Introduction to the Online Edition of
Is There a Solution to the Catholic Debate on Contraception?

I first started thinking about the moral debate over contraception in 1964 when it was an open question, and I had no personal stake in its outcome, for at that time I was a seminarian in religious life.

I soon came to an impasse. For I could understand why the popes condemned contraceptives, but I could not understand how they could then approve rhythm. After wrestling with this problem for a while, the beginning of a solution came from an unexpected direction, which was the case of the religious vows. When I was faced with taking vows for the first time, I had had to face a similar issue. If we must love God with our whole hearts, no matter what our vocation, how could we say that taking of the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience made us enter into a state of perfection in which we were called to love God more completely and intensely? This was a question that could not be answered by the consideration only of the essence of things, but demanded the fallen – redeemed state that we live in had to be taken account of. If by nature we are called to love God as much as possible, there is more involved here than nature. There is nature as it concretely exists here and now in a fallen – redeemed state.

Now I saw that while the popes had used a language based on the essential analysis of the nature of the conjugal act to condemn contraceptives, they had used that same kind of language to approve rhythm. Yet the reasoning that lay underneath this kind of language was of a more concrete and existential kind. This distinction which is crucial for the whole debate about contraception I hope will become clear in the chapters that follow.

A little later I saw that Jacques Maritain had discussed the basic principles underlying this insight between the essential and existential in terms of moral philosophy adequately considered. I already had a passion for his thought, which I still do, so once I had written up a short paper on contraception in 1965 or 1966 I sent it off to him. By then he was already in semi-seclusion in Toulouse, but he was kind enough to respond, and he said that while he had not the energy to go into the matter, as far as he could see a solution to the problem of contraception could not be looked for in that direction.

But it turns out that Maritain did have something to say about contraception. It comes in the form of a note, "Apropos of birth control" that accompanies a letter he wrote Charles Journet in 1948. The context of the letter is, itself, interesting because it appears to be part of the wider controversies that surrounded la nouvelle théologie and more particular, a post-World War II discussion about the ends of marriage. One is struck by the oppressive atmosphere emanating from Rome which stifled such discussions and made Journet and Maritain both reluctant to make any public statements about contraception lest they compromise their other work. We can only hope that as the Maritain-Journet correspondence continues to be published, more discussion on this theme will come to light.

The whole section that follows comes from the Maritain – Journet correspondence as presented in an article by Bernard Doering in Commonweal,
May 18, 2001, called "Silent Dissenter: Jacques Maritain on contraception" at

Maritain’s note reads: "In order that intercourse between spouses may not be hindered from attaining its natural finalities and in order that it be morally correct: It is not necessary that the intention of procreating children be present. (The woman may have undergone an operation that made her sterile, or she might be beyond childbearing age.) Moreover, the intention not to procreate may be present, as in the case of the Ogino method [the rhythm method], which the church has not condemned. So it is not the intention of the agent, the intention not to procreate, which makes the practice of birth control sinful. Then what does make it sinful? Certainly not an intention (finis operantis) extrinsic to the act of intercourse itself, but rather an alteration introduced into the very exercise of that act, which turns it away from its finality in its very excellence. (For example: the case of Onan.)

"So let us suppose that one day science invents a product which, taken orally in the form of a pill or subcutaneously by injection, renders a woman sterile for a given period of time. Will spouses who use this drug for a proper and acceptable motive and in order to have a child only when their reason tells them it is good to do so be guilty of a moral failing? By no means! Their human reason intervened actively at the same point where with the Ogino method human reason calculated very simply to profit by what nature was doing on its own: it is impossible to see how this could in any way be culpable.

"One may very well ask if technical progress will not eventually find a solution to the great moral problem of birth control, by giving man the means to avoid procreation without altering the act of intercourse in its very exercise in order to turn it away from its proper end. In the past there was no contraceptive technique other than that of Onan. And the regulation of the number of children in families was established by sickness or death (infant mortality). In the future we may very well have contraceptive techniques which will make it possible to avoid procreation, all the while leaving to the sexual act its full normality and its finality in the exercise of that act. And in this case the control of human reason will establish the regulation of the number of children.

"If what I say is correct, the practical casuistic problem would be to determine if some contraceptive method or other alters the act in its very exercise or maintains its full normality, as in the theoretical case I have considered. But the question of principle would be resolved. A doctor whom I consulted on this question (one that is impossible to avoid in the United States) assured me that in his opinion certain of the methods actually in use here pertain to the second category [that is, maintaining full normality] rather than to the first [that is, altering the act in its very exercise]" (III, 977a).

"(The notes that Journet sent to Maritain in response to his remarks on birth control are not included in their subsequent exchanges of letters; they may have been lost. The next three letters are from Journet adding details and texts that he had forgotten to put in his lost responses to Maritain.)

"In November, Maritain wrote from Princeton concerning his notes on birth control: "It is enormous for me that you do not judge them to be heretical. I know that Casti connubii has an entirely different ring to it. But precisely, if I am right (or better, if we are right) it must be said that this question offers another of those tragic examples where the church defends a truth by blockading it with ways of thinking that simple human experience has left way behind (a l'aveuglette) [that is, like a blind man feeling his way in the dark]. The day when the church would admit such techniques as we are speaking about, nothing would have been changed in its doctrine, but those souls whom the church has completely and fundamentally mobilized against every idea of any technique whatsoever of this kind and in behalf of a philosophy of procreation without any control of reason will understand nothing about this whole question" (III, 985).

