Q & A: Catholic Sexual Morality and Contraception

Q & A: Catholic Sexual Morality and Contraception November 20, 2019

I’m not simply giving my opinions, but seeking to always represent the Catholic Church’s teachings. Paraphrases of actual questions asked are in blue.

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Why would Onan be killed for the sin of contraception, and why was this such a rare occurrence?

The problem of the contraception advocate (and believer in biblical inspiration, and one who assumes that God is not an arbitrary, capricious, cosmic tyrant) lies in explaining why Onan was killed at all, if contraception is so innocent of any wrongness. I’ve dealt with the Onan passage at length:

Why Did God Kill Onan? (The Bible on Contraception) [2-9-04]

Dialogue: Why Did God Kill Onan? (Contraception) [2-13-04]

Biblical Data Against Contraception: Onan’s Sin and Punishment: a Concise “Catholic” Argument  [3-7-14]

Celibacy is not “natural”.

Priestly celibacy is not a matter of renunciation of the natural per se; it is an embracing of the spiritual higher calling of total consecration to God. The latter is an explicit biblical concept: dealt with at length by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7. That is not anti-natural in a Manichaean or Gnostic sense because no priest is saying that marriage or sexuality is evil in and of itself. It is heroic renunciation of what is good, for the sake of following God with undivided commitment, as the Apostle Paul explained.

Contraception, on the other hand, involves another human being: the one who might exist but for the selfish and deliberate act to engage in sex without being open to the possibility of what sex was designed by God to produce: a new human being. So there is no ethical equation between the two things at all.

Is getting pets fixed a sin?

I don’t believe so. Animals do not have rational souls. That makes them fundamentally different from human beings. They are not made in God’s image. That is why killing a deer to eat meat is not an act of murder.

Can Catholics morally decide when to have children and how many?

Blessed Pope Paul VI said “yes” in Humanae Vitae. It is reasonable to space and limit children for the appropriate reasons. To use my own example: my wife has had six miscarriages, two seriously problematic pregnancies (we’re talking bed rest for months, etc.), very serious post-partum depression, and we’ve never had much money (apologetics not being a lucrative profession, and she home-schools, so we don’t have two incomes). Those are all quite sufficient reasons to limit further children. So we tried not to after two, but lo and behold, God had other plans. He gave us two more, including our first daughter (our fourth of four). And praise God that He did!

The difference between artificial conception and NFP may be subtle, but it is crucial and essential. I have described it as follows:

1. Contraception:

A) Deliberately willing the nonexistence of this possible child that might be conceived as a result of this act of intercourse, and the regarding of such a child as an “accident” rather than part of God’s will and providence.

B) This mentality is what led inexorably to legal abortion (not inevitably as an opinion in every individual case — I was always a strong pro-lifer when I contracepted — , but as a general principle of applying the notion of a child being an “accident” or “unwanted”).

C) Even in terms of legal case law precedent, legal contraception led to legal abortion.

2. Natural Family Planning:

A) The decision to not conceive a child at a given time, for legitimate, grave reasons, without refusing the possibilities of a child being conceived in a particular conjugal act (the non-willing of a particular child), since that act did not take place.

B) A refusal to separate the pleasure of sex from its deepest purpose, and willingness to always keep them together, or else to abstain in order to maintain the natural pairing and unity of the two aspects.

C) Acceptance of any children conceived as a result of improper practice of NFP as a gift of God (i.e., God knows more than we do about the future and our circumstances).

Again, this is very subtle, but it is a real and important difference. If anyone has difficulty understanding the above distinction, just read it a few times and think about it. For further reading along these lines:

Contraception: Early Church Teaching (William Klimon) [1998]

Dialogue: Contraception vs. NFP: Crucial Ethical Distinctions [2-16-01]

Luther and Calvin Opposed Contraception and “Fewer Children is Better” Thinking [2-21-04; published at National Catholic Register, 9-13-17]

Biblical Evidence Against Contraception [5-3-06]

Dialogue: Contraception & Natural Family Planning (NFP) [5-16-06]

Humanae Vitae: (1968): Infallible Teaching Against Contraception [12-31-07]

Bible on the Blessing of [Many] Children [3-9-09]

Natural Family Planning (NFP) & “Contraceptive Intent” [8-28-13]

