Natural Family Planning: Nature's Way - God's Way

49. The Moral Disorder of Contraception

Carlo Caffara teaches fundamental moral theology at the School of Theology of the University of the Sacred Heart in Milan. He is a member of the editorial board of Medicina e Morale, a review of the School of Medicine of that University, and of the review Communio (Italian edition). He has published studies on fundamental moral theology and on moral problems arising from the development of human genetics. He is a past member of the International Theological Commission.

One of the essential points of the teaching of Humanae Vitae is expressed in these words: ". . . Ecclesia ... id docet necessarium esse, ut quilibet matrimonii usus ad vitarn humanarn procreandam per se destinatus permaneat" (HV 11). (The Church ... teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.)

The theological debate which followed after Humanae Vitae was issued went through two phases which are logically connected. The first phase was characterized chiefly by a pastoral concern about the best manner to instruct the consciences of married couples, especially those who are beset with particular difficulties in accepting and carrying out this teaching. The second phase was and still is concerned with the theological problem of establishing the basis for the directives given, or to be given, in the above-mentioned circumstances. In both fields a novel concept about the goodness or the malice of the contraceptive act has been proposed by some moralists; this concept now constitutes one of the knots of the present problem.

In this study we aim to explain what this new concept proposes, both in regard to its meaning and its application to Humanae Vitae. We will try to be concise. Next we will criticize the new concept, testing its inner logic and the attempt to apply this in reference to the doctrine of Humanae Vitae.

The "new" concept of the moral disorder of the contraceptive act

The theological debate that arose from HV has been focusing more and more on the concept of the goodness or malice of the human act, considered in itself. This is one of the essential moments of every ethical reflection.

1) The definition of the "new" concept.

The "new" concept states that the morality of an act connotes the relation of the act to practical reason, and it is this relation which constitutes the act in its moral nature. in what does this relation consist? And when is an action justified rationally? These moralists answer: firstly, all of the goods at issue, and all of the circumstances which surround the act must be taken into account; then the good which is perceived in the act imposes itself on the reason as the preponderant value, prevailing over all others and demanding a preferential choice, is what justifies the action.

To grasp the meaning of this answer (according to these moralists), the following elements must be kept in mind:

First. The goods at issue in inter-human relations, which alone concern us here, (1) are always of a contingent, limited, and competitive nature, according to the proponents of this theory. Contingent: this amounts to their nature as created beings, on account of which the good does not necessarily (hence not always and everywhere) demand to be performed under penalty of renouncing one's rationality. Limited: consequently the obligation to achieve this good and to shun the evil that contradicts it does not bind human free will. to the point of never being able (or obliged) to undergo an exception. Competitive: given the human condition, a free decision inevitably entails a choice among the goods present in the various possible courses of action; the choice is made on the basis of preference, choosing one (or some) and excluding others.

Second. A moral judgment, according to this theory, consists essentially in weighing on the balance of reason the various contingent, limited, and competitive goods, with a view to the preferential choice of that good which, all things considered, must be looked upon as having the greatest claim to be chosen over the other contingent, limited, and competitive goods.

Third. The moral value of the choice would, according to this theory, emerge only within this judgment, and not previous to it. in other words, a distinction of supreme importance, so they say, must be made between a pre- moral good and a moral good. A pre-moral good signifies the propriety of the act considered in isolation, outside the context of other competing goods. A moral good signifies the propriety of the act after consideration of this good within the context of competing goods and in conjunction with the judgment that this choice must be preferred over the others. A moral obligation arises from a perception of this oughtness.

Fourth. The judgment of reason and the preferential choice that it makes must indeed be regulated by the moral law, say these moralists. But the nature of this regulation by the moral law must be considered carefully, they say. A moral norm expresses the fact that something which is already accepted as good in the light of reason and experience, must generally be preferred over competing goods. Decisions should not be reckless or unreasonable, but must be justified on the basis of objectivity. The norm is not just a recommendation which one is free to follow if he so wishes. It has a binding force, so no one who intends to act reasonably is free to ignore it.

Nevertheless, they say, no norm is so absolute as never to admit of an exception. Every finite good is limited, and so we can always conceive of a competing good which would outrank it. Should we wish to endow a norm with absolute binding force which excludes exceptions, our knowledge would have to span the horizon of all possible situations. We would have to cogitate all possible situations in which this good sanctioned by the norm now in force, would compete against other goods, and conclude serenely that it always and everywhere outweighs all competitors. But such a capacity is obviously beyond the power of human reason.

