I don’t think there’s any dispute that the Catholic Church’s teachings regarding the regulation of births are greatly misunderstood by many people, both within and without the Church. Most Americans and most media outlets seem to think natural family planning (NFP) is just the flawed old “rhythm method”. To them, the Church seems antiquated and harshly restrictive in its prohibition against artificial contraception. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those in the Church who think NFP might be too permissive and its use prone to the same contraceptive mentality as artificial methods.

Having asked a lot of questions and doubts about using NFP to space the births of my own children, I thought it might be helpful to share my findings with others. To that end, I will be posting a series of analyses. The first will focus on the thoughts of Popes Pius XI, and second on Pius XII. The third will be dedicated to Paul VI’s landmark encyclical Humane Vitae. The fourth will look at the teachings of Pope John Paul II. The fifth and final installment will examine the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the USCCB, and various lay organizations.

This series is adapted from one I started on my old blog, but never finished. Let’s hope I finish this time. 😉

Without further ado, it’s time to get our hands dirty by digging into the writings of recent popes to find out what they had to say about contraceptive issues. We’ll start with Pius XI’s 1930 Casti Connubii, which was written in response to the Anglican Communion’s decision that year to permit artificial contraception within marriage (general acceptance came later).

Skipping past the introductory stuff,

“24. This mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, as the Roman Catechism teaches, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof.”

Summary: the purpose of marriage is more than the bearing and raising of children.

“25. By this same love it is necessary that all the other rights and duties of the marriage state be regulated as the words of the Apostle: ‘Let the husband render the debt to the wife, and the wife also in like manner to the husband,'[1 Corinthians 7:3] express not only a law of justice but of charity.”

In other words, don’t unjustly deprive your spouse of sex. It should be noted that St. Paul mentions only spending time in prayer as a reason for deliberately avoiding sex, saying, “Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:5).

“53. And now, Venerable Brethren, we shall explain in detail the evils opposed to each of the benefits of matrimony. First consideration is due to the offspring, which many have the boldness to call the disagreeable burden of matrimony and which they say is to be carefully avoided by married people not through virtuous continence (which Christian law permits in matrimony when both parties consent) but by frustrating the marriage act. Some justify this criminal abuse on the ground that they are weary of children and wish to gratify their desires without their consequent burden. Others say that they cannot on the one hand remain continent nor on the other can they have children because of the difficulties whether on the part of the mother or on the part of family circumstances.”

This is the only reference to something like NFP I could find in Casti Connubii. The important contrast that Pius XI makes is between “virtuous continence” and “frustrating the marriage act”. Various rhythym methods were in wide use by the end of the 19th century. Surely, Pius XI would have known this. The meaning of this contrast is simple: If you don’t want to get pregnant, don’t have sex. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Now, that’s not to say that Catholic couples have carte blanche to avoid parenthood indefinitely, at least not without good reason. Weariness of children, satisfaction of selfish desires, and professed inability to remain continent do not qualify as good reasons. What Pius means by “difficulties whether on the part of the mother or on the part of family circumstances”, I do not know.

“54. But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.”

Again, the primary purpose of sex is reproduction, not pleasure. To seek the latter without the former is a grave sin. We don’t yet know, though, what constitutes frustration. However, I think it’s safe to say that this warning applies not only to any use of artificial methods of contraception, but also the abuse of natural methods (whatever might constitute abuse).

“55. 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.”[St. August., De coniug. adult., lib. II, n. 12, Genesis 38:8-10]”

There seems to be a great deal of disagreement amongst scholars and theologians as to whether Onan’s sin was spilling his seed or failing to help his sister-in-law conceive an heir for his deceased brother. Therefore, I’ll leave that point alone and just move on.

“56. Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”

Here, Pius XI lays the smackdown on the Anglican Communion and reiterates his statement that to deliberately frustrate the generate functions of the marital act is a grave sin.

