Contraception and Heresy part 4: The Moral Object of Contraception

Basic Moral Principles

In moral theology, an act is an exercise of the free will and the intellect: it is a knowing choice. The knowledge is of the intellect; the choice is of the free will. Morality concerns knowingly chosen acts. Therefore, all acts, whether moral or immoral, are of the human will. Moral evil is sin, and sin is nothing else but a knowingly chosen immoral act.

The morality of any act chosen by the will is based on three fonts (sources). Each font is a type of end chosen by the will.

1. Intention — the intended end (or purpose) for which the act was chosen by the human will.

Intention as a font of morality is a type of end; it is the end intended by the person in choosing the act. The intended end is in the subject, the person who acts.

If your act is immoral solely because of your intention, then change your intention.

2. Moral object — the objective act chosen by the human person has its own end (the moral object), which is independent of the end intended by the subject. The moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward with the chosen act is inherently directed, by its very nature. This intrinsic ordering of the act, in and of itself, toward its moral object defines the inherent moral meaning (the essential moral nature) of the act. Every act with an evil moral object is intrinsically evil.

The choice of such an act by the human will necessarily includes the essential moral nature of that act as determined by its moral object. The human will cannot choose an act without also thereby choosing its inherent moral meaning as determined by its moral object. An intrinsically evil act is always an intentionally-chosen act. However, the intended end and the intentional choice of an act with a certain inherent moral meaning are two distinct fonts of morality. The choice of a particular good intended end can never change an intentionally-chosen act intrinsically evil act from evil to good. The moral object remains unchanged by the intended end. The human will has the ability to choose one type of act or another. But the human will cannot change an act that is inherently immoral into an act that is good or justifiable.

“If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain ‘irremediably’ evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person…. Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.” (Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n. 81).

If your act is immoral due to an evil moral object, it is intrinsically evil and irremediably evil; the only moral choice is to choose a different type of act.

3. Circumstances — the reasonably anticipated good and bad consequences of the intentionally-chosen act. If the reasonably anticipated bad consequences morally outweigh the reasonably anticipated good consequences, the intentional choice of such an act by the free will is a sin.

The three fonts are united by the human will. The free will chooses a type of act, for a particular purpose, knowing what the good and bad consequences might be. The will sins whenever the purpose, or the moral object, or the moral weight of the consequences of the knowingly chosen act is contrary to the love of God above all else, and the love of neighbor as self. Whenever all three fonts of morality are good, the act is morally good (i.e. morally licit; permissible without sin). Whenever any one font is bad, the act is moral evil; it is a sin to knowingly choose any act with one or more bad fonts.

What makes an act good? Three good fonts; no bad fonts.

What is good? God is good, and all that God created is good. Therefore, evil does not exist, in and of itself. The quality called existence or ‘being’ is inherently good. Evil can only be a deprivation of some good, and moral evil can only be a deprivation of some moral good. Therefore, when any font of morality is morally evil, there must be some deprivation of a moral good.

The basis for the entire moral law is the love of God above all else, and the love of neighbor as self.

[Matthew]
{22:36} “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
{22:37} Jesus said to him: ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God from all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
{22:38} This is the greatest and first commandment.
{22:39} But the second is similar to it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
{22:40} On these two commandments the entire law depends, and also the prophets.”

The law that commands us to love God and neighbor is the eternal moral law. Every moral evil is a deprivation of some good required by the eternal moral law, required by the true love of God above all else, and a true spiritual selfless love of neighbor, and an ordered love of self. The love of God, neighbor, self is the basis for the moral law.

A font of morality is bad when it is contrary to the ordered love of God, neighbor, self. Every act with one or more bad fonts is a bad act, a morally disordered act. And the knowing choice of an act by the will is a sin. What makes any act a sin is the deprivation of some good required by the love of God, neighbor, self.

