Conflicting Absolutes

Devona asked me to post again on this ethical principle and how I believe it relates to the issue of contraception. First, let's look at the broader picture of the ethical principles Christians have to choose from:

An excellent exposition of these principles is found in Norman L. Geisler’s Christian Ethics: Options and Issues, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1989), pages 97-100:

What about moral conflicts? What should one do when two or more of his absolute obligations come into unavoidable conflict?

Basically, there are three answers to this question. First, unqualified absolutism [Roman Catholicism favors this one] affirms that all such conflicts are only apparent; they not real. In short, no two absolute obligations ever come into unavoidable conflict. Second, conflicting absolutism [the more Lutheran position in my opinion]
admits to real moral conflicts but claims that one is guilty no matter which way he goes. Third, graded absolutism (or the greater-good position) [favored by Calvinists] agrees with the view that real moral conflicts do sometimes occur, but maintains that one is personally guiltless if he does the greatest good...

The central assumption of the ethical position of conflicting absolutism is that we live in a fallen world, and in such a world real moral conflicts do occur. The accompanying premise, however, is that when two duties conflict, man is morally responsible to both duties. God’s law can never be broken without guilt. In such cases, therefore, one must simply do the lesser evil, confess his sin, and ask for God's forgiveness.

Conflicting absolutism has roots in the Greek world, was incorporated into Reformation thinking, and finds expression in both modern existential and popular thought. The colloquial "I did the lesser of two evils" is an expression of it. In fact, it can be called the lesser-evil view.

Although there are Christian roots for conflicting absolutism, they grow in Greek soil. The ancient Greek tragedies often portrayed lesser evil situations. In the fifth century B.C., Sophocles and Euripides wrote dramas about heroes who contended against forces of fate they could not avoid. These dramatized dilemmas reflected the nature of the real world of moral conflicts with which conflicting absolutism struggles.

The concept of lesser evils was given a new dimension with the Reformation doctrine of depravity, particularly as that was developed by Martin Luther. There are two things imbedded in Lutheran thought which give rise to a form of conflicting absolutism, the first being Luther's theory of two kingdoms. He believed that Christians live simultaneously in two kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. Since they are opposed and since Christians have responsibility in both, it is inevitable that there will be conflicts.

...Perhaps the most comprehensive contemporary exposition of the conflicting absolutist viw is found in Thielicke’s works. There are several elements in Thielicke's form of conflicting absolutism. Fundamental to his view is the belief in real, unavoidable moral conflicts, for "to deny the conflict situation is to deny decision." In conflict situations, says Thielicke, "I may have to face the possibility that what is involved here is a borderline situation which does not allow of any easy solution." And "I can reach such a decision only by going through the conflict and enduring it, not by evading it in the name of some kind of perfectionism. In the conflict situation sin is unavoidable, for we "constantly fall into sin in the borderline situation." In view of human depravity, these kinds of conflicts should be expected, since "the form of this world is no more able to produce absolute righteousness than our human heart." The consequence is that in this fallen world "conduct is de facto a compromise between the divine requirement and what is permitted by the form of this world.... by the manifold conflicts of duty. Even the so-called just war unavoidably involves injustices. For "there is no such thing as a wholly just war, and my decision to endorse a given war and participate in it can be made only from the standpoint that I see, or think I see, greater wrong on the one side than the other..."

