Catholic Women on Not Using Birth Control

Catholic Women on Not Using Birth Control July 20, 2014

If I have been largely silent on the subject of contraception, it has been for two main reasons.

Firstly, while I am comfortable with Catholic teaching on the matter, I tend to see it as a secondary issue.  Or to say it another way, I am personally uncomfortable with artificial birth control – much as I am with artificiality in general, or with the drive to control every aspect of our lives, including life itself – and I see its connections to some disturbing social trends (which will be explained more below); and yet it does not disturb me at the same level as, say, abortion, or any other direct violence.

The other reason is that it is simply difficult to find something substantial to say when so few statements on the subject, whether for or against, manage to get past the level of superficial and excessively confrontational “culture wars” that only serve to galvanize the convinced and unconvinced alike in their respective positions.

Because of this, I’ve sometimes thought of myself as a secret believer in Catholic teaching about artificial birth control.  Call it cowardice if you will, and perhaps you will not be entirely wrong.  But a variety of women at Catholic Sistas have provided reasons worth sharing, which go well beyond culture-war rhetoric and are not accompanied by a crusader’s battle cry.  They explicitly state that they are providing their own reasons for not using birth control rather than trying “to force others to follow what we believe.”  And the reasons they give are disarmingly substantial.

The full list is linked above, but I’d like to highlight a few interrelated themes running through it that I find particularly compelling.

First, there is the objection to treating pregnancy and/or fertility as a disease (which, though they don’t mention this, is an attitude that also relates to gender-based disparities in health insurance premiums: since we are capable of becoming pregnant, being female is a “pre-existing condition”).

  • “Because my fertility shouldn’t be treated like a disease and medicated away.”
  • “Because I am not sick or broken.”
  • “Because fertility is not a pathology.”
  • “Because being fertile isn’t a condition that needs to be medicated.”
  • “Because it is the first ‘medicine’ of its kind to be prescribed to be taken to address a normally functioning process of the human body.”

Then there are concerns about what is natural, organic, and healthy.  A couple of years ago I wrote about a friend of mine who connected her aversion to birth control and preference for organic food quite unselfconsciously, and the article Catholic Sistas links to from the health-conscious website MindBodyGreen speaks to the same concerns from an entirely secular perspective and is worth a read in its own right.

  • “Because I spend too much time and money on organic, non-GMO and hormone free foods to fill my body with hormonal birth control.”
  • “Because I don’t want any foreign objects placed inside my body to prevent it from working.”
  • “Because regularly shooting my body up with extra hormones would make it a lot harder to be a reasonable, thoughtful, and logical human being.”
  • “Because I really don’t think it’s healthy for my body to think it is perpetually pregnant.”
  • “Because we like our sex environmentally friendly.”
  • “Because I care too much about my body and the environment to pollute either one with carcinogens.”

And then there is the in-depth, long-view approach to health care, seeking to avoid the impulse toward band-aids and quick-fixes that goes along with our society’s tendency to overmedicate, in some cases creating a “cure” that is worse than the “disease”.

  • “Because I deserve actual health care and healing, not just a band aid.”
  • “Because I like to fix things, not mask the symptoms.”
  • “Because there are natural ways of dealing with hormone imbalances that don’t mask the symptoms, but get straight to the cause.”
  • “Because I don’t want a short-term solution that will cause long-term problems.”

A few of the reasons given also touch on the commodification of children (related to the broader reduction of human beings in general to an economic or consumeristic value standard).

  • “Because I cannot imagine one of my children not existing.”
  • “Because siblings are a gift.”
  • “Because I don’t want my children to ever think I didn’t want them.”

And a few of them have a feminist overtone, critiquing the sexual objectification of women or the idea that women must pass as men to be equals with men.

  • “Because I don’t need to turn off my womanhood in order to be a feminist.”
  • “Because it perpetuates the objectification of women as worthless sexual objects, constantly at the disposal of men in our commodity driven culture.”
  • “Because I don’t need to turn off my womanhood in order to be a strong, progressive, modern woman.”

True, there are a few reasons given that are not as well stated as these: “Because it is against my religion” really doesn’t say anything about the why, and one statement pointing out the incoherence of ingesting all those chemicals while complaining about “large pharmaceutical corporations and hormones in your meat” could be read as a cheer for the same inconsistency the other way.  But these are exceptions in a substantial and thought-provoking list.  Dare I hope that this could be the sort of thing to begin a conversation that may get us past reductionism and stereotypes on either side?

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  • LM

    Many of the comments you posted bemoaned the “unnaturalness” of hormonal birth control. The term “natural” tends to be content-free, regardless of whether it’s a Catholic NFP enthusiast or a crunchy hippy using it. More often than not, what is “natural” is defined as what one likes and what is “unnatural” is something one dislikes. It’s certainly not a scientific term. If hormonal birth control is unnatural, then so are a host of other non-controversial medications that we take for granted, like blood pressure medication or anti-biotics. For some conditions, hormonal birth control is the cheapest, safest way to correct the problem. For example, I take birth control pills to treat ovarian cysts. The only other option would be to go under the knife, which would be considerably more dangerous and much more expensive than taking the pill.

    The following paragraphs I posted in another thread, but I think it’s relevant for this as well: [B]irth control really does make a positive difference for a woman’s health. The pill, for example, can cut a woman’s risk for ovarian and endometrial cancer. It also clears the skin, reduces PMS, makes lighter periods, and helps soothe the pains associated with endometriosis and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Similarly, IUDs can also help with painful periods and are better for women’s whose hormone levels are relatively balanced.

    I should also mention that pregnancy can be a very dangerous thing for a woman. It can led to anemia, depression, ectopic pregnancy, gestational diabetes, hyperemesis gravidarum (i.e., non-stop nausea which can cause dehydration), preeclampsia, and placental rupture. This doesn’t even include the risks associated with the act of childbirth itself, which was the number one cause of death for young women in the pre-modern era, and even into the 20th century. Women in childbirth can suffer from puerperal pyrexiai (i.e, infection of the female reproductive organs due to childbirth or miscarriage), various types of hemorrhages, and toxaemia. Women who did survive the act of childbirth could suffer from obstetric fistulas, something that continues to be a major problem in the developing world.

    The medical advances of the past one hundred years or so have greatly curbed maternal death in the West to the point where most people take for granted that a pregnancy will led to the birth of a healthy baby and a mother who can be up and about in a few days, no worse for the wear. Part of the reason for the decrease in maternal deaths is due to contraception and the practices of having fewer children with considerable gaps between births. I feel that Catholic conservatives (as well as crunchy hippy types) have a tendency to romanticize childbirth and pregnancy in a way that naively ignores the very real dangers that a poses to a woman’s health, a fact that is obscured by the wonders of modern medicine but is very real. Countless women throughout history, living without modern medicine, sanitation, or painkillers, and billions living today would agree with Euripides’ Medea who famously said, “I would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once.”

    • Julia Smucker

      Part of my point was that the “Catholic NFP enthusiast” and the “crunchy hippy” have a lot in common – chiefly that both want to avoid artificiality.

      I won’t presume to comment on your medical treatment, but I am disturbed by your recycled comment portraying pregnancy and childbirth as abhorrent things. If it is possible to romanticize them, the opposite caricature is equally possible.

      If a pregnancy becomes dangerous, it is because something is not working as it should, and that specific problem is what should be treated, not obscured by treating pregnancy itself as the problem. A healthy pregnancy is a part of how a woman’s body actually does work and is supposed to work, and this is a normal and necessary and, yes, natural part of all life.

