Upon learning that the Church has a teaching about contraception, it is not uncommon for some to question why the Church is interested in such matters. Further, because the Church’s teaching on contraception is rarely given the level of attention and discussion it deserves, it is often unclear what exactly the Church teaches. This article is a brief introduction to a beautiful teaching that I believe, when understood, will be embraced with great joy.
Why does the Church have a teaching about contraception? The Church has the solemn responsibility to uphold truth, to protect marriage, and to seek the good of spouses. She has a vested interest in the good of Her people and society at large. 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 proclaims and proposes the truths necessary to aid men and women to live this life in His light and love so that they might enjoy eternal life with Him. The Church teaches because she loves every member who, as Scripture reminds us, is set free by truth alone both in this life and for the next. Far from a never-ending list of “no’s,” the Church’s teachings about contraception and marriage are primarily an affirmation of great goods to which the Church proclaims a resounding “Yes.”
What is marriage? Scripture affirms that marriage is not a creation of man, 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. It is exclusive and open to new life. Marriage 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 might 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 Scripture by Adam who, upon seeing Eve, exclaimed “at last this one is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” and it is enriched further by God’s first command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28).
So what does the Church teach about contraception? The marital act is and must always remain open to new life. The union of spouses through conjugal love must never be made 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 them in love and gives rise to new life. God has established an “inseparable connection” between these unitive and procreative purposes of marital love, and 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 for the kind of act that is 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.
It sounds like the Church teaches that contraception is anti-life? Yes, this is one reason the Church recognizes contraception to be immoral. Contraception contributes to a culture of death by creating an environment in which potential 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 is why a child conceived following a contraceptive intercourse is described by society as “un-planned,” “an accident,” or “un-wanted.” 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 that higher rates of contraceptive use do not reduce demand for abortion, but rather increase abortion rates because it becomes a sort of “Plan C” after a woman becomes unexpectedly pregnant. Perhaps most importantly, new life is the “supreme gift” and “crowning glory” of marriage, and couples should always be open (and never opposed to) the fruit of their love.
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But what about our need to express love to one another? Recall that Jesus revealed to us 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 a choice, and love is hard. Instead of facilitating love, contraception actually makes it more difficult to love. In Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, he explains that we communicate with our bodies. Marital intercourse (no 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. But with contraceptive intercourse couples reject one another’s fertility, protect themselves from one another, and withhold a full gift of self. They reject a potential child who is the embodiment of their love, their incarnate “I love you.” “Contraception introduces a radical contradiction between what a couple desires by intercourse and the act that they choose.” 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” (Nichols, Ethics and Medics, Feb 2013). Ultimately, contraception is opposed to love.
Does this mean we have to breed like rabbits? Not at all. Blessed John Paul II 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.” We must generously, prayerfully, and responsibly consider how many children to have and when to have them while always maintaining a commitment to being open to new life and complete love.