May women never use contraceptives?

Tafricanmotherhroughout the world, Catholics endure unease, conflict of conscience and suffering on account of the Church’s official ban on means of artificial birth control. In its session of October 2014, the Synod on Marriage and the Family ignored this. It simply reaffirmed the teaching of Humanae Vitae (1968). This is what it stated:

“In the wake of Vatican II, the papal Magisterium has further refined the doctrine on marriage and the family. In a special way, Blessed Pope Paul VI, in his Encyclical Humanae Vitae, displayed the intimate bond between conjugal love and the generation of life.” (Report § 18).

“Pastoral work in this area needs to start with listening to people and acknowledging the beauty and truth of an unconditional openness to life, which is needed, if human life is to be lived fully. This serves as the basis for an appropriate teaching regarding the natural methods for responsible procreation, which allow a couple to live, in a harmonious and conscious manner, the loving communication between husband and wife in all its aspects, along with their responsibility at procreating life. In this regard, we should return to the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul VI, which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods in regulating births.” (Report § 58)

Pope Francis Letter Amoris Laetitia (8 April 2015) does admit that parents should follow their own conscience. “Decisions involving responsible parenthood presuppose the formation of conscience, which is ‘the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There each one is alone with God, whose voice echoes in the depths of the heart’.” But the Pope repeats the statement that contraception is intrinsically disordered. He fails to see that the responsible use of contraception is perfectly legitimate from an ethical point of view. And will bishops and priests educate the faithful to use their own conscience rather than adhere to official ‘doctrine’?

Does the response of the Church do justice to the factual plight of Catholics?

Background information

300 – 1900 AD: Church leaders judged any form of birth control sinful. Underlying reasons:* The male sperm was considered to contain the future person. Spilling sperm equalled abortion. SEE HERE!

* Following St Augustine, all sexual acts between partners were deemed sinful unless aimed at procreation. SEE HERE!

1930: In his Encyclical Casti Connubii Pope Pius XI forbids any form of artificial contraception. “Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”
1963 – 1966: The question of contraception was raised at the Second Vatican Council. Pope John XXII established an international commission of experts to study the question. Pope Paul VI extended the commission to 72 members from five continents. The commission concluded [with a majority of 68 to 4!] that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves about the methods to be employed.

We have an online presentation of what happened. Click on the image and click again on the opening page!

1968: Pope Paul VI issues the Encyclical Humanae Vitae. “Sterilization is to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary. Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation – whether as an end or as a means. [Nothing can justify] something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order . . . sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.”
1968-1980: Humanae Vitae is implicitly or explicitly rejected by many in the Church. * Bishops’ Conferences tell their faithful they can, as a last resort, follow their own consciences. See extensive report on this by Joseph Selling.
* Theologians world wide express their disagreement. * In educated countries 74% of Catholics ignore the Pope and use contraceptives. See the Response in the USA.
* Because of the official prohibition of birth control a large section of Catholics stops going to church.
1980: Synod of Bishops on the Role of the Family takes place in Rome. * The Bishops are not allowed to discuss artificial birth control.
* Vatican officials suppress many recommendations put forward by the Bishops.
1981 – now: The overwhelming majority of Catholics in educated countries use articificial means of birth control in spite of the official Vatican guidelines. In the USA, for example, 98% (!) of all Catholic women of reproductive age who have ever had sex have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning. Among women who are currently at risk of unintended pregnancy, 87% of Catholics use contraception:
68% of them employ sterilization, an intra uterine device or the pill.
15% rely on condoms.
4% use other methods, such as withdrawal.
Guttmacher Report, April 2011. 

Does contraception go against Natural Law?

God has created human beings in his own image so that they can creatively shape their world. By their intelligence they can discern what is right or wrong. This is, in fact, Natural Law for them.
The distinctive feature of human beings is that they possess the faculty of reason. While depending on the biology of their bodies and the physical world in which they live, they shape those realities through their intelligence. It is characteristic of human morality that good and evil are judged by the mind after considering all the elements of complex human situations.

Men and women are called upon to discern what is right and wrong within the complex and changing circumstances of their lives. For instance, within the overall situation of maintaining a loving relationship between husband and wife and providing a secure upbringing for children, artificial birth control may be discerned to be the right responsible choice.

This line of thinking was already recognised by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. It has since been developed by Neo-Thomists and others in a number of parallel approaches. In our own time the approach through reason is the interpretation followed by the majority of Catholic theologians.

The conclusion is that the responsible use of contraceptives does not go against Natural Law. For the full arguments supporting this conclusion, read the research published on our website:

What is the situation today?


wijngaards In Western countries and educated societies women are already following their own consciences. They use contraceptives to regulate birth. But the official Church still holds on to the total ban.

Among less developed communities, such as we find in the Philippines and South Africa, women depend on the guidance provided by church leaders. If these are not enlightened, women become the victims of demanding husbands who make them bear ever more children. Women at risk of being infected with AIDS by their husbands have then no escape. The Catholic Church which claims to defend the underdogs, in this case betrays the true interests of millions of its most vulnerable members.

It is crucial that at least Pope Francis’ escape clause about using one’s own conscience should be widely explained and recommended.

John Wijngaards