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William E. May

Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology

John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at

The Catholic University of America

Washington, D.C.


In his great encyclical Evangelium vitae Pope John Paul II discusses the relationship between contraception and abortion. To the common claim that contraception, “if made available to all, is the most effective remedy against abortion,” the Holy Father replied:

When looked at carefully, this objection is clearly unfounded. It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation to abortion. But the negative values inherent in the “contraceptive mentality”…are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived…. Certainly, from the moral point of view contraception and abortion are specifically different evils: the former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment, “You shall not kill” (no. 13.2).

Note that here the Pope does not directly identify contraception as an anti-life  kind of act. He characterizes it as an anti-love kind of act, one that, as he says elsewhere, “falsifies” the meaning of the conjugal act as one in which the spouses freely “give” themselves unreservedly to one another. [1] In addition, he specifies that contraception is a violation of marital chastity and thus opposed to the sixth commandment, whereas abortion is opposed to justice and violates the fifth commandment. [2] Nonetheless, he insists that despite their differences “contraception and abortion are very closely connected, as fruits of the same tree” (Evangelium vitae, no. 13); and, as he has pointed out in some of his addresses and homilies, contraception too is opposed to the good of human life. [3]

In pointing out the anti-life character of contraception John Paul II is recalling a long tradition in the Church. There is, in fact, a long and respected Christian tradition, common to both the East and the West and, indeed, to Catholics and Protestants until this tradition was broken by the Church of England at the Lambeth Conference in 1930, comparing contraception to homicide. After citing representative texts from that long tradition, I will then relate the anti-life character of contraception to one of the major roots of the culture of death identified by John Paul II in Evangelium vitae and to his claim, in Familiaris consortio, no. 32. 6, that the “difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle…is much wider a deeper than is usually thought, one which involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.”

The Christian Tradition and the Anti-Life Character of Contraception

Passages from St. John Chrysostom, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Si Aliquis canon  (part of the Church’s canon law from the mid-thirteenth century until 1917), The Roman Catechism, and the Reformer, John Calvin, illustrate the long Christian tradition stressing contraception’s character as an anti-life kind of act.

St. John Chrysostom

This great Father of the Eastern Church spoke in no uncertain terms about the homicidal nature of contraception, writing, for instance, as follows:

Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit? Where there are medicines of sterility? Where there is murder before birth? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot but you make her a murderess as well. Do you not see that from drunkenness comes fornication, from fornication adultery, from adultery murder? Indeed, it is something worse than murder and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you contemn the gift of God, and fight with his law?

…Do you make the anteroom of birth the anteroom of slaughter? Do you teach the woman who is given to you for the procreation of offspring to perpetuate killing? [4]

St. Thomas Aquinas

Referring to contraception, the Angelic Doctor declared:

Nor, in fact, should it be considered a slight sin for a man to arrange for the emission of semen apart from the proper purpose of begetting and bringing up children….the inordinate emission of semen is incompatible with the natural good of preserving the species. Hence, after the sin of homicide whereby a human life already in existence is destroyed, this type of sin appears to take next place, for by it the generation of human nature is impeded. [5]

The “Si Aliquis” Canon

This canon, integrated into the law of the Church in the Decretum Gregorii IX (book 5, title 12, chapter 5) and part of the Church’s canon law from the mid-thirteenth century until the 1917 Code of Canon Law, clearly compared contraception to murder. It declared:

If anyone (Si aliquis) for the sake of fulfilling sexual desire or with premeditated hatred does something to a man or a woman, or gives something to drink, so that he cannot generate or she cannot conceive or offspring be born, let him be held as a murderer. [6]

The Roman Catechism (Catechism of the Council of Trent)

In its treatment of marriage, this Catechism, used universally in the Church from the end of the sixteenth century until the late twentieth century, had this to say about contraception: “Whoever in marriage artificially prevents conception, or procures an abortion, commits a most serious sin: the sin of premeditated murder.” [7]  We ought to note that Pope Paul VI explicitly referred to this text in footnote number 16 appended to Humanae vitae, no. 14.

And finally, we have the testimony of one of the leading figures of the Protestant Reformation.

