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William E. May

Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology

John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at

The Catholic University of America

Washington, D.C., USA


            My purpose is to suggest how we can best proclaim to Catholics today, in this age of birth control and dissent, the truth of the Church's teaching on marriage. I will begin by summarizing the seismic shift in the attitudes of American Catholics toward the teaching of the Church between 1958 and today. I do this in order to make it clear that the major obstacle preventing vast numbers of contemporary Catholics from accepting the Church's teaching is their lack of faith in the Church. This lack of faith causes them to regard the Church as an alien body, something extrinsic to their personal selves, and her teaching, particularly on moral issues, as the imposition of arbitrary rules limiting their freedom to do as they please. I will then propose a way of removing this obstacle in order to open up the minds and hearts of Catholics so that they will be capable of receiving the truth about marriage.

            With the ground thus prepared, I will then present the teaching of the Church on marriage as a specific vocation to holiness and integral to God's wise and loving plan for human existence insofar as it is a person-affirming, love-enabling, life-giving, and sanctifying reality inwardly sharing in the life-giving, love-giving, grace-giving bridal union of Christ and his Church. Then, after reflecting on the profound significance of the marital act as one open to the goods or blessings of marriage, I will show why the practice of contraception is both anti-life and anti-love and how the practice of contraception has given rise to the "culture of death."


            1958 is a memorable year, particularly for me, for on October 4, 1958, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Patricia Ann Keck and I were married. Our wedding took place only a few days before the death of Pope Pius XII on October 9, 1958. Pius, in one of the most important addresses of his pontificate, had reaffirmed in no uncertain terms the Church's teaching on the intrinsic immorality of contraception, for in a 1951 allocution to the Italian Catholic Union of Midwives he declared that the precept branding contraception intrinsically immoral "is as valid today as it was yesterday, and it will be the same tomorrow and always, because it does not imply a precept of human law, but it is the expression of a law which is natural and divine." [1]Moreover, on September 12, 1958, less than a month before his death, in one of the final acts of his long pontificate, he clearly and correctly taught that one engages in an intrinsically evil act of contraceptive sterilization if one uses the recently developed anovulant pill precisely in order to prevent conception, [2] thus providing the faithful with the first response of the magisterium to moral issues raised by this new drug.

            1958 is also memorable because in that year Random House published a very helpful book by the Rev. George A. Kelly, The Catholic Marriage Manual, a volume packed with sound pastoral advice both for couples contemplating marriage and for husbands and wives seeking to be faithful to their marriage vows. Kelly began his book with a beautiful chapter, one anticipating in many ways the teaching of the soon-to-be-held Vatican Council II, on marriage as a sacred vocation, as a call, given personally by God to every Catholic married couple, to cooperate with him in his work of creation, redemption, and sanctification, confident that he will, through his Son Jesus, who raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament, give them the grace they need if they are to carry out this sublime mission. [3]         

            Another thing quite memorable about 1958 is that the vast majority of American Catholics, both clergy and laity, wholeheartedly accepted the teaching of the Church on the intrinsic immorality of contraception. Catholics of that day--and many non-Catholics as well--regarded the practice of contraception as disgusting, wondering how it could possibly be morally good deliberately to repudiate the life-giving meaning of the marital embrace and close their hearts to the gift of new life. American Catholics, moreover, regarded the Church as their mother and her teachings as truths meant to help them live worthily as Catholic Christians. Their ready assent to the Church's teaching on marriage and on the evil of contraception lasted well into the 1960s. Kelly reminded his readers of this fact in a wonderfully rewarding essay published in 1979, [4] in which he referred to the findings of a young priest-sociologist from Chicago, Andrew Greeley, who had pointed out in an article published in 1963 that two sociological studies sponsored by secular institutions clearly showed how strongly committed the vast majority of American Catholics were to the Church's teaching on this matter. [5]

            But in a dramatically short period of time all this changed. By the mid 1960s the great majority of American Catholics--and Catholics in all the Western democracies--had come to regard the Church's teaching on this matter as incomprehensible, imposing intolerable burdens on many married couples. It is not my intention here to show how the practice of contraception so rapidly won acceptance by American Catholics or to spell out the critical role played by dissenting theologians and in particular the so-called "majority papers" of the Papal Commission for the Study of Population, the Family, and Natality in preparing the ground for this acceptance. [6] Msgr. Kelly himself has masterfully recounted this sad story in several of his writings. [7]The historical fact is that, by the time Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church's teaching on the immorality of contraception in his 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae, American Catholics, like Catholics almost everywhere in the Western world, had been conditioned to expect that the Church would "change" her teaching and recognize that contraception, far from being intrinsically evil, was necessary and commendable for married couples. His encyclical, consequently, was immediately dismissed by millions of Catholics whose minds had been shaped by the views of dissenting theologians. These views, widely disseminated and praised by the Catholic press in the five years prior to the publication of Humanae vitae, had been, moreover, confirmed by the majority of the commission of experts the pope had himself charged with the task of advising him on this matter. Thus, his rejection of this advice and his reaffirming of the constant teaching of the Church on contraception came as a terrible shock to millions of the faithful.

            As a result of all this, a statement issued immediately after publication of the pope's encyclical, vigorously repudiating its teaching and advising Catholics that they were free in conscience to set that teaching aside and contracept if they so judged, was warmly welcomed by millions of American Catholics, most of whom had not read the encyclical and who would now not bother to read it, partially because it was so soundly trashed by leading Catholic luminaries. This statement, prepared by Charles E. Curran and ultimately signed by more than 600 "experts" on matters Catholic, characterized Humanae vitae as a document that overemphasized the "biological aspects" of conjugal relations, employed a "static worldview" oblivious of the historical character of human existence, displayed "indifference to Vatican II's assertion that prolonged sexual abstinence may cause 'faithfulness to be imperiled and its quality of fruitfulness to be ruined,'" and manifested "an almost total disregard for the dignity of millions of human beings brought into the world without the slightest possibility of being fed and educated decently." [8] 

            By the mid sixties we had indeed entered into "the age of birth control and dissent," and despite the efforts of Pope John Paul II to bring an end to dissent within the Church, to proclaim the beauty of the Church's teaching on marriage, and to show how gravely the practice of contraception violates conjugal love and poisons married life, [9] both dissent within the Church and the practice of contraception by the great majority of Catholic married couples are with us still. Today, most American Catholic couples--and a good many priests and  religious and even, perhaps, a few bishops--would agree with the authors of the statement cited above that "spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the values and sacredness of marriage." [10]