Therefore, say these moralists, existing norms are valid in general, but they do not apply in every case (valent ut in pluribus, non autem semper et pro semper). Norms are aids to assist reason in the difficult task of evaluating various goods. But such norms do not exempt reason, so it is asserted, from considering whether the general value of the norm perdures in the case at hand. The perdurance must be verified by the subject in each and every case.

Fifth. The judgment with which one denies the validity of the norm for one's own case ought not be characterized as the judgment of an (invincibly) erroneous conscience, say these moralists. On the contrary, it is a true judgment inasmuch as the good sanctioned by the norm does not outweigh competing goods in this particular case.

By combining the five elements described above we can now form an idea of what these moralists consider to be the nature of the morality of an action, and what they think of the term inherently evil (intrinsece inhonestum).

According to their theory, the morality of an action would consist formally in its relation to reason insofar as reason judges correctly that one act must be performed (a good act) whereas another must be avoided (a bad act). Reason judges that the good which an act achieves must be preferred to other goods which compete with it, this judgment of preference makes the act a good one. Or, if reason perceives that the good achieved by the act is outweighed by competing goods, the act is a bad one.

The intrinsic goodness or malice of an act, therefore, could mean one of two things: it could denote an act's quality by which the act adduces a so-called pre-moral good or pre-moral evil, that is, without reference to the context in which that good or evil is found; or it could denote the quality of an act by which the act adduces a good or evil which, weighed carefully by the reason against competing goods, is found to be either preferable or non-preferable. The intrinsic goodness or malice in the first meaning does not necessarily establish the intrinsic goodness or evil in the second meaning. There is no identity between the two concepts either in meaning or in application.

2) Application to Humanae Vitae.

That Humanae Vitae judges a contraceptive act intrinsically evil (cfr. #14) is beyond dispute. Now let us see the interpretation this papal text undergoes when the "new" concept of goodness or evil is applied to it.

Let us begin with the definition of the contraceptive act as the papal document presents it in #14. We find there that a contraceptive act is defined as one which deprives sexuality of its procreative capacity; the good at issue, therefore, is that a man accepts his sexuality in its integrity, as it is.

Some moralists now claim that this good, like every other, is contingent, limited, and competitive. Goods which compete with it may be the physical or spiritual good of the spouses together, or of one or the other of the two; or the good of an adequate education to which the children who are already born have a previous right; and so forth.

These moralists say that the couple is called upon to make a rational judgment, weighing all the competing goods against each other carefully in their concrete circumstances; from this process the couple will understand which of the goods must be preferred.

What the norm of HV presents, according to these moralists, is a pre-moral good: it is the exercise of sexuality which remains open to procreation, but this has not yet been placed into the context of competing goods. This norm of HV has binding force, one which must guide the rational judgment, but only in general (valet ut in pluribus). It means that the good sanctioned by the norm of HV is, in general, preferable to the others. Nevertheless, this general validity of the norm of HV does not exclude exceptions which are either permitted, or even indicated. It is the duty of the couple to make a judgment by weighing the various goods at issue in their case; they must conclude from this which of the goods must be preferred. The conclusions of their search will not necessarily agree with the norm of HV.

If the conclusion of the couple disagrees with the norm of HV, this judgment of their conscience must not be characterized as erroneous (invincibly so). Rather, it should be characterized as a true conclusion, assuming that the good sanctioned by the norm of HV is not the preferred good in this case.

To be consistent, one must take one further step, following this theory of the moralists in question: if a careful analysis of the present existential situation were to show that conditions have changed to such an extent that contraception ought to be preferred not as an exception to the norm, but as the norm itself, then it is time to change the norm. The reason is not a denial of the pre-moral evil of contraception, but a recognition of the changed historical situation, which now calls for reformulation. instead of stating, as Humanae Vitae does: ". . . excluded is every action which . . . proposes ... to render procreation impossible" we should change the text to read: "allowed is every action which . . . for just and proportionate reasons" and so forth (cfr. # 14).

