Contraception, What's Allowed?
Totus + Tuus
(The following is Father's response to a question asked on EWTN Online Services about
the licity of artificial contraception.)
Thank you for your question. There are certain moral norms which are
exceptionless. Two of these are that contraception, properly
understood and vasectomies may never allowed. It sounds as though you
have been trained in proportionalism.
The following imaginary conversation between a priest and a lay person
may be of some assistance.
What follows is a dialogue between Fr. Emmanuel Vita, a parish priest
and Mr. Joseph Clemens, a Catholic physics teacher at a local
university. Joe visits this priest because he wants to gain a better
understanding of the Church's teaching on contraception.
Fr. Vita: Welcome Joe! Thanks for coming to talk.
The two sit down before a gently burning fire in the hearth of the
Joe: Thank you Father for taking time to see me.
Fr. Vita: You mentioned on the phone that you wanted to talk about your
married life. Specifically you mentioned your desire to live a marital
chastity, yet the issue of birth control is troubling you.
Joe: Yes, Father. Why does the Church forbid couples to exercise
Fr. Vita: Well, first of all, there is a difference between birth
control and contraception. "Birth control" can be applied to several
different practices. It can indicate anything from the observance of
continence, to conjugal acts during a woman's infertile period, to the
use of contraceptive devices such as condoms or the pill. In certain
circumstances the Church permits the regulation of births, yet in every
circumstance the Church forbids contraception.
Joe: The Church permits one to regulate births? I was told that
couples are to have relations without interfering with the natural
processes, generously accepting children as they come and depending on
Fr. Vita: It is true that we should depend on God's providence; it is
also true that married couples are called to be generous in raising
their children without arbitrarily limiting their family size to one or
two children because of a desire to maintain a certain standard of
living.' Yet, the Church teaches that the gift of self in conjugal
union is a human act, which means that it involves the use of our
reason. Paul VI teaches that "the Church is the first to praise and
recommend the intervention of intelligence in a function which so
closely associates the rational creature with His Creator; but she
affirms that this must be done with respect for the order established
Joe: What does "the order established by God" mean?
Fr. Vita: God has ordered marriage toward the procreation and education
of children in the context of a faithful and permanent union between
man and wife. Men and women abuse God's gift of sexuality and
therefore themselves whenever they choose to act against the way God
has ordered marriage.
Joe: When does the regulation of births not violate God's plan for
Fr. Vita: The Church offers the following general guidelines: "If,
then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from
the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from
external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take
into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions,
for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way
to regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have
been recalled earlier."
Joe: Before we discuss further the moral principles which ground the
difference between the lawful regulation of births and contraception,
let me open up some of the practical questions that my wife and I are
discussing. We have used condoms in the past, Father . . .
Joe looks at Father to test his response. Seeing a note of
understanding and respect, Joe continues.
but they always seemed artificial, unnatural and disruptive. We
switched to the pill which is much more natural and allows for a
greater spontaneity in our love-making. Yet it is my understanding
that the Church doesn't approve of the pill when it is used to regulate
births. Why on the one hand does the Church say that women can use the
pill for serious medical reasons but forbids it when it is used toward
what I call a more rational fecundity' which doesn't leave intelligent
people at the mercy of biological processes?
Fr. Vita: Your last insight is good in the sense that sexual
intercourse is not merely to be left to the instincts and urges of
biology. "It is the prerogative of the human intellect to dominate the
energies offered by irrational nature and to orient them towards an end
conformable to the good of man."
In regard to your question as to why the pill is so bad if it is
permitted by the Church to be used sometimes and at other times it is
forbidden. The answer is that the pill is not intrinsically evil, of
itself. It is made up of varying levels of the hormones called
progestogens and estrogens. There is nothing evil about these
hormones; God Himself created them! Yet He created them with a
biological purpose of giving the female body the potential for
fertility . . .
Joe: Do you mean to say that the obstruction of the biological
processes which render a woman fertile is intrinsically wrong?
Fr. Vita: Knowing that a woman is fertile (generally speaking) only for
about three to five days out of the month and that her fertility is
naturally obstructed (e.g. by the sticky mucous produced by
progesterone around the cervix) the other days of the month, I do not
want to say that the mere fact of a woman's fertility being obstructed
is intrinsically wrong. Otherwise God would be immoral for creating a
cycle which includes infertile periods!
What I want to say is that a woman's cycle, on a biological level,
is ordered toward fertility, toward the procreation of life. For
example, the purpose the follicle stimulating hormone is to cause the
maturation of an inchoate egg which is to be released into the
fallopian tubes after ovulation. As the egg is maturing, the follicle
which contains it releases estrogen which builds up the endometrium to
prepare a home for the possible child that is conceived when the egg is
fertilized. Furthermore, about day fourteen in a normal cycle, the
luteinizing hormone causes ovulation, the egg is released into the
fallopian tubes, the follicle where the egg had been is transformed
(also by the luteinizing hormone) into the corpus luteum which then
secretes progesterone which further prepares the endometrium to receive
the child and also causes a change in the mucous around the cervix . .
