A Catholic’s view on contraception and solidarity

Kyle Cupp argues that most Catholics do not believe that contraception is a sin because sin has to harm human life and solidarity and few believe that contraception does this. For my own part, I’m convinced that it is a sin, though I don’t know that I could ever come up with an argument that would be as convincing as I am convinced. But here it goes:

1.)  All human happiness and solidarity will ultimately be in the Church, and contraception separates one from the Church. The argument will obviously only convince already convinced Catholics, but this was Kyle’s target audience. Human solidarity is not national or tribal or sectarian, but rather is only actual to one who is actually incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, which Catholics identify with the Church. This does not give any reason why the Church thinks that contraception is a sin – it doesn’t even require that they have any reasons of the sort that could be given in philosophical argument, and given the intimacy and profundity of the sort of desires and we are dealing with here it is not obvious that philosophy is the best tool to reach them – but it does draw a connecting line between separating oneself from the Church and the rejection of ultimate human happiness and solidarity.

This solidarity if the Church is not simply eschatological, as though we did not have some participation in it even now. The Church has proved itself a uniquely well-suited instrument to affect solidarity among peoples and nations. One would be hard pressed to identify any institution that has proved itself as good at maintaining a uniform character while managing to adapt to different nations, races, cultures, ways of life, and diverse eras spread over centuries.

2.) One cannot have solidarity with something while crippling and frustrating the source of its continued existence. One who  contracepts differs from those who abstain* and/or are infertile in that he actively cripples and frustrates the source of continued human existence. Human existence isn’t maintained by storks, after all, and even if it were it would be pretty easy to see the act of shooting storks or clipping their wings as an act against the source of human life.

This argument more suggests the direction of critique rather than taking one all the way – to keep up the stork metaphor, one might object that shooting a few might make good prudential sense, something like a controlled hunt or a pruning of an overgrown ecosystem. I don’t dispute that this is necessary, I only think that abstinence as opposed to contraception is the morally preferable way to do so, not just for the reason just given, but also because contraception is a degraded and inhuman way to deal with the problem. We spay and neuter pets because we take it as given that they don’t have the power to control their desires, still less that, like human beings, they can come to take pleasure in controlling them. But even though contraception is in some sense a control of ones fertility, it is not a control of desire – contraception, in fact, is an obstacle or impediment to learning to control desire and so an obstacle to the virtue that alone makes for human happiness. Chesterton’s observation still bears repeating: “the problem with birth control is that there’s no birth and no control”.

3.) Contraception frustrates and cripples sexual unity between spouses.  All solidarity is a sort of unity, but sex only unifies by joining two persons into a single reproductive entity.  This single entity might happen to be unable to reproduce, but there is all the moral difference in the world between being infertile and causing infertility – the two are as different as someone dying and causing someone to die.

4.) My experience. Even after I try to correct for my own confirmation bias and the limits of my own experience, I’m still pretty convinced that contraception and surgical sterilization warp and wound ones character.  The contraceptors I know tend to betray a horror and disgust with children. This does not mean they fail to love their own kids, but I’m uncomfortable with the number of times I hear them talk about escaping from childbearing as though they narrowly escaped from some terrible catastrophe.  There is something grotesque in the couple saying “Oh, we’re done” without a hint of sorrow and without even a thought for what they passed up on. Maybe it’s true that it would be imprudent to have more, but why no sadness about it? Do you really think that if you could meet and live with the children that you are passing up that  you would be so emphatic about making sure they could never exist? Why is it that it is so common for people to look at a large family as though it were an oppressive burden resulting from bovine stupidity about “where they come from” and not as a group of endlessly fascinating different personalities whose presence gives one so much to live for?


*Throughout the post, this refers both to those who abstain continuously or periodically.


  1. thenyssan said,

    May 18, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    The stork image is awesomefully vivid. Did one of your students come up with it or is that a James Original?

    • May 18, 2013 at 2:56 pm

      It’s mine – I even wanted to bend the metaphor in a third direction (I forget now about what) but not even I love my own metaphors enough to do something in such awful style.

