Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sex and a seismic shift: how badly we (all) understand the Church's teaching on contraception

The ticker on the bottom of the news broadcast caught my eye: "...seismic shift in Catholic Church teaching...."

Were Pope Benedict's words regarding condom use published in Ignatius Press' "Light of the World" a seismic shift in Church teaching? Or does the fact that many perceive it to be a seismic shift betray that many people--in the secular media as well as normal Church-going Catholics--don׳t have a properly nuanced understanding of the Church's teaching? I think it's the latter.

Here's why. Many think that the Church's teaching on contraception or artifical birth control can be summed up this way: "The use of artificial contraception is evil, always. Don't do it, ever."

But this isn't what the Catholic Church teaches, either in Humanae Vitae or in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Holy Father is revealing that many people don't understand the teaching. Before these brass tacks, here is a telling story, somewhat self-incriminating.

I was sitting in a seminary classroom in a moral theology class several years ago. The professor--a faithful, orthodox, and good priest and theologian--asked us, his class of eager and zealous seminarians, this hypothetical:

A band of violent guerrilla soldiers attack a small village in Africa. It is very likely that they will attack and perhaps rape members of a women's religious order, young nuns in their 20's, and 30's. Assuming that the nuns cannot escape this terrible situation, is it morally permissible for the nuns to take the "pill" or to demand that their attackers wear condoms, in order to prevent conception?

By a show of hands, almost the entire class said that the nuns would not be morally permitted to do this. We thought we were boldly and bravely supporting the Church's teaching.

The professor was totally shocked. Almost speechless. I was shocked that he was shocked. Either the entire class was wrong, or he, a professor with a pontifical doctorate, was wrong.
Stumbling to find words, he asked some students to defend their view, and the answer came back: "Artifical birth control is always intrinisically evil. The unitive and procreative elements of sex can never be separated. Sexual intercourse must always be open to life."

Then he said something that shocked us in its simplicity and its power to illuminate this issue: "Gentlemen, the Catholic Church teaches that intentional sterilization is always intrinsically evil when performed before, during, or after the conjugal act."

He pointed out the obvious fact that Humanae Vitae addresses the regulation of births within marriage. The Church's concern is to protect the dignity of the conjugal act, which is the marital act between a husband and a wife. The Church has no interest, from a moral or spiritual perspective, of protecting the "dignity" of other forms of sexual intercourse, whether fornication, homosexual acts, rape, incest, prostitution, etc. For illustration, look up "contraception" in the Catechism's index and it reads: "see Marriage: purpose of". When the Church considers the moral issue of contraception, she does so within the context of marriage.

Back to my seminary classroom-full of shocked theologians. In our zeal to protect the Church's black and white teaching on contraception with respect to the marital act, we had actually distorted it by hastily misapplying it to de-humanizing forms of sexual expression.

Many have pointed out that the Pope was, in "Light of the World," speaking about the hypothetical case of a male prostitute, so that the Church's teaching on contraception would still univocally apply to any heterosexual sexual encounter. While there is a distinction between the depravities of these homosexual "relations" and heterosexual intercourse, this is not the fundamental issue here.

For example, some translations of the Pope's words refer to the hypothetical prostitute as "he" and some as "she". Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi reported, "I asked the Holy Father if there was a serious distinction in the choice of male instead of female, and he said, 'No.'"

The key distinction, then, is not the between homosexual and heterosexual sex; it is between marital and non-marital sex. Why? Because the Church never separates the unitive and procreative elements of the conjugal/marital act. The unitive component demands marriage; the procreative component demands marriage. Sexual intercourse is too intimately linked to love and life for it to be employed anywhere except the humanizing structure of marriage.

If you lose one dimension (the procreative or the unitive), you've already lost the other, and you no longer are dealing with the conjugal act. A prostitute, a rapist, and even--brace yourself--a cohabitating and fornicating engaged couple are all incapable of the conjugal act because they are not married. In these we're dealing with sexual encounters of varying degrees of brokenness and disorder. Into these situations, the Church--embodied by the Pope's recent beautiful fatherly comments--speaks words of compassion and, at least as importantly, conversion.

By the way, this "narrow" application of the Church's prohibition of contraception within marriage does not, on my reading, necessarily promote or prohibit any kind of sexual morality for non-marital sex acts. In other words, the Church isn't all that interested in how people can best fornicate, or how they can employ prostitutes with the least amount of damage. Jesus didn't argue with the Pharisees about details regarding the disorder of divorce, and the Church doesn't legislate details over sex that takes place outside of marriage, either. She calls us to conversion.

For the record, did the Pope say that condom use outside the marital act is morally justifiable, to prevent AIDS, for example? No, he didn't. (He said it may be a "first step in the direction of a moralization" but not a "moral solution.")

Did the Pope say that condom use is a good, practical solution to spreading STDs and unwanted pregnancies? No, he didn't. Not even close. Look carefully at his words in the new book. Dr Janet Smith has a good piece on it at:

Unlike my moral theology professor from years back, I doubt that the Holy Father is shocked at the prevading ignorance on this issue, whether within the ranks of the secular media or well-intentioned Catholics. He's way too smart far that.
If this little flare-up of press gets people to crack open their Catechisms or to read Humanae Vitae in order to investigate this issue for themselves, perhaps many will come to understand the clear, beautiful, humanizing, and unchanging teaching of the Catholic Church which forbids the intentional sterilization of the conjugal act.

That would be a seismic shift indeed.


  1. Fr. Muir, Fr. Fessio, also fluent in Italian and German, of Ignatius press and a former teacher of mine has a very different take on the pope's use of the German word for prostitute--he says that the pope used the German word for male prostitute which is different from the German word for female prostitute. Also, Fr. Fessio points out that the Italian reporting used the Italian word una prostituta which is different from the pope's German word--in other words, una prostituta is a mistranslation of the original German word that the pope carefully chose.

    Please read about this here:

    When I read your post there was something about you professor's logic that bothered me and if you read Fr. Fessio's rendition of what the pope is saying about the morality of using condoms in the link above you will see what I mean. I think that your professor was making a mistake. (I'm not an expert but I did study ethics in college.) It is never permissable morally speaking to justify an evil for good ends. So, even if nuns were captured and turned into sex slaves, they couldn't morally be right in using contraception of any form to prevent getting pregnant.

    Please forgive me if I am accusing you of saying something other than what is above.

  2. Fr. Muir, Excellent illustration of why words matter! We use the word S-E-X to mean both 'nuptial union' and 'fornication' when, in fact, those two things are distinctly different, as you point out perfectly. Perhaps our culture has slipped into this by equating just the physical act with sex and forgetting that REAL sex equals marriage. Besides, the word ‘fornication’ has an extra zing and sting to it that ‘premarital sex’ lacks. Culturally, we could benefit from the stigma the former word still carries!

    Cordelia, it seems you are saying that the Church teaches that contraception outside of marriage is just as evil as contraceptive use within marriage. The seminary professor seems to be pointing out that contraception changes the marital act from something intrinsically good to something that is intrinsically evil. Contraception outside of marriage does not have the same effect because fornication is already intrinsically evil. Therefore, may contraceptive use outside of marriage be morally neutral, or at least a matter of prudential judgment - as in the case with the nuns? It's hard to imagine that a nun may kill in self-defense but not defend her womb from attack.

    I’m not sure if this analogy works, but here goes: A child dumps mud all over your wedding album. Why is that act wrong? It’s wrong because the mud destroyed the beautiful album, not because mud is bad. Mud on a wedding album is intrinsically bad. Mud on its own isn’t necessarily bad.

  3. What is sex? The form of sex and the goal of sex ought never be separated. That's what the Catholic Church teaches, doesn't it? So, even the prostitute in the Gospel had many husbands, as Jesus poined out, not sexual encounters, right?

    Morality is a philosophical topic (philosophy means love of wisdom), wisdom in actions like everything else philosophical is determined in relation to the end or goal of human existence first and foremost.

    I thought Fr. Fessio explained that the pope was saying that condoms are never justifiable, even in the case of male prostitutes being considerate in using them, and he does so by separating the issue into intention and object. The intention of the male prostitute is to have sex which is wrong (without giving a STD to the other person--making him considerate) and using a condom is like putting a pad on the bat that you still plan on beating someone with. In conclusion, the intention is really still the beating of another person, just not as brutally.

    The point is that having sex outside of marriage is against God's law because it is contrary to the goal of our human existence. A nun in the hypothetical situation presented by Fr. Muir's prof. in seminary would probably would be better off resisting and dying or being beaten for preserving her dignity. However, if she can't thwart her abusers, she might get pregnant, yes. But, how is that seen as something bad--life is given by God and is good even when the woman is raped. The main problem that I have with the prof.'s example is that it seems more like a set-up for justifying a cleansing at the ER for a woman who has been raped than a real situation.

