There are a number of different methods that are used today to reject the teaching of the Magisterium on any matter of faith, morals, or salvation. One approach is to treat all questions as if they were open to speculation. Any teaching of the Church that is controversial is, merely on that basis, claimed to be not definitively decided by the Magisterium. Another approach is to distort magisterial teaching according to one’s own desires or misunderstandings. A third approach is to narrow any teaching that is difficult to accept, as if the Church in Her teaching has (after 2000 years) still not answered many important theological questions, except perhaps in a limited way. The claim here is that the Church has the authority to teach on all matters of faith and morals, but She simply has not chosen to do so on whatever point is in contention. Some commentators even go so far as to say that the Church cannot or should not teach on various controversial subjects in morality.
Which approach is used to reject or distort or narrow the teaching of the Magisterium on contraception? All of the above. Perhaps mainly due to the influence of modern secular society, which treats contraception as if it were a moral obligation or a virtue, some Catholic commentators, even those labeled as ‘conservative’, have begun to erode the teaching of the Church against contraception.
One of the more prominent eroders of Catholic doctrine against contraception is Jimmy Akin. He not only narrows the teaching of the Magisterium against contraception, so that it supposedly applies only within marriage, but he even claims that the Magisterium has not condemned all use of contraception by married couples. In my earlier article, I refute his false claims and show that his position on contraception is heretical.
Another prominent distorter of Catholic doctrine on contraception is Jeff Mirus of CatholicCulture.org His position is not quite as bad as Akin’s position. Akin considers that contraception might be moral within marriage, with a non-contraceptive intention, or with a good effect that outweighs the bad effects (as if the principle of double effect could ever justify an intrinsically evil act). Mirus disagrees with Akin, saying that contraception is intrinsically evil within marriage, and therefore always immoral within marriage. But his qualification ‘within marriage’ is not supported by magisterial teaching. In my view, this narrowing of the condemnation of contraception solely to marital use of contraception is also a heresy. For the ordinary and Universal Magisterium has always condemned contraception as intrinsically evil, without qualifications such as ‘only within marriage’ or ‘marital contraception’. And the claim that the Magisterium has ‘never’ taught that contraception is immoral outside of marriage can be proven false.
(In general, whenever someone says ‘the Magisterium has never taught’, you should be skeptical. The Magisterium has been teaching for two thousand years. Usually, a mere hour or two of research will turn up a number of magisterial documents teaching the very same doctrine that is claimed to have never been taught. Also, we are required to believe not only the explicit teachings of the Magisterium, but also all that is necessarily implied by Her explicit teachings. So the phrase ‘never taught’ is a rather high standard.)
Contraception Outside of Marriage
Here is my lengthy article proving that the Magisterium teaches that contraception is always gravely immoral, outside of marriage as well as within marriage.
I will summarize the points of that article, as follows:
a. The Magisterium condemns the distribution and promotion of contraception by governments and institutions, regardless of whether it is used in marriage or outside of marriage, as a grave offense (Familiaris Consortio, n. 30; Evangelium Vitae, n. 17; Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n. 234). Governments and institutions distribute and promote contraception to the married as well as to the unmarried, yet their actions are wholly condemned, without qualification as to whether the persons using the contraception are married or not.
b. The Magisterium teaches that contraception is immoral because it separates the two meanings, unitive and procreative, found in human sexuality and in the being of man and woman. This basis for the immorality of contraception does not rely on the marital state, but on the nature of man and woman, on the nature of the human person. (Familiaris Consortio, n. 32)
c. The Church opposes teaching young unmarried persons how to use contraception in sexual education programs. This opposition is not based solely on the possibility that those young persons might eventually marry and use contraception in marriage.
d. The Magisterium teaches that direct sterilization is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral for the same reason that contraception is intrinsically evil, because it deprives sexual acts of the procreative meaning. Direct sterilization is condemned by the Magisterium, regardless of whether the individual is married or single. (Humanae Vitae, n. 14; Pontifical Council for the Family, The Ethical and Pastoral Dimensions of Population Trends, n. 73, n. 76)
e. The Magisterium condemns artificial procreation for the same reason as contraception, the unitive and procreative meanings are not united in one and the same act. The deprivation of either or both the procreative and unitive meanings makes the act intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. But artificial procreation is condemned regardless of whether a couple is married or not, because the basis for the condemnation of artificial procreation is not the presence or absence of the marital meaning, but the separation of the unitive and procreative meanings. The same is true for contraception; the act is condemned because the unitive and procreative meanings are not united in one and the same act. The presence or absence of the marital meaning does not substitute for this sin of separating the unitive and procreative meanings. (Of course, contraception, direct sterilization, and artificial procreation, when used by a married couple, ALSO offend against the good of marriage.)
