Suppose that one spouse in a marriage wishes to use contraception, and the other spouse, following Catholic teaching, wishes to have natural marital relations open to life. Can the couple have sexual relations, if one spouse is committing the sin of contraception?
Case 1. Withdrawal
In the case of the type of contraception called withdrawal (the sin of Onan), the husband and wife begin to have natural marital relations, and then the husband alone acts to deprive the sexual act of its procreative finality. The wife does not commit the sin of contraception in this case. So, according to the principles of cooperation, the wife may have sexual relations with her husband if certain conditions are met, as described in the Church’s Instruction for Confessors (Vademecum).
“13. Special difficulties are presented by cases of cooperation in the sin of a spouse who voluntarily renders the unitive act infecund. In the first place, it is necessary to distinguish cooperation in the proper sense, from violence or unjust imposition on the part of one of the spouses, which the other spouse in fact cannot resist. This cooperation can be licit when the three following conditions are jointly met:
“when the action of the cooperating spouse is not already illicit in itself;
“when proportionally grave reasons exist for cooperating in the sin of the other spouse;
“when one is seeking to help the other spouse to desist from such conduct (patiently, with prayer, charity and dialogue; although not necessarily in that moment, nor on every single occasion).”
If the wife does not want the husband to contracept by means of withdrawal, and if she has tried as much as is practical to dissuade him from this sin, then she may have sexual relations with him, given a proportionately grave reason.
The requirement for a proportionately grave reason means that the couple cannot have sexual relations frequently, since the wife must be reluctant to cooperate in his sin. She can only have sexual relations with him if there is a grave reason, such as to keep the husband from leaving her, or to dissuade his hostility to her faith.
Case 2. Barrier methods of contraception
The first case allows for the possibility of marital relations because the type of contraception is an act solely committed by one spouse, and also because the contraceptive act (withdrawal) leaves the sexual act open to life until the husband commits the sin. So it is immediately apparent that the case of a barrier method of contraception is substantially different. The use of a condom or diaphragm causes the sexual act to be infecund during the entire time of sexual relations. And so the one spouse sins by choosing to use the barrier method of contraception, while the other spouse sins by formal cooperation.
And this is the decision of the Holy Office (the CDF), as stated in Denzinger 2795:
“Can the wife, aware of such “condomistic” union, yield herself passively?
No, she would indeed be engaging in an act that is intrinsically illicit.”
The wife cannot have relations with her husband, if he is using a condom, as the sexual act itself is intrinsically evil. It is contracepted sex, from the very beginning of the act.
Case 3. Abortifacients
Suppose a wife uses the birth control pill, which is abortifacient contraception, or the IUD (which more often works as an abortifacient than a contraceptive). Can the husband have sexual relations with his wife, if he meets the conditions stated in Case 1 above? Absolutely not.
First, this case, as regards the contraceptive effect, is like the second case above. The sexual act is contracepted during the entire time of the act. So the husband sins by choosing to engage in contracepted sexual relations.
Second, this case also involves abortion, as the birth control pill and even more so the IUD, can kill a conceived prenatal. The likelihood of breakthrough ovulation, when a woman uses the BCP, is about 20% per month. This means that the pill has an abortive effect, in all likelihood, up to a few times a year.
The husband sins even more gravely than in the case of a barrier method of contraception, since the sin is greater (the death of innocent life in the womb). This type of sin is formal cooperation with both contraception and abortion, and so his act is intrinsically evil formal cooperation. Of course, her act in choosing to use abortifacient contraception is also very grave and intrinsically evil.
In the circumstances of the act, the bad consequences are very grave, as multiple innocent lives are lost due to the abortive effect. No grave good consequence, such as the possibility that the spouse will depart, outweighs the bad consequences, and so, the act is sinful under the consequences (third font of morality), as well as under the moral object (second font).
The Vademecum (Instruction for Confessors) also states that the case of abortifacients is different from the case of withdrawal.
“14. Furthermore, it is necessary to carefully evaluate the question of cooperation in evil when recourse is made to means which can have an abortifacient effect. ”
Endnote 48: ‘From the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil. Such cooperation occurs when an action, either by its very nature or by the form it takes in a concrete situation, can be defined as a direct participation in an act against innocent human life or a sharing in the immoral intention of the person committing it’ (John Paul II, Enc. Evangelium Vitae, March 25, 1995, n. 74).”
The husband’s act is “a direct participation in an act against innocent human life”, and so his act is formal cooperation with intrinsic evil.
The above moral judgments are not complicated, and should not be a matter of dispute among the faithful. No Catholic should be willing to have sexual relations in a situation where he or she realizes that the sexual act may result in the abortion of the new human life that the act creates. Having sex with your spouse is not so valuable that you should be willing to trade away the lives of your own unborn children to obtain that benefit.
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