Contraception is contrary to Sacred Scripture
Contraception is contrary to Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the infallible teaching of the Magisterium of the Church. I have found over the years, the first part of this rather easy to defend. It is pretty straightforward. But the infallible teaching part I have found to be the more difficult undertaking. And especially among Catholics! Ironically, it began, at least on a grand scale, after the release of what can only be called a prophetic document, Humanae Vitae, that, in fact, reiterated the infallible teaching of the Church on this matter. And for many, of course, it did just that. But for reasons we will see below, it also began a study in confusion concerning the question of the infallibility of this teaching that persists even until today.
In Pope Pius XI’s masterpiece, Casti Connubii, His Holiness quotes St. Augustine’s De adulterinis coniugiis ad Pollentium, where St. Augustine provides: “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.” St. Augustine here refers to the famous text of Gen. 38 that centers on the Patriarch Judah, his three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah, and Er’s wife Tamar.
As the story goes, Er died before he could have a child with Tamar, and so, in accordance with what is called “the Levirate law” of Deut. 25:5-10, the next eldest brother was required by law to “raise up offspring” for his brother to ensure his brother’s name would endure. Well, Onan “went in unto his brother’s wife,” but “because he knew the offspring would not be his… he spilled [his] semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring for his brother” (Gen. 38:9). And then we read, “… what he did was displeasing to the Lord, and he slew him…” (vs. 10)
Here, we clearly see the punishment for contraception to be death. According to Pope Pius XI, this is a clear indication of the grave nature of this sin.
Now, some have attempted to say Onan was only punished for refusing to obey the Levirate law of Deuteronomy, but this cannot be. The punishment for this refusal is laid out in Deut. 25:8-9 as public humiliation, not death. Moreover, if you continue to read the story in Gen. 38, both Judah and the next son, Shelah, were also guilty of refusing to “raise up offspring” for Er, but they were not put to death by God as Onan was.
It is very clear that both St. Augustine and Pope Pius XI are correct in saying Sacred Scripture here clearly teaches contraception to be not just a sin, but deadly sin.
When it comes to Natural law, this teaching is even more clear. According to the law St. Paul describes as being “written on [the] hearts” of all men, in Romans 2:15, contraception is also very clearly wrong. And gravely so.
According to Natural law, the conjugal act has the two-fold purpose of the procreation and education of children, and the mutual perfection and union of one man and one woman in Holy Matrimony. Any willful and knowing attempt to thwart either of these God-given ends of the conjugal act reduces that act to the level of sin. That act becomes contrary to nature and gravely so because we are talking about an act that is crucial for the propagation of the species as well as for the maintaining of a union that is the foundation of civilization.
So What’s the Question?
Unfortunately, there is still confusion in the Church not so much on the immorality of contraception (though there is certainly a need for evangelization there as well) but concerning the infallibility of this teaching. And this confusion seems to have begun, on a grand scale anyway, as I said before, with Humanae Vitae, promulgated by Pope St. Paul VI, July 25, 1968. And in a particular way this confusion would begin not with the document itself, but with Monsignor Fernando Lambruschini, who was the spokesman for the Holy See at the time Humanae Vitae was promulgated. When asked whether Humanae Vitae was infallible, he responded, “… attentive reading of the encyclical Humanae Vitae does not suggest the theological note of infallibility… It is not infallible.”
In context, it was clear Msgr. Lambruschini was answering the question of whether Humanae Vitae was an ex cathedra statement. That is, whether it was infallible in and of itself. Notice, he used the language of “the theological note of Infallibility.” The terms “theological note” refers to the various levels of authority an individual declaration or document of the Church possesses by the nature of the document itself. And the answer was clearly in the negative here. But unfortunately, many in the Church took this to mean the teaching itself was not infallible. And that is not what Msgr. Lambruschini said. The truth is, there are other ways the Church can communicate infallible teaching other than an ex cathedra declaration of the Pope. She can declare teaching definitively through the bishops of the world gathered in union with the pope at an Ecumenical Council, or she can speak infallibly when the bishops scattered throughout the world and in union with the pope teach something that must be held definitively in the Church. That latter constitutes what the Church calls a teaching of the “Universal and Ordinary Magisterium.”
It is the latter—the teaching of the Universal and Ordinary Magisterium—that becomes crucial for us for it is on this level of teaching, I argue, that the Church’s teaching concerning the intrinsic evil of contraception is taught infallibly by the Church.
So How do we Know?
With regard to knowing just when the Universal and Ordinary Magisterial authority of the Church is being invoked, I will be referencing the 1998 Doctrinal Commentary on the Professio Fidei of Pope St. John Paul II. In particular, footnote 17 makes a very important contribution to the discussion:
“It should be noted that the infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium is not only set forth with an explicit declaration of a doctrine to be believed or held definitively, but is also expressed by a doctrine implicitly contained in a practice of the Church’s faith, derived from revelation or, in any case, necessary for eternal salvation, and attested to by the uninterrupted Tradition: such an infallible teaching is thus objectively set forth by the whole episcopal body, understood in a diachronic and not necessarily merely synchronic sense. Furthermore, the intention of the ordinary and universal Magisterium to set forth a doctrine as definitive is not generally linked to technical formulations of particular solemnity; it is enough that this be clear from the tenor of the words used and from their context (emphasis added).”