            The passage just cited--one that unquestionably wins the assent of the great majority of American Catholics--considers the relationship between the conscience of a Catholic and the teaching of the Church one between the individual person and an authority extrinsic to the person. Like all men and women, Catholics must follow their own conscience and make up their own minds about what they are to do. In deciding what they are to do Catholics ought to take the teaching of the Church into account, indeed serious account, because this teaching is a privileged datum to be considered in making moral decisions. But the teaching is understood, on this view, as extrinsic to the believer. It is regarded as information coming from an outside source, albeit a privileged source, to be evaluated along with other data, other information. If the reasons given to support the teaching are good, then the individual  Catholic ought to act in accord with it. But if the reasons given to support the teaching do not seem convincing and if there are serious reasons calling it into question, then Catholics are at liberty to set the teaching aside and act accordingly. The ultimate one to judge whether the reasons given to support the teaching are good or not is the individual Catholic, who should seek advice on difficult matters from persons recognized as authorities on them, for instance, priests and theologians. If such authorities think that the reasons for rejecting the teaching of the Church on particular issues, such as contraception, are better than the reasons given to support it, then Catholics are obviously free to reject the teaching and act in ways incompatible with it.

            This understanding of the relationship between the conscience of a Catholic and the teaching of the Church is widespread today; indeed it is regarded by most American Catholics as sound Catholic doctrine. Far from being such, however, this concept flows from a lack of faith in the Church and uproots the conscience of Catholics from its home within the Church, making the Church a reality extrinsic to the person. This understanding, in other words, leads to what one theologian, Carlo Caffarra, has accurately described as the "ontological separation" of the individual Catholic from the Church of which he is a living member. [11] Contemporary Catholics, by and large, are not aware of the truth that the Church herself is integral to their identity, their being, as baptized persons. The teaching of the Church, consequently, is not something extrinsically imposed on the conscience of a Catholic, it is not a "datum" originating from some alien source. It is rather a "reminder" to Catholics of who they are and what they are called to be.

In other words, the teaching of the Church, as John Paul II has so well said,

does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather, it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith. The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph 4:14), and helping it not too swerve from the truth about the good of man, but, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it (Veritatis splendor, no. 64; boldface added).


            If I have correctly identified the major obstacle preventing contemporary American Catholics from hearing, let alone receiving, the teaching of the Church, then, so it seems to me, the only way to overcome it is by a process of evangelization or, better, the re-evangelization of the baptized. Largely as a result of incredibly poor catechesis--an issue that has occupied Msgr. Kelly for decades [12] --most American Catholics emphatically do not think that the Church brings to light truths that their consciences "ought already to possess." Rather, as we have seen, most contemporry American Catholics think that the Church is an extrinsic source furnishing them with data or information that they are to evaluate along with other data, These Catholics must be helped to become aware of the real identity of themselves with the Church herself. Caffarra, after illustrating how this awareness is reflected in the writings of the Fathers of the Church and the great masters of Christian thought, sums matters up by saying that for them the "Church becomes the abode or...ethos of the believer." [13]

            If the Church is to become "the abode or...ethos" of the believer a process of evangelization must take place. Recall now that in the passage from Veritatis splendor cited above our Holy Father said that the teaching of the Church brings to light in the Christian conscience "truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith" (Veritatis splendor, no. 64; emphasis added). Thus, it seems to me, the first step in this process of evangelization/re-evangelization is to reflect deeply on this primordial act of faith and its bearing on the identity, the being, of a Catholic Christian.

1. Faith and the Identity of Catholics: Who We Are and What We Are Called to Be

            The Primordial Act of Faith and Who We Are: What is the "primordial act of faith" to which John Paul II is referring in Veritatis splendor? In it he is referring to the act of faith at the heart of baptism. This act, which we can make only because of God's grace, is an act of free, self-deterimining choice whereby we give to ourselves our identity as Christians. It is the fundamental choice or option of the Christian, and John Paul II speaks of it in this way:

There is no doubt that Christian moral tradition, even in its Biblical roots, acknowledges the specific importance of a fundamental choice which qualifies the moral life and engages freedom on a radical level before God. It is a question of the decision of faith, of the obedience of faith (cf. Rom 16:26) 'by which a man makes a total and free self-commitment to God, offering "the full submission of intellect and will to God as he reveals."' This faith, which works through love (cf. Gal 5:6), comes from the core of man, from his "heart" (cf. Rom 10:10), whence it is called to bear fruit in works (cf. Mt 12:33-35; Lk 6:43-45; Rom 8:5-10; Gal 5:22) (Veritatis splendor, no. 66). [14]

            Most of us were baptized as infants and, at that time, could not actually make free choices for ourselves and hence we could not then make this primordial act of faith for ourselves. But others, our godparents, stood as our proxies, responding in our name and on our behalf to the divine call to die to sin and to live as befits God's very own children. And as we grow in the household of faith we are called to renew this baptismal commitment, this primordial act of faith, when we are confirmed, and we are given the opportunity to renew it frequently during our lives, particularly during the liturgy of the Easter Vigil.

            The truth I wish to focus on here is that our identity as Christians--who we are--is given to us at baptism. In and through baptism a person becomes a member of Jesus' people, the Church. One "dies" to the old humanity wounded by Adam's sin (cf. Rom 5:12) and "rises" to a new kind of life, the kind made possible by union with the risen Lord: "when we were baptized we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father's glory, so we too might live a new life" (Rom 6:4). Through baptism we have "put on Christ" (Gal 3:27) and now live in union with him as his brothers and sisters, truly "children of God," members of the divine family (cf. 1 Jn 3:1; 5:1), able to call Jesus' Father "our Father." In and through baptism Jesus begets us anew through his Spirit, communicating to us a share in his divinity so that we "become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4). We are literally divinized and made "other Christs," his "vicars" on earth. [15]

            This, in brief, is who we are.

