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Why Contraception is Evil

by Monica M. Migliorino


Before one can fully understand why contraception is intrinsically evil, one must first comprehend the true meaning of human sexuality itself and the purpose for which it was intended. With the help of Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio, this article thoroughly explains why artificial contraception is immoral and an assault upon the sacred meaning of the body.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


58 – 63

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, April 1987

Humanae Vitae, the encyclical which condemned artificial contraception, has been a source of controversy ever since it was issued in July 1968. In an age in which contraception is widely practiced, Catholic bishops rarely preach against it. The laity for the most part misunderstand and ignore the Church's teaching while world class theologians do their best to belittle and undermine its proscriptions. Theologians, such as Richard McCormick, S.J., who dissent from Humanae Vitae claim that its teaching is based upon flawed and inadequate reasoning. McCormick, for instance, accuses the encyclical of making an isolated biological function, that is, the human reproductive system, the determinant of morality.1 McCormick asserts that in contemporary theological thought the basic criterion for the meaning of human actions is the person and "not some isolated aspect of the person."2 The viewpoint that the human ability to procreate is merely a biological function separate from the person is the major error held by those who dissent from Humanae Vitae. Those who find moral grounds for justifying contraception believe, to some degree or another, that the sexual act, procreation and even male and female sexuality itself are "things" isolated from the human person rather than realities which are constitutive of the human person. McCormick argues that biological materialities (i.e. sexual organs) do not produce life — rather, the person produces life.3 Clearly, we can see here the attitude that procreation and all that goes with it is something remote from the real person. Procreation is viewed as a purely biological function which must be assimilated into the person. This is as if to say that our sexual organs exist as foreign objects which do not truly make up who we are — rather they need to be integrated into the true person and thereby given meaning.

The argument that Humanae Vitae's moral teaching is based upon mere biology has its source in a one-sided and superficial reading of what Paul VI actually taught. Certainly, the encyclical based its condemnation of artificial contraception on the norms of natural law. But it is wrong to thereby conclude that the teaching provides a physicalistic view of the human person and their acts. In contrast to those who dissent from the teaching, Humanae Vitae does not treat procreation as something isolated from the person. This is precisely a view that the encyclical seeks to protect against. It teaches that "biological laws" of procreation are not merely that.4 They are part of the human person. Indeed, the very meaning of the conjugal act is based upon "the nature of the human person."5 Furthermore, the conjugal act as unitive and procreative is revelatory of the very nature of married love.6

Love and life cannot be separated

Natural law is not simply another name for "biological function." Contraception is not simply immoral because it frustrates the end toward which conjugal love is oriented by nature. It is immoral because its separation of the life-giving meaning of intercourse from its love-giving meaning attacks the very nature and dignity of the sacrament of marriage and the sacramental character of the marriage act itself. Although Paul VI did not explicitly spell out this sacramental character, a deeper reading of Humanae Vitae reveals that this is indeed the perspective the encyclical holds concerning the true nature of sexual intercourse. Pope John Paul II in a series of papal talks has himself begun to unearth the treasures of this dimension of the birth control encyclical.

Artificial contraception is immoral because it is an assault upon the God-given language of the body. This language of the body is referred to several times throughout Humanae Vitae. Paul VI, in article 3, refers to the "meaning" (sensum) "which conjugal acts have with respect to the harmony between husband and wife." In article 11 we find that intercourse is ordained toward "expressing" and "consolidating" the union of spouses. Article 12 states it is immoral for man to break "the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning" (emphasis added). This same article goes on to say, 'By safeguarding both these essential aspects . . . the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love . . ." (emphasis added). In article 13 we are told it is a contradiction of the divine gift to destroy even partially "its meaning" (sensum). Paul VI often uses such words as "signifying" (significandum), "signification" (significationem), and "manifesting' (testandum), etc. in reference to the conjugal act.7

John Paul II, drawing upon the teaching of Vatican II, states in Familiaris Consortio, article 32, that the moral law is not separate from one's body as if imposed artificially from the outside. The laws governing conjugal love are rooted in the "nature of the human person and his or her acts." Likewise, the language of the body is rooted in the very nature of the human person. In conjugal love the spouses speak themselves though their bodies. The husband communicates his love as a specifically male person, and the wife as a specifically female person. In a very real manner the body is a word — a sacred word created by God — a word which discloses the person.8 In conjugal love the spouses as male and female speak their marriage together. They become one sacred word. John Paul II teaches:

As ministers of a sacrament which is constituted by consent and perfected by conjugal union, man and woman are called to express that mysterious "language" of their bodies in all the truth which is proper to it. By means of gestures and reactions, by means of the whole dynamism, reciprocally conditioned, of tensions and enjoyment — whose direct source is the body in its masculinity and its femininity, the body in its action and interaction — by means of all this man, the person, "speaks" (emphasis added).9

