ROME (LifeSiteNews) The question of whether the Pope can change the Church’s present teaching that contraception is always and everywhere a gravely sinful act has been raised by many voices within the Church, both in the hierarchy and among the lay faithful.
In an attempt to address the matter from an authentically Catholic perspective, below I intend to do the following:
- Offer a synopsis of the present crisis in the Church.
- Sort through the logical possibilities involved in the proposal to change the teaching on contraception.
- Tackle the underlying question of the ends of marriage and their order.
- Consider the way in which the elevation of marriage to a sacrament affects the ends of marriage.
- Present the constant teaching of the Roman Pontiffs on the matter.
This will allow us to see that the evil of contraception, and the universal prohibition against its practice, is a matter of the natural moral law and has been clearly and constantly taught by the Church’s Magisterium over the course of the last century. For these reasons, the Church’s teaching on contraception cannot change, but rather, as John Paul II declared in 1988, “belongs to the permanent patrimony of the Church’s moral doctrine.”
The present crisis
The widespread rejection of the teaching on contraception swept over the Church when Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, but until recently this rejection simply ignored Paul VI’s teaching or dissented from it, without attempting to change it at the level of a magisterial declaration or promulgation. Humanae Vitae had itself thwarted an attempt to overturn the previous condemnations of contraception declared by Pius XI and Pius XII.
Today, however, with Pope Francis already having proposed that the use of contraceptives would be morally licit for married couples to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, such as the zika virus, it is hoped by many that the present Pontiff will officially declare that some circumstances admit of the use of contraceptives without carrying the penalty of sin.
The voices calling for such a change of teaching have become more adamant with the vehicle of the “synodal dialogue” now available to them. Bishops and cardinals are openly calling for a change in the teaching, and the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV) in Rome has made the idea of reconsidering the Church’s total ban of contraception a foremost agenda item of their latest conferences, books, and comments on social media.
In the storm of dissent that has been stirred in the ever-changing waters of the secular world in which we live, faithful Catholics are forced to face the hard question: can this teaching change? Can the Church’s total ban on contraception be changed by the Pope or anyone else?
The logical possibilities of change in the doctrine
For the moment, let’s consider what would be necessary to say in order for the teaching to change. Then we’ll be in a position to examine the arguments for and against.
In order for the Church’s condemnation of contraception to be changed and to be true, either the statement that contraception is a grave sin is false, or it was true previously but is so no longer because the nature of marriage and sexual intercourse has changed. What is not possible is that the nature of marriage and sexual intercourse remains the same and that contraception be both universally a sin and morally acceptable in some instances.
The logical contradiction of a universal negative is a particular affirmative, and the contradiction of a universal affirmative is a particular negative. The contradiction of the statement “contraception is never morally good” is the statement “contraception is sometimes morally good.” Or put another way, the contradiction of the statement “contraception is always a grave sin” is the statement “contraception is sometimes not a grave sin.”
This may perhaps begin to shed light on the insistence of the Pontifical Academy for Life that what they are advocating is simply the allowance of contraception “in certain circumstances.” The Academy emphasizes that it is not proposing a wholesale overturning of the teaching or the promotion of contraception as always morally good and acceptable. They are “developing the teaching” by “discerning” circumstances in which the prohibition does not apply.
Such claims ignore logic and accomplish all that is necessary for the practical purpose of introducing contraception as something that can be considered morally good. It leaves the determination of which circumstances justify its use to the prudential judgment of the couple in question. In other words, the use of contraception has been turned into a matter of prudence rather than strict and universal commandment obliging all, without exception.
In making the seemingly small claim that “in some circumstances” contraception is morally good, what has been proposed is in fact the direct contradiction of the universal negative prohibition, that contraception is never morally good and may therefore never be used by a married couple.
The ends of marriage
Since the truth of the universal prohibition or its contradictory rests upon the nature of marriage and sexual intercourse – since this is what the prohibition is about – to really settle the matter, we must look at the reality of marriage and sex. And since contraception is an act by which conception following sex is prevented by human intervention, we must look at the relation of sexual intercourse to procreation – that is, we must ask the traditional questions: what are the ends of marriage, and what is the order among them?