      • LM


        The notion of artificiality is itself artificial. Arsenic and hemlock are “natural” but I don’t think too many people would claim that we need more of either in our diets. The appeal to nature is wanting because what is “natural” and “unnatural” tends to be a matter of personal preference. Once again, I’m not sure how hormonal birth control is natural, but eyeglasses and blood pressure medication aren’t, especially since the pill can help with a host of other health problem. The reasons you’ve posted are all based on “feelings” but not hard facts. Just because you “feel” something is “unnatural” doesn’t make it so.

        I never said pregnancy was abhorrent, I said it was dangerous. Just because pregnancy is dangerous doesn’t mean that it should be shunned at all costs, but it also means that it’s not wise for a woman to spend most of her fertile years in a state of constant pregnancy. Many of the disorders that I mentioned in my previous post like pre-ecclampsia or gestational diabetes can only occur during pregnancy (after all, a woman’s placenta can’t become infected if she has no placenta present in her body). If you don’t put yourself in the position to be pregnant, then you don’t have to worry about getting pregnancy-related illnesses. This article describes the risks of giving birth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries:

        It’s not that people in the past had large families because they “loved children” but because they needed to hedge their bets, because so many children died young. Consider the case of Catherine of Aragon, wife #1 of Henry XVII, who had six pregnancies and only had one child to live even past infancy (Mary I). Similarly, Jane Seymour, wife #3 of Henry VIII, died during childbirth (probably of puerperal fever) and the infant she gave birth to later died at only fifteen years of age. These women were both among the richest women of their times, and nothing could be done for them to get more positive outcomes in their respective pregnancies.

        The World Health Organization indicates that 800 women in the developing world die from childbirth everyday. Many of them are adolescents whose bodies aren’t built to handle pregnancy, especially not back to back pregnancies. For these women, pregnancy is very much the problem. For women living in rural areas, bereft of education or control of their bodies, being pregnant can and does very often send them to an early grave. If they weren’t pregnant in the first place, these women would not only not be dead, but they could be in a better position to care for the children (if any) they already have, perhaps start a business, or find other ways to better their lives without having to worry about an increasingly number of dependents.

        Lastly, in a post-industrial economy, there’s really no need to have a large family, especially with middle class jobs disappearing due to increased automation and the cost of living increasing. I think that the obsession in some quarters with having a large number of children, whether among Protestant quiverfullers or their like-minded Catholic counterparts, stems from the fears over the white birthrate and other cultural changes that have been occurring in this country for the past sixty years.

        • Julia Smucker

          I apologize for missing this comment earlier.

          I think the confusion here is not based on feelings vs. facts, but on semantics. For an explanation, see Thales’ comment on the two senses of the word “natural” (“occurring in nature” and “according to the nature of the being” when functioning properly).

          Let me ask you, do you see anything positive about pregnancy and/or childbirth? All I’m hearing from you is “pregnancy = health risk” and you’re pushing this really hard. Can you see it as anything else?

          Being alive at all is a health risk. If you’re going to dwell so single-mindedly on everything that can go wrong, you may end up being paralyzed by fear from doing anything.

          The simple fact is that none of us would be here if our mothers, and billions of women before them, had not experienced pregnancy and childbirth. And many, many women have done so without the sense of repugnancy that you are pushing so hard here.

          Finally, I have to add that you are making some very uncharitable blanket assumptions about people with large families, and pushing the discussion toward an outrageous polemic in the process. Is the whole world reducible to cries of “anything but pregnancy!” and “must make more babies!”?

        • LM


          I mentioned in previous comments that I don’t like the over-romanticization of pregnancy that is present in much conservative Catholic discourse that ignores thousands of years of women dying in childbirth and the current reality where 800 women/girls die from pregnancy and childbirth related illnesses every day. Even right here in the USA, maternal deaths are on the rise due to lack of access to quality healthcare and we have the highest mortality rate for infants and mothers in the developed world:

          I realize that harping on these facts makes me seem like I hate pregnancy/babies/large families, but I think you’re being naive on this issue. Plus, I don’t think anyone else is going to bring these issues up, so it might as well be me. You’re correct that life entails a series of constant risks, but it’s not wise to be careless. Car crashes may be depressingly common, but that doesn’t mean we should stop wearing seatbelts, drive 80 mph on the surface streets, or plank on the hood of a speeding car.

          When it comes to the question of why so many Western Catholics ignore the Magisterium on birth control, I feel like conservative Catholics have to concoct these mental narratives like, “Couples who use birth control must be selfish. They hate children. They just want to spend money on gadgets and vacations. They have no self-control, etc” all of which ignores the practical reasons why having lots of children is not desirable for many people. By choosing not to see these problems (e.g., the health risks of pregnancy and/or giving birth many times, economic considerations, environmental issues) or alternatively considering these problems to be illegitimate, the Church has left the conversation. This is precisely why groups like Planned Parenthood came into existence, because established groups like the Church refused to address the concerns many women had in the early twentieth century about having to give birth over and over again with little rest in between. As I said before, I don’t see how the Magisterium’s flowery teaching on birth control can be converted into a public policy that actually works. Despite a strong Catholic culture in Latin America and heavily restricted access to abortion and contraception (in Chile, procuring or providing an abortion comes with a prison sentence), teen pregnancy is still rife, women die from clandestine abortions, and STDs are on the march:

          Treating a public health issue as one of sin ensures that the situation won’t change.

          • Julia Smucker

            The way your car analogy is phrased, it appears to work from the assumption that pregnancy is inherently reckless. Perhaps a closer analogy would be taking health and safety precautions (like wearing a seatbelt, or abstaining from alcohol while pregnant) as opposed to citing statistics about the dangers of driving to argue that it’s better not to drive at all, ever.

            And again, you are making some very severe assumptions about what people are thinking. If we can get past the stereotypes, perhaps we might agree that maternal mortality is indeed very much a public health issue – and perhaps also one of sin on a social scale creating contributing factors such as systemic poverty. And that is actually what I see being addressed in the articles you link to, where the problem is framed not as pregnancy in se but lack of sufficient prenatal and postnatal care. I hope we can agree that such care is very much needed, to protect the lives of mothers as well as children. And I would argue that this is more consistent with Catholic teaching than reduction to a matter of merely personal sin.

      • Apropos of this comment:

        I haven’t finished this article, so I can’t vouch for its excellence or lack thereof, but it touches on the crunchy / nfp connection… and the sort of cognitive disconnect in the strange acceptance of artificial birth control by crunchy women.

        • Julia Smucker

          Interesting. I just saw this article in my email inbox and was going to link to it in the comments if someone else didn’t.

          A possible weakness of the article is that it comes close to ignoring the disconnect in the other direction (i.e. those who eschew artificial birth control but couldn’t care less about all the artificial hormones and chemicals in their food). Otherwise I agree with her point. Either way, it requires a sort of dissociation from one’s own principles.

    • Abigail

      LM – I’m late to this conversation, but I just wanted to say thank you.

      I’ve been on “The Pill” for health reasons for many years, and it has changed my life. I’m now married with two small children, and I have to say the birth control benefit isn’t so bad either. And I’m a Catholic who attends daily mass and is very involved in my faith. The Pill works with the logic of a woman’s body; it just puts her brain instead of pituary gland in charge of whether or not she ovulates. It doesn’t directly frustrate the “nuptial act”, it’s not a barrier between my spouse and I, every month my husband and I have the same “try to concieve or not?” conversation that NFP couples have, and it doesn’t interfere with the unitive dimension of our marriage like NFP seems to for so many people. I cannot understand why technically the church only approves the “health” aspect of the Pill and not the intention to use it for birth control (how can a married person even separate that?) if the intention to have sex only when not ovulating is OK, and it not intrinsically evil to induce non ovulation, either for health or breastfeeding, how can it be intrinsically evil to put these together? It makes no sense. The Pill makes me feel human in relation to my fertility, like something I can steward with my own discretion.

