy.
It is also, I submit, a form of "extrinsicism" in ethics. Those who argue
that a human act is morally good if the act chosen is the one that will
realize the greater proportion of good over evil--and this is the key claim
of proportionalists/consequentialists23--claim that no human acts,
described in nonmoral terms, are intrinsically wicked in a "moral" sense.24
The act is morally good or morally wicked, they assert, on the basis of the
"proportionate good" for the sake of which the act is chosen, and this
proportionate good is itself the "further" intention (e.g., in
contraception, "saving" the marriage or "preventing" an irresponsible
pregnancy) accompanying the intention here and now to do "this" (e.g., in
contraception, to contracept). The proportionate good, in other words, is
"extrinsic" to the act one is presently choosing to do. I submit that the
proportionalist/consequentialist, by making the good one hopes to achieve
as a result of choosing to do this specific act the morally decisive
factor, eviscerates our choices and acts of their intelligibility. He is
interested in what our acts "get done" and ignores what they have to say.
When I first raised this criticism against the
proportionalist/consequentialist mode of moral reasoning, one of its
leading proponents, Richard A. McCormick, author of the exceptionally
influential "Notes on Moral Theology" that appear annually in the
prestigious journal Theological Studies, reacted by asserting that "it no
longer serves the purpose of constructive moral discourse to argue" in this
way.25 I believe that his response simply fails to answer the criticism.
McCormick himself had written, and it was partially on the basis of what he
had written (and never subsequently retracted) that the criticism of
extrinsicism was raised, that "it is the presence or absence of a
proportionate reasons," i.e., of the "further" good to which the present
act is ordered, a good "further" intended by the one "now intending" this
act, "which determines whether my [present] action" is morally good or
evil.26 Thus to claim that the mode of moral reasoning advocated by
McCormick and other champions of contraception entails a form of
extrinsicism does not, in my opinion, destroy the purposes of constructive
moral discourse. It is simply to take the position seriously as it is
presented by its advocates. If it is not a form of extrinsicism to
redescribe the contraceptive act as a "marriage-saving or stabilizing act"
or as a "preventing-an-irresponsible-pregnancy act," then it is not a form
of extrinsicism to describe the act of devastating Hiroshima and Nagasaki
as a "war-ending act."
The arguments used to justify contraception are, moreover, rooted in a
dualistic understanding of the human person. Proportionalists hold that it
is necessary to arrange the various goods of the human person into a
hierarchy, to "commensurate" them, and, in cases of conflict (such as the
conflict experienced by married persons in carrying out their
responsibilities) to choose that alternative way of acting that will serve
the "higher" good. The consequentialists contend that the unitive good of
marital intercourse is "higher' than the procreative good, and that the
latter, too, is served by the choice to contracept in the marriage as a
whole.27 The difficulty with this aspect of
proportionalistic/consequentialistic reasoning is that it requires us to
"commensurate" diverse kinds of human goods. As Germain G. Grisez, John
Finnis, and others have noted, it is simply impossible to carry out this
commensuration in the way the proportionalists require, simply because the
goods in question are incommensurable. To commensurate the good of
procreation with the good of friendship, for example, is like trying to
compare the length of a rainbow with the number of pages in this book. One
could do this only if one could reduce the things to be compared to a
common denominator, and there is simply no common denominator to which
basic human goods like life or friendship can be reduced.23
McCormick, in fact, has now admitted that it is not possible to compare the
different goods of human persons. Yet after admitting this, McCormick
continues to affirm that nonetheless, "in fear and trembling, we
commensurate." In affirming this, however, he really admits that the
proportionalism he advocates is in fact incapable of doing the job for
which it was designed. It was intended as a moral method for determining,
prior to choice, by intelligent judgments, which alternative courses of
action are right and wrong.
Yet he now admits, by saying that "we adopt a hierarchy," that basic
choices or commitments "precede" our judgments. What the
consequentialist/proportionalist does, in short, is to state his
preferences. And it is here that the dualism of this position, with respect
to contraception, is made manifest. For, as I have said, the
consequentialist/proportionalist considers the "procreative" dimension of
our sexuality to be measurably inferior to its "unitive" dimension. It is
now necessary to substantiate this charge.