            The Primordial Act of Faith and What We Are Called To Be: The act of living faith at the heart of baptism, the act in and through which we give ourselves, with God's grace, our identity as Christians, is a choice or fundamental commitment which "shapes" the entire life of a Christian and serves as the fundamental framework within which the entire life of a Christian and all his everyday choices and actions are meant to be situated and allowed to develop. [16]

            In and through baptism Christians freely commit themselves to a life of holiness. This is the vocation to which all Christians are called. They must be perfect, as their heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mt 5:48). "All the faithful," Vatican II rightly affirms, "whatever their condition or state, each in his own way, are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect" (Lumen gentium, no. 11). In and through baptism Christians commit themselves to live in union with Jesus and to complete, in their own flesh, "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church" (Col 1:24). Jesus wills that we, his brothers and sisters, contribute to his redemptive work, bringing to completion what he has begun so that "we all attain to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:13), until Jesus "will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself" (Phil 3:21). In and through baptism God pours into our hearts his very own life and love, and in freely receiving this superabundant gift, given us by virtue of Jesus' saving death and resurrection, we in turn freely dedicate ourselves to cooperating with our Redeemer in his saving mission. [17]

            Our baptismal commitment requires us, as Jesus time and time again reminds us, to take up our cross daily and follow him; and his yoke will be light because he will help us bear it--he will be our Simon of Cyrene. God has begun his saving work in us through baptism, sanctifying us (1 Cor 1:2; 6:11), filling us with the fullness of Christ (Col 1:10), making us new (Eph 2:15), clothing us in Christ (Gal 3:27). But God's work in us is not completed by baptism. God continues to save us (1 Cor 1:18; 2 Cor 2:15, to make us holy (1 Thes 5:23; 3:13). And we are called and have freely committed ourselves to respond to his grace and be his co-workers in perfecting our holiness (2 Cor 7:1) by wholeheartedly giving ourselves over to a life of righteousness and sanctification (Rom 6:19). Our task is continuously "to put on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 13:14), casting off the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light (Rom 13:2; Eph 5:8-11). As children of the God who is love, our call and commitment is to "abide in him" (1 Jn 2:28; 4:13f) and walk in light and not in darkness. As brothers and sisters of Jesus, whose will was to do only what was pleasing to his Father and who loved us with a healing, redemptive love, so we too ought to will only what is pleasing to the Father and to love others even as Jesus loves us (cf. Jn 13:34).

            By reason of our baptismal commitment, in short, we are "to be what we are!": vicars of Christ, persons whose lives image that of Jesus, persons seeking to shape every choice and action of their lives in such a way that they contribute to Jesus' redemptive work. We are called to be saints!!! We serve God and our Lord Jesus in and through our everyday choices and actions, loving the neighbors whom we do see with self-giving love for otherwise our love for God whom we do not see would be a sham.

2. The Church Is Our Mother and Teacher

            A second crucial step in the process of evangelization/re-evangelization is to remind Catholics that the Church, Christ's spotless bride, is our Mother and our Teacher.

            The Church: Christ's Spouse and our Mother. Catholics must never forget that faith and baptism come to them from God through the Church. The Church is called many things in Scripture: a "sheepfold" (cf. Jn 10:1-10), a "cultivated field" (1 Cor 3:9; Rom 11:13-26), a "choice vineyard" (Mt 21:33-43), a "building of God" (1 Cor 3:9), his "dwelling place" (Eph 2:19, 22; Rev.21:3), his "holy city," the new Jerusalem come down from heaven (cf. Rev 21:1ff).

            Another image applied with special significance to the Church is that of of the spotless spouse of the spotless lamb (Rev 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17). The Church is the bride whom Christ "loved and for whom he delivered himself up that he might sanctify her" (Eph 5:26). She is the bride whom Christ unites indissolubly to himself and whom he constantly nourishes and cherishes (cf. Eph 5:29). The Church, as Vatican II declared in following Sacred Scripture, is in truth the bride whom "Christ filled with heavenly gifts for all eternity, in order that we may know the love of God and of Christ for us, a love which surpasses all understanding (cf. Eph 3:19)" (Lumen gentium, no. 6).

            The Church's model is Mary, the spotless spouse of the Holy Spirit. By her fiat Mary received God's Word and became mother of the Word incarnate. Similarly, as Vatican II affirms, the Church, Christ's holy bride, by contemplating Mary's hidden sanctity, imitating her charity, and faithfully fulfilling the Father's will "becomes herself a Mother through the word of God received in faith." For "by preaching and baptism she brings forth sons and daughters who are conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of God, to a new and immortal life" (Lumen gentium, no. 64).

            In short, we have the identity of Catholic Christians, the one given us at baptism, only because we are "begotten" by the Church as our Mother. An integral component, thus, of our identity, of our being as Christians, is that of being children of the Church, who is indeed our Mother.

            The Church: Our Teacher. As Catholics, moreover, we believe that the Church is the "pillar of truth" (cf. 1 Tim 3:15). Jesus promised his apostles that he would not leave them orphans and that he would send his Spirit to assist them (cf. Jn 14:16-17, 26; 15:26-27; 16:7-15; 20:21-22; Lk 24:49; Acts 2:8; 2:1-4). The Spirit revealed nothing new; rather, he helped the apostles appropriate God's revelation in Jesus (cf. Jn 16:13-1). Within the Church the apostles held first place (cf. 1 Cor 12:28), for upon them the Church is establshed, now and forever (cf. Eph 2:20; Rv 1:8, 20). The apostles were chosen to receive God's revelation in Jesus, but this revelation was not meant for them alone but for all humankind, to whom Jesus sent them to teach his truth (cf. Mt 28:20). The apostolic preaching, through which the revelation given through Jesus was mediated to the apostolic Church, was, as Vatican II affirmed,

to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time. Hence, the apostles, in handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to maintain the traditions which they had learned either by word of mouth or by letter (cf. 2 Thes 2:15), and they warn the faithful to fight hard for the faith that had been handed over to them once and for all (cf. Jude 3). What was handed on by the apostles comprises everything that serves to make the People of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith. In this way the Church, in her doctrine, life, and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes (Dei Verbum, no. 8; emphasis added).

            Within the apostolic college Peter, the "rock" upon which Jesus founded the Church (cf. Mt 16:16) and the one to whom the risen Lord had givn the charge to strenghten his brothers (Jn 21:15-17) was head. Catholic faith--the faith to which one commits oneself at baptism--holds that the authority divinely given to Peter and the other apostles to teach in Jesus' name still exists in the Church. It is vested in the college of bishops, who are the successors of the apostles; and just as headship within the apostolic college was divinely given to Peter, so too in the college of bishops this headship is, by God's will, given to Peter's successor, the bishop of Rome, the pope.

            In short, teaching authority--the magisterium--within the Church, understood precisely as the authority to teach in the name of Christ the truths of faith and "everything that serves to make the People of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith" (Dei Verbum, no. 8), is entrusted to the college of bishops under the Roman Pontiff. [18] The magisterium teaches in Christ's name both truths to be believed and truths that must be lived, i.e., moral truths, the truths to which human choices and actions must be conformed if they are to be compatible with the identity that Christians have as children of God, called to holiness, called to be "other Christs" in the world in which they live, sharing in his redemptive work.