The above questions about the ends of marriage and the order of those ends are asked in relation to marriage and not just sex, because it is assumed that the teaching of the Church and of Christ, that sex outside of marriage is a grave sin, is accepted as true. The defense of that teaching is a topic for another argument. It is also assumed that it is acknowledged readily enough that there are several ends of marriage without the need for argument. What they are and what their order is, however, requires argument.
To begin, we should state here a few obvious things about marriage and sex. First, given the nature of human romance, affection, and passion, marriage clearly involves or ought to involve love and friendship between the spouses. So strong is this love that persons are sometimes willing to leave their homeland or sacrifice their life for their spouse, and the daily living together of husband and wife is a more intimate communion than that of other friendships.
Second, sex clearly naturally tends toward the conception of a child. Granting that there are periods of infertility in women, it is still true that sex tends toward conception. If conception were not a natural end toward which sex itself tends, there would be no need to intervene to prevent conception when having sex, and the morality of contraception would be a moot point.
Marriage clearly has, then, at least two ends: the union of the spouses in the friendship of love, and the procreation of children. Divine revelation adds two other ends related to these: the healing of concupiscence – that is, the desire to satisfy one’s sexual appetite – and the sacramental signification of the spousal love of Christ and the Church.
For now, we will focus on the two ends of marriage first mentioned and their order. Then we will be able to see how the other ends are incorporated into these, since they are ends added through the elevation of marriage to the sacramental order, while the first two belong to marriage even as a natural institution established by God when he created man male and female.
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The union of the spouses is ordered toward the procreation of children
The relation of the union of the spouses toward the procreation of children may be seen by considering the fact that a good is possessed more perfectly when a man can bestow the same kind of good upon another, in which case the perfection itself becomes ordered toward the good of another.
One way a teacher tests how well a student grasps a subject is by asking the student to explain it to someone else, i.e. by asking him to share his knowledge with another; and what qualifies someone to be a teacher is precisely a grasp of the subject such that he can bring another to the possession of the same knowledge. Perfect possession of certain goods allows for and is ordered toward the bestowal of that same good upon another. This is true in all fields of knowledge and work. The master craftsman is the one who can train others in the trade.
This same truth can be put another way: it is a greater perfection for a man to bring another to possess the same kind of good that he enjoys rather than to simply enjoy that good himself. It is a greater perfection to both have something good and cause that goodness in others than to merely have the good oneself.
Human life is no exception. When a man and woman reach the basic maturity of adulthood, they are able to hand on to another through procreation one of the goods they enjoy, namely, human life. The good they are handing on is not merely biological existence, though this is obviously part of it; rather, the good that a man and woman are intended to hand on to their children through marriage, sexual intercourse, and the raising up of a family is the fully mature adult human life which they themselves possess and enjoy. This is why only adults can marry, and why the raising of children extends all the way to ushering them into adulthood. It is for the sake of this good that a man and woman form a stable bond, friendship, and communion of life that includes sexual intercourse and all that follows from such a union.
A helpful comparison here may be drawn with other activities that both require a certain perfection and are ordered toward the good of another. The soldier’s defense of his country in war requires a certain perfection of courage, strength, training, skill with weapons, etc., and is for the sake of the peace and security of his entire nation, not just himself, even though he does participate in the good of his nation. The building of a house requires the knowledge and skill of the carpenter and is ordered first of all toward the good of those who will live in the house, not the good of the carpenter as such, even though he is paid for his work and so benefits as well.
The teaching of a professor requires command of his subject and is ordered primarily toward the new knowledge his students will acquire, not the knowledge of the professor, even if the professor deepens his own understanding while teaching. The administering of healthcare by a doctor or nurse requires knowledge and practice in medicine and is ordered to the health and life of the patient. The governing of a country, or state, or city likewise requires certain political virtues, like adherence to the constitution of the country, and is primarily for the sake of the good of the citizens, not those who wield political power.
In a similar way, the activity which generates new human life – sexual intercourse – requires (in order to be done in a well ordered and, therefore, morally good way) the bodily, emotional, psychological, and moral maturity of an adult man and woman joined in the stable bond of marriage, and is ordered primarily toward the good of bringing forth new human life. It is ordered primarily toward the good of another: children.
To reverse the order of the ends of these activities would result in the soldier refusing to give his life for his country, houses would be built just to pay carpenters, teachers would only speak of what is of interest to themselves, doctors could harm patients for the sake of advances in medicine, and countries would be ruled by tyrants. If we recognize some of these evils as already long present in society, we would do well to reconsider the attempt to casually reverse the ends of marriage, foundational as it is for a well-ordered society.