Contraceptive intercourse, as we have seen, is contra-ceptive because it
necessarily includes the choice to set aside or destroy the openness of the
act of sexual union to the good of transmitting life. The person who
chooses to have intercourse contraceptively is saying that it is not good
that this act is open to life, that it is not good that he or she is
fertile. Rather the contraceptor is saying that his or her procreative
power, his or her fertility is, here and now, not something good, but to
the contrary a disvalue or disease or evil. He or she is saying that
fertility is not a wonderfully good power of the human person, something
participating in the goodness of the human person. It may be a useful good,
or "bonum utile," something good for something other than itself, a
"functional" good that can and indeed ought to be destroyed when it comes
into conflict with what is really humanly and personally good, namely the
unitive good of human sexuality.
Those who advocate contraception recognize that this is so. The so called
"Majority Report" of the papal commission on the regulation of natality,
which sums up practically all the arguments ever given to justify
contraception, makes this abundantly clear. For it is evident that the
authors of this report consider the procreative power of the human person
"merely" a biological good, a "bonum utile," not a personal good, a "bonum
honestum" or "personale." They regard it as a "subpersonal" or "subhuman"
aspect of the human person that "becomes" personally and humanly good
"only" when it is assumed into consciousness and made the object of
personal choice.30 To regard the procreative dimension of our sexuality as
of itself merely biological, is, I submit a form of dualism, a dualism that
eventually leads to the position that some "living human bodies" are not
persons e.g., the unborn child, the comatose dying individual). This
dualist is blatant in one prominent Catholic advocate of contraception,
Daniel C. Maguire, who claims that contraception was also, for a very long
time, impeded by the physicalistic ethic that left moral man at the mercy
of his biology. He had no choice but to conform to the rhythms of his
physical nature and to accept its determinations obediently. Only gradually
did technological man discover that he was morally free to intervene and to
achieve birth control by choice."
To put it briefly, those who accept contraception recognize that it
requires an anti-procreative choice, the choice to set aside or get rid of
or destroy fertility and the openness of the act of coition to the good of
transmitting human life. Yet they argue that this choice is morally good
"because" the procreative aspect of our sexuality is not, for them, a
personal good but rather a merely functional good dependent for its "human,
personal" goodness on other aspects of the human person.32
It is ironic that the advocates of contraception, whose thought is quite
dualistic, accuse Pope Paul VI, in his reaffirmation of the Church's
judgment that contraception is intrinsically immoral, of "physicalism."
They claim, as evident from the citation from Maguire, that this Church
teaching makes "moral man" the puppet or slave of his "biology."33 The
truth is that the advocates of contraception are guilty of physicalism, for
they reduce the human body and the human, personal power of giving life to
a new person to mere material instruments meant to serve consciously
experienced goods, which for them are the "higher" goods of human
The Church and human intelligence both insist that the human body, bodily
life, and the procreative dimension of our sexuality are "personal" goods,
goods of the human person, not goods for the human person. Human
intelligence insists on this, as Hans Jonas has eloquently stated in his
reflections on the views of those who would reduce personhood to cerebral
"My identity is the identity of the whole organism, even if the higher
functions of personhood are seated in the brain. How else could a man love
a woman and not merely her brains? How else could we lose ourselves in the
aspect of a face? Be touched by the delicacy of a frame? It's this person's
and no one else's. Therefore, the body of the comatose, so long as . . . it
still breathes, pulses, and functions otherwise, must still be considered a
. . . continuance of the subject that loved and was loved, and as such is
still entitled to . . . the sacrosanctity accorded to such a subject by the
laws of God and man."35
The Church insists on this, for the Church teaches that God's eternal Word
took on human flesh, and the Risen Lord, bodily resurrected, is the first
fruits of the dead, and that we, made to be His brothers and sisters in
baptism, will rise from the dead and be, with Him, risen living bodies.
The personal goodness of the human body and, in particular, of human
fertility, is a theme that runs throughout the writings of Pope John Paul
II on human existence, sexuality, and marriage.36 He teaches us, and
teaches truly, that our fertility, far from being a mere biological
function, is an integral aspect of the "nuptial meaning' of our bodies, the
living human bodies that are made in the image and likeness of God and are
in truth gifts from our loving Father.37
The choice to contracept, therefore, is a morally wrong choice because it
is the choice to set aside or destroy something that is really good, namely
our own fertility and the openness of the act of sexual union to the great
good of transmitting human life.38 It is just as wrong to set aside this
good as it is to set aside the good of friendship in the act of sexual
union, a point that Pope Paul VI makes quite effective in his perceptive
account of the meaning of marital life and of the marital act.39
For Christians, there is yet another reason why spouses ought not to
contracept. As Pope John Paul II has noted, the choice on the part of
married couples to contracept entails a falsification of the "language" of
"the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of
husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively
contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the
other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life, but
also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is
called upon to give itself in personal totality."40
The marital act, which ought to participate in and renew the marriage
itself, is made to be non-marital insofar as the spouses hold back
something of themselves.
