Catholic Kosher

Is the Ban on Contraception Just an Identity Marker?

Testifying before Congress about religious liberty last February, William Lori, archbishop of Baltimore, proffered an analogy. The government would not force a kosher deli to serve ham sandwiches, Lori observed; so why force Catholic hospitals to provide their employees with contraception coverage?

I was surprised that a bishop would make this comparison—and certain that Aquinas would have been shocked. Catholics traditionally have seen the prohibition against contraception as a moral norm binding on all human beings, like prohibitions against murder, theft, and lying; by contrast, the laws of kashrut are cultic precepts that bind only Jews. But then I began to wonder whether Lori was on to something. From a sociological perspective, the prohibition against contraception does seem to be morphing from a universally applicable moral norm into a cultic norm that marks and defines Catholic identity—one strict form of it, anyway—within a broader pluralistic culture.

Traditionally, Catholics don’t build religious identity around adherence to absolute negative moral norms, but rather view those norms as the foundation of an acceptable moral identity. Yet many Orthodox Jews (especially those living in pluralistic societies) do build their identity around the laws of kosher, measuring their religious and communal commitment through their recognition of ritual laws of purity and contamination.

Thanks to John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” a small but dedicated group of Catholics appears to be structuring their family lives around the prohibition of contraception. In treating that prohibition as the linchpin of a faithful Catholic life, including faithfulness to divinely ordained gender roles, they are transforming the prohibition into a religious identity marker. If their blogs are any indication, Catholics who publicize their commitment to this church teaching tend to see those who don’t follow it as inauthentic Catholics. That is more akin to a cultic judgment than a moral one. Significantly, no one talks about the prohibitions against stealing, lying, or murdering this way. Someone who commits murder would be labeled a sinner or a bad Catholic—not an inauthentic one.

The similarities go further. Conformity to cultic norms generally takes a great deal of thought and vigilance, and Natural Family Planning demands ongoing vigilance in ways analogous to keeping kosher. Just as there are competing rabbinical schools, there exist NFP experts, as well as study groups and manuals, to address technical questions. Not surprisingly, enterprising adherents to both Jewish dietary prohibitions and the Catholic ban on contraception have invented smartphone apps to make conformity easier.

In contrast, I’m not aware of an app for “not killing”—or “not stealing,” for that matter. That’s because most people don’t spend too much time thinking about whether and how to conform to basic moral prohibitions. In fact, the more fundamental the moral prohibition, the less time we ought to think about it. We would worry greatly about someone who said, “I want a promotion. I could kill my boss and take her job... but that would be wrong.” Killing the boss is or should be unthinkable.

A critic might object by noting that some Catholics forgo both birth control and NFP, “leaving room” for God to plan their family. But this approach is also strikingly inconsistent with the way negative moral prohibitions operate in the Catholic tradition. After all, no one says, “I’m leaving room for God to plan my career, so I’m not going to steal my coworker’s ideas.” In the Catholic moral framework, the point of negative moral absolutes is to conform to God’s law, not to leave room for divine providence to operate. Our tradition does not frame the relationship of God’s will and human activity in this mutually exclusive way.

Can’t the norm against contraception be both a universal moral norm and a cultic Catholic one? From a sociological perspective, pulling this off would be tricky. General moral norms are meant to gather all people together into the same moral community, highlighting commonality. (Think, for example, of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.) Cultic norms, by contrast, emphasize differences among subcommunities, focusing on what sets them apart.

A hundred years from now, no one will remember the political skirmishes around religious liberty during the 2012 presidential campaign. But some future historians of Catholic moral theology might point to Bishop Lori’s testimony as a turning point, marking the moment when the church’s official teachers began to concede that the prohibition against contraception could plausibly be defended no longer as a matter of a universal moral law, but only as a cultic precept binding on Catholics. Four decades after Humanae vitae, that prohibition looks increasingly like a form of Catholic kashrut.

For more coverage of the contraception mandate, click here.