            Thus the Church, our mother, is also our teacher. The Church is the "home," the "abode" wherein we live and move and have our being. Thus her teachings are not extrinsic to our identity, but intrinsic to it, bringing to our conscience, as John Paul II has said, "truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith" (Veritatis splendor, no. 64; boldface added).

            Once these key steps in evangelization/reevangelization have been taken and the faithful are once more mindful of who they are and who they are called to be and remember that the Church is their mother and teacher, whose teachings are intrinsic to their identity, their being, as Christians, the ground will then be prepared to put before their minds the truth about marriage in this age of dissent and birth control.

            I will now attempt briefly to set forth this teaching and then conclude by examining the question of contraception.


            I believe that the truth about marriage--the truth proclaimed by our Mother the Church--can be summarized by considering marriage as (1) a person-affirming reality, (2) a love-enabling reality, (3) a life-giving reality, and (4) a sanctifying reality.[19]

1. Marriage: A Person-affirming Reality

            God, as Scripture (cf. Gen 1 and 2; Mt 19:9ff and par.) and the Church [20] remind us, is the author of marriage, the one who gives to it its "defining characteristics." [21] But he has entrusted to the free choice of men and women the establishment of particular marriages, for a marriage comes into being only when a man and a woman, forswearing all others, through an "act of irrevocable personal consent" [22] freely give themselves to one another. At the heart of marriage is a free, self-determining choice on the part of man and woman through which they give themselves a new and lasting identity. The man gives himself the identity of this particular woman's husband, she gives herself the identity of this particular man's wife, and together they give themselves the identity of spouses. In and through this act they make each other unique and irreplaceable. The man and the woman, by giving themselves irrevocably to one another in marriage, make each other irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable persons. As the late German Protestant theologian, Helmut Thielicke so beautifully said, "Not uniqueness establishes the marriage, but the marriage establishes the uniqueness." [23]

            Before a man and a woman marry, they are free to go their separate ways. Although each is indeed an irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable person, they have not made each other unique, irreplaceable, and nonsubstitutable in their own lives. They have not yet established their uniqueness, their irreplaceability, their nonsubstitutability. But once they have given their irrevocable personal consent to marriage, they have done something they simply cannot undo. For they have, by their own free and self-determining choice, given to themselves and to one another a new kind of identity, and nothing they subsequently do can change this identity. They cannot unspouse themselves; they cannot make themselves to be ex-husbands or ex-wives any more than I can make myself to be an ex-father to the children I have begotten. I may be bad father, a terrible father, but I am nonetheless still my children's father. Similarly, I may be a bad husband, a terrible husband, but I am still my wife's husband and nothing I can do and nothing she can do can change this, for this is an identity that I freely gave myself and that she freely gave me when we gave each other our irrevocable consent to marry. We made each other irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable in our lives.          From this we can see that the unity and indissolubility of marriage is rooted in the very being of the man and the woman, in their freely chosen identity as husbands and wives, as persons made irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable in each other's life. It is precisely because marriage, as a person-affirming reality, is rooted in the irrevocable choice of the man and the woman to be spouses, to be husband and wife, [24] that our Lord not only expressly condemned divorce ("let no man put asunder what God has joined," Mk 10:9) but also said that any divorce which might possibly take place had no effect whatsoever on the bond of marriage itself ("whoever divorces is wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and the woman who divorces her husband and marries another commits adultery," Mk 10:11-12).

            Marriage is truly a person-affirming reality.

2. Marriage: A Love-enabling Reality

            Marriage is not only person-affirming; it is also love-enabling, for it enables husbands and wives to give to one another the unique and special kind of love which we call spousal or conjugal or marital love, a love different from other kinds of human love. Other kinds of human love--love of neighbor, love of one's children, love of enemies--are inclusive, not exclusive. We are to love all our neighbors, all our children, all our enemies. But the love of husband and wife is utterly unique; it first of all absolutely exclusive. A husband can love no other woman as he loves his wife, and a wife can love no other man as she loves her husband. Yet conjugal love, while exclusive, is by no means one that locks husband and wife into an egoisme a deux. To the contrary, it enables them, precisely because it is unique and exclusive, to love other persons more fully and deeply.

            Vatican II, in Gaudium et spes (nos. 49-50), and Pope Paul VI, in Humanae vitae (no. 9), describe conjugal love as a love that is human, total, faithful and exclusive until death, and fecund or fertile. It is, in other words, a love that differs from other kinds of human love because it includes the whole of the other person as a human, sexual, procreative being, sexually complementary in nature. As John Paul II says,

Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter--appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of the will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual self-giving, and it is open to fertility (Familiaris consortio, no. 13). [25]

            Marriage is the "intimate community of life and of conjugal love" (Gaudium et spes, no. 48). The institution of marriage makes conjugal love possible; non-married persons may aspire to conjugal love but they cannot give this kind of love to one another, and they cannot do so because they have not made each other absolutely irreplaceable and nonsubtitutable and in doing so capacitating themselves to give conjugal love. But husbands and wives, who have made each other absolutely irreplaceable and nonsustitutable, have capacitated themselves to do what husbands and wives are supposed to do, and one of the things husbands and wives are supposed to do is to love one another with spousal, conjugal love.

            Conjugal love is, in fact, the life-giving or animating principle of marriage, and marriage as an institution protects and defends this love. Indeed, we can truly say that conjugal love constitutes the personal reality that the institution of marriage confirms, protects, and sanctions before God and man. [26] The very first act of conjugal love is the act of irrevocable consent bringing marriage into being. Husbands and wives are committed to protect, foster, and develop this love throughout their marriage. They are obliged to do so precisely because they can do so, and what capacitates them to give, foster, and deepen this love is their marriage itself. Conjugal love abides in marriage as its life-giving principle and intrinsic requirement.

            Marriage is thus a love-enabling reality.

3. Marriage: A Life-giving Reality

            A human person, no matter how he or she comes into existence, is precious and good, a being of incalculable value, worthy of respect, a bearer of inviolable rights, a being who ought to be loved. But it is not good for new human life to come into being through the random copulation of nonmarried males and females. This is not good precisely because nonmarried males and females have failed to capacitate themselves, through their own free choices, to receive this life lovingly, nourish it humanely, and educate it in the love and service of God and neighbor. [27] I want to note here that practically all civilized societies, until very recently, rightly regarded it as irreponsible for unattached men and women to generate human life through their acts of fornication, and it is a sign of a new barbarism, the new "culture of death," that many today champion the "right" of "live-in lovers" and of single men and women to have children, whether the fruit of their coupling or the "product" of new reproductive technologies.