Moral depravity is the cause of moral dilemmas. A moral conflict is “not due to the character imparted to the world by creation, as though 'from the beginning' (Matt. 19:8). . . ." No, "it is due rather to the complex of wrong decisions which lie behind us, which have their ultimate root in that primal decision recorded in the story of the fall." In brief, moral conflicts arise out of the fact that this is a fallen world. In such a world, there will be times when we cannot avoid evil. When decisions are made in conflict situations, we must choose the lesser evil, for "there are heavier sins and lighter sins." They are both sins, but "they do not have the same weight." Thielicke makes it clear that there is no justification of doing the lesser evil. Neither is there any pragmatic justification. For “the slogan’ to prevent something worse’ is always ethically destructive because it subjugates our action to a non-Christian pragmatism. In fact, “readiness to do wrong in order to ‘prevent something worse’ is a very dubious principle, because it implies that the end justifies the means...” We must simply recognize that in conflict situations both commands are our moral duty and that sin is inevitable. Nonetheless, since there are lesser and greater sins, the Christian should do the lesser sin, knowing forgiveness is available. “He knows that her in this world there is no perfect righteousness, but he does not therefore draw the conclusion that everything is under the same condemnation and that everything is equally permissible....” On the contrary, he realizes that there is a “quantitative distinction between reprehensible and less reprehensible, between good and less good possibilities.”

According to Thielicke, “we can undergo and endure borderline situations and...inescapable conflicts only under forgiveness.” The Christian knows “that even in a war which– given things as they are– is ‘just,’ [he] must always stand in need of forgiveness.” Thus our “certainty that acts done under the guidance of the Spirit are, despite their ‘crooked’ form, done in God’s name as his affair, and that at the same time they nonetheless stand in need of forgiveness...” Thus in the conflict situation the Christian “acts in the knowledge that even those actions which conform to the ultimate norms perceptible in this aeon must stand under forgiveness...” In short, even our best effort in obeying God’s commands is an evil that needs to be forgiven.

With that in mind, is the goal of preventing conception always sinful? I say yes. But I also believe there are potential situations when contraception might be the lesser evil. But no one has an entirely sinless reason for contraception. This makes the license Roman Catholicism gives for NFP fall on its head. Can abstinence ever be sinless within marriage if it is for the purpose of preventing a life from being created by a man and wife? 1 Corinthians 7:5 tells us that couples may abstain for a time, but only for the purpose of more devote fasting and prayer, not for the purpose of family planning.

My contention is that any acceptable use of family planning will always be an example of trying to chose the lesser evil. These are rare but difficult decisions that cry out for the aid of one's pastor. But how many pastors understand God's law in the area of procreation? Sadly almost none.

So, let me take this a step further and confess my own sin. Even my best effort at obeying God's command to be fruitful is in need of forgiveness. I do not use any form of contraception [pat self on back - sinful pride], yet I am still guilty of being contraceptive in my heart. We're expecting #7 in another couple months, and it's already hard raising six children. My sinful hope is (and I'm sure will be) that my wife's on-demand nursing will prevent conception for a time. Don't get me wrong, I do LOVE our large family and believe I am very blessed, just as it says in Psalm 127. But I am at the same time saint and sinner, just as Paul confesses in Romans 7. I know I should be open to God's will at all times, even when it seems inconvenient to me.

My knowledge of God's law regarding procreation curbs me from utilizing overt methods of family planing through the first use of the law. And it instructs me in loving God and His immutable good will for us via the third use of the law. But it also on this earth will
always convict me via the second use of the law. Even my best good works stand in need of forgiveness. I sometimes wonder if I should even get out of bed in the morning, because I know it will lead to more sin. But it is a greater evil to stay in bed and not fulfill my vocations as much as humanly possible, so I get up and accept the sad reality that I will keep sinning.

"What a wretched man I am. Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord!" [Romans 7:24-25]


Anonymous said...

I am not so sure that I believe we face absolute conflicts which demand that we choose the lesser of two evils, leaving us no option but to sin. I'll offer some examples from Scripture. Tell me if the person acted sinned:

The midwives who lied about the Hebrew women giving birth so fast that they could not kill the male children.

Rahab, who lied about the spies having already left, when in fact they were hiding on her roof.

David and his men, who ate the shew bread.

The disciples who picked grain, rubbed it in their hands and ate it on the Sabbath.

Jesus, who healed on the Sabbath.

