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In Peril of Being Wrong

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 29, 2010

The one thing I dread most as a writer on Catholic issues is the possibility of taking an incorrect position, and so leading others astray. I have no doubt that I have expressed one thing or another incorrectly in the past, introducing a weak or fallacious argument, getting my facts wrong, or explaining the teachings of the Church inadequately. I pray daily that Our Lord will protect me (and our other writers) from such errors. I know that everyone who writes for does the same.

One particular position which has drawn objections from some readers illustrates the fine line we must sometimes walk when talking about complex issues in the hope of shedding light that will benefit others. I refer to my understanding of the intrinsic evil of contraception within marriage.

Contraception in and out of Marriage

Briefly, the position I have espoused is that it is not contraception itself that is intrinsically immoral but rather what we might name “marital contraception”, that is, the deliberate frustration of the procreative end of marriage when engaging in the marital act. I have taken this position because the Magisterial documents on this question, especially Humanae vitae, seem to stress repeatedly that the basis for the moral prohibition of contraception within marriage is the natural law not as it pertains to the physical act of intercourse, but precisely as it pertains to the ends of marriage. I will cite just one of several passages from Humanae vitae which make the nuptial setting of this moral analysis fairly clear:

Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. (14)

Of course, just because the Church teaches that contraception within marriage is intrinsically evil specifically because it violates the nature, ends and purposes of marriage, it does not follow that the Church does not hold contraception to be intrinsically evil outside of marriage as well. Some, in fact, argue that the Church approves a reading of the natural law to the effect that contraception is intrinsically immoral in all acts of sexual intercourse without distinction because, in the order of nature, sexual intercourse has the purpose of creating new life.

Nonetheless, to the best of my knowledge, the Church has not taught this. Instead, it seems to me that precisely because the Church holds, according to the natural law, that sexual intercourse is never permissible outside of marriage, she does not then attempt to read the natural law as if it attaches necessary ends to an act that ought never to be performed. Indeed, it is not too much to say that I find any other way of approaching the matter intellectually inconsistent. I freely admit that the case is debatable, but I hold to my position, and pray that it is right.

Moral Results

Looking at it from the other end, I find another reason for the position I have set forth. What I mean is that the idea that “non-marital contraception” is also intrinsically evil does not produce satisfactory moral results in specific cases. I say this guardedly, because of course we should determine what results are satisfactory based on a correct application of principles, not on the basis of the results we wish to achieve. Nonetheless, when attempting to figure out the principles of the natural law, we must often advert to specific situations in which we are fairly certain of what is right and what is wrong, to see if we have formulated our principles in a way that yields consistent moral results.

With this in mind, I will outline three cases involving rape—an act of sexual intercourse outside of marriage—to see if the proposition that “non-marital contraception is intrinsically immoral” creates more problems than it solves:

  1. The first is a purely hypothetical case. A rapist, whose moral sense is obviously deficient, decides that he can take his sexual pleasure where and when he will, but while he makes light of the impact of the rape itself on his victim, he can see that impregnating her would have a long-term consequence which is not at all necessary to his pleasure.

    Clearly he should not commit rape, and clearly he cannot mitigate the evil of rape by committing it in one way or another; all he can do is mitigate other evils which generally accompany this vicious act—such as the amount of physical pain he causes, whether or not he seriously injures his victim, or whether he makes her pregnant.

    But after we have advised him not to commit rape at all, are we then to say: “But if you do, at least do not compound the sin by impeding the procreative function of your intercourse.” If “non-marital contraception” is intrinsically evil, we are bound so to advise.

  2. But wait: This first case may not be so hypothetical after all. Let us now consider date rape. A fraternity brother is intent on having quite a bit to drink and making sure his date does the same. He hopes—and how common this is—that this will facilitate a sexual coupling which his date would otherwise regret.

    We remonstrate with him, pleading that he avoid this sin, and begging that he not take advantage of his date in this way. But he merely thinks us very quaint, laughs in our faces, and hoists another pint. Are we then to admonish: “Well, if you go ahead with this hateful plan, make sure you keep your intercourse open to life, as you are required by the natural law to do, lest you add a second sin to the first.” Again, if “non-marital contraception” is intrinsically evil, we must offer this moral counsel.

