Next we arrive at a relatively new heresy on the topic of contraception, one that is surprising in the depth of its disingenuous and foolish interpretation of magisterial documents. Apart from, and often in addition to, the above-described heresies on contraception (see Part 1), some persons now claim that the Magisterium has no teaching on the morality of contraception outside of marriage, as if it were an open question as to whether or not it is immoral for unmarried couples to use contraception in acts of sexual intercourse. This heresy resembles the second heresy on contraception described above, that the morality of contraception depends on the judgment of the individual's conscience. For this fifth heresy claims that the Magisterium has no teaching against contraception except within marriage, and that therefore the individual may use his own conscience to decide on its morality outside of marriage.
5. Heresy: that the Magisterium has no definitive teaching on the immorality of contraception outside of marriage.
This heresy is partly based on the arrogant and ignorant claim that the official Vatican translation of several different magisterial documents, in condemning contraception, have mistranslated the Latin word 'conjugale' and related terms. It is further claimed that a proper translation would show that the Magisterium has only ever condemned contraception within marriage, and that therefore the morality of contraception outside of marriage is an open question.
As an experienced translator of Latin, I can assure you that I've looked at the various Latin passages in question, and I find that these official Vatican translations, works by numerous different translators that have stood unchanged for many years, contain no such mistranslations. I will address this topic more fully in a subsequent part of this series of articles.
But the rest of this heretical claim is based on the observation that the Magisterium, when condemning contraception, most often refers to sexual intercourse within marriage, not to sexual intercourse more generally. However, such an observation does not imply the conclusion that the Magisterium has no teaching on the immorality of contraception outside of marriage, for several reasons:
First, the Magisterium, in speaking about the use of contraception, is obliged to keep in mind the whole moral law. And so the Church cannot ignore the fact that sexual acts outside of marriage are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Since the faithful should not be committing any of these grave sexual sins, they should not have any occasion to consider whether or not they should use contraception outside of marriage. For the use of contraception outside of marriage necessarily implies the commission of another grave sexual sins, such as adultery or fornication. The Magisterium teaches the faithful, first and foremost, that the use of contraception is not moral within marriage because marital relations is the only type of sexual intercourse in which the faithful should ever engage.
Second, the Magisterium cannot perform its teaching duty properly by the sole task of condemning immoral acts. The Magisterium must also teach the faithful which acts are good and moral, which acts fulfill the will of God for humanity, and ultimately which acts lead to eternal life. A human person who tries to enter eternal life solely by avoiding sin is like the servant who buried his talent in the ground, producing no benefit. And though he did no evil, he was condemned by his master for doing nothing good, that is to say, for his sins of omission: "And cast that useless servant into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Mt 25:30, cf. Mt 25:14-30 CPDV). And so the Magisterium is morally obligated to teach the faithful about the good of sexuality within marriage, and not only about various sexual sins. Thus, the magisterial documents on contraception not only teach the faithful that contraception is a sin, but that the will of God for sexual acts can only be fulfilled when those acts are marital and unitive and procreative. The good of marriage is rightly the main theme even in documents largely concerned with the condemnation of contraception. But again, this does not imply that contraception is moral outside of marriage.
Third, the Magisterium has in fact taught that contraception is immoral, even outside of marriage, as the following points demonstrate.