John Calvin

Calvin, in his commentary on the sin of Onan (Gen 38), wrote as follows, in language reminiscent in part of that used by St. Thomas Aquinas in the passage already cited:

Onan not only defrauded his brother of the right due him, but also preferred his semen to putrefy on the ground….The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between a man and a woman is a monstrous  thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before is born the hoped-for offspring….If any woman ejects a foetus from her womb by drugs, it is reckoned a crime incapable of expiation, and deservedly Onan incurred upon himself the same kind of punishment, infecting the earth by his semen in order that Tamar might not conceive a future human being as an inhabitant of the earth. [8]

These texts should suffice to show that a long Christian tradition regarded contraception as an anti-life kind of act, comparable to homicide and intentional abortion. This tradition was retrieved and developed at length in a 1988 essay by Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, John Finnis, and myself. [9] The argument developed by us is well summarized by Alicia Mosier in an article in First Things. Commenting on Pope Paul’s description of contraception in Humanae vitae, no. 14, where he identifies as immoral every action that proposes to impede procreation, she wrote:

Proposing to render procreation impossible means, simply put, willing directly against the order of intercourse and consequently against life….Couples who contracept introduce a countermeasure…whose sole purpose is to make it impossible for a new life to come to be. Contraception is an act that can only express the will that any baby that might result from this sexual encounter not be conceived….it manifests a will aimed directly against new life. [10]

Since contraception is an anti-life kind of an act, in addition to being an anti-love kind of an act (as John Paul II has emphasized), it is clearly linked to the “culture of death.” That it is indeed the “gateway” to this culture will becomes evident if we can show the close bond between contraception and one of the “roots” of this culture identified by John Paul II.

John Paul II on the Roots of the Culture of Death

In the first chapter of Evangelium vitae Pope John Paul II identifies two roots of the culture of death. This culture, he says, is rooted first of all in the “mentality which carries the concept of subjectivity to an extreme and even distorts it, and recognizes as a subject of rights only the person who enjoys full or at least incipient autonomy and who emerges from a state of total dependence on others” (no. 19). It is rooted, secondly, in a “notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way” (ibid).

Of these two roots the first is most relevant for showing the relationship of contraception to the culture of death. At its heart is the idea that only those members of the human species who enjoy full or at least “incipient autonomy,” i.e., individuals with exercisable capacities for reasoning and will, are truly persons with rights that ought to be recognized by society. This mentality, the Holy Father points out, “tends to equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible, communication” (ibid). On this view a “person” is preeminently a subject aware of itself as a self and capable of relating to other selves; and not all members of the human species are persons on this understanding of “person.” This view or anthropology is clearly dualistic, because it distinguishes sharply between “conscious subjects” or “persons” and their bodies and bodily life. One can be biologically a living human body and not be a “person.” Members of the human species who are merely “biologically alive” easily become expendable.

I will now show that this anthropology or way of understanding the human “person” (and, in association with it, human sexuality) is central to the practice of contraception and has led the way to the acceptance of abortion, euthanasia, the laboratory manufacturing of human life for experimental purposes. I will then show that the approach to making moral judgments or moral methodology used to justify contraception has also led to the acceptance of these practices, the hallmarks of the “culture of death.” John Paul II himself, I believe, was acutely aware of this when he made a very bold claim in one of his earliest apostolic exhortations, Familiaris consortio. I have already cited a portion of this highly important text. The passage in question reads as follows:

In the light of the experience of many couples and the data provided by the different human sciences, theological reflection is able to perceive and is called to study further the difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle: it is a difference much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one which involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality (no. 32.6).

The Anthropology at the Heart of Contraception

A dualistic understanding of the human person and of human sexuality is at the heart of the defense of contraception. This anthropology regards the body—and bodily life—as merely an instrumental good, a good for the person, and not a good intrinsic to the person, a good of the person. In this anthropology the body and bodily life are good insofar as they are necessary conditions for experiencing truly personal goods or goods of the person. However, if participating in these truly personal goods is not possible, or if the continued flourishing of merely bodily goods (e.g., fertility) inhibits participation in them, then the usefulness of the body, bodily functions, and even of bodily life itself vanishes, and one can attack the body, bodily functions, and even bodily life itself without violating the person. Indeed, respect for the person may require one to do so.

This anthropology, as shall now be shown, underlies key arguments advanced to support contraception. I will begin with representative passages from the documents of the so-called “majority papers of the Papal Commission on Population, the Family, and Natality, [11]and continue with statements by leading champions of contraception to support this claim.