      That is great if NFP works for some women. But personally, I found the Catholic Sistas post offensive, aggressive, and shaming toward other women. And their website is full of misinformation about women’s health. You love your body your way, I’ll love my body my way, but I hate it when women think that over sacralizing all things “natural” makes them more woman and better mothers than women who, for whatever reason, choose modern birth control, epidurals, formula, etc.

      And Julia, I’ve had 2 babies, so I hardly hate them or pregnancy, but LM is right. Pregnancy is HARD and dangerous. I get so sick of huge constant airy fairy flowery language about it among Catholics. Yes, life is beautiful, but giving birth to it is a crucifixion. Ignoring this diminishes the sacrifice of what mothers do.

      I will be honest, I’m working on an MA thesis on Marriage and Spirituality right now, and after reading loads of theology on this topic – JPII, Shivanandan, Chrysostom and Eastern Theologians, I’m realizing just how flawed the anthropology of the West is on gender, sex, and on marriage. There is much beautiful in the Personalism and I admit to still being a fan of Communio :), but someday it is everything I can do right now to not leave the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy over the lack of discernment and dignity the Catholic Church gives to married couples on how to live their vocation, and the culture of holier than thou-ness it often breeds between Catholic women.

      I hope the Synod on the Family opens up real conversation on this.

  • It’s striking to me that so many of the reasons quoted here are specifically applicable to hormonal birth control, and don’t apply to barrier methods+spermicide; since Catholic teaching makes no such distinction.

    • I noticed that as well. Of course, this post, I believe, was in reaction to another post about why women use birth control. That post, I believe, was in reaction to the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court ruling, which would cover hormonal birth control. Obviously, condoms are not covered by insurance, and therefore not the subject of the Hobby Lobby decision. That could account for it.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: “Because I spend too much time and money on organic, non-GMO and hormone free foods to fill my body with hormonal birth control.”

    Speaking as a plant biologist, I take a very dim view of the anti-GMO and organic food movements, think they’re mostly populated by ignorant hippies, and comparing yourself to them doesn’t exactly endear your cause to me.

    I’m a Protestant and a supporter of artificial contraception, but I have enough sympathy for the Catholic Church (although distinctly as an outsider, no interest in joining, thanks) that I will go to the mat on behalf of those who disapprove of / choose not to use birth control. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer at one point, and I gave occasional talks about family planning, and I went to some particular effort to include lessons about NFP, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t have some instinctive queasiness with condoms in particular. That having been said, I’m distinctly unimpressed by natural-law Scholastic arguments from Finnis, etc., against birth control, but I’m even *more* unimpressed by hand-waving about being ‘natural’ and ‘organic’. If you must make an argument against birth control, please stick with the Scholastic ones. Or just say ‘Sacred Tradition forbids it, the cause is finished’, which I can certainly respect, even if I don’t consider myself bound by it.

    • Nick

      You, sir, are a font of wisdom. I agree 100% with 100% of this

  • Amy

    While these are all potentially great reasons for eschewing birth control, I don’t think that most of them have anything to do with the reasons behind Catholic teaching on birth control, other than use of the word ‘natural.’ They might serve as experiential validation for why it’s wise to follow the teaching, but don’t provide anything in terms of the truth of the premises.

    • Julia Smucker

      You may be right. I was just wondering whether my agreement with the official teaching was a coincidental one. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing, especially if reasons like these help us make the teaching more broadly understandable.

  • Michael

    Hey Julia…just from a guy’s perspective…What kind of loving husband would even dream of asking that his beloved take all those nasty hormones and drugs, or put potentially dangerous foreign objects in HER body, in order to facilitate making her “available” as close to 24/7/365 as possible. I couldn’t and didn’t. I figured I wouldn’t do that to MYSELF why should I be even thinking of pressuring HER to? As a result to my own answers to these questions I went from a “Church teaching/NFP skeptic” to an advocate of the teaching as a practice of “just Christian asceticism” and mature self-control. In my view these dynamics are the basis for the teaching of profound Christian spiritual truths within the context of fully conjugal marriage, about the profound intersection of bodily and spiritual life in the human person. What constitutes being a “real man” in this context is a powerful teaching moment for MEN. What do REAL men do and think anyhow? What motivates us? Love and respect like you promised? Or the convenience of sating your own desires? That’s my experience anyhow. This is NOT entirely a “women’s” issue. That should be obvious…but it most often isn’t.

    • Julia Smucker

      Good point: it ties in with practices of self-control and self-sacrifice, for men and women both. And as Melody also points out, to practice this well within marriage, the commitment of both spouses is vital.

      • scientist

        Imagine if we talked about self control this way in regards to other expressions of love, like parents cuddling their children. Would we praise a parent who refrained from such physical expressions of love? What other contexts of Christian love do we similarly treat as opportunities for asceticism?

    • Michael, the hormones are not nasty or unnatural. A majority of women take the Pill for the health BENEFITS in addition to birth control. I absolutely love how I feel on the Pill compared to off it, and it had reduced my risk of cancer.

      I would never marry a man who needed me to be fertile in order for him to respect me or practice “self control”. When I say no my husband respects it because I’m a person whose desire means something (and vice versa – sometimes he says no too). My fertility or non fertility is irrelevant.

      Also, between his cancer and my complicated pregnancies, we have spent almost half our marriage in complete celibacy. We have grown deeply through this. I have the deepest reverence for the gift that ascesis can be to marriage. But I think an anthropology that forces it artificially on couples as the “price” of spacing and making mature choices about birth is a little twisted. (Just read a Shivanandan article to that affect today and found it very problematic).

  • Ronald King

    Being a male born in 1947 into a blue collar lower class family and being sensitive to the distress in human relationships from a very early age I was left with the impression that children were considered both a blessing and a burden. Now being hard wired as we are for survival we are predisposed to be more attentive to attitudes and behaviors which are identified as threats to our security and well being and instinctively react to these influences with signals of distress. How our caretakers respond to this distress will influence our basic subjective response to the expectations of being adults and specifically what it may mean to have children. In my environment there was a lot of anxiety and resentment along with love associated with children and their needs/demands. This ambivalence is understandable considering the history of violence influencing mothers and fathers up to the time of my post WWII generation. For me what was most interesting is the resentment and helplessness I had observed in the women of my Mother’s generation and the generalized anxiety which always seemed to be a condition underlying their interpersonal relationships. Of course, I did not know the terminology or the dynamics of this condition until I was introduced to the study of psychology back in 1966 which then continued to develop through education and a vocation which brought me into direct communication with women and men who were suffering from a sense of not being good enough to be loved beginning in their childhood.

    I think it is important to include a discussion of the history of this psychological/interpersonal perspective in order to compassionately understand the struggle of women to be free to explore the unknown mystery of being feminine and to discard being told by men what to feel and what to believe since the beginning when she was told you are a woman because you come from man. Now I say this being a man and not knowing anything except what I have been taught by women who have come to me with their most hidden and vulnerable pain in an effort to heal and discover the truth of being a woman.

    • Julia Smucker

      Interesting that you make this point, since Feminists for Life often argues that social equity for women should not mean having to “pass as men” by denying our unique life-bearing capacity, which is a very real part of the “mystery of being feminine”. They also point out how NARAL was founded by men, who were the ones to urge feminists to make abortion a priority (see FFL president Serrin Foster’s “The Feminist Case Against Abortion” for this history).

      I should point out that FFL is concerned with abortion here and does not take any particular stance on contraception (and rightly so, as this would undermine its primary mission by creating unhelpful divisions within pro-life feminism). Still, I think their argument has a connection here in that the idea that childbearing is somehow the enemy of womanhood or of women’s achievement has itself played a part in systemic injustice against women.

