Contraception and the Conjugal Significance of the Sexual Act

Douglas P. McManaman
May 25, 2020
Reproduced with Permission

Catholic teaching on contraception is difficult for many couples to appreciate at this period in history, as it was for me in my early days in university. Yet, that difficulty was precisely why the issue interested me at the time - the teaching against contraception was as convincing to me as the Mormon precept against drinking coffee. What could possibly be wrong with using contraception in the context of a committed married relationship, especially one already open to children? I thought that either my professors, who were faithful Catholics, were rather dumb and hopelessly gullible, or they knew something I didn't. I placed my bets on the latter alternative, and eventually I came to see, from various viewpoints, what the Church believes is wrong with this particular mode of birth control.

Many great thinkers have written on this issue from a number of different angles, and not every one of them were all that satisfying to me, but one angle that did compel me early on was one taken by Grisez, Boyle, Finnis and May. [1] I'd like to get to the heart of what impressed me about that presentation, and then look at the issue from a slightly different point of view.

To understand this approach, one must get a handle on what it is that actually determines an action to be a specifically human act, that is, an action with moral significance. Scratching an itch, for example, is not a specifically human action, nor is it morally meaningful - monkeys do it all the time. Asking questions, on the other hand, or striking up a conversation with someone, paying taxes and getting married are specifically human acts, for all of these involve the will. It is because persons are intelligent and volitional that they are moral agents, and morality is primarily about the relationship between the will and the intelligible human goods that the will bears upon. There are a number of these intelligible human goods to which we are naturally inclined, which perfect us as human persons, and which are sought for their own sake, not for the sake of something else. One's moral identity, that is, the sort of person one is (character), is determined by one's freely chosen relationship to the entire network of these goods, which include human life, knowledge, leisure, sociability (which includes personal friendships as well as relationship to the civil community as a whole), marriage, integrity and religion.

A specifically human action, one with moral significance, involves intention. In the minds of most people, however, intention has come to be identified exclusively with motive - the intention of the end. Intention, however, is twofold: there is indeed the intention of the end, which is the ultimate reason for doing such and such, and which answers to the question, Why?, but there is the often overlooked "intentionalness of what one is doing" (the intention of the means). The moral nature of an action is first and foremost in this latter meaning of intention - motive is morally significant, but it is secondary.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong or right about mere hunks of behavior - they have no moral significance without a specific relationship between the will and the intelligible human good(s) that the will bears upon. Just firing a pistol is not morally significant, for example. An ape can be made to do just that. Moreover, the hunk of behavior of firing at a human being has, as of yet, no moral significance. The question remains: What is he doing? Given that he is simply firing a pistol at a human being, the answer is that we don't quite know yet; we need more information to determine what is being done. It may turn out that he is testing new and improved bullet proof vests, or that he is stopping an aggressor bent on ending his daughter's life, or that he, in his psychotic mind, is firing, in self-defense, at a giant Iguana sleeping in his father's bed (which turns out after all to be his father), or that he is firing the pistol at a witness so that he may die, that is, he is acting with the intention that this person no longer live, ultimately that he may not testify. All four acts are morally different.

The moral significance of an act makes all the difference in the world, because morality is not about creating conditions most conducive to a pleasant and convenient existence; rather, it is about the establishment of a relationship between the will and the good. That relationship is what defines "character", from which the words morality and ethics are derived (mores, ethos). The moral significance of an act is not changed by the fact that I would like it to be otherwise. For example, I may want that this act not to be murder, so that I may carry it out without pain of conscience, but it is murder regardless, because I intend that he no longer be - I willingly adopt a proposal that includes his death. Self-defense does not involve the intention that this aggressor no longer be; rather, what I am doing is stopping him using no more force than is necessary; unfortunately, the likelihood that the undesirable side effect that he will die as a result of my self-defensive measures is significantly high; but his death, nevertheless, is outside my intention - if it were not, it would be a well-disguised act of murder.

Contraception is morally significant because it involves a certain kind of intention, namely a contra-life intention. To illustrate this, consider two married couples who have a good reason not to conceive a child, temporarily or indefinitely. Each couple considers engaging in sexual union as an expression and celebration of their marriage, but then each one remembers there is a good reason not to have a child. Both couples project a baby as a possible consequence of a decision to engage in the sexual act (a possible baby is projected). The couple that uses NFP decides not to have sex, that is, they choose not to do something. In fact, they choose not to do something (engage in sexual union) that would be unreasonable to do, since they have a good reason not to do it - for they have a good reason not to have a baby, and sexual union is potentially life-giving. The contracepting couple, on the other hand, choose to do something that they have a good reason not to do; they choose to engage in the sexual act, and in addition to this decision they make another choice: they take steps to prevent that possible baby (projected earlier) from becoming an actual baby. It is this action that involves the intention to prevent a possible baby from becoming an actual baby that is morally significant. The intention is contra-life, that is, directed against an intelligible human good, namely a possible baby. Choosing not to cause a baby by choosing not to have sex does not involve a contra-life intention; for "not intending" is not the same as "intending not". [2]

Contraception is not an act of homicide, because we are dealing here with a possible baby, not an actual baby. It is nevertheless morally significant, because what makes killing a homicidal act, and thus a morally significant act, is precisely this contra-life intention: I intend that this person, who actually exists, no longer be. In the use of contraception, I intend that this possible baby, who does not actually exist, not become an actuality. This intention is not necessarily a factor in the use of NFP: the couple simply chooses to abstain from sexual union. The result is the same, that is, the intention of the end is the same, but the "intentionalness of what one is doing" is not the same; one is contra-life, the other (NFP) is not necessarily so.

