Certain representatives of the Catholic Church, a staunch and powerful opponent of the reproductive health (RH) bill, have gone as far as threatening those in favor of the controversial piece of legislation with excommunication. A somewhat less extreme reaction has been to imply or to state outright that any supporter of the RH bill would do well to leave the Church. For example, Rev. Fr. Robert S. Embile, JCL, in a letter published in Philippine Daily Inquirer on October 20, 2009, said that, “Any believer who does not abide with the teachings 100 percent is not a genuine Catholic.” This perhaps stems from the belief—an erroneous one, in light of the actual provisions contained therein—that the RH bill legalizes abortion. (Read about it.)
Despite the difference in degree from excommunication, such a pronouncement is animated by the same impulse of exclusion from the community of the faithful, as though the position of the Church on reproductive health were so absolute and so unambiguous as to leave no room for healthy, critical discussion, much less disagreement. This is certainly not the case for “artificial” contraception.
The condemnation of “artificial” birth control is enshrined in the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, and what seems to be its most significant argument is that “artificial” birth control methods seek to separate the unitive and the procreative functions of sexual intercourse—functions that God made inseparable. Though “based on natural law”, and in line with what has been “constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church”, such a formulation ultimately begs the moral question, saying little more than this: artificial contraception is morally wrong because what it does is, and has always been, bad. It is a circular argument: it presupposes what it seeks to establish. In other words, the conclusion that artificial contraception is bad, is supported by the same premise: that artificial contraception is bad.
Even the assertion itself that artificial contraception is inherently wrong is also difficult to sustain, as will be shown below.
What the Church teaches
(1) According to Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council, marriage is ordained not only toward the begetting of children, but also toward their education.
Furthermore, marriage is a sacred, unbreakable bond, through which love between two persons is more greatly enriched, strengthened, and perfected, leading the spouses closer to God. Marriage thus maintains its value as a way of life, regardless of offspring. Procreation is neither the sole nor the primary purpose of matrimony—the Church recognizes its importance, but does not make the other purposes of less account.
(2) The apostle Paul told husband and wife to fulfill their marital duties to each other: “Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer, but then return to one another, so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:5).
Gaudium et Spes, following Paul, contains this warning: “But where the intimacy of married life is broken off, its faithfulness can sometimes be imperiled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined, for then the upbringing of the children and the courage to accept new ones are both endangered.” Hence, the Church believes that regular intercourse is necessary and desirable for a married couple.
(3) Although the Church has a long and well-established wealth of teachings, only those that have to do with divine revelation are considered infallible. Humanae Vitae, as previously mentioned, derives its force from natural law. In addition, the Church encourages its faithful to interact with others of their time in order to share resources, to understand different points of view, and to better harmonize theological principles with secular knowledge.
Again, to quote Gaudium et Spes:
Let them blend new sciences and theories and the understanding of the most recent discoveries with Christian morality and the teaching of Christian doctrine, so that their religious culture and morality may keep pace with scientific knowledge and with the constantly progressing technology.
Catholics are exhorted not to shy away from the world and mindlessly cleave to tradition, but to take an active part in the shaping of history in cooperation with others.
What’s a good Catholic to do?
By now a gap, if not a conflict, should be apparent between Humanae Vitae and the other texts mentioned above. That none can be said to be more manifestly authoritative than the others—at least from a lay perspective—compounds the situation. How, then, should a good Catholic act? St. Thomas of Aquinas would counsel prudence, the function of which, based on Summa Theologica, consists of the following: to learn the facts, take advice, and understand the issues involved; to judge carefully what one has found; and to act out of reason so as to ensure good and avoid evil.
It is not inconceivable that “right reason applied to action” can result in dissent from the official position of the Church, which all Catholics are free to do with reference to non-infallible teachings. If, after careful study, after the scrupulous testing of convictions and values, one cannot accept the ban on “artificial” contraception with a clear conscience, then one must heed whatever his or her conscience does dictate—an act that would be genuinely Catholic.