Dialogue on NFP: Anti-Sex and Anti-Pleasure? [1-23-17]

Is Natural Family Planning a ‘Heresy’? [Catholic teaching as far back as 1853] (Fr. Brian W. Harrison, Roman Theological Forum, January 2003)

The Church does not require Catholics to simply “leave everything to God” or to “let nature take its course.” No; God includes human beings in important choices. We are not obliged to have 20 kids. We are obliged to abstain from sexual activity during fertile periods if in fact we have appropriate reasons to limit children. This is a huge difference. What is prohibited is the contralife will and thwarting of natural law. Simple abstention does not do that. See:

“Divine Family Planning” (Unlimited Children / Anti-NFP): Critique [9-20-08]

Unlimited Children for Catholics? Reply to a Slanderer [2-3-18]

Is this not an instance of the Church unduly interfering with people’s private lives?

The conception of life is an extremely serious matter. It is within the Church’s purview to protect innocent life and to uphold the dignity of both new life and of the act of marriage. Our society has taken an extremely beautiful thing and made it selfish pleasure. This has in turn led to the denigration of women because they have been made into objects. NFP is beautiful because it creates oneness and understanding in the marriage relationship. Marital chastity is a great virtue to cultivate. I do not own my wife. She is not some sex slave every time I get in the mood. This is why the theology of the body is such a timely topic today. It’s a sorely needed message.

Can you explain the logic of never allowing a separation of the unitive and procreative functions of sex?

The point is not that intense pleasure has to be present every time a couple have sex. Any married couple knows that is not the case. The point is the prohibition of deliberate separation of sex from procreation, so that the latter is rendered naturally impossible or nearly so. It is referring to the immoral deliberate separation of the two functions, not making a positive pronouncement.

So if you don’t intend to have sex at the right time, according to the Church, don’t hug or touch your spouse!

There is plenty of affection that can be had without it intending to “go all the way”, as anyone who has managed to succeed in a chaste premarital relationship knows firsthand.

Why assume that God can’t overcome the obstacle of birth control if He wants a child conceived?

God can do whatever He wants. This isn’t about God, but about the human contralife will. God gave us a free will to do evil and also to understand why something is evil and to stop doing it (with the necessary aid of His wonderful enabling grace).

Is NFP acceptable because it is natural, as opposed to artificial contraception?

The ethical difference is not “natural vs. unnatural” but rather: “contralife intent vs. openness to life.” The contracepting couple has sex whenever they want, with little chance of becoming pregnant. The NFP couple abstains during fertile periods if they have a proper reason to not have further children. That doesn’t separate the two functions because it honors God by not having sex anyway during fertile periods, and making it virtually impossible to conceive (as contracepting couples do). NFP is in accordance with the natural rhythms of the reproductive cycle and natural law. The ethical distinction has been put as follows:

1) Contraception: avoiding this child that would be conceived if one had been open to life, and seeking to block any possible conception.

2) NFP: avoiding conception by abstention, while accepting an unplanned conception that occurs as God’s will for the couple and the new life.

Used correctly and properly, NFP is as effective statistically as the Pill in avoiding pregnancy, and does not cause early abortions, as the pill does. It’s not contralife. If a couple learns it and uses it properly, it is extremely trustworthy, because it is based on the physiological signs of when a woman is fertile, which can be learned.

Why is sex during pregnancy or post-menopause okay, since there is no chance for procreation?

Because no one is deliberately trying to avoid conception. That has been taken out of the equation by God’s will for the ending of the reproductive capacity in the post-menopausal woman and the inability of a pregnant woman to conceive during that time.

The evil lies in the “contralife” intent and goal.

The sin lies in deliberately having sex when the woman is fertile but frustrating what would possibly happen naturally, by contracepting. This is having sex purely for pleasure’s sake. The NFP couple will abstain during those times if they are planning not to have more children.

So at times sex for pleasure is okay, when the woman is infertile and there is complete openness to the small possibility of conception?

Yes. Being open to life means there is no contralife will, wherein the evil lies. The Church has never opposed sex during pregnancy, or menstruation, or between a man and a woman who is infertile, or between a man with an inadequate sperm count and a woman, or for older couples (post-menopausal women). These situations do not involve the deliberate artificial suppression of what might happen, because fertility is rendered impossible or highly unlikely due to reasons other than the couple’s deliberate acts of artificial prevention.