            But husbands and wives, who have irrevocably given themselves to one another in marriage, have, by their own free choice, capacitated themselves to do what married persons are supposed to do, and one of the things that married persons are supposed to do is to "welcome life lovingly, nourish it humanely, and educate it in the love and service of God and neighbor." Conjugal love, as we have seen, is fertile or fecund, open to the gift of new human life.

            Thus marriage is a life-giving reality and is so because a man and a woman, precisely by giving themselves irrevocably to each other in marriage, make themselves fit to receive the gift of human life from God. Their sublime mission is to welcome it and give it the home it needs and to which it has a right, a home where it can take root and grow.

4. Marriage: A Sanctifying Reality

            The truth that marriage is a person-affirming, love-enabling, and life-giving reality is a truth rooted in the fact that God is the author of marriage, the one who gives to it its "defining characteristics," and the defining characteristics of marriage as an intimate partnership of life and love require it to be person-affirming, love-enabling, life-giving. This is the nature of marriage.             

            The God who is the author of marriage is the one who has willed to enter into a covenant of love with human persons. He is the source of sanctifying grace, which enables us to share his divine nature, just as his only-begotten Son, by becoming man, shares our human nature. Nature is for grace; creation is for covenant.

            God has willed our human nature to be the kind of nature that it is--the nature of sexual, bodily persons endowed with intelligence and free choice--precisely so that we would be able to accept his offer of grace and enter into an everlasting covenant with him. He cannot give his own life to nonrational creatures like dogs or cats or chimpanzees simply because these creatures of his are not inwardly open to receive this surpassing gift. Nor could he become incarnate in creatures of this kind. But he can give his very own life to us because he has made us to be the kind of beings capable of receiving it, and he can and has become incarnate in human flesh in the person of his only-begotten Son, precisely to redeem us from sin and enable us fully to become the beings he wills us to be: his very own children, members of the divine family.

            Similarly, God has given the human reallty of marriage the nature it has as a person-affirming, love-enabling, life-giving reality precisely because he has willed to integrate this reality into his economy of salvation and to make it a grace-giving, sanctifying reality. Jesus, his Son and our Lord and Redeemer, has raised it to the dignity of a sacrament of grace.

            In the Old Testament marriage was fittingly used by the prophets (Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel) as a symbol of the loving union or covenant between Yahweh and his people. God's Son Jesus is the supreme prophet, the One who fully reveals to us the mystery of God's love for humankind. And the New Testament portrays Jesus as the Bridegroom par excellence, the One who gives his life up for his spotless bride the Church. Moreover, in the New Testament we read that the human reality of marriage symbolizes the bridal union of Christ and his Church: this is the "great mystery" to which marriage points (cf. Eph 5:23ff).

            In addition, the marriage of Christians, of those who have become indissolubly one with Christ through baptism (cf. 1 Cor 6), not only points to or symbolizes the life-giving, love-giving, sanctifying union of Christ and the Church, but it also inwardly participates in this bridal union and makes it efficaciously present in the world so long as they do not put obstacles in the way.

            Christian marriage is thus a sanctifying reality and as such it constitutes for husband and wife a specific vocation to holiness, to sanctity. [28] As a sanctifying reality, marriage is a specific call to husbands and wives to carry on the redemptive work of Christ and to make their homes a domestic Church. [29] Indeed, the "conjugal good" or "bonum coniugum" [30] to which marriage is ordered along with the procreation and education of children, is best understood to refer to the sanctity to which Christian spouses are called. [31]

            Marriage is, thus, a sanctifying reality.


            Conjugal love is uniquely and fittingly expressed in the conjugal act (Gaudium et spes, no. 49), for which marriage also capacitates the spouses. The conjugal act, whereby husband and wife literally become "one flesh," is indeed a very specific and special kind of act.

            First of all, it is an act that manifests, in a unique and fitting way, the complementarity of husband and wife as male and female. I believe that we can rightly regard human sexuality as a giving and a receiving. It is a giving and a receiving for both males and females. However, males and females express their sexuality--their giving and receiving--in complementary ways: the male gives in a receiving sort of way, while the female receives in a giving sort of way. It is not that the male is active and the female passive. There is activity on the part of both, but the man, precisely because of the kind of sexual being that he is, gives in a receiving sort of way while the female, precisely because she is the kind of sexual being she is, receives in a giving sort of way. [32]

            This is illuminated in a very special way in the marital or conjugal act. In this act the husband gives himself to his wife by entering into her body, her person, and in doing so he receives her into himself, while she, in receiving him bodily into herself, gives to him the gift of herself.

            It is most important to recognize that the conjugal act is not a mere genital act between a man and a woman who simply happen to be married. It is, rather, an act participating in the marriage itself and one made possible only because of the marriage: marriage, in other words, enables the husband and wife to engage in the marital act.

            Nonmarried men and women are capable of engaging in genital acts because they are endowed with genitals. But when nonmarried men and women have sex, they do not, and cannot, give themselves to each other and receive each other. The man cannot give himself to the woman in a receiving sort of way, nor can she receive him in a giving sort of way. They cannot do so precisely because they are not married. Their genital act, consequently, does not unite two irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable persons; it merely joins two individuals who remain in principle replaceable, substitutable, disposable. There can be, between them, no true giving in a receiving sort of way nor receiving in a giving sort of way.

            But husbands and wives, who have freely chosen to give themselves the identity of spouses, are capable of engaging in the conjugal or spousal act; they are capable of doing so precisely because their marriage enables them to do so. The conjugal act, precisely as conjugal, is an act that participates in their marriage: it is a giving and receiving sort of act, one capable of expressing their unique and exclusive love for one another. If the husband, in choosing to have sex with his wife, refuses to give himself in a receiving sort of way but rather seeks simply to use his wife to satisfy his sexual desires, he is not, in truth, engaging in the conjugal act, nor would his wife be doing so were she to refuse to receive him in a giving sort of way.

            A remarkable passage in Humanae vitae brings out this truth. In it Pope Paul said that everyone will recognize that a conjugal act (and here he is using the term in a purely descriptive sense as a genital act between a man and a woman who merely happen to be married and not in its moral sense as an act participating in marriage itself) imposed upon one of the spouses with no consideration of his or her condition or legitimate desires, "is not a true act of love," inasmuch as it "opposes what the moral order rightly requires from spouses" (n. 13). It is, in reality, not a true conjugal act, for it violates one of the essential goods of marriage, namely, conjugal love, and precisely because it does so it does not inwardly participate in the marriage itself. It is rather an act of spousal abuse.