Contraceptive intercourse is, in short, an instrumentalist or pragmatic
devaluing of the great human good of fertility and of openness to the
goodness of human life in its transmission. It is thus an anti-life sort of
act, one incompatible with a love for all that is good and with a love for
human life itself.
In concluding this section of this chapter I wish to make some observations
on the type of thinking reflected in the quote from Robert Hoyt cited at
the beginning of the chapter. Hoyt claimed (and in doing so expressed a
very widespread view) that "contraception doesn't seem to hurt anyone and
it helps solve some serious problems." I believe that the thinking
represented by Hoyt is utterly superficial.
People cannot contracept simply by taking thought. In order to contracept
they must choose to do something. Some, in choosing to contracept, choose
to employ IUD's or pills. It is now clear that IUD's definitely achieve
their goal, birth prevention, not by inhibiting conception but by
preventing the implantation of human life already conceived with the womb
of the mother.41 They are thus abortifacient in character, and they surely
bring harm to the child conceived. In addition, they frequently cause
terrible harm to the women in whom they are implanted. The pills currently
used in the United States prevent births in a threefold way. First they
inhibit ovulation. Yet, since ovulation may occur, they seek to block
conception by rendering the mucus of the woman spermicidal. But, since so
many sperm are released, the pills are also designed to change the
endometrium of the uterus so that human life already conceived cannot be
implanted.42 Thus the pill too may work by causing abortion, and this is
something that cannot be ignored. And the pills hurt not only unborn human
life but the women who take them. It thus seems to me that a husband has
little love for his wife if he requires or permits her to take pills or
have IUD's inserted. His love, it seems to me, is focused more on what he
can get from her than on what he can give her.
With respect to condoms and diaphragms, it is strange that persons who are
seeking to love each other should employ them. Does one put on gloves when
one wishes to touch a beloved? One does not, unless one is afraid that a
disease may be communicated. And this is the problem, for it shows that
contraceptors regard their fertility as a disease, something that it surely
Since contraceptive practices place burdens on women that they do not place
on men, it is not surprising that the practice of divorce has increased
along with the practice of contraception.43 And surely people "get hurt" in
divorce. The list of ills that follow the choice to contracept could be
continued, but enough has been noted here to show the utter superficiality
of Hoyt and those who, like him, opine that contraception "doesn't seem to
3. REGULATING CONCEPTION BY PRACTICING PERIODIC ABSTINENCE CAN BE MORALLY
We have already seen that there is a real difference between contraceptive
intercourse and periodic abstinence from intercourse as a means of
regulating conception. We have also seen why contraceptive intercourse is
intrinsically evil. And we have also seen that it is possible for persons
to abuse fertility awareness and to avoid children by misusing periodic
continence. But it is now necessary to show that the choice to abstain from
the marital act at fertile times can be morally good.
It ought to be evident that there is nothing inherently wrong in the choice
either to abstain from the marital act for morally good reasons or to
engage in this act during infertile times. Yet it may be helpful to explain
why this is so. I take it for granted that it is "morally" wrong for
spouses to practice periodic continence for base purposes (here their
further intentions vitiate their "present" intentions to restrict the
marital act to infertile times).
It is surely not wrong to abstain from the marital act for morally good
reasons. One good reason to abstain from this act is the recognition that
it would not be responsible, here and now, for a pregnancy to take place,
and there are various reasons why a pregnancy, which of itself is something
good, is not advisable here and now: the financial condition of the family,
the health of the mother, etc., etc. Of course, were one to abstain from
this act because one considers it something vile or dirty, something to be
"used" only for the generation of children or the avoidance of fornication,
then the choice to abstain would be immorally motivated. And the same is
true, as we have seen, if the choice to abstain is motivated by the desire
(the "further" intention, again) to reject the good of children. Yet it is
surely the case that many spouses who choose to abstain periodically from
the marital act do so not because of these base further intentions or
reasons but for morally good purposes.
