Clarifying the Church’s Teaching on Contraception

March 10, 2016

Clarifying the Catholic Church’s Teaching on Contraception with Three Distinctions In recent weeks, there has been much confusion regarding the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception because of Pope Francis’s response to a reporter’s question on his flight to Rome after his apostolic journey to Mexico. What exactly does the Church teach about contraception? First, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear, the Catholic Church teaches that the contraceptive act is intrinsically evil (cf. Catechism, no. 2370). This means that it is always wrong at every time, every place, and in every circumstance. Other acts that are intrinsically evil are the acts of rape, of adultery, and of fornication, among others. These too are always wrong at every time, every place, and in every circumstance. These acts, including the act of contraception, are wrong because they are disrespectful. They disrespect the great dignity of the human person, who is called to love another person as God loves – which is a love that is always total, generous, and fruitful – and they disrespect the dignity of the sexual act, which is meant to express the total self-giving of husband and wife to each other. With regards to the contraceptive act, the Catechism puts it this way: “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” (cf. Catechism, no. 2370). Sexual intimacy is supposed to involve a total self-giving where the husband and the wife give everything of themselves to each other. It is supposed to be an act of vulnerability and total surrender. A contraceptive act contradicts and disorders this radical meaning of sexual intimacy. Instead of an act of total self-gift, it is an act of withholding and refusal. Second, notice that there is an important and morally significant difference between a contraceptive act and the use of a contraceptive. A fifteen year old virgin who uses a contraceptive either to regulate her menstrual cycle or to control the disease called endometriosis, is not engaging in a contraceptive act. A woman who has never had or does not intend to have sex cannot be engaging in a contraceptive act even if she is using the pill, because a contraceptive act necessarily presupposes that the woman intends to freely give herself away to a man through the conjugal act. Given this, a woman who uses a contraceptive to protect herself against the sperm of her rapist is not engaging in a contraceptive act. By definition, a rape victim does not intend to freely give herself away to her attacker! By definition, therefore, a rape victim cannot engage in a contraceptive act even when she uses a contraceptive. This is why Bl. Pope Paul VI permitted Congolese nuns to protect themselves against the sperm of their rapists fifty years ago, and this is why the Catholic Church today permits victims of rape to protect themselves against their rapists’ sperm with a contraceptive when they present themselves for care in the emergency room of a Catholic hospital (cf. Ethical and Religious Directives for Health Care Services, 5th ed.) Third, intrinsically evil acts cannot and can never be justified by appeals to the lesser evil. Take the following scenario: A deranged group of radicalized terrorists tells the marine they have kidnapped that they will kill a seven year old boy unless he rapes the boy’s older sister for their enjoyment and pleasure. Here you have a direct conflict between the fifth commandment – the prohibition not to kill innocent human life – and the sixth commandment – the prohibition not to engage in disordered sexual acts. As most of my students quickly acknowledge, raping a young girl, which in this case is the lesser evil, cannot and can never be justified, even if it preserves and protects the life of her younger brother, which in this case is the greater evil. Every intrinsically evil act, whether it is an act of rape, of murder, or of contraception, is always wrong regardless of time, place, or circumstances. How then are we to respond to the health crisis triggered by Zika virus? For one, we can promote and disseminate the USAID-funded fertility awareness-based methods (FAM) developed at Georgetown University, including the Standard Days Method and the TwoDay Method, which respect the dignity of the human person and the meaning of human sexuality. These methods to regulate fertility to prevent pregnancy are effective and have the added advantage in that they are relatively inexpensive and were developed to address the specific needs of emerging nations. They also do not pollute and damage the environment as hormonal contraceptives do.

Rev. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P. Providence College Image: Domenico Ghirlandaio, Marriage of Mary, 1490    

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