The Big Chill

'Humanae Vitae' Dissenters Need to Find Voice

Over the past quarter-century, Catholics who support Humanae Vitae have done a superb job articulating the ways their adherence to church teaching against contraception fits into their view of family life. For example, Helen Alvaré, professor at George Mason Law and former spokeswoman for the U.S. Catholic bishops, recently edited a volume titled Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves. The book showcases ten accomplished women who fully accept church teaching on sexual morality, situating their lives and vocations within a larger context of religious belief.

Are we likely to see a similar volume from Catholic women who believe the responsible use of birth control is compatible with their faith and their vocations as wives any time soon? I doubt it. This large cohort of Catholic women is largely silent. And who could blame them?

The ecclesiastical climate has chilled considerably in the forty years since Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae. At the time the encyclical was published, the use of contraception by married couples was still seen by most prelates as a matter on which people of good faith could disagree. That began to change under John Paul II, who treated contraception as the doorway to the “culture of death.” Proponents of his “Theology of the Body” maintain that spouses who use contraception are lying to one another with their bodies and withholding themselves from one another in the sexual act. This hardly encourages respectful conversation with Catholic couples who find contraception morally acceptable.

The theological climate has shifted too. Many of today’s emerging Catholic moralists were drawn to their field by the examples of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. They accept and defend the teaching against contraception. And those who don’t accept it do well to maintain a prudent silence. The ecclesiastical actions taken against Charles Curran, Elizabeth Johnson, and Margaret Farley have had a chilling effect on academic discussion of sexual morality.

In short, over the past twenty years, Catholic bishops have largely squelched open debate among their people about the morality of contraception. Many have worked to thwart frank discussion about what Catholic parents owe their marriages, their children, and other vocational commitments they have apart from family. If the price of admission to this crucial conversation is adherence to Humanae Vitae, then nine out of ten Catholic couples aren’t qualified to say a word.

Obviously, those who dissent from Humanae Vitae have cause to lament this state of affairs. But those who support church teaching also have reason to be worried, because it encourages a type of compartmentalization that is fundamentally foreign to the Catholic tradition. If people are not encouraged to reflect on their normative commitments in a holistic manner, they tend to segregate them from one another. They put the church in one box, marriage and family life in another. Catholics who compartmentalize their moral commitments risk isolating themselves from the considerable wisdom of the tradition on matters of sex, love, and embodiment. A church that encourages such compartmentalization is hardly catholic. How can that kind of church interpret the complexities of our world? How can it avoid being seen as one more commitment among many others, just something to do for an hour on Sundays?

So instead of ignoring ordinary Catholics who use contraception, it would be better for the church to encourage them to articulate how their views can be seen as consistent with the deepest insights of the tradition. Encourage them to read Humanae Vitae. But also encourage them to read the Majority Report of the Birth Control Commission—convened by Paul VI—which tried to show that church teaching on contraception could be authentically developed.

Most progressive Catholics hope the Majority Report position will eventually win the day, just as Vatican II’s defense of religious liberty superseded the condemnation of that freedom in the Syllabus of Errors. But winning the day takes work. John Courtney Murray, SJ, worked to show how religious liberty was consistent with the Catholic tradition. John Noonan’s magisterial volume Contraception (1968) did much the same thing for birth control. As that book approaches its fiftieth anniversary, it’s time to reread it.

Progressive Catholics need to make sure that the next generation can situate their argument within the Catholic moral tradition, rather than presenting it in a purely secular manner. Does that mean a lot of conservatives—including “John Paul II” bishops—are going to welcome such arguments with open arms? Of course not. They’ll still call those Catholics dissenters. But at least they will be dissenters engaged in the tradition, not cordoned off from it.



Commenting Guidelines

Stephen DeVo,

I totally agree with your comments. However, Pope Francis' message is dramatically different from the "letter of the law and the pre-concilar theology" that JP II taught. The truth is that the pastoral message has often been the "moral light for Catholics". The problem is that the pastoal message has historically been in tension with hierarchial doctrine. This disconnection continues today, albeit HV and other sexual ethical teachings have not been recieved. The disconnection divides the Church and non-reception along with the message of Pope Franics will eventually lead to certain doctrinal revisions. However, this article of Cathleen Kaveny is spot on....those that dissagree need to have a voice in more ways than non-reception.

