From “Contraception and the Council”

March 11, 1966
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Pope Paul VI during Second Vatican Council

That the teaching of Vatican II should be of the greatest relevance to Catholic doctrine on contraception is not surprising when it is remarked that the Second Vatican Council was the first council in the history of the church to speak on the purposes of marital intercourse. This subject, which was unmentioned in the gospels, had been left largely to the speculations of the theologians. It had never been a matter of authoritative teaching by a general council, nor, I believe, by any council. Now, for the first time, as the culmination of a slow evolution that took a decisive turn about 1680, a council gave authoritative teaching on coital purpose.

At various earlier times in the history of the church it had been the common opinion of Catholic theologians that the only lawful purpose for initiating intercourse was procreation; a consciously procreative intent was required. This view, derived from the Stoics, was asserted by Clement of Alexandria, and, adopted by Origen, played a guiding role in the Greek Church. In the West it was affirmed by St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and, above all, by St. Augustine, who riveted it on Western moral thought. From 1100 to 1680 the Alexandrian or Augustinian requirement of procreative purpose was dominant among Catholic moral theologians.

By the end of the fifteenth century, however, a sharp critique had been made of the dominant theory, and Paris theologians had suggested that among the lawful purposes of marital coitus were the avoidance of adultery, the restoration of bodily and psychic health, and even the achievement of pleasure. Between 1480 and 1680 there went on a major theological controversy conducted in these categories. In 1563 the Council of Trent for the first time spoke at a conciliar level about love in marriage, but did not relate it to intercourse. Yet during the next century it became accepted that intercourse in order to avoid incontinence elsewhere was lawful; after all, this view had the implicit support of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7. In adopting this analysis, the seventeenth-century theologians broke with the Augustinian insistence that sexual acts must be somehow tied to procreative purpose. At the same time they were uneasy about pleasure as a purpose in itself, and the consensus was that to seek pleasure only in intercourse, while excluding other purposes, was to commit venial sin.

Only in the nineteenth century was the idea advanced that the expression and fostering of love could be recognized as a purpose of marital intercourse. This thought was not developed in nineteenth-century theology, although by the end of the century Alois de Smet could add the un-Tridentine thought, apropos of the love which Trent had spoken of in marriage, that “the marriage act itself, by which the partners are made one flesh, cultivates and nourishes this love.” Substantial theoretical development of this new, non-Augustinian insight was made in 1925 by the German layman Dietrich Von Hildebrand in his Reinheit und Jungfraulichkeit, and above all, in 1935 by the German priest Herbert Doms in his Vom Sinn and Zweck der Ehe. Doms set out a complete theory of coitus as an ontological act of reciprocal love, “an act which contains the abandonment and enjoyment of the whole person and is not simply an isolated activity of organs.”

Doms’ theory was received with coldness, the Holy Office issuing a decree on April 1, 1944, that was interpreted as rebuking it. But his emphasis on persons, in contrast to the earlier focus on the biological act, was taken up by Pius XII in 1949 in an allocution condemning artificial insemination. In the 1950s, a position balancing procreation and conjugal love was set out by the leading moral theologians Bernhard Häring and Joseph Fuchs. Marital intercourse, Häring said, was “a fundamental mediation of charity.” Apart from procreation, one of its permissible purposes was “the augmentation of love.” The loving union of spouses, however, was not directed to their own completion, but to the child, whose “virtual presence” was “inscribed in the ontological act of total union.” Similarly, Fuchs taught that expression of love was a purpose of intercourse, although this love “entirely (although not solely or as a mere means) serves and is subordinated to the education of offspring, to whose generation such an act expressive of love is evidently ordered.”

There had then already occurred in theological thought a development which, blending procreation and conjugal love, recognized both as purposes of intercourse. Vatican II confirmed and crowned this development by relating the coital expression of conjugal love to procreation, but also giving such expression a substantial value independent of procreation. Conjugal love, the Council now taught, had its origin from God’s invitation to the married to love each other, and the Lord had “cleansed, perfected, and elevated” this love. Such love is “directed from person to person” and “completes the good of the whole person.” This was Doms on the ontological significance of coitus. Such “eminently human love,” the Council continued, “is able to enrich the expressions of the body and of the spirit with a peculiar dignity and ennoble them as elements and special signs of conjugal friendship.”

This insistence on the great value of love as an end of intercourse was a far cry from Clement, Augustine, and the dominant theological teaching of pre-seventeenth-century Catholic thought.

The Council then went on to teach specifically: “this love is singularly expressed and perfected by the proper work of marriage. The acts, then, by which the spouses intimately and chastely unite with each other are decent and worthy, and exercised in a truly human way, signify and foster a mutual giving by which with joyful and grateful spirit they reciprocally enrich each other” (sec. 49 of Schema XIII, The Church in the Modern World).

One Father sought to excise the final clause, running from “by which” to “enrich each other.” His amendment was rejected by the Mixed Commission with the comment, “This sentence was expressly and pressingly asked for by the laymen.” Four Fathers sought to replace “perfected” in the first clause by “consummated.” The amendment was rejected on the ground that “perfected...brings the human aspect better into the light.” In short, the Council insisted that the coital act was human and personal, enriching the persons involved, and remarkably expressing the love which the Lord had perfected.