  2. May 19, 2013 at 7:46 am

    I really like your first argument. When I first read the article on vox nova I looked at as just another way for those on the site to explain away the Faith.

    Your other arguments suffer from the problem of NFP being used to eliminate children. There may be more control, but there’s not birth because the stork may not have been killed, but putting the stork in cellar and only letting it come out to fly about when it can’t deliver babies is for all practical purposed in regard to delivering babies the same.

    • May 19, 2013 at 8:28 am

      [P]utting the stork in cellar and only letting it come out to fly about when it can’t deliver babies is for all practical purposed in regard to delivering babies the same.

      If your claim is that there is no practical difference between birth control by NFP and by artificial contraception, I obviously agree. Practical differences follow practical results, and NFP is necessarily an attempt to realize no practical difference from artificial contraception. Practically speaking, they’re judged by exactly the same metric (births per woman-years, FWIW). They’re both birth control. But as far as I can tell, birth control – like killing a man or taking something out of another man’s garage – is not in itself a moral evil. Is it your claim that it is? Because if that’s what you’re claiming, you’re committed to a particular view of the necessity of NFP in conjugal life, since that premise requires that all good Catholic couples should practice NFP by plotting charts to figure out their fertile times and then only allow themselves to have sex during the fertile times. I’m not saying the idea is crazy (the Torah has a view of sex like this) but I think it’s pretty clear that the Mosaic Laws in this were not unchangeable. I see no history of Christians preserving this practice or taking it as normative, and I think the silence is significant.

      • thenyssan said,

        May 19, 2013 at 10:08 am

        I think a fair amount of angst over this issue is generated by equivocation in our common use of the phrase “birth control.” Humanae Vitae affirms, repeatedly, that responsible parenthood and bringing the order of reason to bear on procreation (“birth control”) are good things. It famously condemns means that separate an object from its essentially ordained end. It’s when we lazily turn that into “birth control” that the teaching in HV starts to sound flimsy.

        Which is not to say that the battle is won after clearing that up. But it does need to be cleared up to get very far.

      • May 19, 2013 at 5:42 pm

        No that is not my claim. I agree that births can be intentionally spaced. I even agree that it’s not immoral to use man made artifices to cause the spacing of those births.

        The problem I see is given that NFP is even more affective at preventing births than any other form of birth control, then it follows that NFP would cause the same effects in situations 2, 3, and 4

        The lack of practical difference is rather important because men live their lives at the level of the practical. Solidarity in marriage is not disembodied, but inseparable from the earthy daily life of hardships and joys and wonders of marriage.

      • May 20, 2013 at 12:44 am

        Adding on. At first I was inclined to disagree with 2, 3, and 4 because the harm caused by artificial birth control would likewise apply to NFP because I was thinking in terms of morality. But morality doesn’t necessarily apply.

        Just because an act is harmful doesn’t necessarily make it immoral. NFP is medicinal, and some medicines can cause harm while bringing about a more important good. Modern western society is incapable of spacing children naturally through ecological breastfeeding, and so NFP is uses as medicinal. But not without harmful side effects.

        Similarly, chemotherapy is medicinal poison, that is taken because its better to suffer the poison than it is to die.

      • thenyssan said,

        May 21, 2013 at 8:12 am

        There’s a lot to respond to there, love, and I don’t want to stiff-arm your objections. In the most general terms I think you are making a mistake that Paul VI warns against in his words against the principle of totality–what has to be morally evaluated is a given voluntary act, not the abstraction of “our fertile life together.”

        Setting aside some other things I might say, I don’t see how you can claim that periodic abstinence falls aprey of James’s (3). “[this] abstaining from intercourse that is likely to be reproductive” is not “to cause [this] act to be infertile.” Similarly, “[this] having intercourse when one is not fertile” is not “to cause [this] act to be infertile.” In neither case is the unity between the spouses crippled by the act itself and certainly neither act is a *cause* of infertility.

