Invincible Ignorance About Contraception

Anthony Zimmerman
Published in The Homiletic and Pastoral Review
April 2006
Reproduced with Permission

Whether it be better to instruct a penitent about the evils of contraception, or to leave him in perhaps invincible ignorance, is not a question solved by adherence to inflexible rules. The Confessor endeavors to do what is best for his client in each individual case. The most desired solution is to dispel ignorance if the penitent will convert. But in other cases instructions to an unwilling penitent can do more harm than good - if he thereafter sins with eyes open rather than in ignorance. By and large, instructions about the evil of contraception needs to be done outside of the Confessional rather than within.

Unfortunately, ignorance does not protect innocent subjects from contamination by evils they do unwittingly. We become what we do because actions shape our personalities. Contraception done in ignorance robs marriage of its joys and of its sanctity.

The seven astronauts of the space ship Columbia could not know about the hole in the wing of their ship. But upon re-entrance into the atmosphere on February 1, 2003, superheated gas penetrated the spacecraft. The astronauts perished and Columbia fell apart, spewing debris over the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana. Ignorance about contraception is an infinitely greater disaster. It spews the debris of broken family life over all fifty states and beyond.

The Vademecum for Confessors, recognizing invincible ignorance, states that "In general, it is not necessary for the confessor to investigate concerning sins committed in invincible ignorance of their evil, or due to an inculpable error of judgment (Pontifical Council for the Family, 12 February, 1997, No. 7). Then the text continues with this dire assessment of consequences:

Although these sins are not imputable, they do not cease, however, to be an evil and a disorder. This also holds for the objective evil of contraception, which introduces a pernicious habit into the conjugal life of the couple. It is therefore necessary to strive in the most suitable way to free the moral conscience from those errors which contradict the nature of conjugal life as a total gift.

What psychiatrist Bernharda Meyer (RIP) learned in her clinical treatment of sterilized couples in Canada may be representative of only the worst scenarios, but suggests that all contraception tends to make marriage something less than it ought to be:

"Couples who have been sterilized can tell about this experience most clearly. Initially there is relief, and this time varies in duration. But the time comes when the husband can no longer perform well sexually; ejaculation praecox or impotentia coeundi may occur. This has roots in the subconscious, the abiding awareness of the non-reversible mutilation of their fertility which constitutes the essence of their sexual identity, male or female.

On the other hand, the woman may be the first to find the sex act boring, routine, flat. She may no longer "need" conjugal sexual intercourse. Increasingly she may remain dry, not perceiving any desire for the act, resenting the man who wants intercourse. She may detest his penis, she may feel physically nauseated by her man, may come to hate him. She may feel a revulsion when he touches her, since it is a suggestion of the sexual act, even when the husband may intend a non-genital caress. The situation keeps deteriorating, becoming distressful to the extreme for both. Living together is troublesome, irritating, unrewarding. They slip into the "sad" marriage, or the "dead" marriage, where they may still be fond of each other, or may be perseveringly committed to the upbringing of their children but they have no longer any hope left that they will ever be able to melt in marital oneness in the unique way of the intimate marital act. (Correspondence with Bernharda Meyer.)

Sexologist Dr. med. Wanda Poltawska reports remarkably similar discoveries derived from clinical experience in Poland:

The woman usually has a frustration reaction sooner than the man; she is, so to speak, "paralyzed" in body and mind and cannot experience the joy of a union with her beloved. She responds to the tension of fear by first feeling distaste for the man's body, especially the penis; physical aversion sets in. She still compels herself to have intercourse, but it becomes more and more unpleasant for her. Her distaste for his body turns into a general aversion for intercourse. The male partners accuse the women of avoiding intercourse, of frigidity.

The women's sexual indifference provokes reactions in the husbands, continues Dr. Poltawska.

Reactions of aggression have been observed most frequently. Even well-educated men are capable of reacting primitively, showing signs of inner disintegration.... The man becomes a slave of his body, helpless in the face of reactions he cannot control. And the woman becomes the slave of his sexuality, a thing being used, losing her dignity as a human person of full value.... In the final phase, they even give up all intercourse ("Psychology and Psychopathology of Fertility" in Natural Family Planning, Nature's Way-God's Way, Milwaukee, De Rance Foundation. 1980).

Drs. Charles and Elizabeth Rendu, whose experience in family counseling and the training of teachers of natural family planning is vast, tell how contraceptives tend to erode love in marriage:

Listening to many couples who have consulted us on family planning has revealed that contraceptives endanger conjugal love. After using them for two or three years, women (especially) complained of a cooling of mutual love, even though they had at first been happy to be able to prevent too-frequent pregnancies. Their language pointed to an objectification: "During intercourse I am only an object, a thing, a means, at the service of my husband's pleasure." And this attitude prevailed even among couples who continued to love each other ("Education in Love and Sexuality: A French Experience" in Natural Family Planning, Op.Cit. p. 48).

