The Roman Catholic Magisterium teaches that contraception is intrinsically evil, and that every intrinsically evil act is always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. Anyone who says that intrinsically evil acts are not always immoral, or who says that intention or circumstances determine if an act is intrinsically evil, is taking a position that openly contradicts the clear and definitive teaching of the Magisterium.
Some Catholic authors have proposed a system of ethics that would judge many uses of contraception to be moral. But in order to arrive at that conclusion, they must disregard, reject, or radically reinterpret the teaching of the Magisterium on the three fonts of morality and the doctrine of the moral object.
The Magisterium teaches, in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor by Pope Saint John Paul II, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in other documents, that the morality of human acts is based on the three fonts of morality:
1. intention — the intended end of the person who acts (finis agentis). This font is the purpose or reason for choosing the act; it is the goal that motivates the choice of an act. The intended end resides in the person who acts.
2. moral object — the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered (finis actus). The moral object resides in the act itself. The act is intentionally chosen (deliberately chosen). But in choosing any act, the person necessarily, at least implicitly, also chooses its moral nature, and its object.
Every human act has an inherent moral meaning before the eyes of God. This meaning is the nature of the act, also called its moral type (or genus, or species). But according to magisterial teaching, the nature of any act is determined by the end (moral object) toward which that act is ordered. The intrinsic ordering of an act toward its object is what makes the act moral or immoral. When an act is intrinsically ordered toward an evil object, the act is intrinsically evil. It is therefore always wrong to intentionally (deliberately, voluntarily, knowingly) choose such an inherently disordered act.
3. circumstances — the reasonably anticipated good and bad consequences of the act determine the morality of this font.
Each font proceeds from the human will, toward a different end: the intended end, the moral object, the consequences. But there is a clear distinction between the role of the will in the first font, to choose an intended end, and the role of the will in the second font, to choose an act with its inherent ordering toward a good or evil object. An act is intrinsically evil if and only if the object of the chosen act is evil. The act is intentionally chosen, but the will cannot choose an act without also choosing its ordering toward its object.
In the Church’s teaching, the terms intentional, deliberate, and voluntary are often used in describing an intrinsically evil act. But this does not imply that the intended end makes the act intrinsically evil. Nor does it imply that a person can choose which moral object gives meaning to any act. The moral object is finis actus, the end of the act. The intended end is finis agentis, the end of the agent (the person who acts). When you choose an act of a particular moral type (genus, species), you are choosing its ordering toward its object, like it or not.
The moral definition of contraception includes any “actions which are in themselves (that is, by their nature and condition) ordered toward a contraceptive end….” [Quaecumque Sterilizatio, March 13, 1975, AAS 68 (1976) 738-740; DOCUMENTA 25]
The intentional (deliberate) choice of a contraceptive act remains immoral even when the act is chosen for a medical purpose (finis agentis). The end of the act (finis actus), not the end of the person who acts (finis agentis) determines whether an act is the intrinsically evil sin of contraception.
Direct abortion for the medical purpose of saving the life of the mother is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Euthanasia for the medical purpose of relieving the patient of all suffering is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. A medical purpose as the intended end, does not justify any intrinsically evil act, not abortion, not euthanasia, and not contraception.
When speaking of abortion, moral theologians and some magisterial documents distinguish between direct abortion and indirect abortion as well as between direct and indirect sterilization. A similar distinction (with different terminology) occurs between theft and expropriation, and between lying and mental reservation. The basis of this distinction in every case is the moral object.
For direct abortion, the object (end of the act) is the death of the innocent prenatal. For indirect abortion, the moral object is the treatment of a medical disorder. But to be truly the object of the act, this end must be proximate (morally immediate), and not an end attained by means of the death of the prenatal. Directly killing the prenatal to reduce the strain on the mother’s health, so that she will survive, is direct abortion. The moral object is the end proximate to the act and in truth inherent to the act. The act of direct abortion is inherently ordered toward killing an innocent. Only consequent to that act of killing does the mother’s health improve.
In my own writings on ethics, I distinguish between direct contraception and indirect contraception. Direct contraception is any act, whether used as an end or a means, that is inherently ordered so as to deprive sexual acts of their procreative meaning. An act of natural marital relations open to life is ordered, by its very nature, toward procreation. The same sexual act using any form of contraception is ordered to thwart the procreative meaning; this disorder makes the act inherently immoral.
Indirect contraception is used in cases of rape, by physicians in the ER of a Catholic hospital. See my post: Contraception in Cases of Rape. The use of contraception in such cases has the interruption of the rape as its proximate end (moral object). Sexual intercourse is naturally directed toward conception. That is the very reason that direct contraception is immoral. But it is also the reason that contraception in cases of rape is indirect: the contraception interrupts the progression of the rape toward conception.