Jesus chastised the Pharisees for laying on the backs of men burdens they could not bear and for having a lack of mercy. He also noted that the Sabbath was made for men, not the other way around. Did that mean that men could do whatever they wanted on the Sabbath, even if no real need was present. I don't think so. I do think that Jesus was teaching that, if we are to be perfect like Him, circumstances may demand that we act in a way which would be sinful but for those circumstances.

For this reason, I believe the Catholic teaching that contraception is inherently evil and thus always sinful, no matter the circumstances, is legalistic and Pharisaical. There are circumstances which may justify it: a real and serious risk to the life of the would-be mother should she become pregnant is the most obvious example. That is applying mercy to temper the law. As C.S. Lewis put it, Shakespeare “never breaks the real laws of poetry,” though “by following them he breaks every now and then the little regularities which critics mistake for the real laws. Then the little critics call it a ‘license.’ But there’s nothing licentious about it to Shakespeare.”

Here, I would argue, the real law is to be choose life. Generally, the use of contraception is a rejection of life, and therefore sinful. However, there may be sad occasions, resulting from the Fall, which make the use of contraception in order to obey the principle of choosing life. The general ban on contraception, then, is a "little regularity," while choosing life is the real law.


P.S. Of course, I am a Presbyterian, so, of course, I would have such a view wouldn't I. ;-)


I'll get you a copy of my pending article soon. The Lewis quote about Shakespeare is included in the article and is taken from That Hideous Strength.

Anonymous said...

Let me try that last paragraph again:

Here, I would argue, the real law is to choose life (as in, I sat before you a blessing and a curse). Generally, the use of contraception is a rejection of life, and therefore sinful. However, there may be sad occasions, resulting from the Fall, which make the use of contraception permissible (that is, not sinful) in order to obey the greater principle of choosing life. The general ban on contraception, then, is a "little regularity" which, under normal circumstances, flows inherently from the real law of choosing life. Abnormal circumstances may make a wooden adherence to the regularity a violation of the real law.


Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

There are no exceptions to God's absolute law. You don't get a pass on one absolute because you follow the other absolute that does the greater good. The life of the Christian is a life of repentance. Original sin makes it impossible to be otherwise.

But now let me address your proposed examples:

The midwives and Rahab sinned, but did the lesser evil. Lying is less evil than allowing others to die! They also did good in the same stories, protecting the lives of others - for which they are praised. Nevertheless, their good works were infected with sin - most notably in these examples the unavoidable sin of lying.

The examples you give of David, the disciples, and Jesus are all examples involving ceremonial law, not God's immutable absolute law. I am not talking about ceremonial law when we talk about conflicting ABSOLUTES. We are talking about God's immutable absolute law.

No doubt the actions of David and the disciples were infected with sin, but obviously the action of Jesus healing on the Sabbath was NOT sin. What immutable absolute law of God did He violate?

In this action of healing on the Sabbath, Jesus showed the true intention of the Third Commandment [the Fourth for you Presbyterians ;-)] and thus reveals God's true immutable law. God never intended that we not do good on the Sabbath. This example you give, GL, involved Jewish ceremonial law, which Christ showed to be Pharisaical. There was no conflicting absolute there for him.

The one thing you failed to bring up, GL, is that Scripture tells us that Christ was tempted in every way we are, yet was without sin. Well then, doesn't that mean Christ must have been put in the situation of conflicting absolutes?

No. Temptation is being presented with the OPTION of sinning. Think of the options Satan placed before Christ in the desert. But there is no temptation in being placed in a situation where you have no sinless option and will sin no matter what you do. In holding to the principle of conflicting absolutes, I believe that somehow Christ was never put in that situation. On the other hand, we sin in everything we do.

How is it that Christ was not subjected to conflicting absolutes? Scripture does not answer that questions.

Anonymous said...