      • LM


        Childbirth may be unique to women, but it’s not a universal experience, and it’s certainly not a “mystery.” I’m sure you would agree that women who have never experienced childbirth for whatever reason (e.g., being in a religious order, lack of interest, disability, infertility) should not be considered “less than” because of it. The processes of pregnancy and childbirth does take an incredible amount of time and energy, and oftentimes a woman has to quit working or drastically re-arrange her schedule to accommodate this change, especially if she suffers from a pre-existing condition like asthma or develops something during the pregnancy itself. Recognizing that pregnancy and childbirth are difficult and not something most women want to spend their lives doing is not about “wanting to be like a man,” but rather wanting to look out for her health, and to give the children they chose to have all the time and attention they deserve.

        As I said elsewhere, the view isn’t very helpful from a public health perspective. The states and countries with the lowest rates of teen pregnancy and STD transmissions are those with medically accurate sex education programs and access to contraceptives. The places where the reverse is true is where you find increased levels of sex-related ills. In Mississippi, for example, access to contraception is difficult, abortion is almost impossible to get (I think the last abortion clinic in the state closed some time back), and what little sex education is provided is abstinence only. Yet, Mississippi has the highest rates of teen pregnancy, teenage sexual experimentation, and STD transmission:

        Like Melody said, the Church may have lots of beautiful things to say about marriage (written by ostensibly celibate men), but I don’t see how these flowery statements can be translated into a public policy that actually works in terms of lowering STDs and teen pregnancy rates.

        • Julia Smucker

          My use of the word “mystery” was quoting our mystic Ronald King, but maybe it wasn’t too far off base. One of my theology professors always liked to talk about mystery in a negative sense, which can be solved by filling in some missing information, and mystery in a positive sense, which is inexhaustible and can never be fully understood to the point where there is nothing more to know. I suppose the phenomenon of biological life, including procreation, must fall into this latter category.

          I certainly do agree that women who have not experienced childbirth should not be considered “less”. And women who have experienced childbirth should also not be considered “less”. This also happens, and I’ve had it on my mind as I am contributing to a forthcoming issue of Feminists for Life’s The American Feminist addressing the shaming of pregnant women and mothers (my contribution focuses on mothers who are poor).

          And again speaking of FFL, if you are talking about women losing jobs due to pregnancy or otherwise lacking support for what is indeed a life-altering event, Serrin Foster also makes the point that this is an injustice that is only masked – and implicitly accepted – by making pregnancy itself the problem.

          And life-altering is not only negative. As FFL loves to quote its “honorary co-chair” Patricia Heaton: “Women experiencing unplanned pregnancy also deserve unplanned joy.” But if you are viewing childbearing as an automatic negative, then I’m afraid I’m not sure if we can get to any common ground from which to speak to each other.

        • Andrew

          I just got my copy of American Feminist and saw your name on the byline. Congratulations on your published article!

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


    following LM I want to explore the use of the word “natural” in this context. While there is a superficial connection between the use of the word by Catholic theology arising from scholasticism and its modern usage by various socially progressive/liberal strands (I am deliberately avoiding pejoratives such as “hippie” or “crunchy”), it should be clear after a moments reflection that these two ideas are quite far apart. For example, I believe that most such socially progressive types would regard homosexuality as natural, a position categorically rejected by Catholic teaching.

    While I think LM does go a little overboard in listing all the possible negative consequences of pregnancy and childbirth (some of which are quite rare), she is correct in observing that until the industrial revolution, and indeed prior to the 20th century, infant and maternal mortality were natural in the sense that they happened regularly: while tragic they were not unexpected, and a variety of social institutions evolved to cope with the consequences. (E.g., wet nurses, orphan trains, older men marrying younger women to care for their families, etc.) Evolution has done a good but not perfect job of equipping the female body for childbirth, but it has its problems. (I recall reading somewhere that the transition from quadruped to biped played havoc with this, and evolution is still sorting things out.) We now use medical technology to “artificially” intervene in ways large and small to prevent what would have occurred “naturally” in previous generations.

    I realize that in my last sentence I am being a bit provocative but I think this gets to the heart of one problem here: when is it acceptable to intervene in biological processes that are not yielding a desired outcome? To illustrate what I mean, let me suggest another example which has nothing to do with pregnancy. Some people are genetically predisposed to very high cholesterol levels, levels which lead to early death from heart disease. Previously, this could be affected to a limited extent by diet and exercise. Today, it can be controlled by daily taking one of several drugs which reduce cholesterol levels. I cannot see anyone having a moral objection to this, yet in a very real sense it is un-natural. A much more trivial, but widespread example is given by allergies: I cannot work in my yard without taking an antihistamine. My body is threatened by various pollens and molds, and reacts accordingly. I don’t like this, so I take a drug which allows me to mow the lawn, trim the hedge, etc. What constitutes natural in this context?

    I suppose one response would be to say that these examples are different: human beings are supposed to reproduce, and towards this end women are supposed to be able to get pregnant and give birth. High cholesterol and allergies, on the other hand, are instances of human bodies not working correctly, and therefore it is legitimate to fix them. But it seems to me that in both these cases external categories are being used to classify biological facts in various ways. So if this argument against artificial birth control (especially, as gaudetheology has pointed out, hormonal birth control) I think it needs to be grounded in a more careful definition of what is natural and some broader idea of when it is acceptable to interfere with biological (natural!) processes to achieve desired ends.

    • Julia Smucker

      You beat me to the punch, David. I was going to say that the difference is between treating something that is not working correctly to make it work vs. treating something that is working correctly to make it not work. But even in the former case I think there is a common tendency to default to overmedication rather than working with our bodies to allow them to heal as they were made to. Yes, artificial interference to correct a physical problem is sometimes necessary, but it need not be our automatic first resort all the time.

      Maybe this line of thinking comes of having a chiropractor in the family, but I was already naturally (pun intended) sympathetic to that aspect of chiropractic philosophy when I started hearing about it.

      Incidentally, I didn’t think “crunchy” was pejorative, since I’ve mostly heard people use it self-referentially. “Hippie” depends on the speaker, but I would sooner call myself “crunchy” than “progressive/liberal”.

    • Thales


      It occurs to me that the word “natural” is being used in two different ways. The second, and not primary, way is “occurring in nature”. This is a more inexact way to use the word “natural.” The primary way — and the way Julia is using it — is “according to the nature of the being” or “according to the way that the being or process is supposed to function properly.”

      The catch is that sometimes “Nature” acts imperfectly. A dog is born with three legs, for example. The fact that 3 legs “occurred in nature” doesn’t make 3 legs on a dog “natural” in the primary sense. 3 legs is not “natural” — it’s an imperfection, as it is according to a dog’s nature that it have 4 legs. Likewise with your high cholesterol level. The fact that the high cholesterol “occurs in nature” doesn’t make it “natural.” It’s Nature acting imperfectly. The “natural” process of your circulatory system is one where the system acts properly, “according to its nature” without high blood pressure. In this sense, taking medication to correct high blood pressure isn’t “unnatural.”

      This makes the high blood pressure/allergy scenario essentially different from the artificial birth control scenario. One is taking medication to try to correct the body’s natural processes, the other is taking medication to try to inhibit the body’s natural processes.

      • Thales

        I see Julia beat me to the response.

      • Julia Smucker

        This was helpful anyway, Thales. It was only after reading your explanation of the semantics of “natural” that I realized that what you call the “primary” sense is exactly the way I was using it. So thank you for that elucidating response.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Thales and Julia: please see my response below; I wanted a bigger box to write in.

  • Agellius

    I had sort of a random thought which came to me after reading your post and the comments, which is that it’s funny that we prescribe Viagra to make male reproductive organs work, while prescribing contraceptive pills to make female reproductive organs not work. How can both be considered “health care”? Is health the goal or not?