For the past 45 years, the pastoral contexts have shifted but much of this message has been silenced by clericalism, fear of retibution where no priest is made a bishop if he whispers for a re-thinking of a teaching. Yet, in spiritual guidance sessions a significant percentage of priests do not think the use of contraception in a healthy marriage with children is a mortal sin.

In time, the teaching about contraception will change but I will be long gone. I raise my voice not for myself but for my children and their eventual children. In the meantime, far too many Catholics are leaving the Church or are Catholic in name only. Consider how many divorced and remarried Catholics feel disenfrancized, alone and standing on the outside of the Church staring at doors that are not open to them. Unlike those who practice contraception and can recieve reconcilation (or do not confess contraception as a sin with pastoral permission/acceptance), they cannot. If a pregnancy is terminated to save the mother's life when the fetus is not viable under any circumstances, are immediately ex-communicated. 





I have found out that a good number of Catholic couples approach contraception mainly as a matter of good health care. The same with sterilization.  The moral/immoral dichotomy is not a significant part of their horizon of reality. They also think that the view from within the family is the best way to make these decisions. They are not likely to want to publicize or promote personal decisions. Maybe the problem lies in making it a theological issue, or at least a major theological issue. At least the Supreme Court has had the decency to get out of the bedroom. 


If 'open to life' means 'possibility of conception' then the maximally 'open to life' act would be sexual intercourse during ovulation, which kind of defeats the purpose of NFP doesn't it? Likewise, the most effective method of NFP would be impermissible by the Church. But I don't see a problem with someday there being an NFP method which gives one 100% accurate knowledge of ovulation to the second.

Instead of 'open to life' I think the actual meaning is closer to 'oriented to life' which stresses a relation or an essential property of sex rather than a possible consequence of sex. Your intentional attitude regarding the consequences of sex isn't the main point, but your intentional attitude towards that relation or essential property of sex.


"Many have worked to thwart frank discussion about what Catholic parents owe their marriages, their children, and other vocational commitments they have apart from family."

And the same cast of characters has also thwarted frank discussion of any number of other pressing or important (even if not pressing) topics.  We have become an anti-intellectual, hide-your-head-in-the-sand, refuse-to-confront-the-problems-of-modernity Church.  For an institution with a respectable intellectual history (at times, at least), that is a real shame, and a terrible loss not only for th Church but for our world.

Michael Barberi,

I think of you when discussions of HV/NFP arise, and hope you may publish someday the results of your years of study. That would be a gift to so many of us.

Just reading your comments versus those of opposite view, I am left with a chill at the tone and content of HV proponents. Their approach resonates with a self-righteousness and forced certitude that only alienate. Mercifully, for my children's generation, the issue is simply settled. 

Thank you, and Lisa, Bill, Crystal and others for bringing bread, not stone, to the discussion.

It is wonderful to see such a vigorous and respectful dialogue, especially since too often these days a "discussion" on the web seems to consist of various forms of the childhood taunts of "is to" and "is not".

However, is appears that the discussion has moved quickly to trying to prove an arguement for, or against, a certain position. I'd like to suggest that, perhaps, the author would think it appropriate that we sit back for a minute and mourn the fact that so many people - men and women - feel isolated from their faith and Church by this topic. Before we debate the morality and immorality, right and wrong, of this topic, it seems that we need to appreciate the fact that it divides us as a communion. That's sad. Have we forgotten about putting love above all things? 

I've read Kaveny's article and the intellectual/spiritual/theological discussion that followed. Banning contraception is just one more example of the Catholic Church's animus towards women. One of the Doctors who invented the pill was a Roman Catholic with eight children.  He lobbied the Vatican tirelessly to approve contraception.  Natural Family Planning fails too often.  Furthermore NSF demands that women bear all of the effort (recording temp and fluids) and responsiblity for saying when sexual intercourse is allowable.  What happens when Dad comes home slightly tipsy and insists on intercourse at a time when impregnation is highly likely? And who suffers the most as a result of an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. Get real Commonweal readers!  The best way to limit abortion is to provide contraception.  Family planning, including contraception, promotes responsible parenting and healthier families. I think it's downright sinful and deceptive for Catholic clergy to preach against contraception and to spend millions lobbying the US government to limit the availability of contraception. There's no argument here.  The Catholic position on contraception is hurtful to women, families and society. No wonder so many educated American Catholic women ignore the ban or lieave the Church.  Many of our daughters have left the church, not only because of the ban on contraception, but because they perceive that the Catholic Church does not homor or respect women.    