>>>There are no exceptions to God's absolute law.<<<

That, of course, is the question: is the ban on contraception one of God's absolute laws or is the absolute law to choose life and the ban against contraception just a normal application of that law? If the former, then I would have to agree with you. That is, in fact, the Catholic position. (Though it is then hard to square it with their acceptance of NFP -- another topic.) But if the absolute law is to choose life (which would fall under the general category of those laws which mandate that we love our neighbor), then it may be that the ban on contraception applies when its use is motivated by a choice against life (which, sadly, is by far the most common case), but does not apply and, in fact, would be a violation of the absolute law, if a pregnancy would have are real and high likelihood of resulting in maternal (and in some case, fetal) death and would, therefore, be a choice against life and for death.

"I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live." In the vast majority of cases, choosing contraception would be to choose the curse, but it may be that under some circumstance choosing contraception is to choose life.

Lewis, as you know, had grave misgivings about contraception, but he refused to say it was always illicit. Thus, he must have rejected the idea that its ban was an absolute law. We don't know under what circumstances he would have considered it licit, but the quote about Shakespeare from That Hideous Strength gives us a clue. He may have thought the "nearly uniform and unbroken [Christian]" prohibition against contraception flowed generally from some other absolute law but was not itself an absolute law.


P.S. I am not at all sure that the midwives and Rahab sinned, but again, that may be my Calvinist leanings coming out. I would agree with you on exculpating David and his men, the disciples and Christ, the latter of Whom, of course, needs no exculpation.

And, of course, I agree that we all sin all the time in everything we do, but that goes more to our manners and motives in acting rather than the act itself. For example, we do not sin by acting to worship God (it would be a sin not to worship Him), but we undoubtedly do so in the manner of and the motivation behind our worship. Likewise, we do not sin by having sexual intercourse with our spouse (it would be a sin not to have intercourse with one's spouse, except for brief periods devoted to fasting and prayer, as you have noted), but we undoubtedly do so in the manner of and the motivation behind our having intercourse.

Anonymous said...

Another argument from Scripture, related to the Catholic view (of which I am, of course, aware) is the principle which our Lord laid down when condemning divorce: "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate." That is, in essence, a natural law argument. Of course, one could argue that this principle is limited to the application which our Lord made of it, marriage and divorce. On the other hand, it could be argued that the principle has broader application than the one to which our Lord put it.

Specifically, as to the issue at hand, it could be argued that God has joined together sexual intercourse and procreation and man may not separate the two. This does not mean that the only purpose of sexual intercourse is procreation nor does it mean that a husband and wife who are naturally infertile may not enjoy sexual intercourse (in that case, it is not man who is separating the act from being open to life and, as we all know, sometimes "infertile" couples do conceive), but it does mean that man is not permitted to separate procreation from sexual intercourse so that he may enjoy its other purposes while preventing procreation. This principle would condemn not only artificial methods of contraception but also artificial methods of reproduction. I, in fact, accept this principle and believe that both artificial methods of contraception and artificial methods of reproduction are sinful.

The problem with NFP is that this is exactly what it attempts to do. I understand that intercourse engaged in using NFP to prevent conception is, still, theoretically open to life. But, if the NFP apologists are correct about its efficacy, it is no more open to life than the Pill or barrier methods. No method is perfectly effective and proponents of NFP claim it is at least as effective, if not more, than any other method. If NFP is as effective as its proponents claim, I fail to see a fundamental difference between its use as a time barrier and the use of a condom as a space barrier. Both seek to separate what God has joined together and both seek to reject the blessings of children. So, I don't believe that my earlier remarks about the problems with the Catholic teaching are incorrect.

As to Onan, it is not clear to me that he would have been sinning had he sought to prevent conception to save Tamar's life. That, of course, was not his motive. His motive was to prevent conception because he did not want the child. I reject, of course, the idea that he was punished for violating the levirate law (which did not exist at the time), but that does not answer the question of whether we may say that the Onan incident proves that any act of contraception, no matter the circumstances, is illicit.

