Modern Teachings on Contraception

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Father William P. Saunders

The following is a continuation of a series on marital love and artificial birth control.

A question for you regarding Catholics who practice artificial birth control: What is their status in the Church? Are they committing mortal sin? I feel that this is a much misunderstood question by most Catholics, including myself. To further muddle the issue, what is the Church's position when one's spouse does not want to practice NFP?—An ACH reader

The Church faced increasing pressure regarding the use of artificial birth control with the marketing of the anovulant pill. In response, the Second Vatican Council stated in "Gaudium et Spes," "In questions of birth regulation, the sons and daughters of the Church, faithful to these principles, are forbidden to use methods disapproved by the teaching authority of the Church in its interpretation of the divine law" (No. 51).

However, Pope Paul VI had transferred the investigation of new questions concerning this matter to a special commission (originally established by John XXIII in March, 1963) for the study of population, the family and births. The Holy Father would then review their findings and render judgment. The commission included married couples and those of various competencies in this field. Select bishops were also asked for their views; other bishops voluntarily submitted them.

On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued "Humanae Vitae,', which upheld the consistent teaching of the Church based on natural law as well as divine revelation: "Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life" (No. 11).

Our Holy Father has continually repeated the Church's teaching. In "Familiaris Consortio," he lamented the signs of a "disturbing degradation of some fundamental values" evident in "the growing number of divorces, the scourge of abortion, the ever more frequent recourse to sterilization, the appearance of a truly contraceptive mentality" (No. 6).

Interestingly, Pope Paul VI prophesied against grave consequences from artificial birth control: increased marital infidelity and a lowering of moral standards; increased lack of respect for women, including seeing women as a sex object rather than a partner in marriage; and the danger of empowering public authorities to regulate the lives of others. These warnings are becoming realities.

Statistics prove the rapid increase of divorce, at a rate of 50 percent during the first five years of marriage. Any person can attest to the deterioration of the moral quality of television and movies during the past 25 years. Crimes of rape continue to rise each year; pornography has become increasingly prevalent; and the news is replete with cases of sexual harassment. Moreover, some municipal or state governments, such as Maryland and Kansas, have attempted to begin programs which pay women to use Norplant (the five-year contraceptive implanted in a woman's arm) to control the pregnancies of teenagers and welfare recipients.

Ironically, this past January, the law firm of Ashcraft and Gerel placed an ad in the Washington Post offering their assistance to women who have suffered the effects of Norplant: "nausea, headaches, irregular menstrual cycles, prolonged menstrual bleeding, dizziness, dermatitis, weight gain, blood vessel abnormalities, enlargement of the ovaries or fallopian tubes, alopecia and others."

Pope John Paul II declared Pope Paul VI's "Humanae Vitae" a "truly prophetic proclamation" ("Familiaris Consortio," No. 29) Sadly, we see the prophecy coming true.

Interestingly, Dr. William May in 1968 signed a statement with numerous other theologians dissenting from "Humanae Vitae." He has long since recanted. In 1988, on the 20th anniversary of the encyclical, he said, "I was beginning to see that if contraception is justifiable, then perhaps artificial insemination, test-tube reproduction and similar modes of generating life outside the marital embrace are morally justifiable too ... I began to realize that the moral theology invented to justify contraception could be used to justify any kind of deed. I saw that it was a consequentialist, utilitarian kind of argument, that it was a theory which repudiated the notion of intrinsically evil acts. I began to realize how truly prophetic the pope had been, and how providential it was that he had been given the strength to resist the tremendous pressures brought to bear upon him" (Columbia).

This issue of artificial birth control has been the hardest and perhaps the most controversial issue addressed in Straight Answers. I have spent several issues thoroughly addressing the topic, and I pray that I have represented fairly and adequately the Church's position. I hope I have given a "straight answer." In sum, Pope Paul VI concluded "Humanae Vitae" with the statement that the Church is to be "a sign of contradiction." So indeed she is in this case, going against the popular culture of the age. Nevertheless, St. Paul's words originally addressed to the Romans should resound in our ears: "Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind so that you may judge what is God's will, what is good, pleasing and perfect" (Rom 12:2).

Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the November 9, 1995 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald." Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.