You may be surprised to learn that prior to 1930 every Christian denomination agreed in their opposition to artificial birth control. In 1930, the Anglican Church, motivated by increasing social pressures, stated that artificial birth control could be allowed in some circumstances. Shortly thereafter the Anglicans gave in, allowing contraception. Since then, all other Protestant denominations followed the example of the Church of England. Today, the Catholic Church stands alone in opposition to artificial birth control. However, even though the Catholic Church affirms that artificial birth control is intrinsically evil, the majority of Catholics in America completely rejects and ignores the Church’s teaching on procreation.
The first cries for change within the Catholic Church came about in the late 1950’s and the early 1960’s with the availability of the birth control pill. In July of 1968, Pope Paul VI published an encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) which reaffirmed the constant teaching of the Catholic Church that artificial birth control is intrinsically evil. The encyclical was confronted by a massive revolt within the Catholic Church and it is believed that 96% of Catholics in this country completely reject Humanae Vitae.
Why does the Catholic Church affirm that artificial birth control is intrinsically evil? The reason is founded on this principle: every marital act must keep together “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” (Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 12).
This fundamental principle contained in Humanae Vitae is true because the nature of sexual intercourse, which is both life-giving (pro-creative) and love-giving (unitive), reflects the plan of God for marriage. A man and a woman must not intervene to separate their fertility from their bodily union. To do so is to disrupt the plan of God for marriage, sexuality, and married love. Therefore, the Church’s teaching is not only affirmed by Divine law, but by natural law as well.
Sexual pleasure within marriage becomes unnatural, and even harmful to the spouses, when it is used in a way that deliberately excludes the basic purpose of sex, which is procreation. God’s gift of sex must not be abused by frustrating its natural end — procreation.
However, this does not mean that married couples only have sexual intercourse when they want to conceive a child. Mutual love or the good of the spouses, one of the three purposes of marriage, indicates that sex is good, sex is holy, and that the sexual union between the spouses enhances, in a very deep way, the intimate love between husband and wife. Nevertheless, we must keep in mind that the three purposes of marriage, the good of the spouses, the procreation of children, and the education of children, are equal and form one single entity. The first purpose of marriage is not superior to the other two.
The Catholic Church continues to affirm that every conjugal act must be open to the transmission of life. The Catholic Church continues to affirm that all forms of artificial birth control are intrinsically evil. However, the Catholic Church does teach that there is a moral or ethical way to regulate births. The moral way to regulate the procreation of children is through the use of Natural Family Planning.
Humanae Vitae explains this clearly with these words:
“If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which we have just explained” (Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 16).
However, since Natural Family Planning can only be used for serious and legitimate reasons, what constitutes serious and legitimate reasons?
Humanae Vitae and years later, Pope John Paul II’s teachings on marriage, list four reasons: physical, economic, psychological and social conditions.
Regarding the physical reason for using Natural Family Planning, one example could be the situation where the health of the mother does not allow her to have more children for a definite or even an indefinite period of time. An economic reason may be that a husband lost his job and cannot responsibly afford the cost of bringing another child into the world until he can get back on his feet again. A psychological reason may involve the inability of a mother or a father to properly handle a larger family. Finally, there can be social conditions, such as a time of war, famine, natural disaster, or persecution that may indicate that a husband and wife should wait before they bring another life into the world.
“With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” (Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 10).
Since there are serious and legitimate reasons that permit married couples to use Natural Family Planning, married couples need to be aware that hidden forms of selfishness could cause them to use Natural Family Planning for inappropriate reasons. As a priest, I am beginning to understand that some very good people are falling into this trap. In part two, I will discuss these inappropriate reasons and the erroneous reasoning behind them.