That artificial contraception violates the meaning of conjugal love resides first in the theological significance of the human body. Man as male and female forms the very basis of marriage. Genesis 1:27 teaches that man as male and female is created in God's image and likeness. Man and woman do not only image God through their spiritual endowments. Man and woman image God through their communion. That two distinct and different beings can freely enjoy communion forms the basis of marriage as a sacramental sign of God's own union with his people. This union — indissoluble and definitive — exists in the union between the second Adam, Christ, and his Bride, the Church. In the union of Christ and the Church is the restoration of the original covenant between God and man as it was first expressed in the union between Adam and Eve. St. Paul proclaims that the union of man and woman in Christian marriage is a sign of Christ's love for the Church and Adam and Eve served as the prototype of this love.

Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church. He gave himself up for her to make her holy, purifying her in the bath of water by the power of the word, to present to himself a glorious church, holy and immaculate, without stain or wrinkle or anything of that sort. Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. Observe that no one ever hates his own flesh; no, he nourishes it and takes care of it as Christ cares for the church — for we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and cling to his wife, and the two shall be made into one." This is a great foreshadowing; I mean that it refers to Christ and the Church. In any case each one should love his wife as he loves himself, the wife for her part showing respect for her husband (Ephesians 5:25-33).

What is often overlooked in this passage is the extreme importance of the body and the spouses attitude toward their bodies in relation to forming a physical outward sign of Christ's love for the Church. "Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies." This verse confirms that the bodies of men and women are good. This goodness is rooted in the original goodness of all creation as chapter 1 of Genesis repeatedly emphasizes. However, the human body as male and female is not simply good — it is sacred. The human body has a value which is transcendent. This is because human persons as male and female share in Divine goodness as signs wrought by the hand of God to express in marriage the love he has for the world.

Affirm the goodness of the body

In order for couples to be worthy to sacramentally participate in the love that God has for the world St. Paul admonishes them to affirm the goodness of the body. Indeed, they are to affirm one another as husband and wife. This means they are to affirm — love — the concrete reality of their masculinity and femininity. To love one's body as male or female — as husband and wife — means rejecting no part of it, including the body's procreation powers which are given by God to man as a blessing (Gn. 1:28).

In the conjugal act each spouse makes a statement about themselves and one another. The husband makes a statement that he affirms (loves) himself as God created him as a male; the woman too affirms (loves) herself as a female. In their marriage they are to love (accept) each other as they do their own bodies.10 The word of love spouses speak through their bodies in the conjugal act is God's own language. When husbands and wives affirm the masculinity and femininity of their bodies in conjugal love they perform an act worthy of participation in the mystery of the unconditional union between Christ and the Church.

When spouses use artificial contraception they express there is something wrong, evil or undesirable about their bodies as male and female. A sacred quality of the body is rejected — and what is rejected is part of one's personal word. Consequently, complete union is not achieved because the integrity of the body as a sacred word has been broken. Artificial contraception desecrates conjugal love as a sacramental sign because the spouses fail to affirm themselves and each other in their masculinity and femininity and thus fail to express Christ's affirmation of himself and his Bride, the Church. God created man male and female to participate in this reality. To reject one's power to procreate violates one of the most fundamental (if not the most fundamental) meanings of masculinity and femininity. This refusal to love the body is a "no" uttered to God in the very act which sacramentally is meant by God to be a resounding "yes."

Christian marriage is a sacrament because in the one flesh union of the spouses the covenantal union of Christ and the Church is made present in the world. The sign par excellance of marital love is the conjugal act. Here husband and wife perform a true liturgy founded by God himself. In this act spouses ratify their own union and thus ratify before God the sacred meaning of their marriage which according to his law includes the good of children. In this liturgy of genital intimacy spouses are given God's grace. It is a liturgy in which the covenantal/marital union of Christ and the Church is made present in the world. Precisely how does artificial contraception violate this liturgy?

Within biblical teaching, especially St. Paul, the husband images God to the world — Christ to the Church. The wife, in her femininity, images God's creation — images the Church. In Christian marriage the wife represents the perfect fullness of all that God wills to give.

