Catholics and Abortion: Family Planning and Contraception
(Number 5 and last in a series)
The term Family Planning is often used synonymously with the term Birth Control. Both terms mean that a man and/or woman are taking steps to either prevent pregnancy or to enhance becoming pregnant. (I put "and/or" there because sometimes it is a one sided effort.)
There are many methods used for family planning or birth control.
Clearly the most effective way and only 100% effective way of preventing pregnancy is sexual abstinence. But ongoing abstinence in a committed marriage relationship is difficult and sometimes blamed for causing marriage breakups when a couple does not get to experience the intimacy of a sexual relationship between each other. However for unmarried people abstinence is the only method approved by the Catholic Church.
The oldest method of birth control is probably coitus interruptus
which is a Latin phrase meaning interrupting intercourse whereby the man removes his penis from the woman's vagina just before he reaches orgasm. That method is considered unreliable since it can be very difficult for a man to maintain the necessary self-control.
The Catholic Church fully supports sexual activity and intimacy between a married couple as "noble and worthy" (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World
, no. 49 and Humanae Vitae
no. 11). The Church also teaches that each and every marital act of intercourse must be open to the possibility of the creation of human life as a fact of natural law.
Thus the Catholic church also teaches that many methods of contraception would be a violation of natural law and therefore morally evil because they interfere with the natural processes such as condoms, diaphragms, other barrier methods, spermicides, intrauterine devices, chemical methods such as pills, patches, injections, and implants. Likewise the Catholic Church views surgical sterilization methods as being opposed to natural law because they prevent the possibility of conception.
Certainly abortion, as we have already discussed, or any post-conception method the Catholic Church sees as a violation of moral law.
The Catholic Church does, however, accept certain methods of family planning or birth control that use what are called natural methods. The Catholic Church recognizes that God created human life functions such that not every act of intercourse will produce conception due to ovarian cycles. Because that is a natural cycle the Church believes that taking advantage of that cycle is not an unnatural act.
An early method of birth control that used information about women's' menstrual cycles was the Rhythm Method. Unfortunately the calculation method used allowed for many errors and thus the method was considered quite unreliable. The Catholic Church no longer encourages the Rhythm Method.
A newer method commonly called Natural Family Planning (NFP) uses more precise techniques for each woman to determine when during a woman's cycle she is most likely to be fertile. The approved Catholic method would be to avoid intercourse (abstinence) during that time of fertility. Natural Family Planning does require some training for couples but it can be a very effective method of birth control. Likewise, since the method identifies times of fertility the method can be used as a technique to maximize becoming pregnant. Though the Catholic Church does not approve of artificial contraception using condoms, some couples use Natural Family Planning to identify times during a woman's cycle during which to use condoms versus not using them at "safe" times. (My wife and I used Natural Family Planning very successfully.)
There are some people who claim that since Natural Family Planning uses a thermometer to aid in tracking a woman's cycle that it is not truly natural. However the Catholic Church accepts and promotes the use of Natural Family Planning. In many Catholic dioceses rules require that all couples preparing for marriage take training classes in the method. (My diocese here in Phoenix, Arizona has that requirement.)
The history of the Catholic position about contraceptives had been a bit shakey. Officially, the Catholic Church has never really varied in its objection to contraceptives. However in the 1960's many Catholic theologians responding to questions in civil legislation about contraceptives insisted that it was a private matter to be left to each persons' decision of conscience. Though that argument has great weight in relation to civil law, in relation the Catholic Church view of moral and natural law the Church rejects that reasoning.
During the mid-1960's the Catholic Church decided to reexamine the whole subject of birth control. A commission was established. There were a lot of meetings and inputs from many theologians. Many of those theologians concluded that the commission would eventually recommend allowing certain contraceptive methods including the pill. Many of those theologians encouraged Catholics to consider that option and to use their consciences to decide against official Church teachings. The commission eventually did make recommendations to the pope which included relaxing some prohibitions. However Pope Paul VI released his encyclical Humanae Vitae
(Latin for "Human Life") where he did not make any changes and specifically restated the Catholic beliefs.
After the pope issued that encyclical many of the theologians who had essentially staked their reputations on the fact that they expected the Church to change its rules found themselves with problems. Some of them went on to promote the use of contraceptives and encouraging people to make decisions of their own consciences which might oppose the official Catholic teachings. Much confusion was caused among Catholics. To this day their is still much confusion as evidenced by the number of Catholics who studies have shown continue to use contraceptives.
Let me take a moment to discuss the idea of conscience. The Catholic Church believes in the primacy of conscience. That is, a person must always act following their own conscience. Each person has a responsibility to have well formed conscience. However the Church insists that people need to pay attention to the Church's teachings when forming their consciences as a moral obligation.
I have enjoyed writing this series about the Catholic church`s stance on abortion. I am glad that "I was asked
" to do it. Though at times I have had to pause and reflect and even stop to catch my breath as I've read comments and e-mails from my readers whose lives and the lives of people dear to them have been touched by this serious issue. I have taken time to pause and pray.
I want to quote here one my reader's comments because she stated it so well. Mary P.
wrote: "This is a fascinating discussion in the abstract. It is tremendously painful in the reality. I ache for those frightened woman; I cry for their unborn children; I rage at those who deny the tragedy of this event, even though I believe there are times when it is necessary - essential even. Even then, it's such a sad, sad thing."
References and more information:
Wikipedia article on Birth Control:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birth_control
Pope Paul VI encyclical HUMANAE VITAE
Planned Parenthood's history of birth control. Not just a history of the organization but also a good history of developments of birth control methods and legislation.http://www.plannedparenthood.com/pp2/portal/files/portal/
What is Natural Family Planning by Phoenix Natural Family Planning Center:http://www.phxnfp.org/Pages/intro1.html
Catechism of the Catholic Church:http://www.usccb.org/catechism/text/
Pastoral Constitution: On The Church in the Modern World:http://www.rc.net/rcchurch/vatican2/gaudium.ets
Your comments and questions are welcome.
If more issues are raised I will continue this series or begin a new series.