Notice, “a doctrine implicitly contained in a practice of the Church.” And, very importantly, a doctrine that is taught to be “necessary for salvation.” We are going to see in detail when I cite Casti Connubii below that Pope Pius XI declared all priests must not allow for any of the faithful under any circumstances to be allowed to practice contraception. And very importantly, he was speaking in the context of the confessional. And why? Because to contracept, according to Pope Pius XI is objectively grave matter. And this, he says, is the constant teaching of the “uninterrupted Christian tradition.” Moreover, he draws from Scripture (Genesis 38 and the “sin of Onan”) as well as from Natural Law to make this point, as I said above. And he also declares this to be a matter that is necessary for salvation.
Pope Pius XI makes it abundantly clear for us that his condemnation of contraception binds gravely so that no Catholic can licitly dissent from it even in the internal forum in the Confessional. As such, this meets the definition of what constitutes an infallible teaching of the Universal and Ordinary Magisterium.
Lest Anyone Should Still Doubt
Let’s dive deeper into Pope Pius XI’s Encyclical Letter, Casti Connubii, promulgated Dec. 31, 1930. In the below paragraphs, His Holiness is speaking specifically to the evil of contraception when he provides:
54. But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.
55. Small wonder, therefore, if Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death. 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.”
56. “Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”
57. We admonish, therefore, priests who hear confessions and others who have the care of souls, in virtue of Our supreme authority and in Our solicitude for the salvation of souls, not to allow the faithful entrusted to them to err regarding this most grave law of God; much more, that they keep themselves immune from such false opinions, in no way conniving in them. If any confessor or pastor of souls, which may God forbid, lead the faithful entrusted to him into these errors or should at least confirm them by approval or by guilty silence, let him be mindful of the fact that he must render a strict account to God, the Supreme Judge, for the betrayal of his sacred trust, and let him take to himself the words of Christ: “They are blind and leaders of the blind: and if the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit (emphasis added).
Casti Connubii is clearly not an ex cathedra statement of the pope. It does not meet the criteria. However, what we see above is Pope Pius XI using language indicating he is reiterating what was already definitive teaching, or, “uninterrupted Christian tradition,” as I said before, exercising his Apostolic authority and speaking for the entire Church. Notice again his language from para. 56:
… the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.
Some will point out that Pope Pius used a “small t” when he challenged all “openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition.” “Uninterrupted” is the more important term to my mind. No doubt, he is speaking here of a teaching that extended beyond just the Catholic Church to the “Christian tradition” of the entire Christian world including all Christians because that was the historical case until the Anglicans unhappily departed from this “uninterrupted Christian tradition” with the advent of their 1930 Lambeth Conference. A small “t” here is both expected and beside the point. What is most important is the pope specifically makes his case that those who dare depart from this that was universally taught in the Christian world, including within the Church, and “have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question” are endangering their eternal salvation and must be “branded with the guilt of grave sin.”
The use of “intrinsically against nature,” and “intrinsically vicious,” which are not of themselves determinative of infallible teaching are not insignificant but placed alongside the pope clearly speaking for the entire Church and her “divine ambassadorship and through Our (the ‘divine we’) voice,” and that he is “proclaim[ing] anew” this teaching that is a matter of eternal salvation, the conclusion becomes unavoidable. This is infallible teaching.
And then, when you add the fact that Pope Pius XI declares in paragraph 57 that this is a matter that must be adhered to at all times, including the internal forum of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as I also said before, it becomes even clearer. This is a matter that has been settled infallibly. If it were a matter of the Ordinary Magisterium alone, a person could legitimately dissent within the confines of the confessional under the advisement of a priest. Pope Pius XI specifically excludes that as a possibility.
And Then There’s Humanae Vitae.
Given the fact that Humanae Vitae too does not represent an ex cathedra declaration, what do we make of Pope St. Paul VI’s teaching? It is really quite simple. He too clearly understands the Church’s prohibition against contraception to be an infallibly settled teaching.
It helps to recall Pope St. Paul VI was replying to an official commission of the Church established by Pope John XXIII and supersized by Pope St. Paul VI himself, to consider the question of what had come to be called “the pill.” Is contraception possible to be used in a morally acceptable way? Well, the commission actually returned a large majority voting in the affirmative. To this, Pope St. Paul VI declared, in section 6:
However, the conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain, dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally this serious question. This was all the more necessary because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed, and especially because certain approaches and criteria for a solution to this question had emerged which were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church.
Consequently, now that We have sifted carefully the evidence sent to Us and intently studied the whole matter, as well as prayed constantly to God, We, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, intend to give Our reply to this series of grave questions (Section 6, emphasis added).
Now some may attempt to exclude contraception from that which the commission returned as being “at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church.” But that is simply not true. Pope St. Paul makes clear that contraception is specifically what he is referring to that is contrary to “the constant” teaching of the Church. He is wholly in line with Pope Pius XI before him:
“The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out. The sexual activity, in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is, as the recent Council recalled, “noble and worthy.” It does not, moreover, cease to be legitimate even when, for reasons independent of their will, it is foreseen to be infertile. For its natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife is not thereby suppressed. The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws. The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”(12)
I placed footnote #12 there because here Pope St. Paul VI footnotes Casti Connubii, 56, which is cited above where Pope Pius XI makes clear we are talking about grave matter here as well as the constant teaching of the Church.
With all we’ve said here, there is really no need to get into more Magisterial declarations of the Church because these are sufficient to show this teaching was understood to be definitively declared by the Universal and Ordinary Magisterium by both Pope Pius XI and Pope St. Paul VI. Infallible teachings cannot be reversed even by the Supreme Authority of the Church. Case closed.