This insistence on the great value of love as an end of intercourse was a far cry from Clement, Augustine, and the dominant theological teaching of pre-seventeenth-century Catholic thought. Not only was love set forth as an excellent purpose. The classification of primary and secondary ends in marriage—a classification often used in debates on contraception—was deliberately rejected. Marriage, the Council said, was endowed by God “with various goods and ends” (sec. 47). Family life was said to be a good of marriage, “not putting second the other ends of marriage” (sec. 50). Two Fathers objected that for these reasons the whole chapter “was still theologically immature, equivocal, and reticent in certain essentials: it insists predominantly and almost uniquely on conjugal love and on personal donation, which they say does not correspond to the way of speaking of the church from earliest times.” At least, these Fathers said, the chapter ought to speak of “the hierarchy of ends” and “the intrinsic malice of Onanism.” One hundred and ninety Fathers asked that the text be amended “to recall Catholic doctrine up till now handed down and to better indicate the hierarchy of ends.” Another Father proposed the amendment, “Conjugal love is ordained to the primary end of marriage, which is offspring.”

All of these attempts to insert the hierarchy of ends were defeated. The Mixed Commission said laconically, “It may be noted that the hierarchy of goods can be considered under different aspects.” Brusquer treatment was given an arch-conservative attempt to reaffirm Augustine by saying “conjugal love, independent of the intention of procreating offspring, does not justify the conjugal act.” This, the Mixed Commission said, “does not square with received doctrine.” The rejected amendments here, like the rejected amendments to the conciliar decree on religious liberty, stand as forlorn monuments to a theology which has been passed by. […]

[T]he most striking aspect of the Council on contraception was the way that it put the existing law on contraception as law for “children of the Church.” Pius XI had taught very strongly in Casti connubii that the contraceptive acts condemned therein were contrary to the good of any man, Christian or pagan. The Council did not repudiate this teaching, because in its general deploring of the illicit practices against generation and in its setting out of objective moral criteria based on the person, it was speaking to all men, too. Indeed, the introductory section of the marriage chapter noted that the Council “intends to illuminate and comfort all men.” Yet, when the Council turned to existing discipline in the Church on contraception, it ceased to talk of all men. Rather it said that “for children of the Church” “it is not lawful” to use methods of regulating procreation which “have been reproved by the magisterium when it interprets the divine law.” The footnote reference to Paul VI’s Allocution to the Cardinals showed that the Council believed that in the process of interpreting divine law a pope could give norms which were open to revision but which should be obeyed as authoritative teaching until revised. In short, the casting of the teaching on contraception in terms of what was not lawful, and the application of this teaching only to Catholics, would seem to suggest that the Council viewed existing condemnations as, at least in part, open to revision. In this it was in perfect harmony with Paul VI, who thought it desirable that, until they were revised by him, a single law should bind Catholics.

Finally, the Council gave some guidance as to how conjugal love and the education of children were to be reconciled with the responsibility to regulate the number of offspring. It stated flatly “that there cannot be a true contradiction between the divine laws of transmitting life and those favoring genuine conjugal love.” When those were known it would also be known what rules could not be divine law. At least such a procedure seemed recommended by the Council in preference to one of hypothesizing the divine laws and trying to accommodate the laws of conjugal love to them.

The Council, subtly but decisively, indicated by example and precept its preference for the first method. It began the chapter on marriage by the statement that it proceeded not only in the light of the gospels but “in the light of the human experience of all men.” The Council itself meant to rely on human testimony as to the requirements of love. Looking specifically “to the necessities and advantages of the family which are appropriate for the new day,” the Council declared that a great contribution might be made by “the Christian sense of the faithful.” Six Fathers wished to qualify this appeal to the faithful by qualifying the sense of the faithful as “showing filial obedience to the magisterium of the Church.” The Mixed Commission responded that enough had been said of the magisterium. What the Council valued was the consensus fidelium; as the Council had earlier taught in its Constitution on the Church, “The holy people of God share also in Christ’s prophetic office.” Beyond this invocation of the witness of the faithful, the Council asked scientists “to try to elucidate more deeply the different conditions favoring the decent regulation of human procreation.” Again there was no assumption that all the divine and natural laws on birth regulation were known to the Council or even to the well-read theologian. The appeal was to empirical investigation to discover the conditions.

The Council, then, has not proposed solutions “directly” as to how conjugal love and parental responsibility may be reconciled. It has, however, set up the main pillars of any solution: procreation and education are indissolubly linked goods; conjugal love is in itself a legitimate and laudable purpose of intercourse; embryonic life is to be guarded; the dignity of the person is to provide norms; there is an element of divine law in previous teaching by the Church on contraception, but not all existing law on contraception is immutable. Solutions for the new day are to be found both by discerning what is divine and immutable and by consulting experts and the Christian faithful.

Published in the June 15, 2018 issue: 
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