Simplifying Sex

What Some Priests Don’t Understand About Contraception

The current debate over health insurance and contraception has raised interesting questions for people of faith, particularly Catholics. I’m past menopause, and so contraception is not an issue for me. Yet I’m interested in it—in the same way I remain interested in pregnancy or childbirth. Avoiding or embracing pregnancy is the stuff of real life—the vivid centerpiece of youth and middle age. As a woman, a mother, and a Catholic, I’m part of it. I remember the drama, the excitement, the fear. Pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding are intense experiences. For the sustained nature of the physical bond, nothing compares. But it begins with sex, and sex is never simple.

And so it is unsettling when men who may never have experienced sex feel qualified not just to speak about it but to pronounce on it with certainty. In an article in the New York Times (February 18), Fr. Roger Landry, a priest in my old diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, is quoted as saying, “What happens in the use of contraception, rather than embracing us totally as God made the other, with the masculine capacity to become a dad, or the feminine capacity to become a mom, we reject that paternal and maternal leaning.”

Well, no, Fr. Landry, we don’t. We don’t reject it. We make a decision about it. We recognize that pregnancy is a possibility, and we decide whether this is the right time for us to have a baby. We acknowledge that we are more than just potential (or actual) parents. One of the surest signs of youth—in any profession—is an unswerving adherence to literal interpretations. New teachers cling to the curriculum, whether or not the class is getting it. Young doctors focus on the clear x-ray, unable to see the patient in front of them writhing in pain. Parish priests preach the letter of the law, while their parishioners refuse to follow rules created without reference to the reality they know. But the rules aren’t just unrealistic. They are often irrelevant, based on incorrect or incomplete information.

Fr. Landry goes on to say, “Contraception…make[s] pleasure the point of the act, and any time pleasure becomes the point rather than the fruit of the act, the other person becomes the means to that end. And we’re actually going to hurt the people we love.” At one level, this is insightful and nuanced. When he laments how frequently such objectification happens to women in sexual relationships, Fr. Landry sounds almost feminist. And he is right that a relationship that’s only about the pursuit of pleasure is demeaning and ultimately hurtful.

He is wrong, though, to assume that using contraception automatically makes “pleasure the point of the act.” This is how adolescents think. Teenagers dream of constantly available sex, uninhibited by any possibility of pregnancy. That priests would talk the same way about sex between a husband and wife who have chosen to use contraception reflects inexperience and adolescent projection.

Adults understand that good sex, with or without contraception, goes deeper than pleasure. It is complex and demanding. And pleasure isn’t necessarily a part of it. Any human encounter requiring honesty and surrender has the potential for both revelation and pain. The communication, healing, and strengthening that good sex ensures is foundational to a marriage. Pure pleasure the point of the act? What is Fr. Landry talking about?

Distrust of pleasure is one hallmark of the church’s teaching about sex. This is odd because, as Catholics, we also believe that “eye has not seen nor ear heard the wonders God has prepared for those who love Him.” But that aside, what is the church’s antidote to the dread prospect of people having too much fun in bed? Children.

The thing is, children are also a deep source of pleasure, joy, and fun. The bishops, while recognizing this truth, nonetheless focus on babies as natural results of the biological act, as consequences and responsibilities—not as persons who are sought after and gladly welcomed. (Indeed, people who seek too vigorously to have children are also criticized as trying to play God, to control what should be divinely ordained.)

I understand what is behind the bishops’ anxiety over designer parenthood—the demand for too much control over what kind of children we have. And I agree that sexual license is a serious threat to happiness, order, and the good of the human community.

But every human activity has the potential to become unbalanced. Having children mindlessly, year after year, as former generations of Catholics did, is just as harmful to the social good as the refusal to connect sex with pregnancy. Visit India, Fr. Landry. Talk with the women here who are treated purely as producers of sons.

To defend contraception within marriage is not to defend sexual license. Married couples who have pledged a lifetime of commitment to each other and their families have the right and the duty to make their own decisions about contraception. The church’s role is to help them arrive at the decision that is right for their lives. It is not to dictate one-size-fits-all rules that have no foundation in practical experience.

The church has made a spectacle of itself by promoting an immature version of sexuality that is missing the sinew of lived experience. It used to frighten people into submission. Now it simply makes them smile a little sadly. I’m a prolife Catholic who practiced only Natural Family Planning. But I’m smiling, too. Because I’m sad for my church.