"Two weeks later, on December 2, Journet wrote to Maritain: "Jacques, for this terrible question of eugenics, I'm afraid that as a support for you I'm rather unsteady on my own feet. What I wanted to say is that since moralists say that everything is saved if the conjugal act can be accomplished to all appearances, they should have no objection to hormonal injections. Will they then argue that this is a case of mutilation? They do so in the case where Fallopian tubes are tied...So they consider mutilation in a functional sense....I have always had a problem admitting (though I do so by authority) an essential difference between the Ogino method and contraceptive precautions. It seems to me they are hypnotized by the physical. So an injection becomes an objection that vexes the moralists" (III, 986)."

What can we make of this exchange? Maritain’s remarks are, of course, preliminary, but as they stand, they show the same kind of ambiguities that have bedeviled the discussion about contraception all along. Maritain’s reasoning flows along the path of the Church’s acceptance of the rhythm method to an acceptance of a hypothetical pill because both methods do not disrupt the exercise of the conjugal act, or better, the natural structure of the act.

But the intention of the agent cannot be abstracted from in a moral act, and the exercise of the act, itself, is inextricably connected to the end of the act which the Church teaches is the procreation of new life. The natural structure of the act cannot be separated from its purpose. We are dealing with a question that has both an essentialistic dimension which rests on an analysis of the act, itself, and an existential one, that is, the very state of the subject who exercises this act. This is a distinction that plays a central role in Maritain’s philosophical work, and I can only hope that if he had been free to pursue his reflections on birth control, they would have come out somewhat like the position that I am developing in this book.

My initial paper was never published, and my life changed, and it was not until twenty years later that I found myself returning to the issue of contraception, this time as a married man with two children. My conclusions had remained basically the same, which I then expressed in the book that you now have before you, which appeared in 1989. But now it was twenty years after Humanae Vitae, and the whole climate surrounding the question of contraception had changed. Pope Paul VIth had decided not to let the Council discuss and decide about contraception, but had gone ahead and expanded Pope John’s original birth control commission, and finally, gone against their findings.

In retrospect I can’t help but feel that it would have been better for the Church if he had let the Council decide, or had called some special general meeting of the Church, a more universal birth control commission, as it were, and let them decide the issue with him. Instead, he retreated to the old patterns of exercising authority, and hoped that out of loyalty the rest of the Church would go along. This, of course, is not how things worked out. The decision was met with unprecedented resistence, and as theologians today might say, it was unreceived by a large part of the Church. What other papal statement in recent memory has called forth the kind of qualifying statements that the various episcopal conferences around the world issued when Humanae Vitae appeared? Where else do you find theologians of the stature of Bernard Haring and Karl Rahner, not to mention hundreds of other theologians, and perhaps the majority of married lay people, at least in Europe and the United States, disagreeing with what the Pope had decided.

Today, some thirty years after Humanae Vitae, the situation has not approved. Pope Paul II has insisted and reinsisted on obedience to the teaching of Humanae Vitae, but with little effect. The attempts to uphold Humanae Vitae by the Pope and others have given birth to many beautiful passages about the bodily language of married love, and so forth. But there has been an extensive downside to these attempts to impose Humanae Vitae on the Church. Agreement with Humanae Vitae has been used as a kind of litmus test for the selection of bishops, and people teaching within Church controlled institutions have been threatened with dismissal if they disagreed with this teaching. This has created a climate in which open discussion of the issue does not take place, yet that is precisely what we need.

We need an open discussion about contraception in which the whole Church takes part. There should be a council not only of the popes and bishops, but the rest of the Church, as well, especially married people. It is my belief that the problem can be resolved, but it won’t be easy. Those opposed to Humanae Vitae will have to deal with the central issue that if sex is not in some vital way linked to procreation, then it is going to be very difficult to preserve the basic positions of Catholic sexual morality in which sex is limited to marriage, and things like pre-marital or extra-marital sex are forbidden. Those who favor Humanae Vitae will have to come to terms with the fact that it appears impossible, despite the many attempts that have been made, to show by the use of reason that there is a moral difference between the use of certain non-abortive contraceptives and natural family planning. The issue with natural family planning is not that it in some future and more precise incarnation will not become the method of choice by a much larger number of people, especially given the aesthetic and health issues and the shadow of whether certain contraceptives act in an abortive fashion. But even if this happens, the moral issue of natural family planning remains in the deliberate use of the conjugal act with the intent to avoid procreation.

There is a solution to the Catholic debate on contraception, and it is important that we find it. This impasse has been like a log jammed in the rocks of a stream, and behind it has accumulated all sorts of other issues, and the flow of life of the Church has been impeded. We need to remove this obstacle and work on a whole backlog of other issues.

The text of this book, aside from a few minor corrections, is identical with the 1989 edition with one exception. I have added a response to a defense of Humanae Vitae by Janet Smith which she wrote in 1990. This response, written not long after that, has never been published.