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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Excellent--and only too true--piece.  One quibble.  This did not start with Archbishop Lori's testimony before Congress, nor did it start only over contraception, at least in matters of public policy.  If memory serves, the feud between Cuomo and Cardinal O'Connor over his "Notre Dame Speech" also used being Catholic as its main argument.  Cuomo was personally opposed to abortion because he was Catholic, not because it was immoral.  Likewise, when O'Connor went after him, it was less because he was defending an evil, but because he was violating Catholic teaching.  Being "pro-life" is often times as much a marker of Catholic identity as a genuine commitment to the unborn.  Not, I suspect, to the same extent that NFP and contraception can be, but nonetheless in ways that Aquinas would never have been able to recognize.  I also find it ironic that as more and more on the left begin to see the problems with many forms of identity politics--in some ways accepting a decades-old conservative argument--they are being utilized more and more adamantly on the right.


Some Catholic blogs have pics of dozens of newly ordained married deacons in each diocese. . How about having a Catholic  marker that every deacon group have at least an average total of six children. Don't ordain the ones-ye two-sys till the average gets to six... no getting there ?... get new candidates... go back to starting GO. We can all admire markers .

The concerns that Prof. Kaveany writes about sound very much like what was articulated when Humanae Vitae was released and even more so like what was said on the 25th Anniversary (see this excellent piece from America 1993 -

As Catholics, many have struggled individually and with each other over the idea that EVERY contraceptive act is intrinsically disor­dered - Bishops and Bishops conferences since '68 have concluded that reasonable (and just as True) Catholics could come to a different conclusion - That changed with JPII.

Today, many argue for and could accept inseparability of the unitive and procreative senses of sexual intercourse if this inseparability is applied to the relationship, not each act. Couples bind themselves to a covenant that unites the conjugal and parental vocation. Their love is generously open to life, and procreation is the result of their deep personal love - that, to me, sounds more like a Universal Moral Law.

In the letter to Diognetus, the disciple observes, "Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives." Sixty years ago in America, secular morality and Christian morality were much more aligned. Today, as in second century Rome, basic morality is becoming a cultural marker for those who follow Christ.

Wow, I hope that you are wrong and that 100 years from now no one will be discussing the morality or legality of contraception!! The strict, blind adherence to rules is one of the practices that Jesus spoke against. He was crucified because he spoke out against the established orders. Jesus came to give us life and that more abundantely. His life wasn't about strict adherence to rules and neither should ours be if we are his followers. These cults are missing his message and I can only hope that they will fade away or have little widesread appeal.

 Ms. Kaveny seems surprisingly unfamiliar with the universality of the Catholic moral position on contraception as presented with such thoroughness and logic in the actual text of encyclicals Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae. There our Church eruditely developed the rebuttal to the Protestant Lambeth Conference (circa 1930), which separated the unitive and procreative elements of sexual contact after centuries. Anyone rereading these encyclicals cannot fail to be impressed that the AUTHENTIC Catholic moral position on contraception has consistently been and remains its universality.  Note that it is the AUTHENTIC Catholic position because it is universal, not universal because Catholics are cultic.

Even conservative Catholics I know who don't approve of contraception have noticed a certain cultishness among what might be called "neo-traditionalists," who as you say, live according to strict gender roles whereby women don't use contraceptives, alcohol, nicotine or makeup, dress in what might be called modest extremes (many in long skirts reminiscent of Prairie fashion) and make a point of following the Pauline injunction to "submit" to their husbands.  Some say they seem more Protestant than Catholic, and many are, in fact, converts from evangelical Protestantist sects.  On the other hand, there are also groups of Protestants who follow the same cultish pattern, including the refusal to use contraceptives, e.g., the 21-member Duggar family of cable TV fame.   A growing number in both groups, Catholic and Protestant, seem to be taking their identity as non-contraception users to the next level by embracing the practice of "letting God decide" how many children they have, forgoing not only "artificial" birth control but any type of "natural family planning" as well.    