Commenting Guidelines

Wow, that final paragraph is a doozy. I can say up front that I too am an older, prolife Catholic who practiced only Natural Family Planning, and yet I too find what passes today for Church teaching on sex and marriage too often simplistic, "doctrinaire," based on assumptions, so often circular, that theologians of the past would have dismissed as opinion, not at all relevant to "natural law."   And yes, little of it helps Catholic couples forge a true and lasting marriage bond amid the financial and health-related struggles we all face over a lifetime of bearing and raising children.  Women, whose health issues have only relatively recently in history come to be treated effectively thanks to medical techniques, find it especially hard to fathom why men in the Church seem to think our bodily functions, which so often serve as a source of pain and dis-ease, must be considered the moral yardstick for what God intends, and an absolute yardstick at that.

My wife and I after 50 years of marriage agree with you exactly.   One concern is the number of Fr. Landrys pontificating authoritatively from altar, confessional, counseling room, and assorted media with irrelevant, incorrect, or incomplete information, not even aware of the damage they may have done and still be doing.    


In a related vein, a proposed amendment to Canon Law is that no man is qualified to become a bishop who has not slept every night for nine months with the same pregnant woman.   Then, let him speak to us about marriage, sexuality, and humanity.   


Bravo, Jo McGowan for a most ensightful and revealing article on the reality of marriage and procreation and the unreasonable and "adolescent  projection" of the Church in proclaiming Humanae Vitae as the absolute moral truth. I enjoyed and was impressed with its honesty, clarity and right-reasoned conclusions.

I am a retired Catholic. In 1978, my wife and I (now married 40 years) had two children and wanted no more for good reasons. I discussed contraception with my parish priest and he told me that a decision of my informed conscious along with good reasons (as Pius XII proclaimed in his Address to the Mid-wives) was sufficient and not immoral. Contraception, while a teaching of the Church, was also controversial. 

Moral philosophy has always been my interest, but about 6 years ago I began anew a thorough education in this subject. My cousin, a Challancllor of a Diocese in Florida, referred me to Janet Smith as he could not answer my questions in the detail I expected. After several email exchanges with theologian Janet Smith, I was not convinced about the Church's teaching. She offered a challenge that I wanted to prove or disprove. She asserted "if only Catholics would read Humanae Vitae and learn the Church's teachings, they would know the truth". To end a long story, I begain with the objective of reading the top 100 books on the subject of moral theology and sexual ethics. However, I needed to have mentors, so I engaged two of the most prominent moral theologians representing both sides of the theological divide. I wanted my mind to be open to each argumentation. I am now on my 67th book and an equal number of articles. I have been in frequent communications, at times several times of week, with my moral theological mentors for more than 2 years now.

My objective is to make a small contribution to my Church, to move the conversation forward, perhaps only one small step, but that was my deepest inspiration. I am near that goal, God willing.

While I write using the language of the Church, moral philosophy and theology, anthropology, etc., you write with the depth of human experience and your practical reason. Your argument is the most compelling.

I will not go into details about my own disagreements with the Church's teachings on sexual ethics, but I will offer a few additional thoughts for reflection.

1. When a teaching such as contraceptoin is in tension with human experience and deemed unreasonable and in many cases insensible to the majority of the laity, it is not received. With respect to contraception it has not been received by most of the laity and theologians, many bishops and about 40% of priests. While a teaching that is not convincing does not mean it is not true, it does mean that the teaching does not possess any power to change behavior. What is often ignored and not fully understood is this fact: All Church teachings taught for centuries as the moral truth, and not received, were eventually reformed.

2. The Church's strategy, in the case of contraception, ignores the suffereing, moral dilemma and conflict that their teaching causes most Catholics. Below are two examples.

> A young married woman who has 3 childern and whose life is threatened by another pregnancy is told that her decision to safe-guard her life by choosing to take the pill or be sterilization is immoral. She must practice "risky" NFP-Periodic Continence, or celibacy. In this case, the hierarchy of values is turned upside down. The prudent and most effective means to safe-guard her life is morally irrelevant to a decision to ensure that every marital act has a procreative meaning. 

2. A seropositive husband cannot use a condom to protect his spouse from the deadly disease of HIV-AIDS. He must practice celibacy that not only threatens his marriage but is a violation of justice and charity towards his spouse. 

3. In the above two cases, celibacy is an answer the Church believes is reasonable and moral for the sufferings of many Catholic couples. However, celibacy is a gift from God given to the very few. Many candidates for the priesthood are not blessed with this gift and drop out. Celibacy must be freely choosen; it cannot be imposed by authority. Imposed or forced celibacy does not work, yet the Church proclaims that this is a reasoned response to Catholics who suffer under consequences of this proposed teaching and the weight of the moral dilemma that it causes. Such answers are nothing more than stoic insensibility, not the absolute moral truth.

The central principle in Humanae Vitae is proclaimed to be "moral absolute" which means that the teaching is true and that contraception is immoral and intrinsically evil regardless of circumstances, intentions, or ends.