Joe: I can't believe a priest knows so much about a woman's cycle!
Excuse me for interrupting, please continue. . .
Fr. Vita: . . . the mucous becomes thick, sticky, infertile; it will
not allow sperm to pass through the uterus into the fallopian tubes
where fertilization of the egg occurs. If fertilization does not occur
the corpus luteum dies and therefore no longer secretes progesterone,
the endometrium is no longer sustained by the progesterone; it is
sloughed off, menstruation occurs, and a new, fresh release of the
follicle stimulating hormone begins the cycle all over again. However,
if fertilization did occur then the zygote floats down the fallopian
tube, implants itself in the blood-rich endometrium with hair like
roots; these roots (villi) just so happen to produce human chorionic
gonadotropin which just so happens to keep the corpus luteum alive
which just so happens to continue to secrete progesterone for the three
months necessary before the placenta develops to the state where it can
secrete a hormone to keep the endometrium intact so that they baby can
grow and flourish.
My point is that a woman's biological cycle is ordered marvelously,
wondrously toward life. Yet, this cycle is not merely a biological
phenomena; it is part of who the woman is. The human person does not
have' a body. The human person "is an incarnate spirit: a soul which
expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit"
Joe: How does all that relate to the pill?
Fr. Vita: One must let one's mind to be influenced by God's thoughts
which are high above ours. The Psalmist has something to tell us about
appreciating the beauty and splendor of the means God has set up for
the transmission of life: "Truly you have formed my inmost being; you
knit me in my mother's womb. I give you thanks that I am fearfully and
wonderfully made; wonderful are your works" (Ps. 139:14).
When one approaches the cycle of a woman's body from the standpoint
that God made it and has made it for a purpose, one can then understand
the relation of the pill to this cycle.
To be blunt, a woman's cycle is ordered toward fertility, toward
life. The pill, when used as an oral contraceptive, is ordered toward
infertility, toward death. The pill (made up of estrogen and
progestogen) is ordered toward infertility because it inhibits the
release of the follicle stimulating hormone and stops the luteinizing
hormone from triggering ovulation. The pill is ordered toward death
because both estrogen and progestogen "change the endometrium in such a
manner that even if ovulation did take place, implantation of the
fertilized egg would be unsuccessful." In some cases, a child is
conceived, and the pill acts as an abortifacient. This is the murder
of an innocent!
Joe, who always considered abortion to be murder, was not aware that
some contraceptives act as abortifacients. He also never really
reflected on what Father Vita had been assuming in his discussion, that
life began with conception. He knew from his pro-life aunt that this
was the Church's teaching. He was stunned and his mind began to open
to the fact that there is something seriously wrong with contraception.
Father Vita had continued talking while Joe was pondering. Joe began
listening again with greater attentiveness.
Fr. Vita: . . . you see Joe, contraception is wrong because it involves
an act separate from the marriage act which directly contradicts what
that marriage act is all about. Contraception means, against
conception.' It is an anti-life attitude; part of what marriage is all
about is new life: children!
Joe: I can see what you're saying. But isn't the regulation of birth
through natural family planning (sympto-thermal method) also directed
Fr. Vita: It is true that natural family planning, if used with the
intention of never having children can be used out of a selfish
mentality. However, with this method the married couple always remains
open to the transmission of life. Also, John Paul II explains this
matter very well when he distinguishes between contraception and
natural family planning properly used.
Fr. Vita gets up, walking past the fire to the bookcase where he finds
Familiaris Consortio. He returns to his seat.
Fr. Vita: Joe, in this Apostolic Exhortation of our Holy Father, John
Paul II comments on Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae noting how he
excludes contraception on the basis of "an integral vision of man and
his vocation." Part of what Paul VI meant by this integral vision was
that the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act must
remain integrated. This is what John Paul II says:
"When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate
these two meanings [the unitive and procreative] that God the creator
has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of
their sexual communion, they act as arbiters' of the divine plan and
they manipulate' and degrade human sexuality and with it themselves
and their married partner by altering its value of total'
"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
"When instead, by means of recourse to periods of infertility, the
couple respects the inseparable connection between the unitive and
procreative meanings of human sexuality, they are acting as ministers'
of God's plan and they benefit from' their sexuality according to the
original dynamism of total' self-giving, without manipulation or
alteration (cf. Humanae Vitae, 13)."
John Paul II goes on to say that the difference between
contraception and recourse to infertile periods involves a difference
"which is much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one which
involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human
person and of human sexuality."