Thank you Mary Kelly O'Donnell. You have summed it up very well and your  conclusion is unfortunately, all too true.

Anyone who wants to understand both the theology and  implications of reforming this doctrine should read John Noonan's classic history of the doctrine (titled simply Contraception).  When you see the various twists and turns theological thinking has taken on the subject since, literally, the days of the apostles (from the Didache on), you get a better sense of why modern theologians and philosophers --including Pope Paul VI's good friend and mentor Jacques Maritain -- have had a problem with accepting NFP on the one hand while continuing to disapprove of contraception on the other.  In fact, doing so has only been considered legitimate for Catholics since the 1930s when Pope Pius XII approved the rhythm method. For most of the Church's history, at least since Augustine, theologians held that to have any motivation other than the directly procreative in performing the marital act was sinful, and normally mortally so.

Seen in the light of Church history, JPII's theology of the body is truly a radical departure from the thinking of both Augustine and Aquinas, the twin towers of Catholic theology before Vatican II.  In fact, the distance from TOB (and HV) to acceptance of contraception as a moral choice is far shorter than the distance between the thinking of Pope Pius XII and the tradition of all the centuries that went before him.


Regarding doctrinal dissent being "Protestant," I think it needs to be pointed out that there has long been disagreement among theologians and church authorities over doctrine, including the morality or immorality (and degrees thereof) involved in various sexual acts.    It's just that for many centuries the disputes, which could be heated, took place out of the sight and knowledge of lay people, who were brought up to obey their confessors without question.  For centuries, in fact, those who prepared penitential manauls for confessors disputed among themselves what was and wasn't sinful, and which penances made sense given their various judgments regarding acts.

Given modern communications, lay Catholics are now often as informed of theological opinion as church officials regarding the morality of issues that involve their lives.  Expecting them to return to a position of bline obedience seems unrealistic.  In any case, why would anyone even consider that a good idea?  In fact, laymen haven't always been silent lambs when it comes to church doctrine and dogma.  Recall the church father during the time of the great Christological debates who complained goodnaturedly that he couldn't go to a barbershop or bakery without encountering heated arguments between laymen "discussing" whether Christ had two natures or only one.:)

"Recall the church father during the time of the great Christological debates who complained goodnaturedly that he couldn't go to a barbershop or bakery without encountering heated arguments between laymen "discussing" whether Christ had two natures or only one.:)"


This was clearly before stamping out heresy became an intramural sport.  In any case, dissent from Humanae Vitae has not been labeled heresy, at least not by the Pope who actually wrote it.  the  plethora of negativity and erroneous accusations agasint NFP, the one thing no one mentioned was prayer.  I wonder how many of you who are so sure that the church is wrong have ever seriously prayed for God's englighenment?  Likewise, not one person ever mentioned the truly positive side of NFP.  Perhaps you would do well to spend $5 on this very popular, newly released E-book by Simcha Fisher: 



Prof. Cathleen Kaveny’s learning history (some of it) is teaching at a Catholic university and writing for a Catholic journal i.e. Commonweal.

She states “Progressive Catholics need to make sure that the next generation can situate their argument within the Catholic moral tradition, rather than presenting it in a purely secular manner. “

In my opinion, (I am an educated person but not a scholar), this is part of the problem in discussing the Catholic moral tradition. Truth is truth. There isn’t a Catholic truth and a non-Catholic truth. I have been focused on Catholicism as an axial age religion evolving into a post-axial age faith and moral agency phenomenon, in my reading, thinking and writing about it.

Catholicism originated in the age of mythology (see Mark Cartwright on Greek mythology*). We compare this type of thinking with twenty-first century scientific worldview thinking and we realize that the scientific revolution** many centuries later meant that the world outside Catholicism was changing but the institution itself had some catch-up to do. To this day many Catholics still have not stepped outside the box of indoctrination. Besides mathematics and science, philosophy of science, epistemology, logic etc are needed in many areas of education.