“58. As regards the evil use of matrimony, to pass over the arguments which are shameful, not infrequently others that are false and exaggerated are put forward. Holy Mother Church very well understands and clearly appreciates all that is said regarding the health of the mother and the danger to her life. And who would not grieve to think of these things? Who is not filled with the greatest admiration when he sees a mother risking her life with heroic fortitude, that she may preserve the life of the offspring which she has conceived? God alone, all bountiful and all merciful as He is, can reward her for the fulfillment of the office allotted to her by nature, and will assuredly repay her in a measure full to overflowing.[47]”


“60. We are deeply touched by the sufferings of those parents who, in extreme want, experience great difficulty in rearing their children.”

“61. However, they should take care lest the calamitous state of their external affairs should be the occasion for a much more calamitous error. No difficulty can arise that justifies the putting aside of the law of God which forbids all acts intrinsically evil. There is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties and preserve in wedlock their chastity unspotted. This truth of Christian Faith is expressed by the teaching of the Council of Trent. ‘Let no one be so rash as to assert that which the Fathers of the Council have placed under anathema, namely, that there are precepts of God impossible for the just to observe. God does not ask the impossible, but by His commands, instructs you to do what you are able, to pray for what you are not able that He may help you.'[48]”

In other words, there is no valid excuse for doing that which is intrinsically evil. God does not ask the impossible. To claim that avoiding the sin of frustrating the marital act is impossible in some instance is to claim that God has lied and will not or cannot provide the necessary help to avoid sin.

“63. But another very grave crime is to be noted, Venerable Brethren, which regards the taking of the life of the offspring hidden in the mother’s womb…”

Just for good measure, in paragraphs 63-66, he throws in a reminder that abortion is immoral – even to save the life of the mother. For, “however much we may pity the mother whose health and even life is gravely imperiled in the performance of the duty allotted to her by nature, nevertheless what could ever be a sufficient reason for excusing in any way the direct murder of the innocent?” My understanding of current Church bioethical teaching is that a distinction is made between direct and indirect abortion. The latter is permitted because of the principle of double effect. That is, if the primary effect of a medical procedure is to save the life of a mother, the secondary effect of an unborn child’s death is permitted – assuming all reasonable efforts have been made to avoid this outcome.

I think His Holiness mentions abortion here because it is essentially last-chance contraception for many.

“68. Finally, that pernicious practice must be condemned which closely touches upon the natural right of man to enter matrimony but affects also in a real way the welfare of the offspring. For there are some who over solicitous for the cause of eugenics, not only give salutary counsel for more certainly procuring the strength and health of the future child – which, indeed, is not contrary to right reason – but put eugenics before aims of a higher order, and by public authority wish to prevent from marrying all those whom, even though naturally fit for marriage, they consider, according to the norms and conjectures of their investigations, would, through hereditary transmission, bring forth defective offspring. And more, they wish to legislate to deprive these of that natural faculty by medical action despite their unwillingness; and this they do not propose as an infliction of grave punishment under the authority of the state for a crime committed, not to prevent future crimes by guilty persons, but against every right and good they wish the civil authority to arrogate to itself a power over a faculty which it never had and can never legitimately possess.

“69. Those who act in this way are at fault in losing sight of the fact that the family is more sacred than the State and that men are begotten not for the earth and for time, but for Heaven and eternity. Although often these individuals are to be dissuaded from entering into matrimony, certainly it is wrong to brand men with the stigma of crime because they contract marriage, on the ground that, despite the fact that they are in every respect capable of matrimony, they will give birth only to defective children, even though they use all care and diligence.”

In case we had any doubt, Pius reminds us that eugenic practices are evil.