    Fr. Fessio also points out that birth control is morally neutral in itself--using it as a balloon is not bad. How you use it matters. The intention to have sex outside of marriage is to pretend that you are married. Using birth control of any form outside of marriage is pretending that your married and you don't want to have a child. In the case of the nuns they wouldn't be culpable for having sex outside of marriage because they are being forced to do so, yet what is so cruel and tragic about that form of violence is not only the sin of treating a human without dignity, but also a lack of respect for human life, especially the second victim if the nun gets pregnant. What we are really talking about with the nun story is the intention is avoiding pregnancy and the object of that intention is birth control.

    Please do let me know if I'm not getting this right. I'm no moral theologian or philosopher by practice in the technical sense, yet we all have the power to try and carefully understand how an expert would work through this problem.

  4. Cordelia, I think that moral theologians still do tangle with that issue (about the nuns right to protect themselves from being impregnated by a rapist).

    I tend to think that the professor is correct, if it's a barrier method (she has every right to put a barrier between herself and a rapist). And actually, since the Pill is a neutral thing for an unmarried chaste woman, I think that would be morally licit, too. Just thinking out loud.

    I'd love to get Fr. Fessio's take on the nun situation. I think Fr. Muir has it right, though....

  5. Here's the mistake: Marriage is not the only defining aspect of the conjugal act according to Donald Asci, author of Ignatius Press book called "The Conjugal Act as Personal Act", on p. 277 at the top of the page, he states: “While the genital encounter of man and woman does not necessarily constitute the conjugal act, such an encounter becomes the conjugal act to the extent that the man and woman intend the ends of procreation and union.” (Donald Asci received his Master of Sacred Theology from the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family, and did his studies for a Doctorate in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical University in Rome. Search for his book on Google Books.)

    There is that "intention" word again that ethicists like to use. It looks like the intention and object of the intention must be considered in determining morally good and morally bad acts. (I think this way of looking at things comes from St. Thomas Aquinas.)

    Obviously, the nuns being raped is not the conjugal act because an act of the will to engage in the genital act is required: the intention of being open to conceiving, and the intention of sharing in a loving union are both required to make the genital act a conjugal act. And I get that. However, I still am confused about nun's defending their wombs with birth control. I want to believe that it's OK. It's just one of those unrealistic scenarios--I suppose a nun in dangerous territory could take the pill or keep a barrier form of b.c. on her person at all times. This just seems ridiculous and not realistic. Sorry. I'll keep thinking about it.

  6. The earlier question: “what is sex” is a really good one. I think we usually take ‘sex’ to mean the biological action. What we call ‘sex’ looks the same for a married couple and an unmarried one, but it’s actually a totally different action. The first has the potential to be conjugal union, and the second cannot be. In my first comment I tried to point out that there is a difference between these two things. Any discussion of the Pope’s comments on the use of contraception will be futile without that distinction being perfectly clear.
    I think Asci is explaining that even for married people, the marriage itself is not enough to make a genital act truly conjugal since they need to intend the procreative and unitive ends. On the previous page, he says: “Apart from a pursuit of or participation in the goods of marriage, the genital encounter does not yield the conjugal act.”
    Here’s what I propose: The effect of contraception depends on which kind of action is contracepted. Contraception destroys marriage, but it upholds fornication. Contraception breaks down the twin pillars or intentions of the marital act (procreation and union), but it doesn’t have that effect outside of marriage because fornication cannot have those ends, as Asci points out. It only has one: self-gratification, and contraception perfectly buttresses that pillar. Similarly with rape: the end is self-gratification or a feeling of power, or something like that. There is no procreative or unitive end to protect. It is not even possible to will these ends outside of marriage.
    The only way the ‘ends don’t justify the means’ argument is conclusive for the nun example is if you can show that contraception, as its own act, outside of marriage is inherently wrong. I am not aware of any Church teaching that says that. Of course contracepted sex outside of marriage is sinful. But, is that because it’s contracepted, or because it’s outside of marriage? The occasion of the Pope’s comments is a great opportunity to proclaim the sanctity of marriage so that married Christians can engage in true, grace giving conjugal union, which contraception makes impossible. I’m surprised that so many commentators are missing this point, and it was great to read it on this blog.

  7. Are fornication and contracepting not separate and distinct sins? I understand you to be saying that if one engages in fornication, it does not matter morally whether one uses contraception or not. Please explain if I am wrong.

