“Ask a Priest: What If I’m Stumped by Church Teaching on Contraception?”

Q:  I am Catholic. I love my faith. I truly believe the core teachings of the Church, and I don’t feel like any other sect of Christianity comes close to the same truths that the Catholic Church has. However, my boyfriend has brought about a lot of difficult issues that he finds with Catholic teachings. Recently, I’ve only been totally stumped on the topic of Catholic morals on sex within marriage. His argument is that there is no reason for sex to be reproductive every single time, but that it is also important in the aspect of pleasure because it makes the relationship stronger. He claims that the Church should not support natural family planning because it is the same as actively trying to not have a child by using some sort of birth control. If the Church supports NFP, then why does it matter if a condom is used or not? An argument he heard from a natural-law student was that anything other than reproductive sex is frustrating the natural end of sex, and he argues that it doesn’t frustrate anything. There are also several arguments where couples who are sterile are still allowed to have sex, and that he can’t understand how they’d allow that, because that would specifically be frustrating the natural end. I am finding that the Church’s teaching can be rather wishy-washy in the teaching structure of things like this. I’m not sure what to do. I found a page that says that any sexual intercourse inside of marriage that is not ordered toward procreation is unlawful and sinful. In light of the above arguments I just really don’t know if I can believe that. A follow-up question: Can I still be a good Catholic and receive Communion if I don’t believe this one teaching? I’m really troubled emotionally and spiritually right now. Any help is appreciated. – C.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is understandable that you might find the Church’s teaching in this area puzzling. It is subtle.

But it is well-grounded and deeply profound and aims to protect the integrity of the marital act as God intends it. There is nothing wishy-washy about Church teaching in this area.

First, it is good to point out that not every act of intercourse must lead to pregnancy. Nature builds in bodily cycles in women so that conception is possible only at certain times.

By charting those cycles natural family planning helps couples to achieve or avoid pregnancy. But NFP respects the structure that God built into nature, and thus maintains the integrity of the marital act. There is nothing wrong with a couple abstaining at certain times to avoid pregnancy. (This is assuming that they have serious reasons for doing so.)

NFP is not the same as contraception. Contraception is when the marital act is foiled in such a way as to deliberately close the door to the possibility of life. This can frustrate God’s plans for raising up new life, and it violates the very meaning of the marital act. Let me explain.

The marital act has a twofold dimension: unitive and procreative. The unitive expresses the one-flesh union between spouses. This is something God blesses. This unity is an icon of the inner life of the Trinity. It is an icon of the love within the Trinity, where the divine Persons hold nothing back from each other, that led to the creation of the world.

Any use of a condom or similar type of contraception essentially blocks the one-flesh union. The spouses hold back something of themselves from each other. In effect they don’t give and accept that potentially procreative dimension of each other. Their surrender to each other isn’t total. It’s as though one tells the other, “I want you but not your fertility.”

Now, the procreative side doesn’t mean that only fertile spouses can be intimate. It does mean that when they are intimate, they need to be open to the possibility of pregnancy. They need to be open to allowing God a chance to raise up new life. Thus, even older couples can rightly engage in intercourse after menopause. Their act expresses the one-flesh union, even if the wife is no longer capable of conceiving. That is simply something beyond her control.

Again, couples who are intimate during infertile periods are not contracepting, since the integrity of the marital act is respected; in this case, the spouses simply refrain from it. They are only taking advantage of the infertile periods that God has written into the human body.

People who have written a lot on theology of the body and NFP and contraception include Janet E. Smith and Christopher West. You might find it helpful for you and your friend to read or listen to some of their materials.

No doubt, NFP takes discipline and sacrifice at times. A key ingredient is the cooperation of the husband. He must be sensitive to his wife’s cycles and be considerate of the changes that she goes through during the month. Many NFP wives find that their husbands are more attentive to and respectful of them.

A common danger with contraception is that it leaves a husband thinking he is entitled to have sex with his wife whenever he wants. One can imagine how a wife might react to the idea that she is expected to be “on call” at any time. Rightly has contraception been called the silent killer of marriages.

The great prophet who warned against contraception is Pope Paul VI. His encyclical Humanae Vitae is worth reading, especially given his predictions about what a contraceptive culture would bring about.

As for receiving Communion: To be Catholic means, in part, to accept Church teaching. If the Church is wrong about contraception, then it is wrong about a major moral issue. And if that were the case, then the only “good Catholics” would be the ones who opposed the Church, since presumably, they are embracing a higher truth. Does that seem logical?

Perhaps the better way to state your question is this: What should you do if you have a difficulty about a Church teaching?

To have a difficulty means to know the belief is true but to be unsure just what it means or why it is true. This is OK. Here, the ideal is that a person would give the Church the benefit of the doubt, and then continue to pray about and research the issue.

One can still receive Communion in this state. What a Catholic shouldn’t do is cross over the line and doubt the teaching – that is where a person questions the very truth of the teaching. To do that would put the whole veracity of the Church in question. Which in turn would endanger the whole edifice of faith.

If ever you want a happy marriage, it might be worth considering some of these points. It would be good to take all this to prayer, too, since faith is ultimately a gift. A gift you mostly want to pass on someday.

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