I gather that we agree that when faced with the real, serious likelihood that a wife might die if she were to get pregnant, the couple may employ non-abortifacient methods to prevent pregnancy. Our only difference is, as I understand it, whether it is a sin to do so. You would have it as choosing the lesser of two evils, but with the act of contraception still being evil. I would have it as a circumstance in which mercy may be applied to mitigate the harshness of the law so that the couple is not bound to bear a burden too great for them and, so, may be done without sinning at all. Our difference revolves around the question of whether the ban against contraception is an absolute law of God or merely a normal application of an absolute law of God.

Some would, perhaps, say that there is no practical difference between our positions as under both the couple could contracept. I believe you would agree, however, that the difference is of great significance as it calls into play the issue of whether repentance is called for. And that is where I have a problem with your stance. If repentance is called for, can that repentance be said to be sincere when the couple fully intends to repeat the act which you consider a sin again and again, as long as the circumstances exist which makes it, in your terms, the lesser of two evils. And if the repentance is not sincere for that reason, then where does that leave the couple. The Catholic would say that they could use NFP. But if NFP is not in its essence any different from AC (and I have never been convince, for the reasons I state above, that it is), what then. Total abstinence would seem to be prohibited by the teaching that periodic abstinence is only permitted when a couple desires to devote themselves to a short period of prayer and fasting. So, they can't exercise true repentance because they full intend to repeat the act and they cannot rely on either periodic abstinence or total abstinence because their motives differ from those authorized in Scripture. The only remaining alternative, if you are correct, is to engage in sexual intercourse which is open to life and to risk the life of the wife. Does God demand that? Would that, in fact, be in violation of the commandment not to murder (which, actually, as I understand it, also include acts of reckless and negligent homicide)?

This is an issue that has troubled me a great deal because I know of couples who face the problem. In fact, while I do not condemn them for their choice, I get the distinct impression that my wife and my decision to submit to God's will in this matter and to forego birth control is not taken well by one or two such couples, who it seems feel that we are condemning their actions. I do not mean to be argumentative. I enjoy reading your counterarguments. I have not, however, been able to accept that what those couples are doing is sin.


Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Greg L.,

As I said before, we can do NOTHING without sinning. It does no good to attempt to find a sinless option. Conflicting absolutes, if it is in error (and I'm not saying I believe it is), errs on the side of depending on Christ rather than ourselves.

That's it for today. I'm going to be busy for a while.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Greg, this comment belongs up above your 5:06pm comment. I deleted the rest of the comment (which was to someone else). To restore the record, here is what I wrote to you:

Greg L., you write: "That, of course, is the question: is the ban on contraception one of God's absolute laws or is the absolute law to choose life and the ban against contraception just a normal application of that law?"

To find the answer to this question, we must turn to Scripture. Where is this absolute law against non-procreative sexual relationships found in Scripture? I would say that your "choose life" passage is not our primary text. It certainly has never been the church's primary text. There are several verses I could cite, but for purposes of argument I will put before you just one of the main texts used throughout the history of God's people to condemn family planning, Genesis 38:10.

Here, in the example of Onan, an intentionally non-procreative sexual relationship is said to be "evil in the sight of the Lord." And for that, Onan is killed.

Now here I'll point out what I believe causes you to misunderstand the Roman Catholic position against contraception and find it impossible to square with their approval of NFP in grave circumstances.

The Roman Catholic position is that the sin is defined primarily by natural law, not Scripture. Their natural law argument is that it is evil to separate the sexual act from the possibility of creating life. Remember that statement for a bit, because I'm going to come back to it.

With that natural law argument, they condemn all artificial contraceptive means. But at the same time they make NFP acceptable in and of itself. How? Because the sexual acts that still occur while practicing NFP are still each individually open to the possibility of life.

NFP is not sinful in itself according to Rome. The only way a couple using NFP can sin in the eyes of Rome is if their motives for using it are sinful. And even then it would likely only be a "venial" sin, whereas artificial contraception is a "mortal" sin because the act is evil in and of itself.

Now I return to their reasoning. Their view of natural law in this case is flawed because it focuses too narrowly on each individual "act" of sexual intercourse and fails to realize the organic whole of the procreative marriage relationship.

