Conservative Sources which distort Humanae Vitae

The claim that contraception is only condemned by the Church as intrinsically evil and gravely immoral when it is used within marriage is finding increasing acceptance among conservative Catholics. Examples follow.

LifeSiteNews promotes this error:

“The marital act is and must always remain open to new life, therefore the union of spouses through conjugal love must never be deliberately closed to life or love…. Contraceptive intercourse involves a choice against the possibility of new life so as to prevent pregnancy. It deliberately makes infertile a sexual act within marriage that should be fertile. The couple who freely and knowingly does this commits a mortal sin.” []

And here is another example:

“The eighth and final encyclical of Blessed Pope Paul VI restated the Church’s eternal teaching that married couples must be open to life in every marital act and that any act or omission intended to prevent conception is morally wrong.” []

In his post “About that Humanae Vitae rumor”, Dr. Ed Peters makes the same claim:

“In my opinion the central teaching in Humanae vitae—that contraception between married couples (both terms being correctly understood) is intrinsically evil—is a proposition infallibly taught by the (ordinary universal) magisterium of the Church.”

“What one could imagine being discussed hereabouts is whether the rejection of contraception set forth (I would say, infallibly) in regard to conjugal relations is applicable to non-conjugal relations.” [CanonLawBlog]

And he repeats the claim in his post “Misunderstanding the (alleged) ‘Congo contraception’ case”. What is the source of Peters’ misunderstanding on contraception? It might be Dr. Janet E. Smith, who has been promoting this restricted definition of contraception for some time now.

“The Church teaches that acts of contraception are always against the plan of God for human sexuality, since God intended that each and every act of spousal intercourse express both the intention to make a complete, unitive gift of one’s self to one’s spouse and the willingness to be a parent with one’s spouse. These meanings of the spousal act are, as Humanae Vitae stated, inseparable.” []

And yet the Church does not teach this limitation, that contraception is only condemned, or that it is only really contraception, properly defined, within marriage. The condemnation of contraception in Catholic hospitals and the similar condemnation — often in the same sentence — of sterilization, regardless of marital state, clearly indicates that the limitation is false.

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.” []

Yet the Magisterium has never made these types of assertions: “contraception is intrinsically evil only within marriage.” It is a false and baseless claim made by an increasing number of conservative Catholics, without a theological argument or a basis in magisterial documents. Here is my refutation of Mirus’ claims.

Jimmy Akin’s position on contraception is even worse. He limits Church teaching on contraception to within marriage, but he also justifies its use in marriage, in many cases.

“I’ve boldfaced the phrase “conjugal act” because it’s the key to understand what is being said. Many gloss over this phrase and assume it means “sexual act.” It doesn’t. “Conjugal” — like its Latin equivalent, coniugale — doesn’t mean “sexual”; it means “marital.”

“What the Church — in Humanae Vitae and the Catechism — has done is say that one cannot deliberately frustrate the procreative aspect of sexual intercourse between man and wife.

“It thus would rule out the use of a condom to prevent a husband and wife from conceiving a child, but that doesn’t address condom use in other situations. Thus far the Church has not explored the question of condom use — or other, typically contraceptive acts — in cases outside of marriage.” []

By the way, Akin’s claim that the use of the Latin “conjug-” (with various Latin endings) indicates the restriction of the teaching to marriage is false. First of all, the encyclical Casti Connubii has three different uses of the same Latin word to refer to different types of sexual unions outside of marriage, including adulterous unions, base unions, and haphazard unions. So the term is not limited to marriage. Furthermore, some Latin magisterial documents do not use any form of that Latin word, nor do they refer to marriage at all:

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)

Contraception outside marriage is just as immoral as sterilization outside of marriage, for much the same reason: they “impede the natural result of the sexual act [actuum sexualium]”. Notice that the word conjugal is not used in any form.

The conservative “National Catholic Register” carried the gravely erroneous article quoted above from Akin. And this article, making a similar claim:

“The Church insists that marital acts be unitive and open to life.” []

And another article from NCRegister contains this alarming assertion by Janet E. Smith:

” ‘I am quite certain that the vast majority of seminaries are now teaching the seminarians to explain the incompatibility of contraception with marital [acts],’ she said, adding that many seminarians are ‘very eager to learn Church teaching and how to convey it.’ ” []

Now, over at Crisis Magazine, one of their authors proposes a different error: “A second and starker moral problem with contraception is that it makes a couple’s sex non-marital.” [Sherif Girgis] There is no such teaching of the Church.

Natural marital relations open to life has three goods in the object of the act, the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings. Contraception deprives the moral object of the procreative meaning, making the object of the act evil, and the act itself intrinsically evil. When any of those three objects is deprived, by the deliberate knowing choice of a human person, then the other two meanings are harmed. But they are not absent.

A married couple who use contraception are not committing the same sins as an unmarried couple who use contraception. The former have the marital and unitive meanings, but not the procreative; the latter have only the unitive meaning, and not the marital or procreative. So the latter act is more thoroughly disordered.

This point is clear from 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.’ ” The person who has relations with a harlot commit an act that is non-marital, and therefore sinful. Yet the Apostle states that the unitive meaning is still present. It is harmed, certainly, by the lack of the marital meaning. But the deprivation of any one or two meanings, harms, but does not extinguish completely, the remaining meaning(s).

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

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2 Responses to Conservative Sources which distort Humanae Vitae

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    including adulterous unions, base unions, and haphazard unions.
    Adulterous I get, but what are base and haphazard unions?

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