Contraception Part 1: Indefensible or Indispensable?

Over the past few years I received several questions on the Church's teachings about contraception, and I have been looking for a good opportunity to address this important issue in-depth. Well, it seemed to me that there is no better time than the Easter Season to do so, since at this time of the liturgical year we celebrate the new life that Jesus Christ came to earth to bring, and contraception is a major foundation stone of the anti-life culture that surrounds us today throughout most of the world.

In this series of columns I will first of all look at the theological case, from Scripture and tradition, against contraception, culminating in the teachings of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. After that I will discuss Natural Family Planning, and then I will expose many of the myths surrounding the contraception issue, such as: that contraception leads to greater "freedom" for women; that it is medically safe, necessary to reduce the number of abortions and help prevent the spread of the HIV-AIDS virus; and instrumental to the struggle against overpopulation and the consequent strain on global natural resources, as well as part of the cure for third-world poverty and hunger.

So, please be patient: It will take several installments to say all that I think really needs to be said on this issue. I hope and pray that what I write may be guided by the Holy Spirit, who is (according to the Nicene Creed) "the Lord and giver of life," and that my readers will find it helpful enough to be led to share it with friends and family members who wrestle in conscience with this matter and who doubt that the Church's teaching on this subject are true and trustworthy.

Some Catholics cannot at all see the sense of the Church's teachings on this subject. After all, they reason, if educated women are not to give up all hope of having a career outside the home, then they have to be allowed to take control of their own bodies and their own lives. As such, contraception gives them one effective way to do this. Women are not just baby-making machines; they have other God-given gifts and talents in addition to the capacity to bear and raise children. Even if our first priority must be the care of our children when they are very young, they say, still, unless we can take responsible control of our own fertility and effectively limit the number of children we have, we will never be able to develop our talents and use our gifts outside the home.

It is for this reason that a great many feminists - and even many Catholics - have supported the use of contraceptives, and they cannot understand why the Vatican, seemingly alone among all Christian groups, cannot keep in step with the times and allow Catholic women freedom-of-conscience in this area, an area that seems vital to the happiness of educated women in the modern world and important to their ability to contribute to the common good at every level of society.

Two quick answers to this attitude.

(1) The first is that it is NOT the Church's teaching that every married woman must have as many children as possible, and thereby effectively be limited solely to a life of childcare. Large families are a good counsel for those who can manage it, but not a precept - not a moral obligation. As we shall see, the Church teaches that there are legitimate reasons for limiting the number of children in a family, and the Church is not opposed "responsible parenthood" - to married couples taking moral steps to try not to have more children than they can reasonably care for. But that is not the same thing as contraception. A good end does not justify any and every means used to achieve it. For example, it is right to give alms to the poor, but probably not right to rob the local candy store to get the money to do it! Similarly, the Church says that contraception is a morally illegitimate way to practice responsible parenthood, because it deliberately blocks the God-given, natural openness of the conjugal act to the procreation of new human life. Natural Family Planning, as we shall see, can achieve the same end - a limit on the number of children conceived by a married couple in difficult circumstances - in a way that does not involve any of the moral, medical, and social ills of the use of contraceptives.

(2) The Catholic Church is not completely alone in its opposition to contraception. She is largely supported on this matter by the Russian Orthodox Church. In any case, the Church is not supposed to ride the wave of every social trend or conform itself to everything that is popular. Rather, the Church is "the Body of Christ" (see I Cor 12) - a supernatural organism in and through which the Lord Jesus Himself reveals His love and His truth to the world. As the Body of Christ on earth, she must teach only what is in accord with all that God has revealed to us through the Jewish Scriptures that Jesus accepted as the Word of God, and the writings of His chosen apostles (to whom He promised the special guidance of the Holy Spirit, e.g. Jn 16:13) as found in the New Testament. And, of course, we must also take into account the sacred tradition of the Church in unfolding that scriptural and apostolic faith, a tradition fashioned down through the ages by the reflections of saints, popes, and ecumenical councils under the guidance of the same Holy Spirit.

So first of all, let's consult these authentic sources of divine revelation, Scripture and tradition, and listen to what God our Creator and Redeemer has to say on these matters.

What does Holy Scripture have to say on this issue?

Probably the only direct reference to contraception is found in Genesis 38: 9-10, which tells us that a man named Onan was slain by the Lord for using the contraceptive method coitus interruptus to avoid fulfilling his marital duty under Jewish law with his dead brother's wife. Some of the early Church Fathers such as St. Augustine saw this passage as involving the condemnation of any form of any conjugal act in which the conception of offspring is deliberately prevented. This interpretation was largely endorsed by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical on Christian marriage, "Casti Connubi" in 1930. Some modern scholars question this interpretation of Genesis, however, arguing that what God was condemning in this situation was not a contraceptive act, but Onan's failure to keep the Jewish law by not trying to conceive a child with his deceased brother's childless spouse. However, the penalty under Jewish law for not fulfilling one's duty to one's deceased brother's wife was not death, but public humiliation (see Dt 25:5-10), and so God's anger at Onan must have had an additional and deeper cause. It seems likely that the traditional interpretation of Genesis 38 is correct and that God was also angry at Onan for deliberately blocking the natural openness of the conjugal act to new life in what he did. Only a truly anti-life act, in addition to his violation of his duties to his brother's wife, could explain the death penalty that he received in those circumstances.