Nor is there anything morally wrong in the choice of spouses to engage in
the marital act during infertile times. The marital act, as the Church
teaches and as theologians have recognized since the time of the great
medieval thinkers, 44 is good not only because it is open to the
transmission of life but also because it is an expression of marital love.
In choosing to have marital relations during the infertile times spouses in
no way reject or repudiate the procreative good of human sexuality and of
marriage. They do not choose to make their act anti-procreative; they do
not choose to close it to the goodness of human life in its transmission.
It is true that they are being non-procreative because they are not
pursuing the good of procreation here and now, but they are not being anti-
procreative. They let the marital act "be" marital, open to both love and
life, and refuse to make it, by "their choices," to be anti-life.
Here it is important to note, I believe, that whenever a man, who is
continuously fertile from puberty until death, and a woman join in coition,
there is the possibility that life may be conceived, for the sort of act
they choose is the sort of act that is open to the transmission. It is thus
possible that spouses who choose to regulate conception by practicing
periodic continence may conceive a child. While it is true that natural
family planning methods are just as effective in regulating conception as
the anti-life contraceptive methods are,45 there is always the possibility
of a method or user "failure." There will be what contraceptionists call
"unplanned" or "unwanted" pregnancies, but what in truth should be
recognized (and are recognized, by those who practice periodic abstinence
in a morally upright way) as "surprise" pregnancies. Even though this
possibility may be low, it is still present, and any spouses who use
properly their fertility awareness as a way of meeting spousal and parental
responsibilities must realize this.
It is, in fact, the case that those who use periodic abstinence in a
morally upright way employ it not only for avoiding a pregnancy when there
is good reason but also for achieving a pregnancy. Natural family planning
(or the use of periodic abstinence) is, after all, family planning: it is
predicated upon a respect for the goodness of human fertility, on a love
for life and the openness of the marital act to the good of human life in
its transmission. It is not the same as planned unparenthood.
From all this it ought to be clear that the choice to regulate conception
by periodically abstaining from the great good of marital intercourse for
morally good reasons, coupled with the choice to engage in this great good
during infertile times, can in no way be inherently or intrinsically
wicked. It may be abused and made wicked because of "further" intentions,
but for morally upright spouses who respect the nuptial meaning of their
bodies and the great good of procreation it can be a rightful way of
exercising both spousal and parental responsibilities. The discipline and
personal love that it requires, unlike the undisciplined and pleasure-
loving practice of contraception, will enable spouses to grow in their love
for each other and to realize that there is a time to embrace and a time to
express love in non-coital ways.
The moral issues at stake in this chapter are of tremendous significance to
the human and Christian community. The arguments used to justify
contraceptive intercourse are precisely the same sorts of arguments used to
justify premarital, extramarital, and homosexual intercourse,46 something
that the more perceptive champions of marital contraception have themselves
The Catholic Church has consistently held that contraception is inherently
wrong, despite enormous pressures to change this teaching. The courage of
the magisterium in resisting these pressures, reflected perhaps most nobly
by Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, something for which we ought to be
grateful, for at stake is the meaning of human sexuality, of marriage, and
of the human person. The human person is inescapably and essentially a body
person. Our body, with its sexuality and procreative power, is inherently
personal, and contraceptive intercourse is an attack on the inherent
goodness of the integral human person.
It is true that the need to abstain from the marital act in order to meet
spousal and parental responsibilities and in order to avoid the rejection
of the procreative good brings with it "problems" for married persons. Yet
it is, I believe, better to say that it brings to them a great opportunity
to deepen their love for one another and for the God who gave them the
great gift of sexuality, who gifted them with the "nuptial meaning" of the
body. It challenges them to put first things first and to shape their lives
according to the loving requirements of God's reign.
1. Robert Hoyt, in "The Birth Control Debate," ed. Robert Hoyt (Kansas
City: National Catholic Reporter, 1969), p. 11.
2. For example, Anthony Kosnik, a al., in their "Human Sexuality: New
Directions in American Catholic Thought" (New York: Paulist Press, 1977)
classify "abstinence" as a "contraceptive method." See pp. 114, 292-295.
3. James Burtchaell, "'Human Life' and Human Love," originally published in
Commonweal, Nov. 15, 1968; reprinted in Paul Jersild and Dale Johnson,
eds., "Moral Issues and Christian Response" (New York: Harper & Row, 1971),
4. See Bernard Haring, "Ethics of Manipulation" (New York: Seabury 1975),
pp. 92-96. He explicitly terms "rhythm" a method of contraception.
