MANY WHO CALL THEMSELVES CATHOLIC, including members of the hierarchy of the Church83, (bishops viz. Iota Unum s. 62-63.for example the American, German, Dutch, and Canadian) have claimed and continue to claim that contraception is not wrong, or that it is a matter of conscience84; (moral law, which in this case has been clearly stated by the Church.) or they have been pleased to pass over, and to counsel others to pass over, the matter in ‘prudent’ silence85. (as though it were better to leave the faithful in ignorance, because then, if contraception were indeed wrong, the faithful would not be subjectively accountable for it; and if they were told it was wrong, they would continue to practice it anyway, so becoming subjectively accountable. In reply, it should be said that contraception is a grave sin and therefore a grave offense against God, and for this reason it is not subjective accountability that should be avoided but rather this offense against God. The clergy who prefer not to talk about it, should try to acquire the fear of God; they should remember that they have been entrusted with the Munus Docendi, and should have more confidence in the good will of the faithful, in prayer, and in Divine Providence.) The faithful should however distinguish between the view of some member of the hierarchy of the Church and the teaching of the Church.
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The Church has always taught that contraception is wrong. It is an authoritative doctrine of the Church and as such the faithful are to assent to it ‘with a ready and respectful allegiance of the mind’, and form their conscience accordingly.
In this chapter we shall consider this form of adultery which has been the object of so much controversy in recent years.
As a brief introduction to this topic let us note that the function of the virtue of temperance is to regulate the sensual appetites and pleasures, and the acts connected with them, particularly in relation to eating, drinking, and the sexual faculty. Temperance in the sexual domain is known as chastity (for a fuller description see chapter eleven). We have seen in the previous chapter that the primary finality of sexuality is the procreation of children and that within marriage chastity serves this primary finality of marriage, whereas unchastity, the vice opposed to chastity, acts counter to it.
Unchastity takes one of two possible forms: it is either in accordance with nature, when it involves a natural act of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman outside marriage, or contrary to nature when it involves a sexual act which is not a natural act between a man and a woman. In the first case the act may be viewed as outside its proper context; in the second case the act may be viewed as contrary to its proper end. Examples of the first form of act are fornication, adultery (in the narrow sense), and rape; examples of the second form of act are masturbation, homosexual acts, and onanism. Moral Theology treats contraception as a form of masturbation.
After a brief historical sketch of the Church’s condemnation of contraception in earlier and more recent times up to the Second Vatican Council, we shall briefly present the teaching of that council, then (in greater detail) of Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio, concluding with a commentary on the two encyclicals.
St. Clement of Alexandria taught that the purpose of marital intercourse was procreation. He wrote in 195 AD that ‘because of its Divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly emitted, nor is it to be damaged or wasted.’ (Paedagogus 2. 10. 91. 2. and 95. 3.) This rule became the dominant opinion of the Fathers, and effectively excluded contraception. St. Augustine taught that procreation was the primary good of marriage. He declared that in the systematic avoidance of children the woman behaved like a harlot (De Moribus Manichaeorum 18), the man like Onan (Adult. Conjug. 2. 12. 12.), and the couple manifested a lustful cruelty or cruel lust (Nupt. et Conc. 1.15.17). St. Thomas Aquinas ranks the evil of contraception immediately after that of homicide, in that the first destroys human nature and the second prevents it from coming into being (Contra Gentes 1.3, c. 122).
Gregory IX was the first Pope to condemn contraception in a Papal Act (Si Conditiones 1227-1234 A.D.). In recent times Leo XIII writes in Rerum Novarum (1891) 12: ‘No human law can abolish the natural and original right of marriage nor in any way limit the chief and principal purpose of marriage ordained by God’s authority from the beginning: ‘Increase and multiply.’’ Similarly Pius XI declares in Casti Connubii (1930) that the principal purpose of marriage is procreation (11) and forcibly condemns contraception: ‘Any use whatever of marriage, in the exercise of which the act by human effort is deprived of its natural power of procreating life violates the law of God and nature, and those who do such a thing are stained by a grave and mortal flaw’ (AAS 22: 560). As we shall later see, Pius XII confirms this teaching in his Allocution to the Italian Midwives (1951) and adds restrictive conditions for
The Second Vatican Council
As an introduction to the two following encyclicals we shall briefly consider how the theme of contraception was treated in the Second Vatican Council. The historian Prof. de Mattei in his book on this council86, (Il Concilio Vaticano II, Una storia mai scritta, Lindau, 2010. 123) at V 10 relates that many of the Council Fathers had accepted the Malthusian prophecies about a population explosion and the consequent dire need for birth control. He quotes the speeches of the Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh and Bishop Méndez Arceo in this connection, with their accent on love, responsibility, and freedom; and the speech of Cardinal Suenens with its emphasis on the second finality of marriage, which he names ‘the growth of conjugal unity’, over against the first, which is procreation. The Professor relates how various of the cardinals faithful to Catholic doctrine responded to these innovatory ideas: Cd. Ruffini accused the innovators of declaring as moral that which had always been held to be immoral; Cd. Ottaviani defended established Catholic doctrine on the generosity of parents; natural birth control.