a. The Magisterium condemns the distribution and promotion of contraception, regardless of whether it is used in marriage or outside of marriage, as a grave offense:
Pope John Paul II: "Thus the Church condemns as a grave offense against human dignity and justice all those activities of governments or other public authorities which attempt to limit in any way the freedom of couples in deciding about children. Consequently, any violence applied by such authorities in favor of contraception or, still worse, of sterilization and procured abortion, must be altogether condemned and forcefully rejected." (Familiaris Consortio, n. 30)
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: "All programs of economic assistance aimed at financing campaigns of sterilization and contraception, as well as the subordination of economic assistance to such campaigns, are to be morally condemned as affronts to the dignity of the person and the family." (n. 234)
Pope John Paul II: "Aside from intentions, which can be varied and perhaps can seem convincing at times, especially if presented in the name of solidarity, we are in fact faced by an objective 'conspiracy against life', involving even international Institutions, engaged in encouraging and carrying out actual campaigns to make contraception, sterilization and abortion widely available. Nor can it be denied that the mass media are often implicated in this conspiracy, by lending credit to that culture which presents recourse to contraception, sterilization, abortion and even euthanasia as a mark of progress and a victory of freedom, while depicting as enemies of freedom and progress those positions which are unreservedly pro-life." (Evangelium Vitae, n. 17)
Governments, other authorities and institutions, and the mass media do not limit their promotion of contraception to married couples only. Yet the Church condemns as a grave offense 'all those activities' to promote contraception, even calling such efforts "an objective 'conspiracy against life.' " The promotion of contraception is gravely immoral because the use of contraception is gravely immoral. Therefore, the Church, in condemning the distribution and promotion of contraception regardless of marital state, thereby condemns any use of contraception regardless of marital state.
b. The Magisterium teaches that contraception is immoral because it separates the two meanings, unitive and procreative, found in human sexuality and in the being of man and woman. This basis for the immorality of contraception does not rely on the marital state, but on the nature of man and woman, on the nature of the human person.
Pope John Paul II: "When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion, 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." (Familiaris Consortio, n. 32)
Although the Pope mentions marriage in the above quote, he finds the basis for the immorality of contraception "inscribed in the being of man and woman" and in God's plan for sexual communion and human sexuality. He does not find the basis for the immorality of contraception to be a violation of the marital meaning of sexuality, but rather a violation of the unitive and procreative meanings, "which man on his own initiative may not break" (Humanae Vitae, n. 12). Since the immorality of contraception is not based on the marital state, contraception is immoral both in marriage and outside of marriage.
Why is pre-marital sexual intercourse immoral, while marital sexual intercourse is moral? Pre-marital sex is immoral because it lacks the marital meaning. Marital sex is moral because it has the marital meaning. Why is contraception immoral regardless of marital state? Contraception is immoral because of the absence of the procreative meaning, not because of the presence or absence of the marital meaning. Regardless of whether the contracepting couple is married, they are still contracepting, and therefore their sexual acts still have the same immoral deprivation.
c. The Church opposes teaching young unmarried persons how to use contraception in sexual education programs. This opposition is not based solely on the possibility that those young persons might eventually marry and use contraception in marriage. Neither is it based solely on the Church's opposition to the sin of pre-marital sex. The Church opposes teaching the young how to use contraception because contraception is intrinsically evil and therefore always immoral. Her opposition to the distribution and promotion of contraception by governments and other organizations is in agreement with Her opposition to sexual education programs teaching the young how to use contraception.
d. The Magisterium teaches that direct sterilization is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral because it deprives sexual acts of the procreative meaning. Direct sterilization is condemned by the Magisterium, regardless of whether the individual is married or single. And direct sterilization is not necessarily permanent, since the procedure often can be reversed. Contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral for the same reason as direct sterilization, the deprivation of the procreative meaning from the moral object. We can therefore consider contraception to be a type of direct temporary sterilization.
But the Magisterium has condemned both contraception and sterilization, regardless of marital state:
Pope Paul VI: "Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary." (Humanae Vitae, n. 14)
Pontifical Council for the Family: "It is not in conformity with God's design that couples should neutralize or destroy their fertility by artificial contraception or sterilization, and still less that they have recourse to abortion to kill their offspring before birth." (The Ethical and Pastoral Dimensions of Population Trends, n. 73)
Pontifical Council for the Family: "The artificial methods of birth control as well as sterilization do not respect the human person of a woman and man because they eliminate or impede fertility, which is an integral part of the person." (The Ethical and Pastoral Dimensions of Population Trends, n. 76)
Again, the Magisterium teaches that the basis for the immorality of contraception is not the marital state of the couple, but the plan of God that is integral to the human person and to human sexuality.
e. The Magisterium condemns artificial procreation for the same reason as contraception, the unitive and procreative meanings are not united in one and the same act. The deprivation of either or both the procreative and unitive meanings makes the act intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. But artificial procreation is condemned regardless of whether a couple is married or not, because the basis for the condemnation of artificial procreation is not the presence or absence of the marital meaning, but the separation of the unitive and procreative meanings. The same is true for contraception; the act is condemned because the unitive and procreative meanings are not united in one and the same act. The presence or absence of the marital meaning does not substitute for this sin of separating the unitive and procreative meanings.
