Pope Benedict XVI's recent brief comments on condoms, excerpted from a book-length interview by a journalist, did not change the teaching of the Magisterium on contraception. However, the avalanche of misinformation in the secular news media about those comments did prompt public statements and discussion from many members of the Church. And what we learned was that many Catholics, even some priests and theologians, hold heretical beliefs on contraception.
Unfortunately, certain heresies pertaining to contraception are thriving among Catholics today. Each of these heresies denies, in one aspect or another, the definitive moral teaching of the Magisterium on contraception. This article will review and refute each of those heresies on contraception.
1. Heresy: that the use of contraception is not immoral.
The most common heretical claim on the subject of contraception is simply a complete denial that contraception is immoral. Many persons who call themselves Catholic do not believe contraception is a sin. Such persons usually understand, and even openly state, that the Church teaches the immorality of contraception, but they have knowingly rejected this teaching. This knowing choice to reject the definitive teaching of the Magisterium on an important matter of morality is formal heresy.
To the contrary, the Magisterium teaches that contraception is immoral:
Pope Paul VI: "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." (Humanae Vitae, n. 11)
2. Heresy: that the morality of the use of contraception is subject to the judgment of the individual, his conscience, and his confessor.
This claim asserts that the use of contraception is not immoral, if the individual is sincere in judging that it is moral, or if the confessor of the individual claims that the use of contraception is merely a matter of conscience and personal judgment.
To the contrary, the magisterial document instructing confessors on the subject of contraception states: "The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable." (Vademecum for confessors, n. 4).
Definitive and irreformable teachings of the Magisterium are binding on the conscience of the Catholic Christian believer, since conscience must be formed in the light of Church teaching.
Cardinal Ratzinger: "Conscience is not an independent and infallible faculty. It is an act of moral judgment regarding a responsible choice. A right conscience is one duly illumined by faith and by the objective moral law and it presupposes, as well, the uprightness of the will in the pursuit of the true good." (Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, n. 38.)
Second Vatican Council: "In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience." (Gaudium et Spes, n. 16.)
Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Objective norms of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience." (CCC, n. 1751)
A sincere conscience seeks and finds moral truth, which is an objective reality, not merely a subjective judgment. Catholic Christians are obliged by the moral law to believe the teachings of the Church on morality and to act in accord with those teachings.
The other forms of heresy on contraception are more complex, but in some ways more harmful. For the faithful of the Church know that they must accept the teaching of the Church against contraception; they know that conscience cannot overrule the teaching of Christ through His Church. But some persons are misleading the faithful with false claims about the content and meaning of the Church's teaching against contraception. They deceive the faithful into thinking that contraception might be moral, depending on intention or circumstances. And they claim that this grave error is the teaching of the Church, or that it is at least a tenable opinion, one not contradicted by the teaching of the Church.
3. Heresy: that contraception, while immoral, is not intrinsically evil.
This heresy seems to accept the teaching of the Magisterium that contraception is immoral, but then distorts and misinterprets that teaching so as to claim that contraception is not intrinsically evil (i.e. inherently disordered, by the very nature of the act).
To the contrary, the Magisterium definitively teaches that contraception is intrinsically evil.
Pontifical Council for the Family: "The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable. Contraception is gravely opposed to marital chastity; it is contrary to the good of the transmission of life (the procreative aspect of matrimony), and to the reciprocal self-giving of the spouses (the unitive aspect of matrimony); it harms true love and denies the sovereign role of God in the transmission of human life." (Vademecum for Confessors, n. 4)
Pope Pius XI: "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." (Casti Connubii, n. 54)
Pope Pius XII: "Our Predecessor, Pius XI, of happy memory, in his Encyclical Casti Connubii, of December 31, 1930, once again solemnly proclaimed the fundamental law of the conjugal act and conjugal relations: that every attempt of either husband or wife in the performance of the conjugal act or in the development of its natural consequences which aims at depriving it of its inherent force and hinders the procreation of new life is immoral; and that no 'indication' or need can convert an act which is intrinsically immoral into a moral and lawful one." (Address to Midwives)
Pope Paul VI: "Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong." (Humanae Vitae, n. 14)
Compendium of the Catechism: "What are immoral means of birth control? Every action -- for example, direct sterilization or contraception -- is intrinsically immoral which (either in anticipation of the conjugal act, in its accomplishment or in the development of its natural consequences) proposes, as an end or as a means, to hinder procreation." (Compendium, n. 498)
Cardinal Stafford: "the unitive and procreative meanings of marriage cannot be separated. Consequently, to deprive a conjugal act deliberately of its fertility is intrinsically wrong." (Francis Cardinal Stafford, Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary, speech to American Academy of Fertilitycare Professionals, 11 June 2008)
Pope John Paul II: "This is the reason for the intrinsic unlawfulness of contraception: it introduces a substantial limitation into this reciprocal giving, breaking that 'inseparable connection' between the two meanings of the conjugal act, the unitive and the procreative, which, as Pope Paul VI pointed out, are written by God himself into the nature of the human being (n. 12)." (Speeches, 27 Feb. 1998)
Pope John Paul II: "With regard to intrinsically evil acts, and in reference to contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile, Pope Paul VI teaches: 'Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8) - in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general'." (Veritatis Splendor, n. 80; inner quote from Humanae Vitae, n. 14).