            Indeed, as Pope John Paul II has reminded us, a husband can in a true sense commit adultery with his own wife if he simply uses her as a means to gratify his lust without any concern for her well being. [33] Marriage does not capacitate men and women to engage in lustful, exploitative sexual acts, but it does enable husbands and wives to engage in the conjugal act, one expressive of their unique and exclusive love for one another.


            Just as a sexual, genital act between persons who happen to be married is not truly a conjugal or marital act if it is imposed upon one of the spouses against his or her reasonable will--i.e., if it is an act of spousal abuse rather than a spousal or conjugal act, so too it follows (as Paul VI sought to bring out later on in paragraph no. 13 of Humanae vitae) that a sexual genital act between persons who happen to be married is not a true conjugal or spousal act if it has been contracepted, i.e., intentionally closed to the gift of new human life or contracepted. An act of genital sex imposed upon a spouse against his or her reasonable will violates the good of conjugal love; contracepted intercourse violates another good of marriage, the good of children, for it is in essence an anti-life kind of act.

            This is clear from a consideration of what contraception is. Contraception is not a sexual or genital act but is rather essentially related to one. A person would not think of contracepting unless he or she, planning to engage in the kind of action--genital sex--reasonably believed to be the kind of act through which new human life can be given, does not want life to be given in and through that freely chosen genital act. Thus the person does something, prior to the freely chosen genital act, during it, or during the course of its natural consequences, intended precisely to impede procreation, that is, to prevent the conception of the life that could be conceived through the genital act in question. This, indeed, is precisely how Paul VI defines contraception in Humanae vitae: "every action, which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act [understood here merely as a genital act between persons who happen to be married], or in its accomplishment, or in the development of it natural consequences, proposes [intendat] either as end or as means, to impede procreation [ut procreatio impediatur]" (Humanae vitae, no. 14). In other words, what one does when one contracepts is intentionally to impede the beginning of a new human life that one reasonably believes could begin in the freely chosen genital act if one did not contracept. If new life does begin despite one's deliberate efforts to impede its beginning, it comes to be as an "unwanted child."

            Contraception is, therefore, an anti-life kind of an act, as a long tradition in the Church has emphasized. [34] The anti-life nature of contraception has been emphasized in the article by Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, John Finnis, and William E. May, "'Every Marital Act Ought To Be Open to New Life': Toward a Clearer Understanding," The Thomist 52 (1988) 367-426.

            Contraception, when practiced by husbands and wives, is also an anti-love kind of act, one not worthy of married persons and opposed to conjugal love, a point that John Paul II has particularly emphasized in his writings. By choosing to contracept husbands and wives--in all likelihood without being aware or fully aware of what they are doing--actually refuse to give themselves to one another unreservedly and unconditionally. But in truth they refuse to share with one another their procreativity. Contraception, John Paul II emphasizes, "alters the value of 'total' self-giving." Through contraception "the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid...by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality" (Familiaris consortio, no. 32). [35]

            Contraception, therefore, is both an anti-life and an anti-love kind of an act, incompatible with the love-giving, life-giving meaning of marriage and the act proper to it.

            Considerations such as those advanced in this part of my paper, however, may fail to change hearts and minds. I believe that they can be given more "teeth" if in addition, in speaking about contraception, we speak of the specific ways of contracepting. After all, one cannot contracept simply by taking thought; one has to do something. Let us consider first the barrier methods of contaception--condoms, diaphragms, along with the use of spermicidal jellies, etc. It seems to me to be an odd way to caress one's loved one tenderly by first putting on gloves or donning protective paraphernalia. But this is what is done when condoms and diaphragms are used. How odd to stop in the midst of giving oneself to one's spouse in order quickly to get a condom on, or to prepare to welcome one's husband into one's body person by first making sure that the diaphragm is in place and the spermicidal jellies are set to do their job. After all, fertility is not a curse or a pathological condition.

            If we consider other alleged contraceptives, the "pill," IUDs, Norplant, etc. we discover that the "pill" at times "works" not by preventing conception but rather by preventing the implantation of human life already conceived in the womb, and that this is always the modus operandi of IUDs and Norplant. Thus to be willing to use these means to avoid a pregnancy is to be willing to kill unborn human life. Ought those who are "vicars of Christ" be ready to do this?

            Undoubtedly, the biggest objection most Catholics have about the Church's teaching on contraception is that it is too rigoristic, too unrealistic, impossible for married couples today.[36]

            This objection must be faced. Today, of course, it can be shown that modern methods of natural family planning are as effective in helping couples avoid a pregnancy, if there is serious reason to do so, as any kind of contraceptive device. And this truth must be proclaimed to the Catholic faithful clearly, intelligently, consistently. It is "good news" for couples who have serious reasons for postponing or avoiding completely a pregnancy and at the same time enable them to respect, indeed reverence, the goods of marriage.

            But the availability of contemporary methods of natural family planning--which also enable spouses to achieve pregnancy when this is desired--is not the final answer to this objection. The final answer must be the same that Pius XII gave in his 1951 Address to the Italian Union of Midwives, when the only kind of natural family planning available was the "rhythm method." [37] Although not as unreliable as many of its critics would like to claim, it nonetheless earned the sobriquet of "Vatican roulette." And there can be no doubt that hundreds of Catholic couples, loyal to the Church, tried it only to have "rhythm babies." These couples, if they had very serious reasons not to cause a pregnancy, did not resort to contraception. Rather, they abstained from expressing their love for one another through the conjugal act until the wife reached menopause or until the serious reason for not causing a pregnancy no longer existed. They did so because, with Pius XII and the entire Catholic tradition, they realized that God never commands the impossible. But, as faithful Catholics and as spouses who respected the life-giving meaning of their conjugal acts and the openness of that act to the gift of life, they knew that God did require them not to contracept, to make their freely chosen genital acts anti-life and anti-love. And if he required them not to contracept, then it was possible for them not to. They did what lay in their power, and they asked their Father to give them the help needed to abstain and to express their love in new and creative ways, and their Father, who never gives his children a stone when they ask for bread, heard them and enabled them to be faithful to love and to life. God still does the same, and the Catholic faithful must be helped to realize this.


* This essay appeared in Keeping Faith: Msgr. George A. Kelly’s Battle for the Church, A Colloquy, ed. Patrick G. D. Riley. Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 2000), pp.63-96.

1. Pope Pius XII, "Address to the Italian Catholic Union of Midwives," October 29, 1951, no. 25; in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 43 (1951) 835-854, at 842. The Address, given in Italian, was entitled "Vegliare con sollecitudine."