    If two people go to confession for fornication, one having used contraception and the other not, should they both only confess fornication? Is the contracepting not a separate sin which must be confessed and forgiven as well?

    Fornication is a sin. Contracepted sex is a sin. Likewise, both rape and murder are sins. If two men go to confession for rape, one having murdered the woman afterwards and the other not, should they both only confess rape? After all, is the murder not merely making the rape "worse", which is a false distinction because it is impossible to commit a "better" rape?

    Through my own research, I have come to the understanding that the Church is against actions which can be contraceptive if they are used for contracepting (eg the pill may be all right if it is used to alleviate out of control menstrual issues when the possibility of conception is not an issue), no matter if the person is engaging in a contraceptive act with his legitimate spouse or someone else. Otherwise what you are saying is that Church moral law only applies to those following Church moral law, and does not apply to people not following Church moral law. That is to say, it is a mortal sin for Bob to use a condom when having sex with his wife, but it is not even morally wrong for high school senior Stan the Stud to use a condom with his latest conquest.

    In other words, once someone has committed one sin, all his subsequent (or concomitant) sins are morally neutral because, if they are related to the first one, they merely make it "worse", which is a false distinction. I find it difficult to believe that you are saying this, but it's what I'm getting from your stance on this subtopic of your article.

    I suspect your professor may have engaged in a bit of sleight-of-hand with the "conjugal act" routine. The Catechism is a gentlemanly document, written by men of refinement, and does not refer to "sex" by such a crude colloquialism (the closest it gets to that particular verbiage is "sexual acts"), but rather expresses the concept in various dignified euphemisms. Contraceptive acts are brought up in the section about married couples because there really isn't anywhere else to put it; the other section is "sins against chastity" and discussing contraception there doesn't fit because although it is a companion, it is not a sexual act and therefore cannot be classified as a sin against chastity. The euphemism of choice in that section is "conjugal act" because of its broader context.

    I think that it is duplicitous to conclude that contraception is only wrong for married people. It is in that section because it happens while having sex, and according to the Church the only people who are supposed to be having sex are married people. However, non-married people sometimes also have sex even though it is wrong. Contraceptive acts are intrinsically evil (CCC 2370); they are sins no matter *what* kind of sex (marital or extra-marital) they are thwarting.

    Time was, people were taught to confess their sins in kind and number, and if someone intentionally left out a sin, or was intentionally vague, it rendered the sacrament invalid. Oh wait, it's STILL that time (CCC 1456, CCL 988 §1).

  8. Leah, did you read my comment above about Donald Asci's book? He says that sex is the genital act and it becomes the conjugal act to the extent that it imitates it--i.e., to the extant that an unmarried couple has the intentions of procreation and union in the genital act that they are engaging in. So, you have it right, I think. The genital act occurs in all sorts of situations--rape, incest, marriage, meaningless fun or pleasure--but, the only way to distinguish between the moral rightness of these situations is in analyzing the intentions of the persons engaging in the genital act.

  9. When Asci says, "Apart from a pursuit of or participation in the goods of marriage, the genital encounter does not yield the conjugal act," I don't see how we can conclude that the conjugal act is possible outside of marriage.

    I looked up the definition of 'conjugal.' It simply means 'pertaining to marriage!!' Don't we have to read his later quote in the context of the whole chapter?

    He also explains why the unitive & procreative ends of conjugal union are not possible outside of marriage. There is no union, and procreation involves more than just conception.

    Leah, CCC 2370 prohibits action that renders procreation impossible, within a conjugal (marital) act. I don't think 'conjugal union' is a euphemism at all. There's nothing dirty about the word 'sex.' It's just vague and can mean genital acts in all sorts of situations. The writers of the catechism are speaking specifically of marriage and so use the correct term: conjugal, to help us understand that they are referencing MARITAL intercourse, not just any genital act.

    For fun, look up "contraception" in the index of the CCC. It leads right to 'Matrimony, purpose of.' I think this is deliberate, because it's the perfect place, not for the lack of a better place. It doesn't even make sense to talk about the sin of contraception outside of marriage, since it's a sin against marriage. The sin of contraception is only possible for married people to commit.

    An unmarried couple, even with the best intention, is incapable of making their act conjugal. Similarly, a non-ordained man cannot confect the Eucharist, even if that's what he really intends. This is what separates Catholics from Protestants: we believe that sacraments actually change things.

    In looking at the Church's explanation of 'The Goods and Requirements of Conjugal Love'(CCC 1643-1654), how could we not be in agreement that conjugal union is only possible in marriage?