On Cooperation with a Contracepting Spouse

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. [48]”

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.

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

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15 Responses to On Cooperation with a Contracepting Spouse

  1. Matt Z. says:

    I knew about the Vademecum but I did not know about each specific case. This is an important post. This clears up alot of errors I had regarding this topic. Thanks!

    What is your opinion on this: In the Creighton Model of NFP(Pope Paul VI Institute) the wife is recommended to basically use her pelvic muscles to dispel any semen as early as 5 minutes after marital relations. They say this is healthy for the woman. The Pope Paul VI Institute claims that scientifically the semen has already run its course after a few minutes after intercourse. I am not a scientist or doctor but after doing the a little research it takes atleast 10 minutes(don’t quote me on that time, I did this research a while ago)if sperm were to be at the base of the vagina to reach the uterus. Would this act of dispelling semen be contraceptive?

  2. Matt Z. says:

    I’m pretty sure its in their books. They call it “bearing down.” It was taught by our instructor. I called Pope Paul Institute and talked to sister who assured me scientifically that all the sperm are gone or have died within 5 minutes after intercourse.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Medically, sperm can survive up to 5 or 6 days. We know this because conception can occur when ovulation follows intercourse by up to that length of time. So it is absurd to claim that the sperm have died within 5 minutes.

      I found a reference here:
      stating that 20 to 30 minutes after intercourse, the woman can use bearing down to expel the seminal fluid that is near the exterior of her body. This is done to prevent confusion in evaluating the mucus, and evaluation used for charting fertility. I think this is not contraceptive, since that fluid, in that location, is not likely to cause conception.

  3. Matt Z. says:

    Whats talked about in that Marquette website, and what you are talking about(bearing down), is exactly what the Creighton Model is referring to. They state that not expelling the fluid would cause confusion in mucus, is uncomfortable, and can lead to infection Although the instructors and sister for the Creighton model said 5 minutes was long enough to wait. I say at least 20 to 30 minutes. Although Im still a little doubtful about this since you never know, what if there is sperm that is waiting around in that area that still has a chance to conceive. It may not be likely but I wonder if its possible.

  4. John Platts says:

    There are cases where married women take birth control pills without telling their husbands, and there are cases where married men engage in natural marital relations while not knowing that their wives are taking the birth control pill. Is a married man who engages in natural marital relations with his wife morally culpable for his wife’s use of abortifacient contraception under the circumstances that the married man himself is open to life, that the married man did not engage in any unnatural sexual acts, and that his wife taking using the birth control pill without his knowledge?

  5. Tom Mazanec says:

    Are sexual acts which are incapable of reproduction worse sins than sexual sins capable of reproduction? I heard somewhere that Thomas Aquinas taught that masturbation is a much graver sin than rape, for example. Is this true?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Are sexual acts which are incapable of reproduction worse sins than sexual sins capable of reproduction?
      That is not the basis for deciding the gravity of the sin.
      I heard somewhere that Thomas Aquinas taught that masturbation is a much graver sin than rape, for example. Is this true?
      No, it is not true. Aquinas lists masturbation as the least sinful of the (still mortal) sins on “the parts of lust”, Summa Theological, II-II, Q 154, article 12, reply to objection 4

  6. Anonymous says:

    My wife had a tubal litigation. Essure, at the age of 40, after she had our three children, and four miscarriages inbetween them. One of our children is quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. She nearly died after two of the children were born due to severe excessive bleeding and emergency surgeries.The four miscarriages were very depressing. After much emotional discussion of not having anymore children we consulted a Catholic Priest before the Essure procedure and he told us that “we will not go to Hell” as he put it. He seemed compassionate about our circumstances and difficult pregnancies. I am still bothered by it though. We have marital relations but I can’t help but feel that we are committing a gravely immoral sin even though the Priest said it was fine. I can’t imagine telling my wife now to reverse the procedure and be open to life. She would probably kick me out of the house.

    • Ron Conte says:

      That procedure is a form of direct sterilization, so it was an objectively grave sin. However, having sex at this point in time is not necessarily sinful. The sin is a past act. Ideally, you should both go to confession, repentant from that sin, and then you have have marital relations without sin. If only you are repentant, then go to Confession, and you can morally have marital relations with your wife. That past sin might not have been an actual mortal sin, since you were incorrectly advised and therefore did not have full knowledge. And a reversal procedure is not necessarily morally required.

  7. Matt Z. says:

    In this post you talk about the sin of Onan(withdrawal) for a man but could the woman sin in this way as well? Here are 3 examples:

    1)The husband does not want to contracept but he has a grave reason to have marital relations with his wife. His wife wants him to commit the sin of Onan, otherwise she will not have relations with him. Does the husband have to comply? (I know the answer is no, but just for the sake of discussion.)

    2)Same as 1 but the husband doesnt do what the wife asks of him, and continues to climax inside the wife. Would this be a sin of rape?

    3)There is grave reason for a husband to have marital relations with his wife. His wife tells him she will withdraw. At the moment of climax for the man, the woman pushes the man off of him, or withdraws herself.

    • Ron Conte says:

      1. If she is unwilling to have sex unless he agrees to withdrawal, then he cannot agree as it is a sin, and he cannot have sex and refuse to withdraw, since she did not agree to that sexual act.
      2. Yes, I think it would be morally a type of rape, since she did not agree to natural intercourse.
      3. She would be sinning, in this way. I don’t think it is practical for her to do this without his consent, and she might not know when to withdraw. And, no, the husband cannot tolerate this behavior, as the wife may tolerate it in the case of the husband. The reason is that the husband has authority over his wife, but not she over him. And also, she cannot know when to withdraw without some participation from him, in revealing the timing to her.

  8. Matt Z. says:

    Wonderful answers, thanks!

  9. Dora says:

    Is anyone noticing a pattern where among the grave sins, the one that allows for the easiest (most hedonistic?) life is the most easily forgiven? This is not meant in any way to judge Anonymous above, but his wife can get sterilized but doesn’t have to reverse it and they can enjoy sex. Yet when a man practices “mere” withdrawal, his wife is sentenced to a life of nagging him about it. Trust me, what she sees as charitable coaxing might be rejected to such a degree as to destroy their marriage. If that is the case, I think the wife is off the hook if she tries this, but then sees the writing on the wall and it JEOPARDIZES their CHILDREN. I am unapologetic in stating the welfare of children must be part of any decision that puts the family unit in jeopardy. Anything that does not consider their welfare comes directly from the Pharisees. (Note: an abortifacient rises to the level of murder, so it doesn’t fit into my argument)

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