Let us conclude our review of the theory of these moralists by posing the question: if we were to accept their explanation, then how would we describe the intrinsic malice of contraception? According to their theory there are two qualities of contraception which are formally distinct. One is the fact that contraception hinders the realization of a pre-moral good, and in this sense it is always bad. Two, it hinders the realization of a good which is considered in context and which is found to be preferable over competitive goods; in this sense contraception is a moral evil. Nevertheless, the latter does not always apply, hence contraception is not always a moral evil. In this second sense, intrinsic evil is not considered by these theologians to be identical with what is absolutely and unconditionally evil. This follows from their reasoning that a contraceptive act is not objectively evil in all situations.

Criticism of the "new" concept of the moral disorder of a contraceptive act and of its application to Humanae Vitae

1) Criticism of the definition,

If I am not mistaken, the real knot of the problem is an inadequate concept of the absoluteness of moral values. An ethical absolute (a moral good) is one which must be willed unconditionally, not only in relation to some competitive good. It must be willed in its own right, without need of reference to another good.

For the sake of brevity we will omit detailing various theoretical steps which must be presupposed, and go right to the core of the matter: in the Christian vision the ultimate ethical absolute, the Absolute Good, is God Himself. God is the subsistent Being who wills Himself (loves Himself) absolutely by reason of His infinite Goodness. His act of will is identical with His Being. In the case of created spirits, these must also will God absolutely; that is, they must love Him for His own sake.

What is meant by saying that created spiritual beings must will God absolutely? Does it perhaps mean that only the love of God is an absolute and unconditional value? The matter calls for rigorous examination.

Every created being (esse creatum is a participation in the subsistent Being of God, and stands in relation to Him. At the peak of creation stands the spiritual creature, who is a true and proper "image of God." God shares Himself with a created spiritual being in an essentially superior degree; a rational creature is capable of contacting the Absolute Himself by acts of intellect and will. The creature is capable of willing the Absolute for His own sake, being an image of God and sharing the Love with which God loves Himself (cfr. ST I, q. 93, a4c).

When making an ethical judgment, a human person perceives an absolute oughtness which challenges freedom in its own name. There is no reference here to some other thing, no relation to a competing good. This quality of absoluteness is proper to God alone; better, it exists in the Divine Being as the demand for our unconditional obedience. That is why, whenever and wherever he makes an ethical judgment, man perceives God as an end of intention, (though not as an object of intuition, let us state this clearly). And so, when a man acts contrary to the injunctions of practical reason, he offends God Himself, not some immanent, created order: man thereby refuses to acknowledge God as God.

If participation in God's knowing and loving of Self is what being participation is exercised in light of reason, it then follows that a person fulfills himself as person and as image of God through the fulfillment of moral values; and vice versa, the fulfillment of moral values consists properly in the fulfillment of the person as such. Consequently the love of friendship by which a person necessarily includes love of self and of other persons a spiritual creature means, and if this practical judgments and in fidelity to the loves God as God, by reason of being persons.(2) There are not two loves, but one love which extends to different objects. (3)

Let us try to encapsulate the concept of absoluteness. The love with which God loves Himself and His own absolute necessity, is the source from which the whole hierarchy of values and duties flows; this love is the archetype of every obligation. When God wills and loves spiritual subjects other than Himself, these share formally in the act of love with which God loves them for His own sake and for their sake (propter Se et propter seipsos): the two targets are not opposed and not juxtaposed. This sharing is the basis of the absoluteness of moral Value. This participating in God's action also indicates the content of moral Value to be recognition of God as God and, in an inseparable act, of person as person one's own and that of others).

From this concept flow three corollaries, which constitute the reasons for our complete rejection of the "new" definition of moral evil as described above.

Corollary one: A distinction between pre-moral goods and moral goods is not admitted

Our first corollary rejects the distinction which the moralists attempted to find between pre-moral goods and moral goods.

As we were saying above, ethical obligation is the "expression" in our moral conscience and the "impress' in our spirit of the divine Will. When God's Will calls us into being, He wills that we fulfill ourselves. But, given the human person's various dimensions, goods that fulfill his person are arranged on various levels. There are, first of all, infra-human goods, not in the meaning that they are of no value to the person, but in the sense that they do not relate to person as such (for example, biological values). Then there are infra-moral human goods, meaning that these fulfill the person in what is proper to him (intelligence and will), but not in an absolutely and perfect manner (for example, noetic and esthetic values). Finally, there are moral goods, by which a person fulfills himself simply as such, in the sense that they constitute an opening to the Absolute Himself.