A contraceptive lifestyle prevails, nevertheless, among Americans and the current generation of the human race, if we may believe this report this UN report dated April 21, 2004:

Nearly two-thirds of women of child-bearing age in marital or consensual unions use contraception, with the highest percentage found in Latin America and the Caribbean and the lowest in Africa (The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

The report claims that 61 per cent of women aged 15 to 49 years worldwide now use contraceptives. To these sad statistics we need to add the number of sterilized couples beyond the age of 49 years. More than half of the world population, then, is experiencing "the objective evil of contraception, which introduces a pernicious habit into the conjugal life of the couple."

How shall he priest proceed when hearing Confessions? Our first care is to guard the validity of the Sacrament. That may sometimes make it necessary to ask, "those questions which secure the integrity of confession and the validity of the sacrament" (Congregation of the Clergy, "The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium," 19 March 1999).

Since the Pill came into our world in 1960, the hearing of Confessions became newly problematical for priests. Shall they ask or not ask? Shall they absolve while harboring doubts about the "integrity of confession and the validity of the sacrament"? Gradually couples stopped coming to Confession, perhaps sensing that it was an exercise in futility. The prevalence of contraception has virtually collapsed the meaning of Confession for habituated couples.

The contraceptive lifestyle need not last forever

Even though 61 percent of women age 15-49 use contraception, this indicates that a sizeable proportion of 39 per cent do not. The parents of the 1960's are now grandparents, and they traditionally dote on grandchildren. Maybe that alone will influence birth rates in the future. The human race tends to recognize what it needs to do for its own preservation and welfare through experience. Plato (c427-c347 BC) deemed atheism to be so grave a threat to the public welfare that "in his ideal republic he mandated the death penalty for the second offense of atheism" though the youthful first offender was to be excused (see Jude Dougherty, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Summer 2005, p.38). Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) taught that God condemns as sin those actions against reason that gravely threaten the welfare of the human race:

The more necessary a thing is, the more it behooves one to observe the order of reason in its regard; wherefore the more sinful it becomes if the order of reason is forsaken. Now the use of venereal acts ... is most necessary for the common good, namely the preservation of the human race. Wherefore there is the greatest necessity for observing the order of reason in this matter: so that if anything be done in this connection against the dictate of reason's ordering, it will be a sin (Summa Theologiae II, II, 153, 3).

Among the harmful actions Thomas includes fornication, adultery, seduction, incest, sacrilege (sex involving a consecrated person), masturbation, bestiality, homosexuality and finally "not observing the natural manner of copulation" (Summa Theologica II, II, 154, 11). This last, if spelt out, is contraception.

The Comstock Act enacted in 1873 restricted the transport of contraceptives, or information regarding them, through the mail. When Archbishop Cushing of Boston (d.1970) sought advice from theologian John Courtney Murray, S.J. (d.1967), Murray advised Cushing to not oppose the repeal of the laws banning the sale of contraceptives. Murray "did not find the use of contraceptives to be violations of the public peace, public morality or the rights of others" (Raymond W. Blair, HPR August-September, 2005). Note what is missing, namely the reasoning of Thomas that God must forbid acts that are contrary to the preservation of the human race and its welfare.

Murray did not foresee that commercial interests and ideological fervor would precipitously reduce birth rates within a few decades, to the present birth-dearth which undermines national economic strength. Nor could he know that the young would contracept on so large a scale, and transmit sexually transmitted diseases at an unprecedented rate. He did see the first rumblings of the divorce explosion, from 393,000 in 1960 to over a million in 1975. Murray died a year before 600 Catholic theologians climbed aboard the contraception bandwagon with Fr. Charles Curran in 1968. Perhaps the sex revolution would have happened, also among Catholics, even if Cushing had fought against repealing laws that banned the sale of contraceptives, and even if Pope Paul VI had written the Encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1964 rather than in 1968. That is all the more reason for us to not wait for the world to change, but to do our pastoral work in the parishes with the powers that Christ gives to us.

How contraception is totally foreign to marriage as God made has been aptly described as follows by Dr. H. P. Dunn, gynecologist of New Zealand (RIP):

Couples who embark on intercourse recognize instinctively that this special privilege which they grant to each other sets them apart from the rest of society forever. They can never set the clock back. The first person who is admitted to intercourse should also be the last and only one. Once you open your heart and private depths of your soul to someone, you forge a relationship which you can never repudiate (Lecture at the Human Life Center, St. John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota, HLI Newsletter, October, 1980).

The 120 members of the Church in the Upper Room of Jerusalem did not wait for the world to become friendly to Christianity; instead of that, the little body began to change the world. The doughty Christians of Rome did not sit by twirling thumbs waiting for Constantine to happen; they increased and multiplied until Constantine sewed up their victory. Bishops and pastors of today need not wait for the media to change colors and for politicians to convert. The fields are ripening for the harvest in the dioceses and parishes.

Couples who contracept in ignorance today can become our allies tomorrow through conversion. Rejuvenated marriages become channels of grace for the partners, for the parish, for the diocese. By "fulfilling their conjugal and family role by virtue of this sacrament, spouses are penetrated with the spirit of Christ and their whole life is suffused with faith, hope, and charity; thus they increasingly further their own perfection and their mutual sanctification, and together they render glory to God" (GS 48).

