An Introduction to Church Teaching on Contraception
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Most Catholics reject the teaching of the Catholic Church on contraception not because they’ve carefully considered it, but because they’ve never had to do so.
When someone hears that the Catholic Church has a teaching about contraception, a common response is “Why?” Since this crucial teaching is so rarely given in venues where everyday Catholics can hear and consider it, there is widespread ignorance of, and therefore rejection of, the teaching of the Catholic Church on contraception.
This teaching dates back many centuries, but was reiterated and expanded in Pope Paul VI’s Humanae vitae in 1968 (click here for a summary). Following continued confusion and widespread rejection of this teaching, Saint Pope John Paul II shed further light on this teaching in his encyclical Evangelium vitae and a series of Wednesday audiences over several years, which has come to be known as The Theology of the Body.
Here we offer a brief introduction to a beautiful teaching that we believe, when understood, will be embraced with great joy.
Why Is the Church Always Saying “No”?
The Church has the solemn responsibility to uphold truth, and to do so with love. She has a vested interest in the good of both Catholics and non-Catholics, so she seeks the “common good” of all in society. The teaching of the Catholic Church on contraception is made “in the light of an integral vision of man and of his vocation, not only his natural and earthly, but also his supernatural and eternal vocation” (Humanae vitae 7).
We have been made by God and for God, and the Church proposes the truths necessary to aid men and women to live this life so that they might enjoy eternal life with Him. The Church teaches because she loves everyone who, as Scripture reminds us, is set free by the truth both in this life and for the next.
Despite what most people hear about Church teaching through other sources – that it is just a bunch of “no’s” to good things – the teaching of the Catholic Church on contraception is based on her teaching about sexuality and marriage, which is primarily an affirmation of great goods to which the Church proclaims a resounding “Yes!”
The True Meaning of Marriage
Scripture affirms that marriage is not a man-made institution, but an institution of nature that has been divinely ordained by God. Marriage is a beautiful life-long covenantal relationship between one man and one woman, and it is exclusive and open to new life. It is “the wise institution of the Creator to realize in mankind His design of love” and the marriage between the baptized has been raised by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament (HV 8).
Through marriage, spouses enrich one another’s lives through union in love, and so that their mutual love might give rise to new life. This is expressed beautifully in the Book of Genesis by Adam who, upon seeing Eve, exclaimed “at last this one is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”; and our understanding of marriage is enriched further by God’s first command to “be fruitful and multiply.” (Gen 1:28)
Teaching of the Catholic Church on Contraception
The marital act is and must always remain open to new life, therefore the union of spouses through conjugal love must never be deliberately closed to life or love. As Pope Paul VI explained, “The Church…teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (HV 12).
In God’s divine plan the marital act unites spouses in love and gives rise to new life. God has established an “inseparable connection” between these unitive and procreative purposes of marital love, so when a couple rejects one of these beautiful purposes of their sexual union they harm their spouse and their marriage, even if their intentions are good.
Contraceptive intercourse involves a choice against the possibility of new life so as to prevent pregnancy. It deliberately makes infertile a sexual act within marriage that should be fertile. The couple who freely and knowingly does this commits a mortal sin.
Problems with Contraception
1. Contraception Is “Anti-Life.”
Contraception contributes to a Culture of Death by creating an environment in which children are treated as an unwelcome burden, an impediment to personal goals, or even worse, an enemy to be avoided at all costs. This negativity toward new life which is part and parcel of the “contraceptive mentality,” and is why so many children conceived are considered an “accident,” “unplanned,” or “unwanted.”
Saint John Paul II noted that contraception and abortion are “fruits of the same tree.” “Indeed,” he writes, “the pro-abortion culture is especially strong precisely where the Church’s teaching on contraception is rejected” (Evangelium vitae 13).
Recent studies have confirmed something that may seem counterintuitive, but was actually predicted by the leadership of Planned Parenthood as contraception achieved wider acceptance: higher rates of contraception use do not reduce demand for abortion, but rather lead to an increase in abortion because abortion becomes a sort of “Plan C” after a woman becomes unexpectedly pregnant following the type of behavior that naturally leads to pregnancy.[i]
This self-ignorance affects women’s identity, and distorts male-female relationships as sex becomes detached from its natural end, becoming meaningless and leading toward an attitude of using the other person for one’s own enjoyment.
