Catholic Teaching on Contraception: a Summary

There are three fonts (sources) of morality:

(1) intention – the intended end or purpose for which the act was chosen, by the subject.
(2) moral object – the immediate end toward with the act is inherently directed, by the nature of the act.
(3) circumstances – the good and bad consequences of the act, as these could be reasonably anticipated at the time that the act was chosen.

All three fonts must be good for an act to be moral. If any one or more fonts is bad, the act is an objective sin, and the knowing deliberate choice of such an objectively immoral act is an actual sin.

1. The use of contraception is intrinsically evil.

Pope Pius XI: “Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.” (Casti Connubii, n. 54)

Pope Paul VI: “Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.” (Humanae Vitae, n. 14)

Pontifical Council for the Family: “The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable.” (Vademecum for Confessors, n. 4)

Intrinsically evil acts are inherently morally disordered because the act, by its very nature, is ordered toward an evil proximate end, called the moral object. The moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the act is intrinsically directed. An evil moral object makes the act inherently immoral, in and of itself, apart from intention and circumstances.

2. The use of contraception is always gravely immoral.

Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “Now according to Christian tradition and the Church’s teaching, and as right reason also recognizes, the moral order of sexuality involves such high values of human life that every direct violation of this order is objectively serious.” (Cardinal Seper, CDF, Persona Humana, n. X.)

Some intrinsically evil acts are venial sins; other intrinsically evil acts are mortal sins. All intrinsically evil acts involving a direct violation of the moral order of sexuality (e.g. contraception, pre-marital sex, adultery) are necessarily mortal sins. The values that are offended by this type of sin have a grave moral weight, and so the offense is objectively mortal, not venial. However, an objective mortal sin may be an actual venial sin, if the knowledge or deliberation of the person choosing the act is not full.

3. Neither a good intention, nor dire circumstances, can justify the intrinsically evil act of using contraception.

Intrinsically evil acts are immoral due to the second font of morality, the moral object. The other two fonts, intention and circumstances, cannot change the moral object. Whenever any one font of morality is morally disordered, the act is a sin. Any act with an evil moral object is always immoral, even with the best of intentions, even in the most dire of circumstances.

Pope Pius XI: “But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good.” (Casti Connubii, n. 54)

Pope Pius XII: “Our Predecessor, Pius XI, of happy memory, in his Encyclical Casti Connubii, of December 31, 1930, once again solemnly proclaimed the fundamental law of the conjugal act and conjugal relations: that every attempt of either husband or wife in the performance of the conjugal act or in the development of its natural consequences which aims at depriving it of its inherent force and hinders the procreation of new life is immoral; and that no ‘indication’ or need can convert an act which is intrinsically immoral into a moral and lawful one.” (Address to Midwives)

Pope John Paul II: “In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture…. If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain ‘irremediably’ evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 81)

Pope John Paul II: “Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act, intrinsically evil by virtue of its object, into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 81.)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).” (CCC, n. 2399).

The CCC teaches that legitimate intentions do not justify contraception. Therefore, a medical or therapeutic intention does not make the use of contraceptive somehow moral, nor somehow non-contraceptive. The moral object remains unchanged by a change in intention, and so the act remains intrinsically evil.

4. The use of contraception for a good end, such as to accomplish a medical purpose, does not justify the act.

Pope Paul VI: “Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means.” (Humanae Vitae, n. 14)

Compendium of the Catechism: “What are immoral means of birth control? Every action — for example, direct sterilization or contraception — is intrinsically immoral which (either in anticipation of the conjugal act, in its accomplishment or in the development of its natural consequences) proposes, as an end or as a means, to hinder procreation.” (Compendium, n. 498)

Pope John Paul II: “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 62)

Pope John Paul II: “With regard to intrinsically evil acts, and in reference to contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile, Pope Paul VI teaches: ‘Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8) – in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general’.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 80; inner quote from Humanae Vitae, n. 14).

Notice the distinction, in the above magisterial documents, between the intention of the person (first font: the intended end, the purpose or reason for which the act was chosen), and the intentional, i.e. deliberate, choice of that intrinsically evil act (second font: the essential moral nature of the act itself, as determined by the moral object). Any type of intrinsically evil act is always intentionally chosen; it is always a deliberate act. For sin itself is always a deliberate (intentional) choice of an immoral act. But the intention, in the sense of the intended end or the purpose for which that choice was made, can never justify an act that is inherently evil. Nor can intention or circumstance transform an intrinsically evil act into another type of act, one that is moral.

Pope Paul VI: “On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from — provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.” (Humanae Vitae, n. 15.)

The motive for the use of contraception is the intended end or purpose for which the act is chosen. No such intention (motive, purpose) can justify the intentional choice of an intrinsically evil act. Only an act that is not intrinsically evil, such as a hysterectomy to treat a grave medical disorder, can be moral, even if the consequences of the act include infertility (“a foreseeable impediment to procreation”).