Thank God for our informed conscious and practical reason, as ilustrated by Jo McGowans article.



What some columnists don't understand about contraception -- or the Church's teachings thereon.

Talk about "promoting an immature version of sexuality."  This article of misunderstanding does that quite well.

A very well done article and a stunning rebuttal of priests after the fashion of Fr Landry. 

Fr Landry says " Contraception…make[s] pleasure the point of the act, and any time pleasure becomes the point rather than the fruit of the act, the other person becomes the means to the end'.. I guess he thinks it was God's mistake to make it so damn pleasurable.

Fr L ought to talk to the 20% of couples who are infertile and who have, in trying too hard to conceive that they have almost obliterated the pleasure and bonding that goes with sex.. 

and  God knows what he is doing  because  He has been in the creation business for a long long time. 

The scathing truth is that it was power considerations by the papacy that decided the promulgation of HV, not the merits of the issue itself, i.e. contraception. 

Jack Barry is so right about the damage the teaching has brought to so many lives.

Michael Barberi: "The prudent and most effective means to safe-guard her life is morally irrelevant to a decision to ensure that every marital act has a procreative meaning."

When pinned down, defenders of Church teaching cannot say every marital act has to have a "procreative meaning," since that can't be the case when either or both spouses are infertile, either temporarily or long-term.  "Theology of the body" moralists say only that every such act has to be left "open" to the possibility of procreation...even though, again, in reality most marital acts, even among the normally fertile, aren't "open" since a woman is naturally infertile most days of her life.   What they're really saying is that it's wrong to purposively "close off" the sexual act from long as it's a freely chosen act and within marriage: A very complicated argument.  No wonder so many on both sides prefer generalities to what the Church really teaches:  They're much easier to understand.

'Having children mindlessly, year after year, as former generations of Catholics did, is just as harmful to the social good'

Wow, patently false.  New human life can never be harmful to the social good, else abortion becomes licit.

The sliver lining of the bishops' making spectacles of themselves over contraception / religious freedom is that the faithful will finally again start illuminating the irrationality of the stand in the first place. This teaching has not been received. It is circular. It has nothing to do with natural law. It needs to be publicly challenged so it can be reformed.

To quote my daughter, speaking of the bishops, "If they want to lead in the real world, they need to live in it."

Superb rebuttal, Jo.  Miserably, there are a growing number of "Father" Landrys out there, patronzing, condescending and pontificating endlessly and arrogantly about issues they have no knowledge of.  It was funny to me to hear you say Roger "sounds almost feminist...," since it was a few personal encounters with this man that actually MADE me a feminist, and none more powerfully than when I read one of his homilies in which he says that ordination is a form of transubstantiation.  For me, that was IT.  And you are completely on target when pointing out the inherent immaturity in the stance these men take and the strikingly adolescent tone they sound when spouting what they take to be undisputed wisdom.  Sad smiles are understandable, but there is a deep, unsmiling sadness in the fact that the new generation of "John Paul II priests" are hardly the servant-leaders our fractured church so deperately needs right now.  But let's revert to something totally laughable:  does anyone ever wonder how these celibate guys KNOW SO MUCH about sexual activity and its many complexities?  They have an astonishing store of "facts" about is it that they KNOW all this???    Simply and unutterably ridiculous.  

I doubt that there are any married men who can honestly say that they understand what it is to be a woman, but we stand a much better chance than any man who has not been married. 

" New human life can never be harmful to the social good." (Bruce @9:40 am)

The implications of that statement are profound,  implying that men and women are nothing but unthinking animals -- baby factories.  This cannot possibly be what God intended. 

Goethe: Nothing is more terrifying than ignorance in action. 

Thank you, Jo McGowan.

I think I first heard the argument against artificial contraception as a teenager (I'm now in my sixties).  The question immediately raised in my mind was, why then don't we have to tear down all the dams, as rivers are patently designed to flow freely to the sea.  Well, we are breaching some dams now for environmental considerations, so maybe my teenage take on the absurdity wasn't nuanced enough.  Still, though, I think it was correct.  It will be a long time if ever before we can remove all the dams in the real world. 

On the naivete of celibate priests pronouncing on marriage and sex:  they may make up in breadth of experience (from counseling, confessions, training) what they lack in immediacy.  I doubt that as a class they are  as naive as some facile diatribes would have it.  That certain individual priests are ignorant is no more surprising than that certain politicians are.

I've often wondered if abstinence wasn't a form of birth control (at least subconsciously in the preaching of the church) in the pre-pill and pre-condom days.  I don't know how old the condom is, but latex is a fairly recent invention.  At any rate, the contraceptive options before the pill were certainly more limited.  For simplicity, I don't mention the iud etc.

Carolyn Disco, could you elaborate please?  ("it was power considerations by the papacy that decided the promulgation of HV").  Thanks.

JOH:  I have to wonder if the breadth of "experience" you mention has ever exposed priests repeatedly to contracepting couples who see their use of contraception as "objectification" and harm of their partner?  Is this REALLY their experience?  Highly doubtful.  Do you really think the "experience" of a Roger Landry includes serious encounters with couples whose married lives have been hurt by contraception?  Again, I doubt it.  These men merely parrot the party line and use as examples the minority of couples who "follow church teaching" on this issue and are fulfilled in that.   Their insistence that all couples who contracept are harming and objectifying each other cannot be beased on any real experience----of serious, adult encounter----with these couples.  Sure, anyone can figure out the mechanics of sexual intercourse; but can these men actually say with certainty that they KNOW contraception harms married sexual love in all cases and under all circumstances?  How can they possibly know this, especially when the experience of the overwhelming majority of Catholics simply contradicts it?  The teaching makes no sense to most normal people.  The fact that the experience of thoughtful, faithful married people was excluded ultimately in the promulgation of Humanae Vitae is the root of the issue:  these celibate men simply do not know what they are talking about, nor do they listen to those who do.  

Janet, I think you overlooked my exclusion of ignorant priests from the class of priests I was discussing. 

JOH:  I hardly think that the Rogers of the church see themselves as ignorant!  Do you think a man humble enough to know his own ignorance on these matters would ever attempt to write such things (in The NY Times, no less!)?  The truly "ignorant" person would seek to learn from those who DO know what they are talking about.  And methinks they would change their minds quite readily once they had heard the real experience of real people.  But if you already know everything, why would you bother even ask anyone else what the truth might be?  But don't worry:  one of his priest friends assured me, with the same smug "certainty" you see evidenced in the Times article:  "Roger WILL be a bishop."

And that's what we have to look forward to...





In response to JOH's: Carolyn Disco, could you elaborate please?  ("it was power considerations by the papacy that decided the promulgation of HV").  Thanks.

Many have written at length about the focus on papal power and its possible diminuition as a result of any change in the teaching on artificial contraception. Garry Wills comes to mind immediately. In capsule form, however, here is a relevant letter from a professor of neurology who served on the Birth Control Commission:

Truth and authority

I read your wide coverage of Humanae Vitae (26 July) with interest as I was one of the original six members of the Papal Commission on Birth Control appointed by Pope John XXIII and confirmed by Paul VI. The outstanding feature of the Commission was its dedication to the discovery of the truth. Every argument was carefully analysed and sifted to determine its weight. The other striking feature was the attitude of Pope Paul VI. Because of the international political implications of the Church’s teaching on contraception, the Commission was set up by the Secretary of State, not by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) as might have been expected. The Secretary General of the Commission, the Swiss Dominican, Henri de Reidmatten, reported directly to the Pope. When it became clear that fundamental questions were being raised, the response of the Pope was to continue the study with diligence and integrity.

It was only after the Commission had completed its report and been disbanded that the CDF swung into action, persuading the Pope not to change the teaching for <i><b>fear of the damage this would do to papal authority.</i></b> It failed to envisage the greater damage to be caused by maintaining a teaching which is unsustainable. The CDF set up a secret commission entirely of priests to produce a new report. This gives an insight into the curial mindset to think that a group of celibate priests, handpicked for their orthodoxy, would have a better understanding of marriage than a commission of cardinals, bishops, priests and lay people, married couples and single people, drawn from all five continents and embracing a wide range of sacred and secular disciplines.

The fundamental difference between the Commission and the CDF lies in the understanding of the nature of sexual intercourse in marriage. As Charles Curran (“Dangers of certitude”, 26 July) succinctly explained, the hierarchical Church identifies the morality of sexual intercourse with its physical aspects. It would hotly deny this, but the fact that a couple are allowed to choose an act that is nonprocreative but may not make an act non-procreative shows that it is the physical aspect that is sacrosanct. The Commission, looking at the evidence, took a wider view of sexual intercourse, seeing it as part of the wider relationship, expressing and fostering love.

The Commission anticipated that a change in teaching would be a great pastoral challenge and prepared a pastoral document of four chapters, one largely the work of the French Jesuit Père de Lestapis, the finest account of married love I have ever read. What a pity that none of this was ever published.

There have been many tragic consequences of Humanae Vitae, but none greater than that referred to in “A mother’s story – 1” (26 July). For the Popes, especially John Paul II, to teach, in season and out of season, that contraception is wrong and the overwhelming majority of the faithful to reject this undermines the integrity of the Church and weakens its witness in many areas. I hope that your coverage of this issue will promote more open and honest discussion which is so badly needed.