2. Contraception Decreases Love Itself
Recall that Jesus revealed to us on the Cross that the true and full nature of love is that love is self-gift. Husbands and wives are called to foster love and unity within their marriage.
Every couple seeks marriage precisely because they ardently desire to love deeply and fully. But love is more than a feeling: it is a choice and it is hard. Instead of facilitating love, contraception actually makes it more difficult to love.
In The Theology of the Body, Saint John Paul II explains that we communicate with our bodies. Marital intercourse (without contraceptives) allows for spouses to fully give and receive one another – there are no barriers, there is no withholding of self from one’s beloved. With contraceptive intercourse, however couples reject one another’s fertility, protecting themselves from one another, and withholding a full gift of self. John Paul II emphasized, “When the conjugal act is deprived of its inner truth because it is deprived artificially of its procreative capacity, it also ceases to be an act of love.”
Contraceptive intercourse is incapable of the complete gift of self that married couples truly desire. Ultimately, contraception is opposed to love.
Must We Breed Like Rabbits?
Not at all. Following the teaching about “responsible parenthood” in Humanae vitae and previous Church documents, John Paul II stressed:
Unfortunately, Catholic thought is often misunderstood on this point, as if the Church supported an ideology of fertility at all costs, urging married couples to procreate indiscriminately and without thought for the future. But one need only study the pronouncements of the Magisterium to know that this is not so.
When couples have serious reasons to postpone having children they may do so by abstaining from intercourse periodically by using “Natural Family Planning” or “Fertility Awareness.”
Spouses must prayerfully and responsibly decide when to have children, while always maintaining a generous commitment to being open to new life and complete love.
- Humanae vitae, encyclical of Pope Paul VI
- Evangelium vitae, encyclical of Pope John Paul II
- The Theology of the Body, teaching of Pope John Paul II
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church, especially 2360 – 2379
[i] Malcolm Potts, M.D., Medical Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, in 1973. Quoted in Andrew Scholberg, “The Abortionists and Planned Parenthood: Familiar Bedfellows.” International Review of Natural Family Planning, Winter 1980, page 298.
Here are a couple of thoughts on not using artificial birth control methods
as opposed to natural family planning. Many contraceptives can, not always, cause an
abortion of an newly conceived child, “the pill” being one of them. From the first moment
of conception, the embryo is a child and is never not a child. Think of the moment Jesus was
conceived in Mary’s womb. The Annunciation feast is one of our greatest in the Church.
IUDs starve the little child by thinning the lining of the womb, thereby killing it, where in
the womb expells it. A good motive for opening up for a pregnency , giving the matter to God,
is that a parent never need look at his child, thinking that “this child was an accident”.
Young women are becoming aware that they would like to marry a faithful man who shows sacrificial love for his wife and children, not a selfish man who only wants sexual pleasure for himself. Planned Parenthood will die out without government support. Women don’t want to be the sex slaves of selfish men.
very true.I have experienced the Blessings of the Teachings of the Church in my marriage.I am grateful to the Church & my friends in the Pro-Life Movement who inspired & supported me in my journey.
I also thank the pioneers in Natural Fertility Planning, Dr Billings & Dr Marie Mascarenhas.
There is so much of opposition to the teachings of the Church on Contraception.Not many people to practice.Many priests & nuns & families support & practice contraception.
How come that – mostly – rich (and educated) people have less children than poor, non-educated people?
Having big families also goes against the responsibility of climate change. And what about the future of those poor kids? They will stay poor and will be a big nuisance for the overall population. Poor families live in poor conditions (squatting).
Isn’t about time to educate the poor that big families is NOT the answer and start giving them some real true sex-ed? Having just one kid, is also okay and good or even zero kids. The global population is already big enough.
God is part of new human life from its beginning; becoming a person from the instant of conception. The person is body, mind and spirit, but is enspirited because God is active in that action of conception. The act of love as ‘two in one flesh’ is procreative because it is the united action of spouses with the Creator. The use of contraception is a choice to prevent God from participating with the spouses. It is the same action chosen by Adam and Eve who demonstrated their failure to trust in God.
Do not eat of the fruit they were told, but they fell to temptation. Now look what that failure has cost, Original Sin and removal from the family of God. Only for Jesus we could never recover.