  • Melody

    Thanks for this thought-filled post. We used natural family planning during our fertile years for many of the reasons you list; I prefer holistic approaches to health. So I guess you could say I support the Church’s teaching in practice. However one of the reasons for doing so was not that I believed that “…each and every sexual act must be open to the transmission of life” per Humanae Vitae. Because there’s simply no way that is true. If one is planning sexual relations to coincide with times when one is not fertile, if a couple has sex after menopause, or during pregnancy; or if a couple with known infertility marries; then each and every sexual act is most certainly not open to the transmission of life. Humanae Vitae contains some beautiful teaching, and is true as far as raising caveats about artificial birth control. (And David has made some very good points regarding what we call “artificial”.) I don’t want the Church to change its teaching. But I do wish that it recognized that the ideals it has set forth are not always possible to attain, not all the time, and not in every marriage. One condition without which NFP is doomed to failure, is that both spouses have to be on board with doing their part. If for instance, a woman is married to a man who is unwilling to exercise the necessary self-discipline for NFP, his wife shouldn’t be held hostage to his self-centeredness. And there is nothing that works for everybody; some couples simply can’t get NFP to work for them even with a sincere effort. I wish that the Church could empower couples to sincerely and prayerfully consider the ideal that it has held forth, but ultimately leave the decision to them as to what is best in their situation. (I am not speaking here of abortifacient methods.)

    • Julia Smucker

      It’s really not that sex while infertile is wrong; that would be missing the point. Brett Salkeld has a very well-nuanced post from before my time here (which I linked to in the original post but buried in the text, so here it is again), responding to the misconception that “openness to life” means that every sexual act must include the possibility of pregnancy. As he explains it, it’s more about the alteration of the sex act, but he offers a better explanation than I can.

      By the way, you make a very good point about the importance of both spouses being on board. It’s easy to see how that could make or break the whole endeavor.

  • scientist

    Some of the reasons you’ve highlighted are well worth consideration, but others really betray the idea that NFP gives women knowledge and acceptance of their bodies. Most egregious is the one about “extra hormones” preventing the woman from being a rational person. I tried to find a more charitable interpretation but I couldn’t: all I see in that statement is the tired sexist idea that “female hormones make you crazy!” Which is bunk and utterly anti-woman. It’s also not an accurate reflection of how hormonal BC works, which leads me to the quote you chose right after that.
    I’ve seen this explanation of birth control as mimicking pregnancy before, from both sides of the aisle, and it frustrates me to no end as a shining example of poor science communication. Whoever decided that that was an appropriate simplification of the physiology of the Pill should be confined to a lab forevermore, away from the general public. The pill does not mimic pregnancy. It mimics the maturation of the egg. The maturing follicle (egg that’s been waiting around since the woman was a fetus and is now undergoing its final divisions before ovulation) secretes estrogen and progesterone. The pill supplies these hormones so that the brain thinks an egg is already maturing, so it pulls back on the signaling pathway that promotes egg maturation. In this way the follicle is not actually stimulated and ovulation does not actually occur. Pregnancy cannot possibly be mimicked in an anovulant cycle because it is the ruptured follicle (corpus luteum) and then the embryo itself that signal pregnancy, neither of which exist in such a cycle. So yeah, sorry for the scientist rant, but let’s work with the facts rather than misunderstandings and hyberbole (all the carcinogen talk).

    Mostly though, I agree with the above comments – NFP supporters almost exclusively talk about hormonal BC being unhealthy. If all I had to do to come into line with church teachings on marriage was get off the pill, that would be simple, and I’m debating doing that anyways. But no one has yet convinced me that condoms and non-procreative types of sex are inherently evil, and no one even seems to be trying.

    • Julia Smucker

      I didn’t see that particular comment as saying “female hormones make you crazy”, but more like the opposite: female hormones work just fine on their own, so why would I want to throw off that balance when my body is healthy and working as it should?

      “Carcinogen” is an actual medical classification, and the linked article from the secular wellness site also says that hormonal contraception is included in the category. I’d have to do a little more research to verify, but personally, I’d be pretty put off from using it anyway.

      • scientist

        I think the specific health emphasized – reason, logic, thoughtfulness – is what threw me off, but I’ll try to read it with your more charitable interpretation.

        I think my hesitancy is that nearly everything on the planet is a carcinogen in excess. And cancer is not a good factor in moral reasoning. There are some cancers that are more prevalent in women who never have children, but that doesn’t mean the vocation to religious life is bad, for example.

    • Agellius

      Scientist writes, “But no one has yet convinced me that condoms and non-procreative types of sex are inherently evil, and no one even seems to be trying.”

      I think the basic idea behind “faith” is that the Church teaching it is sufficient reason for believing it to be true.

      • Julia Smucker

        I wouldn’t go that far. Blind acceptance only works for certain temperaments, and it’s not intellectually or epistemically or even spiritually healthy. Faith is at least drawn to seek understanding, is it not?

        • Agellius

          I wouldn’t call assenting to the Church’s teachings “blind acceptance”, unless for some reason I was “blind” at the time I made the decision to become Catholic. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with seeking to understand those teachings, but you can accept first and understand later. Which is what most of us do in regard to, say, the Theory of Relativity.

          • Julia Smucker

            Well, maybe my need to understand things before I can accept them was why it took me so long to become Catholic. 😉

            I think a lot of it really does come down to temperament. I have no problem with obedience as long as I understand the reasons behind the rules.

      • scientist

        I am limited in my faith, I will admit. I have to save mine up for the times when I doubt the very existence of God or the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, when I walk solely on faith and pray that the doubts pass. If I spent my (human, limited) faith on the church teaching on marriage, which has changed so much in the last century and will possibly change again, I don’t think I could have made it this far. And I’m only 25.

        My use of the word convince is a real reflection of my position. I really do want to be convinced. I’m frustrated by the disconnect I feel between my (limited, I’ll grant) experience of marriage and what the magisterium teaches (not the church at the local level of parish and fellow believers, which prepared me well for the struggles and joys and practical matters.) There’s a reason I’m reading these articles and seeking. I’m kind of a target audience – open to the idea but skeptical. After our marriage prep with a priest friend of ours who expressed surprise at our plans to contracept, we discussed NFP a lot and eventually decided that we would try sort-of NFP (periodic abstinence but with one other contraceptive strategy) for a 6-month period, just to see for ourselves if all the glowing benefits about communication and affection and whatnot were true. We decided then that we’d wait until the second half of our first year of marriage, because we didn’t want to take that gamble while our marriage was in its infancy, but discussing it again when that time rolled around it just didn’t seem wise. We’re at almost a year now and I feel like we may have settled into married life enough to bring it up again, but I want to be able to point my husband to couples that are *relatable to us* and use NFP so we can discuss how it might work for us. I have a hard time finding them.

        • Thales

          Just wanted to give you some encouragement to continue looking out for young couples relatable to you who use NFP and who can discuss with you its struggles, but also its positives. Though theses couples might be hard to find, I know for a fact that they’re out there, so keep an open eye, an open mind, and an open heart.

        • Agellius


          You write, “I am limited in my faith, I will admit. I have to save mine up for the times when I doubt the very existence of God or the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, when I walk solely on faith and pray that the doubts pass…. I really do want to be convinced.”

          It’s not a matter of being convinced of this doctrine or that. It’s a matter of placing your faith in the Church founded by Christ, and given the authority to teach in his name, or not. Why believe the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist if you don’t believe its teaching on birth control? Both teachings come from the same source. Undermining her credibility on the one undermines her teaching on everything else.