It is always a sin to knowingly choose an act that includes a bad intention, an intention contrary to the ordered love of God above all else, and the love of neighbor as self. It is always a sin to knowingly choose an act that is inherently directed toward an evil moral object, an end in terms of morality that is contrary to the ordered love of God, neighbor, self. It is always a sin to knowingly choose an act whose bad consequences are reasonably anticipated to morally outweigh its good consequences. And this moral evaluation depends upon the love of God, and the love of neighbor as self. And this choice is made by the human will, based on knowledge in the intellect. Every moral or immoral act is a choice of the human free will, in harmony with, or in discord against, the love of God, neighbor, self.

An intrinsically evil act is an act with an evil moral object. Every knowingly chosen act with an evil moral object is an intrinsically evil act. The intentional (deliberate, voluntary) choice of such an act by the free will is always a sin, regardless of the intended end (the purpose) and regardless of the circumstances (the good and bad consequences).

The Marital Meaning of Sexual Acts

The Church has always taught that sexual relations outside of marriage is a type of act that is immoral in and of itself, by the very nature of the act. Therefore, non-marital sexual relations is intrinsically evil.

“Sexual intercourse is a moral and human good only within marriage, outside marriage it is wrong”. (Pope John Paul II, Speech to U.S. Bishops)

“A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting “in order to be seen by men”). The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts – such as fornication – that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.” (CCC, n. 1755).

[Matthew]
{15:19} For from the heart go out evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies.

All intrinsically evil acts have an evil moral object. What is the evil moral object of extra-marital sexual acts? The answer to this type of question is always found in the nature of the act. For the moral object is the end toward which the act is inherently directed, by its very nature. Thus the moral object reveals the essential moral nature (or inherent moral meaning) of the act itself. But evil is always a deprivation of some good. So we can rephrase the question as: What good end, required by the love of God and neighbor, is lacking in all non-marital sexual acts? The answer is the marital meaning. A moral sexual act is always ordered toward the marital meaning of human sexuality.

A sexual act is the deliberate use of the sexual faculty. Human sexuality is given by God to men and women to be used, in deliberate sexual acts, only to express and strengthen the marital bond. The deprivation of the marital meaning in the moral object makes any sexual act intrinsically evil. Rape, adultery, pre-marital sex, masturbation, homosexual acts, etc. all lack the marital meaning in the moral object, and so each of these acts is intrinsically evil and always immoral.

Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “Now according to Christian tradition and the Church’s teaching, and as right reason also recognizes, the moral order of sexuality involves such high values of human life that every direct violation of this order is objectively serious.” (Cardinal Seper, Persona Humana, n. X)

Every per se sexual act (not acts that are merely peripherally-related to sexuality such as flirting or kissing) that is a violation of the moral order (i.e. a sin) is necessarily an objective mortal sin because human sexuality involves values of great moral weight. Therefore, every intrinsically evil sexual act is not only always immoral, but always gravely immoral.

The Procreative Meaning of Sexual Acts

The marital meaning, required for any sexual act to be moral, is found sexual relations between a husband and wife. But does this imply that every sexual act between spouses necessarily has a good moral object? No, it does not.

“Each and every sexual act in a marriage needs to be open to the possibility of conceiving a child.” (USCCB Catechism, p. 409)

“each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” (Humanae Vitae, n. 11).

If a sexual act has the marital meaning, but not the procreative meaning, then that act is intrinsically evil. The good moral object of the marital meaning is present, but the good moral object of the procreative meaning is absent. In other words, contracepted sexual acts between the spouses are not inherently directed toward the good end of the procreative meaning. Contracepted marital acts have one good moral object and one evil moral object. But any act with an evil moral object is intrinsically evil. The good moral object does not justify the evil moral object.

“Small wonder, therefore, if Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death. As St. Augustine notes, ‘Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it.’ ” (Casti Connubii, n. 55; inner quote from De Conjugiis Adulterinis, On Adulterous Unions, bk. 2, n. 12)

The use of contraception, even within marriage, is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. For several quotes from magisterial documents showing that contraception is intrinsically evil, see this article.

What If Two Meanings Are Absent?

The basis of the magisterial condemnation of contraception is the deprivation of the procreative meaning.

“Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts [actibus fecundis] of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these.” (Humanae Vitae, n. 14)

Why does Humanae Vitae consider whether or not procreative sexual acts of past or future might justify a contracepted sexual act? It is because the immorality of contraception is based on the deprivation of the procreative meaning. This meaning is inscribed in human sexuality, in the bodies created by God for man and woman.

“Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source.” (Humanae Vitae, n. 13)

The above quote attributes the basis for the procreative meaning, the basis for the requirement of the moral law that sexual acts be ordered toward procreation, in the sexual capability of the human body, which capability is by nature ordered toward the generation of life. Therefore, even though the marital meaning must also be present for a sexual act to be moral, the deprivation of the procreative meaning is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral regardless of marital state. Sexual acts, even if they are non-marital, are naturally ordered toward the generation of new life; therefore, sexual acts in general, not only marital sexual acts, must be ordered toward the procreative meaning. The deprivation of the marital meaning makes any sexual act intrinsically evil and gravely immoral. The deprivation of the procreative meaning makes any sexual act intrinsically evil and gravely immoral. The deprivation of both meanings makes any sexual act more gravely immoral, because there is a greater disorder. The moral object specifies the ordering inherent to the chosen act, as to whether the act is ordered toward good or toward evil. A greater moral disorder in the act makes the act more sinful. An act with two evil moral objects is more gravely immoral than an act with only one of those two moral objects.

Pope John Paul II: “This is the reason for the intrinsic unlawfulness of contraception: it introduces a substantial limitation into this reciprocal giving, breaking that ‘inseparable connection’ between the two meanings of the conjugal act, the unitive and the procreative, which, as Pope Paul VI pointed out, are written by God himself into the nature of the human being (n. 12).” (Speeches, 27 Feb. 1998)

Both meanings, unitive and procreative are written by God into human nature. Therefore, these meanings must be present in any sexual act, that is, in any deliberate use of the genital sexual faculty. Although magisterial documents usually phrase the requirement such that marital sexual acts must be unitive and procreative, the same eternal moral truth can be expressed in other words, e.g. that sexual acts must be marital and unitive and procreative. For it is certain from magisterial teaching that the use of the sexual faculty outside of marriage is, by that very fact, intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. And this implies that the marital meaning is also a required good moral object of sexual acts.

The procreative meaning is the moral object. If a married couple have natural marital relations open to life, but they are unable to conceive due to injury, illness, or old age, they have nevertheless intentionally chosen the type of act that is inherently ordered toward procreation. Their act is inherently direct toward its proper moral object, even when the moral object, that of procreation, cannot be attained.

Similarly, if a couple have contracepted natural intercourse, but they conceive by accident (since contraception is not 100% effective), they have nevertheless intentionally chosen the type of act that is inherently ordered toward the deprivation of the procreative meaning. Their chosen act is intrinsically evil, even when its evil moral object of frustrating the procreative meaning is not attained.

It is not the attainment of the moral object that makes an act good or evil, but rather the inherent ordering of the act toward its moral object.

Natural intercourse open to life has the procreative meaning, even if the climax of the man or the woman does not occur. On the physical level, the climax of the man is necessary to procreation. However, the fertility of the couple is also necessary to procreation, and yet an infertile couple have the procreative meaning when they engage in the type of sexual act that is inherently ordered toward procreation. Similarly, if a fertile couple are interrupted, or for some other reason do not reach climax, the procreative meaning is still present. They have not intentionally chosen to deprive the act of its procreative meaning. They have intentionally chosen a type of act that is directed toward its proper moral object.

“Now, the truth is that matrimony, as an institution of nature, in virtue of the Creator’s will, has not as a primary and intimate end the personal perfection of the married couple but the procreation and upbringing of a new life. The other ends, inasmuch as they are intended by nature, are not equally primary, much less superior to the primary end, but are essentially subordinated to it. This is true of every marriage, even if no offspring result, just as of every eye it can be said that it is destined and formed to see, even if, in abnormal cases arising from special internal or external conditions, it will never be possible to achieve visual perception.” (Pope Pius XII, Address to Midwives).

The eye by its very nature is ordered toward seeing objects, just as an act by its very nature is ordered toward its moral object. Sexual acts are inherently ordered toward the procreative meaning, even if the procreative meaning cannot be attained due to infertility. A good act remains good as long as it is inherently ordered only toward good moral objects. An intrinsically evil act remains evil as long as it is inherently ordered toward any evil moral object.