“70. Public magistrates have no direct power over the bodies of their subjects; therefore, where no crime has taken place and there is no cause present for grave punishment, they can never directly harm, or tamper with the integrity of the body, either for the reasons of eugenics or for any other reason. St. Thomas teaches this when inquiring whether human judges for the sake of preventing future evils can inflict punishment, he admits that the power indeed exists as regards certain other forms of evil, but justly and properly denies it as regards the maiming of the body. “No one who is guiltless may be punished by a human tribunal either by flogging to death, or mutilation, or by beating.”[54]

“71. Furthermore, Christian doctrine establishes, and the light of human reason makes it most clear, that private individuals have no other power over the members of their bodies than that which pertains to their natural ends; and they are not free to destroy or mutilate their members, or in any other way render themselves unfit for their natural functions, except when no other provision can be made for the good of the whole body.”

Deliberate sterilization, either as a punishment or by voluntary act, is under no circumstances permissible for Catholics. That means no chemical castration for criminals and no vasectomies.

In paragraphs 73-90, Pius also speaks at length about the evils of adultery, divorce, and other subjects related to marriage (It is the subject of this encyclical, after all.). I won’t quote those paragraphs here for fear of getting off track, but I think it’s relevant to the topic. Removing childbearing from the definition and purpose of marriage is just one of the steps in destorying the institution altogether. First, remove the Church. Then, remove childbearing. Then, remove permanence. Then, remove heterosexuality. Then, remove monogamy. And so it goes until marriage is a thing of the past.

“91. To conclude with the important words of Leo XIII, since the destruction of family life ‘and the loss of national wealth is brought about more by the corruption of morals than by anything else, it is easily seen that divorce, which is born of the perverted morals of a people, and leads, as experiment shows, to vicious habits in public and private life, is particularly opposed to the well-being of the family and of the State. The serious nature of these evils will be the more clearly recognized, when we remember that, once divorce has been allowed, there will be no sufficient means of keeping it in check within any definite bounds. Great is the force of example, greater still that of lust; and with such incitements it cannot but happen that divorce and its consequent setting loose of the passions should spread daily and attack the souls of many like a contagious disease or a river bursting its banks and flooding the land.'[Encycl. Arcanum, 10 Febr. 1880.]”

“92. Thus, as we read in the same letter, ‘unless things change, the human family and State have every reason to fear lest they should suffer absolute ruin.'[Encycl. Arcanum, 10 Febr. 1880.] All this was written fifty years ago, yet it is confirmed by the daily increasing corruption of morals and the unheard of degradation of the family in those lands where Communism reigns unchecked. “

Continuing in his decrying of divorce, Pius reminds his readers that more than any other reasons, be they war, famine, or plague, corruption of morals has destroyed civilizations. To him, divorce is a pandora’s box of passions. Without going in to details, he says that once marriage is wounded by the permission of divorce, lustful sins will “spread daily and attack the souls of many like a contagious disease”. Presumably, he means sins like pornography, rape, prostitution, and promiscuous extramarital sex. Pius warned, quoting Leo XII’s encyclical Arcanum, that ‘unless things change, the human family and State have every reason to fear lest they should suffer absolute ruin.’ It bothered him that fifty years later Leo’s warnings were coming true, especially “in those lands where Communism reigns unchecked”. And now, eighty years after this encylcical, those corruptions of morals and degradations are commonplace in lands where Democracy reigns. *sigh*

“104. Wherefore, let the faithful also be on their guard against the overrated independence of private judgment and that false autonomy of human reason. For it is quite foreign to everyone bearing the name of a Christian to trust his own mental powers with such pride as to agree only with those things which he can examine from their inner nature, and to imagine that the Church, sent by God to teach and guide all nations, is not conversant with present affairs and circumstances; or even that they must obey only in those matters which she has decreed by solemn definition as though her other decisions might be presumed to be false or putting forward insufficient motive for truth and honesty. Quite to the contrary, a characteristic of all true followers of Christ, lettered or unlettered, is to suffer themselves to be guided and led in all things that touch upon faith or morals by the Holy Church of God through its Supreme Pastor the Roman Pontiff, who is himself guided by Jesus Christ Our Lord.”

