Is Contraception Gravely Sinful Matter?
by Fr Lino Ciccone, C.M.
Professor of Moral Theology
The problem dealt with here is not a new question. Vigorously
debated in the years immediately following the publication of the
Encyclical (25 July 1968), it is still raised
occasionally by some theologians, and in current pastoral practice
it has not been resolved in a way everyone accepts. There is
significant confusion even with regard to the Magisterium. It is
precisely on this point that the present study wishes to shed some
light, limiting itself to a question which could be formulated in
this way: ? It
might be unnecessary but still helpful to recall that "universal
Magisterium" means only that of the Supreme Pontiff and of an
Ecumenical Council. I will refer only to this Magisterium.
According to many scholars, the judgement that contraception is
gravely sinful matter goes back to the Encyclical where we find its most solemn and clear-cut
formulation. The essentials of this teaching are expressed in
these words: "". Up to this point we are dealing with the
"intrinsic immorality" of contraception. A little further on its
seriousness is discussed: "".
Many maintain that in its later documents the Magisterium clearly
kept the first part of that doctrine, i.e., the intrinsic
immorality of contraception, but did not retain the second, i.e.,
the gravity of the sin. In this "silence" of the Magisterium,
these same scholars see a sufficient reason for asserting that the
moral gravity of contraception is no longer part of the Church's
teaching on the matter. As a result, the use of contraception is
not to be considered gravely sinful matter and, therefore, using
contraceptives is not a mortal sin.
In my opinion, however, the problem should be dealt with more
carefully. It must be determined whether the Magisterium has
really dropped the substance of that teaching, or whether it has
merely given it a different formulation. In other words: it is a
question of determining whether or not the gravity of the
immorality constituted by contraception is still asserted by the
Magisterium in different but substantially equivalent terms.
The first thing to be noted is that the Magisterium's alleged
"shelving" of the Encyclical on this point is
anything but obvious. On the contrary, it was explicitly confirmed
by the Second Vatican Council. In n. 51 of the
statement that "" refers, in its famous note 14, to the documents
containing this condemnation. The first one mentioned is "Pius XI,
Litt. Encycl. 22 (1930), pp. 559-561; Denz.
2239-2241 (3716-3718)", i.e., the passage quoted above in its
essentials, where contraception is declared a grave sin. It is
hard to imagine a more authoritative and solemn confirmation. It
is hardly "silence" or the abandoning of this teaching of by the later Magisterium! The point of departure for the
theory proposed by these scholars, however few or many, is
anything but solid.
Pope Paul VI
Let us go further, however, in the examination we have proposed.
In this study, great weight must be put on the Encyclical (25 July 1968) and its author, Paul VI. This document is
constantly referred to, in fact, by later documents, including the
most authoritative one, the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation
(22 November 1981). Obviously, no one
knows better than Paul VI what he meant to teach with the
Encyclical he published.
For the problem we are concerned with there are several helpful
statements that he made a few years prior with regard to the
problem that would be the theme of the Encyclical, whose title is
, or "The correct
regulation of human birth". On 23 June 1964, using the opportunity
presented to him by the offering of name-day wishes by the
Cardinals and. the Roman Curia, Paul VI announced that a
pontifical study commission had been set up by his predecessor
John XXIII and he made a few clarifications about the problem of
birth regulation. Our interest here is how the Pope described the
problem, which clearly concerned the moral evaluation of the ways
or means for properly regulating births: "
Scarcely had the Encyclical been published on 29-30 July 1968 in
, when the Pope devoted his General Audience
of 31 July to it, offering valuable interpretive keys to reading
the document. For our problem -several passages are of
particular interest; there we can clearly see the importance that
the Pope puts on the problem and on the solution given to it: "". He says this at the beginning of the
address, and towards the end he insists: "". Thus the same idea expressed in the address of 23
June 1964 is stated again in other words.
A preliminary conclusion is clear: one of the most important
issues is this problem and the solution given to it by the
Magisterium, an essential part of which includes the moral
condemnation of contraception.
A significant confirmation of this judgement, also contained in
the address of 31 July 1968, is the Pope's dramatic and painful
seriousness in confiding that he spent four years of reflection,
study, consultation and prayer to reach the certitude of giving
the Church and the entire human race the confirmation of a moral
truth guaranteed by its conformity with "". Extended passages of the address should be quoted here.
But I have to restrict myself to a few sentences. "". And further on: "
Nothing could be clearer than the fact that for Paul VI the
problem and its solution had such weight and importance that one
cannot accept the hypothesis that a slight moral disorder, on the
lines of "venial sin", is at stake. It is clear then, merely on
the basis of these few points, that for the Magisterium
We must ask, however, what grounds does the Magisterium offer for
this sort of position. But before moving in this direction, I
think it would be helpful to clarify a few things about "grave
matter". In every form of human behaviour, one or more values are
at stake, for example, life, love, fidelity, solidarity, etc. When
important values are at stake, and a given way of acting seriously
compromises them, this serious compromise of an important value is
what constitutes gravely sinful matter. Therefore, we will find an
answer to the question we raised, if we gather from the teaching
of the Magisterium an indication of the important values at stake
in the conjugal act and the serious way they are compromised by
the use of contraceptives.
