Is There a Solution to the Catholic Debate on Contraception?

Part II




The place to start in such a process of reconciliation is a better understanding of what we have been calling the existential aspect of the Church's tradition on the use of the conjugal act, and this demands we try to understand what existential morality means in general. To speak of two kinds of moral analysis may at first glance appear to be a radical innovation akin to some kind of situation ethics. It is not. What I am calling existential morality or existential ethics here is close to what Jacques Maritain years ago called moral philosophy adequately considered.

He wrote, "when we take as our object human action, - that universe of man and human things envisaged in their moral dynamism and in relation to their proper end - our considerations take an entirely new turn, in fact a practical one... For we are face to face with an object which itself presents us with the distinction between 'nature' and 'state': an object which is natural by virtue of its essence, but whose state is not purely natural, and depends on the supernatural order.

"Man is not in a state of pure nature, he is fallen and redeemed. Consequently... ethics insofar as it takes man in his concrete state, in his existential being, is not a purely philosophic discipline. Of itself it has to do with theology either to become integrated with it or at least subalternated to theology." (An Essay in Christian Philosophy, pp. 38-9)

And the distinction between nature and state, between considerations based on the essence or nature of man and those based on his concrete or existential being were not, in, Maritain's mind, minor refinements. He was uncharacteristically bold in asserting, "I have touched upon questions which affect the whole domain of practical knowledge and moral science. The answers they receive will be fraught with serious significance for the future of this science.(p.x)

Here, then, are the theoretical underpinnings to the two kinds of moral analysis, to the two kinds of dimensions of the Church's teaching to birth control. It is not adequate to simply analyze the nature of the marital act without considering the actual concrete state of the person who possesses that nature. This distinction between two kinds of moral reasonings is not some innovation of Maritain's, but can be found in St. Thomas, who writes:

"The just and the good .. are formally and everywhere the same, because the principles of right in natural reason do not change ... Taken in the material sense, they are not the same everywhere and for all men, and this is so by reason of the mutability of man's nature and the diverse conditions in which men and things find themselves in different environments and times." (Cited in Dupre, "Situation Ethics and Objective Morality", p. 251, from De malo)

It is not a question of different laws for different people, or that human nature in its essence changes, but rather the concrete situation that we find ourselves in effects how we can respond to the law.

The importance of a deeper understanding of the importance of existential morality, and even its relevance to the problem of birth control has not escaped contemporary Catholic moral theologians. (Fuchs, for example, in his essay, "The 'Sin of the World' and Normative Morality"; Curran's "Natural Law" in Themes in Fundamental Moral Theology; Rigali in "The Historical Meaning of the Humanae Vitae Controversy"; Chirico in "Tension, Morality and Birth Control").

Rahner, in his essay "On the Encyclical Vitae", wrote:

"For even if, in all simplicity, we assume the correctness of the norm laid down by the Pope, it is still always possible to raise the question of what, in more precise terms, this signifies. After all it is conceivable, in principle at least, that what is being formulated here is an 'ideal norm' such that it is not ipso facto clear that it can effectively be 'realized' in all its moral obligations in every situation in human life, or by every individual and every social group. For instance even at the time of the Old Testament patriarchs monogamy was a moral norm which derived in the most basic sense from the nature of man and of marriage itself. Yet in the concrete situation in terms of human living and at the stage of development of human 'nature' of that time, neither the individual nor the social group concerned was capable of putting it into practice to a sufficient extent for an obligation to monogamy actually to be imposed in the concrete circumstances prevailing at that time and in that area. Could it not be conceivable that something similar is the case with regard to the basic norm of the encyclical?" (p. 273)

An essentialistic reasoning cannot stand alone. It must be reconciled with an existential moral reasoning that takes into account the actual state we are in. And both these dimensions exist in the Church, for revelation is at once about the supernatural gift of grace and the history of how the gift is accepted and refused by 'men. When Augustine and Thomas wrote about the nature of the conjugal act they instinctively and inevitably also wrote about it in relationship to the whole panorama of original justice, the fall, the redemption and the life to come. Pope John Paul's extensive talks on marriage and sexuality did much the same thing. We cannot adequately consider moral issues otherwise. We have to balance an analysis of the nature of the conjugal act with an understanding of the different states in which men and women have exercised that act. This means we have to talk about sex and marriage before the fall, in Old Testament times, with the coming of Christ and against the backdrop of the life to come. This may seem quixotic and will certainly tax our powers of extrapolation and imagination, but it is a vital task if we are to understand our present state and its use of sex and marriage.


Yahweh God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate... So Yahweh God made the man fall into a deep sleep. And while he slept, he took one of his ribs and enclosed it in flesh. Yahweh God built the rib he had taken from the man into a woman, and brought her to the man. The man exclaimed:

This at last is bone from my bones,

and flesh from my flesh!

This is to be called woman, for this was taken from man." (Gen. 2:18-25)

Man is made for woman and woman for man, and so pervasive is this complementarily that it expresses itself in myths of primal androgynous beings and the Jungian notion that every man has a feminine dimension he must develop, and every woman a masculine one.