Given man's substantial unity, which means that that by which he is man is identically that by which he is animal, namely a living being, a body, a substance (St. Thomas: cfr. Quest disp. de spiritualibus creaturis, a. 3), we have the following situation: the first two levels of human goods are oriented toward the third and demand to be integrated into it. By this integration the lower values are drawn up, as it were, into the moral Value and share in its absoluteness. In fact, integration consists in placing them into relation to the demands of practical reason as a faculty of the axiological Absolute, and in evaluating them in the light of this relationship.

What is more, this relationship is demanded by the nature of the person as person. The integration of which we speak here constitutes that "living according to reason" which is fulfilling oneself as a person, that is as an image of God. The goods on the infra-human and infra-moral human levels are still found in their identity (materially considered) on the level of moral goods. Nevertheless, in this third area they have changed "form", in the profoundest meaning of that term: they have become moral goods, even while retaining their entity as biological goods, and so forth. That is to say, they now connote a relationship with that which constitutes a person as such, his capacity for the Absolute (cfr. a beautiful application of this in Ila, Ilae, q. 141. a. 1, ad lum).

The passage from the level of infra-human goods to that of infra-moral human goods is not of the same order as the next passage into moral goods. The relationship to the Absolute, established on the third level, introduces a radical discontinuity.

In the area of the first two levels and in their comparison, competition is possible. It is not always reasonable to prefer an infra-moral human value to an infra-human value. Since it is a question here of relative values, not one of them can demand preference over others as a matter of principle. But when it is a question of moral goods, this situation ceases to apply. How can it be good to prefer anything to the Good? Or - what amounts to the same thing - how can the fulfillment of the person call for an act that does not fulfill him?

At this point one can see that the distinction between pre-moral goods and moral goods, in the meaning given to it by certain moralists today, is untenable. The reasons are various. It is beyond discussion, of course, that human goods are arranged on various levels. Nevertheless the person is a subject endowed with substantial unity, if consideration of the distinction among the various human goods results in their separation, our theorizing becomes abstract, that is, false. The distinction is not a separation of static goods. Rather, a single polarizing movement crosses the first two levels, orientating and transignifying them towards the Good as such (God who shares Himself with man, man the image of God), without thereby losing their proper nature and consistency.

Moreover, if we admit that man is a substantial unity, and that practical reason is a faculty of the Absolute , as participating in the divine Reason itself, then we also realize that the goods situated on the first two levels cease being mere contingent and relative goods by their integration into the third level. The infra-human and infra-moral human goods become moral goods; they now are necessary and absolute. Competition between them is no longer conceivable, since all are absolute. In short, the substantial unity of man, and the orientation of practical reason towards the Absolute, towards God, exclude the concept of actual pre-moral goods. (4)

Corollary two: The "new" concept of intrinsic good and evil falls short of the real thing

From what has preceded, it follows that the more an act belongs to the subject by reason of its inner, inborn teleology and the more it is part of his spiritual, psychical, and vital "self," so much the more does it reveal itself to the practical reason as either congenial or uncongenial to it. The intrinsic malice of an act consists in its relation of incompatibility with reason; reason is consciously oriented towards Being, which reflects the countenance of absolute Value. This relation is therefore based on the inner and inborn teleology of the act in question (finis operis). Hence that act ought never be done. Intrinsically evil, absolutely evil, and unconditionally evil are identical concepts. (5)

At this point one can see the whole equivocation of the position under criticism: the position confuses the concept of objective malice with that of natural malice; similarly, it confuses the concept of "finis operis" of an act with the concept of that act's "finis naturalis."

Objective malice, however, is a specifically moral qualification inasmuch as it connotes the ethical impossibility of being performed by a will which is acting rationally; the act is disorderly by reason of its internal teleology. Whereas natural malice would connote only the incapacity of an act to fulfill a faculty of the person understood as nature (finis natural), prescinding from its relation to the rational will. Hence, in order that the definition under criticism maintain consistency, it must either deny the existence of objectively evil acts, and by doing so fall into the trap of moral relativism; or, to escape this trap, it must reduce objective malice to natural malice. In that case ethics becomes on the one hand a subsidiary of biology, psychology, and sociology, and on the other it becomes an exercise of mere abstractionism; that is, it enunciates only principles that are ultimately no more than abstractions (one must achieve this natural good which outweighs the others: this is what the activity of the practical reason amounts to).

