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Does the Catholic Church allow contraception?

Caitlin Bootsma - published on 01/15/13

No, the use of contraception distorts the nature of sex and God's design for marriage.

Because of the Catholic Church’s (and others’) insistence on conscience protection against the recent Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring employers to pay for contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilizations, contraception has come to the forefront of many a news story. We’re all familiar with the adage that what is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right; while many cannot fathom how the Catholic Church could ever have a good reason for believing contraception is immoral and unnatural, she is in keeping with the traditional Christian understanding of sexuality as well as the natural law. Contraception distorts the natural orientation of sex, prevents spouses from living out their marriage vows and, in some cases, even ends the life of an unborn baby.

There are some who may claim that Catholic moral teaching is an arbitrary attempt on the part of the Church to impose rules on society. Yet in Catholic moral teaching, faith and reason go hand in hand: God created the natural order, and therefore natural law is a very important foundation to understanding some teachings, such as that of the Church’s teaching on contraception. In Gaudium et Spes, the Church’s position on sexual intercourse is highlighted: “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children” (GS 50). In other words, the very biological processes of any conjugal act, according to nature, may result in a new human life. The orientation towards procreation is an inextricable part of the definition of sexual intercourse.

Fr. Mark Pilon explains in his book, Magnum Mysterium, that through the natural order, God expresses his will for the marital act. While every act of intercourse does not result in a new life, it is most decidedly oriented towards procreation. Fr. Pilon writes, “It is a love that is ordered to fecundity or fertility, destined by God to raise up new lives. Though this… may not be realized in fact, through some failure of nature, still this love in itself, in its very nature, is always ordained to this end by God, and this ordination remains a characteristic that makes this kind of love specifically different from every other form of love” (146). In this manner, contraception distorts the very nature of the sexual act by denying the procreative aspect that is integral to it.

Sexual intercourse is meant to be much more than a simple act of affection or attraction between two people (though it certainly should be that as well). The Church has had a consistent teaching about marriage and sex throughout her history, but perhaps nothing is so appropriate to the discussion of contraception as the seminal encyclical Humanæ Vitæ, put forth by Ven. Paul VI in the midst of the sexual revolution. In this letter, he explains God’s purpose for marriage and the conjugal act: “[H]usband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives” (Humanaæ Vitæ 8).

This reciprocal gift that husband and wife make to one another, therefore, is a way through which they grow in holiness together. Pope Paul VI goes on to lay out four characteristics that should exist in the conjugal act between husband and wife. This expression of married love should be:

  1. Free: Both husband wife should enter into marital intercourse of their own free will so that, as Humanæ Vitæ says, “husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul, and together attain their human fulfillment.”
  2. Total: “[T]hat very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions and not thinking solely of their own convenience.”
  3. Faithful and Exclusive: Husband and wife vow this freely on their wedding day.
  4. Fecund (fruitful): The conjugal must be open to the possibility of procreation. As Humanæ Vitæ says, “It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being.”

Far from being reduced to a set of rules, these characteristics describe a God-given design for love and marriage that calls husbands and wives to loving, fulfilling vocations through matrimony. Therefore, “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” (Humanæ Vitæ, 13).

The Mayo Clinic, upon listing ways that contraceptives prevent pregnancy lists as one point: “Alter the lining of the uterus so a fertilized egg doesn’t attach to it.” In other words, the drug or device prevents a unique human person in the form of an embryo from implanting. Thus, the new human life dies. While not every form of contraception works in this way, the ones that do effectively end the life of a baby.

So-called “Emergency contraception” is one such drug that causes death. The life of a unique human being begins when sperm fertilizes an egg, creating an embryo. The producers of Plan B (a common emergency contraceptive) themselves say that “it prevents pregnancy (mainly by stopping the release of an egg from the ovary), and may also prevent the fertilization of an egg (the uniting of sperm with the egg). Plan B® One-Step may also work by preventing it from attaching to the uterus (womb)”. Therefore, if fertilization occurs before emergency contraception is taken, a new life will die because it cannot implant onto the mother’s uterine wall.

Similarly, IUDs (intrauterine devices) can also cause death if there is a fertilized egg, either because it is being used as emergency contraception or because the other contraceptive functions of IUDs failed and allowed the egg to be fertilized. “In the unlikely event that an egg does get fertilized and survives, both IUDs cause inflammation in the uterus that makes it harder for the egg to implant there” ( While not every form of contraception functions in this way, it is important to note that some “contraceptives” work precisely be killing a new life – a reality which should be a grave concern for all men and women.

But just as a mechanism that is typically used for contraceptive purposes may in fact have (immoral) abortifacient functions, it may also serve legitimate medicinal purposes. For instance, physicians may prescribe the pill to women for reasons such as the treatment of ovarian cysts or hormonal imbalances. In such circumstances, the Church finds no objection to its use, which in this case is strictly medicinal.

Fr. Joe Scott, CSP, outlines the Church’s guidelines for determining the morality of such an action, citing the principle of double effect:

  • This applies to actions where two effects will follow, one bad and the other good. In order for a person to perform such an action, four conditions must be present:
  1. The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.
  2. The agent (person performing the act) may not positively will the bad effect but may merely permit it. The bad effect is sincerely not intended.
  3. The good effect must be produced directly from the action, not the bad effect.
  4. The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for allowing the bad effect.

Furthermore, Humanaæ Vitæ states the following: “The Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from — provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever” (14). Thus, so long as the use of the pill or similar mechanisms is strictly therapeutic in its intent (as opposed to the desire to actively contracept), the Church teaches that there can be no objection, thereby permitting marital relations to continue.

The very etymology of the word contraception – “against conception” – begins to give us an indication of why contraception doesn’t conform to natural law nor God’s plan for spouses to give totally, freely, faithfully and fruitfully to one another through the conjugal act. While so many couples use contraception because of the seeming convenience it may provide, this utilitarian convenience denies spouses the full blessings available to them in their marriage.

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