This is not a critique of Prof. Kaveny but rather of Catholicism as an axial age religion needing to evolve to a post-axial age faith and moral agency phenomenon for the twenty-first century.


*Greek mythology, as in other ancient cultures, was used as a means to explain the environment in which humankind lived, the natural phenomena they witnessed and the passing of time through the days, months, and seasons. Myths were also intricately connected to religion in the Greek world and explained the origin and lives of the gods, where humanity had come from and where it was going after death, and gave advice on the best way to lead a happy life. Finally, myths were used to re-tell historical events  --- Mark Cartwright.


**The scientific revolution was the emergence of modern science during the early modern period, when developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, medicine, and chemistry transformed views of society and nature. According to traditional accounts, the scientific revolution began in Europe towards the end of the Renaissance era (Renaissance roughly the 14th to the 17th century; parentheses are my addition) and continued through the late 18th century, influencing the intellectual social movement known as the Enlightenment.




Unless I see evidence demonstrating otherwise, I'd assume that reduced divorce rates and use of NFP are caused by strong commitment to a lifestyle that forbid divorce and contraception. If a couple is willing to go through the effort to comply with the ban on contraception, they are probably also going to put similar levels of effort into their efforts to prevent a divorce.

I think a big problem is that no one is using a traditional Catholic approach. Pope John Paul II's innovations in the Theology of the Body have completely dominated the discussions of those who oppose contraception, and many of its assertions are taken as axioms. Meanwhile, those who do not support a blanket ban on contraception or even just don't support the Theology of the Body's framework don't have much of a support network for including a Catholic worldview. Catholic institutions are either dominated by the other side or avoiding discussing the issue to stay away from the hypervigilant eye of the CDF and non-Catholic institutions have no reason to care about a specifically Catholic approach.

If you want to continue discussing it, someone should start a forum at say, Reddit so that both sides could continue to hash out the theological and philosophical issues.

Per Patricia "Despite the plethora of negativity and erroneous accusations agasint NFP, the one thing no one mentioned was prayer.  I wonder how many of you who are so sure that the church is wrong have ever seriously prayed for God's englighenment?"

To indirectly imply that faithful Catholics who disagree with HV don't pray to God for enlightenment is another form of compartmentalization whereby those who disagree are somehow lacking in prayer, ignorant of Church teachings and misguided by secular and cultural evil. One gets the feeling by these remarks that the majority of Catholics are not putting God in the center of their lives....which is one form of standing on the moral higher ground and denigrading one's neighbor. This is not legitimate civil debate.

To be clear...There is nothing wrong with NFP and those who choose to practive it as a form of birth control. The question is whether NFP is the sole and only licit means of birth control in accordance with God's Procreative Plan?  

According to the Church, HV is a moral absolute. As such no end/goal, intention or circumstance can justify the act of contraception in healthly Catholic marriage with children where spouses don't want more children for good reasons? In fact, any form of contraception is immoral even for a young married woman whose life is threathened by another pregnancy. Since when is safe-guarding one's life more important than ensuring that every act of sexual intercourse is open to procreation?

JP II asserted in his Theology of the Body that spouses who practice contraception are expressing a false, evil and destructive love. How can Catholics have a legitimate conversation with the hierarchy when the Church ignores the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever in existential reality of this phenomena. The laity cannot have a conversation with the hierarchy because the hierarchy has closed the book to debate. However, Catholics can have a conversation about this issue with their parish priest, where 40% of them don't think contraception in a marriage is a mortal sin. 

The Church does not take any blame for the dyfunction, inconsistency and contradiction between the letter of the law (the doctrine of contraception) and the spirit of the law (pastoral advice). This fact is one of the many reaons that fuels non-reception. 





Correction: Since when is ensuring every act of sexual intercourse is more important than safe-guarding one's life (by the most prudent and effective means).



Michael said:

JP II asserted in his Theology of the Body that spouses who practice contraception are expressing a false, evil and destructive love. How can Catholics have a legitimate conversation with the hierarchy when the Church ignores the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever in existential reality of this phenomena.


No evidence whatsoever in reality? You mean there are no people who have used contraception who have concluded that it does indeed express a false and sometimes destructive love?

