Couples on the Pill and Holy Communion

Anthony Zimmerman
July 15, 2000
The Priest Magazine
November 2001
Reproduced with Permission

Couples who believe sincerely that they practice contraception licitly, despite the contrary teaching of the Church, might be advised to good advantage, I believe, to refrain from receiving Holy Communion. If they courageously obey the words of Christ "He who hears you, hears me" (Lk 10:16) despite their private misgivings, Christ may come to the rescue, and finally help them to do what they thought was not possible.

Let them pray: "Your decrees are forever just; give me discernment that I may live" (Ps 119:144). They may be back to receive Holy Communion, now happier than before, sooner than the pastor expected. If discerning pastors work in this manner with a few couples in the parish, they may break the stranglehold of the contraceptive spirit in the entire parish. Such is the thrust of this writing.

No one can doubt that the Church, under God's protection, bans contraception. Documents abound. Here are a few:


Every attempt on the part of the married couple during the conjugal act or during the development of its natural consequences, to deprive it of its inherent power and to hinder the procreation of a new life is immoral. No 'indication' or need can change an action that is intrinsically immoral into an action that is moral and lawful...

Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, [cf. Anglicans, Lambeth Conference, 14 August 1930] the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of grave sin (Pius XI, Casti Connubii No. 56, 31 December 1930).


This prescription (of Casti Connubii) holds good today just as much as it did yesterday. It will hold tomorrow and always, for it is not a mere precept of human right but the expression of a natural and Divine law (Address to Midwives, No. 24, 29 October 1951).


Because the life of man is passed on to other men deliberately and knowingly, it therefore follows that this should be done in accord with the most sacred, permanent, inviolable prescriptions of God. Everyone without exception is bound to recognize and observe these laws. Wherefore, in this matter, no one is permitted to use methods and procedures which may indeed be permissible to check the life of plants and animals (Mater et Magistra No. 193, 15 May 1961).


Similarly there must be a rejection of all acts that attempt to impede procreation, both those chosen as a means to an end and those chosen as ends. This includes acts that precede intercourse, acts that accompany intercourse, and acts that are directed to the natural consequences of intercourse [see annotations] (Humanae Vitae No. 14).


Our special support goes to those who help couples preparing for Christian marriage by offering them the full teaching of the Church and by encouraging them in the highest ideals of the Christian family (The Christian Family, Address, 21 September 1978).


In this perspective, contraception is to be judged objectively so profoundly unlawful as never to be, for any reason justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God (Address to Priests, 17 September 1983).

As the Encyclical Humanae Vitae teaches: "every marital act must be open to the transmission of life" (n. 11). For this reason contraception and sterilization for contraceptive purposes are always gravely illicit (Address to audience of a million faithful, Caracas, Venezuela, 27 January 1985).

A grave responsibility derives from this: those who place themselves in open conflict with the law of God, authentically taught by the Church, guide spouses along a false path. The Church's teaching on contraception does not belong to the category of matter open to free discussion among theologians. Teaching the contrary amounts to leading the moral conscience of spouses into error (Address to Natural Family Planning Conference, 5 June 1987).

Contraception and Holy Communion

If the question be asked, therefore: "Does the Church teach that contraception is wrong?" the obvious answer is: "Yes." If the next question is asked: "Should we receive Holy Communion when contracepting or with tubes cut?" what shall our answer be?

The obstacle against Communion for contraceptors is different from that of Protestants. Contracepting Catholics do not adhere to an organized sect which has broken unity with the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Nevertheless, the Pope called into question the propriety of Catholics receiving the Sacraments when they do not obey her laws. He said to the Bishops of the USA:

It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the magisterium is totally compatible with being a "good Catholic" and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching office of the bishops of the United States and elsewhere." (Meeting with USA Bishops in Los Angeles, 16 September 1987; page 186 in John Paul II, Pastoral Visit to the United States, Ignatius Press, 1987).

The Pope asked the Bishops to address the situation courageously. He stopped just short of stating explicitly that contraceptors ought to remove that obstacle before receiving Holy Communion.

The Church employs sanctions to support her teachings

Vatican II goes so far as to state that a man's conscience is a sanctuary - meaning it is off limits to violent attack. "His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths" (Gaudium et Spes, 16). That does not mean, however, that the Church has no right to enforce her laws with due sanctions. She penalizes a person who actually procures an abortion with automatic excommunication (Cn 1398). A cleric who attempts marriage incurs automatic suspension from performing priestly functions (Cn 1394). She acts in a manner that serves the common good of the People of God.

Many hoped, some even clamored, that divorced and re-married Catholic be admitted to Holy Communion. This the Church refuses advisedly and decisively. Familiaris Consortiostates:

However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage (emphasis added)...

Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance, which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage... (FC No. 94,22nd November 198l).

Communion by contraceptors also leads the faithful into error.

THE SITUATION: Since about 10.4 million American women currently use the contraceptive Pill, which frequently operates as an abortifacient, we are not mistaken if we assume that many Catholic couples who receive Holy Communion regularly on Sundays, are on a Pill regimen. Taking birth control pills or their equivalent is not a snap decision made today but changed tomorrow. It is a long-term lifestyle commitment of married couples, who visit the doctor and pharmacist, then embark on the 28 day Pill regime month after month, year after year. To miss even one Pill may result in an unplanned pregnancy. Pill consumption is not just "falling into temptation." It is a deliberately adopted lifestyle.

In addition, 10.7 million women age 15-44, and 4.2 million men in the USA are surgically sterilized. And 7.9 million contracept by use of the condom (National Center for Health Statistics, data for 1995, released June 5, 1997). A release by the same government source indicates how steeply the rate of surgical sterilization increases with age: "In 1988, one-half (50 percent) of all married couples with one child or more were surgically sterilized; among couples with one child or more in which the wife was 35-44 years of age, the proportion sterilized was about two-thirds (68 percent)" (Advance Date, December 4, 1990). The majority of the 68 percent were sterilized for contraceptive purposes, only a minority for medical reasons.

A prudent judgment of a confessor, therefore, should indicate that perhaps a majority of the couples who come to Confession are either committed to contraception by use of the Pill, condom, or other, or they are surgically sterilized for the purpose of contraception. Either that, or they ought to come to confession but fail to do so.

In the meantime the reception of Holy Communion has become a universal fashion at Sunday Mass. Ushers direct the traffics, emptying the pews one by one. Abstainers become exceedingly conspicuous. Usually the traffic flows smoothly to the Eucharistic minister, who makes eye contact and smiles. They return to their seats, perhaps singing "O Sacrament most Holy, O Sacrament Divine." Some of the ladies may be aware that her Eucharistic minister, like herself, is on the Pill, or is surgically sterilized for contraceptive purposes.

Not all believers, however, receive Holy Communion with equanimity. Some resolve their discomfort by ceasing to attend Sunday Mass. An editorial in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, March 1985, told about a pastor who visited families to learn why they no longer came to Mass. He visited 500 families in one parish, then subsequently another 3000 families in a second parish. Why the drop in Mass attendance? His answer: "Many Catholic couples use artificial contraception and for that reason do not want to face the conscience problem they have when they go to Mass."

Do we ask why people neglect to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation? I believe many perceive that a good Confession is simply incompatible with the adopted contraceptive lifestyle. Why is communal "confession" popular? It doesn't require a change of lifestyle.

Ignorance "in good conscience" does not prevent harm

When Pope Paul VI wrote "from St. Peter's on the 25th day of July, the feast of St. James the Apostle, in the year 1968, the sixth of our pontificate" that "every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life" (Humanae Vitae, No. 11) many found these words to be absolutely incredible. Michael J. McManus, a correspondent for TIME in South America, was one of them. That was in 1968. Although he was Catholic and attended weekly Mass, he became a Protestant because he could not believe in the Catholic Church's position on birth control. Looking back 31 years later he mused that the Pope had been right, and he had been mistaken. He wrote in his Column #947, October 23, 1999, that the Pope was right when he predicted that the widespread use of contraception would lead to "general infidelity and the general lowering of morality." McManus continues:

"Certainly, that's happened. Since the Pill began to be sold in 1960, divorces have tripled, out-of-wedlock births jumped from 224,000 to 1.2 million, abortions doubled, and cohabitation soared 10-fold from 430,000 to 4.2 million."

Contraception, continues McManus, is constantly lauded as the answer to abortion and illegitimacy, but in the USA, with $713 million spent by the Federal Government, babies born out-of-wedlock rose from 4 to 32 percent. Why has contraception induced lower standards of morality? The fear of pregnancy resulting from adultery and sex outside of marriage had been the main deterrent against illicit sex during the centuries. Contraception removes that deterrent. "Take that fear away, millions more will have sex out of wedlock. And when pregnancy occurs, more resort to abortion or have babies out-of-wedlock. These children grow up in fatherless homes, and are more likely to become sexually promiscuous as they grow older, or criminal compared to those nurtured in intact homes. The sins of each generation are compounded by the next."

And more: "Half of all pregnancies are still unintended in the U.S. as 18 percent of couples who use condoms and 12 percent who take the Pill become pregnant within two years" (quoting Family Life Perspectives). He concludes: Pope Paul VI prophesied much of this back in 1968. Even Catholics should pay attention." (Reported by Pharmacists For Life International, June 22, 2000.)

Shall the Confessor ask?