"God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them." (Gen. 1:27)

It is man and woman together that reflect most truly what it means to be human and to be made in the image of God, and they are meant to see in each other the image of God. They are drawn physically, psychologically and spiritually to complete each other in a loving union, and this completion nourishes their love of God and is an intimate sharing in his creative powers in the creation of a new person.

In this original state this union of man and woman would have been flooded and transformed by grace. Man would have been a sacrament of God for woman, and woman for man, and marriage the sacrament of divine and human love. This intimate sharing would have been the way men and women would grow in grace, and it would have culminated in that act which was a sharing of all they possessed and which would have increased their community of love by the creation of a new person, a person born in grace with the gift of divine life. What need would there have been for any other sacrament besides the primordial sacrament of marriage and the family? What need would there have been for a life of virginity when man and woman were made for each other?

"Now both of them were naked, the man and his wife, but they felt no shame in front of each other." (Gen. 2:25)

And what of the conjugal act in such a paradisiacal state? It would have been integrated in the shared life of marital union, ready to be employed with the greatest pleasure and satisfaction when the time arrived when the union of the two should be expressed in an act which meant a total sharing which gave birth to another, born of love and loving in return. And what greater joy could there have been in this state of harmony and abundance than to express again and again the ever growing love of the spouses and create a loving community that shared in the love of the parents and made it grow? Is it not possible that they would never have felt the need to express themselves in this way unless they desired to embody their love in a new child? I don't mean they would have imposed on themselves a rigid abstinence, but that it simply would not have occurred to them to do otherwise, just as it is possible to find children who know the mechanism of sex but cannot conceive of why a man and woman would seek sexual union unless they wanted a child. They would not have had the need. "They were naked and not ashamed". Their sexual desires were in harmony with their whole personalities. They would know love and desire and tremendous pleasure, but not the unruly and tempestuous sexual passions that are our lot. In the language of the essentialistic tradition they would have instinctively, spontaneously and easily respected the integral nature of the conjugal act and its two procreative dimensions.

It would be rash to assert that this integral use of the sexual act is a clearly established principle. Yet it remains an intriguing possibility suggested by people as diverse as Augustine and Rosemary Reuther. Just how much do our sexual desires carry other meanings and longings which would have been assuaged more directly in the state of original justice? It is our very fallen - redeemed state itself that makes it hard for us to see clearly in these matters.



But something happened, some terrible catastrophe that struck the human race in its tenderest beginnings. We have only to look at the suffering and death of Jesus to grasp how terrible it must have been. The gratuitous gift of sharing in God's life was lost, a gift that had perfected and elevated all men's natural powers and held them in a new equilibrium. With the gift rejected, but still offered by a loving God, with the highest center of equilibrium gone, the human spirit was skewed. The man and; the woman did not simply revert to a state connatural to their human nature, but remained oriented and in tension to the gift of grace. They were plunged into a fallen state in which they longed for redemption.

The primordial sacramentality of marriage and the family was fractured.

"I will multiply your pains in childbearing,

you shall give birth to your children in pain.

Your yearning shall be for your husband, yet he will lord it over you." (Gen. 3:16)

Its communion of love was damaged. Its pristine harmony became subject to conflicting desires and passions which ran after their objects, for they no longer had a supreme center to revolve about. The primal sacrament had become partially opaque.

And how could it not have effected that act which summed up the union of the spouses, and in which divine life itself was communicated? This greatest of man and woman's creative powers lost sight of its ultimate goal, which was the creation of a community of persons sharing both human and divine love, and stricken with this loss it roamed restlessly about.

"The man and his wife heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from Yahweh God among the trees of the garden. But Yahweh God called to the man. "Where are you?" he asked. "I heard the sound of you in the garden," he replied. "I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid." "Who told you that you were naked?" he asked. "Have you been eating of the tree I forbade you to eat?" The man replied, "It was the woman you put with me; she gave me the fruit, and I ate it." Then Yahweh God asked the woman, "What is this you have done?" The woman replied, "The serpent tempted me and I ate." (Gen. 3:8-13)

The grievous wounds that our first parents freely earned they passed to their children, for they no longer had the ability to give to them the gift of divine life which had held the whole soul in order. And it is not surprising that the loss was clearly apparent in man's inability to deal with his sexual powers. His human nature was unchanged, but now it was held in a painful tension towards a goal that was beyond his natural powers to achieve. Therefore, when we read the Old Testament we see improper sexual conduct. Abraham married his half sister and gave her to the King of Egypt. He took his wife's servant to bed and fathered Ishmael, and then allowed servant and child to be driven from his camp. Jacob married both Leah and Rachel, and Moses allowed the men of Israel to divorce their wives. But there is something else which we should not overlook. Abraham's conscience did not reproach him and Genesis does not speak of God reproaching him, either. Here was Abraham doing something against the natural law and still being held up as a model of fidelity and holiness. It was as if because of the wounds men had suffered, they had to start on a long and painful journey toward the integration of their spirits and the restoration of the family and sexual life. They were on a journey which was an ascent to moral consciousness and where sometimes their lapses were imputed to them as sins, at other times they were excused because of the weakness of their nature - their existentially situated nature. (See Raissa Maritain's "Abraham and the Ascent of Conscience")

Jesus recognized this movement from "the beginning" to a fallen state, and then to a redeemed one.