f. Catholic hospitals are not permitted to dispense contraception, regardless of whether the patient is married or unmarried. If the Magisterium taught that contraception were only immoral within marriage, there would be no absolute prohibition against dispensing contraception to unmarried patients in accord with the consciences of the physician and the patients, especially for non-Catholic physicians and patients. But such is not the case. (ERD, n. 52; Quaecumque Sterilizatio, n. 25)
The latter reference is particularly revealing on this topic:
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “Any cooperation whatsoever, institutionally-approved or tolerated, in actions which are in themselves (that is, by their nature and condition) ordered toward a contraceptive end, as well as any that impede the natural result of the sexual act [actuum sexualium] allowing it to be subjected to deliberate sterilization, is absolutely forbidden.” (Reply of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Sterilization in Catholic Hospitals, Quaecumque Sterilizatio, March 13, 1975, AAS 68 (1976) 738-740; DOCUMENTA 25)
When an act is inherently ordered toward a contraceptive end (as its moral object), that act is absolutely forbidden. It is immoral by its very nature, a phrasing used to describe intrinsically evil acts. Notice that there is no mention of marriage or the marital act in this absolute prohibition by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The act is called ‘actuum sexualium’, not any term that might be interpreted or misinterpreted as narrowing the prohibition to marital contraception. Furthermore, the topic under discussion is the formal cooperation of the Catholic hospital with the intrinsically evil acts of contraception and direct sterilization. Catholic hospitals certainly do not limit their treatment of patients only to Catholics, or only to married persons. And yet the prohibition is absolute.
g. In Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI strongly condemned contraception, saying that no reason could justify this intrinsically evil act.
In the same document, the Latin term conjugiis/conjugia is used in three places to refer unequivocally to sexual acts outside of marriage. So the claim is refuted that the use of this Latin term in documents condemning contraception indicates a narrowing of the condemnation to marital acts only.
More important is the point that Saint Augustine taught that contraception is immoral “even with one’s legitimate wife”, thereby implying that contraception is immoral regardless of marital state. He did not say “only with one’s wife”, but “even” with one’s wife. This teaching by Augustine — a Bishop, Saint, and Doctor of the Church — is quoted by Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii, without disagreement, correction, or qualification: “As St. Augustine notes, ‘Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Judah, did this and the Lord killed him for it.’ ” (Casti Connubii, n. 55). Here Pope Pius XI is teaching the universal Church through the words of Saint Augustine that the use of contraception is gravely immoral regardless of marital state.
But all of this makes no impression on Jeff Mirus. He claims the contrary, without any substantial theological argument, and without citing any magisterial documents to support what he claims is Church teaching. If the Church teaches as he says, why can’t he cite a magisterial document stating that contraception is only intrinsically evil within marriage? He cannot do so because the Magisterium in fact condemns contraception as intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral regardless of marital state (as proven above). Humanae Vitae condemns contraception because it separates the unitive and procreative meanings, not solely because it offends against the marital meaning. (Another way of expressing this teaching is to say that contraception deprives sexual acts of the procreative meaning, and also offends against the marital and unitive meanings.) Although any sexual sin within marriage offends against the marriage, this does not imply that such sins become moral outside of marriage. Many sins are immoral for more than one reason; they have more than one evil moral object, or more than one type of disorder.
