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Question Corner: The end does not justify the means: Why the Catholic Church opposes contraception

Jenna Marie Cooper writes Question Corner for OSV News (OSV photo)

Q: A Catholic doctor who has to prescribe birth control pills as part of his job does not agree with the church’s teaching on contraception. He says the Bible does not talk about contraception. If contraception is stopped completely, abortions will go through the roof. Doesn’t it make sense for Third World countries to use contraceptives rather than deal with numerous single moms who cannot afford to raise children?

A: It looks like we could break your question down into three distinct but interrelated ones.

First, although birth control is not explicitly forbidden in the Bible, there are a few passages in Scripture which strongly suggest the sinfulness of contraception. For example, Gn 38:8-10 gives an account of how Onan was punished by God for engaging in non-fruitful intercourse. And in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he condemns “pharmakeia.” (see Gal 5:20). “Pharmakeia” is Greek work often translated as “sorcery,” but it is also the root of our English word “pharmacy” and in a literal sense can refer to the administration of drugs. So there is some thought that St. Paul might have intended to condemn the use of whatever drugs, herbs, or chemicals the ancient world would have used for contraceptive purposes.

We as Catholics look not only to Scripture for moral guidance, but also to the authoritative teaching of the church’s magisterium, i.e. the teaching authority of the pope together with the bishops throughout the world, in harmony with the church’s sacred traditions.

We need to keep in mind that most of today’s usual contraceptive methods are a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. Therefore, logically we would need to turn to more recent church documents to address those birth control methods which have come about as a result of the modern technology of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. One excellent place to start is Pope Paul VI’s 1968 Encyclical letter “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”).

In addition to restating the church’s traditional teaching on contraception, Paul VI also reflects on some of the societal consequences of widespread artificial contraceptive use, noting that among other things: “A man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection” (“Humanae Vitae” 17).

Reflecting on your second question, it does not automatically follow that less or no artificial contraception usage will cause a great increase in abortions. The core of the church’s teaching on contraception is, essentially, respect for not only the sacredness of the marital act but also for women and their capacity to conceive and bear new life. Contraception promotes a less reverential attitude toward sexuality which leads to casual sexual encounters; and it is the increase in casual sex which actually fosters the conditions for unexpected pregnancies at risk for abortion.

To your third point, we need to respect the dignity of those in developing nations and to be careful about inappropriately judging their needs according to our own cultural lens. Adults in developing nations are just as capable of chastity and self-control as those of us in the first world. There is no reason to assume that a cultural love of large families is a problem, let alone a “problem” that could or should be “fixed” by ready access to artificial contraception.

Finally, it’s always good to keep in mind that in Catholic moral teaching, we do not believe that the “end justifies the means.” The church teaches that deliberately and purposefully seeking to separate the procreative and unitive aspects of the marital act is intrinsically wrong. Even if artificial contraception was a real solution to the practical issues you mention, this would not be an argument in favor of its morality.

Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to CatholicQA@osv.com.