But isn’t this a bunch of unreasonable legalistic rules? It takes all the fun and spontaneity out of sex! Isn’t good intention and being loving more important than legalistic rules?

If one goes this route without examining and pondering the reasons for why the Church forbids certain acts then I don’t see how or why homosexual acts or bestiality or masturbation (or adulterous intercourse, for that matter) wouldn’t also be allowed as permissible, by the same token. People who advocate those things have all sorts of defenses based on how loving they are and with what pure motivation they engage in the acts. We also have to examine the thing itself. Now, I’m not saying that everyone who reasons in such a fashion advocates these other things. I’m saying that the reasoning used reduces to a state of affairs where it seems that those things would be sanctioned by the same reasoning. It’s what is called in logic a reductio ad absurdum, in other words.

Many respond to these teachings and restrictions emotionally (understandably so). It is a serious ethical issue that cannot be approached purely on an emotional level, but has to be carefully thought about and reasoned through.

But wouldn’t these teachings cause many to leave the Church or choose to sin in order to preserve the happiness in their marriage?

That is never the only choice. If one believes that the Church’s teachings are true, one is duty-bound to follow them. And whether the teachings are true does not depend on emotional reaction to the truths. That must be based on faith and reasoning and examination. And if what is included in that truth is sexual morality and ethics, then one must follow that, too. Many folks think this is too difficult? I don’t think so. Longtime Christians have read in the Bible that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and understand enabling grace.

Christians have the Holy Spirit living within them. They have the benefit of the sacrament of baptism. It is amazing what people can do with the power of faith and a loving God giving them the ability to do so. So this is also a test of faith. But what it is not is merely an emotional question that can be decided on those grounds alone.

No one said Christianity was easy. The sexual teachings are very difficult. If one is in a situation where an annulment is required, that is not the Church’s or God’s fault. Arguably it may not be the fault of the person seeking it, either, depending on the situation, but it is certainly not the fault of the Church that a person gets into such a situation in the first place.

But God does promise that we can endure virtually anything with His help and aid. We’re all faced with this in a variety of ways, not just sexual. We mustn’t buy the devil’s lie that we have no choice but to sin. That is never the case. People have chosen to die rather than deny the truths of the faith or God Himself. If they could do that, certainly we can go through far less difficult things, compared to being eaten by a lion, or starving to death in a dungeon.

What does “unitive function” mean in Catholic teaching?

In Catholic sexual teaching it means the pleasure of moral (marital) sexuality and the intense, beautiful bonding and oneness that occurs between a man and wife as a result: a picture of the unity and love between Christ and His Church.

Is this not a type of Puritanistic or Victorian disdain of sexuality?

The Church is not “puritanistic” or prudish or somehow against the pleasure of sex or against anyone enjoying it (though this is a very widespread stereotype). Part of the joy of moral sex is that it involves no guilt brought on by some sin involved. In fact, it is known now through several scientific polling studies that so-called more “progressive” or “promiscuous” couples who “played the field” quite a bit are actually less sexually fulfilled in the long term than a Christian couple who goes to church every week and are serious about their faith and walk with Jesus. Catholic morality is the means to obtain a truly fulfilling sexual happiness for life. That sure ain’t the stereotype, but it is based on the facts, that can be verified.

What about having to abstain from sex and living like a brother and sister while awaiting an annulment of a previous marriage? Surely this is an unreasonable and impossible demand, no?

If one is in a relationship situation while a previous ostensible “marriage” in all likelihood going to be proclaimed not a marriage at all, according to Church teaching (i.e., annulled), then before the actual decision, if the couple believes that the Church is correct in its assessment, they would have no choice but to abstain from sexual relations; otherwise it would be objectively adultery. They would even be duty-bound in conscience to do so. Cohabitation involves the same type of sin for never-marrieds: sex outside of a properly-determined bond of marriage.

Such a couple should abstain precisely because it has been determined that they are not properly married. Once that is settled then there is no problem. The Church only suggests abstinence in cases where there is an irregularity of a previous (civil) marriage or when there has not yet been a marriage (i.e., it prohibits cohabitation).

The Catholic Church tries to follow God’s morality as best as is possible, by God’s grace. What God teaches us is always best for us, no matter how difficult it may be. We cannot deliberately choose sin; knowing it to be sin.