A key idea in the defense of contraception is that human dominion over physical nature, willed by God, justifies the use of contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Thus the authors of the Majority papers noted that, “in the matter at hand,” namely contraception,

[T]here is a certain change in the mind of contemporary man. He feels that he is more conformed to his rational nature, created by God with liberty and responsibility, when he uses his skill to intervene in the biological processes of nature so that he can achieve the ends of matrimony in the conditions of actual life, than if he would abandon himself to chance. [12]

In another passage the majority declared, “it is proper to man, created in the image of God, to use what is given in physical nature in a way that he may develop it to its full significance with a view to the good of the whole person.” [13]

These passages make it clear that defenders of contraception consider the biological fertility of human persons and the biological processes involved in the generation of new human life as physical or biological “givens.” Human fertility, in other words, is part of the subhuman or subhuman world of “nature” over which persons have been given dominion. Indeed, according to the majority theologians of the Commission “biological fertility…ought to be assumed into the human sphere and be regulated within it.” [14]Obviously, if the biological fecundity of human persons is intrinsically human, it does not need “to be assumed into the human sphere.” Nothing assumes what it already is or has itself. The claim made is clearly dualistic.

This dualistic understanding of the human person, which makes the human body merely an instrumental good and not a personal good is even more luminously exemplified in the following passage from the dissenting theologian Daniel Maguire: “Birth control [contraception] was, for a very long time, impeded by the physicalistic ethic that left moral man at the mercy of his biology. He had no choice but to conform to the rhythms of his physical nature and to accept its determinations obediently. Only gradually did technological man discover that he was morally free to intervene creatively and to achieve birth control by choice.” [15] It is worth noting that in this essay, an apologia for euthanasia, Maguire immediately goes on to ask, rhetorically: “The question now arising is whether, in certain circumstances, we may intervene creatively to achieve death by choice or whether mortal man must in all cases await the good pleasure of biochemical and organic factors and allow these to determine the time and manner of his demise….Could there be circumstances when it would be acutely reasonable (and therefore moral…) to terminate life through either positive action or calculated benign neglect rather than await in awe the dispositions of organic tissue?” [16]

The notion that human biological fertility is, of itself, subpersonal and subhuman is closely related to the understanding of human sexuality central to the defense of contraception. One of the major reasons for changing the Church’s teaching on contraception, so the theologians of the majority party maintained, was the “changed estimation of the value and meaning of human sexuality,” one leading to a “better, deeper, and more correct understanding of conjugal life and the conjugal act.” [17]According to this understanding, human sexuality, as distinct from animal sexuality, is above all relational or unitive in meaning. As a leading champion of contraception and opponent of the teaching of Humanae vitae put matters, “the most profound meaning of human sexuality is that it is a relational reality, having a special significance for the person in his relationships.” [18] Human sexuality, as other defenders of contraception contend, “is preeminently…the mode whereby an isolated subjectivity [=person] reaches out to communion with another subject…in order to banish loneliness and to experience the fullness of being-with-another in the human project.” [19]

Proponents of this understanding of human sexuality grant that human sexual union can be procreative—or to use a term that the more secularistic of them prefer—“reproductive.” Human sexuality does serve “biological” needs such as the reproduction of the species. But in doing so human sexuality is in no way different from generic animal sexuality. This aspect of sexuality, common to humans, dogs, cats, baboons and other animals, is simply part of the world of subhuman, subpersonal nature under the dominion of the person or conscious subject.  The generative or reproductive aspect of human sexuality is, of course, necessary for the continuation of the species (although today there are perhaps better ways of generating life through the new reproductive technologies).  Yet in addition to these merely “biological” needs, sexual union serves other, more “personal” values, those dependent on being consciously experienced—e.g., the tenderness, affection, and pleasure of “lovers.” Moreover, the fact that human genital sex results in the conception of new human life has, in the past and even today, frequently inhibited the realization of these more personal and valuable purposes. But now—and this is the key consideration—it is possible to use efficient methods of contraception to sever the connection between the “procreative” or “reproductive” aspect of sexuality and its more personal “relational” or “unitive” aspect—and this is a great good.