The Unitive Meaning of Sexual Acts

“This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act. The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life — and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman.” (Humanae Vitae, n. 12)

In order for sexual relations to be moral, each and every sexual act must be marital and unitive and procreative. Each of these three goods is required as a moral object, that is to say, each sexual act must be inherently directed toward these three ends. The deprivation of any one moral object makes the act intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. The deprivation of any two makes the act more gravely immoral; the deprivation of all three makes the act graver still.

The unitive meaning always includes the bodily union of man and woman in natural intercourse. The fullness of the unitive meaning includes the knowing choice of the spouses to unite in both bodily union and spiritual love. The unitive meaning is not sexual pleasure, which is a consequence in the third font of morality. The unitive meaning is not climax, although this union generally leads to that consequence. The lack of climax in the man or the woman does not deprive the act of its unitive meaning, just as it does not deprive the act of its procreative meaning. The act of natural intercourse is inherently directed toward the union of the couple as a bodily expression of spiritual love. Climax and pleasure are in the third font of consequences, not in the second font of moral object.

Any good or evil moral object does not need to be attained for the act to retain its respective moral nature as inherently good, when it is ordered toward a good end, or inherently evil, when it is ordered toward an evil end (a deprivation of some good required by the love of God and the love of neighbor as self). It is the intrinsic ordering of the act itself toward a good or evil end that defines the essential moral nature of the act.

The interrelationship of the three meanings

Some commentators claim that when a sexual act is deprived of any one of these three meanings, the other meanings are thereby entirely deprived as well. In this view, if a sexual act is non-marital, it is also non-procreative and non-unitive. Thus they claim that non-marital sexual acts are morally identical regardless of whether contraception is used. This view allows them to avoid condemning the use of contraception outside of marriage.

However, this theological position implies that when any of the three meanings are absent, they are all absent. This further implies that all of the following acts have the same degree and type of disorder, i.e. that they are each no more or less sinful — in the second font — than the other: natural marital relations using contraception; unnatural sexual acts in marriage; adultery, with or without contraception; premarital sex, with or without contraception; unnatural sexual acts outside of marriage; homosexual acts; masturbation; and any other sexual sins lacking in any or all of these three moral objects.

Such a claim is contrary to reason. Even when we are only considering the moral object, homosexual acts are certainly more sinful an engaged couple having premarital relations or a married couple using contraception, since homosexual acts are entirely deprived of all three good moral objects (marital, unitive, procreative).

Not only sexual acts, but all sins in any area of human life admit varying degrees of severity. One venial sin can be more sinful than another venial sin. One mortal sin can be more sinful than another mortal sin. The Magisterium teaches, for example, that while rape is a very grave sin, the rape of a child is graver still (CCC, n. 2356).

The claim that once an act is a grave sin by being non-marital, it cannot be made more gravely disordered by the use of contraception, is a denial of the basic principle of ethics that the more gravely disordered the act, the more sinful the act. The absence of the marital meaning is a grave disorder, but the absence of the marital and procreative meanings is graver still. Unfortunately, we have all been told many times and in many ways, by sinful secular society, how wonderful contraception. As a result, contraception does not seem to make non-marital sexual acts more sinful.

But in truth, in all areas of morality, the more gravely disordered the elements of an act are, the more sinful the act is. A simple lie is a venial sin, if there is nothing gravely disordered in any of the fonts that would make the act a mortal sin. But if that same lie is told with the intention of doing grave harm to an innocent person, then the act is a mortal sin. The same is true for sexual acts. Any element in any of the fonts that makes the act more disordered thereby necessarily makes the act more sinful. Premarital sex is a grave sin; adultery is graver still; rape is even more grave. Premarital sex is a grave sin; premarital sex with contraception is graver still. And any sexual act that is non-marital and non-procreative and non-unitive (e.g. an unnatural sexual act) is a very grave sexual sin, for all three good moral objects (marital, unitive, procreative) are absent.