  3. Finally, let us look at rape and date rape from the victim’s point of view. Let us say that immediately after the experience, the woman involved comes to us and asks us what she should do about the possibility of pregnancy. With respect to an existing pregnancy, of course, our duty is clear. We must advise that, no matter what the cost, the child’s right to life is paramount. Direct abortion is, in fact, intrinsically immoral.

    But what about the effort to avoid a pregnancy that has not yet occurred? Are we obliged to warn the victim to take no steps to prevent the sperm and egg from uniting in conception? No effort to flush the sperm? No effort to make conception impossible? Again, if “non-marital contraception” is intrinsically evil, this must be our course.

Yet in each of these cases, every well-formed Catholic I know who unreservedly accepts all the teachings of the Church would instinctively advise exactly the opposite to what the supposed intrinsic evil of “non-marital contraception” requires. This may not be definitive, but it provides a powerful reason to return to that particular assumption about the natural law and examine it anew.

The Recent Interview with Pope Benedict

So, for better or worse, I have taken the position that only “marital contraception” is intrinsically evil, and that the immorality of “non-marital contraception” (which by definition can be used only in a sexual act that is already intrinsically immoral) must be decided extrinsically, according to the circumstances, according to what it says about our understanding of our sexuality, and according to the overall moral trajectory of its use. I believe this position is also compatible with the recent remarks of Benedict XVI on this subject, in the long interview just published as Light of the World (not that his remarks in this interview are binding on Catholics in any way).

Specifically, the Pope said that the Church does not regard the promotion of contraception to reduce the risk of AIDS as a “moral or real solution” but “in this or that case” the use of a condom might represent an awakening or first step toward moral responsibility. He described this awakening in two ways: (1) As “a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants;” and, (2) “There can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

Here we must distinguish several things:

First, the promotion of contraception to reduce the risk of AIDS is not a “real solution”—and this was the main context of the Pope’s argument—because in fact the promotion of contraception tends to cheapen and dehumanize human sexuality, leading us further along the road to promiscuity, resulting not only in a progressive spiritual deadening, but in the undermining of the very things that have to change if AIDS is to be eradicated, along with the deeper problems AIDS represents.

Second, the promotion of contraception to reduce the risk of AIDS is not a “moral solution”, because the moral solution rather obviously is to refrain from all immoral sexual acts in the first place, including all sexual acts outside of marriage. This is very similar to the case of my rape examples earlier. The moral solution to rape is not to commit rape. Insofar as the use of a condom is envisioned as a way to make rape itself more acceptable, it is a step in the wrong moral direction entirely.

Third, there is this question of “promotion”, this question of the actual advocacy of contraception, either by public authority or even in the private mind. Clearly, if the public authority advocates and facilitates contraception for any reason whatsoever, it significantly contributes to the separation of sex from procreation which, in the midst of our common human weakness, makes it easier to take a cavalier and essentially sub-human attitude toward sexual relations. While it was never the basis of a properly moral decision, the hazard of pregnancy used at least to give people pause before they devoted themselves willy-nilly to habits of promiscuity. To publicly promote the deliberate separation of sexuality from pregnancy panders to our weaknesses with predictable results.

Fourth, though the same can be said of a contraceptive mentality in the mind of any specific person, we find that, when we get down to the individual level, other possibilities emerge. At one level—and surely a very common level—individual men and women can be imbued with this mentality, this sense that sex is nothing but cheap fun, this insistence on the progressive elimination of all consequences in the quest for more and more sexual license. But, to use the Pope’s phrase, “in this or that case” it is possible that the use of a condom could represent a first step toward awareness of the need to protect the well-being of another, a first awakening of responsibility, a first wrestling with the falsity of the concept of a complete freedom to indulge oneself sexually however and whenever one pleases.

Janet Smith, an expert on Catholic teaching on human sexuality whom I much admire, and who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, has stressed (surely rightly) that the Pope was pointing to something in the psychological state of the person in question. In the statement I've seen, however, Smith does not take advantage of this observation to embrace the argument that some of my critics have made, to the effect that the only issue here is a subjective disposition versus an objective moral fact.

