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Can You Hear That? It's Push-Back from My Contraception Series.

Robert Stackpole Answers Your Divine Mercy Questions

By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jun 23, 2010)
Well, I had to open my big mouth! At the beginning of the fourth installment of my series on contraception a few weeks ago, I wrote the following:

I realize that in just four short articles I could not possibly answer every question that every one of our readers might have about the Church's teachings on this matter. However, if you will kindly send your unanswered questions and concerns to me at questions@thedivinemercy.org, I will do my best to fashion a follow-up article in the weeks to come, incorporating as many answers to your questions as I can.

Readers of this column certainly took me at my word: I have had a number of excellent questions pour in, all in response to my series, and I will indeed try my best to answer some of the toughest and most important ones here.

For example, one of my readers, named Ted, accused me — and by implication the Church as well — of contradicting myself. "On the one hand," he said, "you decry the spread of contraceptives by Planned Parenthood, and the resulting mindset, which you call the "every child a planned child" mentality, and you say that attitude is not really loving toward children, and you say it even begins to alienate us from God — and then you go ahead and endorse Natural Family Planning. Sure sounds like a contradiction to me."

Thanks for the challenge, Ted. But I think the use of the word "planning" and "planned" by those who favor contraceptive use is a bit different from the mentality usually involved in the use of Natural Family Planning (NFP). In the former case, the couple who is using contraceptives is making as sure as possible that there is no child born into the world that does not fit into the prior life plans of the family. In the third and fourth articles in my series on contraception, as you say, I tried to expose the underlying roots of this contraceptive attitude and how it links with the pro-abortion mentality as well.

Readers can go back to the articles and see how I explained the problems there. But in the case of NFP, the couple is not necessarily completely trying to manipulate the creation of new human life, and trying to wrest control of the gift of life from God as much as possible. When practiced with the right intention — that is, in extraordinary circumstances, when it seems certain that for serious medical, psychological, or financial reasons, it is not the Lord's will for a couple to conceive another child at the moment — NFP is only an attempt to cooperate with God's plan as expressed through the woman's natural cycle of fertility that He gave to her, to avoid engaging in the conjugal act during fertile periods.

Now, I understand that some couples use NFP almost all of the time: to prevent pregnancy whenever they don't want a child, and actually to conceive a child when they really want one (precisely by timing their conjugal acts to coincide with the fertile periods). It seems to me that this is a misuse of NFP. It adopts the "every child must be a planned child" mentality of which I was so critical in articles three and four of my series. NFP is meant for use only in extraordinary circumstances, when conceiving another child would be a grave hardship to a family, or when a couple has had a very hard time conceiving a child and needs to try to time their conjugal acts in order to make the conception of a child maximally possible. As Pope Paul VI wrote in Humane Vitae (section 16):

Certainly, there may be serious reasons for spacing offspring; these may be based on the physical or psychological condition of the spouses or on external factors. The Church teaches that [in such cases] it is morally permissible [for spouses] to calculate [their fertility by observing the] natural rhythms inherent in the generative faculties and to reserve marital intercourse for infertile times. The spouses are able to plan their families without violating the moral teachings set forth above.

In response to part one of this series, a woman named Mary wrote to me and asked:

If a woman has a situation which results in doctors advising her to limit the number of children or risk serious effects to her health, should she not get married to begin with? Is this what the Church advises? Even NFP can fail. I know a young woman in this situation and would really like to know.

Well, Mary, in the way you have phrased the question — that is, that the doctor's advice to your friend is merely to "limit" the number of children she has — then I do not see how this should be a bar to marriage. Many married people need to limit the number of children they conceive, for serious medical, psychological, and/or financial reasons, and this is a perfectly good moral justification for the use of NFP in their marriage. I should think that judicious use of NFP in her case, therefore, throughout her marriage, would be fully in accord with the Church's teachings, and a medically prudent option as well.

On the other hand, if the doctor's medical advice was that she should never have children — that pregnancy might be very dangerous to her life, and to the life of her child — then that could indeed be a sign that the Lord's plan might be for her to bear fruit for the kingdom in a virginal life, perhaps in a religious vocation, which often includes a dimension of "spiritual motherhood" in the service of those in need. On "spiritual motherhood" and the life of consecrated virginity, read Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Women).

Finally, one woman named Kimberly really "let me have it"! She wrote of the Catholic Church's "insensitive and inhumane" teachings on contraception that do not permit the use of contraceptives "in any extreme situations whatsoever." For example, she asked:

What about women who need to take the pill for medical reasons, such as to prevent the formation of ovarian cysts? What about husbands who are forcing their wives to have unprotected sex, and who will throw their wives out in the street if they don't comply? But the Church says it is always wrong for them to take the pill! And what about women who need to have their husbands use a condom, to prevent their husbands from infecting them with HIV? Or what about using contraceptives as post-rape treatment, to prevent the rape of a young teenage girl from resulting in a life-threatening pregnancy? Isn't it about time that the Church with its all-male celibate hierarchy woke up and began to appreciate some of the terrible situations that women in the real world have to face?

Kimberly, I appreciate your passion for the sufferings of women in such terrible circumstances, but I also think that it is time that some people "woke up" and actually did some research into the Church's teachings on such matters before assuming that the Church's hierarchy is so grossly insensitive. For example:

1) A woman using the synthetic hormones in the contraceptive pill to prevent the formation of ovarian cysts is not necessarily "contracepting." This is because of the Catholic moral principle of "double-effect." In other words, it is possible to do a right, good, and necessary act that has foreseen but unintended harmful consequences, as long as those unintended consequences are not out of proportion to the good that one is seeking to do by the good act, and as long as the harmful consequences are not the very means used to produce the good intended. I know that sounds like a huge mouthful, but bear with me for a moment; it's really not so hard to understand!