Also indispensable for this conversation is Leslie Woodcock Tentler's Catholics and Contraception: An American History. The 20th-century history of the debate over contraception is enormously illuminating to a full understanding of today's situation, and probably necessary for any meaningful movement in the discussion on either side. 


JP II said spouses who practice NFP treat each other as loving subjects whlle spouses who practice contraception have a ultilitarian attitude and a diabolic love grounded in concupiscence...e.g., contraceptive spouses are solely seeking lustful pleasure without any true love for each other while NFP couples treat each other as loving subjects. 

Clearly, some contraceptive couples are practicing a false, evil and destructive love in the same way that some NFP couples are practicing a false, evil and destructive love. However, the choice of birth control method does not, ipso facto, cause spouses to love each other or not in a specific way. The choice of birth control method does not automatically reflect the good and evii intentions and ends of spouses. 

The quotation below provides a keen insight into JP II's thought regarding contraception (quotation from his Krakow Memorandum that he sent to Paul VI when he was Cardinal Wojtyla in February 1968, pps 6,7 & 10, only 5 months before Paul VI issued HV).


“Contraception adds nothing to the personal rights of the woman…. He (man) will cease to hold her in esteem in the context of the transmission of life. She will become for him simply an occasion to enjoy…. The woman can expect not only inequality, but very simply ‘sexual slavery’. To bring about, in the woman’s body, changes making conception impossible and at the same time to free man from his responsibility in the sexual act is to harm the woman and offend justice”.

“Parents who cannot master themselves (i.e. through PC), who cannot sacrifice their egoism to the good of the partner, will no longer be able to have generosity, patience, serenity and calm assurance in their relations with their children. They will love them to the extent that they bring them pleasure, that is, they will love them selfishly and not for themselves.”


Under the influence of his advisors (e.g., Dr. Poltawska) Karol Wojtyla believed that if contraception were allowed, this would lead spouses to using each other merely as objects for sexual pleasure, to forms of ‘sexual slavery’, to neurosis on the part of the woman, and to the tendency for couples to choose abortion if contraception failed. Somewhat astonishingly, Paul VI incorporated similar argumentation in HV, 17, referring to marital infidelity, and lack of ‘reverence due to women’, echoing Wojtyla’s notion of a woman ‘being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of a man’s desires’.

To date there has not been one respected scientific organization that concluded contraception causes divorce, spousal abuse nor does it lead to unhappy marriages. Most Catholics consider such views as unrealisitc and unreasonable.



This quote from Ms. Kaveny's writing is very illuminative of her mindset:

"Proponents of his [JPII] 'Theology of the Body' maintain that spouses who use contraception are lying to one another with their bodies and withholding themselves from one another in the sexual act. This hardly encourages respectful conversation with Catholic couples who find contraception morally acceptable."

In other words, in order to "encourage respectful conversation" with those who oppose Catholic teaching we are NOT supposed to tell them -- using logic, reason, and charity -- why their actions may be harmful.

Perhaps such a milquetoast attitude toward truth and natural law is what allowed so many Catholics over the years to mistakenly think that contraception is "morally acceptable."


Perhaps what Humane Vitae Dissenters need  far more than a "voice" is the grace for obedience to live the teaching of the Church.  Only in obedience does the Holy Spirt reveal that which we otherwise are too blind to see.

Blind obedience denies the use of our God-given reason where our practical reason participates in Divine reason through grace. Reason without faith denies the transcendental. We need both to recognize, understand and live the truth. The Holy Spirit leads us to the truth in agreement and disagreement.



Catholics debating this again! What a waste of time and energy. I think most dogmatic theologians simply assume that HV was a mistake and proceed to draw whatever ecclesiological consequences follow from that, as Hans Kung notably did in his manifesto, "Infallible?", in 1970. Otherwise debating about the morality of contraception is playing the game of the right-wing obsessives.

@ Patricia

"FYI, the divorce rate among Catholics who use NFP is less than 2%, compared with 45-50% of the average American Population.  Why?  Because 'objective' sex is as artifical as ABC."

I'm one of three siblings who are still married to their first spouses.  Two of our marriages have lasted over 50 years, the third over 40 years.  We all used artificial birth control.

If a couple using ABC get a divorce, does that prove cause and effect?  No.  Just because a cat has kittens in the oven, that doesn't make them biscuits.