Mirus claims: “Note this well. The Church’s teaching on contraception is that contraception is intrinsically evil when used to frustrate the procreative purpose of the marital act. In anticipation of exactly the sort of confusion we are witnessing today, I addressed this issue nearly four years ago in Contraception: Why It’s Wrong. The point to remember is that contraception is intrinsically evil only within marriage. Outside of marriage, sexual intercourse itself is intrinsically evil; outside of marriage, there is no marital act that must be kept open to life and love; outside of marriage, the morality of contraception must be determined on other grounds, namely extrinsic grounds.” (The Pope, the Condom, and the Elephant)
Notice the deceitful wording of his non-argument. He uses phrases such as ‘Note this well’ and ‘The point to remember’, so as to give the impression that his claim is not an opinion, but an indisputable fact. He also asserts that his position is the teaching of the Church without any theological argument or citation of magisterial documents. In his article, Contraception: Why It’s Wrong, he uses the same approach. He presents his claim as if he were a knowledgeable person teaching the ignorant. He explains his claims on this topic, but he does not make a theological argument. He simply makes a long series of assertions, presented without any basis in Tradition, Scripture, or the Magisterium. At one point he says:
“Within the context of marriage, the purposes of sexual intercourse are unitive and procreative (as Pope Paul VI taught in his brilliant and prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae).”
There is a clever rhetorical trick here. He praises Humanae Vitae as ‘brilliant and prophetic’ while at the same time misinterpreting its teaching. He does not bother to quote Humanae Vitae, nor does he delve into the theological argument presented by Pope Paul VI. To do so would undermine his claims, since Humanae Vitae condemns the separation of the procreative and unitive meanings from sexual intercourse, not ‘marital intercourse’ (as some commentators claim).
Morally Neutral Acts?
Mirus’ claim that some knowingly chosen acts are ‘morally neutral’ is false. The Magisterium teaches that all knowingly chosen acts are subject to the moral law.
“Freedom makes man a moral subject. When he acts deliberately, man is, so to speak, the father of his acts. Human acts, that is, acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience, can be morally evaluated. They are either good or evil.” (CCC, n. 1749)
“no human act is morally indifferent to one’s conscience or before God” (Congregation for Catholic Education)
In Catholic moral theology, an act (or ‘human act’) is a choice of the free will based on knowledge in the intellect. Every such knowingly chosen act is either good or evil. Mirus’ claim contradicts the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which teaches that every human act is either good or evil. There are no morally neutral acts. Every knowingly chosen act has three fonts of morality (see Veritatis Splendor, the CCC, the Compendium, and the USCCB Catechism on this topic). Every act with three good fonts is moral; it is at least morally permissible without sin. Every act with one or more bad fonts is immoral; it is at least objectively a sin before God.
In terms of reward and punishment, some acts are neutral. A sinful act deserves punishment. A virtuous act deserves reward. Some acts deserve neither reward, nor punishment. Such acts are morally permissible, and so they are not morally neutral. They are only neutral as concerns reward and punishment.
Rape and Contraception
Mirus’ understanding of the moral teachings of the Catholic Faith is so disordered and confused, that he has this to say about a rapist using contraception:
“It is possible that in some specific cases, the use of a condom might be a step in the right direction (think of a rapist, for example).” (The Pope, the Condom, and the Elephant)
So Jeff Mirus, in addition to claiming that contraception is not immoral outside of marriage (it is morally neutral, in his view), also claims that the use of contraception — by a rapist (!!!) — is ‘a step in the right direction’. But as for me, I do not find any support for such a claim in the writings of the Fathers, Doctors, and Saints of the Church, nor in the Bible, nor in any magisterial document. Therefore, I take a different theological position. Do you know what I think is ‘a step in the right direction’ for a rapist? Not raping anyone.
The type of cheerleading for contraception, in which Mirus, Akin, Rhonheimer, and others happily engage, does grave harm to many souls. They are influenced by sinful secular society, which tells them that contraception is good and moral, and so they go to great lengths to try to find someway to approve of contraception in some circumstances, with some intentions. But there is no basis in the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium for the approval of intrinsically evil acts, such as the use of contraception.
If a rapist also lies to his victim, then he commits the very grave sin of rape, and the much lesser sin of lying. The fact that he is committing a very sinful act does not give him the special privilege to be above the moral law. All of his knowingly chosen acts are subject to the eternal moral law, just as for non-rapists. If a rapist also uses a condom, he is not committing an act of virtue (except as sinful secular society defines virtue) in the midst of a very grave sin. He is committing an additional sinful act. Of course, his act of rape is very gravely immoral and fully deserving of eternal punishment in Hell, with or without contraception, with or without lying, with or without additional mortal or venial sins. But the truths of the moral law are unchanging. If a rapist lies, his lie is immoral. If a rapist uses contraception, his use of contraception is immoral. It is not a step in the right direction. Perhaps he uses a condom to avoid leaving forensic evidence of his crime, or to avoid contracting a disease from his victim. But he is not making a moral decision in using contraception during rape, as Mirus suggests.