In other words, private judgement must not be segregated from the public judgement of the Church. First of all, it’s a mistake to think that the Church is a moldy medieval institution that’s clueless about modern affairs and ignore her teachings as though they’re no longer relevant. Secondly, it’s also a mistake to think that the Catholic magisterium ends with the individual and has nothing to say about public affairs. Thirdly, obedience to Catholic teachings is not restricted to dogma; if the Church binds an action as sin, it is a sin. Lastly, all Catholics’ consciences should be formed and informed by the Church. A true follower of Christ doesn’t check his faith at the door when he enters public forums.

“110. Even the very best instruction given by the Church, however, will not alone suffice to bring about once more conformity of marriage to the law of God; something more is needed in addition to the education of the mind, namely a steadfast determination of the will, on the part of husband and wife, to observe the sacred laws of God and of nature in regard to marriage. In fine, in spite of what others may wish to assert and spread abroad by word of mouth or in writing, let husband and wife resolve: to stand fast to the commandments of God in all things that matrimony demands; always to render to each other the assistance of mutual love; to preserve the honor of chastity; not to lay profane hands on the stable nature of the bond; to use the rights given them by marriage in a way that will be always Christian and sacred, more especially in the first years of wedlock, so that should there be need of continency afterwards, custom will have made it easier for each to preserve it. In order that they may make this firm resolution, keep it and put it into practice, an oft-repeated consideration of their state of life, and a diligent reflection on the sacrament they have received, will be of great assistance to them. Let them constantly keep in mind, that they have been sanctified and strengthened for the duties and for the dignity of their state by a special sacrament, the efficacious power of which, although it does not impress a character, is undying. To this purpose we may ponder over the words full of real comfort of holy Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who with other well-known theologians with devout conviction thus expresses himself: ‘The sacrament of matrimony can be regarded in two ways: first, in the making, and then in its permanent state. For it is a sacrament like to that of the Eucharist, which not only when it is being conferred, but also whilst it remains, is a sacrament; for as long as the married parties are alive, so long is their union a sacrament of Christ and the Church.'[St. Rob. Bellarmin., De controversiis, tom. III, De Matr., controvers. II, cap. 6.]”

The Church ought to do everything in her power to educate and help married couples to live out their vocation well. However, couples must realize that they have an active role to play. The sacrament of matrimony makes graces available that couples should take advantage of. In other words, the Church can lead people to water, but she can’t force them to drink. The gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, but that doesn’t mean some of her members won’t pass through them as the result of their own obstinance.

“113. Let then, those who are about to enter on married life, approach that state well disposed and well prepared, so that they will be able, as far as they can, to help each other in sustaining the vicissitudes of life, and yet more in attending to their eternal salvation and in forming the inner man unto the fullness of the age of Christ.[87] It will also help them, if they behave towards their cherished offspring as God wills: that is, that the father be truly a father, and the mother truly a mother; through their devout love and unwearying care, the home, though it suffer the want and hardship of this valley of tears, may become for the children in its own way a foretaste of that paradise of delight in which the Creator placed the first men of the human race. Thus will they be able to bring up their children as perfect men and perfect Christians; they will instill into them a sound understanding of the Catholic Church, and will give them such a disposition and love for their fatherland as duty and gratitude demand.”

In other words, any Catholic couple discerning marriage should be prepared and willing to faithfully uphold the vows they intend to undertake. Furthermore, any couple that does not believe marriage comes with the solemn duty lovingly accept children and rear them in the faith should not be married in the Church. If there is any doubt that two people can withstand the trials of tribulations of life, and willingly raise a family amidst them, let them not be married.