        There is one way in which I think you could be correct–the case where a couple *always* abstain from intercourse that would be fertile. But there again, what is harmful and morally repugnant is the act of the will which perpetually wills against children–it is not the venereal act itself which becomes evil.

        I think that kind of perpetual continence could be harmful, although I think it could also be a vocation enabled through grace (covering my bases on perpetual virginity and some of the lives of the saints).

      • May 21, 2013 at 11:55 pm

        thenyssan writes ” I don’t see how you can claim that periodic abstinence falls aprey of James’s (3).”

        Because sex using NFP is not “reproductive sex”

        Saying sex using NFP is reproductive makes about as much sense as not drinking liquids to quench a thirst.

        NFP is open to life in the same manner as someone saying he’s open to letting his children eat, but only lets food be put on the table when the children are asleep and not able to eat.

        The man would be prosecuted for murder because the concept of being open in such circumstance violates common sense.

      • thenyssan said,

        May 22, 2013 at 5:14 am

        “not drinking liquids to quench a thirst”

        But that’s exactly where you are going wrong by not addressing “this” act and staying in the abstract realm of “using NFP.” You’re saying “doing this” is the same as “not doing that.” That’s just false. Of course this act of “abstaining from sex on Friday night” is not a reproductive act. You’re right, that’s the same as this abstaining from drinking when thirsty (although we’d have to branch off and make relevant comparisons and contrasts between the kinds of acts–set that aside). But if your argument is that abstinence of any kind is bad, then I don’t think we have enough common ground to discuss this topic. You’re tossing out a key component of one of the cardinal virtues.

        And what’s the flip side? Your drinking comparison has no analog for a sex act that is foreseen to be infertile because of when it is done. It cashes on the ambiguity of talking about “NFP.”

      • May 22, 2013 at 8:34 am


        I’m not saying that abstaining cannot be a good. Just as abstaining from food can be a good. But abstaining is not eating.

        Having sex when its not possible for it to be reproductive while calling it reproductive is akin to a carpenter only swinging his hammer when it will miss the nail. Such a method of nailing is simply not productive.

        We don’t abstain from eating because we are open to eating, we do it to mortify ourselves for a greater good, or different good.

        A man can for many years abstain from sex while married if sex would be more harmful to the marriage. Such as if the marriage was having difficulties and forcing the issue would cause the wife to seek separation, which in turn causes further harms the relationship and the children.

        But that abstaining is not reproductive. It’s medicinal.

        The abstaining is harmful to the marriage, but its less harmful than sex would be.

        Perhaps we don’t have any common ground. I certainly don’t with those who think marriage is deficient unless NFP is used.

      • thenyssan said,

        May 22, 2013 at 11:09 am

        My comment about common ground was only sparked by your apparent claim that abstinence is bad. Your clarification seems to remove that obstacle, even if it does not settle all scores.

        Two things then, in reverse order:

        1. I’ve never heard anyone (certainly not Pope Paul VI) claim that extended periodic abstinence, taking temperatures, checking signs, etc., is *necessary* for marriage. The claim is that it is legitimate, different in kind than contraception. I think one can (and some do) make the argument that periodic abstinence is good just in the same way that fasting it good, but that’s a separate issue.

        2. We’ve finally wended our way to the make or break, which is really the point of James’s post. What reason is there for thinking that sex during an infertile period is different than contraceptive intercourse during a fertile period? There’s lots of ways to go after that, and I like James’s approach here. I don’t want to recapitulate it or blaze my own trail. I just disagree with your assessment about “reproductive act” based on outcome.

        I don’t, nor does the tradition I come from, evaluate an act as good or evil based on its outcome. Likewise, “outcome” is not how PPVI in HV comes to his conclusion about separating the unitive and procreative. That outcome–“no child is conceived”–is (usually) found in both the contraceptive sexual act and the infertile period sexual act. No argument from me. It’s just not the relevant point for a moral evaluation. One fundamentally alters the sex act, the other does not. One can say that the act is still “reproductive in kind” or argue that the act is indeed still reproductive, even if reproduction does not happen or is not expected to happen. I won’t commit to a path here; I think I’ve talked myself out on this topic for now.