For spouses to place their own union and friendship and marital intercourse as the primary ends of their marriage is to think of the good of bringing forth children as ordered toward themselves, akin to the way a despotic ruler thinks of the political power he enjoys as ordered primarily toward his own advantage. This turns the home and the family into a kind of domestic tyranny, in which all things are ordered according to the disordered self-love of the parents.
The order of the ends of marriage and the primacy of procreation has been expressly and definitively taught by the Church’s magisterium several times.
On March 30, 1944, Pius XII confirmed a Decree of the Holy Office which definitively answered the question of the order and primacy of the ends of marriage. The Decree reads:
[In certain writings it is asserted] that the primary end of matrimony is not the generation of offspring or that the secondary ends are not subordinated to the primary end but are independent of it. In these works the primary end of marriage is designated differently by the various writers, as for example: the completion and personal perfection of the spouses through a complete mutual fellowship of life and action; mutual love and the fostering and perfection of the union of the spouses by the psychic and bodily surrender of one’s own person; and many other such things.
Question: Can the opinion of certain modern authors be admitted who either deny that the primary end of matrimony is the generation of and raising of offspring or teach that the secondary ends are not essentially subordinated to the primary end but are equally paramount and independent?
Response (confirmed by the Supreme Pontiff Pius XII on March 30, 1944): No.
(AAS 36, 1944: 103, Denzinger, n.3838)
Several years later Pius XII referred back to this judgment of the Holy Office as his own teaching and expounded upon it in an Address to Midwives, given in 1951:
Now, the truth is that matrimony, as an institution of nature, in virtue of the Creator’s will, has not as a primary and intimate end the personal perfection of the married couple but the procreation and upbringing of a new life. The other ends, inasmuch as they are intended by nature, are not equally primary, much less superior to the primary end, but are essentially subordinated to it. This is true of every marriage, even if no offspring result, just as of every eye it can be said that it is destined and formed to see, even if, in abnormal cases arising from special internal or external conditions, it will never be possible to achieve visual perception.
It was precisely to end the uncertainties and deviations which threatened to diffuse errors regarding the scale of values of the purposes of matrimony and of their reciprocal relations, that a few years ago (March 10, 1944), We Ourselves drew up a declaration on the order of those ends, pointing out what the very internal structure of the natural disposition reveals. We showed what has been handed down by Christian tradition, what the Supreme Pontiffs have repeatedly taught, and what was then in due measure promulgated by the Code of Canon Law. Not long afterwards, to correct opposing opinions, the Holy See, by a public decree, proclaimed that it could not admit the opinion of some recent authors who denied that the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of the offspring, or teach that the secondary ends are not essentially subordinated to the primary end, but are on an equal footing and independent of it.
So while marriage has several ends, the secondary ends are ordered toward the primary end, which is the procreation and education of children. It is for this reason that the sacrament of matrimony, along with the priesthood, is rightly called a sacrament of service – both are ordered toward the good of another. Just as the priest is sanctified by the grace of ordination to make others holy through his administration of the sacraments and the care of souls, so Christian spouses are sanctified through the sacrament of matrimony to be able to bring forth and raise new children in life and in the faith.
The elevation of marriage to a sacrament allows it to heal concupiscence and signify Christ’s love for the Church
Much has been made of marriage as a sign of Christ’s love for the Church through its elevation to the sacramental order by Our Lord, to the effect that it is held by many that this warrants placing the love and union of the spouses for each other as a higher end than the procreation of children. In support of this, Catholics point to John Paul II’s emphasis on the spouses’ total gift of self to each other as the defining characteristic of marital intercourse. Such an emphasis, it is said, does not exclude the good of procreation but makes it something of lesser importance, something secondary.
However, what such a position fails to see is that Christ’s spiritual love for the Church is precisely one that brings forth new spiritual life through the communication of grace to new souls, i.e., the love of Christ for His bride the Church is a fruitful love that generates new saints. Christ’s fidelity and love for the Church and her fidelity and love for Him is itself ordered toward the bringing forth of new life, the spiritual life of the saints, begun in baptism and perfected in the glory of heaven.