"Some Pharisees approached him, and to test him they said, "Is it against the Law for a man to divorce his wife on any pretext whatever?" He answered, "Have you not read that the creator from the beginning made them male and female and that he said: This is why a man must leave father and mother, and cling to his wife, and the two become one body? They are no longer two, therefore, but one body. So then, what God has united, man must not divide."

They said to him, "Then why did Moses command that a writ of dismissal should be given in cases of divorce?" "It was because you were so unteachable," he said, "that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but it was not like this from the beginning. Now I say this to you: the man who divorces his wife - I am not speaking of fornication - and marries another, is guilty of adultery." (Mt. 19:3-9)

It was Jesus who came to bring to fruition this longing for redemption and to restore in some measure how things had been in the beginning by his grace that softens hearts


With the death and resurrection of Jesus the redemption is definitively accomplished, but this does not mean that you and I are automatically redeemed, or that marriage and sexuality are fully restored. We live in a fallen-redeemed state. The weeds and the wheat grow together until the final harvest. But the moral universe of marriage and sexuality does undergo a restoration. We are called to have one wife and to avoid divorce and not to be prey to sexual lust even in our thoughts.

And the way is open through Jesus not only back towards the beginning, but forward to eternal life in which there will be no marriage according to the flesh.

"That day some Sadducees - who deny that there is a resurrection - approached him and they put this question to him, "Master, Moses said that if a man dies childless, his brother is to marry the widow, his sister-in-law, to raise children for his brother. Now we had a case involving seven brothers; the first married and then died without children, leaving his wife to his brother; the same thing happened with the second and third and so on to the seventh, and then last of all the woman herself died. Now at the resurrection to which of those seven will she be wife, since she had been married to them all?" Jesus answered them, "You are wrong, because you understand neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For at the resurrection men and women do not marry; no, they are like the angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you never

read what God himself said to you: I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob? God is God, not of the dead, but of the living." And his teaching made a deep impression on the people who heard it." (Mt. 22:23-33)

And if this eternal life is already dawning in Jesus, is it not possible that he can be a sign of it in his virginity and give others the power to be signs as well?

His disciples, hearing Jesus talk on the restoration of the prohibitions of divorce, said to him,

"If that is how things are between husband and wife, it is not advisable to marry." But he replied, "It is not everyone who can accept what I have said, but only those to whom it is granted. There are eunuchs born that way from their mother's womb, there are eunuchs made so by men and there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can." (Mt. 19:10-12)

What a powerful sign of the advent of the kingdom, a sign especially fitting in a fallen-redeemed world which is threatened by an unruly sexuality. What a beautiful gift to those it has been given to embody in a special way the coming of Jesus' kingdom and to be free to show in prayer and deed the love of God and neighbor that it inaugurates.

Virginity is not connatural to the state of original justice, nor to Old Testament times. It needed the coming of Jesus to bring this gift to the Church. He is the foundation of the new sacramental system which can now operate in the context of consecrated virginity or a reconsecrated state of marriage. Virginity is a proper remedy for a fallen-redeemed World, as is the evangelical counsel of poverty. The very vows of the religious state only take their full -significance from the point of view of existential morality. They are a voluntary attempt to overcome the fallen nature of the world and respond more fully to the redemption being worked in it, and to be a sign of the life to come.

But would Jesus have neglected the primordial sacrament of marriage and the family that God had lavished so much care and love on ? Would he leave without the hope of redemption the very act by which grace was to have come to men? Not at all. He would transform marriage as he transformed the water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. He would turn it into an even greater symbol and mystery and sacrament which would mirror his own union with the Church:

"Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy. He made her clean by washing her in water with a form of words, so that when he took her to himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless. In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies; for a man to love his wife is for him to love himself. A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because it is his body -and we are its living parts. For this reason, a man must leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one body. This mystery has many implications; but I am saying it applied to Christ and the Church. To sum up; you too, each one of you, must love his wife as he loves himself; and let every wife respect her husband." (Ep. 5:25-33)

The mystery of the union of Christ and the Church takes up the original mystery of grace that existed between man and woman, and while it does not restore this mystery in all its original integrity, in another way it elevates and transforms it so that marriage becomes an actual way of sharing in the redemptive mystery of Christ. What else could it mean when we say that marriage is a sacrament?

The very fabric Of the shared life of the spouses, the give and take of daily life, the cares and sorrows and joys of children all become diffused with grace and a means of redemption and growth towards God. This is a life permeated with the opportunities of grace and so the very act where this love culminates in the creation of new life is a means of advancing in grace.

But marriage is not in its pristine state. We experience in sexuality the tragedy of the fall from grace. We see divorces wound husbands and wives and their children. We see the joys of having children under the dark shadow of abortion. We see men and women driven to abuse the very children who are one of the true joys of the human race. We see men engulfed by their sexual passions, and afflicted with such loneliness and alienation that they commit terrible crimes.

But we also experience the wonderful joys in marriage and sexuality. A woman big with child and a special serenity. A father with powerful and work scarred hands tenderly holding his child. A man and woman who have truly found each other, and find a deep pleasure and peace in each other's arms.