I believe the correct natural law argument is that "family planning separates the sexual relationship of marriage from its intended procreative potential."

Rebekah said...

This makes the license Roman Catholicism gives for NFP fall on its head.

Exactly what license does the pope give for NFP? We have the CCL book and it clearly takes the position that NFP is morally defensible in cases of necessity, not preference.

Anonymous said...


My problem with the Catholic teaching (i.e., why I find it legalistic) is that NFP is permitted in hard cases (it is not permitted merely to limit the size of a couple's family), but non-abortifacient artificial contraception (NAAC) is not permitted even in hard cases. If NFP is as effective (or more effective, as some of its proponent's claim) as NAAC, then I fail to see why NAAC should not be permitted under circumstances which justify NFP in the teaching of the Catholic Church. NFP is a time barrier and a condom is a space barrier. Both are theoretically open to life, but only if they do not work as intended. If they work as intended, both will prevent conception and, in fact, many proponents of NFP claim that it is more effective than space barrier methods at preventing pregnancy. If, on the other hand, NFP is not as effective as NAAC, then the Church is only permitting a method which, while still involving the intent of preventing conception, actually places the wife whose life would be at serious risk should she become pregnant at greater risk of that outcome.

I have read many Catholics defend the distinction between NFP and NAAC and have yet to be convinced that it is a distinction with a difference. I would welcome your attempt to make the case.


Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...


I am very familiar with the CCL "Couple to Couple League" materials.

Let me clarify my point. If one believes, as Roman Catholicism teaches, in unqualified absolutism (i.e. that no two absolute obligations ever come into unavoidable conflict) -- and one believes that periodic abstinence for the purpose of preventing conception is not sinful in and of itself, while other means of contraception are by nature sinful in and of themselves -- then the Roman Catholic position on contraception is entirely consistent.

I think you are asking what I meant by "this when I said "This makes the license Roman Catholicism gives for NFP fall on its head. By "this" I meant the position I am espousing of "Conflicting Absolutes" - the title of this post.

"This" means: "if one holds to the conflicting absolutes position, as I do." In other words, "if one believes God's absolute law prohibits family planning, and therefore all cases where extreme circumstances might call for the use of contraception are examples of this ethical principle of conflicting absolutes. "

In short, if what I have written in this post is true, the license Roman Catholicism gives for NFP fall on its head.

By "license" I mean the permission given to do something without guilt.

It falls on its head because under the principles I have here defended, there can be no sinless reason for employing NFP. In addition, I cite what I hold to be a biblical prohibition of the use of abstinence for the purpose of family planning. Check out my earlier post from 2005 on 1 Corinthians 7:5 for the details on that separate argument.

I hope that clarifies what I meant for you. No offense was intended, and I hope none was taken. I'm simply trying to accurately depict the various ethical arguments used by our respective theological traditions.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

P.S. I also believe the Roman Catholic natural law argument is too narrowly focused on the individual sex act, rather than on the organic whole of the sexual relationship of marriage, as I point out in my comment yesterday at 6:01pm, posted immediately above your comment. I believe that also turns the RC position on its head.

BTW, I recognize you as a Lutheran sister and would like to thank you for linking our blog on yours, Concordian Sisters of Perpetual Parturition. I've noticed through Google Analytics that quite a bit of our traffic comes by referral from your site.

Thanks also for commenting here.

Devona said...

Quick side step in case anyone knows...

I am not widely familiar with the CCL literature, though my husband and I took a CCL NFP class prior to our marriage.

We were under the impression that NFP is not only permitted in extreme cases, and that the Catholic Church endorses the CCL form of NFP. In our class we were given examples of couples who prevented pregnancy for up to and beyond 5 years, as well as couples who abstained on their wedding night because the new wife was fertile.

Is the Catholic Church not really as supportive of the CCL materials as I thought before, or is it more that the people who choose to use CCL materials are not as familiar with the Catholic Church's stance?

