Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Contraception and Catholicism: What the Church really teaches"

As the healthcare mandate controversy rages on, I was pleasantly surprised to come across this short, but insightful, explanation of the Church's teaching on the issue of contraception.

Personally, I think the Church's teaching on marriage, sexuality and the family is incredibly beautiful, dignified, and uplifting.

Whether one agrees or disagrees, this short essay provides a succinct and powerful explanation of the teaching, while leaving the open-minded reader with a lot of food for thought.

From National Review Online:

Catholic teaching on contraception is at the heart of the controversy over the Health and Human Services mandate. Catholic hospitals and universities are unwilling to purchase insurance plans that provide contraceptive coverage. To critics, this unwillingness borders on the irrational; accordingly, they see little value in protecting the freedom of Catholic hospitals and universities to act in accordance with their beliefs.

Catholic teaching about contraception is, however, not irrational; nor is it founded, as some have claimed, on irrelevant distinctions such as that between what is natural and what is “artificial.” Rather, two lines of argument are to be found throughout the tradition of Catholic, and more generally, Christian, thought on this issue that together show the teaching to be plausible and, in the view of many, true.

The first argument against contraception turns on the way in which the conjugal act unites the married couple organically as one flesh, so as to realize at the physical level of their existence their marital commitment to become one — to make a complete and mutual gift of each to each. Together, spouses are able to perform a biological act that they would be incapable of performing alone: an act of a reproductive kind. As is well known, this act will often not come to its natural biological fulfillment, the conception of a new human being.

Yet when the act does come to fruition, that fruition is itself — or rather, him- or herself — the further realization of the couple’s commitment, the commitment that was initially realized in the conjugal act. For a couple to prevent their act from achieving its fullest realization is thus also for them to choose to block the fullest possible realization of their commitment at the bodily level — and this is precisely at odds with the commitment itself. It is for this reason that Pope John Paul II frequently characterized the use of contraception as a kind of dishonesty: The making of the commitment to a complete sharing of lives says one thing; the deliberate blocking of that commitment from its fullest realization takes back what was initially communicated.

The way in which the act of intercourse can be prevented from realizing the marital commitment is clearest in the use of barrier methods such as the condom, which rather obviously prevent the one-flesh union from even being possible. But hormonal contraceptives, while not preventing physically an act of a reproductive type, nevertheless, when used with a contraceptive intention, involve a willed refusal to allow the biological function, in virtue of which couples become physically one, to come fully to its fruition; thus, their use involves a refusal to countenance the fullness of physical union possible to the couple on that occasion.

Pope Paul VI captured the sense of this set of claims in a well-known discussion in Humanae Vitae, in which he asserted that there is an “inseparable connection . . . between the unitive and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.” To deliberately seek to remove the procreative significance of the marital act does not, in fact, leave a unitive act that has no procreative significance; it removes as well the unitive significance of the act.

Defenders of traditional sexual ethics such as Elizabeth Anscombe have argued that the embrace of contraception is a turning point for sexual ethics more generally. If it is permissible to seek less than the fullness of the real union possible on some occasion in one’s sex acts, then why stop with contracepted sex? Why not seek the less-than-full union available in sex outside of marriage, or in some non-marital form of sexual activity? No good answer seems forthcoming.

In consequence, contraception is understood by the Church both as a violation of the marital commitment — as preventing its fullest available realization — and as a gateway choice to other abuses against the good of marriage.

Contraception’s gateway character is in fact twofold, for in addition to this important strand of argument against contraception rooted in its anti-marital nature, there is also an argument rooted in its anti-life nature: To contracept is to choose to prevent a possible child from coming into existence (a choice that is not made, incidentally, when the couple abstains from the marital act — which is what happens in Catholic family planning). But human life, like marriage, is a great good; and to choose directly against that good seems wrong, and structurally similar to the wrong of homicide, and, specifically, the wrong of abortion. They are not the same wrongs, for there is no actual child in the case of contraception, as there is in abortion; but a culture shaped by collective willing of the non-existence of many possible children should be expected to extend that denial to the right to life of unborn human beings as well.

This dynamic is seen in the HHS mandate, which includes in its list of covered pharmaceuticals drugs such as Ella and Plan B, which are plausibly thought to work on occasion by preventing implantation of an embryo, i.e., by abortion. This willingness to lump in abortifacient drugs with contraceptives is a sign, but only one of many, of the Church’s wisdom in its teaching on contraception.

— Christopher Tollefsen is a visiting fellow of the James Madison Program at Princeton University.

