Birth Control: The Case for the Catholic

By Father Francis J. Connell

In the Atlantic Monthly for July, Mr. Eduard C. Lindeman discussed 'The Responsibilities of Birth Control.' While dissenting radically from the views of Mr. Lindeman, the present article is not intended to be a direct rebuttal of his presentation of the case. Its sole purpose is to explain the attitude of the Catholic Church toward what is commonly called 'birth control' -- that is, the use of some physical means or method for the purpose of frustrating the reproductive efficacy of sexual intercourse. I shall expound chiefly the moral aspect of the subject. This is an aspect with which Mr. Lindeman was not concerned, but which to many persons, nonCatholics as well as Catholics, is a factor of paramount importance. Since numerous points are involved in the question, my treatment must necessarily be summary; but I trust it will be found clear and consistent.

The discussion of this subject as I intend to present it will be fully appreciated only by those who admit that there is a Supreme Being, whom men are obliged to serve and to obey. It is well to remark in passing that the Catholic Church does not expect anyone to accept the existence of a personal God merely on faith or through an unreasoning impulse. It is a factual truth that can be convincingly demonstrated by logical, unemotional argumentation. However, the necessary limitations of this article compel me to assume that my readers are sufficiently acquainted with at least one argument proving that there is a God whose laws are binding on all mankind.

In common with most Protestants and Jews, Catholics hold that the Almighty has made known to the human race through inspired prophets certain doctrines that transcend man's natural intellectual powers and certain precepts that exceed his natural duties. These truths and commandments constitute supernatural revelation. However, we are now concerned, not with superadded obligations imposed by the Creator on mankind, but with obligations which are incumbent on man by the very fact that he is a rational creature, and which are within the scope of his own intelligence. Human beings can discover these obligations by their own reasoning powers, although the Almighty has included many of them in His revelation, such as 'Thou shalt not kill. -- Thou shalt not steal.' These obligations constitute the natural law of morality. The most general norm of right and wrong established by this natural law is that a person's actions are morally good when they are in conformity with God's will, and they are. morally bad when they are in opposition to God's will.

Throughout the entire universe wisdom of God can be perceived, ingeniously  adapting means to ends, coordinating causes and effects. This divinely planned harmony is particularly manifest in the constitution of living beings. Each organ has its proper purpose, each faculty its proper function. Now it is certainly the will of the Creator who adapted these vital powers to definite ends that they should operate toward the attainment of these ends. He Himself directs the activities of irrational creatures by providing them with certain irresistible inclinations, so that they necessarily employ their faculties for their proper purpose. The effect of this guidance in animals we call instinct. The bird will infallibly use its wings to fly; the bee is certain to employ its marvelously constructed organs to gather pollen and to make honey. But to man, the most exalted of the living things of earth, God grants freedom of choice in the use of his powers. A human being can direct his faculties of soul and of body to the purposes intended by the Creator, or he can distort them to other ends. And on the way he chooses to employ them depends the morality of his actions. When a person uses his faculties for their proper purpose, his action is morally good, for it is in accordance with God's will; when he deliberately frustrates their proper purpose, his action is morally evil, for it is opposed to God's will. The gravity of the sin is proportionate to the gravity of the harm resulting from the action.

For example, the faculty of speech is designed to enable men to communicate their ideas to one another. When a person uses this faculty to express truth to his fellow men, he is employing it for its proper purpose and acting lawfully; when he deliberately tells a lie, he is frustrating the proper purpose of this faculty and acting sinfully. The nutritive faculties are intended to sustain man's bodily health, and one who eats and drinks with due moderation is performing a morally good act, whereas the glutton and the drunkard are doing wrong inasmuch as they are defeating the proper end of these faculties by their excesses.