It is surely true that many people in the Western (and increasingly in the non-Western) world regard the emergence of efficient contraceptives as a truly liberating event. Many would agree with the late British anthropologist, Ashley Montagu, who wrote:

The pill provides a dependable means of controlling conception….[T]he pill makes it possible to render every individual of reproductive age completely responsible for both his sexual and his reproductive behavior. It is necessary to be unequivocally clear concerning the distinction between sexual behavior and reproductive behavior. Sexual behavior may have no purpose other than pleasure…without the slightest intent of reproducing, or it may be indulged in for both pleasure and reproduction. [20]

The majority theologians of the Papal Commission would not go so far as Montagu and other secular champions of contraception and sever totally the bond between the procreative and unitive meanings of human sexuality. Nonetheless, with him they regard the “relational” or “unitive” meaning of sexuality its “personal” significance, while considering its “procreative” meaning in and of itself “subhuman” or “subpersonal,” in need of being “assumed into the human.” Coupling this understanding of human sexuality with the dominion that human persons have over the subhuman world of nature, which includes their biological fertility, they contend that if the continued flourishing of biological fecundity inhibits the expression of the relational or unitive meaning of sexuality, then it is perfectly permissible to suppress this “biological given” so that the truly personal values of human sexuality can be realized.

The material reviewed here clearly shows, I believe, the dualistic anthropology and understanding of the human person and of human sexuality underlying the justification of contraception. This anthropology identifies the person with the consciously experiencing subject or, as John Paul II noted in Evangelium vitae, no. 19, the subject having “the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible, communication,” and this anthropology regards the body as an instrument that the person or conscious subject uses, now for this purpose, now for that. It likewise regards as intrinsically “personal” and “human” only the “relational,” “amative,” or “unitive” aspect of human sexuality, considering its “procreative/reproductive” aspect merely biological in itself and in need of being “assumed” into the “human” by being consciously chosen and willed if it is to become personal.

And this anthropology is central to the “culture of death.” If the person is not his or her own body, then, as Germain Grisez has perceptively noted, “the destruction of the body is not directly and in itself an attack on a value intrinsic to the human person.” Continuing, he said:

The lives of the unborn, the lives of those not fully in possession of themselves—the hopelessly insane and the “vegetating” senile—and the lives of those who no longer can engage in praxis or problem solving, become lives no longer meaningful, no longer valuable, no longer inviolable. [21]

This dualistic anthropology, at the heart of the justification and practice of contraception, has led to the justification of abortion on the grounds that the life thus taken, while “biologically human,” is not “meaningfully human” or “personal life,” to the justification of euthanasia on the grounds that it serves the needs of the “person” when that person’s biological life becomes a burden, and to the “production” of human embryos, identifiable biologically as living members of the human species, as experimental objects on the grounds that they can not be considered as persons because they do not exercisable cognitive abilities.

The Moral Methodology Underlying the Acceptance of Contraception

It will be recalled that in the passage from Familiaris consortio cited earlier Pope John Paul noted that the difference between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle was moral as well as anthropological. We have examined the anthropology underlying the acceptance of contraception.  But what is its moral approach or method, its way of justifying human actions? And how does this method relate to the “culture of death”?

An indication of this moral methodology is provided by the following passage from “The Question Is Not Closed,” one of the documents of the majority members of the Papal Commission:

To take his or another’s life is a sin not because life is under the exclusive dominion of God, but because it is contrary to right reason unless there is question of a good of a higher order. It is licit to sacrifice a life for the good of the community. [22]

I call attention to this passage because the principle set forth in it, namely, that one can destroy human life (or other human goods) provided that one does so for the sake of an alleged higher or greater good, is a key principle of the moral theory behind the acceptance of contraception and the justification for the intentional killing of innocent human persons if necessary to achieve a greater good. I call this the “Caiaphas principle,” although today it is more commonly referred to as the “preference principle” or “principle of proportionate good,” according to which one can rightly do so-called “pre-moral” evil for the sake of a proportionately higher “premoral” good. This principle then serves as an “exception-making” clause to every specific negative moral norm. Thus, “one ought not to have sex outside of marriage,” or “one ought not intentionally kill innocent human beings,” etc. unless doing so is necessary to achieve some prorportionately related “greater good” or to avoid some “greater evil.”

