Perhaps no single doctrine taught by the Catholic Church is more widely rejected within the Church—in both theory and practice—than that the following is "intrinsically evil": every action which, whether 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 (CCC 2370, citing §14 of the best-known papal document on the subject, Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae ; 'HV' for short). I am just old enough to remember, and to have understood at the time, the enormous uproar generated by Pope Paul's ruling. By issuing it, he had rejected the majority recommendation of the commission he had appointed to study an issue so sensitive that he had withdrawn it from consideration by the Second Vatican Council; many Catholics, who had already begun using the anovulant pill introduced in the late 1950s, had eagerly expected the Church's teaching to follow suit. Of course it didn't, and I believe an excellent case has been made that Paul could not have done otherwise.1
But as is well known, many theologians and some bishops demurred, thus doing much to rationalize and deepen the "culture of dissent" among the laity; and since then the majority of married Catholics have violated the teaching without even bothering to produce an argument for doing so. That is because, following the explicit or implicit policy of their pastors, they take for granted that the matter is one of "conscience." To them, that means the teaching may be ignored with spiritual impunity; hence the question how to regulate the size of their families seems entirely up to them, without calling forth any need to justify their actions to representatives of the Church. Indeed, given that the formal statements of the US bishops (and other national bishops' conferences) made in response to HV have not condemned such a pastoral policy and its effect, the attitude of such laity is understandable even if, as I believe, it is objectively unjustifiable.
Now when one reads those episcopal statements, it becomes clear that they question not the truth of the teaching but rather whether, and if so under what circumstances, a Catholic can be presumed culpable for rejecting it. Yet important as that issue is, it is not my immediate concern; for it cannot be usefully addressed unless the question of the teaching's truth is itself addressed. At the same time, I see little need to deal with most of the actual arguments against the teaching's truth, which I find to be uninformed, sophistical, or both. My concern is with the one argument that seems to me by far the most plausible: that the teaching as developed and presented in HV is incoherent. On that argument, HV's grounds for condemning contraception—i.e. intentional, physical actions taken to prevent conception when it could otherwise occur—apply just as well to the form of birth control that HV allows under certain conditions: intentionally limiting sexual intercourse to the woman's infertile periods. If that argument were correct, then not only would it be easy to argue that Catholics cannot be presumed culpable for rejecting the ban on contraception; given the risks that pregnancy poses for some women and/or their families, one could make a good case that they are bound in conscience to reject it.
The argument has been developed in many ways over the last fifty years. The best versions I've encountered to date are, unlike most, contained in book-length treatments: John Noonan's Contraception (1965), which is now unfortunately out of print; and James Arraj's Is There a Solution to the Catholic Debate on Contraception? (1989), which is fortunately available free online as well as in inexpensive printed form. It is noteworthy that Noonan's book, which is primarily a historical study of Church teaching and the best of that kind, does not claim that Church teaching has so changed as to contradict earlier teaching. And the historical claim of Arraj's book, which is primarily a work of theology, is only that there have been two strands of pertinent Church teaching—the "essentialist" and the "existentialist"—which cannot be successfully integrated. Each book puts paid to the popular claim that the Church's permitting any form of birth control in any circumstances is, just by itself, an abandonment of her original, pre-20th-century teaching. Accordingly, the only historical argument I find worth considering is that the teaching's development in magisterial documents of the 20th century had yielded a result that is incoherent, unlike what is mistakenly thought to be the Church's earlier teaching, which is merely false. So, if the conceptual argument against current Church teaching is sound, the historical argument is of scholarly rather than pastoral interest; and in any case, one can only grasp what is historically at stake if one first understands the conceptual issue. So it is to the latter I now turn, reserving the rest of the historical argument to brief consideration at the end.When all is said and done, the key claim that careful opponents of Church teaching argue for is this: there is no morally significant feature of an act of contraceptive intercourse that is not equally to be found in a similar act that is only intentionally restricted to the infertile period rather than intentionally changed by some form of physical intervention in the reproductive process. Ironically, that argument gains strength from the development, in the last several decades, of "natural family planning" techniques that are far more reliable, both for avoiding and for achieving pregnancy, than the old calendar-rhythm method that many Catholics recall, under the derisive name "Vatican roulette," as an especially nasty feature of the "bad old days." (For an accurate and sympathetic treatment of NFP, see non-Catholic James B. Stanford, MD's First Things article, which also argues, with many Catholic enthusiasts for NFP, that contemporary methods thereof have beneficial spiritual effects on marriages too.) But rather than analyze and criticize any particular version of the argument for that claim—which would only invite quibbles about interpretation and alternatives—I shall focus on the claim that I have found all such arguments to have in common: since couples using contraception and couples using NFP have precisely the same intention, nothing about the objective features of the acts themselves can be said to make the moral quality of the respective acts different. In short: if the end is the same, the means (assuming, of course, that they are not abortifacient) don't matter.