Corollary three: The meaning of the moral law

With this third corollary we must reject the concept of the moral norm as presented by the moralists cited above. The real moral law constitutes the statement of the relations existing between human acts and the person-image of God; these relations are based on the inner, inborn teleology of the acts themselves. For this reason the moral law is the work of reason as sharer in the eternal Law of God (cfr. Ia IIae, q. 91, a. 2). We can then understand the validity and the profound meaning of an ancient axiom. The relationship of congruence (objectively good act) does not of itself render an act obligatory in a concrete case: lex positiva valet semper sed non pro semper (the act must always be judged as good in itself, but that does not mean that one must perform the act; other factors must be taken into account). Quite to the contrary, however, is the case of an incongruent act. The relationship of incongruence (objectively evil act), by itself alone requires that the act must never be performed: lex negativa valet semper et pro semper. The moral law, therefore is always valid but it does not always require performance of an action (valet semper sed non pro semper ); the theorizers are mistaken when they say ut in pluribus (in general).

2) Criticism of the interpretation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae

Sexual activities are actions which possess an objective intentionality of their own, apart from the intention of the subject and the evaluation of public opinion. Were one to deny this, he would implicitly deny the substantial unity of man, through which man's biological faculties are integrated with his spirit, reflecting its demands, and being interiorly regulated by it. Objective intentionality does not of itself and directly mean that the sexual act is biologically ordered to a certain end. By affirming this arrangement one merely states a fact. Objective intentionality signifies that a relation exists between the act considered in itself and the practical reason of man. Insofar as participating in God's eternal Law, it enjoins on the will the fulfillment of the person as such. The concept of objective intentionality does not signify directly a relation inscribed in the purely biological; rather it signifies a relation, based on the internal teleology of the act, to the practical reason. And it is precisely in this that the intrinsic malice of the contraceptive act consists. It is not precisely a malice of preventing the realization of a biological end (relative good); rather, it is the negative relation existing between this act of impeding and the demands of reason, as understood above (moral evil).

We therefore have a kind of circularity which recurs in the way of knowing peculiar to man, an embodied spirit. The contraceptive act is not congruent with human nature because it is not congruent with reason but reason does not judge it congruent with itself because it does not perceive it congruent with human nature. Recognizing as incompatible with itself this incongruence with human nature, reason trans forms it and turns it into moral incongruence: the infra-moral good (or natural good, or secundum genus naturae) enters with the aid of reason into the sphere of morality and becomes endowed with absoluteness because it is a good of the person as such. This is the teaching of GAUDIUM E T SPES (5 1, 3: "from the nature of the human person and human action" (ex personae eiusdemque actuum natura).

From this it follows that the "new" concept which we are criticising must by inner logic either deny the substantial unity of the corporality (sexuality) and spirituality of man, or it must affirm a concept of an autonomy of human reason which is not founded upon its theonomy.

Both positions are contrary to ecclesial tradition. The conclusion is clear. If we admit these two theses and consider them jointly, it follows that the contraceptive act is unconditionally, absolutely and intrinsically evil. If we reject both theses or even one of them, it follows that the contraceptive act is conditionally and relatively and only naturally bad.

On the other hand, we cannot conclude from the intrinsic malice of the contraceptive act that conception would be good unconditionally and in every case. Circumstances, as perceived by reason, can forbid its actuation (lex positiva valet semper, sed non pro semper).

One can also see the theoretical inconsistency of the concept of competitiveness in this context. If the exercise of sexuality with full respect for its biological finality were only a natural and therefore relative good, such a concept would be correct. But since we are dealing with a formally moral good, we can never affirm that it is competing with another good. One ethical value can never require the sacrifice of another. Since it is a value by reason of the Good as such, it would be like saying that the Good demands that one do evil. This would amount to saying: the Truth demands that reason contradict itself so that reason may know the truth.


The theological theory which we are rejecting takes its start from a real problem: the reality of the difficulties which couples have to face. The right solution, however, is to be sought in the classical theology of conscience, honestly and profoundly understood. But this will be the object of another study.



by Carlo Caffarra

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