By: Father Anthony
Father James Morrow did not foresee a Green Pontiff making common cause with population control zealots. Otherwise he would have qualified his foregoing description of natural family planning (in his Memorandum to Participants in the UN Conference on Population and Development), to avoid the least possibility of it being misconstrued as the sort of ‘Catholic contraception’ touted by Pope Francis and his close advisors.
Cardinal Turkson, for one, who believes “birth control” can help alleviate “food shortages” arising from supposed overpopulation. “[T]he Holy Father on his trip back from the Philippines also invited people to some form of birth control,” he reminded the BBC, “because the Church has never been against birth control and people spacing out births and all of that.”
Ever since Humanae Vitae undermined the clear primary end of marriage (the procreation and education of children), NFP has been prey to this contraceptive mentality: a pragmatic, naturalistic outlook peddled as “responsible” parenthood. The latest wink and nod to this worldly mindset is the praising of the direct prevention of children as a virtue rather than a lesser evil. In challenging this notion, the following rejoinder makes a fine distinction, albeit one, it is argued, with major Catholic and demographic repercussions.
Early last year, an interesting debate occurred between Joseph Fessio, S.J., and Michel Fauteux on whether contraception is objectively a greater evil than abortion. During the course of the debate, Fr. Fessio conceded Prof. Fauteux’s point that, although the
omission of procreation through contraception must be excluded, according to Paul VI… this does not mean that the omission of procreation is itself a moral evil… On the contrary, it can be a moral evil not to omit procreation, in the case for example in which generating a new life would be irresponsible. Omitting the procreation of a new life can be very praiseworthy morally, even if contraception must be excluded as a means for reaching this end.
Virtuous act or venial sin?
I am sympathetic to Fr. Fessio’s point about the objective gravity of the evil of artificial contraception. However, I question whether the scholarly Jesuit should have conceded the professor’s premise that the omission of procreation can be praiseworthy morally, and a fortiori that it can be morally obligatory.
My point is that procreation is objectively an unqualified good, and therefore its directly intended omission (that is, within marriage… outside of marriage would be fornication) can never be virtuous.
To this point, I would ask if, prior to 1965, any Magisterial authority or Church Father or Doctor can be found who has upheld the use of abstinence in order to prevent the conception of children as a virtue?
I suspect not. That upholding the direct prevention of children as a virtue was an innovation was indicated by Cardinal Ottaviani, who intervened at the Second Vatican Council and affirmed:
I am not pleased with the statement in the text that married couples may determine the number of children they are to have. Never has this been heard of in the Church.
I tend to agree with Fr. Fessio’s position that contraception can be objectively a greater evil than abortion, inasmuch as to exist is always better than to never have existed, even if one’s life were to be violently cut short by the crime of abortion. At worst, such a soul would presumably live in a state of Limbo, a state of natural happiness, but perhaps not quite the Beatific Vision. Yet to never have existed, when otherwise God wills a soul to cross the threshold of existence, is the ultimate privation of a good that ought to be, which is the very definition of evil.
Some will claim that to speak of souls that never existed is to speak of nonsense. However, it may help to conduct this thought experiment: Given the evidence that Catholic school enrolment has dramatically decreased since the onslaught of the sexual revolution, imagine for a moment that the same number of Catholic schools with the same number of classrooms and the same number of desks existed today as in 1960. It follows that a dramatic number of those desks would be empty. Suppose that God willed that only one half of those desks be filled with children, who were otherwise never conceived through several generations because of the use of contraception.
In other words, if artificial contraception had not been used (and assuming that the parents would not have resorted to abortion), at least one half of those desks would be filled today. Then, at least half the empty desks represent the souls that never existed because of the preventative effect of contraception.
Therefore, I hold that the concept of “omitting procreation” is problematic, both because it attempts to hide the action taking place (the prevention/avoidance of children), and because of the premise that such action can be morally virtuous. If children are a blessing (the supreme gift of marriage), then preventing or avoiding them cannot be virtuous: whether it be child #1 in the family (like me), or child #23 (like St. Catherine of Siena).
To uphold procreation and education of children as the primary end of marriage implies that any act which directly frustrates the end must needs be disordered, with different levels of seriousness according to the circumstances involved. Furthermore, the additional aspect of education regarding the primary end of marriage describes an obligation incumbent upon the parents, rather than a qualifier about the objective goodness of the existence of children.
Thus, I think we are dealing with at least venial sin when either periodic continence or total continence is used solely to prevent/avoid children, even for serious reasons.
Total and periodic continence
Now, total continence can be used for other reasons; such as a form of mutual sacrifice or penance. And this is virtuous continence. Such would be the case with the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, who sought to preserve Mary’s virginity. Such is also the case with those who voluntarily choose the celibate life. In other words, there is a higher motivation to abstain from sexual relations, which also means that more children will not be conceived. (This, by the way, is another reason why Catholics must have larger families: not only to produce celibate vocations, but also to offset the loss of children that these celibates would have provided to the community.)
This is why I asked above: Prior to 1965, can any Magisterial authority or Church Father or Doctor be found to support the notion that using abstinence for the sole purpose of preventing/avoiding children is a virtuous act? If I recall correctly, Pope Pius XII (in his Allocution to the Italian Midwives) affirmed that periodic continence can be permissible (“può essere lecita sotto l’aspetto morale”) under certain circumstances, but he stopped short of upholding it as virtuous.