John Marshall

Emeritus Professor of Neurology 

University of London

I should have noted the letter appeared in the Tablet.

 implying that men and women are nothing but unthinking animals -- baby factories.  jbruns

 If humans are made in the image and likeness of God then nothing could be further from the truth.

Carolyn Disco, Thanks for elaborating.

Janet, as I agree with Jo McGowan's entry, I think I may have chosen a poor place to make the point that celibacy does not make one a stonehearted blockhead.  I've heard stories of people explaining clearly, forcefully, agonizingly to priests where the condemnation of contraception leaves them.  That no priest could learn anything there is contradicted by my own experience with what I'll call Vatican-II era priests.  My experience with what I'll call JP2-era priests is extremely limited, but I fear it would be less happy, given the centralizing and authoritarian trends.

For the young who were not around in the 60s and want to know about some background noises about the BC controversy after Vat II,  the Crowleys of Chicago and the Christian Family Movement leaders  who were on the Papal commission, voted on the majority side of the BC Papal  commission The majority side  was rejected by Pope Paul VI. Our San Francisco parish pastor was so upset by the Crowleys' vote he chased CFM out of the parish by declaring at a homily that "as far as he was concerned CFM stood for Communist Front Movement"   And these were the good ole days!         


Beverly Balley:

The definition of contraception is "any voluntary human physical act that is performed before, during, or after marital sexual intercourse, that prevents such acts, foreseen to have procreative consequences, from having those consequences, and is a decision done for that reason."

The problem is that there is little difference between NFP-PC and Contraception, as follows:

Abstaining from marital sexual intercourse, at times foreseen to have procreative consequences, and the plotting of temperature and examination of cervical mucus to determine when sexual intercourse will be infertile are deliberately chosen, physical acts that result in rendering procreation impossible during sexual intercourse.  

Contraception and PC are both programs of controlling fertility in order to avoid potentially fertile intercourse, and both are reliant upon activities that take place before marital intercourse. Thus, it is very difficult for the average person to see any difference between them.

Either both NFP-PC and Contraception violate Humanae Vitae or they do not. 

There is also the Church argument that NFP-PC treats the person and his/her fertility as subject; while contraception treats the person and his/her fertility as an object to be manipulated. It is hard to imagine how PC , with physical acts such as the plotting of temperature and cervial mucus is not itself a form of manipulation.

Finally, one last reflection. The good reasons that Pius XII said spouses could use for avoiding procreation are the same reasons most couples have who practice PC and contraception. However, when it comes to birth   regulation, NFP-PC is the only licit method based on the Church's claim that this is God's procreative plan. However, NFP-PC was only determined to be morally licit in 1951. If this was truly God's procreative plan, why did he wait thousands of years to tell us?


If Bishops paid as much attention to the real problems in the church like the abuse of power and the abuse of children as they do to preaching about sex, they might do a lot more good for the church and the people.

This is the best article on the subject of contraception I've ever read.

Sevral years ago I saw a survey conducted by Reginald Bibby (he teaches at the University of Lethbridge and specialises in surveys on religious topics) among those who consider, for reasons of faith, that procreation is the primary or sole purpose of having sex.  He discovered that they had sex with the intention of conception on fewer than 5% of occasions.  That is, 19 times out of 20, they had sex with some other intention.  We have to be grateful, of course, that, whatever their other intention(s), it wasn't procreation, or the world would be vastly more overpopulated than it is. 

Bruce, Exactly the point.  And that is why we, as thinking human beings, should apply our intelligence in all our activities, including conception.  Why would God expect us to exercise dominion over nature, except in this one instance?

Michael Barberi:

abstaining from and act is not an act.


In general, I can only offer my personal experience as a married man. I have been married almost 17 years, we only used NFP, we had the number of children we wanted, we never had any problem, we are very happy. Tell me again what's the big deal about Humanae Vitae?

Carlo:  Easy peezy.  God is perfection.  We are not God.   That we strive to be pleasing in God's eyes makes sense.  At any moment to assume "pleasing" is synomous or even close to perfection does not make sense.  It quite simply is not possible.  To suggest guilt is at times appropriate even useful in moderation is defensible.  To suggest we mere mortals parcel out damnation is ludicrous. Again, we are not God.  Perhaps you heard the rumors.  Mother Teresa had moments of profound doubt but not on the issue of her own intimate involvement with reproduction.  She chose to marry far outside what I believe I can reasonably say is for most not an option.  Just too challenging.  Wise or not, for her questions specific to reproduction were never to be among the amazing challenges she faced so well.  Short of all women following that remarkable women in her choice and short of demanding perfection, how exactly do we deal with this issue?