          • Julia Smucker

            Except that Church teaching is prevented in a complex structure in which not all things have equal weight. The Eucharist, for example, is one of the more central tenets of Catholic faith in a way that the teaching on contraception is not. Of course, this should not be used as an excuse to just ignore things we don’t like, and far be it from me to suggest that there is no connection between sacramental theology and moral theology. But it’s not as though Church teaching must be accepted all at once or not at all. Conversion, often as not, is a process – it certainly was for me. The Eucharist was my inroad, my first conversion if you will, and there were plenty of questions and sticking points to work through after that – even as I, like our scientist friend, wanted to be convinced. And even when I finally said that great-and-terrible line at my confirmation, “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God”, it was not the end of all struggle, because the conversion process has no end in this life.

            So Scientist, I admire your honesty, and I want to affirm that it’s OK to be limited in faith – that’s probably the most any of us can really say, if we’re honest. One of the things that finally allowed me to “take the plunge” into full communion with the Catholic Church was the realization that it wasn’t about getting every wrinkle smoothed out or every question answered, but about finding a source of strength to live the questions.

        • Ronald King

          Dear scientist, Love is infinite and faith develops from love.

        • scientist

          Julie, thanks for your kind words. Your attitude is much like mine, though we clearly differ on a few things. To be clear, I’m a cradle Catholic, and I’ve never considered myself out of full communion with the church. There are certainly some things that I suspect the Magisterium doesn’t fully understand (yet – I pray for the Holy Spirit to work its thing!) but it’s important for me to remember that the teaching authority of the church is not the church itself, which consists of the whole body of believers – and clearly, when it comes to contraception, we are not very unified. On this note there’s a timely reprint by Commonweal of an article by Fr Bernard Haering (posted by one of your above commenters, gaudetetheology):

          Agellius, you write: “Why believe the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist if you don’t believe its teaching on birth control? Both teachings come from the same source.” I believe in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist because it’s a truth written in my heart, and I am skeptical of the teachings on marriage because they don’t seem to fit my lived experience. As for the source, the link above talks a bit about the thin ground for the teaching on birth control, as well as some examples of church teachings that have changed. You write, “Undermining her credibility on the one undermines her teaching on everything else.” I fundamentally disagree. Truth does not change and is not undermined by sussing out what we might be misunderstanding now.

    • hillbilly

      Scientist, I’m the same age as you and have been married for a little over a year, and am in a similar (but maybe worse) position in my relationship to the Church teaching on BC. I actually converted to the Catholic Church and embraced the teaching on birth control. At the time, theoretically, it made sense to me. Then I got married and tried to actually practice the teaching, and it stopped making sense. It wasn’t just that it was difficult – as you said, it did not fit my experience of marriage. Even with my husband on board, I felt that I was constantly being forced to reject him. He felt unloved and I felt unloving.

      NFP was putting too much strain on our marriage, so we stopped using it. I got pregnant, which was fine – I wanted a baby – although we were/are not financially stable, but then I developed prenatal depression, had to quit my job for health and safety reasons, went into preterm labor, was taken by ambulance to another city, had multiple pregnancy complications, and ended up having a C-section – oh, and it’s the worst kind of C-section, the up-and-down incision which puts you at high risk for uterine rupture and means no doctor will let you attempt a vaginal birth, ever. My baby was born premature with a birth defect and had to be hospitalized. I now have postpartum depression and am trying to care for an infant with special needs while recovering from major surgery.

      Suffice it to say that in the past nine months, pregnancy and childbirth has gone from an intimidating, but hopeful and beautiful thing, to a really really scary and traumatic thing. Of course I don’t regret having my son; I’m hugely relieved that he’s made it this far, and I pray that he continues to grow up an get better. He is worth all that I had to go through, but that doesn’t mean that I want to do it again soon, risking serious harm to myself and to the baby I might conceive and rendering myself unable to care for the baby I already have. And while complete abstinence sounds fine to me right now, I think a year of it would be devastating for my husband … based on prior experience. And no, it’s not because we have crappy communication or because he’s selfish or our relationship is shallow or any of the other nasty things Catholics say about people who find abstinence too painful.

      I’ve been struggling with all this for the past year and now I feel I’ve been pushed into a corner where I have to choose between my marriage/family and my relationship with God. And yet my husband and I are both devout, frequent church-and-confession goers (I used to be – though I haven’t been to confession in months now), married in the Church and tried to do everything right. Supposedly marriage has the Church’s (and God’s) blessing, but it doesn’t feel that way; it feels as if the Church blesses an idea of marriage, while the reality of marriage is considered unholy. I just keep praying that God will help me sort this out, either by re-convincing me of the teaching and giving me the strength to follow it, or by leading me to a renewed relationship with him in spite of my inability to accept this teaching.

      • hillbilly

        I also just want to add that in a time period without modern medical interventions (which includes artificial methods of contraception) there’s a decent chance my son and I would both be dead, which would make the planning or prevention of future children unnecessary. Now we have an amazing ability to salvage life – but it takes an enormous and costly amount of work. If you think that saving a premature baby is natural because health and life are natural, go spend some time in a NICU. There is nothing natural about a zillion monitors, a feeding tube, and a machine breathing for your baby. Babies born at 26 weeks (mine was not this early, but I saw others that were) are not supposed to survive – it’s not natural, they are not equipped for it. And yet we can save them, and mature human beings miraculously result. Childbearing is much more complicated and involved now than it was in the days when you simply survived or didn’t. This isn’t really an argument for anything, just something that’s been on my mind that somehow seems related.

      • scientist

        Hillbilly, know that I just said a prayer for your and your baby’s health and for your family in general. Congratulations to you and your husband for the new person you’ve just welcomed! My youngest sibling has special needs and had a lot of health scares as a newborn. I know it was difficult for my parents and can be hard on a marriage, especially with financial strain, but God will be with your family and the adventure of the unknown will be worth it.

        We haven’t experienced NFP but if you want to know you’re not alone, I recommend the series “Women speak about NFP” over at the blog Women in Theology. One of my worries is kind of opposite of yours. I tend to be more physically attracted to my husband than he is to me, so he tends to decline sex more than I do. It makes him feel like crap, like he’s rejecting me even though I honestly don’t feel hurt or frustrated, which I hate to see. So I worry that NFP will either make us have even less sex and increase his sense of guilt, and/or make him feel pressured to say yes during the infertile periods – not that I’d ever push him, or want to feel like he was “indulging” me out of a sense of duty or pity.

        Sometimes church teaching on married sex seems informed by the same naïveté that I had when we were engaged – that sex is a thing that will happen effortlessly, like in the movies. Unfortunately I don’t feel comfortable talking about the realities of sex outside of anonymous internet comment boxes, and certainly not with a celibate man, so I don’t know how that naïveté can be changed.

  • scientist

    Sorry, I thought of something else once I got off my scientist pedestal. I was genuinely surprised by the comment “Because I don’t want my children to ever think I didn’t want them.” I never considered that someone might think contracepting couples don’t want their children, since (excepting method failures, which are on par or rarer than with NFP for typical users) their children are by necessity planned and deliberately conceived.

    • Julia Smucker

      Yes – when it suited their timing. I think the wanting or not wanting was meant to refer to children who were not “planned” – a part of seeing children as a gift rather than a product.

      • scientist

        I think the idea here is that contracepting couples are less able or likely to welcome an unexpected child than NFP users? But I haven’t seen that play out in my experience – I know people conceived on the pill whose parents delightedly call them their “miracle child” and attribute their existence to the idea that God’s plan can’t be stymied by a pill.

        One idea that bothers me in reading HV etc is language that talks about children as if they just happen, as natural “consequences” of conjugal love. I may just be thoroughly modern but I like the idea of parents deliberately and specifically asking God to collaborate in creation. I like kids as gifts, but not kids as consequences. Does that make any sense?

  • Agellius

    “You don’t have to buy this or that argument against contraception,…. But you still have to reject [contraception] at the end of the day even if the arguments don’t satisfy you. Without that, you’re just some guy who has a lot of quirky opinions, many of which happen to resemble Catholic beliefs, but some of which do not. And that’s not faith.” — A Sinner

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Funny, I don’t remember contraception being mentioned in the creed…..