The conjugal act itself is in a fallen-redeemed state. Its original unity and single-pointedness was shattered. It became polyvalent. It became the locus for the lost dreams of union and compelled to blindly seek the glory that it had lost. It became a way to try to break out of loneliness and find comfort, to reach out for meaning and tenderness, and sadly, a way to grasp pleasure and show domination. With the sexual act we try to assuage our longing for that lost paradise and try to find it in each other where it did, in fact, once exist and could exist again. In it we seek the union with God we are called to, where it once did exist and could exist again. We are caught in the midst of a mystery of sin and redemption that unfolds in a special way in sexuality.

Could not this mystery embrace, at certain times and seasons, a separation from the physical procreativeness of the conjugal act and its spiritual procreativeness? Is it wrong for a newly married couple to try to fully experience their love and thus bind themselves together for the children that will someday come even if they do not want to have a child right away? Is it wrong for a husband and wife to strengthen each other with sexual intimacy when they already have children and do not want another one now? Should we burden them and tell them they should respect the original integral nature of the act even though they live in the grips of a fallen-redeemed world? Let them live out the mystery of love and let the Church inspire them, instead, with a sense of what a great spiritual mystery this is. Who knows what depths sexuality has that we have not fathomed? Who can say what kind of redemptive exercise of sexuality the couple are called to in the sight of God, or what mystery of virginity can appear in the very heart of marriage? The Church has already rendered its judgment on contraception by its decision about rhythm. Who would want to take pills potentially dangerous to health or deal with inelegant spacial barriers if they had a "natural" means of avoiding conception? But who wants to live in anxiety about a miniscule change in temperature or wait in numb fear for the beginning of menstruation? The real moral issue of contraception is the avoiding of physical procreation. Once this is realized doctors and theologians, scientists and married people can join together to find the best and all-around physical and psychological means, a means that will liberate married people for exploring the mystery of marriage in the light of the incarnation and even in the light of virginity, which is a sign of the life we will share in the life to come.


The two traditions of the use of the conjugal act reflect the complex reality of marriage and sexuality in a fallen-redeemed state. The essentialistic tradition sees first the nature of the individual act, and might even discern something of its original integrity. Then it reasons to its procreative nature, and the inseparability of its unitive and procreative dimensions. But it is slower in coming to grips with the actual state in which marriage now exists, and thus its reasoning is not compelling to married people.

The existential tradition sees first the state of marriage. It based itself on the concrete experience of married people, and thus reasons that the two dimensions of the conjugal act can be separated in order to protect the values of the whole marriage. It is slower in coming to grips with the individual act and its procreative nature.

The essentialistic tradition bases itself on logical analysis and the formal articulation of natural law. But this doesn't mean that the existential tradition is unreasonable. It proceeds by way of inclination, by connaturality, which is the way natural law is known before it can be articulated. When we say natural law is written in the heart, we mean we first know it by experience, by the moral inclinations that spring from who and what we are. Our very nature speaks through the heart and manifests what is right through our consciences. Thus when married people know the exigencies of marriage, they know them through the actual experience of the married life, through human nature speaking in marriage, but not human nature in the abstract, but rather concrete human nature, nature in a fallen-redeemed state.

There are, therefore, two ways of moral reasoning, each valid but each incomplete. If essentialistic reasoning abstracts from the concrete situation, existential morality can remain inarticulate in the face of a more verbal essentialistic tradition, or be unable to clearly differentiate whether what it feels is due to an individual situation, or has wider application. The very strength, for example, of what we feel now about marriage can make it hard to realize that marriage could have ever existed in another state besides the present fallen-redeemed one.

The principle of totality advanced by the Majority Report was an existential argument which rested not on an analysis of the individual act, but the experience of marriage today. If it seems that during the course of the contraception debate many theologians in the Church had changed their minds in a relatively short time, it was not frivolity, but exposure to this actual experience of married people that was the reason. The old reasoning based on nature was modified by a new appreciation of the married state. These theologians saw that contraception could help the health of the whole marriage, but the Pope was not in a position to appreciate the strength of this argument. He was still within the essentialistic analysis of the individual act. He was waiting to see how this argument of totality related to the essentialistic tradition.

Is it possible even within the traditional doctrine of natural law and at the level of the individual act to justify the use of contraception? Is it possible to bring the principle of totality into relationship with the essentialistic tradition at the level of the individual act and see if contraception can be justified within the very language and categories of thought that shaped the condemnation of contraception? If this is possible, then we will have demonstrated an important continuity with the past, and have begun building a bridge between the two aspects of the tradition.



We are now in a position to see the strength behind both the essentialistic and existential aspects of the Church's teaching. But is it possible to reconcile them? Is it possible to justify the theoretical or the physical procreativeness of the conjugal act not only by calling on the existential tradition, but in terms of natural law itself? If this could be done we would be much closer to seeing how a certain kind of approval of contraception would be at the same time a reconciliation of the two opposing sides in the Catholic debate on contraception.

A. The Mutability of Natural Law.

Natural law is unchangeable in itself and if we were living in a natural state we ought to observe it. But since we are living in a fallen-redeemed state the concrete demand for us to adhere to natural law can change.