Anne Chapman is absolutely correct. The teaching has not been "received", it is a dead letter, so writing about it is necrophiliac exercise in artificial resuscitation.

The Vatican tactic was simple: Appoint only bishops with unwavering loyalty to Humanae Vitae, and depend on the conservative Catholic noise machine. On the surface, they are winning the day. But most ordinary Catholics, even though they respect Humanae Vitae, will practice birth control when they are face to face with the challenges of family life. As a pastor, I see how devout and truly faithfilled these Catholics really are.

With anti-Cathllic Catholics making up 99% of Commonweal's readership, I can hardly believe that four voices of light were allowed to shine through their murk; i.e., those of Patricia McCarron, Patricia, Carlo Lancellotti, and Harvey.


John Dunkle

@ John Dunkle

To call Commonweal California readership "anti-Catholic" and their informed and reasoned factual commentaries "murk" is nothing more than demeaning and absurd rhetoric that will not move the conversation forward in a positive way.



Lol, for a bit of a light hearted interlude in a heavy debate, " Incidently, I have been married for 41 years, have two wonderful children, practice my faith and love my wife more today than when I first married her. This does not make me the perfect husband, but my wife and I have worked out the many difficulties in our marriage, as thousands of othe faithful married couples do, and thank God each day for his blessings" describes my husband and I and what he said to me when we celebrated our 41st anniversary last month!  Congratulations to you and your wife.

Thanks Timaree, and congratulations to you and your husband as well. 

Just to be clear. My wife and I practiced contraception and this was perfectly licit in the eyes of my parish priest at that time (mid 1970s). So much for JP II's assertion that spouses who practice contraception have a false, evil and destructive love. I might repeat that this pope, as Cardinal Wojtyla, also said that those parents who practice contraception will only love their childern to the extent they give them pleasure!!

Such statements of moral certitude reflect a celibate man who knows nothing whatsoever about true marital love. Clearly, "some" couples may have an anti-life attitude and seek pleasure without remainder but this is far from the overwhelming of married Catholics. JP II and the Church are incabable of understanding or ignore this fact because they have no good convincing reason. All they do is repeat an unreasonable and irrational narrative. They want all Catholics to "obey" Humanae Vitae because they believe it to be God's procreative plan. They don't see that NFP also separates the so-called unitive and procreative dimensions of the marital act. It is a form of manipulation of the fertility-infertility nexus. All Catholics who don't want more children for good reasons are required to practice NFP, a constructed requirement of heroic virtue, or abstain from sexual intercourse all-together.



What has been the past  disposition by the institutional church of practice teachings that have been seen to be plainly erroneous? Apart from the Inquisition and the centuries-late Galileo apology, do we just ignore them into oblivion, or must we wait for the hierarchy to make a proclamation? What happened in the case of Teilhard de Chardin, for example, evolution, or science in general? Usury? Slavery?

>> Therefore, either NFP and artificial birth control violate Humanae Vitae, or they do not. This obvious fact, among many, is something the Church refuses to address. <<


The intention and effect of couples practicing NFP is to enjoy conjugal intercourse where the conception of the offspring (pregnancy) is prevented.  St. Augustine in Cast Connubii para 55 condemns this as unlawful and wicked.  He goes on to say that Onan did this and the Lord killed him for it.

Casti Connubii (Para 55):  As St. Augustine notes, “Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented.  Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it.”

Bernard Haring nailed one of the two flaws of Humanae Vitae (HV) - the contradiction between its sanction of NFP and its condemnation of ABC.  Casti Connubii condemned any form of birth control and made no exception for "rhythm".  Popes Pius XII and Paul VI reversed nearly 2,000 years of Church condemnation of birth control when they sanctioned NFP.  But the defenders of HV insist that the church can't change its 2,000 year old teaching on contraception.

The other fallacy is HV12's "inseparable connection" (in each and every conjugal act) - the central premise of HV.  We know from science and studies of human sexuality that God created humans so that procreation and unification are not "inseparably connected".  HV's "inseparable connection", rather than being "God's will", is a rejection of God's will as revealed through his creation of human sexuality.