The question arises, then, whether other cases of the use of contraception (a pill or a device) is similarly indirect. But from the start we must be clear that no purpose, however grave, can justify any intrinsically evil act. Direct abortion is not moral to save the life of the mother. Euthanasia is not moral to relieve great suffering. So a medical purpose, in the first font (intention), does not make contraception indirect. We must always consider the chosen act in its moral nature, which is nothing other than its inherent ordering toward its object.
But in every case of every type of intrinsic evil, it is the ordering of the act toward an evil end (its moral object) that makes the act intrinsically evil, not the attainment of that end.
Suppose that a married couple uses contraception, but they conceive a child due to a failure of the contraception. They chose an act ordered toward the evil end of depriving the sexual act of its procreative meaning. But the act failed to attain that end; a child was conceived. Did the couple sin? Yes, they sinned by choosing a disordered act.
Suppose that a married couple are infertile due to old age. They have natural marital relations open to life, but they do not conceive a child. They chose an act ordered, by its very nature, toward the good end of procreation. The act failed to attain that end; no child was conceived. Did the couple sin? No, the act was ordered toward a good end, even though it could not attain that end. And the same type of analysis applies to NFP. The act is ordered toward the good of procreation, even though it typically will not attain that end (due to the changing fertility in the woman’s cycle).
Can a married couple use a condom to prevent one HIV-infect spouse from infecting the other spouse? In this case, the couple are deliberately choosing an act which deprives marital relations of its procreative meaning. The use of a condom makes the sexual act disordered, since the act is no longer inherently directed toward procreation. The attainment or lack of attainment of the procreative end is not at issue. It is the ordering of the act toward its object that makes the act inherently good or evil, not the attainment of that object.
It is relevant to note that the couple can attain the good intended end (medical purpose) of preventing disease transmission by refraining from all sexual acts. The choice to have sexual relations using a condom is not a choice inherently ordered to prevent disease transmission because the couple accomplishes that end by refraining. They are choosing to depart from the choice that prevents disease transmission almost without fail, to take up an action that increases the risk of transmission. This choice might be immoral under the font of circumstances, since the increase in risk of contracting a deadly disease is not outweighed by the ability to have sexual relations (without procreation).
What if the married couple are infertile due to old age? Can they use a condom for this medical purpose, to prevent one spouse from contracting a deadly disease? The purpose of the act is in the first font, the intended end (finis agentis). An act is determined to be intrinsically evil or not based on the moral object (finis actus). Does the fact that they cannot achieve the end of procreation allow them to use a condom? No, it does not. It is not the attainment of the moral object that makes the act inherently good or evil, but rather the ordering of the act itself. Sexual relations in this case is no longer inherently ordered toward the good of procreation, and so it is an intrinsically evil act. The deprivation of the procreative ordering from the act is a deliberate choice of the couple, the choice of a disordered act. The act is immoral, regardless of the reason for that choice (finis agentis).
The choice of such a couple is not simply “use a condom to prevent disease transmission”. They are choosing to have sexual relations AND choosing to use a device that deprives the act of its inherent ordering toward the good of procreation. The absence of this ordering also does harm to the goods of the unitive and marital meaning. Natural marital relations open to life has three interrelated moral objects: the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings. The deprivation of any one meaning from the ordering of the act does harm to the ordering toward the other meanings.
I reject the claim of some ethicists that the absence of any one meaning, such as the procreative meaning, implies that the other two meanings are absent. Some say that contracepted marital sex is neither marital nor unitive. But the Magisterium teaches, in Humanae Vitae, that contraception “separates” the unitive and procreative meanings. If contraception destroyed the unitive meaning, then the two meanings would both be absent, not separated.
If an unmarried couple use contraception, the marital meaning is absent and so is the procreative meaning. Their sexual acts (natural intercourse) is gravely immoral for two reasons, making unmarried contracepted sex a greater disorder (as concerns the second font; the object) than married contracepted sex. The greater the disorder, the greater the sin. But it still retains the unitive meaning, which is harmed but not destroyed.
Use of a condom to prevent disease transmission is still immoral if used in conjunction with NFP, that is to say, only during the infertile portion of a woman’s cycle. Again, the use of the condom makes the act inherently non-procreative, regardless of the purpose of the choice. The deliberate choice to use a condom as a barrier during sexual relations is an inherently contraceptive act, regardless of whether or not the procreative end could have been attained. This choice also harms the unitive and marital meanings.
Can a married couple use abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose, while remaining sexually active? No, they cannot. See my post on this subject. In this case, the intended end to treat a medical disorder can be attained by taking the pill while refraining from sexual relations. The choice to remain sexually active while taking an abortifacient is indefensible. Over the course of many couples and many years, some actual abortions will result. Direct abortion is not justifiable even to save the life of the mother. So abortifacient contraception is not justified by the desire to continue having sexual relations while treating a medical problem.
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