Among the most important of man's faculties is the sexual power. Its chief purpose is the generation of new life. This purpose pertains to the social order; it concerns the common good rather than the individual good. When husband and wife perform their marital functions in the natural manner, they are concurring in the designs of God toward the preservation and the propagation of the human race. The full import of this objective is perceived only by those who admit the eternal destiny of mankind. To them parenthood means, not merely the procreation of another member of society, but primarily coöperation with the Almighty in the creation of an immortal soul that is destined to be happy with God forever.

However, when husband and wife deliberately and positively frustrate the procreative purpose of sexual intercourse, they pervert the order of nature and thus directly oppose the designs of nature's Creator. And since the reproductive function is so vital to the upkeep of the race, and since any exception to this law would be multiplied indefinitely, every act of contraceptive frustration is a gravely immoral act, or, in Catholic terminology, a mortal sin. To quote the terse phrase of Pope Pius XI in his Encyclical on Christian Marriage: 'Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.'

II

I have said that contraception is opposed to the chief purpose of sexual intercourse. Certainly there are other ends to which nature ordains conjugal relations, especially the alleviation of sexual craving and the fostering of a deep and abiding love between husband and wife. It is absurd to imagine that the Catholic Church regards conjugal coition as nothing more than a physical medium for the generation of offspring. Its psychological value as an expression of mutual self-surrender, its innate power to arouse a generous idealism in a married couple, are readily acknowledged by Catholic moralists. But these ends are manifestly subordinated to the Creator's primary purpose in endowing men and women with sexual potency -- the conservation and the propagation of the human race. Indeed, there is an acknowledgment of this primary purpose of sexual relations in the principle, admitted by all civilized nations, that conjugal intercourse is lawful only between husband and wife. The basic reason is that only in the permanent union of marriage can a child be properly reared; consequently, the child is the main object of sexual intercourse. In the words of Dr. Alexis Carrel: “Whether conscious or unconscious, the reproductive urge is the source of love….The sex act has been deprived of its natural consequences by the technical progress of contraception. However, the biological law of reproduction remains imperative. And transgressors are punished in a subtle manner. It is a disastrous mistake to believe we can live according to our fancy. Being parts of nature, we are submitted to its inexorable laws” (Reader's Digest, July 1939).

It does not follow from Catholic principles that conjugal intercourse is forbidden whenever conception is naturally impossible, as when a woman is already pregnant or advanced in years. Nature itself includes such conditions in its plan, and so in these circumstances a married pair do nothing against nature, nothing immoral, if they make use of their marital rights, provided they have the power of complete coition. They are not positively frustrating the chief purpose of the sexual act, they are not opposing the designs of nature and of nature's Author.

It is important to note that the argument which is being urged against contraception is not based on any such principle as 'It is always sinful to oppose or to check any force of nature.' The misunderstanding of this point has occasioned innumerable objections of the species known as reductio ad absurdum against the Church's denunciation of contraceptive practices. For example: 'The Catholic teaching on birth control would lead to the conclusion that a person commits a sinful act whenever he cuts his hair or trims his nails, since in performing these actions one frustrates nature.'

The flaw in this manner of reasoning is the failure to distinguish between the restricting of a natural power and the preventing of the purpose of a natural power. The former by no means necessarily includes the latter. It is within the designs of nature itself that there should be opposition and conflict among the multitudinous forces and agents that operate in the universe, that one creature should restrain and control the tendencies and activities of another and utilize them to its own advantage. The animal violently interrupts the vital functioning of the plant by using it as food, and man does the same to the animal; but there is no frustration of any divinely ordained purpose in this process. On the contrary, there is the fulfillment of the Creator's design that the lower in the scale of perfection should contribute to the sustenance of the higher. Similarly -- to answer the specific objection -- when a person cuts his hair or trims his nails he does indeed curtail the growth of these bodily appendages, but their chief purpose, the utility of the individual himself, is promoted rather than frustrated. Certainly nature does not call for an unchecked augmentation of hair and nails; they must be clipped if they would be beneficial to the whole person, to whom they are subservient as the lesser good to the greater. But it is an utterly different case with contraception, which prevents the very primary purpose of sexual activity and inverts the due order of things by making the social benefit of conjugal intercourse subservient to the benefit of the individuals concerned.