If contraception were moral outside of marriage, then sterilization and artificial procreation (and perhaps other sins, such as pre-marital sex) would also be moral apart from marriage. For these acts are all condemned on the same basis, the deprivation of one or more of these three meanings: marital, unitive, procreative. But such is not the case. The Magisterium clearly and definitively teaches that all these intrinsically evil acts, which pertain to procreation and to the use of the sexual faculty, are always gravely immoral. There is no qualification in any magisterial teaching on this subject specifying that these acts are gravely immoral only within marriage. Such a claim is a clever way to accommodate the immense pressure from sinful secular society and from secularized Catholics to accept contraception at least to some extent.
f. Catholic hospitals are not permitted to dispense contraception, neither to married couples nor to unmarried persons. If the Magisterium taught that contraception were only immoral within marriage, there would be no reason to restrict Catholic physicians in Catholic hospitals from dispensing contraception to unmarried patients in accord with the consciences of the physician and the patients, especially for non-Catholic patients. But such is not the case:
USCCB: "Catholic health institutions may not promote or condone contraceptive practices but should provide, for married couples and the medical staff who counsel them, instruction both about the Church's teaching on responsible parenthood and in methods of natural family planning." (Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, Fourth Edition, n. 52)
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: "Any cooperation whatsoever, institutionally-approved or tolerated, in actions which are in themselves (that is, by their nature and condition) ordered toward a contraceptive end, as well as any that impede the natural result of the sexual act [actuum sexualium] allowing it to be subjected to deliberate sterilization, is absolutely forbidden." (Reply of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Sterilization in Catholic Hospitals, Quaecumque Sterilizatio, March 13, 1975, AAS 68 (1976) 738-740; DOCUMENTA 25)
The above-described 'contraceptive end' refers to the moral object, which is an end toward which the chosen act is ordered, by its very nature. Catholic hospitals are forbidden by the USCCB and the CDF from dispensing, approving of, or even tolerating the intrinsically evil acts of contraception and direct sterilization -- absolutely forbidden, without regard for whether the patient is married or single, Catholic or non-Catholic. For contraception is intrinsically evil, and always gravely immoral, regardless of marital state.
g. Pope Pius XI strongly condemned contraception, saying that no reason could justify this intrinsically evil act. Therefore, the reason that says that contraception might be moral when it occurs outside of marriage is not correct. The Magisterium teaches that there is no reason that can justify contraception.
Pope Pius XI: "But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who, in exercising it, deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose, sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious."
And then the Pontiff continues, citing the condemnation of contraception by Sacred Scripture and by Saint Augustine.
"Small wonder, therefore, if Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death. As St. Augustine notes, 'Intercourse even with one's legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Judah, did this and the Lord killed him for it.' " (St. Augustine, De Adulterinis Coniugiis, Book II, n. 12; Genesis 38:8-10)
The wording used by Saint Augustine and quoted by the Pontiff is this: "even with one's legitimate wife". By this wording, Augustine is condemning contraception both outside of marriage and within marriage. He is saying that contraception is still immoral, even within marriage, which implies that it is also immoral outside of marriage. And Pope Pius XI quotes him on this point without any disagreement, correction, or qualification. Then Pope Pius states that this teaching against contraception is an "uninterrupted Christian tradition," implying that the teaching is also infallible.