JOH:  I understand and certainly I agree:  there are many priests who can/do learn from others and are changed by those experiences.  Of course.  But priests like Roger (and I have had the great misfortune of encountering several of them in amazingly contentious situations) are not the ones of whom we speak.  Could they develop the humility necessary to listen and learn from others who do know better than they about different areas of human/Christian life?  Of course.  But if the general tenor of their formation is that they already know everything and only need spout the ready-made formulae (no matter how defective), why would it ever occur to them that they might have something new to learn?  Remember:  this is a guy who openly preached that the ordained are transubstantiated.  My, my!  What COULD such an exalted being learn from those so far beneath him?    Folks here might see this as unrelated to the contrqception issue, but I do not.  This is the new "vanguard" of priests.  It's what JPII wanted.  The church is all the worse for it.  Pick any topic at all; choose any difficult issue that burdens and vexes God's people and shames the Church's witness; the response will be the same:  simply a new version of pray, pay and obey.  It is miserable.  


There is nothing wrong with NFP. There is also nothing wrong with contraception for good reasons. Many couples, especially those with irregular cycles, find NFP-PC unreliable. According to the most recent research, there is a 25% failure rate with PC based on acual usage. If you have had success with PC, and were happy, good for you. Most couples who practice contraception, for spacing children and to avoid conception after having children, are equally happy.

The act of abstinence is an act, and this act is brought about and preceeded by two voluntary deliberate physical acts: the measurement of temperature and the examination of cervical mucus, all plotted with the intention to limit sexual intercourse to infertile times, rendering procreation impossible during sexual intercourse.

As for me, I have been married to the same woman for 40 years and have two wonderful children. We pracitced contraception and are happy.



In the original NYT article, the reporter writes "Fr. Landry argues that contraception can be the gateway to exploitation."  I suspect that there are few people who would disagree that contraception  can  be a gateway for objectification and gratuitious self-indulgence. That it must lead to it is not the lived experience of many in the church, both before and after Humanae Vitae. By adopting this extreme position that ran counter to what people in the midst of good relationships knew to be true, the church  ceased to speak with an effective, credible voice on any issues of sexuality or marital relations .  I wonder with sadness where we might be now had Pope Paul accepted the wisdom of those on the Papal Commission and taken the more moderate and more defensible position on responsible parenthood outlined by the Commission. Perhaps the Church would have been better positioned to speak with authority when real exploitation took place, and to do as Ms McGowan suggests is their proper role, to help families find the right decisions regarding family planning.



Who cares?  Most Catholics pay no attention to what the Catholic Church says about birth control.  And, consequently, they pay little attention to what the Catholic Church has to say about anything related to sex.  And because the Church lacks credibilty in this everyday aspect of human life, they lack credibility in so many other important aspects of Catholic moral teaching.  I remember when HV came out.  I was young and newly married.  I thought at the time that HV would drive many Catholics out of the Church and Unfortunately, I was right.  I know what the Church's reasoning is behind their decision to ban articifial birth control.  But for most people, it is abstract gibberish that bears little or no relationship to how married life is actually lived.  Can we get the Bishops to talk seriously and forcefully about economic issues?  Almost 50% of Americans are counted as either poor or low income.  People are dying without health care.  We have wasted trillions of dollars on wasteful and violence producing wars.  We have an obscene concentration of wealth in this country.  Really, who cares about some arcane arguments about natural law and the other fine philosophical distinctions? 

Infertile couples can have sex continuously and it's biologically not "open to life".  However, a woman on the pill or a man with a condom CAN be open to life if they accept that a failure of method may result in a pregnancy and they are ready to embrace that pregnancy. Many more contradictions of this sort exist.




Excellent point, Juliana.  The Church's  witness has been terribly damaged and its voice muted so badly due to the arrogance and fear that motivates so many of its teachings on sexual morality (and its obsession with those issues to the neglect of so many others).  Add to that the largely inadequate and hugely tardy response to the abusive clergy-bishop scandal...the voice is hollow and utterly unconvincing.  

The primary purpose of sex between married partners is to deepen the love between them. As for procreation, the Church teaches that artificial means of birth control cannot be used to prevent that possibility. The reason everyone should know that the use of artificial birth control is always and in every circumstance wrong is the fact that it's a doctrine of the Church. The Church doesn't "make up" doctrine any more than scientists make up the speed of light. These truths just are. They are part of God's created order. Whether or no we like bishops or popes, whether or not we like the Church, whether or not we understand the "why" of doctrine, whether or not these doctrines fit our lifestyles has nothing to do with the truth of doctrine and our obligation to assent to the truth. The Church has the authority and mandate from Christ to teach, preach, interpret, and defend Divine revelation. Having free will we can ignore God's revelation of the truths necessary for our salvation, but we do so at our peril.