The identity markers are those who support artifical birth control and go against the church's ban on artificial contraception. It's not a numbers game and the church's teachings against artifical birth control are fully consistent with it's theology;we're made in God's image and therefore human life is a good thing-not something to be avoided in a marriage by the use of artificial methods. [these methods alter the natural balance of a healthy body iwhich itself is not safe and'or always effective. And who wants to be having sex with a condom if you're married?]If Catholics were not labeling murder a sin but rather believed in it -then they too could be called inauthentic catholics.[And maybe all these catholics who support pre-emptive war or drone warfare on populated areas- are in deed supporting murder and therefore are in need of an app explaining how these pre-emptive wars go against Christ and his Church]? Those Catholics who believe in the church's theology  around life and marriage and therefore oppose artifical birth control  are not cultic-their opponents are.And the attempt to marginalize and denigrate them by labeling them as cultic  is not only casting aspersions on them but  is an attempt to invert and falsify the Church's theology. 

As a Church doctrine, Usery has a remarkably similar history to the Doctrine on Contracepion. One doctrine was reformed, the other is in waiting. Consider the real history of the Usury Doctrine  and how it represents solid evidence of how the Church has changed its teachings, a doctrine that was clearly written in Scipture of "Divine Law". 

From at least the 12th to the 16th centuries the profit on a loan constituted the serious sin of usury.... “The doctrine of usury was enunciated by popes, 3 ecumenical councils, proclaimed by bishops, and taught unanimously by theologians”. By 1565 Archbishop Charles Borrmeo of Milan found prevalent banking and business practices in his diocese in which an investor was guaranteed his capital plus a return. This was considered a mortal sin and a violation of divine law (Luke 6, 35).

At that time, the financial markets of Europe were undergoing substantial changes and innovation especially with respect to annuity contracts, exchange banking and deposits. A Church commission was set up to study these issues and enable the pope to decide the theological controversies about the moral law that had divided theologians, confused the laity and threatened to subvert the divine and natural law forbidding men to seek profit on a loan. Between 1571 and 1586 Pius V and Sixtus V issued 3 papal bulls Cum Onus, In Eam and Detestabilis Avaritia denouncing these financial practices as a mortal sin and against divine law. However, most theologians and the laity dissented to the papal bulls. The popes and their advisors feared that if the novel theories of innovating theologians were accepted the entire moral structure of Catholic thought on economic matters would crumble. By challenging established business practices, the popes anticipated objection and the continuance of sin. Nevertheless, they reasoned that the laity had to be instructed and theological innovators repressed. As it turned out, the dissent by theologians and the laity deprived the bulls of any force to influence anyone’s behavior. It was also the theologians and the laity that helped reform the doctrine of usury over papal bulls. However, at that time no one was able to explain how the Church overlooked what was clearly written in scripture as divine law. 

Today the Catholic Chuch faces similar issues of disgreement to Humanae Vitae. Three popes have issued encyclicals, an apostolic letter and a series of instructional talks all supporting the current prohibition against contraception. Like usury, most theologians and the laity disagree with HV; many bishops and priests also disagree with it. In many ways HV and the papal bulls concerning usury are "teachings not recieved". The doctrine of usery was eventually reformed. Some day HV will undergo a similar process of discernment. 

Prof. Kaveny purposely misapplies the heart of Bishop Lori's analogy--government compulsion of conduct contrary to religious beliefs--in an effort to support her own agenda, which is to relegate use or rejection of contraception to a mere cultural marker among Catholics, rather than a consequential moral choice rooted in natural law. Her transparent goal in misapplying the analogy is to suggest that using contraception is fine and dandy for Catholics. It's not. It's one thing to be a Catholic but commit a sin, whether it's murder or adultery or lying. That's why the Church is here. People who are well don't need doctors. Catholics are sinners in need of the grace that flows from the Church. It's quite another to call oneself a Catholic while claiming that one may freely choose a lifestyle of sinful conduct--whether it's murder, adultery, lying, or contraception--and, moreover, claim it's not sinful at all. That, Prof. Kaveny, is what makes any Catholic inauthentic. 

@Thomas Hockel

Your argument that the moral choice (e.g. of contraception or NFP-PC) is rooted in natural law is an old argument that most theologians have abandoned. This old argument was criticized as legalism and physicialism  and this lead to a "new natural law theory" that was also criticized which did not lead to a consensus of argument. After more than 20 years of debate, including other moral theories such as proportionalism-consequentialism, John Paul II wrote Vertitatis Spendor in 1993.