The moral method of proportionalism, used originally by Catholic theologians to justify contraception, soon led, as one of its advocates, Charles Curran frankly admitted, [23]to the justification of such deeds as intentional abortion, euthanasia, the manufacturing of human embryos, homosexual acts engaged in by homosexually oriented couples in a committed relationship. It was quickly realized that the “Caiaphas principle” in addition to justifying the doing of a “disvalue” (later called  a “pre-moral evil” or “non-moral evil” in the case of contraception (namely, deliberately impeding procreation), in principle extended to the doing of other so-called “premoral evils” (e.g., killing innocent people, having sex outside of marriage, etc.) for the sake of some proportionately related greater “pre-moral good,”

Closely allied to the “Caiaphas principle” or “principle of proportionate good” is another principle at the heart of the justification of contraception (and, later, other deeds in which evil is done for some “higher ” good). This is the principle of “totality” as understood by the advocates of contraception. This principle is illustrated by the argument, advanced by the majority of the Papal Commission, distinguishing between individual or “isolated” marital acts and marriage as a “whole” or “totality.” Its principal claim is that the good of procreation is properly respected and honored even if individual acts of marriage are deliberately made infertile, so long as those acts are ordered to an expression of love and to a generous fecundity within marriage as a whole. An illuminating passage reads as follows:

When man interferes with the procreative purpose of individual acts by contracepting, he does this with the intention of regulating and not excluding fertility. Then he unites the material finality which exists in intercourse with the formal finality of the person and renders the entire process human…Conjugal acts which by intention are infertile or which are rendered infertile are ordered to the expression of the union of love; that love, however, reaches its culmination in fertility responsibly accepted. For that reason other acts of union are in a certain sense incomplete; and they receive their full moral quality with ordination toward the fertile act….Infertile conjugal acts constitute a totality with fertile acts and have a single moral specification.[24]

Note that this passage considers “recourse to the rhythm of the cycle” or periodic abstinence as simply another contraceptive method: it equates “acts which by intention are infertile,” that is, marital acts chosen while the wife is not fertile, and acts “which are rendered infertile.” The authors, in short, see no moral difference between contraception and “recourse to the rhythm of the cycle.” The latter is simply another way of contracepting. [25] They do so because they consider the intentions involved to be the same in both cases. The “intention” common to both is to avoid a pregnancy, perhaps for a good reason. I will return to this matter below.

            The central claim of this passage is that the moral object specifying what couples who “responsibly” contracept individual acts of marital congress are doing is “fostering love responsibly toward a generous fecundity.” Their aim, their “intention” is to nourish simultaneously the procreative and unitive purposes of their marriage. While it can be granted that this is the further intention or end for whose sake contraception is chosen, this claim simply ignores the couple’s present intention, or their choice of means to achieve this end, this “further intention.”

            This claim is rooted in the idea that we can identify the moral object specifying a human act only by considering the act in its “totality.” According to this method of making moral decisions, it is not possible to determine the moral species of an action—whether it is good or bad—without taking into account the “[further] intention” or end for whose sake one does what one does along with the foreseeable consequences for the persons concerned. If one does this, so the argument goes, one can conclude that, if the choice to contracept individual acts is directed to the end of nourishing conjugal love so that the good of procreation can also be served, then one can say that what the spouses are doing—the moral object of their choice—is to foster conjugal love toward a generous fecundity, obviously something good, not bad.

This reasoning is utterly specious. In essence, it re-describes the contraceptive act, in fact, a whole series of contraceptive acts, in terms of hoped-for benefits. The remote or further end (which serves as the “proportionate good”) for whose sake the couple contracepts individual acts of sexual union may well be, as noted above, to nourish simultaneously the unitive and procreative goods of marriage. This is the hoped-for end, and intending it is good. However, the human acts freely chosen to attain this end must be morally evaluated independently of the hoped-for end. And the human acts freely chosen for this purpose are acts of contraception, and the couple has freely chosen to contracept. That is their present intention, as distinct from the further intention of fostering love responsibly. This specious moral reasoning simply conceals the fact that the couple are indeed contracepting, i.e., freely choosing to impede, here and now, in this act of sexual union, the coming to be of new human life. This is the moral object specifying their act, and not the future benefits they hope to gain by acting in this way. There is, moreover, no intrinsic relationship between the means they choose—contraception—and their hoped-for benefits. Contraception itself does not foster love or serve procreation; indeed, couples who contracept may separate, become alienated, and divorce because of contraception and not foster love responsibly.