Thus Christian spouses are indeed signs of Christ’s love for the Church. But because this love is both faithful and fruitful, marital love must also be both faithful and fruitful. Further, since even in the order of grace the faithfulness of Christ ‘s love for the Church is ordered toward the fruitfulness of this spiritual love – the bringing forth new saints in the life of grace – the signifying of this spiritual love by the married does not reverse the order of the ends of marriage, but rather elevates and confirms it. The faithfulness of the married in their love for each other remains ordered toward the fruitfulness of their love in bringing forth children.
In fact, since marriage as a sacrament has been elevated to be a sign of Christ’s love for the Church, grace is communicated to or available to spouses, so that their love for each other and their children can become more and more rightly ordered throughout their married life. In order for spouses to be made a fitting sign of Christ’s love for the Church, the sacrament over time heals, or is intended to heal, the disordered passions and self-centered love of fallen man and woman. This healing and ordering of the passions allows husband and wife to love each other well out of love for God and for their children.
The communication of grace in the sacrament also means that spouses are sanctified precisely so that they can multiply and raise up new saints. This is to say that for Christian spouses, the primary end of marriage is not just bringing forth new life and raising children to become good and mature adults; it also includes raising children in the knowledge and practice of the Faith. It is in this way that they most of all participate in and signify the spiritual fruitfulness of Christ’s love for the Church.
Leo XIII taught this doctrine concerning the elevation of the primary end of marriage in 1880 in the Encyclical Arcanum, on Christian marriage:
The Christian perfection and completeness of marriage are not comprised in those points only which have been mentioned. For, first, there has been vouchsafed to the marriage union a higher and nobler purpose than was ever previously given to it. By the command of Christ, it not only looks to the propagation of the human race, but to the bringing forth of children for the Church, ‘fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God;’ so that ‘a people might be born and brought up for the worship and religion of the true God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.’
With the elevation of marriage to a sacrament by Christ, the ends of marriage have also been elevated, so that the love of the spouses signifies Christ’s faithful and fruitful love for His bride the Church, and husband and wife now have as their primary end not only the procreation and education of children but the raising of those children in the Faith.
The universal prohibition against contraception
Having established the order of the ends of marriage, we are now in a position to better understand why contraception is intrinsically evil. Every act of sexual intercourse is something that belongs properly and exclusively to spouses. It is the right to sexual intercourse that is handed over by spouses in the vows of marriage. Since sexual intercourse is proper to marriage, what is true about marriage as a whole with regard to its ends is also true of every act of sexual intercourse: the primary end of sex is procreation, and other ends are subordinated to this.
Each and every act of sexual intercourse, then, must retain its natural order or inclination toward procreation as the primary end of the act in order to be morally good.
To intentionally frustrate the primary end of sexual intercourse is to destroy the fundamental moral order of that action, an action which, because it belongs properly and exclusively to the married, is definitive of the relationship of husband and wife. In other words, the moral goodness of sexual intercourse for the married arises most fundamentally from the relation of sex to procreation.
Since certain actions are naturally ordered toward some good as their end, the moral goodness of those actions arises most fundamentally from acting in such a way that this natural order is preserved and maintained. Such an order has been determined by God Himself as the Author of nature and has been placed within creation.
Sex is naturally ordered toward procreation. Sex is morally good, then, when the married preserve this natural order. The obligation to preserve this natural order in sex is the foundation for all the other judgments of sexual morality. Similarly, the goodness of this natural order is also the foundation for the goodness of all else in married life.
It is because it is good for the married to have children that is good for them to be united in a friendship and communion that includes sexual intercourse. The first is the reason for the second. It is because marriage is ordered toward children that the spouses are united in the way that they are. The specifics of the first determine the particulars of the second. On the other hand, if the attainment of the primary end is positively prevented in the very act that is specifically ordered toward it – if sex is positively prevented from being ordered toward children through the use of contraception – then the foundation for the moral goodness of sex has been destroyed, namely, its order toward its primary and natural end. It is for this reason that contraception can never be morally good.
This truth is knowable by natural human reason, since it arises from the very nature of marriage and sexual intercourse, founded upon the naturally determined sexual complementarity of man and woman. This sexual complementarity cannot change, so neither can marriage. Nor can the natural order of sexual intercourse toward procreation change, nor the order of the ends of marriage, nor the moral prohibitions that arise from the order of these ends. The grave sinfulness of contraception, then, is a truth of the natural moral law, even if it is difficult to reason through the arguments clearly.