Erich, the quotation you provided was very beneficial. Thank you for posting it.

Devona said...

I would have it as a circumstance in which mercy may be applied to mitigate the harshness of the law so that the couple is not bound to bear a burden too great for them and, so, may be done without sinning at all.

GL, Why would you need to make this distinction? It is a Mercy for Christ to forgive our sins, even sins we didn't know we committed, and sins we didn't know a way to avoid committing. The Mercy we need is forgiveness, not adjusting the Law.

Anonymous said...

>>>The Mercy we need is forgiveness, not adjusting the Law.<<<

And, again, that begs the question of whether the ban against contraception (which my wife and I accept and abide by) is a part of the Law or merely an application of the Law which applies in normal circumstances but may, in fact, be contrary to the Law in unusual circumstances.

Now, I'll admit, if the Law that applies here is that man may not separate what God has joined together (i.e., sexual intercourse and procreation), then it would indeed appear that the use of AC is always a violation of the Law. If that is the case, however, NFP, as now taught and practiced, would be an equal violation of the Law. It either is as or more effective as any AC methods (as its proponents claim), in which case it is as or more contraceptive as AC methods or it is not as effective and its proponents are misleading (intentionally or not) those whom it teaches that it is just as effective. And, in any event, to the degree it is effective, it is contraceptive.

If the Law that applies is to be open the life, however, it may be that requiring that sexual intercourse always be open to life (because life is a blessing and death and non-existence are a curse) even when a pregnancy has a high probability of killing the wife, then it may be that applying the ban against contraception (whether AC or NFP) actually works against the Law.

I'll admit that any use of AC troubles me, but I'm not as sure as you and Erich that there are not circumstances under which it is licit. However, as I also admit, my thinking is undoubtedly influenced by my Calvinist leanings.


Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...


You're quite welcome for the quote. :-) As for the apparent contradiction between the official RC teaching that NFP is only for grave circumstances and CCL examples of actual practice that are not out of necessity, I think you have a very valid question. I don't know the answer. I have been equally puzzled by the reasons for NFP use admitted to by RC friends who follow the CCL materials.


You say that if man may not separate what God has joined together (i.e., sexual intercourse and procreation), then it would indeed appear that NFP would be an equal violation of the Law.

Not at all! NFP does not separate the individual act of sexual intercourse from procreation. It does separate the sexual relationship from procreation, but that is not the Roman Catholic argument.

If you understand the Roman Catholic argument, it is consistent. They, like you, desire a system of ethics in which sinless options always exist. You and they just go about getting there with different systems. In their system of ethics, two absolutes never come into conflict. In your argument, Greg, one gets a pass on (or a "different application of") your proposed "choose life" absolute by virtue of choosing greater good between protecting the life of the mother and being open to life in procreation.

Either way, God's law is adjusted to allow for a sinless option.

We can do NOTHING without sinning. It does no good to attempt to find a sinless option. We're always going to sin no matter what you do. We simply must try to obey the whole counsel of God to the best of our ability, realizing that even our best works are in need of forgiveness.

As I said before, conflicting absolutes, if it is in error (and I'm not saying I believe it is), errs on the side of depending on Christ rather than ourselves. That's the only safe place to be!

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

P.S. Greg, you wrote: "I'll admit that any use of AC troubles me, but I'm not as sure as you and Erich that there are not circumstances under which it is licit."

When in doubt, depend upon Christ rather than human reason. Adopting the "conflicting absolutes" ethical principle will ensure you do the former rather than the latter.

Anonymous said...


You have done a better job of explaining the underlying distinction which Rome makes between NFP and AC than any Catholic I have engaged on the issue. Your explanation does demonstrate a distinction with a difference and does make sense.

What then is you view of NFP vs. NAAC in hard cases? I understand, I think, that you believe both are sinful, but is one preferable to the other? I take you that believe separating the sexual relationship from procreation is still separating what God has joined and, therefore, sin? Is that a lesser evil than separating a given sexual act from procreation?