Although that angle was for me rather compelling, it hasn't always been equally so for some of my students, for whatever reason. Another angle is to consider that the sexual act itself, as a specifically human act, has marital or conjugal significance. This becomes more evident as we consider just what marriage is. To begin with, marriage is a mutual and complete giving of the self. Since a human person is his/her body, that self-giving includes one's body. And since it is a complete self-giving, it is total both intensively and extensively, that is, the two give themselves completely to one another in the here and now, exclusively, holding nothing back, and extensively, that is, faithfully and until death brings it about that one or both no longer exist bodily - unless the intention is till death severs the union, there is no marriage as such. What is established through this mutual and total self-giving is irrevocable; for she no longer holds on to a part of what she gives, and so she has no means of retrieving it, and the same holds for him. The bond that results is indissoluble; for if their identities are characterized by the fact that they have given themselves to one another completely and totally, it is not possible to undo that, unless they take back what they have given, which means it was not given totally. Once established, all a couple has, in terms of ending it, is the ability to choose to be unfaithful to the permanent identity that the two have established for one another, just as a parent can only choose to be unfaithful to his/her duty to parent, but cannot undo the identity of parent.

The act of sexual union between the two expresses or signifies that wedded love, for the act is a joining of two in a one flesh union. That is the conjugal significance. Moreover, love, which is unitive, is at the same time effusive. The conjugal act thus has a unitive meaning and a procreative meaning. The effusive is the result of the unitive. In other words, the conjugal act is the kind of act that is procreative; it is the kind of act that is both child generating and marriage consummating/signifying. The two meanings cannot be separated without destroying the conjugal significance of the act.

This does not mean that a sexual act that does not result in a conception of a child has no procreative significance, nor does it mean that a sexual act that does not intend a conception has no procreative significance. If it is a marital act, a genuine expression/signification of that total self-giving that is marriage, if it really signifies the marital intention (the conjugal love between them), the act thereby possesses procreative significance. What eliminates that procreative significance - and thus the conjugal significance - is the intention to sterilize the act. In doing so, one changes the moral significance of the entire act: it is no longer a marital act precisely because it is no longer a procreative act - it does not have the moral significance of a procreative action. Thus, it is no longer an act that signifies the intention to be one flesh; although they may be truly married, this particular contracepted sexual act does not have that conjugal significance, it does not express and celebrate a one flesh union, for it has been changed by the deliberate intention to render it infertile - just as the deliberate intention not to have children impedes a marriage in the first place. A hunk of behavior does not have moral significance, regardless of the circumstances, but the intentionalness of what one is doing is morally significant, and the contracepted sexual act has been significantly changed.

This does not happen when a couple engage in the marital act during an infertile phase of the fertility cycle - they do not change the significance of the act. The couple abstain from sex during the period of ovulation, they choose not to express their own marital union sexually at that time and choose instead to express their own wedded love during an infertile phase. The act retains its procreative significance, just as an acorn retains its significance as the seed of an oak tree, despite the fact that it does not become an oak (most acorns do not). [3]

Why is this important? The kind of person we are is related to the kinds of acts we perform. The latter determines the former. Marital acts contribute to the fullness of a marriage, but sexual acts that are non-conjugal - and they become non-conjugal through the contra-life intention of the moral agent(s) - are in some ways not essentially different from masturbatory acts. Contracepted acts of sexual intercourse within marriage are certainly different from masturbation in terms of the overall context, and that context certainly has moral significance. But if from one angle they are not essentially different, only contextually so, non-conjugal acts of intercourse are at some level morally immature acts that perpetuate moral immaturity, and moral immaturity will likely affect a couple's ability to tackle some of the deeper problems and trials that are forthcoming, which of course require an ability to make sacrifices, that is, the ability to love another for the sake of the other, not for the sake of what that person does for me. That is why I don't believe it is a stretch to suggest, as Paul VI does in his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae , that "far from hindering the spouses' love for one another, this self-discipline, shining witness to their purity, imbues the love with greater human meaning. It needs a persevering resolve, but the strength it gives their characters enables spouses to develop themselves fully and enriches them with spiritual goods: for [i] it brings family life abundant fruits of tranquility and peace, and helps solve difficulties of other kinds; [ii] in each of the spouses it fosters care and consideration for the other; [iii] it helps them drive out selfishness, true charity's enemy, and stimulates awareness of their responsibilities. Finally, [iv] it gives parents a deeper and more effective influence in the education of children who as they grow through childhood and adolescence have a sound understanding of true human goods and use their powers of mind and sense serenely and appropriately". [4]