The moral methodology used here, in other words, is consequentialistic or proportionalist. It fails to recognize that the morality of human acts, as John Paul II has so correctly said in his encyclical on the moral life, Veritatis splendor, “depends primarily and fundamentally on the ‘object’ rationally chosen by the deliberate will” (no. 78). With respect to contraception that object is not “to foster love responsibly toward a generous fecundity” or to nourish simultaneously the unitive and procreative goods of marriage. As we saw earlier in this paper, in choosing to contracept one chooses to do something, prior to, during, or subsequent to a freely chosen genital act, precisely to impede procreation. [26] One chooses to so because one reasonably believes that a new human life could come to be through this chosen act, and one wills that that life not come to be and thus seeks to impede its coming into being. But this, as we have seen, in an anti-life kind of act.

The consequentialistic, proportionalistic methodology justifying contraception and leading, as we have seen, to the justification of other deeds (the killing of the innocent, sodomy, etc.) was soundly and rightly repudiated by John Paul II in Veritatis splendor. A central theme of this methodology, as we have seen, is the denial of universally true moral norms, allowing no exceptions, prohibiting intrinsically evil acts. The “central theme” of  Veritatis splendor, to the contrary, was precisely, as John Paul II himself declared, “the reaffirmation of the universality and immutability of the moral commandments, particularly those which prohibit always and without exception intrinsically evil acts” (no. 115).

We have now seen the dualistic anthropology and proportionalistic or consequentialistic moral methodology underlying the defense of contraception—and  the deadly deeds characteristic of the culture of death: abortion, euthanasia, the manufacturing of human embryos, etc.

“Recourse to  the Rhythm of the Cycle” (=Periodic Abstinence) and the Culture of Life

Contraception, we have now seen, is the “gateway” to the culture of death . It is so because it is an anti-life kind of act whose acceptance is rooted in a dualistic anthropology separating the consciously experiencing subject from his or her body and in a proportionalistic, consequentialistic moral approach repudiating the notion of intrinsically evil acts. Utterly opposed to contraception is “recourse to the rhythm of the cycle,” whose concept of the human person and of human sexuality is, the Holy Father affirmed, “irreconcilable” with that of contraception. It thus seems to me that respect for the “rhythm of the cycle”—which is simply a way of referring to the periodic abstinence required in natural family planning when there are good reasons not to cause a pregnancy-- can be regarded as the “gateway” to the culture of life and the civilization of love precisely because its concept of the human person and of human sexuality rests upon solid anthropological and moral foundations. I thus now wish to look briefly at these foundations and at the concept of the human person and of human sexuality at the heart of the practice of periodic continence.

            The anthropology is holistic, i.e., it regards the human person as a unity of body and soul. The person is, in the unity of body and soul, the subject of moral actions. [27] On this anthropology, the body and bodily life are integral to the person, goods of the person, not merely goods for the person.

            Human persons are, in other words, body persons. When God created Man, “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). The human body expresses the human person; and since the human body is inescapably either male or female, it expresses a man-person or a woman-person. Precisely because of their sexual differences, manifest in their bodies, the man-person and the woman-person can give themselves to one another bodily. Moreover, since the body, male or female, is the expression of a human person, a man and a woman, in giving their bodies to one another, give their persons to one another. The bodily gift of a man and a woman to each other is the outward sign, the sacrament, of their communion of persons. The body is the means and the sign of the gift of the man-person to the female-person. Pope John Paul II calls this capacity of the body to express the communion of persons the nuptial meaning of the body. [28]

From this it follows that every living human body is a person , whether it is the body of an unborn child, a severely demented baby or teen-ager or adult, an “out of” senile person who knows not that he or she is a consciously experiencing subject. All these living human bodies, who are considered non-persons in the culture of death, are truly persons.

In addition, human fertility or fecundity is not some subhuman, subpersonal aspect of human sexuality. As Vatican Council II clearly affirms, “Man’s sexuality and the faculty of generating life wondrously surpass the lower forms of life” (Gaudium et spes, no. 51), and, as Pope John Paul II pointedly observes, human fertility “is directed to the generation of a human being, and so by its nature it surpasses the purely biological order and involves a whole series of personal values” (Familiaris consortio, no. 11). The procreative meaning of human sexuality, in this non-dualistic anthropology, is not subhuman or subpersonal, in need of  “being assumed” into the human. It is human and personal to begin with.