Where is divinely revealed that contraception is inherently evil, and why did Paul VI even consider looking again at the issue if it is, indeed, a "doctrine"?  Sorry, Ed, but your argument is a silly loop, circling around itself with nowhere to go.  

So sex is either for becoming a dad/ mom or for pleasure? I think that this is where the problem is. I had hoped that by now the leaders of the Church would have been able to move beyond the Augustanian model of sex. The issue is much broader than what this priest seems to say. Sex can be about an expression of a deep, loving connection, even in search of that connection. It can also be about meeting a need and helping another to meet a need. To limit it to always needing to be open to creating life, I believe, is seeing sex thru a very narrow lens; one that does not take into consideration how multi-level it really is. Certainly there are dangers to sex. I don't mean to discount these dangers, but to deal with the dangers by ignoring so much that is good and healthy about sex is very troubling.

Did someone mention Natural Family Planning?  To plan not to conceive, couples must abstain from intercourse six to nine days during the wife’s fertile period. Couples normally also abstain from intercourse during the wife’s menstrual period which means another five to seven days of abstinence. So we have eleven to sixteen days per month of abstinence. These numbers are not often presented in NFP seminars.

I disagree with the implication that couples should not have too much sex. Shared sexual pleasure is central to the married life. It is blessed by God in its very act which is a key sign of their being Sacrament + the Real Presence of Christ.

I do not agree that somehow celibacy belongs in marriage. Sexual intercourse is not the only way couples can express and strengthen their love. But ordinarily, making love is the fullest way couples can nourish their marriage. As such, as another writer put it, "the vast majority of the time, couples should no more avoid intimate sexual intercourse than they should avoid celebrating an intimate Eucharist."

Michael Barberi:

I too find arguing an essential difference between NFP and contraception a fool's task, but those who do see the "act" of contraceptive intercourse purposively closed off from its creative potential while an "act" chosen during a woman's infertile period remains morally "open" to life, no matter how many physically demanding techniques are required to determine that it's, in fact, infertile. 

I think such reasoning confirms what Birth Control Commission member John Marshall said in his recent letter, "the hierarchical Church identifies the morality of sexual intercourse with its physical aspects. It would hotly deny this, but the fact that a couple are allowed to choose an act that is nonprocreative but may not make an act non-procreative shows that it is the physical aspect that is sacrosanct."

Moralists who defend HV always say they're not basing their view of natural law on the mere physical or biological functioning of sex and procreation, that this is a matter of human acts, not biology, but in the end, as Marshall says, biology seems to matter most.


All that's necessary for us ot know that a teaching is infallible is for the Church to say so. Period. If you don't understand that, you don't understand the nature of Christ-given Church authority. But the Church doesn't just leave things at the "accept or else" stage. it lays out reasons. Doctrine doesn't have to be explicitly stated in scripture. All doctrine can be derived from scripture and Tradition just as all the theorems in Euclid's 13 books of geometry can be derived from those 5 little axioms and a handful of definitions found in Book 1, Page 1. Paul VI didn't have doubts about the moral evil of artificial contraception. He gathered as much information as he could, pro and con on the issue, so that his pronouncement - Humanae Vitae - would be encompassing. On what basis do you argue against infallibility? You've reached the point of inconvenient truth? if you want to talk about silly reasoning, check out all the silly comments here on Fr. Landry, as if anything about his character has the smallest thing to do with the infallible truth of the doctine that artificial contraception is always and in every circumstance is wrong.

"The Church doesn't 'make up' doctrine any more than scientists make up the speed of light."


Seriously? All church doctrine as well as the church itself was totally made up many years ago and has been adjusted and refined by the magesterium ever since. Jesus did not found the church; his followers did; and I'm not aware that Jesus ever dictated a policy on contraception!


Wonderful article, Jo, ably articulating what so many of us Catholics think about this issue!


I disagree. NFP does not make contraception impossible, just very unlikely.

Anyway, at end of the day NFP can be as "wrong" (your choice of words) as contraceptive pills, if it is used selfishly, in order to achieve absolute certainty that a marital act cannot channel the gift of life to a new human being. The crucial moral issue is not the instrument but the disposition of the heart, whether when we give ourselves away to our spouses we are also giving ourself away to God's will, which in this case includes the possibility of a baby.

As my non-Catholic husband always said: when the Pope helps to pay for feeding, clothing, housing and educating our children, that's when he can tell us how many children to have.

I have spent four full years, 24/7, researching and writing about HV. I will not go into a lot of detail, unless asked, but these are my conclusioins.