      • Agellius

        David writes, “Funny, I don’t remember contraception being mentioned in the creed…..”

        Your point being what … that we can reject any teaching that’s not stated in the Creed?

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          No, just a sarcastic way of suggesting what Julia said carefully and well above: some teachings are more central than others, and faith and belief are not governed by master on/off switches.

          • Agellius

            David writes, “faith and belief are not governed by master on/off switches.”

            Actually, since faith is an act of the will, it is susceptible to being turned on and off at will. Understanding is different, since that is an act of the intellect. But understanding is not a necessary prerequisite to assent.

            Using Cardinal Newman’s example, a mother may tell her son that “lucern is food for cattle”. The son may have no experience of either lucern or cows, but believes what his mother tells him because he trusts her. Later in life he may observe the fact for himself, but in the meantime he has no problem assenting to the truth of the proposition that “lucern is food for cattle”, because he believes that his mother would not tell him so if it were not true.

            By the same token, we can choose to take the Church’s word for it that birth control is wrong, even if we have not arrived at that conclusion ourselves, and don’t understand how the Church arrived at it. For that matter, we can choose to believe everything the Church teaches, and act on it, and leave understanding for later.

        • bill bannon

          The Catholic internet is in some places like Patheos partly dominated by convert bloggers who were schooled by St. John Paul II priests who took Lumen Gentium 25 to an extreme. And they passed that on to converts. LG’s 25’s “religious submission of mind and will” to the non infallible was an incomplete dictum as Dominican theologian Yves Congar pointed out could happen in any Council. The thought there in LG 25 is actually completed or rounded out in Catholic Moral theology tomes that post date LG 25. You’ll see the exception to LG 25 in the very conservative Germaine Grisez’ “Christian Moral Principles” written primarily for seminaries and imprimatured and nihil obstated way after LG25. Non priests rarely read moral theology tomes but it is they which always contain an exception for struggled dissent…not rash dissent.
          You can dissent from the not clearly infallible (see canon 749-3 on clarity therein) in Catholicism if your dissent is the result of real, prayerful struggle that has sought counsel first. Grisez is not the first conservative to admit that but he may be the first to not stipulate that experts can dissent. Grisez on pages 853-854 does not restrict dissent to experts. Catholicism needed millions of lay Catholics to dissent from the non infallible teaching on affirming the killing of heretics…that Pope Leo X affirmed in Exsurge Domine, art.33 condemned. We needed massive dissent and none happened. We needed it on the exceptions that permitted slavery and no dissent happened.
          On birth control, watch the Papacy in the past 50 years. The two loftiest dissenters from Humanae Vitae were Fr. Karl Rahner, peritus at Vatican II on Lumen Gentium; and Fr. Bernard Haring, peritus at Vatican II on Guadium et Spes. The former edited Denziger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum for years, the tome that ascribes authority levels to various issues. He did not see contraception as an issue infallible in the universal ordinary magisterium (“always and everywhere” taught) and Humanae Vitae was introduced at its press conference as non infallible by Theology Professor Msgr. Lambrushini.
          Google it. No one reads it and EWTN has a copy of his entire press statement. Fr. Bernard Haring also dissented and he for years preached the opposite…ie the natural law argument against contraception as one of the Papacy’s most prestigious supporters but he changed after seeing hard cases. Positive law is not based on hard cases but natural law can be contradicted by hard cases. Haring’s pount was that the Church never gave due consideration to I. Cor. 7:5 which required the very physical Christian to not abstain too much from sex lest satan enter the marriage…which traveling salesmen, long haul truckers, ship workers, etc. etc. are in danger of doing anyway but more so with nfp’s further restrictions.
          Anyway….neither great Catholic Theologian was restricted by Popes after their dissent. That tells you that Popes felt from 1968 til their much later deaths that these two were to be presumed as not sinning in their reasoned dissent.

      • I take it, though, that the point here is not Creed but sacrament — this is, after all, the essential basis on which the matter even comes up at all. People forget, for instance, that Humanae Vitae is not about contraception as such, but about what’s required for Catholic marriage in the modern world, with contraception taken as an especially widespread and contentious example. The authority of the Church on moral matters is sacrament-based — and in this case, we have two sacraments at issue, since it deals not only with the general sacramental issue most moral questions deal with (after engaging in this activity, do we have to have a proper penance before our next communion?) but also a specific sacramental issue (is this activity consistent with the sacrament of marriage and its role in the sacramental economy as the sacrament most appropriate to signifying the union of Christ and His Church?).

        And since the Catholic life is the sacramental life, I take it that the point of the passage and Agellius’s use of it is that it’s not, at the end of the day, a matter of whether your opinions happen to match up with all the details of Church teaching; it’s a matter of whether you are actually living a Catholic life whether your opinions fit the Church’s teaching or not.

  • Pardon me, but I think this discussion is so ‘inside/out’ with our focus being on science, chemistry, hormonal levels; in a sense the biological technology of producing ‘new life’. My concern is on the social dimension of creating a proper disposition for the ‘welcoming of new life’ which greatly impacts the individual couples attitude of desire/acceptance or avoidance of children.

    As an example, last evening I listened to several town elders discussing (in an informal setting) the quandary of what to do with a large parcel of former State institutional property that has remained idle for over a decade now. When the topic of possible housing was discussed it was clear that there was a solid determination to avoid housing that might attract ‘families with children’ and the unwanted cost of public education (and taxes) that would follow. I mentioned that this was a rejection of families and children, but there was no compunction about this implication. (This was a reunion of ‘Catholic small church group’ members who had reflected on the gospel weekly for over 20 years together.)

    My point is, why is the Church giving so much energy to ‘sexual topics’ and ‘individual choices’ when it can hardly bring any ‘salt and light’ to the wider topic of concrete social support for ‘marriage and family’?

    • Julia Smucker

      You’re right, Tausign, that is a perfect example of a shameful inconsistency. In general I think the answer is not a narrower focus (as in just dropping the “sexual topics” altogether) but a broader one (getting to the social implications of welcoming life in the community, etc.). How to bring that about is the much harder question, especially if 20 years of group gospel reflection isn’t doing it.

    • @Julia: Yes it is inconsistent practice. It’s another example of focusing on ‘don’t do this, its a sin’ thinking (contraception). Yet, when we think of practices that support marriage and family our approach is limited and twisted. Some say that we have ‘welfare’ policies that discourage marriage and encourage single parenthood. There is some truth to that, however where is the commitment (and esteem) to ‘healthy’ family establishment?

      In my parish we have many couples who show up celebrating golden and more anniversaries. That generation were looking for ‘suitable’ partners as opposed to the mythical ‘match made in heaven’. And having children, though never easy, was ordinary, common, and expected.

      Young people approaching adulthood are very reticent about traditional pathways of marriage and family because they are aware of the enormity of the challenge and cost involved in these roles, and the lack of support displayed in the culture writ large. And what support there is, is superficial, like installing diaper changing stations in public restrooms, but more meaningful social involvement is missing or grudgingly conceded. Taking the pathway of marriage and children is like swimming upstream in today’s environment and this is a definite shift from a few generations back.

      So yes, make the topic more broad, as you say. But a Church that thinks of family in terns of ‘contraception vs. NFP’ is off on a tangent. I am used to seeing courses being offered for NFP in my parish bulletin regularly (BTW I’m a supporter of NFP). Shouldn’t there be similar courses that discuss the principles of Catholic social life…solidarity, the common good, justice and fraternal living. Does it take a cry from the Pope to alert people that what really affects procreation activities are not pills or abstinence, but communities that support bonds of communion and welcome life.