“119. When these means which We have pointed out do not fulfill the needs, particularly of a larger or poorer family, Christian charity towards our neighbor absolutely demands that those things which are lacking to the needy should be provided; hence it is incumbent on the rich to help the poor, so that, having an abundance of this world’s goods, they may not expend them fruitlessly or completely squander them, but employ them for the support and well-being of those who lack the necessities of life. They who give of their substance to Christ in the person of His poor will receive from the Lord a most bountiful reward when He shall come to judge the world; they who act to the contrary will pay the penalty.[94] Not in vain does the Apostle warn us: ‘He that hath the substance of this world and shall see his brother in need, and shall shut up his bowels from him: how doth the charity of God abide in him?'[95]”

“120. If, however, for this purpose, private resources do not suffice, it is the duty of the public authority to supply for the insufficient forces of individual effort, particularly in a matter which is of such importance to the common weal, touching as it does the maintenance of the family and married people. If families, particularly those in which there are many children, have not suitable dwellings; if the husband cannot find employment and means of livelihood; if the necessities of life cannot be purchased except at exorbitant prices; if even the mother of the family to the great harm of the home, is compelled to go forth and seek a living by her own labor; if she, too, in the ordinary or even extraordinary labors of childbirth, is deprived of proper food, medicine, and the assistance of a skilled physician, it is patent to all to what an extent married people may lose heart, and how home life and the observance of God’s commands are rendered difficult for them; indeed it is obvious how great a peril can arise to the public security and to the welfare and very life of civil society itself when such men are reduced to that condition of desperation that, having nothing which they fear to lose, they are emboldened to hope for chance advantage from the upheaval of the state and of established order.”

Is this a list of sufficiently grave reasons to avoid having a/another child? I’m not entirely certain, but I’m inclined to say it is not. It seems to me that the keys to understanding this paragraph are the phrases “it is patent to all to what an extent married people may lose heart, and how home life and the observance of God’s commands are rendered difficult for them” and “in the ordinary or even extraordinary labors of childbirth”. The implication of the first seems to be that difficulty in dutiful observance does not nullify the duty. These scenarios might lead a couple to believe that sucessfully raising a/another child would be impossible. Refer back to section 61 to remind yourself what Pius thought of “the impossible”. The implication of the second is that even these dire circumstances do not stop couples from having children.

Having said that, I think it is fair to treat the given list as containing examples of scenarios that at least represent the beginning of a clarification of serious/grave reasons. Let’s assume they are at the edge of “serious”, even if Pius may not have thought they were sufficiently serious to periodically abstain.. Here they are in list form.

  1. The family lives in an unsuitable dwelling.
  2. The husband cannot find employment and means of livelihood.
  3. The necessities of life cannot be purchased except at exorbitant prices.
  4. The mother of the family is compelled to go forth and seek a living by her own labor.
  5. The mother is deprived of proper food, medicine, and the assistance of a skilled physician during pregancy and after childbirth.

“121. Wherefore, those who have the care of the State and of the public good cannot neglect the needs of married people and their families, without bringing great harm upon the State and on the common welfare. Hence, in making the laws and in disposing of public funds they must do their utmost to relieve the needs of the poor, considering such a task as one of the most important of their administrative duties.”

That is, Christian brethren and, if need be, the civil government should assist families in caring for their needs. Particular attention is to be paid to the poor. To fail in this duty is to lead people to despair of being able to have a family at all. We Christians, in our ineptitude and laziness, are largely to blame for our society’s contraceptive attitude. Perhaps if we were more generous and supportive, more people would have the courage to marry and raise a family, knowing that they’d have help in times of trouble.

Indeed, I would argue that were Christians truly living faithfully and practicing the agape they’re called to show all mankind, including their enemies and the least of Christ’s brethren, there would be a superabundance of resources, such that no child should ever be regarded as a burden or inconvenience.

The rest of Casti Connubii is largely summary and conclusion. Section 53 seems to be the only direct reference to natural regulation of births Pius XI made in this encyclical. If someone finds another reference, let me know. We have now an idea of what some of the illicit uses of NFP would be, but we still don’t know much about its licit uses, though section 120 shed a little more light on the matter. The bright line rule still isn’t there. Actually, that’s not entirely true. There is a very bright line which a couple must not cross, and that is the use of artificial contraceptives. What would be helpful to rank and file Catholics, though, is a bright line rule for determining when abstinence from sex during fertile periods is licit. Perhaps Pius XII will provide some insight.