Pope John Paul II
It is inevitable in this research that more attention should be
focused on the Magisterium of John Paul II, without disregarding,
of course, that of Paul VI. It is actually the current Pope, who,
thanks to the developments gradually made by anthropology and the
human sciences regarding the meanings and values of human
sexuality, has been able to give a broad, systematic development
to the anthropological and theological foundations of the Church's
moral doctrine in this area. He has done so in many addresses, and
more extensively and systematically in the last part of his well-
known Wednesday catechesis on .
A detailed analysis of all this material is simply unthinkable in
this essay. I will have to limit myself to a few essential
elements, with some quotations among the many that could be
adduced, but which I hope will be sufficient for our purpose.
I would first like to stress that Paul VI, the Council, but even
more John Paul II have clearly shown that they have accepted and
utilized the recent advances in the conception of human sexuality
as language, i.e., as the sensible expression of the person's
interior realities in an interpersonal relationship. In this
perspective, the discovery and presentation of the ethical demands
inherent in the exercise of sexuality becomes clearer and more
persuasive, when its genital component is also involved in this
exercise, as occurs in the conjugal act. These demands, in fact,
follow the pattern of those required for interpersonal
communication that corresponds to the dignity of each of the two
In , the conjugal act is seen as the privileged
and characteristic expression of conjugal love (n. 49), and in its
turn, conjugal love is said to be constitutionally ordered to the
transmission of life, or procreation (n. 50). "" and
"" are thus the two essential values at stake in the
conjugal act-values obviously of primary importance.
Paul VI says basically the same thing when he makes the "meanings"
of the conjugal act the focal point and bases its ethical demands
on the principle of the inseparability of the two meanings
contained structurally in the act, the unitive meaning and the
procreative: ", n. 12). The Pope had already stressed the profound link
between love and life by including "totality" and "fruitfulness"
among the essential, undeniable qualities that love must have if
it is to be authentically conjugal. Totality, in fact, does not
allow exceptions or reservations of any sort; fruitfulness is
directed to transmitting life (cf. , n. 9).
Following this line in , John Paul II goes
on to state: "" (n. 11). Then with compelling logic, when he goes
on in the same document to discuss the subject of contraception,
the Pope offers in a complex paragraph an illuminating panorama of
the values destroyed by contraception. It bears repeating here in
its entirety: "" (n. 32).
For greater clarity it would help to outline the series of values
objectively destroyed by contraception:
1) the refusal to be recognized as God's "ministers" and
"collaborators" in the transmission of life;
2) the claim to be the "arbiters" of the divine plan;
3) the degradation of human sexuality and, thus, of one's own
person and of one's spouse;
4) falsification of sexual language to the point of making it
5) elimination of any reference to the value of life;
6) a mortal wound (") of
conjugal love itself.
The "" to life, which the use of contraceptives cries out by
its very name, can thus be seen first and foremost as a "". This had already been forcefully stressed by Paul VI in
. This passage also bears repeating in its
entirety: "...< a reciprocal act of love, which jeopardizes the
capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, according to
particular laws, inserted therein, is in contradiction with the
design constitutive of marriage, and with the will of the Author
of Life. To use this divine gift while destroying, even if only
partially, its meaning and its purpose is to contradict the nature
both of man and of woman and of their most intimate relationship,
and therefore it is to contradict also the plan of God and his
will>" (n. 13).
To return to John Paul II, in the final part of the catechesis
mentioned above on , when the Pope
"rereads" the doctrine of Humanae vitae on contraception, he
magisterially develops its individual points. Thus, regarding the
offence to the dignity of the person, the Pope does not hesitate
to say that this dignity is radically compromised by contraceptive
behaviour: the model proper to one's relationship with things,
i.e., a relationship of dominion, is transferred to the person,
who has self-mastery as his "basic constitution", thus depriving
man "" and making him "".
John Paul II then goes on to develop his reflections, focusing his
attention on the conjugal act: as "" in which "" in their "" the conjugal act "". This occurs at two interconnected levels, the
personalistic and the theological.
-At the personalistic level, the connection between the two
structural meanings of the conjugal act is such that ". Therefore, "", and consequently, the "". Falsification thus becomes total, because there is no
more truth ".
-At the theological level, the demands of truth are trampled upon
inasmuch as the conjugal union must give expression both to "" understood as the divine plan of which
the spouses are ministers and ", and to the
truth of the sacrament in the stricter sense, which "", in which therefore "".