Morality and Acts
Whenever a human person commits two sinful acts, one more sinful and the other less sinful, both acts remain sinful. Even if the one act is very gravely immoral, and the other act is a mere venial sin, both acts are sins. The commission of a gravely immoral act does not exempt the sinner from the whole moral law, with all of its requirements. Furthermore, one and the same intrinsically evil act can be made more immoral by the addition of a sinful intention, or a second evil moral object, or additional reasonably anticipated harmful consequences. So the fact that an act is a grave sin does not prevent that act from being even more sinful, whenever there is a greater moral disorder in the act.
The root of Mirus’ error is found in his statement:
“Indeed, no matter what position the Pope or any other moralist may take on the use of condoms in particular situations which are already fundamentally disordered — situations in which sexual activity is already intrinsically immoral — that position cannot affect the Church’s teaching on the use of condoms in sexual acts which are otherwise properly ordered and moral — that is, within marriage. In each and every properly ordered and therefore moral sexual act (that is, in each and every marital act), deliberate contraception remains intrinsically immoral.” (The Pope, the Condom, and the Elephant)
Mirus’ comments imply that, since sexual acts outside of marriage are intrinsically evil, nothing else can affect the morality of that sinful act. It is as if, once you are sinning, you are beyond the moral law.
His claim is easily refuted by reason, for example: an engaged couple who have premarital sexual relations are committing an intrinsically evil act. A rapist commits a more gravely immoral act; his act is intrinsically evil because it is non-marital, but also because it is an act of violence against the innocent. As a grave act of violence against the will of the human person, his act is also intrinsically evil. So there is nothing to prevent an act from having more than one evil moral object. Adultery is intrinsically evil because it non-marital sexual relations (just as premarital sex is non-marital), but also because it is a grave offense against the Sacrament of Marriage. Adultery has two evil moral objects.
Lets apply this insight to contraception outside of marriage. Humanae Vitae teaches that sexual acts, to be moral, must be marital and unitive and procreative. The deliberate choice of any act that is inherently directed toward the deprivation of the marital or unitive or procreative meanings is intrinsically evil. If the act is deprived of the marital meaning, the act is intrinsically evil. If the act is deprived of the unitive meaning, the act is intrinsically evil. If the act is deprived of the procreative meaning, the act is intrinsically evil. If the act is deprived of two meanings, or all three, it is more gravely disordered, and therefore more sinful.
The deprivation of the marital meaning does not imply that a further deprivation of the unitive or procreative meanings is morally neutral (or is somehow a step in the right direction). This moral truth is plainly seen in the teaching of the Magisterium on artificial procreation. The Magisterium condemns the use of artificial procreation by married couples and by unmarried couples and by married couples using gametes from a third party. All the methods of artificial procreation are condemned as gravely immoral. It is not the case that, if a couple is unmarried, then the absence of the marital meaning allows them to separate the unitive and procreative meanings without sin (as if their acts were morally neutral).
“Just as in general with in vitro fertilization, of which it is a variety, ICSI is intrinsically illicit: it causes a complete separation between procreation and the conjugal act.”
“It is never permitted to do something which is intrinsically illicit, not even in view of a good result: the end does not justify the means.”
“artificial fertilization, which is itself always intrinsically illicit” (Dignitas Personae)
When artificial procreation is deprived of the marital meaning, the Magisterium nevertheless condemns the separation of the unitive and procreative meanings as an additional sin.
The Magisterium has condemned the separation of the unitive and procreative meanings, regardless of marital state. This teaching is clear on the subjects of artificial procreation, direct sterilization, and contraception. Mirus’ analysis of contraception outside of marriage is incompatible with the magisterial teaching on the basis for the immorality of contraception. The fact that a couple are sinning by depriving their sexual acts of the marital meaning does not allow them to further deprive their sexual acts of the unitive or procreative meanings without further sin. Also, the Magisterium has in fact taught that the use of contraception outside of marriage is gravely immoral. Therefore, Jeff Mirus’ position on contraception, which he claims is the teaching of the Church, is directly contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium and is a grave doctrinal error.
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator
For more on the topic of Catholic moral theology and contraception, see my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics