The amount of hostility directed at Humanae Vitae has
been so great that most people are astonished when they first learn that contraception has
not been a hotly debated issue since the very beginnings of the Church. All
Christian churches were united in their opposition to contraception until as recently as
the early decades of this century. It was not until 1930 that the Anglican Church went on
record as saying that contraception was permissible, for grave reasons, within marriage.
It was also at this time, however, that Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Casti
Connubii, generally translated as "On Christian Marriage," in which he
reiterated what has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church: contraception is
One might assume that there has been a continuing dispute since the 1930s, but there
has not been. Surveys of this period indicate that as many as 65% of Catholics in the US
were living in accord with the Church's teaching, as late as the early sixties. A book
entitled Contraception, written by John Noonan, provides a comprehensive history of
the Church's teaching against contraception. It clearly documents that the Church has been
"clear and constant" in its position on contraception, throughout the whole
history of the Church.
The first clamoring for change appeared in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the
widespread availability of the birth control pill. Some Catholic theologians began to
think that the pill might be a legitimate form of birth control for Catholics because,
unlike other kinds of birth control, it did not break the integrity of the sexual act.
This was the very first attempt within the Church to argue that contraception might be
morally permissible. Meanwhile, in the political and social realms, there were perceptions
of a population problem and growing sentiments that it would be inhumane for the Church to
continue with a "policy" that promoted large families. Feminism had also begun
to make itself felt with its demand that women be given full and equal access to
employment and the political process. Feminists argued that having children had been a
hindrance to such opportunities in the past, and that contraception not having
children would enhance access to careers and thus be a great boon for women. These
were the developing pressures on the Church to reconsider its teaching regarding
Pope John XXIII set up a commission of six theologians to advise him on these issues.
Pope Paul VI took over the commission when John XXIII died and began adding new members
with expertise from different fields, including married couples. The majority of the
commission voted that the Church should change its teaching. A minority on the
commission argued that the Church not only should not but could not change
its teaching regarding contraception because this was a matter of God's law and not man's
law, and there was no way that the Church or anyone else could declare it morally
The report of this vote and its recommendation, as well as all of the other records of
the commission were, of course, to be kept strictly confidential, intended for the eyes of
Pope Paul VI alone. They were meant to advise and assist him in the writing of a formal
document. The commission finished its work in 1966. In 1967, the commission's records,
including the report on its recommendation, were leaked to both The Tablet in
London and to The National Catholic Reporter in the United States.
Interested parties had known about the commission and had been waiting for several
years for the Church to make a decision. There had been an incredible proliferation of
articles on the subject of contraception between 1963 and 1967, most of them favoring it.
For instance, there was a book written by an Archbishop during these years under the title
Contraception and Holiness, a text consisting of articles by married couples and
others promoting the practice of contraception. The commission reports were undoubtedly
leaked to fan these fires and they did, in fact, heighten the expectations of those
desiring a change.
When Humanae Vitae was released in July, 1968, it went off like a bomb. Though
there was much support for the encyclical, no document ever met with as much dissent, led
to a great extent by Fr. Charles Curran and Fr. Bernard Haering.
It was a historic and pivotal moment in Church history. Dissent became the coin of the
day. This had not been true prior to Humanae Vitae. Dissenting theologians had
never before made such a public display of their opposition on any given issue. The open
dissent to Humanae Vitae is a real watershed in the history of the Church. One can
view the phenomenon as either a crystallization of something that had been bubbling under
the surface for some time, or as catalyst for everything that was yet to come. Soon
theologians and eventually lay people were dissenting not only about contraception but
also about homosexuality, masturbation, adultery, divorce and many other issues.
In spite of the dissent and in spite of widespread use of contraception among
Catholics, the Church continually reiterates its opposition to contraception as a great
moral wrong; Pope John Paul II has made opposition to contraception one of the
cornerstones of his pontificate and has written and spoken extensively on the topic.
I think the experience of the last many decades has revealed that the Church has been
very wise in its continual affirmation of this teaching for we have begun to see that
contraception leads to many vicious wrongs in society; it facilitates the sexual
revolution which leads to much unwanted pregnancy and abortion. It has made women much
more open to sexual exploitation by men. In fact, Humanae Vitae predicted a general
lowering of morality should contraception become widely available and I think it is
manifest that ours is a period of very low moralitymuch of it in the sexual realm.
There is little need here to provide a full set of statistics to demonstrate the
consequences of the sexual revolution, for who is not familiar with the epidemic in
teenage pregnancies, venereal diseases, divorces, AIDS, etc.?
Western society has undergone a rapid transformation in terms of sexual behavior and
few would argue that it is for the better. For instance, only ten years ago the divorce
rate was one out of three marriages; now one out of two marriages end in divorce. Only ten
years ago four out of ten teenagers were sexually active; now it is six out of ten.
