Contraception and the Innocent Spouse

An interesting ethical Q&A submitted for your consideration from the Winter 2008 One More Soul Update, Volume 13, Issue 2, page 6 - just received in the mail:


May a husband engage in the marital act when his wife is using the Pill, even though he knows that contraception is wrong? Would not the innocent spouse need to refrain from the marital act when the Pill or other hormonal contraceptives are involved because of the abortifacient capacity of these birth-regulating methods? --JMJ


Dear JMJ,

This is a tough question, because there is clear teaching from the Church that contraception is intrinsically evil and sinful. Despite this, there is massive moral non-compliance among Catholics. Eighty-five percent of Catholic couples of childbearing age are contracepting or sterilized. Yet many of these receive the Eucharist on a regular basis without using first the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Very seldom do Catholics hear anything from the pulpit about the moral evil of contraception.

This leaves the impression that the teaching church is clear about the immorality of contraception, but is not prepared to put that teaching into pastoral practice. If there is silence from the pulpit, then the unspoken message is that couples can continue in their contraceptive lifestyle and not be concerned about the morality of what they are doing.

A very different situation would arise if an entire diocese, with all the priests in a united front with their bishop, were to take a clear position on the immorality of contraception. Then all engaged couples would be strongly encouraged to learn NFP. The intention to use contraception would be grounds for a priest to refuse to marry a couple. For already married couples, pastors would teach that contraception is a serious moral evil, and must be confessed and repented of before receiving the Eucharist. All couples would be strongly encouraged to learn morally acceptable ways of planning their families. Some proportionate form of restitution would be recommended for those who have sterilized themselves. Catholic doctors would be warned that they cannot receive the Eucharist if they are prescribing contraception, performing sterilizations, or making referrals for these.

It is in the present situation of massive moral non-compliance that I make my comments. What follow is not Magisterial teaching; rather, it is an informed theological opinion. I speak to what an innocent spouse can do on his own to rectify the abuses of his marriage. At this point in time, he is largely on his own, without the explicit public support of the clergy. The innocent spouse must continually pray and work for the conversion of the offending spouse. This requires understanding what the spousal act was designed to express and accomplish. It means talking about these important matters. It means making sacrifices for her. The innocent spouse should remind the other of the total immorality of contraception, and the possible abortifacient factor in using the Pill, and encourage her to move in the direction of NFP. A good husband should encourage his wife to transfer her trust away from the Pill and place it in God’s providence, in her husband’s willingness to share with her the burden of family planning, and in God’s inexhaustible love for us. Our Lord took people where they were, and pointed them in the direction they should be taking. He appealed to their good reason and to their better selves. He respected the freedom of their conscience. He proposed God’s plan for us, while never imposing it. He gave people, and continues to give us, a little time so that we could freely come to our senses. Eventually, however, the time will come when we will have to give a thorough accounting for all our choices and deeds. The Lord warned us that we are responsible for how we use our freedom.

What can an innocent spouse do if the other refuses to move away from contraception? Could he decide to forego the marital act? Since we are not to cooperate with sin, and contraception is sinful, the innocent spouse has a right and a duty to refuse to cooperate with evil, insofar as that is possible. A contracepted act is not a marital act, since it has separated the unitive from the procreative dimension. Now it is simply a sexual act. It is an act of conditioned self-giving, with many reservations. Such an act does not enrich the relationship; rather, it tends to unravel the fabric of their bonding. Rather than make a lie with their bodies, a couple should simply remain silent.

Such a choice will bring tensions to the marriage, but unnecessary tensions already exist. The only proper solution is to cease doing what is evil, and begin doing what is good. If nothing else, simply do nothing!

Many divorces can be traced back to the damage done by contraception. The high divorce rates in this country took off at the same time that the Pill arrived. If we are to address the problem of a 50% divorce rate among Catholics, then we must get to the root cause. And if this requires a change of attitudes, values, and practices, then that is what must be done.

Doing good for our neighbor also includes helping them resist evil.

Cordially yours,

Fr. Matthew Habiger OSB, PhD


Beth said...

I realize that this is a rather old post, but I have a question. Is the same true when the husband insists on contraception and the wife feels that this is wrong? I guess I am asking from the stand point of what a wife is to do in this situation. Is she supposed to submit to her husband or can she lawfully refuse contracepted intercourse?

Thank you.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

A wife is to submit to her husband in all things, with the clear exception that she is to obey God rather than men. If the husband is asking his wife to do something that is sinful, she must refuse.

If he wants his wife to be surgically sterilized, take "the Pill," or participate in any way with the employment of any contraceptive method, she MUST refuse.

If the husband is the one contracepting (vasectomy, condom, withdrawal, whatever) I do not believe the wife having marital relations with her husband is necessarily sinful, as long as her intention is not to contracept.

In fact, no contraceptive method has a 100% rate of success. Conception is still possible, even if the husband is doing all in his power to prevent it.

I believe the wife should still remind the husband that she believes his action of contraception is sinful, not letting him believe she has become indifferent to the act by her silence. In this way (in my opinion) the wife would not be complicit in the husband's sin.

For support of this opinion from Scripture, I note in Genesis 38 that Onan is the one punished for the act of contracepting. Tamar continued to submit to the contracepted act, perhaps in the hope that sooner or later Onan's attempts to prevent conception would fail.

In my reading of the following quotation, I believe Luther describes Tamar as the innocent victim:

Onan must have been a malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a Sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed. Accordingly, it was a most disgraceful crime to produce semen and excite the woman, and to frustrate her at that very moment. He was inflamed with the basest spite and hatred. Therefore he did not allow himself to be compelled to bear that intolerable slavery. Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed an evil deed. Therefore God punished him. [Luther's Works, vol. 7 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 38-44 (Ge 38:9-10)]

Beth said...

Thank you.