The principle of double effect can never justify an intrinsically evil act, such as the use of contraception. The principle of double effect only justifies an act if all three fonts of morality are good: the intention and the moral object and the moral weight of the consequences. Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. Since contraception is intrinsically evil, it cannot be justified by a medical purpose, nor by difficult circumstances.

Can a married woman take a contraceptive pill for a medical purpose? No, she cannot. The purpose for which an act is chosen cannot justify an intrinsically evil act. She is intentionally choosing an act (taking a particular type of pill) that directly deprives sexual acts of their procreative meaning. Additionally, this type of pill is also an abortifacient. So she is also intentionally choosing an act that is ordered toward the deprivation of life from an innocent human person; this is the type of murder called abortion.

The end of treating a medical disorder does not justify the means, the use of abortifacient contraception. The Magisterium has condemned the use of contraception both as an end, and as a means (Humanae Vitae, n. 14). The Magisterium has condemned direct abortion, both as an end and as a means (Evangelium Vitae, n. 57). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the end does not justify the means.” (CCC, n. 1753).

The above quote from Humanae Vitae n. 15 is often misinterpreted as if it justified the use of abortifacient contraception — thereby justifying both contraception and abortion — merely because the woman or the couple have the intention to treat a medical disorder. Nothing could be further from the truth. No Pope has ever justified contraception, or direct sterilization, or direct abortion for any purpose, medical or otherwise. And the Magisterium specifically teaches that intrinsically evil acts can never be justified by any purpose or circumstance (Evangelium Vitae, n. 62; CCC, n. 1756; Veritatis Splendor, n. 80).

More on this point.

5. The use of contraception is intrinsically evil, regardless of marital state.

Pontifical Council for the Family: “The artificial methods of birth control as well as sterilization do not respect the human person of a woman and man because they eliminate or impede fertility, which is an integral part of the person.” (The Ethical and Pastoral Dimensions of Population Trends, n. 76)

Pope John Paul II: “This is the reason for the intrinsic unlawfulness of contraception: it introduces a substantial limitation into this reciprocal giving, breaking that ‘inseparable connection’ between the two meanings of the conjugal act, the unitive and the procreative, which, as Pope Paul VI pointed out, are written by God himself into the nature of the human being (n. 12).” (Speeches, 27 Feb. 1998)

The basis for the condemnation of contraception is not solely or mainly that it is an offense against marriage, but rather than it is an offense against the “nature of the human being”, the nature of “the human person of a woman and man”. And this offense consists in the separation of the unitive and procreative meanings of sexual acts. Therefore, any act ordered toward the deprivation of the procreative meaning from a sexual act is a contraceptive act, regardless of whether the person is married or single.

Pope Pius XI: “Small wonder, therefore, if Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death. 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.’ ” (St. Augustine, De Adulterinis Coniugiis, Book II, n. 12; Genesis 38:8-10)

The wording used by Saint Augustine and quoted by the Pontiff is this: “even with one’s legitimate wife”. By this wording, Augustine is condemning contraception both outside of marriage and within marriage. He is saying that contraception is still immoral, even within marriage, which implies that it is also immoral outside of marriage. And Pope Pius XI quotes him on this point without any disagreement, correction, or qualification. Then Pope Pius states that this teaching against contraception is an “uninterrupted Christian tradition,” implying that the teaching is also infallible.

And this is why Catholic hospitals are forbidden from dispensing contraception to anyone, regardless of whether they are married or single.

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)

Notice that the above document refers broadly to “the sexual act”, not solely to marital sexual acts. And the definition of contraception used is any act which is, in itself, by its very nature, ordered toward a contraceptive end (this type of end is called the moral object). Catholic hospitals are “absolutely forbidden” from dispensing contraception, regardless of intention or circumstances or marital state.

More on the point that contraception is immoral regardless of marital state.

And here is a refutation of the false claim that the Latin text of Humanae Vitae implies that contraception is only condemned by the Magisterium when used within marriage.

6. Some types of contraception are also abortifacients.

Pope John Paul II: “The close connection which exists, in mentality, between the practice of contraception and that of abortion is becoming increasingly obvious. It is being demonstrated in an alarming way by the development of chemical products, intrauterine devices and vaccines which, distributed with the same ease as contraceptives, really act as abortifacients in the very early stages of the development of the life of the new human being.” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 13.)

The knowing and deliberate choice of abortifacient is the grave sin of contraception and the more grave sin of direct abortion. Women who take abortifacient contraception are choosing to abort their own children, in order to have sex without consequences.

7. Abortion is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

Pope John Paul II: “Given such unanimity in the doctrinal and disciplinary tradition of the Church, Paul VI was able to declare that this tradition is unchanged and unchangeable. Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops-who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine-I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

“No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 62.)

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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