Part Two: Indefensible or Indispensable?

The following is part two in a series on contraception. To read part one, click here.

In the early 1960s, with the invention of the birth control pill, the first highly effective method of contraception, the Catholic Church was faced with a dilemma: Should the new techniques of birth control lead the Church to change its traditional teaching on contraception?

The first definitive answer to this question was given to the Catholic world by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968). The Pope taught that simply improving the methods of contraception could not change the fundamental moral objection to the contraceptive act itself. Contraception deliberately obstructs an essential aspect of our Creator's purpose in giving us the gift of conjugal love in the first place.

The conjugal act, he wrote, was given to us by God to fulfill both a "unitive" and "procreative" purpose at the same time. It was meant to be "unitive" in the sense that the act should express and strengthen the intimate bond between husband and wife, a bond of total caring commitment to one another. It was intended to be "procreative" in the sense of being the act in which conjugal love between spouses is naturally open to the co-creation with God of new human life, as the fruit of that conjugal love. We must not deliberately try to block or frustrate either of these two purposes of the marital act, the Holy Father said, for to do so is to fall short of our Creator's good purposes for marriage and sexuality. The mere fact that God has made the same marital act potentially and uniquely both unitive and procreative is a sure sign that these two purposes of the conjugal act belong together in God's plan. Several decades later, the Catechism of the Catholic Church would sum up this teaching in entry 2366:

Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life. This particular doctrine, expounded on numerous occasions by the magisterium, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.

As an Anglican seminarian back in the 1980s, I found myself not entirely convinced by this line of reasoning. Along with many other Christians in Protestant denominations, I had a hard time seeing why every single act of marital sexual intercourse had to be left naturally open to procreation. It seemed to me that as long as one's marriage as a whole was open to a reasonable and generous number of children, then it would be OK to use contraceptive methods, at various times, to help prevent the conception of an unreasonable and overly burdensome number of children. In other words, why does every single conjugal act have to express the full God-given unitive and procreative significance of such acts? Why cannot that full significance be generally present throughout a marriage relationship as a whole over time, but not in every single conjugal act? Wouldn't that fit equally well with God's purpose for human sexuality within marriage?

It began to dawn on me that something was wrong with my attitude when I read the response given to Protestants by some Catholic apologists. Both sides accepted that the conjugal act is meant to be a repeated expression, celebration, and reaffirmation of one's wedding vows of total caring commitment to one's spouse. But Catholic authors like Jason Evert put it this way (in If You Really Loved Me, Servant Books, revised and expanded edition, 2008, p.140):

God has revealed that the purposes of sex are procreation and union (babies and bonding), and that the sexual act can be thought of as the wedding vows and promises made flesh. On a couple's wedding day, they promise that their love will be free, faithful, total, and open to life. Each act of marital intercourse should be a renewal of these vows.

Some couples say that they will be open to life but will contracept between kids. In other words, they will be completely open to life - except when they sterilize their acts of love. Imagine if they had the same mentality with other parts of their wedding vows. Can a wife say she is faithful except when she has affairs? Can she say that she will give herself totally to her husband as long as he is rich? Can a husband say that the marital act is free except when he forces himself upon his wife? All this is absurd, but contracepting couples contradict their own vows in a similar way when they refuse to be open to God's gift of life.

Another way to look at it is this: Ask yourself, "What does it really mean to separate the unitive and procreative purposes of the conjugal act?"

For example, if the unitive and procreative purposes of the marital act can be temporarily separated, without moral harm, then wouldn't it be right to use the marital act for a procreative purpose only, at least on occasion, devoid of any expression of its unitive significance? I think we would all say that would be wrong, for it would be using another person as a mere reproductive machine, just to get a baby. Sadly, some people do get married primarily for reasons such as these. A man may feel that it is "time to find a wife to bear my children," or a woman may marry a man not because she is really devoted to his good, but because her "biological clock" is ticking, and if she ever wants to have the experience of being a mother, she needs to find a man to marry before it is too late!

All of us would recognize that these are unworthy reasons, all by themselves, to marry another person and engage in the conjugal act. There is nothing wrong with wanting to have children - that is a natural and generous desire! - but to treat another person as nothing more than a reproductive instrument, a mere means to that end, even in a single conjugal act, is to fall short of our Creator's purpose in giving us the gift of human sexuality in the first place. The conjugal act is supposed to be an expression of caring, committed love for one's spouse, and not just a child-manufacturing exercise!