      • Julia Smucker

        Tausign, I think we are fundamentally in agreement. I especially resonate with this:

        Shouldn’t there be similar courses that discuss the principles of Catholic social life…solidarity, the common good, justice and fraternal living.

        YES, there should!

  • I do want to point out that it makes me slightly uncomfortable to hear people demonizing “artificial hormones.” There are many other hormones besides sex hormones. There are many perfectly legitimate reasons to take artificial hormones. I share concern about their overuse and their presence in meat, but artificial hormones are often quite good and necessary.

  • LM


    I think the main reason why the Church’s teachings on birth control get ignored is because there’s fundamentally no need to have a large family in a post-industrial economy, Until recently, a couple needed to have six children just to replace themselves because so many of their children would die before reaching adulthood. Today, this isn’t the case; if a couple has two children, both will likely live to adulthood unless they get in an accident or suffer from an aggressive diesease like cancer. In an agrarian economy, children start paying for themselves at an early age. In a post-industrial economy, a child may not get a job until his/her 20s or 30s, and will probably have tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt. Even outside of the West, it’s difficult to handle a large family. Family sizes in Latin America are much smaller than they were even a generation ago. One reason why the Arab Spring occurred is because there are lots of young people in the Arab world, and not enough jobs to employ them all.

    I’ve noticed that in many conservative religious circles that having a large family is a status symbol in the same way that smartphones or sports cars are for secular people. “Oh, you four children? Well, I have eight. Look who’s trusting in God now!” I am reminded of the famous quote by Mother Teresa about how having too many children is like having too many flowers. You can actually have too many flowers, especially when they start choking out the other plant life or invading an area in which they are not native. Children may be a blessing, but there it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

    • Agellius

      “Children may be a blessing, but there it is possible to have too much of a good thing.”

      Surely you’re not saying that we as a nation are having too many children.

    • Mark VA


      I think the reason why the Church’s teaching on birth control is often ignored is becasue in the past it has not always been presentend in a way that organically connects with the personal experience of the faithful. While the Church’s argument is sound, it may often be perceived as abstract and hypothetical, in this or that culture. It is my opinion this was often the case in the Western world.

      I think that knowing the history of the development of the ideas behind the Thelogy of the Body, and later the encyclical Humanae Vitae, would shed light on this. If you would like to learn this history, and don’t mind reading scholarly philosphy papers. just google, for example, “Lublin School of Thought” or “Humanae Vitae”.

      To give you a flavor of a common question from those days (time is right after World War II, in occupied part of Europe): “Given that the Marxist reconstruction model calls for about 600 square feet of living space per family, how can one remain a faithful Catholic, without giving in to state pressure to accept contraception and abortion?” The Church had to explain the Dogma on contraception in fresh and compelling ways, to help these young people keep their faith.

      Your arguments, in my view, overstate, by linking fertility with pathology. They are somewhat valid.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Dear Thales and Julia,

    thanks for this very thoughtful reply, and thanks especially for fleshing out my first objection: I wonder if this is how Thomas Aquinas filled in the blanks? 🙂

    I appreciate the distinction between the two sense of natural. I would say that the secondary sense is the one meant by many of the people quoted in the original post. I want to press a bit more at the primary sense because I am unsatisfied by this definition, at least in practice. Let me summon another biological example. Sickle Cell Anemia is a hereditary disease in African-Americans which is painful and ultimately fatal. A great deal of work has gone into why it is prevalent in this population and it was determined that SCA actually conferred benefits on people who carried a single copy of the gene: it conferred resistance to malaria, which is endemic in sub-Saharan Africa. So how, in this case, are we to make sense of its naturalness in the primary sense in terms of purpose or functioning as it ought? You will, I think, say that this is not natural, that the body is not functioning as it ought. On the other hand, the argument is that a woman’s body having a regular monthly fertility cycle is natural, as it is functioning as it ought. The two definitions of natural are thus in conflict with one another. In both cases these are natural in the sense of this is the way it is, biologically. Therefore, on what grounds do you decide when something is natural in the primary sense of the way it ought to be?

    Let me turn to another, earlier example. Until the 19th century, pain was regarded as a natural part of childbirth, both in the sense of a biological reality and as the way it ought to be, with theologians making reference to scripture to buttress their case. The discovery of anesthesia and its application to childbirth sparked a short controversy, with at least some people arguing that it was unnatural. (I have read various versions of the history, some quite polemical, so I do not have a good sense of the depth of the controversy.) These objections have for the most part been overcome, and pain relief is now pretty much standard except in the “natural birth” movement. (My opinion of this movement is shaped by my wife, who sarcastically talks about forming a natural school of dentistry: “we will help you breathe through your root canal.”) So returning to my original question: what is natural, in the primary sense, in this example, and how do you decide?

    • calebt45

      On opposition to anaesthesia, have you taken a look at Rennie Schoepflin’s essay in
      Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (ed. Ronald L. Numbers) HUP 2010?

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Thanks for the reference: I will check it out.

    • Ronald King

      I must give your Wife kudos for the comment about the “natural school of dentistry”:) What is natural is to seek relief from suffering or threat and if pregnancy is a threat then we must through empathy seek a resolution which alleviates that distress.

      • Julia Smucker

        Yes, and in keeping with the principles of nonviolence, if a pregnancy becomes a conflict situation of sorts, we must seek a resolution with the best interests of both mother and child in mind.

        • Ronald King

          Of course

    • Thales

      We live in an imperfect world, so there are going to be natural processes that could have both good and bad effects as species and varieties within species develop/mutate/evolve (your sickle-cell anemia example or our practice of developing varieties of certain produce which may be hearty in one way but deficient in another). Also, we have a very imperfect knowledge, so there is most likely a lot of things that we simply don’t understand. But the fact that there are difficult exceptions to figure out doesn’t mean that the principle doesn’t exist.
      How do you figure out what is natural, in the primary sense? By observation, by deducing what makes the being flourish and what makes the being not flourish. Seems to me that it’s obvious that maturation, growth, nourishment, and reproduction of a being are all things that are good for that being. Those processes that support those good ends are the ones that are probably natural, and the processes that don’t or that hinder the being are probably not natural.

  • Agellius


    You write, “Except that Church teaching is prevented in a complex structure in which not all things have equal weight.”

    You’re right that not all teachings have equal weight. Nonetheless, even the lowest “level” of Church teaching still requires “religious submission of will and intellect”. Donum veritatis, 23 []

    Further, Vatican II teaches that “[R]eligious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra”. Lumen gentium 25.

    Of course individual Catholics may have a problem understanding this doctrine or that. The point is that problems with understanding need not prevent one from accepting or submitting on the basis of faith in the Church’s authority to teach, given by Christ. This was Cardinal Newman’s point when he said that “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

    Someone who can’t do so evidently lacks faith that the Church is what it claims to be.

    Like you, my willingness to “‘take the plunge’ into full communion with the Catholic Church” was also based on “the realization that it wasn’t about getting every wrinkle smoothed out or every question answered”. But my solution to the problem of not having every question answered, was being taught that faith doesn’t mean understanding every doctrine the Church teaches. Rather, faith means trusting that the Church has Christ’s authority to teach, and his promise that he would protect it from error and lead it into all truth.

    Therefore, you can assent to the Church’s teachings, not based on your own intellectual efforts at understanding, but based on your faith in Christ’s providential guidance of the Church’s teachings. You then have a lifetime to try to attain understanding of those teachings if you so desire.

  • Alexandra

    Women are free not to use so-called artificial birth control if they don’t want to do so. Yet, they should be free to choose to use it, as well, without being judged as anti-woman, or anti-child, or any of the other anti- mentioned above.
    I don’t see any conflict between those who choose contraception and those who do not, as long as neither side tries to impose its view on the other.

  • It’s refreshing to see such an open discussion of this subject using terms which reflect the truth of the situation.

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