This can be illustrated by a development of the parallelism which exists between the faculty of nutrition and that of sex. The primary purpose of the former is to preserve the life of the individual; the primary purpose of the latter is to preserve the life of the human race. To attract human beings to the due use of these faculties, the Creator has annexed to the functioning of each a feeling of pleasure. Sexual gratification is particularly vehement, and in this is manifest the sagacity of divine providence, inducing men and women to undertake the arduous duties of parenthood for the benefit of the human race. But, to continue the analogy, it is possible for a person to enjoy the pleasure accompanying the use of either of these faculties, and at the same time to distort his action in such wise that its chief purpose is rendered unattainable. This is what takes place relative to the sexual faculty when contraception is employed. And the analogous case in the use of the nutritive faculty is the revolting practice of some ancient Roman gourmands, who ate to satiety and then induced regurgitation. In each case the sensual gratification intended by the Creator as an incentive to the use of the respective faculty is sought and enjoyed, while the divinely established main purpose is deliberately and positively obstructed. Is it not strange that many persons who shudder at the very thought of the disgusting custom of the ancient voluptuaries do not hesitate to defend and to practise the equally perverse operation of contraception?

The Catholic Church does not teach that married couples are obliged, or even always counseled, to have as large a progeny as is physically possible. Reasons of health or of economy not infrequently make it advisable for a couple not to have more children. But the only lawful method of avoiding parenthood is abstinence, either total or periodic. Every intelligent person will see how different is this type of 'birth control' -- if one wishes to call it such -- from the use of a contraceptive. One is the non-use of a faculty, the other is its abuse.

Married persons who are anxious to have more children but find an increase of their family impossible because of economic stress are particularly deserving of sympathy. There are many couples in such circumstances at the present day nobly practising self-restraint rather than be guilty of what their conscience tells them is an abuse of the marriage act. Others in like circumstances unfortunately have recourse to contraceptive devices, and though their guilt is not so grievous as that of those who are financially and physically able to have more children but who pervert their conjugal relations through mere selfishness, their conduct is nevertheless gravely sinful. Speaking of married couples in extreme want, Pope Pius XI says: 'They should take care lest the calamitous state of their material affairs should be an occasion for a much more calamitous error. No difficulty can arise that justifies the putting aside of the law of God which forbids all acts intrinsically evil. There is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties and preserve in wedlock their chastity unspotted' (Encyclical on Christian Marriage). In every condition of life, fidelity to duty calls for the exercise of some form of self-denial, and married persons placed in the circumstances which we are depicting are no exception to this rule. However, it is a fundamental Christian principle that when the Almighty imposes an obligation on His creatures He gives them the requisite strength of will to fulfill it, provided they seek His aid in sincere and humble prayer.

Moreover, the Catholic Church teaches that Christian marriage provides special assistance toward the proper performance of conjugal duties and self-restraint when it is necessary. For, according to Catholic belief, every marriage of two baptized persons, irrespective of their particular creed, is a sacrament -- that is, a medium of supernatural enlightenment and strength, elevated to this dignity by Jesus Christ. And through the efficacy of the sacrament of matrimony the Christian husband and wife are linked together in a spiritual union similar to that which exists between Christ and His Church -- to use the analogy proposed by Saint Paul in the Epistle to the Ephesians (v. 3) -- and receive therefrom the divine help required for fidelity to the obligations of their state.

In treating of Christian marriage I may add that, while Catholics do not regard the marriage of unbaptized persons -- a Jewish couple, for example -- as a Christian sacrament, they reverence such a marriage as a lawful and sacred union. And on such a couple, who try to be faithful to their duties as their conscience dictates, God undoubtedly bestows an abundance of blessings and helps.

