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Thursday, April 12, 2007


I received the following question, in italics, in an email from a reader and recent convert to the Catholic Faith. I offer the following article in an attempt to answer the question. Please, if I have missed something, or misspoke in any way, let me know.

At 46 going on 47 years old with the last pregnancy in my late 30s ending in a painful and emotional miscarriage. My husband and I decided it was time not to have any more. I am at a loss on the church’s teaching on no contraceptives. So what is the church’s teaching on this and is there scripture to back it up?

I should also state that my husband and I are on different prescribed mediations for our health that affect unborn babies for the last several years.
I believe that God has taken this issue from me and my husband. My heart is at peace and with my recent conversion I feel that God is strongly leading me to do more for the Catholic church than just sit in mass.

The issue of contraception must be understood in context of the covenant marriage ordained by God. Scripture teaches us that marriage is both unitive and procreative. These are both essential elements contained in God’s divine plan.

In Genesis chapter two, verse 23 Adam said of Eve, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken.” Verse 24 explains, That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” In Genesis chapter one, verse 28 God blesses Adam and Eve and tells them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.”

Christ echoed this in Matthew chapter 19, verses four through six, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that in marriage a man and a woman, “establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life” (CCC 1601).

Scripture reveals to us that it is God’s plan “from the beginning” (Mt. 19: 4) that man and woman should through marriage, “become one flesh” (Mt. 19: 5), for “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2: 18). “The consent by which the spouses mutually give and receive one another is sealed by God himself” (CCC 1639).

Over and over again we are presented with this idea of union and oneness: “become one body”, “become one flesh”, “partnership of the whole of life”, “give and receive one anther”. Man and woman are called to give themselves totally to the other in marriage. The pinnacle manifestation of this giving and receiving, or consummation, is the conjugal act.
Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter – appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility. In a word it is a question of the normal characteristics of all natural conjugal love, but with a new significance which not only purifies and strengthens them, but raises them to the extent of making them the expression of specifically Christian values.
This conjugal love has as its natural end the gift of a child. “Fecundity is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful. A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment” (CCC 2366).

Here I will follow momentarily a tangent concerning infertility. The Church recognizes that the inability to have children causes many couples to suffer greatly. (CCC 2374). The Catechism later says, “a child is not something owed to one, but it is a gift” (CCC 2378). “The Gospel shows that physical sterility is not an absolute evil. Spouses who still suffer from infertility after exhausting legitimate medical procedures should unite themselves with the Lord’s Cross, the source of all spiritual fecundity” (CCC 2379). It should be noted here that the use of techniques such as surrogates and artificial insemination are not morally permissible. For more information please see CCC 2376 – 2377.

God established marriage as the means by which man and woman would give and receive of themselves to enter into this “partnership of the whole of life.” Through our sexuality, properly ordered for the bond of marriage, God gives us the awesome ability to share in His act of creation. This is a gift that we should embrace and cherish.

The use of contraception closes this ability to share in God’s act of creation. What more, it removes the full unity found in marriage. The use of contraceptives does not allow the spouses to give themselves fully to the other. Sin is the rejection of God’s will and divine plan. Therefore the Church rightly teaches that the use of contraceptives is morally illicit.

Pope Paul VI says in Humanae Vitae, “to be excluded . . . is direct sterilization, whether perpetual or temporary, whether of the man or the woman. Similarly excluded is every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.” Scripture provides support for this in Genesis chapter 38. Verses 6 – 10 tell us that Judah instructed his son Onan to take the widow of his brother Er as his wife and to father children in order to preserve Er’s line. Verse 9 states, “Onan, however, knew that the descendants would not be counted as his; so whenever he had relations with his brothers widow, he wasted his seed on the ground, to avoid contributing offspring for his brother. What he did greatly offended the Lord, and the Lord took his life also.”

In some circumstances it may be desirable for couples to regulate the birth of children.

“It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality:
When it is a question of harmonizing married love with the responsible transmission of life, the morality of the behavior does not depend on sincere intention and evaluation of motives alone; but it must be determined by objective criteria, criteria drawn from the nature of the person and his acts, criteria that respect the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love; this is possible only if the virtue of married chastity is practiced with sincerity of heart.
“By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its orientation toward man’s exalted vocation to parenthood.”

Periodic continence, this is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom.
Pope Paul VI summed this up nicely in Humanae Vitae saying that couples who refrain from sexual relations during periods of fertility, “make legitimate use of a natural disposition.”

In summary, the Church’s teachings on contraception must be understood in context of the marriage covenant established by God the Creator. In marriage man and woman are called to give of themselves totally to the other, becoming one flesh. This giving to each other naturally is conductive to the creation of new life. The conjugal act is the supreme manifestation of the marriage bond. Marriage is both unitive and procreative. As this is the natural design of God it is unacceptable to reject either aspect as they are both necessary and equal in accordance with God’s will. Contraception acts to block the procreative aspect of the conjugal act and is therefore illicit. Abstaining from sexual relations during periods of fertility is acceptable because it remains open to the possibility of the creation of new life is seen fit by God.


Mark said...

A good orthodox position, Chris. Strangely, a friend posted a completely different view on this here.

J and J said...

Great post. It's funny that that passage in Gen 38 came up twice in the last little while for me. I would also add to this post that the marriage covenanat resembles Christ's marriage to the Church. Christ gives his flesh to his Bride and the Church receives it for the creation of new life within her. This is really similar to a husband giving his 'flesh' to his wife for the purpose of creating new life within her. What would happen if Christ put a barrier between himself and us? I shudder to think. Thankfully Christ is selfless and generous with himself.
My wife and I have found great joy in the practice of what the Church teaches on this subject, although have not been blessed with children yet. I guess I'll just have to wait on God.

Thanks for the great post.

In Christ Jesus,