We saw that the papal pronouncement on contraception and rhythm uses nature and natural in two different ways, and indeed, nature can have three distinct senses. First, nature can be taken as what things are in themselves, or according to their essence. And this is the nature contraception goes against. Secondly, nature can mean supernature, nature raised by grace to higher and deeper goals. Since grace works in and through nature, natural law should be preserved in the midst of a supernatural state of original justice. Thirdly, nature can mean men and women here and now in this fallen-redeemed world, and this is the nature of the existential tradition and in the approval of rhythm. Therefore we can say rhythm and contraception go against nature (as essence), but in another way it is natural (in the third sense of nature) for married people to use rhythm or contraception, and thwart the physical procreativeness of the act and intend its spiritual procreative dimension. This going against natural law is pardoned because of our fallen-redeemed state. We have seen that in Old Testament times people did not have to observe the natural law in certain sexual matters. St. Thomas speaks of these dispensations in the case of a plurality of wives and divorce. (S.T. Suppl.Q65 and Q67)

B. But we can object, is it really fair to apply this dispensation to the time after Christ? Didn't his coming restore the law in its fullness?

St Thomas writes:

"But in the state of corrupt nature, man needs grace to heal his nature in order that he may entirely abstain from sin. And in the present life this healing is wrought in the mind - the carnal appetite not being restored yet. Hence the Apostle (Rom. 7:25) says in the person of one who is restored: 'I myself with the mind serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin."' (S.T.1-2,QI09,a8c)

Original sin still effects us, especially in that place which was closest to the transmission of the life of grace.

Augustine says:

"Human nature is beyond all doubt ashamed of this libido and deservedly ashamed. For in its disobedience, which has subjected the genital organs of the body to its impulse alone and snatched them from the power of the will, it is all too evident what man's punishment is for that first disobedience. It was most important that it appear in the part that generates the nature which was changed for the worst by that first and terrible sin." (De Civ. Dei, c20, PL.41, 428).

Hugh of St. Victor is of a similar mind:

"By God's mercy, and in order that man could survive, it has been arranged that the other parts of the body are quiet or move at the bidding of reason. But as a sign of the transgression, one part does not obey reason. I mean the generative organs. The reason is that the entire propagation of the human race was to pass through that part. Written on it, as on a doorway, is the sign of the parents' disobedience inflicted on the members." (Adnot. in Gen. 3, P.L. 175, 42.)

And Thomas writes in his Summa:

"Man's nature may be looked at in two ways: first in its integrity as it was in our first parents before sin; secondly as it is corrupted in us after the sin of our first parent... in the state of integrity, as regards the sufficiency of the operative power, man by his natural endowments could wish to do the good proportionate to his nature... But in the state of corrupt nature, man falls short of what he could do by his nature, so he is unable to fulfill it by his own natural powers. Yet because human nature is not altogether corrupted... it can by virtue of its natural endowments, work some particular good... yet it cannot do all the good natural to it..." (1-2,QI09,a2c)

C. But even if we grant that dispensations of natural law are possible today, we may argue that certainly it is not possible to apply this to contraception. And to prove this assertion we can quote St. Thomas at length on the mutability of natural law:

"The natural law is nothing else than a concept naturally instilled into a man whereby he is guided to act in a befitting manner in his proper actions... Now whatever an action inproportionate to the end which nature intends to obtain by a certain work, is said to be contrary to the natural law. But an action may be inproportionate either to a principle or to a secondary end, and in either case this happens in two ways. First, on account of something which wholly hinders the end... Secondly, on account of something that renders the attainment of the principle or secondary end difficult or less satisfactory... Accordingly, if an action is inproportionate to the end, through altogether hindering the principle end directly, it is forbidden by the first precepts of the natural law, which holds the same place in practical matters, as general concepts of the mind in speculative matters. If it be in any way inproportionate to the secondary end, or again to the principle end, as rendering its attainment difficult or less satisfactory, it is forbidden, not indeed by the first precepts of the natural law, but by the second which are derived from the first even as conclusions in speculative matters receive our assent by virtue of self-known principles: and thus the act is question is said to be against the law of nature." (S.T.Suppl.,Q65,a4c)

Isn't it clear that contraceptives thwart the primary procreative end of marriage and therefore are forbidden by the first precepts of natural law which cannot be dispensed from?

We have to look carefully at what St. Thomas called the primary end of marriage. He says: "Now marriage has for its principal end the begetting and rearing of children..." (S.T.Suppi.Q65,alc)

And in another place he states:

"matrimony is natural because natural reason inclines thereto in two ways. First, in relation to the principal end of matrimony, namely the good of the offspring. For nature intends not only the begetting of offspring, but also its education and development until it reaches the perfect state of man as man, and that is the state of virtue." (S.T.Suppi.,Q41,alc).

We must once again recall our analysis of the conjugal act. The primary end has two dimensions, one physical and one spiritual, and both procreative. Therefore, if we thwart the physical dimension of the conjugal act we do not wholly hinder the primary end of marriage, but as Thomas says, render the attainment of the primary end less satisfactory and therefore we do something that is forbidden by the second precepts of natural law that can be dispensed.

D. But is it not for the Church to say whether such a dispensation has been granted? Does not Thomas say,

"because it is not easy to determine the above variations and so it belongs exclusively to him from whose authority it derives its binding force, to permit the non-observance of the law in those cases to which the force of the law ought not to extend..." (S.T.Suppl.,Q65,a2c)

But if our analysis of rhythm is correct, then the Church, in the approval of rhythm, has already given this dispensation.