Numerous popes have spoken on this issue, and their teaching is offered here. Worthy of note is the fact that these popes, spread over the course of nearly a century, all affirmed both that contraception is intrinsically evil and that this truth is part of the natural moral law.
Below follows the teaching of the Roman Pontiffs within the last century affirming contraception as an intrinsically grave evil.
In 1930, Pius XI taught very clearly in Casti Connubii, that every act of sexual intercourse in which the generation of children was deliberately frustrated was gravely sinful:
54. No reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.
55. Small wonder, therefore, if Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death. As St. Augustine notes, ‘Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it.’
56. Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.
In 1951, Pius XII confirmed the teaching of Casti Connubii on contraception, calling it a solemn proclamation. In an Address to Midwives, Pius XII declared:
Our Predecessor, Pius XI, of happy memory, in his Encyclical Casti Connubii, of December 31, 1930, once again solemnly proclaimed the fundamental law of the conjugal act and conjugal relations: that every attempt of either husband or wife in the performance of the conjugal act or in the development of its natural consequences which aims at depriving it of its inherent force and hinders the procreation of new life is immoral; and that no ‘indication’ or need can convert an act which is intrinsically immoral into a moral and lawful one.
This precept is in full force today, as it was in the past, and so it will be in the future also, and always, because it is not a simple human whim, but the expression of a natural and divine law.
Then in 1968, after the emergence of the birth control pill, in the face of opposition the world over and to the disappointment of those who desired to change the Church’s teaching, Paul VI again condemned the use of contraception in the Encyclical Humane Vitae. Addressing the issue he wrote:
6. The conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain, dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally this serious question. This was all the more necessary because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed, and especially because certain approaches and criteria for a solution to this question had emerged which were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church.
Consequently, now that We have sifted carefully the evidence sent to Us and intently studied the whole matter, as well as prayed constantly to God, We, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, intend to give Our reply to this series of grave questions.
11. The Church… in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.
12. This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, 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.
The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life – and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called.
14. Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.
Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation – whether as an end or as a means.
Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these. Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it – in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.
John Paul II
Finally, John Paul II, the great defender of the sanctity of life and marriage, reiterated, confirmed, taught, and defended the constant teaching of the Church on contraception many times, devoting much of his pontificate to the exposition of this teaching.
On October 8, 1979, in an address to the U.S. Bishops’ Conference gathered in Chicago, John Paul II declared:
In exalting the beauty of marriage you rightly spoke against both the ideology of contraception and contraceptive acts, as did the encyclical Humanae vitae. And I myself today, with the same conviction of Paul VI, ratify the teaching of this encyclical, which was put forth by my Predecessor by virtue of the mandate entrusted to us by Christ (AAS, 60, 1968, p.485, Origins, Oct. 18, 1979).
Again, on June 7, 1980, in an address to several bishops of Indonesia, the Pontiff taught:
In the question of the Church’s teaching on the regulation of birth we are called to profess in union with the whole Church the exigent but uplifting teaching recorded in the Encyclical Humanae vitae, which my Predecessor Paul VI put forth ‘by virtue of the mandate entrusted to us by Christ.’ Particularly in this regard we must be conscious of the fact that God’s wisdom supercedes human calculation and His grace is powerful in people’s lives. Contraception is to be judged objectively so illicit that it can never, for any reason be justified.
In 1981, in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II developed the teaching on contraception in relation to the total gift of self that spouses make to each other, calling contraception a contradiction that falsifies a spouse’s giving of self to the other:
When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion, they act as ‘arbiters’ of the Divine plan and they ‘manipulate’ and degrade human sexuality – and with it themselves and their married partner – by altering its value of ‘total’ self-giving. Thus the innate language that expresses the 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 (n.32).
In 1983, the Pontiff developed the teaching further in relation to the spouses’ participation in the creative power of God. He declared:
At the origin of every human person there is a creative act of God. No man comes into existence by chance; he is always the object of God’s creative love. From this fundamental truth of faith and reason it follows that the procreative capacity, inscribed in human sexuality is – in its deepest truth – a cooperation with God’s creative power. And it also follows that man and woman are not arbiters, are not the masters of this same capacity, called as they are, in it and through it, to be participants in God’s creative decision.