In general, Scripture teaches that that rational reflection on God's creation - that is, on the natural world and on human nature in particular - can also give us clues as to what is proper to human nature as God our Creator intended it. To some extent at least, we are capable of discerning a natural moral law: in other words, what by nature, we ought to do and to be. You can find this teaching in the first two chapters of St. Paul's letter to the Romans, where he talks about the law of right and wrong written on the hearts even of the pagans who had never heard of the commandments that God gave to Moses. He condemns certain human sexual acts as unnatural.

Well, on what "natural" grounds might there be any problem with contraception? It is clear that at least one of the reasons that God gave us naturally monogamous heterosexual coupling and the conjugal act that seals and celebrates it is the procreation of new human life. Father Joseph Hattie once put it this way in a booklet he wrote for the Archdiocese of Vancouver, British Columbia:

Marriage is not something invented by human beings. The male half did not invent it so that they could keep their wives barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. Nor did the female half of the human race invent it for the purpose of security. No, it is God [our Creator's] institution. It is a gift and a privilege. As a privilege it carries with it corresponding and balancing responsibilities. It involves the couple in God's design of love in the building of a community of life and love [not only for each other, but also] for the procreation and education of children. ... God tells us, "It is a gift which I created and give to you so that you can cooperate with me in giving the gift of life to future human beings, and in bringing those human beings to responsible adulthood."

That this is part of the "natural" purpose of marriage and sex is clear even just from the fact that the natural act that seals and celebrates the conjugal relationship is the same one that is naturally open to the procreation of new human life. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that these two things naturally go together! Whether they must always go together is a question we shall discuss next week.

For now, just notice how this natural and biblical model of marriage and the gift of children compares with the way many people today look upon marriage: as merely the most convenient way to sleep together on a regular basis, pool their wealth, claim some tax benefits, and (hopefully) support each other's pursuit of their successful and fulfilling careers. If that is the real purpose of sex and marriage, then no wonder children are largely seen as an obstacle to a happy marital life! These are not really marriages at all, in the natural or biblical sense; they are hedonistic and materialistic mergers: two people engaged in nothing more exalted than a life-long commitment to their own enlightened self-interest. The Bible and the natural law clearly show us that they have "missed the boat" on what sex and marriage are all about, and their sky-high divorce, abortion, and suicide rates confirm the diagnosis.

What does Sacred Tradition have to say on this issue?

On the matter of contraception there can be no doubt at all. The consensus teaching of the popes, bishops, saints, and doctors of the Catholic Church down through the ages has always been that contraception is gravely wrong. It is not a new issue. People in ancient and medieval times tried a number of relatively ineffective herbal potions and barrier methods as contraceptives. Among the early Church Fathers who spoke most clearly on this subject were St. Epiphanius and St. John Chrysostom in the east, and St. Jerome and St. Augustine in the west. As Church historian John Noonan wrote in 1962:

Since the first clear mention of a contraception by a Christian theologian, when a harsh third-century moralist accused a pope of encouraging it, the articulated argument has always been the same... the teachers of the church have taught without hesitation or variation that certain [contraceptive] acts preventing procreation are gravely sinful. No Catholic theologian ever taught [up until 1962, that is] that contraception is a good act. The teaching on contraception is apparently clear and fixed forever... during that time you could approach any bishop in the world and he would tell you the same thing: contraception is gravely sinful.

By the way, the Christian consensus on this matter included not only Catholics but the great Protestant Reformers (Luther, Calvin, and Wesley) as well, and all Protestant churches up until 1930, when the Anglicans were the first ones to change their minds on the subject. The consensus held not only in times and places where women were relatively subservient and confined to the home, but also in Christian cultures where women were often well educated and exercised significant roles outside the home (such as areas of medieval Europe and the Byzantine empire).

Some people argue that the Church has in fact changed its mind on significant issues of faith and morals in the past. For example, on the morality of usury, or of slavery, or of religious freedom. Well, we do not have the time to go through each of these three famous cases. On usury and religious freedom, I can only refer to readers to my book, St. Peter Lives in Rome (Marian Press, second, revised edition 2006) where these matters are discussed. On slavery, please consult the outstanding survey of the historical evidence by Joel S. Panzer in his book The Popes and Slavery (Alba House, 1996). In brief: the Church has never "changed its mind" in the sense it "contradicted" any of her definitive teachings on faith and morals at any stage of her journey through history. Sometimes she has discerned and unfolded new implications from truths previously taught, but never in a way that undermined her previous authoritative guidance.

Ask yourself: Can it really be the case that the Holy Spirit was so deficient in guiding His Church ("the pillar and bulwark of the truth" according to I Tim 3:15) that He sat back and watched the biblical writers imply error, and the whole Church teach a grievous error on a matter of grave importance to human happiness regarding sex and marriage for almost 2,000 years? If that is really what happened, then it is not just an argument in favor of contraception, it is an argument against Christianity altogether. If the voice of Scripture and Tradition is untrustworthy on matters of faith and morals, then the only Christianity we have left is the make-it-up-yourself kind, which is, of course, precisely the kind of religion that too many Catholics in North America are practicing today.

Next week: How Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II responded to this situation, and how they answered the hard questions about precisely why contraception is wrong and what conjugal love is really all about.

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

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