Are you confused, frustrated by, or for that matter, gloating about Pope Francis’ recent comments on contraceptive use and the Zika virus–especially in light of the Vatican Press Office’s confirmation that Pope Francis was not only speaking about using Natural Family Planning but also, potentially, hormonal contraceptives and condoms, to prevent the possibility of children born with Zika-related miroencephaly? Be at peace. Let’s all please take a collective breath and consider the following in which Dr. Janet Smith, world-renowned expert on Catholic sexual ethics and professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, offers some sensitive, sensible guidance regarding the context in which these comments need to be understood.
The following is a sample, but I ask you to please take the time to read the whole article which appears at Catholic World Report.
In it, Dr. Smith writes…
It is time to review some basic principles that bear upon the question of the morality of contraception.
Meaning of contraception: Thing and act
First, let us note that the word “contraception” is used to describe both a thing and an act. Only the act permits of moral analysis. There are many “things” called contraception, such as the many forms of the pill, the condom, the IUD, and the patch. Contraception as an act permitting of moral analysis is the act of doing something before, during, or after an act of spousal intercourse to prevent the act from achieving the end of procreation.
The Church teaches that acts of contraception are always against the plan of God for human sexuality, since God intended that each and every act of spousal intercourse express both the intention to make a complete, unitive gift of one’s self to one’s spouse and the willingness to be a parent with one’s spouse. These meanings of the spousal act are, as Humanae Vitae stated, inseparable.
Moreover, many forms of contraception work not by preventing ovulation or preventing conception but by either destroying an embryonic human being or rendering the uterus an inhospitable place for an embryonic human being. These “contraceptives” are not truly contraceptives. They cause the death of a new human being and are rightly called abortifacients. Both contraception and abortion are absolute evils, with abortion being a much more serious evil.
Therapeutic use of hormones
It often causes confusion that the Church permits the use of the hormones that are in the contraceptive pill to treat certain physical conditions. For instance, a woman who has ovarian cysts or who suffers from endometriosis may find that taking the hormones that are present in the contraceptive pill relieve her from some of the pain that results from such conditions. Women who use those hormones with the intent of reducing pain and not with the intent of rendering their sexual acts infertile are not engaging in acts of contraception. In the terminology of the principle of double effect, they are using hormones in pursuit of the good effect of reducing pain and, as a secondary effect, they are tolerating the infertility caused by the hormones they are taking.
Nuns in the Congo
It also confuses many that the officials of the Church many decades ago permitted nuns in the Congo who were in danger of being raped to take hormones that prevent ovulation (which is what the “pill” does). In this case the hormones would be taken with the intent of avoiding a pregnancy, but not a pregnancy that would be the result of a spousal act of sexual intercourse. They would not be altering the purpose of a spousal act of sexual intercourse. Rather, they would be defending themselves against the possible consequences of an act of rape. Keep in mind that it is justifiable for a woman to inflict great physical harm, even death, on a man threatening rape. Her act of killing the rapist is not justified as a “lesser evil” because killing is not a lesser evil than enduring rape. Rather, her act is an act of just and moral self-defense.
Thus, for a woman to do something to prevent a rapist’s sperm from uniting with her ovum is a part of justifiable self-defense. Her act has nothing to do with violating God’s plan for sexuality. She is not choosing to use contraception to prevent a spousal act of sexual intercourse from achieving its natural end. She is not refusing to make a complete gift of herself to her spouse. She is fending off a rapist and all his physicality. Clearly, her use of ovulation-suppressing hormones is not an act of contraception. (A good source for information about the history/reasoning concerning the nuns in the Congo is Fr. Edward Bayer’s Rape Within Marriage (1985), pp. 82-3)
Principle of choosing the lesser evil
The principle of choosing the lesser evil (PCLE) is often misunderstood. It does not apply to doing a lesser moral evil to avoid a greater moral evil. That is, for instance, one cannot directly kill one innocent human being to save the lives of several other innocent human beings. One cannot cheat one’s customers for money to give to the poor.
We must remember that the word “evil” does not refer only to moral evil. The word “evil” refers to any imperfection of any kind, for instance, to any physical imperfection. Blindness, for instance, or lameness are physical “evils.”
The PCLE applies to the common sense choices to do or undergo some non-moral evil for the sake of some greater good. One can destroy property to save life, such as breaking down a door to save a child trapped behind the door and in danger. It is not a moral evil to destroy the property. Yes “evil” is done—the door is broken and can’t be used—but the evil is a physical evil, not a moral one. Rather, it is morally good to break down the door.
The PCLE does not justify a woman using contraception to prevent a pregnancy because she fears the child may suffer some harm during the pregnancy. Here a woman is choosing to do something immoral to prevent harm. This choice violates the fundamental principle that we must never do moral evil to achieve good. She would be intending to thwart the purpose and meaning of the sexual act in order to protect any child conceived from harm, but she is doing harm—to the marital act and her marital relationship—by using contraception to prevent a pregnancy.
There are all sorts of “harm” that spouses may wish to attempt to avoid by using contraception. In fact, one suspects that there is always some harm spouses are trying to avoid by using contraception—harms such as financial stress, inconvenience, threats to the mother’s health, sexual frustration, etc. The Church has never taught that if the harms are serious enough, it is permissible to use contraception, for that would be choosing to do moral evil to avoid harm.
To suggest that some “emergency” or “special situation” would permit a person in conscience to use contraception does not align with Catholic moral theology. For spouses to use contraception is always wrong. How can any emergency or special situation justify what is always wrong? It is an improper use of conscience to use it to discern that it is moral to do what is intrinsically wrong in special situations. CONTINUE READING
I would add to Janet’s thoughtful comments that even the Pope cannot change Church teaching. We are all–Pope and layperson alike–merely servants of the repository of truth given to us by Christ and affirmed by 2000 years of prayer, discernment, spirit-filled discussion, and grace. In this recent news story, the Holy Father made some off-the-cuff comments about a very serious medical and pastoral situation. These comments must be considered carefully in light of his teaching authority as the Bishop of Rome (as Pope Francis often prefers to refer to himself). But ultimately, even papal opinion stands or falls by its ability to reflect the continuity of our Tradition. If you would like an accessible, helpful guide for really understanding and living the truth about the Catholic teaching regarding sex and love, I’d invite you to check out Holy Sex! The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving. And of course, I’ll offer more thoughts as this story develops.