“Ask a Priest: What Is the Church’s Stance on Birth Control?”

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Q: I was wondering what the Church’s official stance on the use of birth control is. I have heard that the Church does not condone the use of birth control because it is not God’s intention for people to prevent the natural unity of two people, but I was wondering if you could flesh out this whole argument a little more for me. Additionally, I was wondering how the members of the Church react to the official stance on birth control. Did many members switch their views on birth control after the Church said it was a bad idea? Do local priests try to encourage their congregation members to stop the use of birth control or are they more lenient on this topic? Essentially, is the Church’s view against birth control upheld by a significant portion of its members? –A.M.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good to clarify at the start that the Church is not against all birth control. Natural birth control, such as that involving natural family planning, can be morally OK. What the Church opposes is artificial birth control, also known as contraception.

There are many reasons behind this teaching, since it has to do with the beautiful, sacred reality of human sexuality and God’s plan for it. Here I will only touch on some essential points.

Now, the marital act is intended by God as an expression of total love between spouses. It reflects, in a human way, the inner love and unity of the Trinity, and thus is something that is sacred. Contraception belittles the act.

The marital act has two dimensions: unitive and procreative. The marital embrace involves the spouses giving themselves completely to each other, and this includes their potential fertility. To deliberately frustrate that is a violation of the very meaning of the act. Here it is worth noting that God’s inaugural command to the first man and woman is “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).

Pope St. John Paul II fleshed out the Church’s teaching against artificial birth control in his theology of the body, a set of general-audience talks he gave over the course of five years.

It would be hard to summarize in one e-mail what it took the Holy Father five years to unpack. Nevertheless, you would find a popular presentation of the theology of the body in the writings of Christopher West. Another helpful writer is Janet E. Smith, especially her ample article.

The Catechism touches on birth control. A few numbers are quoted here:

2368. […] For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality: When it is a question of harmonizing married love with the responsible transmission of life, the morality of the behavior does not depend on sincere intention and evaluation of motives alone; but it must be determined by objective criteria, criteria drawn from the nature of the person and his acts criteria that respect the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love; this is possible only if the virtue of married chastity is practiced with sincerity of heart.

2369. “By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its orientation toward man’s exalted vocation to parenthood.”

2370. Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, “every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil: Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality. … The difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle … involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality. [end quoted material]

Catholics’ reaction to Church teaching on this subject has been mixed, to put it charitably. Many surveys indicate that most Catholics don’t fully accept Church teaching in this area. Even some priests, lamentably, oppose it and counsel against it. Various books have chronicled the dissent among priests and theologians, including The Coup at Catholic University.

Suffice it to say that the wide dissent over this teaching has fueled a lot of problems since the 1960s, not least of which is the low birthrate that portends severe economic and social disruptions. The tide has changed somewhat — the theology of the body helped — but we still have a long way to go to convince people of the wisdom and beauty of what the Church has to say.

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