Twenty-two percent of white babies are born out of wedlock; sixty-seven percent of
African-American babies are born out of wedlock. The millions of abortions over the last
decade and the phenomenal spread of AIDS alone indicate that we have serious problems with
sexuality. The statistics of ten years ago were bad enough; many thought things could
hardly get worse as did many twenty years ago, and thirty years ago. In the last
generation the incidence of sexual activity outside of marriage and all the attendant
problems have doubled and tripled or worse. We have no particular reason to believe
that we have seen the peak of the growth in sexually related problems.
Statistics do not really capture the pervasive ills attendant upon sexual immorality.
Premature and promiscuous sexuality prevent many from establishing good marriages and a
good family life. Few deny that a healthy sexuality and a strong family life are among the
most necessary elements for human happiness and well-being. It is well attested that
strong and secure families are less likely to have problems with alcohol, sex, and drugs;
they produce individuals more likely to be free from crippling neuroses and psychoses.
Since healthy individuals are not preoccupied with their own problems, they are able to be
strong leaders; they are prepared to tackle the problems of society. While many single
parents do a worthy and valiant job of raising their children, it remains sadly true that
children from broken homes grow up to be adults with a greater propensity for crime, with
a greater tendency to engage in alcohol and drug abuse, with a greater susceptibility to
The Church, however, does not condemn the use of contraception because it is an act
that has bad consequences. Rather, it teaches that since contraception is an intrinsically
evil action, it is predictable that it will have bad consequences. The Church teaches that
contraception is evil because it violates the very purpose and nature of the human sexual
act, and therefore violates the dignity of the human person. The experience of the last
several decades has simply served to reinforce the wisdom of the Church's teaching. But it
is not only on a practical level that we have a better understanding of the Church's
teaching; our theoretical understanding has also been much advanced. Often if happens that
the Church does not know very fully the reasons for what it teaches until it is
challenged. The Church's condemnation of contraception went unchallenged for centuries. In
attempting to explain its condemnation, the Church has deepened its understanding of
marriage and the meaning of the sexual act. Again, John Paul II, with his claim that the
sexual act signifies total self-giving and his insight that contraception diminishes that
self-giving, has made an enormous contribution to our understanding of the evil of
As we consider the reasons why contraception is evil, let us first consult a few Church
statements that suggest the strength of its constant teaching against contraception. Casti
No reason, however grave, may be put forward by which
anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good.
Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of
children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose,
sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.
Any use whatsoever of matrimony, exercised in such a way that
the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense
against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the
guilt of a grave sin.
Humanae Vitae puts it this way:
But the Church, which interprets natural law through its
unchanging doctrine, reminds men and women that the teachings based on natural law must be
obeyed, and teaches that it is necessary that each and every conjugal act remain ordained
to the procreating of human life.
Further on it states (¶ 12):
The doctrine which the Magisterium of the Church has
often explicated in this: There is an unbreakable connection between the unitive meaning
and the procreative meaning of the conjugal act, and both are inherent in the conjugal
act. This connection was established by God and cannot be broken by man through his own
The Church condemns contraception since it violates both the procreative and unitive
meanings of the human sexual act. It diminishes an act that by its very nature is full of
weighty meaning, meaning that is unique to the sexual act. To engage in an act of
contracepted sexual intercourse is to engage in an act that has the potential for creating
new life and an act that has the potential for creating tremendous emotional bonds between
male and female and simultaneously to undercut those potentials. Sex is for babies and for
bonding; if people are not ready for babies or bonding they ought not to be engaging in
acts of sexual intercourse.
Our age is quick to express appreciation for the unitive meaning of the sexual act but
has little understanding of the goodness of the procreative meaning of the sexual act. The
modern age tends to treat babies as burdens and not as gifts. It tends to treat fertility
as some dreadful condition that we need to guard against. We often speak of the "fear
of pregnancy" a very curious phrase. A fear of poverty or nuclear holocaust or
tyranny is understandable but why a fear of pregnancy? We speak about "accidental
pregnancies" as if getting pregnant were like getting hit by a car some
terrible accident has happened to us. But the truth is that if a pregnancy results from an
act of sexual intercourse, this means that something has gone right with an act of sexual
intercourse, not that something has gone wrong.
In our society we have lost sight of the fundamental truth that if you are not ready
for babies, you are not ready for sexual intercourse. We have lost sight of the fact that
sexual intercourse, making love, and making babies are inherently connected and for good
reason. In our times, sexual relations are treated casually; no great commitment is
implied in having sexual intercourse with another; babies are treated as an unwelcome
intrusion on the sexual act. The Church opposes this attitude and insists that sexual
intercourse and having children are intimately connected; that sexual intercourse implies
a great commitment, that children are an inherent part of that commitment, and that both
commitment and children are wonderful gifts.