            The fundamental moral principle supporting recourse to the rhythm of the cycle is not the “Caiaphas” or “preference” or “totality” principle we found undergirding contraception. It is, rather, the commandment to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves (see Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18; Matt 22: 37-39).  And we love our neighbor only by loving the “goods” intrinsically perfective of him: goods such life itself and health, knowledge of the truth, appreciation of beauty, friendship etc. And we do not love our neighbor if we are willing intentionally to deprive him of these goods, to impede their flourishing in him, intentionally to destroy them. Thus, as John Paul II rightly says,

reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum); they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances (Veritatis splendor, no. 80, 1).

The concept of the human person as a body person, a unity of body and soul, and the holistic, non-dualistic anthropology and love-centered, non-consequentialistic understanding of the morality of human acts serving as the bases for this concept underlie the practice of periodic abstinence or “recourse to the rhythm of the cycle.” At the very heart of this anthropology/morality is unconditional love of the body person, i.e. the human person made in God’s image. It is for this reason that “recourse to the rhythm of the cycle” is the “gateway” to the culture of life, just as its opposite, contraception, is the “gateway” to the culture of death.


* This essay was published in the journal, Faith, Vol. 31, No.4 (July-August, 2001) and is posted here with permission.

[1]   See, for example, Familiaris consortio, no. 32.

[2] Similarly, the Catechism of the Catholic Faith discusses contraception in its treatment of the sixth commandment and of chastity in marriage (see nos. 2366-2370), whereas abortion is taken up in its treatment of the fifth commandment (nos. 2270-2275).

[3] Thus in his Homily at Mass for Youth in Nairobi, Kenya, August 17, 1985, he pointed out that the fullest sign of self-giving is when couples willingly accept children and declares: “That is why anti-life actions such as contraception and abortion are wrong and unworthy of good husbands and wives.” The text of this Homily is given in L’Osservatore Romano, Eng. ed., August 26, 1985, 5.

[4] St. John Chrysostom, Homily 24 on the Epistle to the Romans, PG 60, 626-627. Translation in John T. Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Cambridge, MA: The Bellknap Press of Harvard University, 1965), p. 96. On pp. 91-94 Noonan shows that contraception, along with abortion, was considered equivalent to murder in early Christian writings.

[5] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, 3, 122.

[6] Text in Corpus iuris canonici, eds. A. L. Richter and A. Friedberg (Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1881), 2, 794.

[7] The Roman Catechism, Part II, Chap. 7, No. 13, in the translation of Robert Bradley, S.J., and Eugene Kevane (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1985), p. 332.

[8] John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, Ch. 38: 9,10; quoted in Charles D. Provan, The Bible and Birth Control (Monongahela, PA: Zimmer Printing, 1989), p. 15. Provan points out that the editor of the alleged unabridged set of Calvin’s Commentaries, published by Baker Book House, omitted from his text the commentary on these two verses of Genesis.

[9] See Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, and William E. May, “‘ Every Marital Act Ought to Be Open to New Life’: Toward a Clearer Understanding,” The Thomist 52.3 (1988) 365-426. This essay was also published  in Italian under the title, "'Ogni atto coniugale deve essere aperto a uno nuova vita': verso una comprensione più precisa," in Anthropotes: Rivista di Studi sulla Persona e la Famiglia 4.1 (May 1988) 73-122.

[10]   Alicia Mosier, “Contraception: A Symposium,” First Things 88 (December 1998) 26-27.

[11] Pope John XXIII established this Commission in 1963. After his death Pope Paul VI expanded its membership and asked it to continue its work. The Commission completed its work in 1966.The Commission was a purely advisory body to the Pope, who had exclusive responsibility to pass judgment on its recommendations. The documents, however, were leaked to the press in July 1967 and published in English in the US publication, The National Catholic Reporter. Four documents were made public, and all of them can be found in The Birth-Control Debate, ed. Robert Hoyt (Kansas City, MO: National Catholic Reporter, 1969). One of them, expressing the view of the “Minority,” was entitled Status Quaestionis: Doctrina Ecclesiae Eiusque Auctoritas in Latin and was given the title “The State of the Question: A Conservative View” in the Hoyt volume. This document defended the teaching that contraception is immoral and argued that the Church’s teaching on this matter cannot change. Three documents expressed the view of the “Majority” members of the Commission and argued that the Church’s teaching on contraception could and ought to be changed. Of these three documents one was offered as a rebuttal to the Minority paper and was entitled Documentum Syntheticum de Moralitatis Nativitatum in Latin and “The Question Is Not Closed: The Liberals Reply” in the Hoyt volume. A second was the final theological report and was called Schema Documenti de Responsabili Paternitate in Latin and “On Responsible Parenthood: The Final Report” in Hoyt. The third, a pastoral paper and written in French, not Latin, was called Indications Pastorals in the original and “Pastoral Approaches” in Hoyt.