A Counter-contraception program

Priests, who led the rebellion against Humanae Vitae, must today lead the U-turn back to obedience. They receive special help from the Holy Spirit to do this:

28. Beloved sons who are priests, by vocation you are the counselors and spiritual guides of individual persons and of families. We now turn to you with confidence.... The light of the Holy Spirit, ... is given in a particular way to the pastors of the Church in order that they may explain the truth .... Hence with all our heart we renew to you the heartfelt plea of the great Apostle Paul: "I entreat you, brethren, by the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment."

29. Not to compromise in any way the saving teaching of Christ is an eminent form of charity for souls (Humanae Vitae).

Pope Benedict XVI, responding to parish priests who suffered because people were not listening to their message, observed that "I do not think that there is any system for making a rapid change. We must go on, we must go through this tunnel, this underpass, patiently, in the certainty that Christ is the answer and that in the end, the light will appear once more" (To parish priests in Aosta, Oss. Rom. English Weekly Edition, 3 August 2005).

The advice of the Congregation for the Clergy is that the priest should make confession easy, first of all by being available. Then he should help the penitent to come clear about contraception and sterilization, by asking "where necessary, those questions which secure the integrity of confession and the validity of the sacrament. He should help the penitent to thank God for his mercy."

And if the penitent is guilty but unwilling to change? Give the advice of Familiaris Consortio: "continue your religious practices in the Church, but abstain from receiving Holy Communion." This might bring about the desired effect in many cases, and quite dramatically. The prodigal son converted when he became hungry, rose up, and returned to the house of his father. Ignorance about contraception is being dispelled by experience with its no-win results. It's time now, to engage in a new evangelization of the Sacrament of Marriage. Let married couples be caught "into divine love" (GS 48)

What else, other than use of the Confessional, can pastors do while we go through this tunnel, this underpass, patiently? We praise the Lord daily while offering Holy Mass and reciting the Psalms. We recall that King Jehoshaphat won the battle against unequal odds not by force of arms but by the simple prayer of praise: "When he had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the LORD and praise him in holy splendor, as they went before the army, saying, "Give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures forever." In the meantime the enemy annihilated itself by internal fighting: "At the moment they began their jubilant hymn, the LORD laid an ambush against the Ammonites, Moabites, and those of Mount Seir who were coming against Judah ... When Judah came to the watchtower of the desert and looked toward the throng, they saw only corpses fallen on the ground, with no survivors (2 Chronicles 20:21-24).

The prayers of bishops and priests are privileged. God reads their emails each morning, before He turns to other business. The Holy Spirit has imprinted on their souls an indelible priestly character, which is a receptacle for heavenly graces for themselves, and a service station for graces to save and enrich their parishioners. Even more: for a precious moment each morning at the Consecration of the Mass, the bishop and the priest are transformed into Persona Christi. That means that they are seated, for the moment, "at the right hand of the Father." They can nudge the Father's side with a thrust of the elbow. The Father will not ignore them: "Whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son" (John 14:13).

Pastors can engage their flock to help them make the new movements effective. They need not do the battle alone.

1. Reach out expressly with programs for contracepting and sterilized couples. Announce the times from the pulpit and in the parish bulletin. Induce your sterilized couples to make a good confession, then give them a penance to maintain an inner conversion. Some penitents should reverse the surgery; others should practice abstinence during ten days of each month for perhaps a year. Couples thereby prove to themselves that this can be done, and that they should have done so instead of being sterilized.

2. Make provisions for the teaching of natural family planning in the parish. Make the teaching obligatory during marriage preparation courses. Better still, provide the young of the parish beforehand with adequate knowledge about the rhythms of fertility:

But the necessary conditions also include knowledge of the bodily aspect and the body's rhythms of fertility. Accordingly, every effort must be made to render such knowledge accessible to all married people and also to young adults before marriage through clear, timely and serious instruction and education given by married couples, doctors and experts. Knowledge must then lead to education in self-control: Hence the absolute necessity for the virtue of chastity and for permanent education in it (Familiaris Consortio 33).

Let each pastor charm his people back into the fold, let each bishop encourage his pastors to do what can be done. While the world goes on its way, parishes resurrect one by one into vibrant communities as of old. Ripples of renewal excite the new generation.

Past sin does not prevent renewal of life. Peter the braggart became Peter the Rock after converting from his cowardly sin. Paul became Saul after Christ threw him off his horse to stop his fanatical lust for the blood of believers. The sinful woman was forgiven much because she loved much, God gives pastors to the Church who have the chuzpah to make the most of the situation, converting sinners one by one to the utter chagrin of the Evil One. Conversions are a tradition in the Church for which we praise God in daily prayer. Now it is our turn to resurrect the tradition. Bishops and pastors can help their people to convert and so to have their sins "wiped away" as though with a blotter, much as Peter did, announcing the kerigma to the Jews gathered on Solomon's Portico in the temple area:

Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away, and that the Lord may grant you times of refreshment and send you the Messiah already appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the times of universal restoration of which God spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old (Acts 3:19-21).