5. Louis Janssens, "Morale conjugale et progestogenes," "Ephemendes
Theologicae Lovanienses" 39 (October-December, 1963) 809-824.
6. In addition to the authors already noted, see Michael Novak, "Frequent,
Even Daily Communion," in Daniel Callahan, ed., "The Catholic Case for
Contraception" (New York: Macmillan, 1969), pp. 92-102, especially pp. 94-
7. See the essays by James Finn, Michael Novak, William Birmingham, Sally
Sullivan, and Mary Louise Birmingham in William Birmingham, ed., "What
Modern Catholics Think About Birth Control" (New York: Signet, 1964).
8. Elisabeth Anscombe, "Contraception and Chastity" (London: Catholic Truth
Society, 1977), pp. 17-18.
9. On the difference between meaning well and speaking well through one's
choices and actions see James O'Reilly, "The Morality of Contraception"
(Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1975), p. 17. O'Reilly's short booklet
is an unusually clear and perceptive work.
10. On the importance of human acts as revelatory of our being see Herbert
McCabe, "What is Ethics All About?" (Washington: Corpus Books, 1969), pp.
92-101; also my own "Becoming Human: An Invitation to Christian Ethics"
(Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1975), Chapter Four.
11. Eric D'Arcy, "Human Acts: An Essay on their Moral Evaluation" (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 1-39; also Paul Ramsey, "Deeds and Rules in
Christian Ethics" (New York: Scribner's, 1967), pp. 193 ff.
12. Richard A. McCormick, "Commentary on the Commentaries," in Richard A.
McCormick and Paul Ramsey, eds., "Doing Evil to Achieve Good" (Chicago:
Loyola University Press, 1978), p. 241. Here McCormick is actually speaking
about contraceptive sterilization, but his description of contraceptive
sterilization would seem also to be his description of contraception as
such. See, for instance, the way he describes contraception by married
persons in his "How Brave a New World? Dilemmas in Bioethics" (New York:
Doubleday, 1981), pp. 426-428.
13. Pope Paul VI, "Humanae vitae," n. 14.
14 Charles E. Curran first levelled this charge against the teaching of the
Church on contraception in his 1969 essay, "Natural Law and Contemporary
Moral Theology" in the work he edited, "Contraception, Authority, and
Dissent" (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), pp. 151-175. He has continued
to make the same charge, despite the many significant rebuttals to it by
others (e.g., Anscombe), throughout the years. He makes it most recently in
his "Moral Theology: The Continuing Journey (Notre Dame, In.: University of
Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 144.
15. This is the argument advanced by, among others, Novak in his essay
"Frequent, Even Daily Communion."
16. Haring, for one, stresses the need to take experience seriously in many
of his writings. See in particular his essay, "The Inseparability of the
UnitiveProcreative Functions of the Marital Act," in Charles Curran, ed.
"Contraception: Authority and Dissent," pp. 176-192. But note the title of
Haring's essay. Instead of speaking of the unitive and procreative meanings
or aspects of the marital act he calls them functions. For Curran's
insistence on the need to take experience seriously into account see his
essay "Divorce from the Perspective of Moral Theology" in his "Ongoing
Revision" (South Bend: Fides, 1975).
17. This is, for instance, Curran's usual language. See the essays already
noted. It is likewise the way Daniel C. Maguire speaks of our power to give
life. For this see the citation from Maguire later in this chapter (cf.
note 31, below).
18. Pope Paul VI, "Humanae Vitae," n. 11.
19. Anscombe, "Contraception and Chastity," p. 18.
20. Recently Catholic moralists who espouse the position that one can
willingly choose to do evil to achieve good have sought to liberate
themselves from the label "consequentialists." See, for instance, the
following essays: Lisa Sowle Cahill, "Teleology, Utilitarianism, and
Christian Ethics," "Theological Studies" 42 (1981) 601-629; McCormick,
"Notes on Moral Theology," "Theological Studies" 54 (1982) 69-124g, at 82-
91 (in responding to criticisms made by John R. Connery, S.J.), and Philip
S. Keane, "The Objective Moral Order: Reflections on Recent Research
"Theological Studies" 43 (1982) 260-278, especially pp. 267-268, 270. They
do not like the label "consequentialist" because it has connotations of
utilitarianism, and they do not wish to be regarded as utilitarians. There
are surely differences between the Catholic proponents of "proportionalism"
and utilitarians. The Catholic advocates of this way of making moral
judgments do not consider consequences the sole factor in determining the
morality of human acts, as utilitarians do, nor do they accept the
hedonistic calculus of classical utilitarianism. Yet they definitely hold
that "proportionate reason" is the "decisive criterion" of the moral
goodness or evilness of our actions (see Keane, p. 268), and this
proportionate reason is identified with the good for whose sake one wills
this evil. That is, it is identified with the good that one has as one's
further intention in choosing to this deed that one presently intends.