Indeed, it goes almost without saying that a person can commit an objective sin with an upright motive (an upright subjective disposition). But this point is so obvious that it would be surprising to see the Pope laboring to get it across. For my part, I find it hard to imagine that Benedict would use the term “responsibility” to describe the commission of any intrinsically immoral action (consider murder, for example, in this context), and I conclude again that the distinctions I’ve made above provide a more useful framework for analysis.

Now, is my particular formulation of the question debatable? Certainly. Could there be a way to analyze these related issues that yields similar moral results but with a greater fidelity to the whole truth? Again, certainly. In fact, this is always the case where the Church’s Magisterium has not yet explained every aspect of a complex problem. This, then, is the occupational hazard of the Catholic commentator. And that is why I pray daily not only for the courage to say what needs to be said, but for the light to say it right. I hope you’ll join me in that prayer.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 03, 2010 10:57 AM ET USA

    It is important to note that generations past would not have engaged in this type of discussion in public venues. The principle problem here is that the Holy Father engaged in an informal discussion of a very complicated matter which is unnecessarily risky. Fathers often open a "can of worms"—as happened here—when discussing exceptions to rules with their family. If an issue like this merits public comment, it ought to be addressed formally and with due diligence by the Holy Father.

  • Posted by: JimKcda - Dec. 02, 2010 4:16 PM ET USA

    This is not an argument, just a request for clarification re: the responsibilities within marriage. When advancing arguments such as above, please use the term "artificial contraception" when speaking of such, so as to differentiate it from the legitimate, or “moral contraception" i.e., the moral spacing of children for just reasons -- known to my generation as the "Rhythm Method" and currently, in its improved version as “Natural Family Planning."

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 30, 2010 11:24 AM ET USA

    To teloirtp: I believe you are referring to a statement by the Sacred Penitentiary. The 1853 statement was a specific response to a question from a bishop about periodic abstinence and contraception within marriage. It is hard to find a Magisterial statement which addresses this outside the marital context. This is what one would expect, because it went without saying that sexual relations outside marriage were forbidden in any case.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 30, 2010 11:09 AM ET USA

    To wolfdavef3415: No, it is not the state of sin that is determinative (except, of course, that sexual intercourse outside of marriage is itself intrinsically evil). But the overall attitude and specific intention does affect the morality of an action that is not intrinsically evil. Very quickly, I would also speculate that it may also be possible for those whose minds are darkened by sin to show a spark of responsibility or even virtue with a mixed intention that would not satisfy a holy person whose understanding is more complete. The struggle for virtue is often halting and complex.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 30, 2010 11:04 AM ET USA

    To j.jensen5893: The first case is tricky, as one must be reluctant to recommend contraception in any situation in which it is likely to cheapen the proper understanding of sexuality. The second case is accurately stated. The Vatican permission does not constitute a Magisterial teaching, but the reasoning behind it does fit my analysis.

  • Posted by: teloirtp - Nov. 30, 2010 10:13 AM ET USA

    Contraception violates the ends of marriage because it frustrates the natural end of the generative faculty. Like fornication, it is always wrong outside marriage. In 1853 the Holy Office declared contraception to be intrinsece malum, a term which, as Veritatis splendor 79-81 explains, admits no exception. You can tolerate but not counsel a lesser evil (VS 80). Ben XVI distinguishes the objective twofold evil of contraceptive fornication from the subjective affect or malice, which could be less.

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Nov. 30, 2010 2:26 AM ET USA

    It seems that the state of sin a person is presently in decides what is or is not a moral action. Is this the proverbial nutshell of your point Dr. Mirus?

  • Posted by: jjen009 - Nov. 29, 2010 10:04 PM ET USA

    I am interested in your take on this in regards of two cases - neither hypothetical: 1) A young man, known to me, intended to be sexually involved with his girlfriend (whom, in fact, he eventually married). He was advised by some Catholics to use contraception in that case. 2) A Catholic has told me that "the Vatican" (whatever that means :-)) has advised nuns who are in danger of being raped that they may lawfully use oral contraception. Just wondered what your take on these are!