Contraception Controversy: the unitive meaning

Sinful secular society not only approves of contraception as if it were moral, but also promotes contraception as if it were a moral obligation. More recently, some persons have begun to proclaim that contraception is a right, one that must be provided for as part of basic health care to all women. (They don’t say men and women, but only women, for some reason.)

Meanwhile, during this vicious moral assault on the Church, Her teachings, and Her members, an assault that particularly targets faithful Catholic women, many false teachers have risen up within the Church teaching many doctrinal errors on the topic of contraception. So the faithful who wish to live a life pleasing to God are assailed on all sides, from persons outside the Church, and from persons within the Church.

In conjunction with the release of my new book, Roman Catholic Teaching on Abortion and Contraception, I intend to offer my readers a set of posts discussing and refuting these false teachings. This first post is on the topic of the unitive meaning and contraception. Portions of each article are taken from that book, with additional commentary.

A False Teaching

To claim that contracepted marital relations is neither unitive, nor procreative, is to reject the infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium concerning the reason that contraception is immoral. And yet a number of Catholic authors have made such a claim.

On his blog, prolific teacher of heresy Jimmy Akin claims that the use of condoms by a married couple makes the act neither unitive, nor procreative. Here’s one example of this assertion. Akin’s error is arrived at by his usual methodology, which is to consult his own mind, and ignore many different magisterial sources. What does the Magisterium say on this point? Read on.

Unitive or Not?

When a married couple have contracepted sexual relations, the act is deprived of the procreative meaning in its moral object, making the act intrinsically evil and a grave sin. Contracepted sexual relations is a non-procreative sexual act. But is the act also non-unitive? Some foolish commentators have claimed that the use of contraception also deprives sexual relations of the unitive meaning, as if contracepted sexual relations is neither unitive, nor procreative. But the Magisterium says otherwise.

Pope Paul VI: “This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.” (Humanae Vitae, n. 12)

Pope John Paul II: “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 act as ‘arbiters’ of the divine plan and they ‘manipulate’ and degrade human sexuality — and with it themselves and their married partner — by altering its value of ‘total’ self-giving.” (Familiaris Consortio, n. 32)

Why does the Magisterium often speak of the “separation” of the unitive and procreative meanings when condemning contraception? It is because a contracepted sexual act between spouses is marital and unitive, but not procreative. If contracepted marital relations were neither, then the unitive and procreative meanings would not be separated; they would be present in one act (natural marital relations open to life) and absent from the other act (contracepted sexual relations). The term ‘separated’ necessarily implies that the contracepted sexual acts remain unitive, while being deprived of the procreative meaning.

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “Contraception deliberately deprives the conjugal act of its openness to procreation and in this way brings about a voluntary dissociation of the ends of marriage.” (Donum Vitae, n. 4 a.)

The use of contraception is intrinsically evil because it is the deliberate choice of a type of act inherently ordered toward a deprivation of the procreative meaning of sexual acts. The deliberate choice to use contraception is the choice of the exterior act, and its inherent moral meaning before God, as determined by the moral object. The ends of marriage and of the marital act include the unitive and procreative meanings. Contraception dissociates these meanings, so that some marital acts have the unitive meaning but not the procreative meaning, and other acts have both.

This is not an open question. It is not a matter of legitimate dispute among the faithful. The Magisterium has a definitive teaching on this question. And in addition to many assertions on the separation of these two meanings (not the absence of both), I should point out to the reader that, in my extensive review of magisterial documents on contraception for my book, I found no magisterial assertion that the unitive meaning was absent in any contracepted sexual acts.

Sacred Scripture also has something to say on this subject:

[1 Corinthians]
{6:16} And do you not know that whoever is joined to a harlot becomes one body? “For the two,” he said, “shall be as one flesh.”

Saint Paul teaches, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that a non-marital sexual act, even with a prostitute, is nevertheless unitive. For the Apostle uses the exact same expression, “one flesh”, used by Genesis, used by Christ in the Gospels, and used by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio (n. 13) all referring to the unitive meaning in marital relations. Therefore, it is proven that the absence of one meaning does not imply the absence of the other meanings. A sexual act can be marital and unitive, but not procreative; or procreative, but not unitive (artificial procreation is in some sense sexual, since it uses the sexual gametes); or unitive, but not marital or procreative; or an act can be neither unitive, nor marital, nor procreative.

To be moral, each and every sexual act must be marital, unitive, and procreative. The absence of any one or more of these three meanings makes the sexual act intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

Beloved children of God, beware of false teachers within the Church.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic moral theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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2 Responses to Contraception Controversy: the unitive meaning

  1. John Platts says:

    Whenever a man and a woman engage in sexual intercourse, the act of sexual intercourse psychologically creates a bond between the man and the woman involved. This type of bonding occurs in natural marital intercourse open to life, contracepted intercourse (whether within marriage or outside of marriage), and procreative sexual intercourse outside of marriage, but a permanent bond is only created during the proper consummation of a validly contracted marriage, and a permanent bond already exists when a married couple who has already consummated their marriage engages in sexual intercourse. I believe that at least some of the contracepting married couples actually intend to bond or unite when they choose to engage in contracepted marital relations, but the intention to bond or unite can never justify contracepted sexual relations because contracepted sexual relations is intrinsically evil. I believe that one reason why contracepted intercourse, natural marital relations, and procreative sexual intercourse outside of marriage are all unitive is because all of these sexual acts create a bond between the man and the woman involved. Is the bonding that occurs in marital sexual acts, contracepted sexual acts, and procreative sexual intercourse outside of marriage part of the “one flesh” reality, unitive nature, or unitive meaning?

    • Ron Conte says:

      No, a psychological bonding is not the unitive meaning. The unitive meaning is natural intercourse, i.e. the natural sexual act between a man and a woman. This act should be accompanied by love, emotions, bonding, etc., etc. But the unitive meaning is in the moral object, not in the intention or circumstances. In other words, the unitive meaning is in the very nature of the act itself, which is the sexual act of natural relations.

      Suppose that a married couple use artificial procreation, and they “bond” over this experience. Does this imply that the unitive meaning is present with artificial procreation? Not at all. The unitive meaning is often misrepresented by various authors. But the Magisterium is clear that the unitive meaning is found in the nature of the act. For all non-unitive sexual acts (or non-unitive procreative acts) are intrinsically evil. They lack a good required by the moral law in their moral object, making the act inherently disordered.

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