Masculinity derives its meaning as a sacramental symbol of God who generates life — a begetting principle which, of course, is perpetually present in God the Father. God the Father never rejects his generative role as Father. In imaging God to his creation the husband likewise needs to affirm and never reject or destroy his own God-given generative powers. Christ too possesses generative power in relation to the Church. Christ fills the Church with his presence — his word. The Church as his Bride truly receives him. She thus germinates what has been given to her. She brings the presence of Christ to fullness in the world. The Church rejects nothing from her Divine Spouse. She joyfully receives him and gives herself to him — holding back nothing! This living and eternal dynamism of love wherein Christ is affirmed as groom and the Church as bride has its sacramental image in the one flesh union of Christian spouses. Christian spouses have been taken up into this covenantal reality and thus serve as its liturgical expression in the celebration of their own bodily love. This liturgy precludes the use of artificial contraception. The use of contraceptives desecrates the true meaning of giving and receiving rooted in masculinity and femininity. When spouses practice contraceptive intercourse it is possible that they do will to become "one flesh" and in intercourse they have at least superficially reproduced the outward appearance of union. But contraception violates the God-given meaning of their one-flesh union because they have failed to fully give and receive one another. In failing to fully accept one another as male and female they actually assault the liturgical significance of their married love. John Paul II himself has stated that in contracepted sex, the conjugal act "deprived of its interior truth, because artificially deprived of its procreative capacity, ceases also to be an act of love."11 In Familiaris Consortio the Holy Father explains that when couples separate the unitive from the procreative meaning in conjugal love:

they act as "arbiters" of the divine plan and they "manipulate" and degrade human sexuality — and with it themselves and their married partner — by altering its value of "total" self-giving. 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.12

Contraception, however, does not only degrade the marital love of the spouses. Sexual intercourse has a meaning which transcends the love of husband and wife. By degrading their love they alter the sign value of their bodies as sacramental images of the covenantal love between Christ and the Church — a love which is total, unconditional and life-giving.

Of course, contraception is not the only manner in which the liturgical meaning of conjugal love is violated. Taking one's spouse by force, performing intercourse with no intent to be faithful, or with no intention of living a permanent union, or with no regard for the sensitivities of one's spouse — or even unreasonably refusing to participate in the marriage acts are assaults upon the God-given meaning of conjugal love.

To misuse a piece of bread is bad

The Church teaches that contraception is a sin not only for Christian couples but for non-Christian couples as well. Christian spouses sacramentally participate in the love of God but every man and woman is called to participate in the fullness of Christ. The integrity of the body — the integrity of man as a creature worthy of full sacramental expression — must be respected. When non-Christian couples respect the law of God written in their bodies this is preparation for the Gospel. Consider, for example, how wrong it is for anyone to waste or misuse in some manner an ordinary piece of bread. When bread is understood as a gift from God this is preparation for full appreciation of the reality of Eucharistic Bread as the Body of Christ. Similarly, the integrity of the body as God's word spoken into the world must also not be desecrated as its value, rooted in natural law, is given by God who wills that it be worthy of participation in his supernatural life.

It is interesting to note that in African countries where the Catholic faith is spreading and vocations to the priesthood and religious life are abundant there is a tremendous respect among (non-Westernized) Africans for the procreative good of the body. Of course, secular forces are doing all they can to induce native couples to use artificial contraception or even be sterilized in hopes of curbing the population. John Paul II in his recent trip to Kenya warned African Catholics about the evil of contraception and helped to build up the resolve of the missionary Church to remain true to the teachings of the faith.

The Catholic faith is a religion of signs and sacraments which includes the sacrament of the body imbued as it is with nuptial language which discloses the kind of love God has for the world. The purpose of Humanae Vitae is to protect this sacred language written by God. Denouncing birth control is hardly a matter of defending an isolated biological function. The Church must defend the sacred meaning of the body and thus the sacredness of human procreation as its value is rooted in the mystery of what it means to be a man and woman in Christ.

End Notes

  1. Richard McCormick, S.J., How Brave a New World?, (Garden City, NY., Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1981), p. 222.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., p. 223.
  4. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (Article 12), (July 25, 1968), NC News Service Translation, published by the Daughters of St. Paul, St. Paul Editions, Jamaica Plain, Boston.
  5. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (Article 32), (Nov. 23, 1981), Vatican Translation from Vatican Polycot Press, published by the Daughters of St. Paul, St. Paul Editions, Jamaica Plain, Boston.
  6. Gaudium et Spes (Articles 50-51) (As cited by Humanae Vitae, Art. 10), The Documents of Vatican II, ed. by Austin Flannery, (Collegeville, MN., The Liturgical Press, 1975), p. 953-955.
  7. Edward J. Bayer, S.T.D., "One Word Makes a Profound Difference", The Wanderer (Nov. 1983), p. 6.
  8. John Paul II, Original Unity of Man and Woman (Boston, St. Paul Editions, 1981), p. 57.
  9. John Paul II, Reflections on Humanae Vitae, (Boston, St. Paul Editions, 1984), p. 32.
  10. Bayer.
  11. Reflections, p. 33.
  12. Familiaris Consortio, Article 32.

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