Similarly, it was Pope John Paul II who most clearly explained that by using contraceptives, we can cause considerable relational and spiritual harm to our marriage. That is, when we try to use the marital act to express its "unitive" significance alone (love for our spouse), devoid of its natural openness to the procreation of new human life.

Pope John Paul II taught that sexual intercourse is a kind of God-given, natural "body language." We all know what "body language" is. If I sit and look at you with my arms crossed and a scowl on my face, I probably don't have to say any words at all to make you realize that I am displeased with something you have said or done. The body "speaks" before I have even said a single word. In every culture in the world, to spit in someone's face is body language that expresses utter contempt, whereas a smile expresses joy or happiness.

Sexual intercourse, the Pope said, was also given by God to humanity as a kind of body language; in this case, to enable us to express what cannot be fully expressed in words. It naturally means something. It means "I give myself completely and unreservedly to you, and I welcome your complete self-gift to me, too." That is why sexual intercourse is properly reserved for marriage, because only a commitment of marriage is a complete, life-long, public commitment of a man and a woman to each other. Such a total, whole-life, caring commitment is the only kind of love that matches, and is worthy to be expressed, by the most intimate and total sexual act of self-giving.

Pre-marital and extra-marital sex, on the other hand, "speak the body-language of a lie," for they say with the body "I give myself completely to you, and accept your total self-gift, too," whereas in actuality such total self-giving (which, to be total, must be intended as exclusive and life-long, "till death do us part") is not really what is intended at all. What one really intends to do in such extra-marital sexual acts is, at least in part, to use another person sexually, or to use each other for pleasure, or to try each other out bodily and emotionally for a while. In doing so, we are lying to each other with our bodies.

The problem is that when married couples begin using contraception - even for otherwise good motives - they are already contradicting the body-language of conjugal love. The conjugal act they are performing says "I give myself completely to you, and I welcome your complete self-gift, too," but in fact, they are not giving themselves completely to each other as they naturally are in that act. In reality, in intention, they are withholding something from each other. They are holding back from each other one of the most precious aspects of themselves: their own fertility, their God-given, natural capacity, in that very act, to co-create with God new human persons. Thus, contraception, the Pope writes, "speaks the body-language of a lie." It is like telling a lie with your body. With your bodies you are expressing total mutual self-giving, but in reality, what you are intending is: "I give myself completely to you - except my natural co-creative power - and I welcome every aspect of you - except your natural co-creative power." Or "I give myself completely to you, except that, at the same time, I want to protect myself against an aspect of you."

The Holy Father put it this way in his apostolic letter Familiaris Consortio (section 32):

The innate language that expresses 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 totality.

The tragedy here is that this limitation on self-giving, this "body-language of a lie," occurs right in the very act in which married couples should be bonding themselves most intimately and most completely together. It is, therefore, a hidden cause of alienation in contemporary married life, and, as we shall see next week as this series continues, a hidden cause of the weakening of the marriage bond.

Father Joseph Hattie, whom I quoted last week, put it this way in his booklet on marriage, family, and sexuality:

The special character of the [marital] relationship is harmed when the couple refuses to give themselves totally to each other. They hold back saying (objectively and non-verbally)... for at this level, contraception is saying, "I need protection against you," or "I can't accept you totally as you are: you have to do something about your fertility before you are acceptable to me."

It is noted in Humanae Vitae that this does not mean that every act of conjugal love must result in a child being conceived. Rather, it means that whenever husband and wife choose to exercise the privilege of conjugal love, they must take the responsibility of accepting each other as God has created each other to be at that time, i.e., fertile or infertile.

In fact, as we shall also see next week, that is precisely the reason why the Church teaches us that the morally right way to practice "responsible parenthood," that is, to try not to conceive more children than you and your spouse can reasonably support and care for, is to use Natural Family Planning (NFP). For NFP never requires you to "speak the body-language of a lie." Rather, in NFP each and every marital act can be an expression of total mutual self-giving precisely as God has naturally created you to be at that time, whether fertile or infertile. It harmonizes beautifully with our Creator's good purpose in giving us the gift of sexuality in the first place.

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

You might also like...

How the Christ Child was a constant source of inspiration and joy for St. Faustina.

When we use the phrase "The Divine Mercy" in prayer, do we know what or who we are actually talking about? Dr. Stackpole tries to clear up some verbal confusion here.

If we didn't believe and came before God, would He give us a second chance to believe?