As the final element, I think it is wholly correct to apply to the
moral disorder in the sexual field represented by contraception a
general principle recalled in another document of the Magisterium,
the Declaration , issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith on 29 December 1975. An entire paragraph, n. 10, is devoted
to how one should evaluate forms of behaviour which represent a
moral disorder in the field of sexuality. The principle is
formulated in this way: ".
That contraception is a direct violation of the moral order of
sexuality is unequivocally a constant teaching of the Magisterium,
given the fact that it is described as "intrinsically immoral".
The teaching recalled in the Declaration fully
applies to contraception.
Limits of space do not allow for additional references. But those
quoted here are more than sufficient to demonstrate that in the
Church's doctrine the conjugal act involves values of enormous
moral importance, some of which are even fundamental, and that
contraception compromises them so seriously as to destroy them. It
is evident then that , in addition to being an
"intrinsically immoral" action, and thus is never permissible for
any reason or purpose whatever.
Some concluding reflections
Further confirmation of the objective moral gravity of
contraception can be seen by looking at some of the aspects that
this behaviour has taken on in our time-something the Magisterium
itself has not failed to do.
Preventing the conjugal act from initiating the generative process
has been, until the most recent past, a problem for couples,
individual couples, for particular reasons and situations. In the
society and culture produced by industrialization, through a
complex series of factors which cannot even be noted here, a
marked reduction in the birth rate has become the expectation and
practice of almost all couples. While still being a , it has also become a . Lastly, it is a
, both of internal politics within individual
States and of , especially in relations
between developed and developing countries. At this level the real
dimensions of the problem then were cleverly extended, by raising
the spectre of a global catastrophe caused by overpopulation (the
so-called "", i.e., population bomb) and the death of all
from hunger. A drastic reduction in the birth rate has assumed the
features of crucial urgency, beginning with the developed
countries and then with the others, which are soon blamed for the
"", another emotionally charged term.
With the complicity of governments, international bodies,
beginning with the UN and the WHO, and well-financed private
organizations, there grew that ""
denounced by John Paul II. A conspiracy, the Pope says,
The mass availability of contraception was the first step on a
path of death. This quickly led to a broad "contraceptive
mentality", i.e., a widespread attitude of rejecting any unwanted
child, thus paving the way to broad social acceptance of
sterilization and abortion. The latter, in turn, is becoming the
premise for the social acceptance of euthanasia and its
This immensely tragic destruction of paramount human values in the
relations between rich and poor countries does not shrink from
cynically abusive policies imposed on poor countries as a
condition for receiving financial aid, food and medicine, or from
requiring the adoption of measures for quickly achieving zero
population growth by every means from contraception to mandatory
abortion after the first or second child. A true and very grave
crime, all of whose revolting brutality can be seen when one
discovers that in many poor countries people have free
contraceptives and abortifacients of every sort in abundance, but
there are no medicines to save the lives of millions of human
beings mowed down, for example, by malaria or other easily curable
diseases. The Magisterium's condemnation has been constant and
severe. I merely quote the one stated in Familiaris consortio:
"Likewise to be denounced as gravely unjust are cases where, in
international relations, economic help given for the advancement
of peoples is made conditional on programmes of contraception,
sterilization and procured abortion".
In our contemporary world, therefore, contraception has played and
continues to play a primary role in furthering that rampant
"culture of death" whose victims number in the tens of millions
every year. This culture also debases human sexuality and perverts
love even in its most sublime form of maternal love, when it
grants a mother the absurd right to kill the child she is carrying
in her womb. A culture moreover which is devastating and seeking
to destroy those same values among economically poor and
politically defenceless people, who are nevertheless rich in so
many human values that have been widely disregarded for a long
time in our wealthy countries.
Couples who choose contraception, whether consciously or not, are
helping to consolidate and strengthen the roots of this culture.
And this choice can only entail responsibilities whose seriousness
and weight are difficult to assess but certainly enormous.
1 Pius XI, Encyclical Letter (30 December 1930),
in 22 (1930), pp. 559-561.
2 See especially n. 29, where the Pope quotes in inverted commas
Proposition 21, formulated by the Synod Fathers themselves.
3 vol. II 1964, Libreria Editrice
Vaticana, Vatican City, p. 420.
4 The text of the address is in vol.
VI, 1968, pp. 869-873.
5 On this point, and on several others emphasized here, see the
particularly enlightening developments in the Pope's address to
priests attending a seminar on "responsible procreation" (17
September 1983), in , vol.
Vl/2, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 1984, pp. 561-564.
6 For this and the subsequent quotations, see John Paul II, , pp. 467-469.
7 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter , nn. 12, 17,
8 Ibid., n. 17.
9 John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation , n. 30.
Taken from the December 4, 1996 issue of "L'Osservatore Romano".
Editorial and Management Offices, Via del pellegrino, 00120,
Vatican City, Europe, Telephone 39/6/698.99.390.