Why Church Teaching on Birth Control Won’t Change

By Fr. Gerald E. Murray

Fr Gerald Murray, Calming the Storm, birth control

The rejection by many, including priests and bishops, of the Church’s teaching that the use of contraception is gravely immoral, prepared the way for the rejection of other teachings that go against the sexual revolution. The false appeal to “follow your conscience” so as to exempt oneself from following the Church’s moral teaching has had incalculable consequences. Many Catholics consider their own desires, not the Church’s teaching, to be the standard for good behavior. The Church becomes a point of reference for selective consultation on matters of morality. She is no longer considered the teacher of universal truths binding upon the consciences of believers. “Cafeteria Catholicism,” pick and choose whatever you like, is a widespread reality in the Church today.  

It’s essential that we believe in Humanae Vitae. It is part of the moral teaching of the Church, and it’s non-optional.  

I think Humanae Vitae is not being taught very well because the bishops as a group are not interested in getting into controversy in the Church since so many Catholics have, unfortunately, become convinced that it’s a matter of their conscience to choose to use birth control. And that’s a disaster because conscience is there to guide you to make good decisions and to obey God’s law, not the other way around. The “consult your conscience” trope, which was preached by some priests and bishops as soon as Humane Vitae was issued, is a dodge. What we have to say is, “Follow God’s truth, and if your conscience doesn’t respond to that teaching in the affirmative sense, spend time informing yourself, guiding your conscience to understand why it’s true, and praying for light. But do not go and sin because you find his teaching hard to obey.” 

It’s obvious that this was one of the most significant discoveries of the twentieth century: the ability to suppress female fertility through chemical means. That’s primarily what we’re talking about with birth control. The ability to control fertility changes the nature of sexual relations because there’s no longer a necessary connection, through the observance of the natural order, between sexual activity and procreation. 

The sin is to take steps to frustrate the natural outcome of sexual relations, thus modifying the divine plan. The divine plan has to be respected because that’s integral to creation. If we are here on this planet, we should first rejoice and give thanks to the One who put us here. The next thing we should do is ask: “What am I supposed to do?” And that’s God’s plan. How do I know God’s plan? For this we rely on divine revelation and reason’s correct understanding of the natural purposes of God’s creation. In college, I remember reading Etienne Gilson’s Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages. It’s a great short book, in which he says that divine providence is such that God revealed many things that could already be known by natural reason, but which were not easily known because of the condition of humanity after the fall. That’s an argument that I find appealing because with many people, if you say, “It’s quite clear by examining human nature that this is wrong behavior,” they will respond, “Well, I don’t see it that way.” But if you then add that the Bible prohibits it, many of those same people will say, “In that case, I won’t do it.”  

God has acted to reinforce and supplement man’s deficient understanding through divine revelation. That revelation is entrusted to a living magisterium. When new questions arise and the meaning of God’s revelation is contested, the authority steps in and says, “This is what it means.” Birth control is a perfect example. If you look at chemical birth control by pills, you are rendering a healthy female into a female not enjoying full health by temporary sterilization. To understand what you’re supposed to do gives you the ability to cooperate fruitfully with nature, in this case, literally with the fruit of children, but also in other matters to use the body in the ways it was meant to be used. With birth control, that’s frustrated. If you look at human sexuality from a classical and Christian perspective, God attaches pleasure to certain activities that people should engage in, in order to propel them to engage in those activities because they’re beneficial. If food didn’t taste good, many people wouldn’t eat. It makes it easier to eat if the food tastes good, but the reason you eat is not just to experience taste. That’s the accompanying enticement and reward for doing something good in and of itself, which is eating.  

The same thing is true for sexual relations: it may sound strange to some ears, but if there were no pleasure in sex, many people would not engage in it. God knows everything of course, and he knows what humanity needs to flourish and cooperate with creation. That’s why pleasure is part of the sexual experience, but it’s not the purpose or reason for its existence. Because of fallen nature, man has disordered sexual impulses and the lustful desire for unbridled pleasure, but these tend to be restrained if the natural processes are respected and play out. In other words, if you know you’re likely to have a child, you might not engage in sex outside of marriage because you don’t want to have illegitimate children.  

Birth control changes almost everything as regards the field of sexual morality in Western society, and until Catholics give a prophetic witness of living chastity and avoiding birth control, they are going to suffer the same bitter fruits that are experienced by non-Catholics who have little or no reason, according to their religion or personal outlook, to avoid using birth control.  

Fr. Gerald E. Murray, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is pastor of the Church of the Holy Family in Manhattan. He is a canon lawyer and a guest commentator on religious news on EWTN, Fox News Channel, and other media outlets. Ordained a priest in 1984, he has served in parishes in the Bronx and Manhattan and was a chaplain for eleven years in the United States Naval Reserve. He studied canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome from 1993 –1997, being awarded a doctorate in 1998. He is a regular columnist at TheCatholicThing.org and at HumanLifeReview.com.

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In Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, experienced Vatican journalist Diane Montagna conducts a wide-ranging and trenchant interview with Fr. Gerald E. Murray that examines the root causes of and potential solutions to the many challenges the Church faces today.