What makes that claim so plausible is that, given the mentality of some couples using birth control, there really is nothing morally significant about the difference of means. If, e.g., a possibly fertile couple intend their marriage to be childless, then according to the Catholic doctrine of marriage, they are just as much in the wrong by excluding children with NFP as they would be if they were using some form of contraceptive technology. The larger intention-with-which they avoid conception suffices to render their marriage morally unacceptable regardless of the means they use to do so.2 But in such a case, of course, their overall intention is not really the same as that of couples seeking just to space births and/or limit the size of their families. So, some of the evidence that makes the claim in question plausible is actually irrelevant given the hypothesis we've granted arguendo.
It does, however, bring to light an important point that many people, including poorly catechized Catholics, don't seem to notice. The Church's objection to contraception is not that it is "artificial" as opposed to "natural," as if the mere use of technology makes the whole business worse. (There is some medical evidence that using progesterone pills as a means of contraception has undesirable side effects for many women; but as that is both controversial and irrelevant to the main point, I shall leave the issue aside.) The Church equally condemns any form of non-contraceptive sexual intercourse that involves male ejaculation in an orifice other the vagina or in none at all (acts that I shall refrain from enumerating out of respect for the family orientation of this site!) precisely because such acts are of an inherently non-procreative kind. And that teaching has been remarkably consistent for as long as we have records on the subject. What makes contraceptive sex a violation of "the natural law" and thus "unnatural" is not the artifice of technology—which might or might not be present—but the intent to block procreation that might otherwise occur. That is why coitus interruptus (sorry, I had to name one) is also condemned. On Church teaching, such acts are morally no different from, or at least no better than, acts that are inherently non-procreative to begin with. Whether or not one agrees, it is important to be clear about what is being asserted.
Let us remain, then, only with couples seeking to limit the number and/or spacing of their children; obviously, there is more similarity of intention here than in the previous case. According to Catholic teaching, however, even here the couple using NFP must meet certain criteria. Thus HV §10 says that "responsible parenthood is exercised" not only by "those who prudently and generously decide to have more children" but also by "those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time " (emphasis added). Some reasons clearly are serious in the relevant sense, such as the likelihood that pregnancy would endanger the mother's health or life; some are clearly not serious in the relevant sense, such as the couple's desire to devote resources to the acquisition of luxuries rather than to more children; some don't fall clearly on one side of the line or the other, so that conscience shaped by prayer and spiritual direction as well as by Church teaching must arbitrate. Now when a couple's reasons are not sufficiently serious according to the relevant criteria, there is no morally significant difference between contraception and NFP—or at least none that makes a difference. But let us assume arguendo that the NFP-using couple and the contracepting couple have equally and sufficiently "serious" reasons to avoid conception. What, according to the Catholic Church, is supposed to be the problem in the latter case?
