Responsible Parenthood: The Catholic Take on Contraception

2012-03-12 by . 6 comments

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This is the Eschewmenical blog so in the spirit of Eschewmenism, I won’t be mincing any words. What I seek to present is an authentic Catholic stance on what said church teaches on the role of contraception in the family. I am a lay Catholic and not even remotely a theologian, so what I write is my opinion. But it is the opinion of one who both seeks to learn what his faith teaches and be obedient to it.

What is the Catholic Church’s position on Contraception?


In practice, many priests will instruct people to follow their consciences, but a well formed conscience, a well formed Catholic conscience, a properly catechized and well formed Catholic conscience, an obedient and properly catechized well formed Catholic conscience will eschew adding anything to sexual relations to prevent conception as a means to regulate birth.

This is one of those hard teachings, like eating the Flesh of Christ. Surprisingly, it is not one of those teachings that makes people leave the Catholic Church.

only 16 percent [leave the Catholic Church] because of the church’s teaching on birth control.

The Hidden Exodus – National Catholic Reporter, Apr 2011

For a multitude of reasons, only one being conscious disobedience, a majority of Catholic women have used some form of contraception in their lifetime.  As a Catholic catechist, I find it hard to slip in teaching about contraception while talking to 7th, 8th and 9th graders.  But, fortunately, the United States government has given me ample opportunity to do so!

I can say something like, “right now kids, you get a chance to be martyrs, ain’t that great?” and they say, “what’s a martyr?” and I say “a witness for Christ”.

President Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius Smooching

Kathleen, doest thou obey me with a kiss

How does one be a martyr today? Rejecting the world’s teaching on contraception is a start.  This may bring down the world’s hatred, but that is a good thing.

But, how does the Catholic HHS secretary’s decision to force (as an end result) all Catholic institutions to violate their consciences make martyrs out of faithful Catholics?  Well, within marriage, we witness what we know to be true:

  1. That every marital act is a renewing of the marital vows. A total gift of self.
  2. That the intent of no marital act is to have as its end anything lower or different than the first. Not bonding on Fridays and babies on Tuesdays.
  3. That the love between the spouses reflects the love of Christ for His Church. A total gift of self (which bears repeating).

One must not cave in to moral relativism, even if one does so in practice.  It is not difficult to tell that a few of the parents of the kids in my Catechism class either contracept or are sterilized.   I also know that some of the kids in my class rarely attend Sunday Mass.  However, I am proud of them for listening intently to me teaching the truths of the Church at this critical moment and caring about the fact that their church is being attacked. I hope they can go home and explain these things to their parents. I pray that they’ll all have a conversion of heart.

What is the Catholic Church’s position on Birth Control?

Yes, maybe.

If birth control ceases to be used as a euphemism for contraception. 

...if I did debate it, I would call it by its name

The name of Birth-Control, for instance, is sheer nonsense. Everybody has always exercised birth-control; even when they were so paradoxical as to permit the process to end in a birth. Everybody has always known about birth-control, even if it took the wild and unthinkable form of self-control. The question at issue concerns different forms of birth-prevention;

G.K. Chesterton – On Evil Euphemisms

Birth control, properly stated, is “Responsible Parenthood”. Not contraception, which is literally doing something to stop conception. That term is somewhere in Humane Vitae and it’s a shame it didn’t catch on.   Clearly all Catholic parents should be responsible ones, not having 19+ children out of a desire to be on television, or machismo, or a desire to cream thy enemy at the gates.  If little ones are to be continually added to the family, it must be done out of a desire to do God’s work.  God’s work, since the beginning of time, has been creating things and people.

The Catholic understanding of it is that if, for whatever reason, a grave reason, a couple can’t add to their family, they may continue having sex, but in a way that effectively does nothing to confound God’s work.  One may put up no artificial barriers to having children.

  • No condoms or “onanism”, because they prevent the sperm from hitting its mark.
  • No hormonal birth control, because they confuse the body into thinking it is pregnant.
  • No Intrauterine Device (IUD) because of the abortifacient1 effect in stopping implantation.
  • No Plan-B (without an ovulation test) because it is an early abortion.
  • No complete abstinence, without a good reason, because marriage is for the union of the sexes to create babies.

So, that leaves two choices.

  • Make love often and leave everything up to God and nature.
  • Plan when to make love following the scientific principles of ovulation (and breastfeed a lot after giving birth). (CCC 2270)

The last option is not called the Rhythm Method nor is it called the Calendar Method; it is Natural Family Planning. It is extremely effective if used properly, has no side effects, and its practitioners have an uncannily low divorce rate2.

Natural family planning consists of charting signs of fertility:

Fertility signs include, temperature, cervix location and cervical mucous consistency/color

And it’s wonderful fun.  It really puts the couple in control of their fertility, and as a man that may sound ironic (even deranged, stupid or misogynistic) but it’s male fertility too!  I don’t want this blog post to seem too much like an advertisement for NFP. But, if ads for hormonal birth control say they treat symptoms of PMS, it should be noted that the above NFP chart gives men an accurate indicator of the onset of PMS. Men who practice NFP can be ready with calming poultices and be loving husbands before the first signs of PMS!