It is my respectful opinion that the Magisterium since 1965, while correctly affirming the infallible prohibition of artificial contraception, has inadvertently made a doctrinal error in upholding the use of abstinence for the purpose of preventing/avoiding children as a virtue, rather than granting its use as merely permissible under certain conditions.
Periodic continence may accurately be defined as the exclusive use of sexual relations during the infertile times for the purpose of preventing/avoiding the conception of children. Furthermore, it must be admitted that total continence can also be used for the purpose of preventing/avoiding children. In both cases, the procreative end of marriage is being directly intentionally frustrated, not by interfering with the conjugal act, nor by suppressing the generative faculty of one or both spouses, but by deliberately abstaining during the fertile times.
Thus, it follows logically that periodic continence and total-continence-for-the-purpose-of-avoiding-children differ only in degree, but not in kind (plus et minor non mutant species). Whereas both periodic continence and total-continence-for-the-purpose-of-avoiding-children differ in kind from artificial contraception. Artificial contraception always involves grave matter since it always implies the frustration of the conjugal act, either by not completing the act (barrier or interruption), or by the suppression of the generative faculty of one or both spouses.
One of the differences between periodic continence and total continence is that the former is always used for the purpose of preventing/avoiding children (even if only temporarily to optimise the chances of conception at a later date), while total continence may be used for other purposes than the prevention of children, as mentioned above.
The other difference is that periodic continence could actually be described as incontinent, since it implies the use of marital relations beyond the need for procreation. But this incontinence (such as having sexual relations when the wife is known to be pregnant) within marriage, was held by St. Augustine to be only venial sin at worst.
Some will argue that God has built a naturally contraceptive mechanism into the woman’s cycle of fertility. A woman who breastfeeds regularly (exclusively, in the case of so-called “ecological breastfeeding”) is less likely to ovulate. Thus there is a built-in contraceptive effect that naturally spaces the birth of children. However, if the parents are using ecological breastfeeding for the purpose of preventing the conception of children, then having sexual relations during this time would also be incontinent, since this constitutes the use of sexual relations beyond the need for procreation.
On the other hand, if the mother is using breastfeeding for the benefit of the child and mother (such as: nutrition, immunisation against disease, mutual bonding, economic reasons), then the preventative effect is not necessarily directly intended. Furthermore, in such a case, pregnancy could be a possibility and therefore there would be both no direct contraceptive intention and no incontinence, for such a couple who has conjugal relations during the time the mother is breastfeeding for the benefits that accrue to mother and child from breastfeeding.
I think that most NFP promoters would agree with the definition of periodic continence given above (exclusive use of sexual relations during the infertile times for the purpose of preventing/avoiding the conception of children), although they would probably insist on the word “avoiding” rather than “preventing.”
Most promoters of NFP will also defend it on the basis of the fact that periodic continence does not separate the procreative end from the unitive end of sexual intercourse.
Nevertheless, having long struggled with understanding the deficient nature of periodic continence, my error was this: to fail to recognise that periodic continence is contraceptive not with respect to the act of sexual intercourse, but with respect to the procreative end of marriage. In other words, the word “contraceptive” or “contraception” has to do with the direct intention. Therefore, if a married couple abstains completely with the direct intention of preventing/avoiding the conception of children, then their sexual abstinence is contraceptive.
On the other hand, if a married couple abstains completely for ascetical reasons, then the prevention of children is not directly intended and their abstinence is not contraceptive. In both cases children are prevented, but only the case where children are directly prevented is the abstinence properly described as contraceptive.
Analogous to this scenario is the case where one of the spouses is rendered infertile due to the removal of some pathological reproductive organ. The person has been sterilised, but the sterilisation was not contraceptive because the direct intention was to remove the danger to his/her health, rather than the direct intention of preventing children.
So abstinence for the purpose of preventing/avoiding children is contraceptive, whether it’s a little (periodic continence) or a lot (total continence), but it can be at least venially sinful… and a very light sin at that, depending on the circumstances involved.
It should be noted too that if a couple find themselves in a truly serious situation (such as the case when pregnancy could be a danger to the mother), then they can still choose to abstain for a purpose other than preventing children… “We have mutually decided to abstain from sexual relations for 10 years out of love for God and in reparation for sins against chastity.” In such a case, their abstinence would not be contraceptive, yet children would not be conceived. However, the couple could not say the same thing about periodic continence, since the use of the periodic continence necessarily betrays the contraceptive intention (while it is being used).
To restore the primary end of marriage
So, it is very important to recognise the moral difference between artificial contraception (which is always grave matter of mortal sin) and periodic continence (which can be only venial sin). If you blur that distinction, then you risk diminishing the gravity of sins against marital chastity. But in order to restore the hierarchical importance of the procreative end of marriage and of conjugal relations in current Catholic Magisterial teaching, the contraceptive nature of periodic continence must be admitted, and its practise must not be upheld as virtue, but rather only tolerated as a lesser evil under certain conditions. “As we may say plainly nothing can make unrighteousness righteous.” (St. Augustine).
The writer is a diocesan priest in the United States, and a longtime supporter of akaCatholic. This article appeared in the January 2016 edition of Christian Order.