IV

In emphasizing the moral argument against contraception, I have no intention of rejecting or minimizing other arguments. Undoubtedly the use of contraceptives is often harmful from a hygienic standpoint. Undoubtedly, too, the psychological benefits of marital intercourse, such as the deepening of conjugal love and the contentment consequenton complete sexual satisfaction, suffer greatly from contraceptive practices. There is inevitably a lowering of mutual respect between the husband and wife who agree to make use of contraception. Many a divorce dates from such an agreement. This is the verdict of competent authorities, non-Catholic as well as Catholic, as can be seen in De Guchteneere's Judgment on Birth Control, and it differs radically from Mr. Lindeman's assertion that contraception, 'if properly used, will inevitably increase marital happiness and lift family life to a new level of conscious satisfaction and enjoyment.'

Furthermore, birth control as it is now practised in the United States is bound to bring about a notable decline in our white population in the near future. Skilled statisticians predict that in twenty or thirty years our nation will cease to grow and begin to diminish, unless there occurs some extraordinary immigrational influx or widespread change in the attitude toward birth control. When the decline becomes pronounced and rapid, the government will probably become concerned in the matter, like the government of France, which is now making strenuous efforts to induce married couples to produce more children. It is not at all unlikely that the babies who are being born in the United States today will receive similar inducements from our government before they are too old to bear offspring. Even now there are many thoughtful men and women in our land who are gravely disturbed over the decline of the population and are engaged in a campaign for more births, although some of them continue to advocate the use of contraception by persons whose offspring are liable to be unsound in mind or in body. Thus Mr. Frederick Osborn, a prominent member of the American Eugenics Society, in an address to the New York Academy of Medicine on April 6, 1939, stated that with the extension of birth-control services the rate of reproduction in the United States will fall to 30 per cent or more below the rate needed for the mere replacement of the population; and he urged the members of the medical profession to be zealous in stimulating parenthood on the part of more competent persons (Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, July 1939). Apparently contraception has become in our land a veritable Frankenstein, bent on destroying the society that called it into being for its own utility.

However, while recognizing the value of arguments based on physical and psychological considerations and on the decline of the birth rate, the Catholic Church gives first place to the argument drawn from the moral law. Harm done to individuals and to society is an immeasurably lesser evil than the rebellion of creatures against their Creator. It seems hardly necessary to remind my readers that the Catholic Church proclaims the prohibition of contraceptive practices, not as an act of merely ecclesiastical legislation (like the prohibition of meat eating on Friday), but as a law emanating from God Himself, binding all human beings, whatever may be their religious convictions. Contraception was a sin thousands of years before the Catholic Church existed. Consequently, the Catholic Church can never change its stand on this matter. If the human race is in existence ten thousand years hence, no matter what changes may have taken place in the social and economic and scientific spheres, the Catholic Church will still be preaching the same doctrine on birth control that it is teaching today.

I do not claim that all Catholics can explain the argument against contraception as it has been propounded in this paper. Nor is this necessary, for Catholics unhesitatingly accept the authoritative declarations of their Church on matters of morality, even though they do not perceive their intrinsic reason. There is nothing illogical in this confiding acquiescence, since Catholics are convinced that there are adequate objective proofs of their Church's claim to be the divinely authorized proponent of the moral law, guided and protected by God Himself. Indeed, a Catholic could even deny the cogency of the argument against contraception as it has been developed in this article, so long as he admits the official teaching of the Church. For the Church's teaching on this subject is based primarily on divine revelation, which includes a more explicit and a more detailed interpretation of the natural moral law than is provided by human reason alone.

Doubtless there are many to whom the dogmatic attitude of the Catholic Church appears to be supreme arrogance, and the docile attitude of Catholics supreme gullibility. But would it not be the reasonable thing for such persons to examine sincerely the claims of the Catholic Church and the grounds on which they are based? Certainly an organization which for almost two thousand years has unswervingly maintained a consistent and uniform standard of morality in an ever-changing world is entitled to receive from intelligent persons an impartial investigation of its claim to be the one true church of the living God.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1939/10/birth-control-the-case-for-the-catholic/308925/