By the way, the work by Augustine quoted by Pope Pius is titled "De Conjugiis Adulterinis" in Latin, and is often translated as "On Adulterous Unions." So here is an example of a use of the word conjugale (in one of its many forms) to refer to sexual intercourse other than in marriage, as is necessarily implied by the term "adulterous". The claim that this Latin word only ever refers to marital intercourse -- and that therefore the magisterial doctrine on contraception has been widely and profoundly misunderstood -- is ignorant, disingenuous, arrogant, and patently false.
Let's return now to the list of evidence that the Magisterium condemns contraception outside of marriage as well as within marriage.
Fourth, and most importantly, the Magisterium teaches that contraception is intrinsically evil. The Magisterium also teaches that any knowingly chosen act with an evil moral object is intrinsically evil, and that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. The evil moral object of contraception is the deprivation of the procreative meaning. This deprivation occurs in the use of contraception outside of marriage as well as within marriage. Therefore, contraception remains intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, regardless of marital state. The moral object is unchanged and the moral object is what makes any act intrinsically evil.
In every work that I've read so far, in which the author claims that contraception might be moral outside of marriage, or might be moral within marriage with a good intention or in dire circumstances, the author profoundly misunderstands the three fonts of morality, intrinsic evil, the moral object, and especially the distinction between the first font (the intended end, purpose, goal, or reason for choosing the act) and the second font (the intentionally chosen act, with its inherent moral meaning as determined by the moral object). When one understands the reason that contraception is intrinsically evil, there is no possible other conclusion except that contraception is gravely immoral regardless of marital state.
Now the magisterial teaching on contraception is definitively taught, and is infallible under the Universal Magisterium (as Germain Grisez explains here). And that is why the various denials and distortions of this doctrine are the sin of heresy. These are not open or unanswered questions of morality on which the faithful would be free to exercise their conscience, apart from magisterial teaching. Whoever rejects the magisterial teaching against contraception commits the sin of heresy.
But contraception is intrinsically evil. And as a result, the aforementioned denials and distortions (especially in heresies 4 and 5) imply a denial or distortion of the teaching of the Magisterium on every type of intrinsically evil act, including sterilization, artificial procreation, abortifacient contraception, abortion, euthanasia, infanticide, and other forms of murder, as well as slavery, genocide, racism, theft, robbery, lying, and every other intrinsically evil type of act. The claim that the intrinsically evil act of contraception might be moral, with some intentions or in some circumstances, does grave harm to one of the foundational moral teachings of the Catholic Faith: that certain types of acts are intrinsically evil and therefore always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. This consideration makes these particular heresies on contraception all the more harmful to the Faith.
Contraception and the Three Fonts of Morality
There are three fonts of morality: (1) intention, (2) moral object, (3) circumstances. In order to be moral, each and every knowingly chosen act must have three good fonts. If any one or more fonts is bad, the act is immoral. Every act with an evil moral object is intrinsically evil and always immoral.
Concerning the use of contraception, the usual intention is to avoid pregnancy. But any other intention, even the best possible hypothetical intention, whatever that might be, leaves the other two fonts of morality unchanged. If contraception were only immoral with a bad intention, then contraception would be literally no different than natural family planning. NFP is not intrinsically evil; the moral object of sexual relations with NFP remains marital, unitive, and procreative. But even the use of NFP is immoral with a bad intention. For any act done with a bad intention is a sin. One bad font of morality makes any act a sin. So the claim that contraception might somehow be moral with an intention other than a contraceptive intention is essentially a denial of the definitive and explicit teaching of the Magisterium that contraception is intrinsically evil, and that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. A good intention never makes an intrinsically evil act moral.
"Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception)." (CCC, n. 2399).
Contraception has an evil moral object, because contraception is intrinsically evil, as is clear from the repeated definitive teaching of the Magisterium (See my refutation of the third heresy). An intrinsically evil act is an act that is inherently directed, by the very nature of the act, toward an evil moral object. In the case of contraception, the evil moral object is the deprivation of the procreative meaning from sexual acts. God has ordained, through the nature He created for human persons, that sexual acts be inherently procreative. The deliberate choice of an act that is, in and of itself, disordered in this regard, i.e. an act that is intrinsically directed toward the deprivation of the procreative meaning of human sexuality, is an intrinsically evil act. The act of using contraception is immoral by the very nature of the act. The only moral choice is to choose a different type of act, to choose an act with a good moral object, such as NFP.
But morality is concerned with knowingly chosen acts. Certainly, we can speak, in truth but also in the abstract, about the objective morality or immorality of various possible acts. Murder is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. But culpability and actual sin only occur when a person knowingly chooses an immoral act. And in the case of intrinsically evil acts, that knowing choice is of an act that is inherently immoral by reason of its object. Such a choice is always deliberate, i.e. intentional or voluntary. But the immorality of the act does not depend on the first font of intention, but on the moral disorder inherent to the act itself, which is the second font.
"There are some concrete acts -- such as fornication -- that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil. It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery." (CCC, n. 1755-1756)
Intrinsically evil acts are always intentionally-chosen, i.e. deliberately of voluntarily chosen. For example, lying is intrinsically evil. But if a person asserts a falsehood, believing that it is true, he has not lied. His chosen act is not even objectively a lie. Only when a person asserts a falsehood knowing or believing that it is false (or not knowing and not caring whether it is true or false) has he chosen the sin of lying. But the intention, the intended end or purpose for which the act is chosen, has no effect on the moral object.
The second font is not the moral object by itself, for moral objects do not exist apart from acts. In moral theology, an act is the knowing choice of a human person. If a physician chooses to give a drug to a patient in order to kill him, it is an act of murder. Even if he has the good intention of relieving the suffering of the patient (euthanasia), the moral object is not changed by that intention. But in order to be the intrinsically evil sin of euthanasia, the physician must choose this intrinsically evil act intentionally, i.e. deliberately. If he does not realize that giving that drug to that patient will result in death, his act is not euthanasia, nor any form of murder. Murder is always a deliberate act, i.e. an intentional act.
Pope John Paul II: "Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end." (Evangelium Vitae, n. 57)
Like every intrinsically evil act, murder is by definition voluntary (intentional, deliberate). And yet no act of murder, no deliberate (intentional, voluntary) choice of the inherently disordered act of murder, is justified by any intended good end. The intentional choice of an act that is inherently directed toward the deprivation of life from an innocent human person is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, regardless of the intended end. Such an act is illicit, in and of itself. Therefore, it is never moral to intentionally choose that act for any reason, purpose, or intention.
Notice the distinction here between the intended end of the first font, and the intentionally chosen act, within its inherent moral meaning as determined by the moral object. The first font is of the subject; if there is a moral disorder in the first font, it is in the intention of the subject, in the purpose for which he chooses the act. The second font is of the objective act; if there is a moral disorder in the second font, it is in the act itself, by its very nature, regardless of the intentions of the person. It is always immoral to choose, intentionally, an act that is inherently morally disordered, i.e. an intrinsically evil act.
In the case of contraception, even if the intention is to treat a medical disorder, or to avoid the transmission of a disease, or to avoid some grave harm, even if the intention is not to avoid conception, the intentional choice of an act that is inherently ordered toward the deprivation of the procreative meaning from sexual acts is an intrinsically evil act that is always gravely immoral.
Neither can the third font of circumstances justify any intrinsically evil act.
Pope John Paul II: "Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act, intrinsically evil by virtue of its object, into an act 'subjectively' good or defensible as a choice." (Veritatis Splendor, n. 81.)
Therefore, contraception is always gravely immoral, regardless of intention and circumstances, regardless of marital state, and regardless of all other considerations. For the immorality of contraception, like the immorality of every intrinsically evil act, is based on the second font: the intentional choice of an act that is intrinsically illicit, by reason of its object. Nothing can cause any intrinsically evil act to become moral. The only moral choice is to choose a different type of act, such as NFP.
[Contraception and Heresy: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 ]
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator
6 December 2010
For more on the topic of contraception, see chapter 22, 'Abortion and Contraception,' in my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics