Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Why each and every marital act must be open to life

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 05, 2023

In response to my post last Friday (Politics vs. Salvation: Catholic priorities?), one reader responded that when it comes to contraception, the only moral requirement is that a couple’s marital relationship should be generally open to life, not that each and every exercise of the marital act should be open to life. In support of this assertion, the writer argued that this can be plainly seen in the use of natural methods to space children (such as breast-feeding, cyclical rhythm, symptom-thermal and related approaches), which take account of periods of relative infertility without doing anything sinful.

Unfortunately, this is a grave misunderstanding, and it was addressed very precisely in Pope St. Paul VI’s Encyclical on the Regulation of Birth (Humanae Vitae) in 1968. Indeed, the whole point of this exercise of Papal infallibility was to lay to rest the many theories used to justify contraception in the marital act, that is, the deliberate frustration of the God-given purposes of this act of marital love. It is one thing to choose to engage in the marital act when it is less likely than usual to result in conception; it is quite another to deliberately interfere with the marital act to render it necessarily sterile.

Humanae Vitae is a very short and very clear encyclical. Anyone with any doubts on this subject can read it in its entirety in just a few minutes. But here is the statement which rules out the mistaken interpretation I cited above:

The Church…in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act. [12]

What’s the difference?

One must conclude, therefore, that there is a key moral difference between the two approaches to this particular aspect of the question—that is, whether engaging in the marital act when it is less likely to result in conception is the same thing as using contraceptives to make conception impossible (assuming a general overall openness to having children). It is very difficult for many people today, living in a world characterized by intense technological control, to grasp this difference. But it is the difference between these two approaches: (1) Honoring and even treasuring our nature as God has gifted us with it, and so making responsible decisions in the context of God’s will; or (2) Deliberately subverting what God has designed and created, and so making irresponsible decisions in opposition to God’s will.

To put this another way, note that every non-contraceptive exercise of the marital act, no matter how scheduled, is fundamentally open to God’s will concerning procreation. And every contraceptive exercise of the marital act, no matter how scheduled, is deliberately closed to God’s will, and in fact purposefully forestalls or frustrates that will, by deliberately denying the possibility of procreation.

It is certainly legitimate to ask whether, under some conditions, the first approach can share to some extent in the sinfulness of the second. But this is to raise not a primary but a secondary question. In other words, it is a moral pre-requisite to the marital act that it be open to the possibility of conception in the sense that this possibility has not been deliberately forestalled. But after this there arises a subjective question: How generous are we in our openness to children? How will we plan our moral use of our sexual faculties so as to increase or decrease our likelihood of conceiving or not-conceiving at any given time? This question still leaves the results completely up to God, but it takes account of what we know about how God has designed us, so that we can cooperate with God’s will as guided by the nature in which He has created us.

This secondary question possesses a completely different moral character. Here we do not seek to deny the goodness of our God-given nature by intentionally frustrating its design. Instead, we ask ourselves a profoundly moral question and answer it as best we may: What is the best way for us to cooperate with God’s plan for us in the matter of begetting children? For some people, this question is answered by circumstances entirely beyond their control. The couple may be sterile, they may be separated for long periods of time, they may suffer miscarriages, and so on. But for most of us, the question is answered by a combination of legitimate human responsibility with whatever surprises God has in store. Thus we may for good reasons behave cautiously on the question of conception, but with openness to God’s decision. Or we may seek to have as many children as possible—but with openness to God’s decision.

Surely we ought to strive to grow in the understanding that it is worth considerable sacrifice to have children and to raise them so that they may experience the love of God eternally. But even in this context, our responsibility remains one of both generosity and prudence. Personal health, natural abilities, and other obligations enter into it, as do such considerations as a couple’s financial stability and their ability to provide a Christian education to their children. This responsibility has important moral dimensions, but its decision path is not the same for all.

In contrast, the deliberate decision to frustrate the natural process of conception is akin to the decision to “have strange gods before Me”. When personally willed (that is, neither forcibly imposed nor a byproduct of bodily dysfunction), it is always seriously sinful.

Authoritative Warnings

As we have already seen, in Humanae Vitae Pope St. Paul VI reaffirmed the Magisterium’s consistent emphasis on the “inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (12). He therefore included in his prohibition not only contraception but also direct sterilization and “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation” (14). Finally, he specifically denied the erroneous premise which I intended from the first to address here:

Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these…. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong. [14]

In addition, the Pope predicted some (though hardly all) of the results that would come from widespread acceptance of artificial contraception (cf. #17). For example:

  • “Let us first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.”
  • “Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that 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.”
  • Finally, “Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring…contraceptive methods…. [T]hey may even impose their use….”

In his encyclical, Pope St. Paul VI did not directly connect the contraceptive mentality with the growth of perverse sterile sexual practices of every kind. But many began making that connection soon after the appearance of the encyclical, as they watched entire social orders devolve into sterile perversions, even to the point of allowing men to marry men and women to marry women.

Pope St. Paul VI also anticipated that “not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church” (18). He concluded that the Church, like Christ, is destined to be a “sign of contradiction”. However, much of the Church was content to let Paul VI be the only such sign. Given developments over the 55 years since Humanae Vitae was published, we should know better by now. We must all be signs of contradiction in the human cultures in which we find ourselves. Since I am writing this during Holy Week, it is a timely reminder that the most powerful sign of contradiction is the sign of the cross. Paradoxically, there is no true happiness under any other Sign.

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: CorneliusG - Apr. 09, 2023 5:41 AM ET USA

    Natural family planning requires a greater degree of self-mastery, and unfortunately our society, absolutely awash in sex and sexual imagery, has made self-mastery an almost unattainable end for most.