And Thomas describes how,

"the law prescribing the one wife was framed not by man but by God, nor was it ever given by word or in writing, but was imprinted on the heart, like other things belonging in any way to the natural law. Consequently a dispensation in this matter could be granted by God alone through an inward inspiration..." (Q65,a3)

Could not God be speaking in the hearts of married people today so that they should know how to act in this matter?

Further, there are hints that link the existential tradition with a dispensation. Scotus writes:

"Justice requires that one grant the other what is his by right. And the person is bound to grant it, not only when there is a question of a basic aim such as the good of having children, but also when a less basic aim is involved, protecting married chastity by keeping him from seeking illicit intercourse and acting against the good of fidelity." (Report, d32)

But what if we transpose this secondary aim and understand it, rather, in terms of the spiritual procreative union? Then we can read with special interest the passage where Scotus writes:

"Because of the second aim, avoiding of illicit intercourse, it is praiseworthy, but only in the second way, in other words as an act of justice. That just fulfillment of duty, however, would not be just nor would the person be bound to accede to the petition unless God had given a dispensation because of man's tendency after the fall." (Op.Ox.d.32,q.1.)

In conclusion, the traditional framework of natural law according to St. Thomas, is flexible enough to allow us to see how contraception can be permitted.



Just what does the phrase "dispensation from natural law" actually mean? First, we should distinguish it from the more general moral principle that subjective factors can excuse us from sin, or mitigate our guilt, even in the case when we are doing something objectively wrong. If we applied this to contraception we would have to say that it is wrong, various factors can lessen our guilt, but we are still under the obligation to change. This is small consolation for married people.

In a more nuanced approach Gustave Martelet, in commenting on Humanae Vitae, tries to steer a course between upholding the encyclical's condemnation of contraception as objectively wrong and avoiding alienating married people from the sacramental life of the Church. He insists on contraception being man objective disorder of love", but sees that for married people such a choice "not of the best, nor even truly of the good, but simply of the less bad, remains a true path of conscience." (L'existence humaine et l’amour, p. 139) But this path demands a recognition that they are living a disorder, but one that is "neither fully excused nor totally imputed" (P. 142), and one which does not demand confession before each reception of the Eucharist. And he begins to converge toward the position sketched in the preceding section when he invokes the French bishops’ statement on Humanae Vitae, "Contraception is not ever able to be a good. It is always a disorder. But this disorder is not always culpable".

But I think it is possible and even necessary to go further than this, especially in the light of the Church's approval of rhythm. If we assert that contraception is objectively wrong, then we place an obligation on married people to work toward unifying the two dimensions of the conjugal act, and thus make the vast majority of married people sinners who, if they want to respect the integral nature of the conjugal act, would have to choose between unlimited sized families or virginity as the two possible goals of their married life. This is neither realistic nor fair.

I don't think we should talk of objective guilt. Rather, the use of the conjugal act in marriage represents a certain disorder in relationship to the ideal state of original justice, and is in a certain tension to the life to come. But it is not something that we can impute as an objective wrong here and now as a general rule. For here and now, the redemption is being worked out in the lives of each married couple, and the use of the conjugal act in terms of its spiritual or unitive procreative dimension can be the actual means by which we strengthen our marriages and grow in grace. How, then, can it make us sinners at the same time? But this does not preclude the possibility that within our marriage as we do grow, this growth will effect the way we use the conjugal act. It may mean that we use the conjugal act more often, with a freedom and sense of tender love that is a sign of our maturation in married love, or it may mean that we see that our inner union of love and daily communion of life is such that we do not have the same need to show it in the conjugal act, or it may even mean,, at one end of the spectrum, that married people would experience, in a small number of cases, an actual call to virginity in the married state. But this is very different than deciding this matter beforehand, or imposing on married people a burden of guilt. it is up to the married couple themselves to be docile to the grace given in the actual situation they live in, and let the actual use of the conjugal act come from their own married lives which should not be burdened with a constant anxiety about whether a new child might be born, or that a sin is being committed.

Can we not find hints of this mysterious dynamism in the lives of couples practicing natural family planning who discover in this practice and in the abstinence it entails positive benefits from their marriage? The conjugal act maintains or recaptures a freshness due to the awakening of both physical and spiritual desire for union. And this freshness can bear a heavier weight of psychological tasks to be accomplished by exercising the conjugal act. But we should not confuse these good effects with the question of how natural and therefore moral this practice is.

All this amounts to saying that certain contraceptives can be as moral as rhythm, and it is up to married couples to decide with competent advice what methods to use, for they have an obligation to minimize health risks, avoid any method that is abortive, and foster as much as possible the values of married love. The resolution of the moral issue of contraception should lead to a reconciliation in the Church with strong implications for how decisions should be made, and bring to the forefront the pressing need there is for a theology and spirituality of the married state.



The publication of Humanae Vitae was the occasion of a great deal of suffering in the Church on both sides of the issue. What must Pope Paul have felt, when after agonizingly searching his conscience, he spoke as he did and met with such overwhelming rejection? What must those who hold to the traditional position still feel?

