The Church, Contraception and the UN

Today, the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, will present a report at a UN-hosted meeting calling upon “the Catholic hierarchy to reverse their stance against so called ‘artificial’ contraceptives.”  While they have not yet made the full report available, a Summary report is presented on their web site.  Although a cursory glance shows that none of their arguments are particularly new, their platform is.  To present the report in such a prominent setting is sure to garner attention, especially in our culture of sexual liberation.

In examining their arguments, one can see that they readily acknowledge the reason Humanae Vitae presents such a strong defense against anyone who would seek to reverse the Church’s teachings.  It is because it relies on both reason and faith.  Because very few people accept arguments from authority any longer, it is instructive to examine their “Assessment of the Objections to the Natural Law.”

  • 3.1. HV’s argument is that because the biological “laws of conception” reveal that sexual intercourse has a “capacity to transmit life” (HV §13), each and every act of sexual intercourse has a “procreative significance” (HV §12) and “finality” (HV §3), and an “intrinsic relationship” to procreation (HV §11).

This misinterprets the biological evidence. The causal relationship between insemination and, on the other hand, fertilization, implantation, and ultimately procreation, is statistical, not necessary. The vast majority of acts of sexual intercourse do not have the biological “capacity” for procreation, and therefore they cannot have procreation as their “finality” or “significance.”

Blessed Paul VI may have been an old, celibate man locked away in the Vatican, but he knew enough that not to say that every sexual act necessarily ends in pregnancy.  If he did then there would not have made any mention to having “Recourse to Infertile Periods” (HV 16).  They are twisting his words in an attempt to make the Church seem behind the times.

It is still worthwhile addressing the fact that “procreation is statistical, not necessary.”  On a biological level, the purpose of sexual intercourse is pregnancy.  Two organisms come together for the purpose of becoming a single reproducing organism.  Whether pregnancy actually occurs is outside the control of the two organisms. Because man has an animal nature the end of sexual activity in nature is reproduction (its finality).  But because man also has reason that enables him to discover the laws of God from within the laws of nature, he knows that he ought not to interfere with the natural end of the marital embrace.  There are other factors outside the direct control of the man and woman that determine pregnancy (timing, fertility, etc.), but the basis of the natural law argument is that we ought never to interfere with those things which by nature cause us to flourish (for a more thorough argument against Contraception using the Natural Law, see this entry).

  • 3.2. Secondly, it is mistaken to derive a moral prescription directly from a factual description, i.e. a judgment of value (about what morally ought to be) directly from a judgment of fact (about what is).

However, this is what HV does when it infers that people engaging in sexual intercourse must always be open to the possibility of procreation from the (incorrect) fact that each and every act of sexual intercourse has a procreative finality.

For the same reason, it is also incorrect to deduce a divine command directly from the existence of a law of nature, contrary to what HV does when asserting that the above mentioned moral prescription is God’s will.

It is interesting that they chose to hide this argument here since it would be sufficient (if it were true) to dismiss all of Humanae Vitae’s appeal to reason based on natural law.  By invoking the Humean principle that you cannot derive an “ought from an is”, the authors are hoping the entire argument crumbles.  In essence they are saying that there is no connection between what a thing is and how it ought to be treated.  The problem with this is that it leads to a rejection of all morality and reduces everything to merely subjective wishes.  From the fact that a creature is a human being, we derive that they ought to be treated in a certain way.  This is the very basis of human dignity, something I am not sure that the even UN would be willing to deny since it is at the foundation of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).


  • 3.3. The affirmation that human beings may not interfere with the biological laws regulating human reproduction because they have been established by God is in contradiction with observational evidence on how human beings interact with the created order.

As agents of reason, human beings have a unique capacity to intentionally alter the schedule of probabilities inherent in the physical, chemical and biological laws of nature. This is a reality of daily life: for instance, any sort of medical intervention, from something as insignificant as taking pain-killers to something as consequential as performing cardiovascular surgery, affects probabilities – of healing, survival, death, etc. Furthermore, the decision not to intervene in natural processes also affects those probabilities, just as choosing to intervene does.

The moral question is not whether to alter the schedule of probabilities within natural processes, but rather whether, when, and how doing so is conducive to human flourishing and the flourishing of all creation.

The pill (or any other act that renders us sterile) is unique among all medical interventions.  It actually stops a process that is considered to be healthy from occurring.  All of the examples that they gave actually restore healthy functioning to various organs.  In other words, this argument is one of a false analogy.

Furthermore, no doubt, as “agents of reason, human beings have a unique capacity to intentionally alter the schedule of probabilities inherent in the physical, chemical and biological laws of nature,” but that does not mean that they should.  Just because it is technologically possible doesn’t mean it is morally permissible.  This is precisely what is at question here, whether we ought to.

  • 4. Furthermore, it is contradictory to affirm, on the one hand, that as a general principle “sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive [is] intrinsically wrong,” and on the other that it is morally legitimate to practice NFP with the “intention to avoid children and [the] wish to make sure that none will result” (HV §16).

Although he did not sign the document, Machiavelli is there in spirit.  This is a common argument that falls under the principle that the end justifies the means.  In the case of the couple using contraception and the couple practicing NFP, the end is the same—avoiding pregnancy.  But it matters how this end is brought about.  I may have a million dollars that I stole or that I worked for.  The end is the same, but the means in the first case are immoral while in the second they are praiseworthy.

This mistake flows from something that appears further down in the document:

  • 7.The morality of any human action is determined by the motives and intentions of the agent, the circumstances of the situation, and the consequences of that action.

They left out an important moral determinant, mainly the object itself.  The object of the act would be how one would define it if they were to witness the act.  There are some objects that regardless of the intention or circumstances, can never be made good (like killing an innocent person).  We call these actions intrinsically evil, a term they rejected because they conveniently left out the moral object itself.

When the famous Spanish fencer Inigo Montoya read the statement, he commented “Open.  I don’t think that word means what they think it means.”  The authors refer to the marital act being “open” but show a confusion as to what it means.  The Latin term per se destinatus refers to the marital act itself that must remain open (the object).  It does not refer to the couples’ subjective openness to procreation (intention).  There are just reasons why they may not want to be pregnant.  The authors themselves mention that there are morally good “motives for sexual intercourse include pleasure, love, comfort, celebration and companionship.”  Setting aside pleasure (because of its attachment to use), this is true and can even be the primary subjective reason for engaging in the marital act.  The point though is that those intentions must always accord with a moral object that can be ordered to the Good.

Before closing, an important subtlety bears mention as well because it shows how the two acts are different.  The contracepting couple acts so as to render the sexual act infertile.  The couple practicing NFP does not act at all, they simply abstain from the marital embrace during those days in which they may be fertile.  It is like the woman who maintains her weight by not eating as much versus the one who has an eating disorder—one respects the natural human process of digestion and weight gain, the other is dis-ordered because it acts against it.

Once word leaked that the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research was going to release a document, Professor Janet Smith set out to release a countering document in an attempt “to piggy-back on the extensive publicity they are likely to get.”  This is one of the few times the Faithful have had a response prepared at the same time a harmful document has been released.  Please support Professor Smith in any way you can, including distributing her document as widely as possible.


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