Heresy and Contraception Outside of Marriage

Christopher O. Tollefsen: “contraceptive acts are intrinsically wrong, and not merely always wrong within the marital context.”

Tollefsen: “even commentators such as John T. Noonan, who believe the Church teaching to be changeable, accept that the Church has throughout its history universally taught the wrongfulness of contraception. But while recent Church teaching has focused strongly on the use of contraceptives in marriage, Noonan’s study makes clear that the tradition as a whole has also consistently treated contraception as wrong outside of marriage. Early sources of the teaching, such as St. John Chrysostom and St. Jerome, are concerned with those who seek sterility for the sake of fornication or adultery, and Noonan sees the ‘Si aliquis’ canon as particularly responsive to these sources. (And, as Noonan points out, when Burchard of Worms included ‘Si aliquis’ in his ‘Decretum’, he did so in the book ‘On Fornication.’) Noonan refers to the desire of unmarried women to avoid the shame of pregnancy as ‘the perennial problem’ in his discussion of early Irish penitentials; likewise, his discussion of motives for contraception circa the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries ’embodies the thought, as old as the Elenchos, that the person most likely to use contraception is one engaged in illicit affairs.’ Arguably, then, the teaching on contraception has actually had most application to the unmarried (or those engaged in adultery) throughout history.” [Tollefsen, “Contraceptives for Victims of Rape and for the Mentally Disabled: A Reply to Stephen Napier”, The Linacre Quarterly (2010) 77:3, 308-322]

My Comments

Saint Augustine, a Bishop in the Church, taught that contraception is immoral “even with one’s legitimate wife”, thereby implying that contraception is immoral regardless of marital state. He did not say “only with one’s wife”. This teaching by Augustine — a Bishop, Saint, and Doctor of the Church — is quoted by Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii, without disagreement, correction, or qualification: “As St. Augustine notes, ‘Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented.’ ” (Casti Connubii, n. 55). Here Pope Pius XI is teaching the universal Church through the words of Saint Augustine.

Tollefsen makes an excellent point. The Church has always rejected contraception, within marriage and outside of marriage. And I add that any teaching that has always been taught by the Church is infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

The claim that the Church only condemns contraception within marriage is a recent innovation, a newly-devised falsehood, contrary to both current and past magisterial pronouncements on the subject. And since the teaching of the Church against contraception is infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium, any type of severe misrepresentation of that teaching is heretical. For heresy consists not only in the direct denial of an infallible magisterial teaching, or in obstinate doubt of the same, but also adherence to any idea which is thoroughly incompatible with the same.

Therefore, I conclude that a number of popular false ideas about contraception are in fact material heresy, including that contraception is only immoral within marriage, or that the Church has no teaching on whether contraception is immoral outside of marriage, or that the Church is unable to teach on contraception outside of marriage.

The claim that the Magisterium is unable to teach on contraception outside of marriage is a particularly severe heresy, because it not only implies a distortion and partial denial of the infallible teaching of the Church against contraception, but also implies that the Magisterium is not able to teach on any and all matters having to do with morality. Essentially, the claim is that, once a person is committing a mortal sin of any kind, the Magisterium is unable to teach on which factors might make the act more gravely immoral, or less. (It is as if committing one mortal sin exempts one from the moral law.) And such a claim severely restricts the authority over morals infallibly taught by the First Vatican Council and the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

A person who rejects an infallible magisterial teaching outright commits the sin of heresy (at least objectively). But a person who substantially distorts such a teaching also commits heresy. And whosoever teaches heresy — whether it is a denial of a dogma, or a distortion of a dogma, or the assertion of an idea incompatible with dogma — is guilty of causing grave harm to souls.

Consider the dogma of the Eucharist. The complete denial of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is heresy. But so too is any substantial distortion of that dogma, such as the claim that the substance of bread and wine continue, and are present alongside Christ in the Eucharist, or the claim that the substance of bread and wine are annihilated and then replaced with the real presence. A distortion of dogma is just as much a heresy as a denial of dogma — on any subject in faith, morals, and salvation.

Teachers will have the stricter judgment.

Whosoever teaches that the condemnation of contraception by the Magisterium is limited to marriage, teaches a grave heresy and harms many souls.

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

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