I spoke to a woman recently who I respect very much and who takes her faith very seriously. She mentioned that she is on artificial birth control. Her husband is not a Catholic and for him, Natural Family Planning (NFP) was simply not an option. Nor was he willing to have another child. This woman worked with her husband and decided that for them, artificial birth control was the best option. When she told me, she shrugged kind of sheepishly and said “I want to be faithful to the Church’s teachings 100% but in this area . . . I just can’t. I guess I shouldn’t be receiving communion, but I don’t want to be separated from the sacraments for this.”
Situations like my friend’s are not at all uncommon. People in mixed marriages where one spouse does not agree to practicing NFP, situations where NFP simply doesn’t work and a couple finds themselves pregnant again and again (read this post and the comments), and situations where another pregnancy is simply too great of a health risk can all lead an individual or couple to decide that artificial birth control (or even sterilization) are much more reasonable options. While I am a huge advocate of NFP and believe that it can be a very life-giving method of responsible family-planning, I have become disturbed recently by how few resources there are to help women (and men) who don’t find NFP a reasonable choice, or who in good conscience decide artificial birth control is best for them.
I intend this post to be the beginning of a conversation here on the blog for those women and men who struggle with this particular teaching. For what it is worth, I agree with the teaching on birth control and don’t want it to change. I like NFP and I like having children. But I know that my experience is not the norm and I want to be sensitive to the real struggles of Catholics who want to be faithful but do practice some form of artificial contraception or sterilization. My goal here is not to challenge the moral teaching itself, but instead to provide resources for those people who find it difficult or even impossible to obey and to encourage the formation of appropriate pastoral responses for such people.
First, of all, we should not that there are different levels teaching within the Church. The highest level are those divinely revealed truths that are taught by both the universal and ordinary magisterium as infallible. These include the Trinity, the Incarnation, the two big Marian doctrines (Immaculate Conception and Assumption). These teachings require the obedience of faith. Next we have definitive but non-revealed truths which are infallibly proposed though not revealed in themselves. Certain moral principles are here because they are “required to safeguard the integrity of the deposit of the faith, to explain it rightly, and to define it effectively.” We might place natural law in this category, as well as human dignity. These teachings require firm assent. Opposing such teachings is called error. Then there are authoritative but not irreformable teachings that are not infallible but do require respect and obedience. The point of these teachings is to make explicit the content of divine revelation or to aid a better understanding of Revelation. To go against such teachings is called “dissent.” The teachings on birth control go here. (There are other levels of authority too, in decreasing authority, that include disciplinary rules, theological opinions, and certain devotions like wearing a Miraculous Medal or praying the rosary).
Different people could argue about which teaching goes in each category. I would tend to place more abstract moral principles in the second level, like respect for human dignity, care for the poor, care for creation. In the third level, I would place more specific articulations of those teachings like “abortion is a grave sin” or “war should be conducted according to just war principles.” In doing so, I in no way intend to diminish the importance of more specific articulations of moral principles but rather point out their contingency. The teaching on abortion, for example, depends on how we define abortion and when we say life begins. These contingencies can lead to change or development over time in how we articulate the moral teaching specifically. It is well known, for example, that the teaching on abortion has developed so as to include the protection of the life of the fetus at the earliest levels. This was not always the case.
The point in bringing up this kind of complex point is to illustrate that while the teaching on birth control is incredibly important and authoritative, in fact, it demands our obedience, it is not of the highest level of authority. Nor is it a teaching immune to development. How we articulate the teaching depends on how we define artificial with regards to contraception, as well as what we define as specifically contrary to the unitive and procreative dimension of sex.
Furthermore, it is not sacrilege or heresy or even error to disagree with this third level of authoritative teachings. It has a specific name. DISSENT. Dissent was a major concern after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae. Several bishop conferences, including our own here in the US (“Human Life in Our Day”) promulgated their own statements emphasizing that Catholics of good faith may dissent. Our own bishops laid out the norms for licit dissent, stipulating that one may dissent from a particular teaching only if reasons are serious and well founded, and if the the teaching authority of the Church is not undermined nor a cause for scandal. I am going to get a bit controversial here and say that someone who dissents privately but does not take a public stance declaring the Church wrong should not be separated from the sacraments by either their own initiative or someone else’s. Public dissent, particularly that tends to undermine the very authority of the Church to make rules with regards to morals is a different issue that I don’t intend to address here. But an individual Catholic who has tried and failed to find harmony in faith and actions with regards to the Church’s teachings on artificial contraception should still be able to receive communion and participate in the other sacraments of the Church.