For example, suppose an angry crowd is rioting in front of an embassy and a policeman decides he has to fire tear gas into the crowd to break it up to prevent the rioters in the crowd from doing violence to those inside the embassy building — even though he realizes that there are some innocent bystanders in the crowd who will also get gassed in the process. It is a foreseen but unintended harmful consequence of the good act he must perform, and the harmful consequence (some gassed innocent bystanders, in this case) is not excessive in the circumstances, given that he is trying to prevent much worse acts of violence, nor is he deliberately gassing the innocent bystanders in order to break up the crowd. Rather, he is trying to fend off the violent mob with tear gas in order to stop them as best he can with as minimal "collateral damage" as possible. In Catholic moral teaching, the policeman is justified in firing the tear gas in such a case.

In a similar way, the woman using contraceptive pills for a legitimate and serious medical reason, such as to use the hormones they contain to prevent ovarian cysts from forming in her body, is doing a good medical act that has a foreseen but unintended consequence. To put it another way, she is trying as best she can to "fire tear gas" at the ovarian cysts, knowing that an "innocent bystander," in this case her natural fertility, also will be temporarily affected. But causing that temporary state of infertility is not her intention in using the pill, nor is that temporary state of infertility the means she is using to fight ovarian cysts. The infertility in this case is just an unintended side-effect, so to speak, of using the pill for its medical-hormonal benefits in fighting a grave, even life-threatening medical condition. In fact, by preventing ovarian cysts from forming she may even be rescuing her future capacity to conceive new human life!

2) You are incorrect to say that the Catholic Church teaches that it is always wrong for someone to use contraceptives, even in cases where their husbands are essentially forcing them to have sex (for example, where an abusive husband might force his wife to have sex, under threat of evicting her from her home and casting her out into the street, so to speak), and even to prevent a young teen rape victim from conceiving a child by the rapist. Both of these are instances of rape or coercion, and the Church generally teaches that in such cases the use of contraceptives do not constitute "contracepting" per se. Rather, it is just a medical means of self-defense against the male sperm which, in such cases, is an extension of the rape. Of course, in situations of ongoing marital rape, it might be better to attempt to flee such an abusive husband than to stay and endure such abuse (abuse that leaves her no choice but to use the pill), but flight is not always an option.

On this matter I will quote the excellent book by Janet Smith and Kristopher Kaczor, Life Issues, Medical Choices: Questions and Answers for Catholics (Servant Books, 2007, pp. 90, and 93-94):

The Ethical and Religious Directives for health care Services" of the USCCB permits victims of rape to take the hormones that are present in contraceptives to prevent a pregnancy if the prevention does not involve destroying the embryonic human being or preventing implantation. Destruction of an embryonic human or preventing implantation is equivalent to abortion and thus immoral. If the treatment, however, works prior to the process of fertilization—by destroying or incapacitating the sperm or preventing ovulation—it is morally permissible.

Such treatments to prevent conception are permissible because they inhibit a part of the rapist (the sperm) from further advancement into the woman's body and prevent this part of the man from uniting with part of the woman's body, her egg. As such, this act differs morally from acts of contraceptive use during voluntary intercourse. It qualifies as an act of self-defense rather than an act of contraception. …

An office of the Vatican in the late 1950s was asked if it would be immoral for some nuns in the Congo who believed they were in grave danger of being raped to use contraceptives, and the office replied in the affirmative…. Contraception in such cases would not be violating the meaning of a voluntary act of sexual intercourse but rather a means of self-defense. Some theologians who accept the teaching of the magisterium have argued that even sterilization is permissible in order to prevent a pregnancy from an act of sexual intercourse [obviously, as a last resort].

3) As for a couple trying to prevent the infection of one spouse or the other with HIV, Smith and Kaczor report that the matter is still under discussion (p. 86):

The debate about the use of condoms to prevent HIV for married couples is ongoing, and as yet there has been no definitive statement from the Magisterium.

Some theologians and philosophers think that the principle of double-effect [that I discussed in #1 above] justifies the use of condoms by spouses to avoid transmitting HIV. They believe that the contraceptive effect of the condom is not what is primarily intended: what is intended is preventing transmission of a lethal disease. The argument is that the infertility caused by the condom should be considered a side-effect, a double effect.

Finally, Kimberly, I cannot let your comment about our "all-male celibate hierarchy" go without comment. You imply that it is not possible for celibate males to understand the plight of women especially with regard to their sexuality and their fertility. Of course, it is a challenge for any male to understand all the trials and tribulations that women face, just as it is a challenge for women sometimes to truly understand the crosses that men have to bear. But "with God, all things are possible" (Mt 19:26). Jesus our Lord was a celibate male. So was St. Paul. So was St. John. So was Pope John Paul II who taught more about marriage, family, and sexuality than any other pope in history. But one would be hard-pressed to find any lack of compassion or respect for the dignity of women in their life and writings.

This is not the place to go into the issue of the all-male priesthood (I can do that another time, if somebody would like me to do so!) but for now, Kimberly, let's all try at least to give God the benefit of the doubt, that maybe He knew what He was doing when He fashioned the Catholic Church for 2,000 years the way He did. Moreover, through the sacrament of ordination, our Lord can surely supply the grace needed to overcome human barriers to empathy and understanding, if only the ordained man will cooperate with that grace.

In short, as Catholics we can surely trust that our Savior found a way to preserve His Church in the truth about matters of faith and morals down through the ages.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.

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