The Problem of Catholic Contraception
Note: The following are two pieces by Fr. Dominque Bourmaud and Fr. Daniel Couture, respectively, that deal with the issue of “Catholic contraception” and its seeming permissibility in the Church today.
A Distorted Teaching
YouCat, a version of the New Catechism designed for the youth, was intended as a major tool in the Church’s approach to the secular world. It was touted on Vatican Radio recently as a “young and user-friendly” way for young people to learn how to answer common secular objections to unpopular Catholic teaching on topics such as contraception, abortion, and euthanasia.
The problem is that YouCat, originally written in German, has been poorly translated. The Italian version contains errors on the Church’s teachings about euthanasia and contraception, and the French edition has other errors. On the specific matter of contraception, the Italian edition answers “yes” to the question: “Can a Christian couple have recourse to contraceptive methods?”
The Italian publisher will be recalling the book and correcting the error. But are we dealing only with a mere translation error or are we pursuing a slippery road which the Roman authorities started long ago? A Roman document, in 1997, directed to confessors on matters of conjugal morality, shows a weakening of positions since Humanae Vitae in practical advice given to penitents who use contraception. Not only does it favor personal conscience and “good faith” over the Church’s teaching, but it advises giving absolution to those who contracept without repentance.
Then, the papal book Light of the World sent different vibes from what has always been understood on the same subject of contraception. It maintains the prohibitions of Humanae Vitae, “but finding ways allowing to live by them today is another story…expressing all this on the pastoral, theological and intellectual context of the present research on sexuality and anthropology, in such a way that it will become more comprehensible.” Here we simply understand nothing, except that the Church seems afraid to tell the truth!
A False Catechism
Returning to YouCat, the English-language version says that Catholic couples are entitled to plan the size of their families by “regulating conception” and that the Church “recommends” Natural Family Planning. With this seemingly innocent question, we find raised the spectrum of the modern ideal “Catholic” family: two kids, two cars, two houses, two dogs! Sounds like the good old life of the Protestant couple of 40 years ago! So what has happened since then?
It is no mystery that the modern Catholic pastoral approach to couples is to force Natural Family Planning literature on them as soon as possible. The couples are told that they have to be responsible in raising a family and consider the size, etc. We are told that this is quite legitimate in God’s eyes and that there is absolutely nothing wrong about a couple using their marital rights “responsibly.” Is this not in line with the inversion of the marriage ends, between procreation and mutual help, which was made official with the 1983 Code of Canon Law?
Yet things are not so simple. In fact, the marriage act is licit only if, in the couple’s intention, it is open to new life. The practice of NFP can beget a mentality which is foreign to the Catholic outlook on life and the spirit of sacrifice. The Church has universally and constantly encouraged the growth of large families, which are the gardens of many vocations. Indeed, the crisis in vocations is due in great part to the dwindling of the Catholic family spirit. There may certainly be hard times in a couple’s life, which tempts one to limit the burden of mouths to feed, but there is also the alternative of abstinence, always the surest and best way, which one must acquire by a proper education even from puberty.
The Teaching of Pius XII
The main magisterial document to be used as a reference here is the “Address to Midwives,” given by Pope Pius XII on October 29, 1951. Here are a few principles he establishes:
The pope warns married people who are able to have children against the habitual practice of sensual self-gratification with the intention of excluding offspring. Marriage grants rights to spouses to satisfy natural inclinations, but also imposes the function of providing for the conservation of the human race. Hence, young people who are unwilling to have children should not marry.
There are four conditions which must be met before one may consider the moral possibility of periodic continence, or Natural Family Planning:
It must be done for serious reasons. Both parties need to mutually and freely agree to use it. The danger of sin must be avoided for both parties. It can only be practiced for the duration of these serious reasons. The serious reasons given by the pope are medical (e.g., the mother’s health is at risk), eugenic (e.g., the health of the child), economic (e.g., if the family can’t afford to feed another child, as may be the case in third world countries), or social (e.g., the prolonged absence of one parent).
One should remember that Pope Pius XII warned the medical world and priests of the danger of falling into an “unjust and inappropriate” propaganda in favor of these so-called “methods.” Perhaps the pope said this because the prolonged regulating of private life by the calendar engenders a sort of contraceptive mentality, where children are not really welcomed and where parents can do away with their natural responsibilities and turn to pleasure. Christian couples would gain tranquility of conscience by seeking the advice of a prudent confessor in doubtful cases or hard circumstances since nemo judex in causa sua–no man is the judge of his own case. A priest can provide an objective perspective about the reality of one’s circumstances. Also, in all medical questions, which frequently involve the psychological fragility of the parents, the advice of a competent medical professional seems both mandatory and wise.
In any event, one must remember that the rule is a large family, and exceptions are only that. Of course, the modern world has made certain things more difficult than they were in previous times, but let us remember the advice of Pius XII:
“This teaching of Ours has nothing to do with Manichaeism and Jansenism, as some would have people believe in order to justify themselves. It is only a defense of the honor of Christian matrimony and of the personal dignity of the married couple.”