Pope Paul says:
Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one's partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife. If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will. But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source (HV §13; emphasis added).There we have it: contraception, unlike NFP, makes man not God the "master of the sources of life." I shall call that the "arrogation" thesis inasmuch as, presumably, to make ourselves master of the sources of life is to arrogate to ourselves something we ought not to. Now Pope Paul did little to clarify why we ought not to; indeed, I am far from the first Catholic to accept the arrogation thesis but note that the argument for it in HV is, at best, unclear. (See, e.g., J. Budziszewski, who considers that to have been quite a serious pastoral defect of the encyclical.) But John Paul the Great, who as an archbishop had had a large hand in HV's composition , did provide such an argument through his audiences on the "theology of the body" begun soon after he became pope. (See especially audiences 113-121.)
The key point for us in those rich, even profound meditations is that one cannot do what is condemned by the arrogation thesis without objectively violating the norms of mutual love. Pope Paul had famously said that the purpose of the conjugal act is both "unitive" and "procreative," noting that each, rightly pursued, facilitates the other. Thus the procreative significance of marital sex— even when one or both parties are involuntarily and/or permanently sterile—forms part and parcel of its sacramentality, which consists in love as mutual self-gift. That much I hinted at in my previous article on marriage. John Paul took that for granted and went a step further: to do what the arrogation thesis condemns is to render the mutual self-gift incomplete and thus fail in love. To make oneself "the master" rather than "the minister" of God's designs for life, thus rejecting the gift of life from God when it might otherwise be given, is to fail to make a full gift of one's fertility to one's spouse, thus failing to make a full gift of oneself to one's spouse. On such an account, contraception is necessarily and thus intrinsically incompatible with the true nature of marriage, whereas NFP is not. The latter can be when practiced for evil or insufficiently serious motives; but unlike contraception, it need not be.
Now I am not at present concerned with producing further argument for the truth of that subsidiary claim. Such an argument would have to establish, as a quite general thesis, that one cannot make a complete gift of oneself to another if one refuses a major gift from God. I lack the mystical insight to do so; even if I had it, it is not pertinent to my main point, which is this: regardless of how the argument for it should go, on the arrogation thesis there is a morally significant difference between contraception and NFP. And whether one agrees with that or not, it does change the nature of the debate. No longer can the opponent of Church teaching say that there is no difference in intention; for in fact, there is an irreducibly objective difference of "intention-with-which" between the two, regardless of what the couple may subjectively experience. The only issue is whether the difference is morally significant. If John Paul II is right, it most definitely is; and I don't think even he produced as thorough and wide-ranging an argument as is possible and necessary. Further development is called for; but that is for another time.
Of course the main argument I've encountered against JP II's claim is the argument from "experience." Far from experiencing the lack of love implied by the theology of the body's argument for the arrogation thesis, some contracepting couples would say they express all the greater mutual love by taking steps to block and thus spare themselves a pregnancy, instead of just hoping they have accurately determined when sperm would fail to reach egg. On the other hand, as Stanford, Kimberly Hahn, and others have written, it is not exceptional to find couples who have drawn the opposite conclusion after having switched from contraception to NFP. Experience, in any event, is quite subjective and shaped by many variables that can obscure rather than clarify the central issue. Not much, I believe, can be settled one way or the other just by appeal to private experience—though if one considers collective experience, I consider Pope Paul's stunningly accurate predictions about the social effects of widespread contraception to be far better evidence for the truth of his teaching than the reported experience of any particular subset of couples. Regardless of how one evaluates arguments from experience, however, the fact remains that the critics' main conceptual point no longer holds. It can no longer be plausibly argued that Church teaching on contraception is simply incoherent; the argument now, in effect, is that what the arrogation thesis says is wrong is not wrong, inasmuch as JP 2's argument for it is invalid. Oddly, Arraj's otherwise fine book takes no direct account of the theology of the body and thus fails to engage the argument at the level necessary.