This document moved beyond the traditionalist view of natural law as the non-violation of natural ends, and beyond the question of a certain technique of birth regulation. JP II used a different approach to the important areas of natural law, moral action and intrinsically evil acts which differ significantly from appeals to nature in much of tradition. With respect to the moral specification of the contraceptive act, John Paul II offered this interpretation of Aquinas in VS 78:

The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the object rationally chosen by the deliberate will, and that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision, which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. 

Unfortunately, the object as the proximate end of a deliberate decision is unsubstantiated because VS 78 is primarily based S.T. I-II, q. 18, a. 6 which never mentions the concept of a “proximate end”. The “proximate end’ is mentioned in S.T. I-II, q. 1, a. 3, ad. 3 but the example Aquinas uses demonstrates that the proximate end of the act of killing a person can either be moral or immoral based on the remote end to safeguard one’s life or as an act of vengeance. In this case, the so-called proximate end does not specify, but the so-called remote or agent’s end. There is also the specific problem with the definition of terms such as object to determine what morally specifies a human, voluntary action.

This position, VS 78, also discounts the role of reason and deliberation in choosing an appropriately right means-to-end, asserting that it is distorted reason and not an act of virtue if one rejects PC for good reasons (i.e., the ‘good reasons’ for avoiding fecundity promulgated by Pius XII in his Address to the Midwives). Therefore to assert that VS 78 is the absolute moral truth is highly controversial.

Contraception is not sinful nor is it like murder or adultery. It is a distortion based on the culture of the Catholic Church that feared any disagreement with past papal encyclicials or pronouncements would undermine the credibility of the magisterium. It is indeed a cultural marker but not solely a marker. There is some truth in Humanae Vitae, but not the complete moral truth. This is a complex subject. However, Aquinas's understanding of natural law was not based on the non-frustration of natural ends.






It seems to me that the difference between the use of contraceptive pills and 'natural familly planning' is essentially a difference between chemistry and physics.  In both the intention is the same, to avoid pregnancy.  One uses hormones to chemically regulate a woman's body, the other uses themometers, clocks, witching sticks (but never, presumably, alternatives to fully consumated vaginal intercourse).  The intention is the same and the mechanisms only variations of the same thing -- keep the sperm from meeting up with the fertile ovum.  So what's the difference?

Late to the party here but I felt the need to weigh in on this.

This issue is what is seriously causing me to consider leaving the church altogether.  I have a feeling that some would be all to happy to see me leave.  My choice to not have children was based on  matters of conscience I will not get into here, but they were and are serious matters.  We are taught that we cannot violate our conscience and I will not do so.  It God judges me unfavorably in the end then I will leave that decision to him.

What I find reprehensible is that contraception always comes up in this "culture of death" talk.  Who have I killed?  So not having a child is tantamount to killing one now?  This is starting to sound like the talk of a fertility cult instead of a religion.  The church has no business getting involved in the intimate details of my committed monogamous marriage - a commitment that I also take very seriously.

I do understand and actually respect some of the underlying philosophy concerning natural law and the like.  But the ability to act according to conscience, and not just submitting to instinct/nature/etc. is an integral part of bring human as well.  The argument of course is that my conscience is obviously not properly informed.  Does the church seriously believe that there are never valid reasons a person would decide not to have children, and that any decision to not procreate is sinful?  I find this bizarre and completely removed from my life experience.  Maybe it really is time for me to go.

It is heartening to see so many new voices emerging to challenge the myth that the sexual revolution and contraception have been a good thing for society.Collen Carroll Campbell, "What Women Want" Joseph, "Serving an Epidemic of Sexual Excess: Free Contraceptive Coverage -- A Bad Joke Played on Women" Fulwiler, "The Contraception Trap": Eberstadt, "Has the Sexual Revolution Been Good for Women? No.": Rose, "Battle hymn of the anti-abortion feminist:" Hoopes, "The Truth About Natural Family Planning:" H, "Why the Catholic Church Opposes Contraception:" Smith, with the classic "Contraception, Why not?" Giesler, "Contracepting America: the real war on women" Locke, "The Dark Fruits of Contraception"

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