2. Pope Pius XII, "Address to the Seventh Hematological Congress," September 12, 1958, no. 11.

3. George A. Kelly, The Catholic Marriage Manual (New York: Random House, 1958), chapter 1, pp. 3-18, where Kelly describes eloquently the meaning of Christian marriage as a vocation to holiness. The Manual contained, as one might expect, a chapter devoted to the issue of birth control. In it Kelly sought to help couples understand why the Church repudiates contraception as gravely immoral. In it he also described the "rhythm method" of regulating conception, at that time the only form of natural family planning available, clearly setting forth the conditions under which the practice of the rhythm method in marriage is morally upright (cf. chapter 4, pp. 42-67).

4. George A. Kelly, "The Bitter Pill the Catholic Community Swallowed," in Human Sexuality in Our Time: What the Church Teaches, ed. George A. Kelly (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1979), pp. 13-101. It should be noted that the publication of this excellent book of essays was prompted by the publication, in 1977, of Anthony Kosnik et al's Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), a "study commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America." This volume drew together the "new directions" of Catholic Thought championed by dissenting theologians. It repudiated the Church's teaching not only on contraception but on sexual morality in general, claiming that no specific moral norms are absolutely binding and arguing for the moral iicitness of "creative adultery" and, possibly, even of coition with a beast in the absence of other "sexual outlets" when the need for release from sexual tensions is overwhelming.

5. Andrew Greeley, "Family Planning Among American Catholics," Chicago Studies (Spring, 1963), cited by Kelly in "The Bitter Pill the Catholic Community Swallowed," pp. 17-19. On the basis of these sociological studies Greeley concluded that "the success of the Church's efforts to induce the younger generation of Catholic couples to adopt approved methods [contradicts] assertions occasionally made that Catholics are increasingly adopting appliance [contraceptive] methods," and that "the more education, the more income, the higher the occupational category, the more likely Catholics are to keep the Church's law and the more likely they are to have or to want larger families."

6. The Papal Commission produced four papers, intended for the Pope alone. These documents, prepared by the Commission in 1966, were leaked to the press in 1967, in an effort to put pressure on Paul VI to "change" the Church's teaching on contraception. Of these, one was prepared by the "minority" of the Commission. Entitled "Status Quaestionis: Doctrina Ecclesiae Ejusque Auctoritas" in Latin, it is included under the title "The State of the Question: A Conservative View" in The Birth Control Debate: Interim History from the Pages of the National Catholic Reporter (Kansas City, MO: National Catholic Reporter, 1968), pp. 25-62. Three papers were prepared by the "majority": (1) a document given the Latin title "Documentum Syntheticum de Moralitate Regulationis" and included under the title "The Question Is Not Closed: The Liberals Reply" in ibid., pp. 63-77; (2) a paper entitled "Schema Documenti de Responsabili Paternitate" and included under the title "On Responsible Parenthood" in ibid., pp. 79-101; and (3) a document in French, entitled "Indications Pastorales" and published under the title "Pastoral Approaches" in ibid., pp. 103-111.

7. See the following works of Msgr. Kelly: (1) "The Bitter Pill That the Catholic Community Swallowed" (bibliographical details given in endnote 4); (2) The Battle for the American Church (New York: Doubleday, 1980); (3) Keeping the Church Catholic With John Paul II (New York: Doubleday, 1990), Chapter Two, "The Battle in Rome over Contraception," pp. 29-51.

8. Among the signers of this statement were the world renowned and highly respected German Redemptorist moral theologian Bernard Haering and, sad to say, the author of this essay, who signed chiefly because of his desire to curry favor with the theological "elite" of the day. The statement can be found in The Birth Control Debate, pp. 179-181.

9. Among the most significant steps John Paul II has taken to bring an end to dissent within the Church are the following: (1) his Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, on the role of a Catholic university; (2) his Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, in which he repudiated the proportionalistic/consequentialist method of making moral judgments (the method employed inn the defense of contraception), reaffirmed the truth that some human acts are intrinsically evil by reason of the object freely chosen and, corresponding to them absolute moral norms that admit of no exceptions, and vigorously repudiated dissent on matters of both faith and morals as destructive of the unity of the Church; and (3) his Motu Proprio "Ad Tuendam Fidem." Throughout his pontificate he has tirelessly sought, again and again, to articulate the beauty of the Church's teaching on marriage and the reasons why contraception is intrinsically evil and utterly opposed to conjugal love. Here the most significant documents are (1) his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio; (2) his Wednesday conferences on the "theology of the body," originally published in English in four books: (1) Original Unity of Man and Woman, (2) Blessed Are the Pure of Heart, (3) Marriage and Celibacy, and (4) Reflections on Humanae Vitae (all published by St. Paul Editions), now available in a one-volume edition in English under that title (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1998); and (3) his Letter to Families.

10. See "Statement of Theologians," in The Birth Control Debate, p. 181.

11. Carlo Caffarra, "The Autonomy of Conscience and Subjection to Truth," in Crisis of Conscience: Philosophers and Theologians Analyze Our Growing Inability to Discern Right from Wrong, ed. John M. Haas (New York: Crossroad, 1966), p. 151.

12. See, for instance, Keeping the Church Catholic With John Paul II, pp. 77-97.

13. Caffarra, "The Autonomy of Conscience and Subjection to Truth," p. 151.

14. The internal citations within this passage are from Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, no. 5, which in turn cits from Vatican Council I, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Dei Filius, Ch. 3. On baptism as the "fundamental option" or choice of the Christian see Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 1, Christian Moral Principles (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983), p. 551ff. See also my An Introduction to Moral Theology (Second Edition: Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003), pp. 221-226

15. In his Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis Pope John Paul II emphasized that the Christian religion is not "just one religion among many....It is a 'mystery,' the event of the coming of the Son of God who becomes man and gives to those who welcome him 'the power to become the children of God' (Jn 1:12). It is the proclamation, nay the gift of a personal covenant of love and life between God and man" (no. 46). Commenting on this passage J. A. DiNoia, O.P., says: "Christianity affirms that the triune God could not bring about a more intimate union with created persons than that which has begun in Baptism." See DiNoia's "Veritatis splendor: Moral Life as Transfigured Life," in Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral Theology, ed. J. A. DiNoia, O.P. and Romanus Cessario, O.P. (Chicago: Midwest Theological Forum, 1999), p. 1.

16. In Veritatis splendor, no. 65, John Paul II notes that emphasis has rightly been placed "on the importance of certain choices which 'shape' a person's entire moral life, and which serve as bounds within which other particular choices can be situated and allowed to develop." I have here paraphrased this passage, applying it to the choice--the commitment--which the whole Catholic tradition, as John Paul II observes in ibid., no. 64, recognizes as fundamental to the Christian life, namely, the act of living faith.