The penitent murmurs about being impatient with the children, about being cross with the spouse, about missing Mass. "For these and my other sins I ask pardon and absolution." Nothing about contraception. Shall the priest ask?

We are careful to not make the reception of the Sacrament odious for the recipients. But some couples may be looking for help, and may be disappointed if the priest fails to provide it. Genesis tells how the Lord helped Adam and Eve in Paradise to make a good confession. God called to them, so they emerged from the woods where they were hiding. He challenged them: "You have eaten, then, from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat!" God almost put the words of confession into their mouths. With that, Adam found courage: "I ate it." Eve also: "I ate it." Then they turned over a new leaf.

Penitents may take it for granted that the priest already knows, even if they don't confess contraception. How could he not know? If he says nothing, he apparently consents. Depending upon circumstances, a one-on-one Confession may be THE occasion of grace for couples to rid themselves of this evil. In Poland, where couples are thoroughly exposed to teachings against contraception and for natural family planning during mandatory marriage preparation courses, confession is a standard occasion for the spiritual combat. Relatives who attend weddings and funerals are all expected to receive Holy Communion. The neighbors watch. Before the event, they flock to Confession, maybe to a local monastery. I heard from a monk: "Yes, I ask the hard questions, and yes, they do straighten out."

Two documents of the Church provide guidance. The first points out that ignorance about contraception is "pernicious." That is, is harmful also to those who are in good faith. Yet the document does not recommend asking about it routinely in the confessional. The implication is that teaching against contraception is a MUST, but that the Confessional may not be the most suitable place to begin such teaching:

1) On the part of the penitent, the Sacrament of Reconciliation requires sincere sorrow, a formally complete accusation of mortal sins, and the resolution, with the help of God, not to fall into sin again. 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. 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 these errors which contradict the nature of conjugal life as a total gift (Vademecum for Confessors, Pontifical Council for the Family, 12 February, 1997, No. 7, emphasis added).

2) A second document advises the confessor, with less hesitation, to ask. It was issued by the Congregation for the Clergy on March 19, 1999, under the title: "The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium," 19 March, 1999:

New evangelization calls for renewed efforts to bring the faithful to the Sacrament of Penance... Confessors should always pray to the Paraclete for the ability to fill this salvific moment with supernatural meaning and to transform it into an authentic encounter with the all merciful and forgiving Jesus for the penitent. He should also avail himself of confession to form the conscience of the faithful correctly - - an extremely important task - - 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 assist him in making a firm purpose of amendment for his conduct of the moral life. He should never fail to encourage the penitent appropriately, offering him comfort and motivating him to do works of penance which are satisfaction for his sins and which help him to grow in virtue.

Ignorance of contraception is not helpful

Ignorance of the "pernicious" malice of contraception is not a blessing in disguise:

The Way Back Home

"Natural family planing was as good for our marriage as cleaning stove pipes in spring," one couple told me. "My husband looks at me again," said another. A doctor whose wife reversed her tubal ligation after 18 years wrote that the marriage was like an entirely new experience, a new honeymoon, after the reversal. Another doctor who had his vasectomy reversed, told how tremendously this affected his marriage. Canadian psychiatrist Bernharda Meyer told me that she can practically guarantee that if surgically sterilized couples whose marriages went on the rocks follow her regimen, their marriages heal again within a year. Part of her cure: periodic abstinence, like couples who practice natural family planning. By so doing, they experience that they could have done it before, and they give witness to God that His laws are for our good.

The advice of the Congregation for the Clergy is on target: The priest should make confession easy, first of all by being available.The advice of the Pontifical Council for the Family is also on target, namely to teach marital doctrine in season and out of season, not only in the Confessional. Then it makes sense that the Confessor proceeds 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."

Finally: Abstain from Holy Communion

Cardinal Christoph Sconborn alluded to a crisis in the Church in his address during the Eucharistic congress in Rome, June 23, 2000. To overcome the crisis he asks for frequent confession, because that offers decisive assistance, as it "helps us to form our conscience, to struggle against evil inclinations, to allow ourselves to be healed by Christ, and to make progress in the life of the Spirit."

But, we ask, if the penitent, no longer ignorant, is unwilling to change? I believe that "tough love" might then be in order. Depending on the case, give the advice of Familiaris Consortio:"continue your religious practices in the Church, but abstain from receiving Holy Communion." Thereby the law remains intact even though the progress be gradual. This might bring about the desired effect in many cases, and quite dramatically. The prodigal son converted very soon after his stomach growled from pangs of hunger.

If one couple in your parish can be induced to start, another may follow; and another. In a year or two natural family planning may become the new fashion in your entire parish. Couples will marry again, the Baptismal font will need more water, the school Sisters may have to be called back. So suggests my non-infallible mind, based on the experience of fifty four years in the priesthood.