21. See note 12, above.
22. Keane, "Sexual Morality: A Catholic Perspective" (New York: Paulist
23. I take this as a fair way of summarizing the description of
"proportionate reason" given by McCormick in his "Ambiguity in Moral
Choice" (Milwaukee: Marquette University Theology Department, 1973);
reprinted as the first chapter of "Doing Evil to Achieve Good" (see pp. 45-
50 in the latter volume). Keane, "The Objective Moral Order" (p. 274, note
42, holds that this is an accurate presentation of the basic idea of
24. Recently McCormick (e.g., in his essay, "Commentary on the
Commentaries" in "Doing Evil to Achieve Good" and Keane ("The Objective
Moral Order," p. 269) speak of intrinsically disproportionate acts and
intrinsically evil acts respectively. What they mean is that if the
description of the act includes as a built-in goal one that makes the
choice to do the evil disproportionate, then the act in question is
intrinsically disproportionate or inherently evil. For instance, they would
agree that it is always wrong to choose to kill an innocent human person in
order to placate a terrorist or to kill an unborn child in order to be free
to travel to Spain. They would grant that such choices/actions can never be
justified. Yet they deny that the proposition, it is always immoral to kill
an innocent human person, is universally true. It is almost always true,
they would grant, but for them it would be morally good to do if by doing
so one could realize a proportionately higher good. They would similarly
grant that it is always immoral to contracept in order to be free of the
burden of a child, but they would not grant that it is always immoral to
contracept. It all depends. If contracepting, in their assessment of
proportionality, would be "marriage-saving or stabilizing," then it would
be morally good. In short, all they are now admitting is that actions
described in moral terms or in terms that embody some moral assessments may
well be regarded as intrinsically wicked or disproportionate. This in no
way changes their stance that actions described in non-moral terms cannot
be so characterized. Cahill ("Teleology, Utilitariansim, and Christian," p.
615) even suggests that "innocent," may be a "value" term. I do not believe
that it is.
251 first raised this objection in an earlier version of this essay, which
appeared in "Faith and Reason" 3 (1977). I developed it in my "Modern
Catholic Ethics: The New Situationism," "Faith and Reason" 4.2 (1978) 21-38
and again in "The Moral Meaning of Human Acts," "Homiletic and Pastoral
Review" 79 (October, 1979) 310-327. McCormick offered his rejoinder, cited
in the text in his "Notes on Moral Theology," "Theological Studies" 39
26. McCormick "Ambiguity in Moral Choice," in "Doing Evil to Achieve Good,"
p. 29 (it is on p. 53 of "Ambiguity in Moral Choice" as published by
Marquette University Theology Department).
27. This is substantively the argument set forth in the paper popularly
known as the "Majority Report" of the papal commission on natality. It is
most clearly developed in the paper entitled "The Question Is Not Closed"
and found in Hoyt, ed., "The Birth Control Debate."
28. Germain G. Grisez, "Against Consequentialism" "American Journal of
Jurisprudence" 23 (1978) 21 -72; Grisez, with Joseph M. Boyle, in their
"Life and Death With Liberty and Justice: A Contribution to the Euthanasia
Debate" (Notre Dame, In.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978) pp. 346-
354; John Finnis, "Natural Law and Natural Rights" (Oxford: Clarendon Law
Series; Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 111 - 118.
29. McCormick "Commentary on the Commentaries," in "Doing Evil to Achieve
Good," p. 227.
30. See the "Majority Report," "The Question is Not Closed," in "The Birth
Control Debate," pp. 70-71. The "Report" verbally affirms the unity of the
person at the beginning of paragraph 3 (p. 70 of Hoyt), but succeeds in
contradicting this affirmation in the course of paragraphs 3 and 4. For a
more detailed critique of this "Report" see my "Sex, Love and Procreation"
(Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1976).