The fundamental error behind the Church's false teaching on contraception is the premise that procreation is the ultimate end of conjugal intercourse.  Once one understands from Scripture, the  Catechism of the Council of Trent and John Paul II's "Love and Responsibility" that the ultiate end of conjugal intercourse is the propagation of the species Homo and that procreation and unification are supordinate, separate ends, it follows that both NFP and ABC are good - they are moral.

Pope Francis has called a Synod of bishops for October 2014 to discuss issues of marriage, abortion and contraception.  That Synod to be successful must result in a second Birth Control Commission to bring the Church's teaching into coherence with the reality of married life and today's scientific understanding of human sexuality.

>> The moral/immoral dichotomy is not a significant part of their horizon of reality. They also think that the view from within the family is the best way to make these decisions. They are not likely to want to publicize or promote personal decisions. <<

I thought Prof. Kaveny's article was interesting.  It seems to me that one impediment to the Magisterium's understanding of the reality of conjugal life is the lack of literature by Catholic writers that conveys the importance of conjugal intimacy in conjugal bonding and married life.  Conjugal intercourse is no doubt an uneasy subject to discuss in depth with a priest, but maybe they could begin to appreciate the reality of conjugal life from well done literature by Catholic authors.  Some authors manage to convey sexual intimacy in novels with grace and delicacy. 

The reality of conjugal life was to some extent conveyed to the bishops at the Birth Control Commission by married women - Collette Potyin's testimony comes to mind.  And a majority of bishops who voted unanomously against changing the Church's teaching in the first survey voted in favor of change in the final survey.

Note: If I am displaying my ignorance w.r.t. Cartholic writers, I welcome suggested authors and books.


>> No one is claming that contraception causes divorce, only that NFP couples have almost a 50% lower divorce rate. <<

So if there is no causal relation, what't the point?

>> NFP does not DO anything to prevent conception. <<

You have to be kidding.  Note the following article in a Diocesan Newspaper:

Page 8:  Natural Family Planning [NFP] training workshop to be offered in ....


The class is planned for the week the Catholic church celebrates NFP and is the same week as the anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (of human life) about married and family life.


The specific form of NFP is the Billings Ovulation MethodTM..


Studies done in China where there are millions of couples using the Billings Method show it to be 99.5 + percent effective in preventing pregnancy….


Note: NFP is 99.5+percent effective at PREVENTING PREGNSNCY.  What women practicing NFP DO is to take temperatures, observe mucus, and by act of will, DO sexual intercourse only during infertile periods. 



>>  In fact, doing so has only been considered legitimate for Catholics since the 1930s when Pope Pius XII approved the rhythm method. <<

A minor point:  Pope Pius XI released the encyclical Casti Connubii in 1930 which, consistent with 1900 years of prior Church teaching, condemned any form of birth control.  Pope Pius XII in his elecution in 1951 (I believe) sanctioned the rhythm method (NFP) of birth control which reversed 1900 years of Church teaching.

>> It seems to me that the sensus fidelium concept  indicates that the prohibition of contraception is wrong. If a large majority of Catholics do not support the prohibiition, then the "understanding  of believers" is that the prohibition is faulty. Much of that rejection of Humanae Vitae is motivated by love, love of the spouse, love of the already born children. <<

John Paul II in "Theology of the Body", General Audience of August 13, 1980:

"The discernment between right and wrong engraved on the human conscience can show itself to be deeper and more correct than the content of a norm."

>> Great comments Lisa. A few other arguments that were never adquately addressed (and to ponder) are the following: <<

Yet another argument that was pointed out at the time of HV's release is the fact that HV 12's "inseparable connection" (in each and every conjugal act) is false, as is its assertion that the "inseparable connection" is God's will.  God created human sexuality so that this would not be true.  God created virtually all other animals so that they only engage in sexual intercourse when the female is fertile - reproduction and sexual intercourse are "inseparably connected".    Reproduction is the only purpose of their sexual intercourse.  Bonobos are the exception that proves the rule.

But God created human sexuality so that humans engage in sexual intercourse throughout the fertility cycle.  Unless one wants to argue that God was acting in ignorance or whimsically, one must recognize that God created human sexuality so that conjugal intercourse serves a purpose separate from procreation.  Experience, Cast Connubii, John Paul ii's writings, studies in human sexuality, and neuroscience now inform us that the conjugal bonding end of conjugal intercourse is a physiological, emotional and psychological end that is separate from procreation. 