It is good to keep in mind that fertility is a great good: to be fertile is a state of
health for an adult person. It is those among us who are not fertile who need to be helped
and who seek treatment for infertility. Women now take a "pill" to thwart their
fertility, as if fertility were a disease against which we need a cure. Contraception
treats the woman's body as if there were something wrong with it. The use of contraception
suggests that God made a mistake in the way that He designed the body and that we must
correct His error. In an age where we have become very wary of dumping pollutants into the
environment it is ironic that we are so willing to dump pollutants into our bodies. The
health risks of contraception to women are considerable take a look at the insert
pages in any package of the pill. The IUD is currently off the market because of so many
lawsuits against manufacturers. Why do women expose themselves to such risks when natural
methods of family planning are both safe and effective?
Let us not fail to mention that many forms of contraception are abortifacients; they
work by causing an early term abortion. Rather than inhibiting ovulation, they work by
preventing the fertilized egg, the tiny new human being, from implanting in the wall of
the uterus. The IUD works in this fashion as do most forms of the pill (on occasion) and
Norplant. So those who are opposed to abortion and those interested in protecting the
well-being of women would certainly not want to be using these forms of contraception. The
other forms have aesthetic drawbacks or are low on reliability.
Contraception, then, enters a note of tremendous negation into the act of sexual
intercourse. But lovemaking should be a most wonderful act of affirmation, a
tremendous "yes" to another person, a way of conveying to another that he
or she is wonderful, and completely accepted; this is conveyed by making a total gift of
one's self to another. The contracepting lover says I want to give myself to you but not
to the extent of sharing my fertility with you; I want you but not your sperm (or your
Just think of the words for contraception. Contraception means "against the
beginning" here against the beginning of a new life. So a contracepting couple
is participating in an act that is designed to bring about new life and they are acting
against that new life. Or they put their barrier methods in place for
"protection": as if they were making war, not love. Or they use a spermicide
to kill the sperm. This is an act of love?
But we forget what a marvelous thing it is to be able to bring forth a new human being.
God chooses to bring forth new human life through the love of spouses. The entire world
was created for us and for others like us. God wishes to share His creation with new human
souls, and brings new souls into the world through the love of men and women for each
other. God created the world as an act of love, and the bringing forth of new human life
is, quite appropriately, the product of another kind of loving act. When a man and women
have a child together, it's an act that changes the cosmos: something has come into
existence that will never pass out of existence; each soul is immortal and is destined for
And whenever a new human life comes into existence, God performs an entirely new act of
creation, for only God can create an immortal soul. In sexual intercourse, spouses provide
God with an opportunity to perform His creative act. As the first line of Humanae Vitae
states, God gives spouses the mission (munus) of transmitting human life to
spouses. Contraception says no to God; it says those using it want to have the wonderful
physical pleasure of sex but do not want to allow God to perform His creative act.
But contraception is wrong not only because it violates the procreative meaning of the
sexual act but also because it violates the unitive meaning of the sexual act. Pope John
Paul II has been most energetic in explaining how couples do not achieve true spousal
union in sexual intercourse when they use contraception. He explains that the sexual act
is meant to be an act of total self-giving and that in withholding their fertility from
one another spouses are not giving totally of themselves. He has developed an interesting
line of argument where he speaks of the "language of the body." He claims bodily
actions have meanings much as words do and that unless we intend those meanings with our
actions we should not perform them any more than we should speak words we don't mean. In
both cases, lies are being "spoken."
Sexual union has a well-recognized meaning; it means "I find you attractive";
"I care for you"; " I will try to work for your happiness"; "I
wish to have a deep bond with you." Some who engage in sexual intercourse do not mean
these things with their actions; they wish simply to use another for their own sexual
pleasure. They have lied with their bodies in the same way as someone lies who says
"I love you" to another simply for the purposes of obtaining some favor from him
It is easy for us to want to have sexual intercourse with lots of people; but we
generally want to have babies with only one person. One is saying something entirely
different with one's body when one says "I want only to have sexual pleasure with
you" and when one says "I am willing to be a parent with you." In fact, one
of the most certain ways to distinguish simple sexual attraction from love is to think
about whether all you want from another person is sexual pleasure, or whether you would
like to have a baby with him or her. We generally are truly in love with those with whom
we want to have babies; we do want our lives totally tied up with theirs. We want to
become one with them in the way in which having a baby makes us one with another
our whole lives are intertwined with theirs; we buy diapers with them, and give birthday
parties, and pay for college and plan weddings. A noncontracepted act of sexual
intercourse says again just what our marriage vows say "I am yours for better or
worse, in sickness and health, till death do us part." Having babies with another is
to share a lifetime endeavor with another.