On the other side, Humanae Vitae profoundly disappointed many married people. They, in their turn, felt the Church was simply not understanding, not listening, to what they had discovered through their own experience of married life. Many married people must have half-consciously reflected: "If this is what the Church says about marriage, a subject I should know something about, what good can really come out of listening to her on other issues?"

There is no theological reason why certain contraceptives cannot be approved, just as natural family planning has been accepted, and under the same guidelines. It would be a shame if the polarization in the Church over the issue has created emotional obstacles in which offended feelings hinder working towards a genuine solution.

If the Pope were to agree to such a solution, what would it mean? Would the traditional natural law morality be destroyed? We saw that it would not. Would a tide of immorality be unleashed? The conjugal act would still be linked to marriage and moral life of Catholic married people does not rest on the fact they cannot do something, but they will not to do it. Would the teaching authority of the Church be destroyed? It has already lost a great deal of credibility by Humanae Vitae, and a rigid insistence on it will erode it even more. The change that contraception represents would be no more than changes that have already taken place in other areas, and even in the use of the conjugal act itself.

What would this change mean to Catholic married people? Would they lose respect for the teachings of the Church because the Church has truly begun to listen to them? Would they turn to lives of selfish self-indulgence and sexual obsessiveness? Life in the everyday world provides countless examples of both, which they routinely resist.

The pain and suffering occasioned by Humanae Vitae should become a healing, redemptive pain. A solution to the problem of contraception could release the energy for the Church to try to go beyond the old division of married and celibate, lay and religious, the teaching and the taught. These distinctions, as real as they might be, have become separations and injurious to the Church as a whole. Both the celibate and the married are members of the one body of Christ and suffer in a fallen-redeemed world. The problem that married people face in their relationships and in dealing with their sexuality are paralleled by the problem in a life of consecrated virginity which offers no automatic solutions to the issues of unruly sexuality, the need for human love and the complementarity of the sexes.

A solution to the debate on contraception would open the door to effectively dealing with other pressing issues that the Church faces. The Pope acted in good faith in writing Humanae Vitae, but he did not allow the Council to decide the issue, and did not follow the advice of his own birth control commission. This old style of authority is one of the questions underlying the question of contraception, as many contemporary theologians have noted. This question of decision making needs to be dealt with in the Church today. (Komonchak)

The Church is also faced with other serious issues in the field of sexual morality that demand attention. It does little for clarity in these areas to still hear talk of the selfishness of married people in regulating the size of their families, or linking contraception with abortion, as if there were a necessary connection between them. There is not. A solution to the problem of contraception does not resolve these other questions.

Finally, the attention focused on contraception should be transferred to the much larger issue of the need for an adequate theology and spirituality of married life.



Let's suppose that the Church changes her position on contraception and allows married people to choose the best means of avoiding conception. It would certainly be naive to imagine that this approval would be a panacea for the troubled married state. If the majority of Catholic married people already use contraceptives, and the divorce rate of Catholics has reached the rate of their neighbors, then the root of marital problems cannot reside in the issue of contraception. But once this problem is resolved, the energy released should be applied to developing a theology of marriage which would have to address itself to three basic areas.

First, married people are caught in a social and economic system that makes it extremely difficult for the family to find time to spend with each other and actually live out their lives together. If both parents are compelled to work at separate jobs, and the children are off at school and programmed after school activities, what time and energy is left at the end of a grueling day for family life? This basic fragmentation is illustrated by short maternity leaves, concerns over day-care and pre-schools, and the elimination of family meals and family recreation. We become conditioned to accepting this situation of fragmentation as normal. And this conditioning hinders us from examining what can be done about the situation at basic levels. We imagine that money will give us better day-care, live-in and so forth, and fail to see that nothing can up for time with our family in which the whole family talks, plays, learns and works together.

The American Catholic Church has made a tremendous effort to move from an immigrant footing to the American mainstream. As admirable as this may be, it makes it harder for the Church community to see what is wrong with this mainstream American suburban life, or the American style economic system. This hinders it from doing a radical kind of rethinking of basic economic and social realities in the light of the Gospels. Yet, the kind of rethinking holds the promise of helping married people much more in the long run than a constant attention to symptoms that mask the underlying trouble.

The morality of our social and economic situation is another place that needs to be scrutinized by the two ways of moral reflection. Perhaps we would find that it is an existential type of reasoning that predominates, and allows us to reflect only on the concrete situation we find ourselves in, and it is an essentialistic type reasoning that is lacking, a form of analysis that would go to the root of the problem.

For example, we worry about the schooling of our children, but we worry about it in the context of the existing school structures, and within this context we concern ourselves with the quality of the education, etc. But rarely do we seriously consider that education is not the same as school, and that we have created an unwieldy institution that tends to defeat its original purpose. If a school extinguishes a child' love of learning, then it is time to consider radical alternatives. I am afraid that many of the social and economic structures that weigh on married life are in need of such a radical analysis, as well.

Secondly, married life suffers from a basic lack of psychological knowledge. In the past this was an understandable lack, for there was no empirical science of psychology, and the Church had to make do with a knowledge of psychology of a philosophical sort which could not deal with men and women in the concrete. If we can parallel our previous distinctions, it was an essentialistic psychology that looked at man's nature or essence in the abstract, and could not see him as he actually exists in the concrete. It could, for example, talk of the nature of the soul shared by all men and women, but not of the individual differences that exist among people. It did have some notion derived from the Greeks about the various humours and the differences between men and women - often erroneous - but it had no empirical science of the psyche. Such a science did not exist yet.