Ad impossibilia nemo tenetur
The next thing that we should note about the teaching on artificial contraception is that nobody is required to do the impossible. This is a well-established Catholic legal principle. If, for example, you get deathly ill on Sunday, you are, of course, not required to fulfill your obligation to attend Mass. I think this principle gets neglected in the discussion of birth control. There are certain easy cases: a person marries someone who underwent sterilization prior to their marriage or who got an IUD and refuses to remove it. In these cases, it is simply impossible to have non-contraceptive sex (though there is the possibility of total abstinence. I don’t intend to entertain that option here. Let’s just agree to call such a choice “heroic.”).
But there are other cases that might make it impossible to practice non-contraceptive sex. I think a great case is a man who marries a woman who is not a believer (or who loses her faith) and refuses to use NFP. Or a couple where one member is HIV-positive. Or let’s say you have a couple who has struggled and failed to practice NFP. The woman conceives around 3 or 4 months postpartum and has found it impossible to chart during that postpartum window. In six years, the couple has had five kids. The marriage is under serious stress. Finances are stretched to their limits. The wife’s physical and emotional health is under serious threat. Could we say that this couple finds it impossible to practice NFP successfully? We might recommend total abstinence, and some couples may find this reasonable, but for other couples who just cannot abstain for months, even a year at a time without serious damage to their relationship, might we say that this couple should not be required to do the impossible and might be allowed to, at least for a period, use some for of artificial contraception?
Obviously, much depends here on what is possible and impossible. I don’t tend to think we should take the most heroic option (total abstinence, e.g.) as the baseline for what is possible. But I think we can say generally that a couple that tries and fails to practice NFP and who has serious and legitimate reasons to delay birth may, in certain circumstances, be able to use some form of artificial contraception for a period of time in good conscience.
It should be clear that I think that there are cases where a couple could, in good conscience, use artificial contraception. Furthermore, I think that in such cases, the couple should not be separated from the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, because of their choice.
I think it is important to note that the formation of one’s conscience is ongoing especially when one finds one’s beliefs or behavior is some way disharmonious with the Church’s teachings. In cases like these, it is particularly important to receive pastoral guidance. While some may find the confessional a good place for such guidance, a better practice might be to seek out a spiritual director/confessor who can provide more directed pastoral advice and spiritual counsel and provide the sacrament of confession in cases where sin is found to be present. Such an option is contingent of priests sympathetically recognizing the various circumstances that keep people from obeying the Church’s teaching on contraception, and not immediately concluding that a person is in a state of mortal sin simply because he or she is not in full compliance.
It is unfortunate to me that so few parishes (in my experience) offer pastoral resources for those who continue to struggle with the contraception question. I have heard people dismiss the question out of hand with a “yup, birth control is a mortal sin, just like abortion and rape.” This is not only unhelpful for those of the faithful who really do struggle, it is also deceptive. Even if the person using birth control is sinning, we don’t need to put them on the same level as a murderer. Pastoral sensitivity is key here.
And for those who do find themselves using birth control in good conscience, for them it is important to recognize that the Church offers an ideal that they are falling short of, that there is something sacred and beautiful about sex that is lost through the use of artificial contraception, even when it is for serious reasons. For these people, it is so important that they not dismiss the teaching on contraception but continue to return to it, and continue to reevaluate their circumstances to see if maybe it is time to try again.
Ultimately, we need to recognize that when it comes to the moral authority of the Church, there is a difference between the teaching itself and the pastoral application of that teaching. By offering compassion and sympathy on a pastoral level, we don’t undermine the teachings of the Church, but we do make the Church a hospitable place where people can continue to find themselves welcome even when they fall short. Calling these people bad Catholics, or worse, saying such people aren’t Catholic at all is something we should avoid at all costs. Instead, keeping such people within the fold is a reminder to us of all both of the pilgrim nature of the Church and the radical inclusivity of Jesus on whom the Church is built.