        I’m happy for you to have the last word on this–I should definitely be making and grading exams. Thanks for the exchange.

      • May 22, 2013 at 3:49 pm

        Thenyssan writes : “I don’t, nor does the tradition I come from, evaluate an act as good or evil based on its outcome.”

        My tradition is pushing someone in front of a moving bus is an evil because the bus will squish the person like a bug. The bus and squishing are not accidental to knowing the act.

        . It’s an evil to swing an ax that insects with someones neck because it the head to separate from the body. It’s a good to swing an ax to spit firewood to heat food for cooking. The act as good or evil is evaluated and based on the outcome.

        Further, swinging an ax that chops off someone’s head may be a necessary evil such as acting in self defense to protect one’s children from an aggressor, but the act per se is an evil because killing is an evil.

  3. MarcAnthony said,

    May 19, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    One of the problems I see with the stork metaphor is the “clipping their wings” bit – I don’t think anybody I know would have an issue with that, honestly.

    As far as I know every single person I know who is sexually active uses artificial contraception. And if any don’t, I can’t tell the difference, for whatever that’s worth.

  4. Rob said,

    May 19, 2013 at 6:51 pm

    As a former Catholic, one of the most pressing reasons I left the Catholic church was that I see nothing wrong with artificial contraception. I have been told over and over that Catholics don’t believe in or use contraceptives. My wife and I use them and there fore we can not be Catholic.

    • Ian said,

      May 19, 2013 at 9:24 pm

      Ha. I’m not Catholic but the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception is one of the most pressing reasons why I think maybe I should be Catholic!

  5. BM said,

    May 30, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Consider these words of St. Thomas’s in SCG: “It is evident from this that every emission of semen, in such a way that generation cannot follow, is contrary to the good for man. And if this be done deliberately, it must be a sin. Now, I am speaking of a way from which, in itself, generation could not result: such would be any emission of semen apart from the natural union of male and female. For which reason, sins of this type are called contrary to nature. But, if by accident generation cannot result from the emission of semen, then this is not a reason for it being against nature, or a sin; as for instance, if the woman happens to be sterile.”

    The distinction between per se and per accidens here is very difficult to understand when we consider that a woman has infertile times when natural generation cannot take place per se. James, how do you understand the distinction STA is making here? (This is an important question because it happens to be the primary misunderstanding that occurs whenever the claim is made that sex must be at least natural, i.e. procreative in kind, to be moral.)

    • June 1, 2013 at 1:58 pm

      Sterility and fertility are categories necessary to explain one and the same natural action. It’s clear from experience that nature, in seeking to reproduce itself, is not successful in every attempt – and this is even so by design. No one would want every seed of every plant and animal – or even every millionth seed – to make another animal. This is the sort of fertility and lack of fertility that is built into natural acts as such (sc. not every seed succeeds, and within the life cycle of the reproducing thing it is not always fertile.) and which is necessary to explain reproduction as it actually exists in nature.

      But St. Thomas’s claim is that not all infertility is like this. The infertility between oaks and petunias, or of two stamen is not of the same sort. If you wanted to explain why this or that acorn didn’t make an oak tree, you could point to some intention in nature, involving the number of seeds or the life-cycles of the seed-bearers. If you wanted to explain why mere stamen, anthers, and filaments can’t reproduce, you don’t give the same sort of explanation.

      One could argue that homosexual infertility is a part of a larger intention or design of nature- i.e. gays and lesbians happen by nature in the same way that the natural infertility of heterosexuals happens. It is an interesting explanation, but it is ad hoc and tries to assimilate two sorts of infertility that are radically and essentially distinct. One could, I suppose, see a flower that was nothing but stamen as a part of a general design in nature to keep population numbers at a good level, but is this the most reasonable way to take it? It’s doubtful to me that the GLBT community would be best served by trying to argue this way.

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