I believe the Church has been absolutely right in its opposition to contraception.

For those who wish to learn more about why the Church is correct on this issue, another excellent commentary and further resource links can be found HERE.


  1. So, you find this drivel "...incredibly beautiful, dignified, and uplifting." Really? I on the other hand find it to be anti-life in myriad ways. Although in this case it is coming from a man who has fathered nine children, it is in its origin an old theme propagated by men who are, at least in theory if not always in fact, dedicated to celibacy. Tollefsen writes: "Pope Paul VI captured the sense of this set of claims in a well-known discussion in Humanae Vitae, in which he asserted that there is an 'inseparable connection . . . between the unitive and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.'" Was Pope Paul celibate or was he not? How can he speak with any real understanding or even minimal knowledge of the marital sex act? It is undoubtedly crude to say, but this kind of statement amounts to a sort of mental masturbation through fantasizing about marital sex on the part of celibates. Are the words of such a man to be taken seriously? Tollefson, of course, does not share in the Pope's limitation, but I would suggest that he like many other men who father large numbers of children is self-indulgent in another fashion. He (and perhaps his wife) revels in smug self-satisfaction about his virility, his prowess, and his conviction that God has rewarded HIS marriage with many children, proving he is especially blessed in the sight of God.

    Read it with an open mind? There is absolutely nothing new here, just an old, sad fantasy that unfortunately has done harm in the past to many individuals and that now is also doing harm on an ever greater scale to all of us living in an overpopulated world. It's a sad piece of writing, really.

    Anne Taylor

    1. Anne,
      Whatever about disagreeing with the teaching, describing this as "drivel" shows you have not even begun to comprehend its depth. At least dignify yourself through a considered counter argument rather than an angry outburst that probably belies some other hurt in your life. May God soften your heart and open your eyes.

    2. Sorry Mr. Big Fella,

      It is drivel, drivel of the worst kind. Just because someone can write well and even poetically, does not mean the writing has merit or validity. For hundreds of years men and women have suffered under the thumb of the church. Women, no matter how tired, how sick, how poor had to keep having child after child. Men had to deny conjugal relations with their wives or face the prospect of supporting far bigger families than they had capacity to do. We all saw the results; bitterness, depression, alcoholism, domestic violence.....the list goes on and on.

      The church teaching is a travesty made up by old men who have no moral standing what so ever given the Church's sins over the last several decades. The church at its heart is deeply misogynistic and tyrannical. They are not a democracy, have never been a democracy and to have them seeking through democratic institutions to impose their beliefs on believers and non-believers alike is an outrage.

    3. You are so right Anne. I greatly resent celibate males presuming to teach on marriage and sexuality. I regularly advise young people that they do NOT have to invite the Pope into their bedroom. The Church should be LISTENING to the experience of married couple. Pope Paul the VI started to - he just went with the very minority opinion of the papal birth control commission. Most of us went with the majority...

  2. Anne,

    You seem to be a very angry person.

    Mister H

  3. Anne Taylor -

    "Are the words of such a man to be taken seriously..." Yes. But you have not taken the words seriously. Rather you have attacked the speakers, one for being too celibate and the other for being too prolific ... ? So do you have an actual argument or disagreement with the words? As for me (non-celibate father of far less than 9 children) the Church's analysis of contraception and marriage are spot-on.

    Joe H.

  4. Once again you have been quoted in the comments to an NCR article, and once again I have tried to articulate my objections and link back to all the citations on which they are based. If you are not comfortable engaging in a dialogue either here or at the NCR site, I could re-post to my LiveJournal.

    1. I have responded to your original comment on the NCR site.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Thanks for your response. I am not ignoring you; just swamped by work and need to firmly focus my daytime brain on the current project, which is painfully huge (you will probably not be surprised to hear that it involves a megaton of healthcare outcomes data analysis).

  7. 'But human life, like marriage, is a great good; and to choose directly against that good seems wrong, and structurally similar to the wrong of homicide, and, specifically, the wrong of abortion.'
    The important and glaring word in this paragraph is 'seems'. Seems? Not to me! To equate birth control to homicide is unconscionable. I understand that upwards of 95% of Catholic women use, or have used in their lifetime, some form of birth control - I think the church lost the good fight a very long time ago (starting in the sixties) and is now grasping at straws to try and control their parishioners. Finally, thank God, women are going to have no more of it.

    1. Actually the parishioners (and Church employees) can do whatever they want. The Church just does not want to be forced to pay for it.

      If people want to embrace the values of the sexual revolution that is their choice. But, why should others have to pay for their choice?

      Moreover, contraception is not even health care. Health care restores physical health/function that has been lost to illness or disease or provides measures to prevent illness or disease. What illness or disease is contraception addressing? Pregnancy? Pregnancy is not an illness, nor is it a disease.

    2. Contraception can be viewed as a vaccine/preventative measure. It can prevent the spread of disease that can occur during sexual intercourse and therefore it can be viewed as an asset to "healthcare."

    3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. Confused in New JerseyMarch 8, 2012 at 9:11 PM

    Besides the rest of it which is just a large rationalization of a medieval view of the sexes, the statement that I do not understand is "To contracept is to choose to prevent a possible child from coming into existence (a choice that is not made, incidentally, when the couple abstains from the marital act — which is what happens in Catholic family planning)." A possible child is a sperm and an egg that are both available to create a child. Why is abstinence not the same thing? There is an available sperm and egg, but the couple is selfishly deciding to murder that potential life by not having sex. The logical conclusion is that Catholics should have sex all the time so as not to be murderers.

  9. I guess you can come to any conclusion you want when your premise is skewed. The author may suggest that sex is somehow less fulfilling and meaningful for the participants if fertilization is not a possibility...but perhaps the author should not be so bold as to profess intimate knowledge of everyone else's true feelings. To suggest that there is less of a commitment to each other simply has no foundation.

    Furthermore the argument that it is the "prevention of life" and almost as bad as murder simply ignores that every month an unfertilized egg is expelled and every few days the males sperm dies and is replenished anew. Does that mean that every 14 year old better go out and get married so that she can have a child and not waste that egg?

    Feel free to believe Catholic teaching if you like...but that does not mean that the church can impose it's teaching on anyone else...not even professed Catholics.

    1. "...What isn’t always understood is that the Bishops of the Church make no attempt to speak for all Catholics; they never have. The Bishops speak for the Catholic and apostolic faith, and those who hold that faith gather around them. Others disperse..." -- Francis Cardinal George

  10. Having stumbled upon this conversation, I must say that I did find the explanation of the church's view on contraception a tribute to married love. I also totally support the Catholic Church's refusal to provide birth control or abortion services for moral reasons. The Catholic Church as an institution is different to me than Catholics. Although I love the Catholic Church, I follow my own conscience in my beliefs about birth control and abortion. For me the point is that marriage and sex without the "possibility" of children means you are not married in the way the Church wants you to be. Again, for me, I believe once you have had the children you can love and support in your marriage, using birth control doesn't diminish your marriage. Just as not being able to have children doesn't diminish your marriage. It is more a willingness to enter into God's view of a marriage.

    I don't like to read the terribly negative and cynical views of individuals toward the church and agree that there must be deep hurt driving these comments. Only through a personal relationship with God can any individual heal this hurt and that comes from separating the Catholic Church as an institution from the teachings of God.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Personally I think Paul VI erred by ignoring the input from the laity when creating Humanae Vitae. To equate abortion, sterilization, and contraception as equivalent grave moral evils is simply naive. As another poster already mentioned, human eggs and sperm are generated and destroyed during the fertile stages of life. If 95% of Catholics ignore the teaching on contraception, the has got to be some mistake.
    When one of the earlier popes was deciding on whether to make the Immaculate Conception a church dogma, 80% of the laity agreed. There seems to be an issue of Paul VI acting unilaterally and now nobody is prepared to say that perhaps he overdid things.

    1. 100% of Catholics have told lies.

      Does that invalidate teachings on honesty?

  13. 100% of Catholics would likely agree with you that lying is wrong - their conscience tells them so.
    My point is that there are many Catholics, who in good conscience disagree with the church's teaching on contraception. And to simply pass it off as an unformed conscience is extreme.
    Humanae Vitae is the most divisive document in modern church history precisely because it polarizes the members of the Church.
    This is the final word that I will make on this blog.
    I'm with you brother H. on most things Catholic, but this one is a sticking point.

    1. How many of those Catholics do you think have read Humanae Vitae? How many have heard anything of substance about the Church's teaching on contraception? Very few.

      I have no doubt that many Catholics are using an unformed conscience on this issue. They have been inundated since childhood with one-sided propaganda about the benefits and necessity of contraception, while, unfortunately, hearing very little about the opposing view.

      I would bet that 90% of Catholics would not have the foggiest idea WHY the catholic Church opposes contraception.