There is no overemphasizing the extreme importance of wisdom and discretion in choosing a spouse. One’s entire future life will be affected by that decision. It should be soaked in prayer and consultation.

How should Catholics and other Christians discuss sex in mixed company?

It can easily cross the line into impropriety (and quite possibly an occasion of sin for some), to discuss the topic in certain “overly inquisitive” ways. We can talk about it within certain bounds. Catholics and those with a healthy Christian view of sexuality are not (or should not be) prudes and Puritans. But we want to avoid going too far in the other direction, too. Openness and frankness is good to a point, as long as the discussion doesn’t cross certain lines of violation of privacy and titillation. I think we all pretty much know where that line lies.

Christians are different from our larger culture, which we know is sex-crazed. That doesn’t mean we cover it up and don’t talk about it. Not at all. Quite the contrary: we need to “reclaim” sexuality from pagan, selfish culture. This was, in fact, a significant goal of the late great Pope St. John Paul II, in his teaching on theology of the body, which was a wonderful and much-needed development in theology. But we must always keep in mind certain precautions and prudential matters in discussing it that are appropriate for a Christian. We don’t want to cause anyone to stumble (definitely a biblical principle, from St. Paul).

Sexual talk has a way of crossing that line very quickly, just as us weak men can look at a beautiful woman, and before long, we can easily be in moral trouble with lust. We need to strive for a balance between an open, positive discussion of sexuality: God’s great gift, and elements that many would not consider edifying.

What can be done about the widespread problem of pornography?

Pornographic addiction is a huge problem. I think it should be attacked not only from a 12-step program, like other addictions, but from a searing analysis of why someone feels a need to get into it in the first place. All of us men know that it is very easy to fall into lust. That much is no mystery whatsoever. We know we have to watch ourselves and be vigilant at all times against that. Women can speak to what is difficult for them, but (speaking as a man just about men for a moment) I think both sexes know the problem that men have with the visual aspect of sexuality and getting carried away with fantasies and temptation.

It’s quite easy to explain pornographic addiction by the visual aspect of men’s sexuality, but I still think there are other and/or deeper causes that contribute to one man falling into this, whereas the next man does not. I’m no expert on what these deeper causes might be (there could be a number of them). I’m just speculating out loud.

I do know that both husbands and wives can fall into a sort of prudery or lack of interest in sex that can cause the spouse to suffer needlessly, and I think those situations need to be dealt with pronto, to correct them, before more serious problems arise (pornography, adultery, masturbation, divorce, strained relations in general). Marriage is not to be that way, but rather, the “two are one flesh.” We need to think of how to please our spouse, as an expression of love, and to be open to new life in doing so, so that the pleasure is not an end in itself.

The biology doesn’t take planning and preparation. Everyone understands the basics of that! But the larger picture of love, caring, concern, romance, commitment and expression of same, pleasing the other, appreciation, holidays and special times, getting away, creating romantic environments and atmosphere, takes a great deal of preparation, and I think they are supremely important (and strongly urge all men to ponder this if they haven’t done so much up till now).

As a guy who is approaching 50, I can testify that these things become more important the older you get. I believe this is generally true of men. We actually become more like women in that regard (which is great). As we get older, the non-physical and “psychological ” aspects of romance, etc. (or physical things like perfume, enticing lingerie, etc.) become more important. And, I understand that a woman’s sexual drive often increases, the older she gets, so they become more like men. The two genders thus become more alike as time goes on. This is great news!

These sorts of things may help to prevent a temptation to access pornography. Make your sexual life with your spouse exciting and enticing and adventurous (without sinning, of course!).

Can you talk a bit about the Catholic view regarding orgasm?

There is nothing wrong whatsoever with orgasm. It was God’s idea. It’s pleasurable by its nature, and designed by God as such, so we should not frown upon the pleasure at all. It’s a gift from God. It becomes wrong when made an end in itself (as discussed above). That rules out all forms of it that are separated from vaginal intercourse (for the male) or during or at least close in time to intercourse for the female. The Church doesn’t require female orgasm to always have to be literally during intercourse, but it should be connected to it time-wise (in proximity) and not separated so that it is an entity in and of itself, since the latter would hardly be distinguishable from masturbation, which is an objectively mortal sin. In other words, it must maintain some connection to openness to new life in sexual relations, which is intercourse.