The Timeless Teaching of the Church
As perennial philosophy teaches, action follows being, and thus, morality follows doctrine. Fighting to keep sound doctrine means wanting to keep morality in its integrity, and changing the doctrine leads to changing morality.
Today, we are the sad witnesses to an unprecedented attack on all aspects of marriage. Changes in the doctrine of marriage logically result in changes in morality. These changes can be traced to their origins in Rome itself.
For example, this past December 14th, at the prestigious Gregorian University in Rome, where Archbishop Lefebvre studied in the 1920s, Fr. Maurizio Chiodi, a new member of the Pontifical Academy for Life (by the expressed will of Pope Francis), gave a lecture. It was his third on the subject, of which the purpose was to revisit the encyclical Humanae Vitae of 1968—the very one that condemned contraception as “intrinsically perverse”—“in the context of a time of change” and “more complex” situations. In the last three minutes of his 45-minute lecture, he refuted the Church’s teaching by talking about responsibility in generation:
“[I]n situations where natural methods are impossible or unfeasible, other forms of responsibility need to be found. There are circumstances—I refer here to Amoris Laetitia, Chapter 8—that precisely, for the sake of responsibility, require contraception….In (these) circumstances, then, an artificial method for the regulation of birth could be recognized as an act of responsibility” (Faithful Insight, February 2018, pp. 27-28).
Confusion Seeps In
Our bishops in Canada had declared the same in September 1968, after the publication of Humanae Vitae in the infamous Winnipeg Declaration. In paragraph 26, it said, “they may be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course (i.e., artificial birth control) which seems right to him, does so in good conscience.” This notion endorses the primacy of conscience over the law of God.
Let us go back further, to the Council itself. The words of Fr. Chiodi are only the faithful echo of what a cardinal, this time, pronounced quite clearly in the conciliar aula and which was well understood by all, liberals, conservatives and the media. It is no other than Cardinal Suenens, who is largely responsible for the expression “Pastoral Council” (Vatican II: An Unwritten History by Roberto de Mattei, pp. 167-168).
This ecclesial thunderbolt took place on October 29, 1964, in the middle of the Third Session, when the schema Gaudium et Spes was discussed. In the first part of his long intervention, the cardinal asked whether the Church had properly understood marriage so far, perhaps focusing too much on procreation and not enough on conjugal love. In the second part, he talked about scientific progress: “Let us follow the progress of science. Let us avoid a new ‘Galileo Trial’.”
The French daily Le Monde clearly understood the cardinal’s message:
“The least that can be said is that the last two General Congregations of Vatican II (Oct. 27 and 29) have inaugurated a new era in the Roman Church. In fact, the interventions of (Patriarch) Maximos IV and Cardinals Léger, Suenens, and Alfrink represent such a break with what is called the traditional doctrine on birth control that they mark a radical change of attitude” (De Mattei, op.cit., pp. 393-394).
A New Ordering of the Ends of Marriage
This has now been inscribed in the 1983 Code of Canon Law in Canon 1055 which inverts the ends of marriage, putting procreation second, after mutual love between spouses.
As early as December 1966, a year after the end of the Council, Archbishop Lefebvre deplored the harmful fruits that were already appearing everywhere. In an answer to Cardinal Ottaviani, he wrote:
“One can and unfortunately must affirm that, in an almost general way, when the Council innovated, it shook the certainty of truths taught by the authentic Magisterium of the Church as definitely belonging to the treasure of Tradition. Whether it is the transmission of the jurisdiction of bishops…, the purposes of marriage, religious freedom, the last ends, etc….On these fundamental points, the traditional doctrine was clear and taught unanimously in Catholic universities. However, many texts of the Council on these truths now allow the possibility of doubt. The consequences were quickly drawn and applied in the life of the Church.
It is perhaps one of the most dreadful findings of our time to see to what moral decay most Catholic publications have reached. They speak without restraint of sexuality, of birth control by any means, of the legitimacy of divorce, of co-education, flirtation, dances as necessary means of Christian education, etc.”
The Archbishop’s Words
In 1984, in his Open Letter to Confused Catholics, the Archbishop recalled the drama of that Third Session he personally experienced:
“It was Cardinal Suenens who proposed this change and I still remember Cardinal Brown, the Master General of the Dominicans, getting up to say, ‘Caveatis! Caveatis!—Beware! Beware!’ If we accept this definition we go against all the tradition of the Church and we pervert the meaning of marriage. We do not have the right to modify the Church’s traditional definitions….The Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, contains nevertheless an ambiguous passage, where emphasis is laid on procreation ‘without nevertheless minimizing the other aims of marriage’. The Latin verb, posthabere, permits the translation ‘without putting in second place the other aims of marriage’, which would mean ‘to place them all on the same level’. This is what is wanted today; all that is said about marriage comes back to the false idea expressed by Cardinal Suenens, that conjugal love—which was soon termed quite simply and much more crudely ‘sexuality’—comes at the head of the purposes of marriage. Consequently, under the heading of sexuality, everything is permitted—contraception, natural family planning, and finally, abortion. One bad definition, and we are plunged into total disorder.”
Archbishop Lefebvre had clearly seen it all long ago! Let us maintain the traditional doctrine so that we can at the same time maintain morality in its entirety.