Now I cannot here establish the truth of the Church's teaching or even advance the real argument any further. My sole remaining task is to rebut the phony argument that the Church has contradicted her past teaching merely by allowing some kind of birth control.
It must first of all be granted that, until the 20th century, the Church's pastoral attitude toward any form of birth control was almost entirely negative. The reasons for that were partly theological and largely sociological. The theological aspect was that, given the traditional approach to marriage that I discussed in my previous article, the procreation and education of offspring was generally considered to be the primary vocation of the lay Catholic, sometimes called "providing souls for God." To limit the number of such souls for the sake of reducing suffering—one's own or even theirs—instead of accepting as many as possible as gifts, seemed incompatible with Christian love and life. Sometimes, of course, it was grudgingly conceded that the largest possible family was not necessarily the best. But given the sitz-im-leben of most married Catholics, that was usually considered an abstract hypothesis. Nor was it broadly resented by the laity themselves.
That is because, until the 20th century, a substantial majority of Catholics were peasants or equally uneducated folk who valued and needed children, and infant mortality was high. It has not escaped the notice of sociologists that, even today throughout the world, birth rates tend to vary inversely with family income, the most important variable being the mother's level of education. Until quite recently even in the West, people who are basically poor and have few prospects for major advancement tend, rightly, to see children as their most important asset and a large family as a great blessing. Given that children often die young among such populations, there has been little incentive for birth control among them. The old attitude of the Church hierarchy was similar and was only reinforced by the theology I have described.
What began to change people's attitudes, of course, was the spread of the Industrial Revolution throughout the West. The rural way of life steadily crumbled; children became an economic burden to many, not the broad asset they had been; and by the end of World War I, medical technology was both reducing infant mortality and expanding the means of contraception. It was not coincidental that the Church of England, at the Lambeth Conference of 1930, was the first church in the entire history of Christendom to deem contraception morally acceptable (for "serious" reasons, of course). Yet even in his fierce and wide-ranging reply to that action, the encyclical Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI took account of the same historic developments by explicitly allowing that "virtuous continence" may be used to limit family size (§53). Pius spoke as if that had been uncontroversial even in the Catholic Church; and though St. Augustine had opposed even that kind of birth control, Noonan shows that his view had never been the official teaching or even the consensus view of theologians; by modern times, it had been thoroughly rejected.
Pius XI did not do much to explain that development. Paul VI did more, but not enough; John Paul II went further along that road; yet more work is needed. And I believe such further development to be absolutely vital, not merely to the credibility of the Magisterium but to the future of the Catholic Church; and not just to that of the Church, but that of much of the world itself.
Population has already begun declining in Russia and Japan; it will soon begin to do so throughout the native populations of Western Europe; even in the United States, the birth rate for those not counted as "minorities" is now below replacement level. The depopulation of most of the nominally Christian world is an impending reality. If nothing else, that shows how important the issue of contraception is. But there is something else: as sex becomes steadily unmoored from procreation, social constraints on both the degree and the expressions of lust are steadily evaporating. On a site such as this, I need not elaborate on that point. It is yet another sign that society as a whole is becoming spiritually unmoored from the Author of Life.
One of the first things the Catholic Church can and must do to combat the trend is make clear to her members that the teaching on contraception is not optional. Pope Benedict could, and I believe should, rule in that regard in the same way and form as Pope John Paul did in the case of women's ordination. He would be on very firm ground.
1John Ford, SJ and Germain Grisez, “Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium,” Theological Studies 39, No. 2 (June 1978), pp. 258-312; for rebuttal, see Francis Sullivan, SJ, Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1983), pp. 143ff; for Grisez's rejoinder, see "Infallibility and Specific Norms: a Review Discussion," The Thomist 49, No. 2 (April 1985), pp. 248-287.2For an excellent introduction to how the whole question of "intention-with-which" should be broached in moral philosophy, see Elizabeth Anscombe's classic little book Intention; for how it applies in the contraception debate, see her oft-quoted paper "Contraception and Chastity."