[12] “The Question Is Not Closed,” in Hoyt, p. 69.

[13] “On Responsible Parenthood,” in Hoyt, p. 87.

[14] “The Question Is Not Closed,” in Hoyt, p. 71.

[15] Daniel Maguire, “The Freedom to Die,” in New Theology # 10, ed. Martin Marty and Dean Peerman (New York: Macmillan, 1968), p. 188. Maguire subsequently authored a full-scale defense of euthanasia, Death by Choice  (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974).

[16] Ibid, p. 189. 

[17] “On Responsible Parenthood,” in Hoyt, p. 89.

[18] Louis Janssens, “Considerations on Humanae Vitae,Louvain Studies 2 (1969) 249.

[19] Anthony Kosnik, et al., Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought (New York: Paulist, 1977), p. 83.

[20] Ashley Montagu, Sex, Man, and Society (New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1969), pp. 13-14; emphasis in the original.

[21] Germain Grisez, “Dualism and the New Morality,” in Atti del Congresso Internazionale Tommaso d’Aquino nel suo settimo centenario, Vol. 5, L’Agire morale (Naples: Edizioni Domenicane Italiane, 1977), p. 325.

[22] “The Question Is Not Closed,” in Hoyt, p. 69.

[23] Charles E. Curran,  Ongoing Revisions (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), p. 121.

[24] “The Question Is Not Closed,” in Hoyt, p. 72.

[25] In fact, some Catholic advocates of contraception, for instance, Rosemary Ruether and Louis Janssens, claim that with barrier methods of contraception one places a “spatial” barrier between sperm and ovum, whereas with the use of periodic abstinence or “natural contraception” one places a “temporal” barrier between them. And they then charge that the Church, irrationally, condemns “artificial” contraception while approving of “natural” contraception. See Rosemary Ruether, “Birth Control and Sexuality,” in Contraception and Holiness: The Catholic Predicament, Introduction by Most Rev. Thomas J. Roberts, S.J. (New York: Herder & Herder, 1964), p. 74. I admit that persons can abuse natural family planning and use it in an anti-life kind of way. But people who rightly practice it would regard as absurd the claim that what they are doing is putting a temporal barrier between sperm and ovum. This might be what those who abuse n.f.p., and have an anti-life mind, are doing, but it is not what defines morally the choices of upright spouses who choose to abstain from the conjugal act when there are good reasons for doing so.

[26] See above, where Alicia Mosier is cited and where reference is made to the definition of contraception found in Humanae vitae, no. 14.

[27] See Veritatis splendor, no. 48. Here Pope John Paul II, repudiating the charge that Church teaching is “physicalistic” or “biologistic,” explicitly refers to defined Catholic teaching on the unity of the human person as a unity of body and soul, namely the Council of Vienne, Constitution Fides Catholica, DS 902; Fifth Lateran Council, Bull Apostolici Regiminis, DS 1440; and Vatican Council II, Pastoral Consitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et spes, no. 14. See footnotes 66 and 67 to no. 48 of Veritatis splendor.

[28] The “nuptial meaning” of the body is developed in many of the addresses of Pope John Paul II on the “theology of the body.” See in particular, “The Nuptial Meaning of the Body” (General Audience of January 9, 1980) in John Paul II, The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1997), pp. 60-63; “The Man-Person Becomes a Gift in the Freedom of Love” (General Audience of January 16, 1980), in ibid., pp. 63-66; “Mystery of Man’s Original Innocence” (General Audience of January 30, 1980), in ibid., pp. 66-69. On this issue see my essay, “Marriage and the Complementarity of Male and Female,” chap. 2 of my Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family Is Built (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995), pp. 39-66.

Copyright ©; William E. May 2001

Version: 28th February 2002

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