When, therefore, through contraception, married couples remove from the exercise of their conjugal sexuality its potential procreative capacity, they claim a power which belongs solely to God: the power to decide in a final analysis the coming into existence of a human person. They assume the qualification of not being cooperators in God’s creative power, but the ultimate depositaries of the source of human life. In this perspective, contraception is to be judged objectively so profoundly unlawful, as never to be, for any reason, justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life, situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God. (L’Osservatore Romano, Oct. 10, 1983)
In 1987, addressing a conference on natural family planning, John Paul II clarified that the teaching of the Church on contraception is not open to debate among theologians. “What is taught by the Church on contraception,” he affirmed, “does not belong to material freely debatable among theologians.” He condemned those who opposed the teaching, saying that they, “in open contrast with the law of God, authentically taught by the Church, guide couples down a wrong path.” (Prairie Messenger, June 15, 1987; Osservatore Romano, June 6, 1987)
In similar language, in 1988, speaking to the Congress on the Family about Humanae Vitae, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of its promulgation, the Pope said that its teaching on contraception “belongs to the permanent patrimony of the Church’s moral doctrine,” and that “the doctrine expounded in the encyclical Humanae vitae thus constitutes the necessary defense of the dignity and truth of conjugal love.”
As a culminating defense of the sanctity of human life, in 1995, John Paul II issued the encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Cutting to the root of the issues, he underscored the inherent relation between the contraceptive mentality and the widespread practice of abortion, both of which disregard the sacredness of human life:
13. It is frequently asserted that contraception, if made safe and available to all, is the most effective remedy against abortion. The Catholic Church is then accused of actually promoting abortion, because she obstinately continues to teach the moral unlawfulness of contraception. When looked at carefully, this objection is clearly unfounded.
It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation of abortion. But the negative values inherent in the “contraceptive mentality” – which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act – are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived. Indeed, the pro-abortion culture is especially strong precisely where the Church’s teaching on contraception is rejected.
Certainly, from the moral point of view contraception and abortion are specifically different evils: the former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment ‘You shall not kill.’
But despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree. It is true that in many cases contraception and even abortion are practiced under the pressure of real-life difficulties, which nonetheless can never exonerate from striving to observe God’s law fully. Still, in very many other instances such practices are rooted in a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfilment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception.
The teaching cannot change
Whenever the Church has pronounced on the question of contraception in its official teaching, it has affirmed the universal prohibition against the practice thereof. The Church has also affirmed that the teaching is part of the natural moral law and has developed this teaching in relation to aspects of marriage that are properly supernatural, such as the signification of Christ’s love for the Church.
The condemnation of contraception as universally and intrinsically gravely sinful belongs to the Church’s universal ordinary Magisterium, and as such is infallible and irreformable, part of “the permanent patrimony of the Church’s moral doctrine.” It is also arguable that certain statements on the matter, such as Pius XI’s strong condemnation in Casti Connubii constitute an “ex-cathedra” declaration, since as Pius XII noted, Pius XI had “solemnly proclaimed” the condemnation in the encyclical. This would mean that the teaching also belongs to the Church’s extraordinary Magisterium, a solemn definition of Pius XI on a question of morals, infallible in virtue of the supreme teaching authority of the Pope when he defines in matters of Faith or morals as universal pastor of the whole Church.
Furthermore, in the face of the present crisis facing the Church, with the increased call for a change in this perennial teaching, since the prohibition is part of the natural law, it must be said that the Pope cannot change this teaching any more than he can change the natural moral law or the nature of marriage and human sexuality, upon which this particular moral law is founded.
It is God Himself – not the Pope or anyone else – who is the one who created man male and female, and who instituted marriage at the beginning of creation, making it to be ordered toward the procreation of children and the union of spouses for the sake of children. It is also God Himself, incarnate in Christ, who elevated marriage to be a sacrament of the Church, making it a means and sign of supernatural grace, thereby healing concupiscence and signifying the faithful, fruitful love of Christ for His bride the Church, a love that is ordered toward bringing forth the family of the saints.
All sexual morality is written into and arises from the very nature of man as male and female and from the very nature of the union of man and woman in marriage. It is God alone who has established these things, and none but He can change them.
Of the ends of marriage and their order, it can well be said what Christ Himself says of the indissoluble bond by which spouses are united in holy wedlock, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”