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Most Catholics reject the Church’s teaching 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 Church’s teaching.
This teaching dates back many centuries, but was reiterated and expanded in Pope Paul VI’s Humanae vitae in 1968. Following continued confusion and widespread rejection of this teaching, Blessed 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. Her teaching regarding 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 Church’s teaching about 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)
What does the Church teach about 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.
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.”
Blessed 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.
It’s not just about potential new life, but about love.
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, Blessed 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 emphasized that “[W]hen 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.
Does this mean we have to breed like rabbits?
Not at all. Following the teaching about “responsible parenthood” in Humanae vitae and previous Church documents, John Paul stressed that, “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.