It so happens that male orgasm is directly tied to biological procreation, but it doesn’t follow from that that the pleasure is somehow a bad or shameful thing. It’s not at all. The female orgasm has no strictly biological function. It is purely (like taste buds) for pleasure and that is how God designed it.

The emphasis above is on “strictly” and “function.” When I say “biological” here, I mean some function that perpetuates a biological organism or has a place in a hierarchy of other such biological functions. For example, digestion is a necessary function for the processing of food: without which we cannot survive. It’s not optional in terms of actual survival. Likewise, breathing, heartbeat, the immune system, etc.

One direct analogy in this respect to orgasm (as indicated) is taste buds. These are not absolutely biologically necessary, strictly speaking. If we didn’t have them, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference, in terms of being able to eat and receiving the benefits therefrom. God gave us taste buds because He likes physical things. He wanted us to have an additional sense to enjoy His creation.

If we talk in the very broadest sense, we could make an argument that taste buds and female orgasm serve a biological purpose in relaxing or pleasing a woman, which is important to psychological well-being and thus indirectly productive of health, given the mind-body relationship, etc. I realize that, which is why I was careful to throw the word “strictly” in there.

My larger (positive, not negative) point was that God likes pleasure. In other words, “He created the female orgasm strictly for pleasure, because He likes pleasure and wants us to experience it. Therefore, we ought to like such pleasure too.” This crushes the notion that God is somehow against either sex or the pleasure in sex. And it goes against the idea that pleasure is not a necessary component to the complete sexual experience between man and wife.

A man who neglects his wife’s orgasm is sinning greatly against her and causing a possible occasion of sin. This is not God’s will. If he doesn’t know what he is doing and can’t bring it about, then he ought to learn yesterday and stop exploiting his wife. If men like that were required to not have an orgasm themselves every time they didn’t care about whether they wife enjoyed one, they would learn quick enough! Likewise, a wife who shows little interest in fulfilling her husband’s legitimate needs, sins against him. This becomes especially important in the context of NFP, where communication is crucial, to know “when” and “when not to.” Communication and openness are the keys to that.

I think it is important that both husbands and wives treat their spouses with the courtesy that they extend to any stranger on the phone or at the bank or supermarket. Stuff like that creates an atmosphere where sex will be more desired and more satisfying. It begins in the kitchen or at the front door when one spouse arrives home after work, etc., etc. Look nice and act your best as much as possible for your spouse. Act like you did on your first date and you can’t go far wrong.

Orgasm on its own with no connection whatsoever to intercourse, as an end in itself leading to climax (i.e., not as a form of foreplay) is clearly condemned by the Church’s teaching on moral marital sexuality, as a species of the larger set of acts that violate the inherent bond between sexuality and openness to life. It would be essentially the same as mutual (“consummated”) masturbation, and masturbation is clearly objectively a mortal sin in Catholic teaching.

Homosexual sex would be another example of the same principle. It is wrong because it is 1) unnatural (St. Paul’s argument in Romans 1) and 2) intrinsically non-procreative. Any ejaculation outside of vaginal intercourse is prohibited. This is also the basis for the prohibitions of masturbation and sodomy.

The Catechism implies the same in its prohibition of masturbation (#2352) and homosexual acts (#2357). The latter states in part:

Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.

But in any event, the Church is not against female orgasm! If it doesn’t occur during intercourse (which is quite common, I suspect), then it is fully permissible to obtain it by other means in proximity to intercourse, but not separated from it. This is important because some might misinterpret Church teaching to mean that intercourse excludes orgasm, if the latter didn’t occur during the former, and in so doing, is somehow “anti-women.” Quite the contrary. The female orgasm can be sought either before or after intercourse, as long as it is not separated from intercourse, becoming, in effect, masturbation.

The Church is not “anti-pleasure.” Nor is God, since He created taste buds that have no relation to nutrition and the female orgasm that has no intrinsic biological connection to reproduction. Biologically speaking, or in terms of survival, neither is (strictly) necessary at all. God designed them for pleasure. But both work in conjunction with things that do have practical functions: the nutrition that food is primarily intended to give and the reproduction that is the deepest purpose of sexuality.


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(originally 1-1-08; minor editing and links revised or added: 7-27-18)

Photo credit: Adam and Eve (c. 1508), by Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]



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