Rebekah said...

I wasn't getting at anything complicated, I'm just unclear on whether the CCL line on when it's ok to use NFP is also the pope's line. My qustion is, what is the official RC teaching on when it's ok to avoid conception via their only approved means, NFP? Not really a question specific to the post, just a point of information.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...


"serious reasons" [gravi motivi]

"If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions… [Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 16]


You ask: "What then is you view of NFP vs. NAAC in hard cases?"

Use what works the best.

"I take you that believe separating the sexual relationship from procreation is still separating what God has joined and, therefore, sin?"


"Is that a lesser evil than separating a given sexual act from procreation?"

I suppose it depends upon the particular ethical circumstances and the individuals' personal temptations. NFP can be one of the most effective methods of preventing conception. But I would propose that for some, NFP presents a very difficult situation in which they are abstaining at the very time when they are most at risk for temptation. Fasting requires discipline. The fertile period is the time when most couples find themselves physiologically most easily aroused sexually. First Corinthians 7:5 particularly warns against abstaining in such a way that you give Satan an opening for temptation.

I would not place NFP on a higher moral plane than other methods of non-abortifacient family planning simply because the marital intercourse which still occurs is theoretically open to life. It still is separating the marriage relationship from procreation, which I hold is the correct natural law principle to consider.

Rebekah said...

Roger that. Thanks.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

You're welcome, Rebekah. Sorry I misunderstood your question at first.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

I just thought of an important way to phrase the distinction between conflicting absolutism and the other two ethical theories in "hard cases."

In unqualified absolutism or graded absolutism, one is justified in his own virtuous action.

In conflicting absolutism, one acts in faith, knowing he is only justified through forgiveness in Christ.

Anonymous said...

>>>In unqualified absolutism or graded absolutism, one is justified in his own virtuous action.

In conflicting absolutism, one acts in faith, knowing he is only justified through forgiveness in Christ.<<<

I believe that this is a little unfair to those of us who believe that "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it" means that He supplies us with an option that is not sinful. We are not trusting in our own merits, but in His mercies. We may be wrong and you may be right, but we are not being self-righteous in believing that God does not leave His flock no options but to choose the lesser of two evils.

Now, I suppose you will reply that the only way of escape is the Cross, which is a valid point. But I believe that this verse can equally be understood as teaching that God will not allow His children to be put in a place where they have no alternative but to sin. If we sin, it is our own choice.


Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...


There's really nothing unfair about it at all. It leaves us all as equally poor miserable sinners, in constant need of Christ.

You are absolutely correct about how I would respond to your misapplication of 1 Corinthians 10:13. We have gone around a few times on this blog with others about the correct interpretation of that verse. The only escape from sin is the cross - PERIOD!

God allows trials and tribulations to occur for our benefit. And he removes the heavy burdens in his own time when that is what is best for us. But he does not remove the burdens by providing "sinless options" for us to identify.

This comes down to a difference between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross.

It also seems a good place to bring in the correct translation of that supposed quote of Luther: "Sin boldly." Let me be clear: This was a HORRIBLE mistranslation from the German. What Luther actually said is: "Let your sins be strong!" In other words, don't minimize your sins.

Rather than saying "sin boldly," what Luther wrote was actually a very clear paraphrase of Romans 5:20-21. Here is a literal English translation of those verses from Luther's German Bible:

"The law however came in besides, so that sin became more strong. But where sin becomes strong, nevertheless grace becomes even more strong, so that, as sin prevailed to death, thus grace also prevails through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord."

What Luther wrote to Melanchon that was mistranslated as "sin boldly" in the American Edition of Luther's Works is instead properly translated as this:

"Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world."

You can see the parallel to Romans 5:20-21, which Luther was obviously paraphrasing.

I hope you can also see the parallel to our present discussion of the nature of sin. This important quote from Luther goes along very well with the ethical principle of conflicting absolutes.