Also, natural family planning requires self-control and the
practice of the virtue of chastity (in other words that the married
couple act in a human way guided by reason, not enslaved to their
passions). Paul VI teaches, "To dominate instinct by means of one's
reason and free will undoubtedly requires ascetical practices, so that
the affective manifestations of conjugal life may observe the correct
order, in particular with regard to the observance of periodic
continence. Yet this discipline which is proper to the purity of
married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a
higher human value. It demands continual effort, yet thanks to its
beneficent influence husband and wife fully develop their
personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline
bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates
the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one's partner,
helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love,
and deepens their sense of responsibility. By its means, parents
acquire the capacity of having a deeper and more efficacious influence
on the education of their offspring" (Humanae Vitae, 21).
I must be honest with you Joe, Christian marriage is arduous and
ultimately involves a real conformity to the cross of Jesus Christ.
Yet even in this life we experience the fruits of joy, peace and an
abundant love-filled life which comes from self-mastery and giving of
oneself in love to others.
Well, I've given you a lot. Does any of it make sense?
Joe: I will have to think more about this. But it still seems to me
that the pill is more natural and less artificial than a condom or
Fr. Vita: Yes, there is nothing physical to get in the way; there is no
worry about the condom ripping or whether or not one used enough
spermicide. So for you the pill allows for what you described earlier
as a greater spontaneity.' The pill may feel more natural, but, using
nature in a different way, it is not at all natural in that it violates
the nature of the marital act. What does your wife think of the pill?
Joe: Well, it's interesting that you mention that Father. Lately my
wife has been wanting to get off the pill. She says that the only time
she feels normal emotionally is when she is menstruating. She kept
having her doctor switch her to different types of pills, but nothing
seemed to help her. She has kept on it this long, she says, because it
was more convenient than a condom or a diaphragm. Furthermore, she is
becoming more aware of the probable side effects which are more than a
little scary. They include nausea, bloating, vomiting, fluid
retention, breast tenderness, headaches, increased blood pressure,
thrombophlebitis, myocardial infarction and that's just the beginning.
Some women have even died from using contraceptives!
Fr. Vita: Joe you are right to be concerned for both the emotional and
physical health of your wife. But there is something even more crucial
here, and that is your life of love, the spiritual health of your
marriage. Contraceptives have improved' as the understanding of the
human body grows, but even if there were a contraceptive that was
totally safe, it would still hurt both you and your wife.
I know you love your wife Joe. Do you know how love is defined?
Josef Pieper described it in this way: Love is a fundamental YES to the
existence of the beloved. Well, you know what contraception is? First
of all it is a NO to your wife's fertility which is not something she
has, but something she is [therefore contraception is a fundamental NO
to your wife because of the intimate union between her body and her
soul]. Secondly, contraception is a fundamental NO to the potential
existence of the child. Therefore, this fundamental NO, inserted in
the most intimate expression of conjugal love, contradicts the very
nature of love [the YES to the existence of the other] and as such will
inexorably erode the love between any husband and wife who practice
Joe looks at his watch and realizes that it is time to go. He mentions
this to Father.
Joe: Well, I'll have to be going Father. I thank you very much for
your time. I ask especially for your prayers.
Fr. Vita: You're welcome Joe. One last thing. You see this fire here?
Joe: Yes, I enjoy its warmth on a cold night like tonight.
Fr. Vita: Well, sexuality and marriage are like this fire and this
hearth. Fire is powerful and because of this it can be dangerous.
However, as long as it is contained within the proper limits of the
fireplace, it brings warmth and light. However, if that fire somehow
got outside of its proper limits, the house would begin to catch fire
and that which illumined and warmed the house would become a source for
its destruction. In the same way, sexuality, when it is practiced
within the proper limits of marriage, which God instituted from the
beginning, is a source of great charity and fruitfulness, even to the
degree that it is an image of Christ's unfailing love for His bride the
Church. All married men and women must be careful, however, that the
fire of their sexuality, which has great potential for good, is not
exercised outside of the rules and context of marriage that God has set
Joe: That's a good analogy Father.
Father Vita shows Joe to the door.
Joe: Have a good evening Father. I'll see you Sunday and maybe we
can set up another time to talk. Until then, God bless!
Father Vita says the Hail Mary for Joe, entrusting him to the Virgin of
Nazareth who gave birth to Jesus, He who is life itself (cf. John 1:4;
5:21,26; 8:12; 10:10; 11:25; 14:6).
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Haas, John M. Sexuality and Marriage (course taught at St. Charles
John Paul II. Familiaris Consortio. Washington D.C.: United States
Meagher, Paul; Aberne, Sister Consuelo. Encyclopedic Dictionary of
Washington D.C.: Corpus Publications, 1979.
Paul VI. Humanae Vitae. Mass.: Daughters of St. Paul, 1968.
Pius XI. Casti Connubii in Papal Encyclicals, 1930.
Second Vatican Council. Gaudiem et Spes. New York: Costello Publishing
Shapiro, Howard. The Birth Control Book, New York: Avon Books, 1977.
Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN