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ZENIT, The world seen from Rome
Catholic Teaching on Contraception: For Married Couples Only?
Condemnation of Contraception Is a Universal Norm
WASHINGTON, D.C., FEB. 8, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a question on
bioethics asked by a ZENIT reader and answered by the fellows of
the Culture of Life Foundation.
Q: Does the Catholic Church’s condemnation of contraception bind only
married couples or is it a universal moral norm?
E. Christian Brugger replies:
The Church’s teaching on contraception can only be rightly understood
context of its wider teaching on the nature and goods of
the norm itself against contraceptive acts, taught and defended since
Church, binds universally—in the language of moral theology, semper et
semper, without exception. It singles out a particular type of
chosen behavior, namely, deliberate acts intended to render sexual
Sexual intercourse, the tradition holds, is legitimate and good (and,
Christians, grace-imparting) when and only when it is marital.
is a one-flesh communion of persons with two defining goods: the unity
perfection of the spouses and the procreation and education of
Intercourse that is marital will always respect the full one-flesh
of the marital relationship by retaining a unitive and procreative
The normative work this does in sexual ethics is primarily
Sexual acts that intentionally disregard either the unitive or the
goods of marriage are non-marital and therefore wrongful acts.
Intercourse between non-married partners violates the unitive good, as
coercive sexual acts. Contraceptive acts will against the
good; they are therefore non-marital, even if between married persons,
wrongful. They are wrongful precisely because by definition they
will against the procreative good of marriage. Let me repeat: all
sex is wrongly chosen, both inside and outside of marriage.
is sex between non-married persons. Masterbatory acts are
Contraceptive acts are non-procreative and non-unitive, insofar as
the procreative meaning of sexual intercourse they do not realize
couples an integral one-flesh union.
Therefore, whenever a man or woman, married or unmarried, engaging in
intercourse, believe they will or might bring into existence a new
and consequently adopt any action—before, during, or after
intercourse—specifically intended as an end or means to prevent
they violate the procreative significance of sexual intercourse.
contracept. And contraceptive acts in Catholic tradition have
judged to be intrinsically evil. (The method adopted to render
sterile is incidental to the application of the norm.)
If contraceptive acts were wrong for married persons, but legitimate
unmarried persons, they would not be wrong per se, would not be
evil, but circumstantially evil. Although some Catholics hold
view seems clearly to be inconsistent with both the Church’s
Doctrinally speaking, John Paul II taught in Veritatis Splendor (1993)
“contraceptive practices” are intrinsically evil, by which he meant
choice of this kind of behavior [by which “the conjugal act is
rendered infertile”] is in no case compatible with the goodness of the
the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion
neighbor” (nos. 52, 80).
He was teaching no more than his predecessor Pope Pius XI taught in
Connubii (1930):“But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by
anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature
morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined
nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it
frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a
which is shameful and intrinsically vicious” (no. 54).
It is true that when Pius XII in his Address to Italian Midwives
VI in Humanae Vitae (no. 12, 14; 1968),and John Paul II in Familiaris
(no. 32; 1981) reformulate the negative norm against contraceptive
do so in the context of discussions of conjugal chastity in
this is, as I have said, because the Catholic teaching on contraception
be understood without an understanding of the nature and goods of
marriage. Its consideration therefore should always take
for academic or pastoral purposes—within a wider consideration of
But not one of their teachings is formulated in such a way as to
application of the norm to non-married couples. Pius XII for
teaches: “Every attempt of either husband or wife in the performance of
conjugal act or in the development of its natural consequences which
depriving it of its inherent force and hinders the procreation of new
immoral.” But since he is addressing a gathering of Italian
are delivering babies for married couples, his reference to “husband or
makes perfect sense. His statements should not be interpreted as
absolutely circumscribing the scope of the negative norm to married
Similarly, when John Paul II teaches in Familiaris Consortio (FC) that
“language” of contraceptive acts between married persons objectively
contradicts the language of marital self-giving, he intends to single
objective harm that these acts do within marriage and to spouses.
since he taught later in Veritatis Splendor that contraceptive acts are
intrinsically evil, semper et pro semper, we know he did not intend his
teaching in FC to specifically settle the wider question of whether
contraceptive acts are legitimate for non-married persons.
If however doubt still lingers as to the scope of the authoritative
teaching on contraception, an appeal to older formulations should
it. A penitential manual in the 10thcentury written by the
monk, Regino of Prüm, includes all persons, married and unmarried,
scope of the negative norm: “If anyone (si aliquis) for the sake of
sexual desire or in deliberate hatred does something to a man or to a
that no children may be born of him or her, or gives something to drink
he cannot generate or she conceive, let it be held as homicide”
text was incorporated into canon law in the 13th century in the form of
decretal Si aliquis. The collection of moral norms in which this
remained part of Western Catholic canon law up to the twentieth century
The theological tradition is similarly consistent. When Thomas
formulates his argument against contraceptive-type acts, he singles out
deliberate attempt to render a male ejaculatory act (“emission of
incapable of generating. In fact, his discussion of contraceptive
in the context of a discussion of why intercourse between non-married
is wrong . For Aquinas, this type of act is contra naturam
nature). Aquinas’ contra naturam argument against contraceptive
dominates Catholic theological literature on the question up until the
of the 20th century.
Since texts of canon law going back 700 years, papal encyclicals in the
century and the most influential theological arguments in Catholic
formulate the norm against contraceptive-type acts as universal,
every act by every person intended to render sexual acts sterile, the
the Church’s condemnation only applies within marriage—and therefore
does not apply
to (i.e., the acts can be legitimate and even obligatory for)
adulterers and prostitutes—ought to be set aside as inconstant with
 Churchly Disciplines and the Christian Religion 2.89, PL 132:301;
Noonan, Contraception, 1965, p. 168.
 Summa Contra Gentiles, book III, ch. 122, nos. 5, 9.