Politics & Policy

Contraception and Catholicism

What the Church really teaches

Catholic teaching on contraception is at the heart of the controversy over the Health and Human Services mandate. Catholic hospitals and universities are unwilling to purchase insurance plans that provide contraceptive coverage. To critics, this unwillingness borders on the irrational; accordingly, they see little value in protecting the freedom of Catholic hospitals and universities to act in accordance with their beliefs.

Catholic teaching about contraception is, however, not irrational; nor is it founded, as some have claimed, on irrelevant distinctions such as that between what is natural and what is “artificial.” Rather, two lines of argument are to be found throughout the tradition of Catholic, and more generally, Christian, thought on this issue that together show the teaching to be plausible and, in the view of many, true.

The first argument against contraception turns on the way in which the conjugal act unites the married couple organically as one flesh, so as to realize at the physical level of their existence their marital commitment to become one — to make a complete and mutual gift of each to each. Together, spouses are able to perform a biological act that they would be incapable of performing alone: an act of a reproductive kind. As is well known, this act will often not come to its natural biological fulfillment, the conception of a new human being.

Yet when the act does come to fruition, that fruition is itself — or rather, him- or herself — the further realization of the couple’s commitment, the commitment that was initially realized in the conjugal act. For a couple to prevent their act from achieving its fullest realization is thus also for them to choose to block the fullest possible realization of their commitment at the bodily level — and this is precisely at odds with the commitment itself. It is for this reason that Pope John Paul II frequently characterized the use of contraception as a kind of dishonesty: The making of the commitment to a complete sharing of lives says one thing; the deliberate blocking of that commitment from its fullest realization takes back what was initially communicated.

The way in which the act of intercourse can be prevented from realizing the marital commitment is clearest in the use of barrier methods such as the condom, which rather obviously prevent the one-flesh union from even being possible. But hormonal contraceptives, while not preventing physically an act of a reproductive type, nevertheless, when used with a contraceptive intention, involve a willed refusal to allow the biological function, in virtue of which couples become physically one, to come fully to its fruition; thus, their use involves a refusal to countenance the fullness of physical union possible to the couple on that occasion.

Pope Paul VI captured the sense of this set of claims in a well-known discussion in Humanae Vitae, in which he asserted that there is an “inseparable connection . . . between the unitive and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.” To deliberately seek to remove the procreative significance of the marital act does not, in fact, leave a unitive act that has no procreative significance; it removes as well the unitive significance of the act.

Defenders of traditional sexual ethics such as Elizabeth Anscombe have argued that the embrace of contraception is a turning point for sexual ethics more generally. If it is permissible to seek less than the fullness of the real union possible on some occasion in one’s sex acts, then why stop with contracepted sex? Why not seek the less-than-full union available in sex outside of marriage, or in some non-marital form of sexual activity? No good answer seems forthcoming.

In consequence, contraception is understood by the Church both as a violation of the marital commitment — as preventing its fullest available realization — and as a gateway choice to other abuses against the good of marriage.

Contraception’s gateway character is in fact twofold, for in addition to this important strand of argument against contraception rooted in its anti-marital nature, there is also an argument rooted in its anti-life nature: To contracept is to choose to prevent a possible child from coming into existence (a choice that is not made, incidentally, when the couple abstains from the marital act — which is what happens in Catholic family planning). But human life, like marriage, is a great good; and to choose directly against that good seems wrong, and structurally similar to the wrong of homicide, and, specifically, the wrong of abortion. They are not the same wrongs, for there is no actual child in the case of contraception, as there is in abortion; but a culture shaped by collective willing of the non-existence of many possible children should be expected to extend that denial to the right to life of unborn human beings as well.

This dynamic is seen in the HHS mandate, which includes in its list of covered pharmaceuticals drugs such as Ella and Plan B, which are plausibly thought to work on occasion by preventing implantation of an embryo, i.e., by abortion. This willingness to lump in abortifacient drugs with contraceptives is a sign, but only one of many, of the Church’s wisdom in its teaching on contraception.

— Christopher Tollefsen is a visiting fellow of the James Madison Program at Princeton University.


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