Cd. Browne briefly set forth the principles of Catholic marital doctrine. The historian explains how the chapter of Gaudium et Spes dedicated to the dignity of marriage and of the family expresses the innovative rather than the traditional teaching, and that it represents an unhappy synthesis of the two opposing tendencies
Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio
Pope Paul opens this encyclical with the assertion that the transmission of human life is a collaboration with God, and after presenting the background to the debate, approaches the issue of contraception through an analysis of marriage, married love, and responsible parenthood.
In his analysis of marriage and married love the Pope connects married love with the procreation of children: in marriage ‘husband and wife through that mutual gift of themselves … develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another co-operating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives’. Married love inter alia is ‘fecund’: ‘it is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife, it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being’. Here he quotes from the Second Vatican Council Gaudium et Spes (50): ‘Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children’.
Pope Paul makes another central point in this introductory section, in his analysis of married love and responsible parenthood, regarding man’s freedom and control in the domain of married love: ‘it is not merely a question of natural instinct or emotional drive. It is also and above all an act of the free will’; ‘with regard to man’s innate drives and emotions responsible parenthood means that man’s reason and will must exert control over them’. The Pope speaks of marriage in terms of ‘true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called’. He re-iterates the connection between married love and procreation: ‘the inseparable connection … between the unitive significance and the procreative significance of the marriage act’. This connection is governed by ‘laws written into the actual nature of man and woman’. These laws manifest God’s ‘design’, ‘plan’, and ‘will’. For this reason the man who breaks the connection between married love and procreation breaks these law and frustrates God’s design, plan, and will.
Pope Paul proceeds specifically to outlaw artificial methods of birth control: ‘the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, … are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children’. He then also condemns direct sterilization and ‘any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse is specifically intended to prevent procreation’. Such actions are wrong in themselves and thus cannot be justified as means to any putative good. (Romans 3,8)
Although artificial birth control is wrong, a married couple may have recourse to a form of natural birth control by engaging in marital intercourse during infertile periods. While it is true that couples who have recourse to artificial birth control and those who have resource to natural birth control both intend to avoid children, yet the former do wrong in obstructing the natural development of the generative process whereas the latter in fact manifest ‘a true and authentic love’. They abstain from intercourse during fertile periods and have recourse to it in infertile periods so ‘expressing their mutual love and safeguarding their fidelity to one another’.
The Pope proceeds to set each form of birth control in its context. Artificial birth control is likely to produce bad consequences: marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards especially among the young, also that ‘a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman …
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and reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.’ Another danger is that if married people regard artificial birth control as lawful, a government may impose such measures on a whole country.
The context to which the natural method of birth control belongs is quite different. The natural method is accompanied by many merits: ‘the spouses fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life’ and completely master themselves and their emotions by reason, free will, and self-denial. The expression of love will then conform to right order. Their self-discipline manifests their chastity, transforms their love, making it more human, enables self- fulfilment, and brings spiritual blessings, tranquillity and peace. It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another. It helps them to repel inordinate self-love … it arouses in them a consciousness of their responsibilities. And finally it confers upon parents a deeper and more effective influence in their education of their children.’
The last part of the encyclical is devoted mainly to exhortations of public authorities, scientists, couples, doctors, nurses, and the clergy to conform to and promote the Church’s teaching on birth control. This teaching ‘will appear to many not merely difficult but even impossible to observe’, indeed it cannot be observed without the Grace of God. Married couples should ‘implore the help of God with unremitting prayer and, most of all, let them draw Grace and charity from that unfailing found which is the Eucharist’. If sin still exercises its hold on them they must, ‘humble and persevering, have recourse to the mercy of God abundantly bestowed in the Sacrament of Penance’.
The original author of this blog passed away in July of 2016. RIP Father Carota.