1. The central principle of HV that changed sexual ethics for the next 44 years, was the "inseparability prinicple", that you cannot separate the unitive and procreative meanings of the marital act because it is the Divine Plan of God. This principle was taken "word for word" from Karol Wojtyla's 1960 book "Love and Responsibility", and from the conclusions of his Krakow Commission formed and directed by Cardinal Wojtyla shortly after the PBCC gave their reports to Paul VI. No other pope, theologian or bishop before 1960 has ever spoken, written or proclaimed as a teaching or moral principle a inseparability principle. 

2. One of the reason Paul VI gave for rejecting the conclusions of the Majority Report of the PBCC was that "there was not a complete agreement among the members". Yet, in contradiction, Paul VI embraced the philosophy and theology on marriage and procreation of one-man, Karol Wojtyla, and a one-country commission in Krakow limited to Polish clergy and theologians. HV also includes Wojtyla's consequences of contraception and his interpretation of Divine Law.

3. JP II claimed that his personalism, and his Theology of the Body, was not based on biology or physicalism. It was based on the order of nature, created by God, manifested in the language of the body, in its fertility-infertility nexus. God's procreative plan was based on speculation about anthropology, in the Genesis story, and symbolism. This symbolism is an exaggeration of analogy: it goes something like this...Christ's love for his Church is inseparable and one; by analogy, spouses are inseparable and one flesh, as well as the unitive and procreative meanings of their marital acts are inseparable. The fallacy of such a philosophy and theology of marraige and procreation is that speculation and symbolism is a weak moral theory and no one knows God's procreative plan.

4. A more nuanced version of argumentation in defense of HV, in particular of the thesis of Martin Rhonheimer, is that NFP-PC is a virtue of chasity-temperance; while the choice of contraception makes superfluous the choice of this virtue. How insane! According to this post-Vertitatis Spendor argument, there can be no virtue in the choice of contraception regardless of circumstances, intentions and ends. I will not waste the space in this blog for the counter-argument.

5. Lastly, as many have pointed out, the reality of marriage and procreation is anything but what the Church asserts, especially the unrealistic and exaggerated consequences of contraception. They want us to believe that contraception has caused the increase in: abortion, spousal abuse, unwed mothers, and promiscurity. We all recognize that our modern culture has grown more liberal and exploitative. However, this does not mean that all who disagree with the teaching about contraception, or who practice it, are infected with the evil of the secular world or who are invincible the Church claims.

Is it possible that the celibate Roman Curia teaches what they have not learned, proclaims as truth what is contradicted by human experience, and who claim they listen, but have not heard? While the Church repeats their narrative in the hope of an epiphany, what goes without remedy are the sufferings, moral dilemma and conflict that their teachings on sexual ethics cause millions of Catholics. In the end, it is not to enough to ignore the teachings, but to do all in our individual and collective power to move the conversation forward in the hope that our Church will solidify a divided Church and resolve a Crisis in Truth


Ed:  WOW.  Breathtaking.  Is that REALLY why PPVI called the Commission? Seriously? might want to get a little education on this.  Did you read the letter from John Marshall on Page 2 of these comments?  He was actually on the Commission...maybe he could be of help to you in getting some things straight.  Now, eating meat on Fridays and exacting interest were also once taught as intrinsically evil---as mortal sin.  Were these also revealed "doctrines"?  And if so, what HAPPENED to them?  Are they in the "revealed doctrine" trash can?  Or did the Church make a mistake?  Or what?  WOW.  

PS to ED:  IS the teaching of HV considered "infallible" under the strict qualifications of that term?  Really?  Since when?  It is my understanding that the magisterium has produced only two infallible doctrines in modern times:  the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception.  Where is it stated that HV is "infallible" teaching?  Are you super-duper, infallibly sure of this??? might be the only person in the church privy to this info.  That is special!

PPS to Ed (I am so stunned that I keep forgetting what I need to say):  the "inconvenient (alleged) truth" of the teaching of HV is not inconvenient for me in the least, as I am a celibate for God.  It has no direct impact on my life at all.  But I sure do love my married brothers, sisters and friends, and I respect their experiences and do not cast aspersion on their hearts or motives when they make adult decisions about the most intimate aspect of their lives.  Lies are the inconvenience here, and blessed be those who love the truth and listen to their consciences.  

Michael B:  Excellent post.  And while I agree that, ideally, we should all do what we can "to move the conversation forward," the reality is that there IS no conversation...when do the bishops listen and advocate for the people?  Where is the conversation happening---and happening between the true partners (in this case, married people and the bishops)?  There simply is no conversation---or even the possibilty of a conversation.  Instead, we get the pontifications of Roger Landry and his ilk.  They talk; they don't listen; and exhausted, disgusted Catholics turn away.  

Matthew 23:4

Luke 11:46



About the Author

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.