Conversely, any element in any of the fonts that makes an act more ordered (i.e. ordered toward the love of God and neighbor) makes the act less sinful. So if an act of murder is committed with malice toward the victim, the act is a grave sin due to the malicious intention, and due to the nature of the act itself, and due to the harm in the consequences. But if an act of murder is committed with the intention of relieving all suffering (euthanasia), then the act still a grave sin, but it is less grave than in the previous case, due to a good intended end.

The claim that all non-marital acts are necessarily also non-procreative and non-unitive fails because it implies that various sexual sins are equal in severity, contrary to reason. And it fails because non-marital sexual acts are no less fecund than marital sexual acts. Reason observes, as Humanae Vitae also notes, that sexual intercourse is naturally ordered toward procreation: “The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws.” (Humanae Vitae, n. 11). But nature does not distinguish, in terms of procreation, whether the man and woman are married or not. It is absurd to claim that non-marital sexual acts always lack the procreative meaning, as if the use of contraception has no effect. If contraception did not prevent procreation in non-marital sexual acts, then it would not be used in those acts by sinful society. They commit the sin of using contraception outside of marriage because they do not wish to procreate.

Couples are able to conceive a child through natural intercourse regardless of marital state. Although God wills that procreation and union occur only in marriage, this does not imply that a couple who procreate outside of marriage have no procreative meaning to their acts. The procreative meaning is not an entirely abstract, entirely non-physical concept. It refers to actual procreation, by means of that type of act inherently ordered toward procreation by nature.

So the fact that premarital sex is gravely immoral, due to the deprivation of the marital meaning, does not imply that the act cannot be made more gravely disordered by another deprivation. Premarital natural intercourse is a grave moral disorder; it is objectively a mortal sin. Premarital natural intercourse using contraception has a greater degree of moral disorder, due to the deprivation of both the marital and procreative meanings. And unnatural sexual acts are even more gravely disordered, since all three meanings: marital, unitive, procreative are deprived from the nature of the act.

My theological position is that these three meanings (marital, unitive, procreative) are sufficiently independent that the deprivation of one or two does not imply the deprivation of the others. Therefore, a married couple using contraception in acts of natural intercourse are not thereby committing adultery, nor unnatural sexual acts, nor are they breaking their marital vows. The procreative meaning is absent because the couple have deliberately chosen an act that is inherently ordered toward the deprivation of the procreative meaning. But they have not deliberately chosen an act that is non-unitive or non-marital, and they have not chosen to break their marital vows. The other moral objects remain present because the sexual act of natural marital relations with contraception remains unitive and marital by its very nature. Although the deprivation of any of these three meanings (marital, unitive, procreative) can be said to harm the fullness of the other meanings, such a deprivation does not completely destroy the other meanings.

The result of this analysis is the conclusion that any act of natural intercourse has a greater moral disorder if it lacks the procreative meaning and a lesser moral disorder if it has the procreative meaning. But because sinful secular society has impressed on all our minds the idea that contraception is good, this reasonable analysis and conclusion seems counterintuitive. Some commentators claim that premarital sex is no less immoral when used with contraception; in fact, they suggest that the good consequence that a child is not born out of wedlock, or the good consequence that disease transmission is less likely (when using a condom), might make the use of contraception in extramarital sexual acts more moral.

To the contrary, the second font of morality is evil when the human person intentionally chooses an act that is inherently ordered toward an evil end. The greater the moral disorder, the more sinful the act. The lesser the moral disorder, the less sinful the act. The deprivation of the marital meaning results in an act that is gravely inherently sinful. But the deprivation of both the marital and procreative meanings makes the act more gravely immoral in the second font. Neither can any good in the fonts of intention or consequences change the fact that each of these deprivations (each of these evil moral objects) is a grave moral disorder. An intrinsically evil act done with a good intended end is less sinful than an intrinsically evil done with a bad intended end. But this does not imply that a good intention can justify an intrinsically evil act. And the same is true for consequences.

Therefore, the use of contraception outside of marriage is a grave sin, which causes the sin of extra-marital sex to have a greater moral disorder, and to be even more gravely immoral than either marital sex with contraception, or extra-marital sex without contraception.

Contraception and Heresy: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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