Recent discoveries even suggest that the prevention of mis-carriages may be yet a third separate end of sexual itercourse.



My wife and I are 31/33, respectively. We're right in the thick of this. Looking at how long some commentators have been married, I don't know if they know how things are now.

The difference between NFP and contraception is one of means, not ends. One works with a natural process, the other frustrates a natural process. HV has a discussion of this exact point. From our experience, there is a significant difference both physically and emotionally.

Church approved methods have gotten a lot better since 1968. The latest method, developed at Marquette University, uses a fertility monitor to help couples determine fertility. Very useful for women with difficult cycles/situations. Research is ongoing to help women clear up the underlying problems that make NFP difficult. Fr. Andrew Greeley predicted that the issue would be resolved when Church approved methods were accurate and easy enough to be used in the mainstream and we are rapidly approaching this point. Advances in Church approved methods combined with drawbacks from artificial methods are one reason why there is less of a voice of dissent.

With proper training, over 90% of women can recognize their fertile signs. Women who have problems may need additional instruction or have a hormone imbalance that calls for correction. Unfortunately, not all Catholic couples have gotten proper training or get proper support. Some NFP instructors and organizations have seen it as their primary duty to encourage couples to have large families and promote traditional gender roles, and have taught the method inadequately or give couples incorrect and outdated information. Then, when the couple can't use the method properly, they end up having large families and are forced into traditional gender roles. Still, a problem with individual Catholics or Catholic organizations is not a problem with Church teaching, no more than one ill-informed Jesuit in 1955 spoke for the magesterium of the Church.

Others "oversell" the method. It's better than the alternative, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows. (Simcha Fisher's book, recommended upthread, covers this well. For problems with the alternatives, Google "birth control side effects") Parenthood is difficult. Abstinence is difficult. Let's face it, marriage can be difficult. I see this "overselling" as part of a broader "Evangelicalization" of American Catholicism—a Cathoilc "prosperity gospel", that reduces the gospel message to "do what God tells you and life will be easy". 

As for the spritual/relational side, we have found a significant difference between contraception and NFP, even naturally infertile sex. The former is deficient in a way that the latter is not. But at the same time, I would not go as far as to say that that all contracepted sex is "using" one's spouse, though over time it could certainly lead to taking the conjugal relationship and one's spouse for granted. I think some popular TOB promoters make the issue much more of a contrast (and an unrealistic contrast) than even JPII. This, too, I believe is due to the Evangelicalization of the American Catholicism.

With development in both doctrine and science since 1968, the questions left to discuss are very narrow. Some couples do have very serious difficulties with the method through no fault of their own. While science works to resolve them, they need help now. More importantly, such a situation runs the risk of starving the marriage for intimacy.

The big question for discussion is what is the value of an objectively deficient act with subjectively good intentions? Is half a loaf better than none? What if one is starving? JPII says that it isn't, but is this the case? The room for discussion is not in the "normal cases", which the Church is correct (or at least not unreasonable), but in the "hard cases". 

I understand your response, but I do not think you truly understand what Cathleen is saying. The Catholic Church tells believers to honour their conscience even if it goes against the teaching of the Church. The women Cathleen are refering to are women who are doing just that, not just leaving their faith in the Church on Sunday and ignoring it the rest of the week. These women truly believe that using contraception does not violate their faith. If the Catholic Church ignores this occurance amoung many Catholic women and continues to insist that those who use contraception are outside of the faithful, they risk alienating a portion of their followers. Therefore, for such women to continue being Catholic, they are forced to compartmentalize their faith and hide their true beliefs on contraception. The Catholic Church needs to encourage open dialogue about such matters, rather than just claim if you want to be Catholic you need to follow these rules-if you don't then you are no longer wanted or matter to the Catholic Church. The Holy Spirit resides in all Catholics, both lay and clergy, therefore these women's experiences and understanding of their faith must be taken into account. Rather than accuse these women as "wanting to have it both ways" and as being "responsible for the destruction of family life" why not try to listen to their stories, and see why not using contraception can be so destructive in the lives of many women. The voices of women, as with many other oppressed groups, are so rarely taken into account by the Catholic Church. This is very sad since it contradicts the message of the gospel, to reach out and liberate the oppressed.



About the Author

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