The overall structure of society and the expected roles of husband and wife instructed people in how to act. But these structures are no longer operative in the same way. Instead, we have expectations of a partnership marriage rooted in mutual love. But now we lack the knowledge to make this partnership work. We must learn as we go and hope for the best. And now that a concrete psychology has appeared, it is fragmented, and married people have often only a thin veneer of psychological jargon which breaks down in front of the common psychological tensions and difficulties of the married state. We have no practical tool or instruments to see what legitimate differences exist between us and how to handle them. We have no way to grasp the nature of romantic attraction, which is rooted in the unconscious, and to see how a process of growth towards individuation can reduce negative projections. In short, we need an understanding of the psychological dynamics found in marriage and ways to realize the promises of personal development it holds out. Our Psychological expectations work in and through sexuality, so that sexuality becomes the arena for many exchanges that ought to become more conscious and be handled more directly. The very process of redemption that is being wrought in the sacramental state of marriage is in part a redemption and transformation and reintegration of the psyche. I have discussed some of these issues surrounding the Catholic use of a psychology like Jung's, and the development of a practical science of human differences elsewhere.

The third area which needs development in a theology and spirituality of marriage is the question of the interior life precisely for the married state rather than continually being borrowed and partially reinterpreted from a celibate perspective. For example, for the consecrated virgin abstinence from the sexual act can be a sign of a deeper union with Christ that empowers this abstinence and gives it a positive content. But do we have to judge marriage from a celibate perspective from which marriage becomes a hindrance to a deep spiritual life and the use of sexuality in it becomes a loss of self-control? Is it possible that instead of abstinence, the very exercise of the conjugal act could be a positive sign of a desire for divine union, that the married couple would experience the goodness and love of God in this act, and far from it dulling their hearts, it could make them thirst for a deeper union with God?

Jean Guitton suggests that "the sexual ecstasy of Adam and Eve was really intended to help them proceed to mystical love", but original sin inverted Eros. This left us with the necessity of mortification in sexual matters which have been stressed in the course of the Church's history.

"But there exists another action that has not yet been stressed - one left to the next millennium to develop (a millennium which will perhaps be shortened by the acceleration of time). This is not at all an act of negation, but rather one of transference, of sublimation - an action by which we take Eros and sublimate it in trying as much as possible, not to repress it, but to use it for the purpose of divine union." ("Eros and Agape", p. 95)

"Conjugal chastity is not abstinence, but rather wisdom, measure, melody, the art of loving. Eros in marriage aspires at the same time to both procreation and union - but the union is at the same time union with the other and union with God." (p. 97)

And this demands its own kind of mortification and self-control built in to our effort to really love our husband or wife and children.

As vital as a new perspective on sexuality is for married people, most of the day and the opportunities for interior growth are much more prosaic. Married and family life is an ideal place in which to practice the virtues of patience, control of the tongue, with opportunities for night vigils, tending the sick, comforting the down-hearted, practicing poverty, humility and selflessness. In this way it becomes its own kind of religious state with its own vows and obligations.

In fact, so abundant are these opportunities to serve that it becomes vital to find some time for quiet prayer, reflection and study. Otherwise parents can be swallowed alive by the constant demands of daily life and fail to animate them with a life of prayer.

The differences between the priestly and religious states and the married vocation have been overemphasized. Guitton writes:

"The ideal would be to have these two states interpenetrate, help, respect and revitalize each other. Consecrated persons could adopt families. Family associations could be established around centers of charity and of contemplative, sacrificial life. And the service would be mutual. If married people need the spirit of virginity, the reverse is also true - consecrated ones need to know the trials of marriage." (p. 99)

Married people can be called to full time apostolic service or contemplative lives, and religious can be called to share in the daily lives of families not only by service, but by membership through friendship.



Our search for a solution has brought us from an analysis of the conjugal act that emphasized the procreativity of both its dimensions, to an examination of the two aspects of the Church's tradition on the use of the conjugal act, especially in relationship to rhythm, and a look at marriage and sexuality in the context of the history of salvation.

What can we conclude? A solution is possible, but it makes demands on both sides of the debate. The essentialistic tradition is correct in seeing a certain disorder in contraceptives. This disorder is reflected in the fact that there are drawbacks to every form of contraception, and points to the fallen-redeemed nature of our sexuality with all its attendant dangers. But the conclusions the upholders of the traditional position would draw from this for the actual conduct of married people are undercut by the Church's approval of rhythm.

The existential tradition is correct in seeing that certain contraceptives are as natural as rhythm, and the married people should be allowed to choose the method that best serves the values of the marriage as a whole. But this does not mean that this freedom excuses married people from being docile to God's inspiration as to what the appropriate use of the conjugal act is for them here and now. We are still in the midst of a fallen-redeemed world, and it is possible for our use of the conjugal act to change as we grow.

In this solution the central perception of the traditional teaching is preserved, while its context is modified by a new awareness of the spiritual procreativeness of the conjugal act and an appreciation of the existential tradition, and this leads to the approval of certain contraceptives.



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