Notice that this teaching is presented in different ways, with variations in terminology, but as one and the same position definitively to be held. Intrinsically evil acts are also called intrinsically immoral, intrinsically wrong, intrinsically unlawful (under the eternal moral law), intrinsically against nature (since natural law is an expression of the eternal moral law), and by their very nature contrary to the moral order. All these expressions from magisterial documents prove that the Magisterium teaches that contraception is intrinsically evil.
It is a heresy to claim that contraception is not intrinsically evil, i.e. that it is not intrinsically immoral, by the very nature of the act itself.
4. Heresy: that contraception, while intrinsically evil, is not always immoral regardless of intention or circumstances; in other words, that contraception is both intrinsically evil and yet sometimes justified by intention, or by circumstances.
This self-contradictory heresy claims to accept the teaching of the Magisterium against contraception in its entirety, believing that contraception is not only immoral, but intrinsically immoral. And yet the claim is added that somehow contraception can become moral, depending on intention and circumstances.
To the contrary, the Magisterium clearly and definitively teaches that when an act is intrinsically evil, that act is always immoral regardless of intention or circumstances.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: "It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it." (CCC, n. 1756)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception)." (CCC, n. 2399).
Pope Pius XI: "But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good." (Casti Connubii, n. 54.)
Pope John Paul II: "No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church." (Evangelium Vitae, n. 62)
Pope John Paul II: "In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture…. If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain 'irremediably' evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. 'As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?'." (Veritatis Splendor, n. 81)
Neither can intention or circumstances transform an act that is intrinsically evil into another type of act, one that is moral or good.
Pope John Paul II: "Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act, intrinsically evil by virtue of its object, into an act 'subjectively' good or defensible as a choice." (Veritatis Splendor, n. 81.)
There are three fonts of morality:
(1) intention (the intended end, purpose, reason, or motive of the person in choosing the act)
(2) moral object (an end, in terms of morality, toward which the act itself, by its very nature, is inherently ordered)
(3) circumstances (especially the reasonably anticipated good and bad consequences of the chosen act)
Catechism of the Catholic Church: "The morality of human acts depends on: the object chosen; the end in view or the intention; the circumstances of the action. The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the 'sources,' or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts." (CCC, n. 1750.)
Compendium of the Catechism: "The morality of human acts depends on three sources: the object chosen, either a true or apparent good; the intention of the subject who acts, that is, the purpose for which the subject performs the act; and the circumstances of the act, which include its consequences." (Compendium, n. 367)
USCCB Catechism: "Every moral act consists of three elements: the objective act (what we do), the subjective goal or intention (why we do the act), and the concrete situation or circumstances in which we perform the act.... All three aspects must be good -- the objective act, the subjective intention, and the circumstances -- in order to have a morally good act." (United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, July 2006, p. 311-312.)
In order to be moral, each and every knowingly chosen act must have three good fonts: a good intention, a good moral object, and good consequences which outweigh any bad consequences. If any one or more fonts is bad, the act is immoral. Every act with an evil moral object is intrinsically evil. If the moral object is evil, then the other two fonts, intention and circumstances, cannot cause the act to become moral because all three fonts must be good "in order to have a morally good act".
Furthermore, when an act is intrinsically evil, it is immoral by the very nature of the act, in and of itself. The claim that intention or circumstances can change an intrinsically evil into a moral act is contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium. This claim has the effect of nullifying the teaching of the Magisterium that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention and circumstances.
Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. To deny this truth is to commit a heresy that applies not only to the subject of contraception, but to the eternal moral law in general. For many different types of acts are intrinsically evil. The claim that a contraceptive act can be intrinsically evil, and yet still be justified by intention or circumstance, necessarily implies that all other intrinsically evil acts can be justified by intention or circumstances. And this is a very severe heresy indeed.
How could any Catholic Christian believe that certain types of grave sins, such as murder, abortion, genocide, rape, adultery, fornication, theft, perjury, etc., could ever be moral? Veritatis Splendor was written by Pope John Paul II in order to refute a common heresy among Catholic moral theologians which claims that no type of act is always immoral. This position was used to nullify the teaching of the Magisterium against contraception, abortion, and various grave sexual sins. And yet, many years after Veritatis Splendor, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and other magisterial documents were published, so that the magisterial teaching on intrinsic evil became ever more clear, many Catholics, including some priests and theologians, continue to claim that certain intrinsically evil acts are not always immoral.
[Contraception and Heresy: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 ]
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator
29 November 2010
For more on the topic of contraception, see chapter 22, 'Abortion and Contraception,' in my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics