Contraception Will Always Be Intrinsically Evil: A Look at the Development of Doctrine

As we mark National NFP Week, there have been confusing ideas coming from the Pontifical Academy of Life that seem to imply that the Church’s teaching on contraception can “develop” to allow the use of artificial contraception.

Pope Paul VI leaves the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth after celebrating Mass, on January 05, 1964, during his visit to the Holy Land.
Pope Paul VI leaves the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth after celebrating Mass, on January 05, 1964, during his visit to the Holy Land. (photo: EPU Files/AFP / Getty)

This week, 54 years ago, on July 25, 1968, Pope St. Paul VI released the encyclical Humanae Vitae, confirming the Church’s teaching that contraception, whether through sterilization of the man or woman in any act before, during, or after the conjugal act to prevent procreation is morally evil and violates the “unitive and procreative” goods “inherent to the marriage act.” Further, he allowed for couples who have reasonable motives for avoiding having another child to exclusively use the infertile periods of the wife’s cycle, what is now commonly called natural family planning or NFP. This teaching was received in varying ways, with many laypeople and priests choosing to ignore this in favor of the world’s acceptance of birth control. Those obedient to the truth worked hard to defend it, such as philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, who explained:

“Every true Catholic must rejoice also when he is allowed to see clearly that the Church does not conform to the ‘majority opinion’ but to the Word of God, and that the Holy Father [Paul VI] must proclaim the truth even when it goes against the current of the times. […] The encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which the Holy Father teaches us clearly the true moral nature of artificial birth control, enables the individual to know exactly what God expects of him and appeals to our conscience not to offend God” (The Encyclical Humanae Vitae: A Sign of Contradiction).


As we mark National NFP Week, there have been confusing ideas coming from the Pontifical Academy of Life that seem to imply that the Church’s teaching on contraception can “develop” to allow the use of artificial contraception. This idea flies in the face of the most basic principles of what is legitimate development of doctrine — for never in Scripture or in the history of the Church has it been moral for married couples to interfere with the procreative end of the marital act. The very moral truths on which marriage is based necessitate that every sexual act must be done within marriage and be a consensual act of self-gift and union of the couple which is open to the procreation of a new human life. 


Continuity of Principles and Natural Law

St. John Henry Newman, in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, lays down six guidelines with which to measure the development of doctrine. While I do not have space here to go into all of them, the Church’s teaching on the two ends of marriage and the sexual act as procreation and union and teaching against the use of artificial contraception fits with all six of his guidelines. Here, I want to show how the Church’s teaching cannot legitimately develop to say that is it moral to interfere with the procreative end of marriage because it violates what Newman calls the necessary “continuity of principles” required for development of doctrine.

The Church has always held the principle that it is wrong to interfere with the bringing about of a new human life in the sexual act. Further, the principle of the two ends of marriage, while first stated and understood by the Church in the 20th and 21st century, is rooted in natural law and the whole history of the Church’s understanding of marriage. This is why the condemnation of contraceptive acts as “intrinsically evil” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2370) is a true part of Tradition. 

First of all, this principle of the two ends of marriage can be seen in natural law, which is the law implanted in us by God that says we ought to use our natural abilities to pursue the goods for the sake of which our abilities naturally exist and ought not perform acts in which we use a natural ability but simultaneously actively prevent its natural goal from coming about. Our sexual abilities naturally exist for the sake of bringing new persons into existence and for the sake of a complete gift of self between persons. To use this ability but simultaneously prevent either of these goals from coming about, as is done when one uses contraception, violates the natural goal-directedness of this ability, and so violates the natural law, and so ought not be done. (I owe this formulation to my husband, Mark Spencer.)

Pope St. John Paul II explained in Familiaris Consortio, in 1981, that, “when couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion,” they interfere with the divine plan and “manipulate and degrade human-sexuality … by altering its value of ‘total’ self-giving.” The evil is not just in contraception’s severing of procreation from the unitive end but also in the couple’s denial of the gift of fertility to each other. A couple using contraception in the conjugal act makes themselves incapable of a total self-gift and complete union. 

It further violates the gift of cooperating with God’s creative act of bringing each person’s soul into existence. Hildebrand explained two levels of sinfulness in using artificial contraception:

“We thus see that artificial birth control is sinful not only because it severs the mysterious link between the most intimate love-union and the coming into existence of a new human being, but also because in a certain way it artificially cuts off the creative intervention of God, or better still, it artificially separates an act which is ordained toward cooperation with the creative act of God from this its destiny” (The Encyclical Humanae Vitae: A Sign of Contradiction).”


In Scripture and Tradition

Secondly, we can see these principles in Scripture and Tradition. Scripture shows us that procreation and union are intrinsic to marriage, beginning in Genesis 1-2, when man and woman were created by God, the Author of Life, and were meant to become “one flesh” and to be “fruitful and multiply.” In the New Testament, the unitive aspect is highlighted in St. Paul’s comparison of the man to Christ and of the woman to the Church in Ephesians 5. In the liturgy, Christ and the Church come into union through the consummation of the people of the Church receiving the Body of Christ into their bodies, and this love of Christ for the Church is deep and personal. If one compares marriage to this analogy, one can see that the physical union of the husband and wife is meant to be deep and personal and a sign of their unity of hearts.

The early tradition of the Church emphasized the procreative aspect of marriage and the conjugal act. St. Augustine of Hippo wrote against the Manicheans, who saw procreation as evil and sex as something for pleasure. He explained that the “union … of male and female for the purpose of procreation” was “the natural good of marriage,” and he saw any other use of the sexual act as sinful (On Marriage and Concupiscence). In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas explained the conjugal act in terms of nature, such as what semen is for, condemning unnatural uses of the sexual organs. He also saw how, in nature, not every conjugal act ended in procreation. This is an example of the continuity of the principle based in the need to follow the natural order God created. Also, there is a beginning of the development of thought viewing an end of the conjugal act as being more than just procreation, as Aquinas explained that it was not sinful for naturally sterile couples to have intercourse (Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.122.4-5). This view is an anticipation of the clear acknowledging by the Church of the unitive end of marriage and a couple’s recourse to using infertile periods of the women’s cycle for serious reasons to avoid conception. 

In 1880, Pope Leo XIII continued this development by explaining that “marriage was instituted for the propagation of the human race” and “also that the lives of husbands and wives might be made better and happier” (Arcanum, 26). Pope Pius XI developed this view further in Casti Connubii, written in 1930, describing procreation as the primary end of marriage and “mutual aid, cultivating mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence” as secondary and subordinate to this natural end. Venerable Pope Pius XII further developed the idea of two ends of marriage in his “Allocution to Midwives in 1951, emphasizing that procreation is not the only end of marriage: 

“To reduce the common life of husband and wife and the conjugal act to a mere organic function for the transmission of seed would be but to convert the domestic hearth, the family sanctuary, into a biological laboratory. […] The conjugal act, in its natural structure, is a personal action, a simultaneous and immediate cooperation of husband and wife, which by the very nature of the agents and the propriety of the act, is the expression of the reciprocal gift, which, according to Holy Writ, effects the union ‘in one flesh.’”

From there was the proclamation of Pope Paul VI's win Humanae Vitae, which we remember and promote during this National NFP Week.


Continuing in the Truth

During his pontificate, Pope John Paul II upheld the teaching in Humanae Vitae in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, explaining that in the culture of death “the original import of human sexuality is distorted and falsified, and the two meanings, unitive and procreative, inherent in the very nature of the conjugal act, are artificially separated.” He says further that, with this attitude: 

“[T]he marriage union is betrayed and its fruitfulness is subjected to the caprice of the couple. Procreation then becomes the ‘enemy’ to be avoided in sexual activity: If it is welcomed, this is only because it expresses a desire, or indeed the intention, to have a child ‘at all costs,’ and not because it signifies the complete acceptance of the other and therefore an openness to the richness of life which the child represents.”

In one way, this view hearkens back to the Manichean view that sex was for pleasure and procreation is evil — except that it is not consistent, as people want to have children at their convenience. They follow “one rule,” which is what Dietrich von Hildebrand would call the desire to fulfill what is “subjectively satisfying.” One has sex when one desires without consequences. One has a child on demand, reducing the child to a commodity.

The Church must not give into the world’s push to claim that “union” in the sexual act can be morally separated from procreation through artificial means. In the 20th century, the crisis of widespread acceptance of contraception in the world caused the Church to examine the goods of marriage to the extent that it saw the need to emphasize procreation in relation to the good of the union in marriage. Contraception divides procreation, the physical fruit of union, from union; and because it violates the complete self-gift of one person to another, by limiting the physical union, it violates the union itself. In the 21st century, the Church must not lose sight of these ends. An emphasis on the unitive end that makes the procreative end optional is a false understanding on the nature of the sexual act.

The first reading from last Thursday (of the 16th Week of Ordinary Time, Year II) is a clear reminder of the importance of not straying from the truths preserved by Tradition and those given to us by God in natural law: 

 Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
  be shocked, be utterly desolate,
                says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
    They have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
    and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns,
    that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:12-13)

Claiming that the Church can “develop” her teaching so that it is moral to use contraception would be nothing more than “hewing out broken cisterns that can hold no water.” The Church would be forsaking the fountain of living waters. Let us pray for our shepherds, that they do not forsake the truth preserved by Tradition. And let us pray for married couples, that they may see the beauty of the Church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage and always be open to the gift of life.