Is the Magisterium able to teach on the morality of contraception outside of marriage?

Now here’s a strange claim making the rounds on the internet. The idea is that the Church is unable to tell us if using contraception in sexual acts outside of marriage is moral or immoral. Why? They claim that to decide the question would be equivalent to telling persons committing grave sin (sex outside of marriage), how they should do so (without contraception). This claim is absurd and contrary to magisterial teaching.

The Church has always taught moral truth on every type of question in every area of morality.

Pope John Paul II: “The Church, in her life and teaching, is thus revealed as ‘the pillar and bulwark of the truth’ ( 1 Tim 3:15), including the truth regarding moral action. Indeed, ‘the Church has the right always and everywhere to proclaim moral principles, even in respect of the social order, and to make judgments about any human matter in so far as this is required by fundamental human rights or the salvation of souls’.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 27).

Pope John Paul II: “The Church’s Magisterium intervenes not only in the sphere of faith, but also, and inseparably so, in the sphere of morals. It has the task of “discerning, by means of judgments normative for the consciences of believers, those acts which in themselves conform to the demands of faith and foster their expression in life and those which, on the contrary, because intrinsically evil, are incompatible with such demands”. In proclaiming the commandments of God and the charity of Christ, the Church’s Magisterium also teaches the faithful specific particular precepts and requires that they consider them in conscience as morally binding. In addition, the Magisterium carries out an important work of vigilance, warning the faithful of the presence of possible errors, even merely implicit ones, when their consciences fail to acknowledge the correctness and the truth of the moral norms which the Magisterium teaches.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 110).

The Church teaches that all sexual acts outside of marriage are gravely immoral. Does this imply that the Church is unable to discuss the morality of any acts or elements of an act that occur during extramarital sex? Not at all. For example, the Magisterium teaches that rape is gravely immoral, but that rape of a child is graver still (CCC, n. 2356). In another example, the Magisterium not only condemns artificial procreation, but also condemns various immoral acts that occur as part of the process used to achieve it (see Donum Vitae).

Consider this analogy. Robbery is a crime, but robbery committed with a firearm is a graver crime. Assault is a crime, but aggravated assault is a graver crime. Society, in specifying which acts are crimes and which elements of those acts make the crime more serious, is in no way instructing persons in how to commit crimes. Rather, these types of laws merely express an understanding of the moral order, that some acts are more disordered than other acts, and are more harmful to individuals and society.

Certainly, the Magisterium is able to explore and answer the question of contraceptive use outside of marriage, and every other moral question as well. So when the Church teaches that an act is gravely immoral, such as sex outside of marriage, She in no way excludes Herself from the ability and authority to teach on any elements of that act, or on any associated separate acts, which might increase or decrease the sinfulness of the act.

For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that suicide is gravely immoral (CCC 2280 to 2283). But the same Catechism also teaches on factors that can increase the sinfulness of the act, “If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal,” or decrease its subjective culpability: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”

The CCC also teaches that homosexual acts are “acts of grave depravity” (CCC 2357), clearly indicating by this wording that such acts are not only immoral because they are extra-marital, but also because they are particularly disordered. Thus, homosexual acts (which are always extra-marital) are more gravely immoral than extra-marital heterosexual acts.

The greater the moral disorder, the greater the sin. Sex outside of marriage by two unmarried persons is gravely immoral. But sex outside of marriage is more gravely immoral if one of the persons is married. And the act is graver still if it is rape, rather than consensual sex. The Church is certainly able to say, about any act or set of acts, which factors make an act more gravely immoral.

In the case of contraception, sex outside of marriage with contraception is more gravely immoral than sex outside of marriage without contraception, because in the former case, the sexual act is deprived of both the marital and procreative meanings, whereas in the latter case the act is only deprived of the marital meaning.

But sinful secular society has had so much influence over Catholic teachers today, that they constantly seek a way to approve of contraception, as much as possible.

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

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