I’ll conclude with three good resources for three different learning styles.
  1. For book learners, read Pope Paul IV’s Humanae Vitae. It is the most accessible means of understanding why the Catholic Church cannot change its views and needs to hold on to them regardless of societal pressure.  It says the Catholic Church is the guardian and interpreter of the natural moral law, not the arbiter or source.
  2. For auditory fellows, listen to Dr. Janet Smith’s Contraception Why Not and find out why, “if you’re not going to St. Paul, you shouldn’t have gotten on the train.”
  3. For the kinesthetic at heart, check  out the Couple to Couple league and start doing NFP today!3
There’s a lot I didn’t cover; the whole argument against contraception is rooted in the Natural Law.  Whatever holes reason cannot fill concerning contraception, an anagogical reading of the commandment against adultery will fill in.  Man’s ultimate goal is to do the work of God in creating new human life. So, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask; that’s what christianity.stackexchange is all about!

Next week Bruce Alderman will write about the Methodist take on contraception. I’ve got a feeling it’ll be a tad more pragmatic than the Catholic stance, but I learned from asking on Christianity.SE that Calvin may have been more or less against birth control so maybe I’ll be surprised!

1. IUD kills a fertilized egg (i.e. a tiny human person)

2. Love, Sex and Babies, Jason Evert, Catholic Answers 2004

3. and mark one off on your coitus record for me

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  • OK, I think I understand the theology. But I’m having trouble connecting the dots between that and the politics. I still don’t see what, in the recent insurance regulations, causes Catholic institutions to violate their consciences.

    Are you saying the Catholic position is that contraception should not be used by anyone, and that therefore the insurance plan should not cover it? Or are you saying that people who work for Catholic organizations should live according to Catholic moral teachings? Or something else?

    • Peter Turner says:

      I’m pretty sure that Catholic organizations have the right to hire or fire folks who don’t abide by Catholic teachings. They don’t generally do so, but when they do someone usually takes issue with it. But in the end it’s shown that the Catholic organization was within its rights to do so.

      If you flip that around, why should a Catholic organization be forced to provide the means for someone to accomplish something that it deems is an occasion of sin? To them, it’s scandalous and it would be hard for a Catholic organization which holds fast to the Church’s teachings to provide means for someone to do in private, that which if done in the open would be grounds for their dismissal.

    • OK. If Catholic organizations expect their employees to abide by Catholic teachings, then I can understand why they don’t want to make contraception available. I just didn’t know if that was their argument.

      Incidentally, I see that the Obama administration has pledged to work with self-insurers so they won’t have to violate their consciences. I wouldn’t be surprised if the result was a continuation of the Bush policy of simply not enforcing the regulations, at least for self-insuring religious organizations.

  • Jon Ericson says:

    Well done, Peter!

    Now it’s my turn to ask you some questions. 😛

    1. If “onanism” is a sin, how is it the NFP is not? I suppose you could mess up the timing or God could supernaturally extend the wife’s fertility. But otherwise the sperm will miss it’s mark just as if there were some artificial barrier.

    2. What’s wrong with “confus[ing] the body into thinking it is pregnant”? Technology has provided us will all manner of medical methods to confuse the body into doing what’s really best for it. Vaccines confuse the body into thinking it’s sick in order to produce useful antibodies, for instance.

    3. I don’t follow what you mean by “That the intent of no marital act is to have as its end anything lower or different than the first.” At first I read it to mean that sex is not intended for a purpose other than renewing the marital vows, which presumably include a commitment to procreate. But in the NFP section, couples organize their sex lives to avoid procreation. How do you resolve the apparent contradiction?

    I feel a little like the “weaker brother” Paul talks about:

    As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. (Romans 14:1-3 ESV)

    Let’s not despise each other. 😉

    • Peter Turner says:

      1.) Yes, if I were arguing for NFP as the lesser of two evils, then Humane Vitae (#14) would agree with you.

      Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these.

      2.) One difference between contraceptives and vaccines is the difference between babies and viruses. I’d like to make an argument that doesn’t circumvent your statement, but it’s true. You are doing something to prevent conception if you use NFP. However, you’re not doing anything that God hasn’t given you the natural faculties to figure out.

      In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. (HV#17)

      3.) Every time a married couple makes love should be a total gift to one another, anything else is less than ideal. It’s not that the intent is to renew the marriage vows. The marriage vow is the love making, you’re not really married until you seal the deal (at least in the Catholic Church, that’s grounds for a declaration of nullity). Even though it’s 99% effective, it still is an act of faith; regardless of what happens, God will provide. And finally, there is a difference between knowing something and doing something.

      Only once before have I talked with committed Protestants about this kind of stuff (who felt justified in their contraception) and I’ve never ceased to tick them off. I certainly don’t judge Protestants for being poorly catechized. As I say, this is a hard teaching, especially today.

    • One difference between contraceptives and vaccines is the difference between babies and viruses.

      Such as, in some circumstances, viruses are less likely to kill people.


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