31. Daniel C. Maguire, "The Freedom to Die," in "New Theology Number 10,"
ed. by Martin Marty and Dean Peerman (New York: Macmillan, 1973), p. 188
(Maguire's essay originally appeared in the August 11, 1972 issue of
32. Here it is worth noting the very perceptive (and prophetic)
observations concerning "situationism" made by Germain G. Grisez in his
"Contraception and the Natural Law" (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company,
1964), pp. 53-60.
33. In addition to Curran (see notes 14 and 17) and Maguire (note 21), see
Mary Perkins Ryan and John Julian Ryan, "Have You Thought It Out All the
Way?" in Daniel Callahan, ed. "The Catholic Case for Contraception," pp.
103-127, especially pp. 107-110. They contend that the Church's teaching on
contraception is based on a Stoic contempt for material reality. They are
34. Here it may be useful to consult my observations about a separatist
understanding of human sexuality in my "Sex, Marriage, and Chastity:
Reflections of a Catholic Layman, Spouse. and Parent" (Chicago: Franciscan
Herald Press, 1981,) Chapter One.
35. Hans Jonas, "Against the Stream," in his "Philosophical Essays"
(Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, 1974), p. 139.
36. On this see the marvelous article by Rev. Richard M. Hogan, "Theology
of the Body," "Fidelity" 1.1 (December, 1981) 10-15, 24-27, in which he
presents a marvelous synthesis of the teaching of Pope John Paul 11 in his
37. John Paul II, Address of January 9, 1980, "Nuptial Meaning of the
Body," in "The Original Unity of Man and Woman" (Boston: St. Paul Editions,
1981) pp. 106-112.
38. It is wrong to set this good aside, as it is to set any true goods of
the human person aside. As St. Paul teaches, we are not to do evil so that
good may come about (Rom 3.8).
39. Pope Paul VI, "Humanae Vitae," n. 13.
40. "Familiaris Consortio," n. 32.
41. See Thomas Hilgers, M.D. "An Evaluation of Intrauterine Devices,"
"International Review of Natural Family Planning" 2 (1978) 68-85 and "The
Intrauterine Device: Contraceptive or Abortifacient?" "Marriage and Family
Newsletter" 5 (Jan,-March, 1974) 3-24.
42. See Virginia Gagern, "The Pill and the IUD: Contraceptive or
Abortifacient?" (Collegeville, Mn.: Human Life Center Pamphlet, 1978).
43. See K. D. Whitehead, "The 'Responsibility' Connection: Divorce,
Contraception, Abortion, Euthanasia," in his "Agenda for the Sexual
Revolution" (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1981), pp. 101-115.
44. See St. Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Theologiae," Tertia Pars, Supplement, q.
49, a. 4. Here I wish to correct an error in the earlier draft of this
essay ("Faith and Reason" 3, 1977); there I mistakenly said that Aquinas
and other medieval theologians, in company with St. Augustine, required a
procreative intent for the marital act to be fully act. It is quite clear
that Aquinas and other medieval theologians recognized that the marital
act, undertaken either to pursue the good of procreation or to pursue the
good of "fides" or love, is not only good but holy and meritorious. One
could not, of course, be opposed to either of these marital goods. For
excellent studies of the thought of Aquinas and other medieval theologians
see Fabian Parmisano, "Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages," "New
Blackfriars" 50 (1969) 599-608, 649-660, and Germain G. Grisez, "Marriage:
Reflections Based on St. Thomas Aquinas and Vatican Council II," "The
Catholic Mind" 64 (June, 1965) 4-19.
45. See Hannah Klaus, M.D., "Use Effectiveness and Analysis of Satisfaction
Levels with the Billings Ovulation Method: Two Year Pilot Study,"
"Fertility and Sterility" 28 (1977) 1039.
46. See the arguments, for example, of Keane in his "Sexual Morality." He
argues that the "ontic evil" of contraception is justified by the greater
good (proportionate good) of the marriage as a whole, and similarly that
the "ontic evil" of homosexual and premarital activity is justified by the
"greater good" of a stable relationship and avoidance of promiscuous kinds
of homosexual and premarital activity.
47. Curran clearly recognizes this in a remark that he makes in his essay
on divorce, noted previously in note 16. He observed: "History has clearly
shown that those who were afraid that a change in the teaching on
contraception would lead to other changes were quite accurate" (pp. 77-78).