A sexual act open to the possibility of procreation ideally represents the kind of bond
to which spouses have committed themselves. Contraceptives, however, convey the message
that while sexual intercourse is desired, there is no desire for a permanent bond with the
other person. The possibility of an everlasting bond has been willfully removed from the
very act designed to best express the desire for such a relationship. It reduces the
sexual act to a lie.
Contraception, then, is an offense against one's body, against one's God, and against
one's relationship with one's spouse.
But must spouses have as many children as is physically possible? This has never been
the teaching of the Church. Spouses are expected to be responsible about their
child-bearing, to bring forth children that they can raise well. But the means used to
limit family size must be moral. Methods of Natural Family Planning are very effective
means and moral means for planning one's family; for helping spouses to get pregnant when
they want to have a child and for helping them to avoid having a child when it would not
be responsible to have a child. NFP allows couples to respect their bodies, obey their
God, and fully respect their spouses.
Natural Family Planning is not the outmoded rhythm method, a method which was based on
the calendar. Rather, NFP is a highly scientific way of determining when a woman is
fertile based on observing various bodily signs. The couple who want to avoid a pregnancy,
abstain from sexual intercourse during the fertile period. The statistics on the
reliability of NFP rival the most effective forms of the Pill. And NFP is without the
health risks and it is moral.
Couples using NFP find that it has positive results for their marital relationships and
their relationship with God. When couples are abstaining during the fertile period they
are not thwarting the act of sexual intercourse since they are not engaging in sexual
intercourse. When they are engaging in sexual intercourse during the infertile period they
are not withholding their fertility since they do not have it to give at that time. They
learn to live in accord with the natural rhythms of their body. In a word, use of NFP may
involve non-procreative acts, but never, as with contraception, antiprocreative acts.
Many find it odd that periodic abstinence should be beneficial rather than harmful to a
marriage. But abstinence can be another way of expressing love, as it is between those who
are not married, or between those for whom engaging in sexual intercourse involves a
significant risk. Certainly most who begin to use NFP, especially those who were not
chaste before marriage and who have used contraception, generally find the abstinence
required to be a source of some strain and irritability. Abstinence, of course, like
dieting or any form of self-restraint, brings its hardships; but like dieting and other
forms of self-denial, it also brings its benefits. And after all, spouses abstain for all
sorts of reasons because one or the other is out of town or ill, for instance.
Spouses using NFP find that the method helps them learn to communicate better with each
other and abstinence gives them the opportunity to do so. As they learn to
communicate their affection in non-genital ways and as they learn to master their sexual
desires, they find a new liberation in the ability to abstain from sexual intercourse.
Many find that an element of romance reenters the relationship during the times of
abstinence and an element of excitement accompanies the reuniting. They have gained the
virtue of self-mastery since now they can control their sexual desires rather than being
in control of their sexual desires. Women using NFP generally feel revered by their
husbands since their husbands do not make them use unhealthy and unpleasant
contraceptives. Men using NFP generally have greater self-respect since they have gained
control over their sexual desires and can now engage in sexual intercourse as an act of
love not as an act of mere sexual urgency. A proof that NFP is good for a marriage is that
whereas in the U.S. over fifty percent of marriages end in divorce (and it is safe to
assume that most of these couples are contracepting), very, very few couples who use NFP
ever divorce; they seem to bond in a deeper way than those who are contracepting.
The Church condemns contraception not because it wants to deny spouses sexual pleasure
but because it wants to help them find marital happiness and to help them have happy homes
for without these our well being as individuals and as a society is greatly endangered.
Section 18 of Humanae Vitae states:
[I]t is not surprising that the Church finds herself a
sign of contradictionjust as was Christ, her Founder. But this is not reason for
the Church to abandon the duty entrusted to her of preaching the moral law firmly and
humbly, both the natural law and the law of the Gospel.
Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she
cannot change them. She can only be their guardian and interpreter; thus it would never be
right for her to declare as morally permissible that which is truly not so. For what is
immoral is by its very nature always opposed to the true good of Man.
By preserving the whole moral law of marriage, the Church
knows that she is supporting the growth of a true civilization among men.
teaching that contraception is intrinsically immoral, the Church is not imposing a
disciplinary law on Catholics; she is preaching only what nature and the gospel preach. By
now we should have learned
the hard way
that to defy and overindulge our sexual nature, to go against the laws of nature and God,
is to inflict terrible damage on ourselves as individuals and our society as a whole.
Janet Smith is
Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dallas.
Copyright 2000 Janet Smith. All