17. This idea is beautifully developed by George T. Montague, S.M., in his Maturing in Christ: St. Paul's Program for Christian Growth (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1964), pp. 193-230.

18. "The task of authentically interpreting the Word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Christ" (Dei Verbum, no. 10).

19. In chapter one of my book, Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family Is Built (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995) I have set forth in some depth marriage as a person-affirming, love-enabling, life-giving, and sanctifying reality. In this part of this paper I will summarize material set forth in greater detail there.

20. That God is the author of marriage is the solemn and constant teaching of the Church. See, for example, Council of Trent, DS 1597; Pope Pius XI, Casti connubii, DS 3700; Vatican Council II, Gaudium et spes, no. 48.

21. On this see Edward Schillebeeckx, Marriage: Human Reality and Saving Mystery (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965), p. 24: "To be created by God, or to be named by him, implied a commission to serve him. The whole of the Old Testament ethic of marriage and family was based on this. The things of the earth and of man received their hoq or huqqah [their statutes of limitation, their defining characteristicss] with their creation; each received, on creation, its intrinsic conditions of existence, its defined limits."

22. Vatican Council II, Gaudium et spes, no. 48.

23. Helmut Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 108.

24. Pope John Paul II brings out beautifully the truth that marriage is rooted in a free, self-determining choice in his reflections on Gen 2:23-24, where the first man, on awakening from the deep sleep into which God had put him when he fashioned the first woman from his ribs, exclaimed: "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh....For this reason a man shall leave father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." The Holy Father writes: "The very formulation of Genesis 2:24 indicates not only that human beings, created as man and woman, were created for unity, but also that precisely this unity, thrugh which they become 'one flesh,' has right from the beginning a character of union derived from choice. We read, in fact, 'a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife.' If the man belongs 'by nature' to his father and mother by virtue of procreation, he, on the other hand, 'cleaves' by choice to his wife (and she to her husband)" (Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechesis on Genesis [Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1981], pp. 81-82, emphasis added).

25. John Paul II's teaching here is integrated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1643.

26. This is the clear teaching of Vatican II in Gaudium et spes, nos. 48-49. Excellent commentaries on these texts are given by Francisco Gil Hellin and Ramon Garcia de Haro. See Francisco Gil Hellin, "El matrimonio: Amor e institucion," in Cuestiones fundamentales sobre matrimonio y familia (Il Simposio Internacional de Teologia de la Universidad de Navarra), ed. Augusto Sarmiento et al. (Pamplona: Eunsa, 1980), pp. 231-245, and "El lugar propio del amor conyugal en la estrutura del matrimonio segun la 'Gaudium et spes,'" in Annales Valentinos 6, no. 11 (1980) 1-35; Ramon Garcia de Haro, Marriage and Family in the Documents of the Magisterium, trans. from the Italian by William E. May (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), pp. 234-256.

27. Centuries ago St. Augustine rightly said that one of the chief goods of marriage is children, who are "to be received lovingly, nourished humanely, and educated religiously," i.e., in the love and service of God and neighbor. See his De genesi ad literam, 9, 7 (PL 34 397).

28. On this see Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, no. 48: "spouses, therefore, are fortified and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and dignity of their state by a special sacrament; 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 by faith, hope, and charity; thus they increasingly further their own perfection and their mutual sanctification, and together they render glory to God."

29. On this see John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, part III, section 4, devoted to the role of the Christian family in carrying out the redemptive mission of the Church. See also chapter 5 of my Marriage: The Rock On Which the Family Is Built, pp. 101-120.

30. On this see Code of Canon Law, canon 1055: "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered to the good of the spouses and to the procreation and education of offspring" (emphasis added).

31. On this see Cormac Burke, "Marriage Annulments and Married Personalism," Catholic Dossier 5.1 (Jan./Feb. 1999) 18-24, especially 20-23.

32. On this see Robert Joyce, Human Sexual Ecology: A Philosophy of Man and Woman (Washington: University Press of America, 1980), p. 67ff. See also chapter 2 of my Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family Is Built.

33. On this see John Paul II, Blessed Are the Pure of Heart: Catechesis on the Sermon on the Mount and the Writings of St. Paul (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1983), pp. 136-141, especially pp. 138-141.

34. On this see the "Si Aliquis" canon, the teaching of the Roman Catechism and other sources, e.g., St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentes, Book 3, ch. 122. The "Si Aliquis" canon, part of canon law from the time of Gratian in the 12th century until early in the 20th, reads as follows: "If anyone for the sake of lust or with premeditated hatred does anything to a man or to a woman or gives them something to drink so that he cannot generate or she conceive or offspring be born, let it be held as homicide." The Roman Catechism (the Catechism of the Council of Trent), used throughout the Catholic world from the end of the sixteenth century until the end of the twentieth, said that "whoever, united in marriage, either impede conception by medicines or expel the child conceived, commit a most grave crime, for this must be considered the impious conspiracy of homicide" (part 2, chapter 8, no. 13). It is to be noted that Paul VI explicitly refers to this text of the Roman Catechism in footnote 14 of Humanae vitae.

35. This teaching of John Paul II is incorporated into The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2370. For an excellent presentation of John Paul II's thought on contraception see Janet Smith, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1991), pp. 107-118, 230-265.

36. On this see the Introduction by Robert Hoyt to the papers from the Papal Birth Control Commission in The Birth Control Debate.

37. In this famous address (cf. endnote no. 1 for details), Pius had the following to say: "It will be objected that such abstinence is impossible, that heroism such as this is not feasible....The following argument is brought forward as proof: No one is obliged to do the impossible and no reasonable legislator is presumed to wish by his law to bind persons to the impossible. But for married people to abstain for a long time is impossible. Therefore, they are not bound to abstain: divine law cannot mean that. In such arguments a false conclusion is reached from premises which are only partially true. To be convinced of this, one has simply to reverse the terms of the argument: God does not obige us to do the impossible. But God obliges married people to abstain if their union cannot be accomplished according to the rules of nature. Therefore, in such cases, abstinence is possible. In confirmation of this argument, we have the doctrine of the Council of Trent which, in the chapter on the necessary and possible observance of the Commandments, referring to a passage in the works of St. Augustine, teaches: 'God does not command the impossible, but when he commands, he warns you to do what you can and to ask his aid for what lies beyond your powers, and he will give you the help to make that possible for you.'"

Copyright ©; William E. May 2003

Version: 21st November 2003

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