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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
Conscience &  Contraception 

By James E. Biechler

Why didn't somebody tell me that birth control is no longer a sin? My husband and I were told that if we did not wish to have more children we were to use either the rhythm method or to live as brother and sister. Now my nieces and nephews tell me that birth control is not really a problem. They simply follow their own judgment. How could I have missed the announcement of such a monumental change in the church's teaching?"
A. H., Towaco, NJ-- 

You didn't miss the announcement and I don't think you should keep waiting. Your nieces and nephews who follow their own judgment are really doing just what their aunt has been doing all these years. You were following your judgment but you judged that you had to conform your judgment to Vatican authority. Your nieces and nephews apparently judge either that Vatican authority should not be followed on this question because it is not a reliable guide or they judge that Vatican authority does not apply to them in this matter. (We are assuming, of course, that they are actually making rational moral judgments, though it is possible that like many young Christians today, they regard sexual conduct as completely personal and resent any suggestion that it should conform to standards other than their own.) 

Your letter suggests that you feel somehow cheated and that you envy your nieces and nephews their independence and marital freedom. Many Catholics probably feel as you do and there is good reason for those feelings. After all, the commission appointed by Pope John XXIII to study the question did recommend a change in Vatican teaching on birth control but Pope Paul VI was not able to follow that recommendation and in his encyclical Humanae vitae issued July 25, 1968 he reaffirmed and underlined a position which asserted that each and every act of marital intercourse must remain physically open to the possibility of conception. Many Catholic moral theologians could not find solid theological and rational grounds to support so unqualified a position. After all, papal teaching had already affirmed the acceptability of a married couple's contraceptive intention given the right motives. Papal teaching had also affirmed the licitness of using anovulants (birth control pills) to regulate the menstrual cycle so that conception might be avoided more successfully by couples practicing the rhythm method of contraception. Furthermore, the Second Vatican Council had already made basic changes in the church's teaching regarding the primary purpose of marriage, substantially enlarging it to underline the notion of mutual covenant or interpersonal communion of the spouses, their mutual affection and support of one another. The procreation of children is an obvious end of marriage but is not of the essence. The right to procreation may not be excluded but two people can marry mutually agreeing not to have children. 

Sexual intimacy between husband and wife may fulfill its serious purpose exclusive of a procreative intention or possibility. Mutual love and affection is an indispensable goal of marriage and it is the responsibility of the couple to foster that love and affection by whatever means available to them. Normally a couple will welcome the children their love begets but a couple must make their own decision about having children. 

No announcements on this matter are expected from the Vatican, other than those which are meant to reaffirm the position of Humanae vitae, a document, by the way, which should be read by every literate Catholic because of its beautiful articulation of Christian marital idealism. How to put that idealism into actual practice in their lives is the responsibility of the married couple and no authority can absolve them from that responsibility nor force them into moral positions that are not rationally convincing even for celibate Catholic theologians. 

Article 28 of the Charter of Rights of Catholics in the Church, published by ARCC, states that "All married Catholics have the right to determine in conscience the size of their families and the appropriate methods of family planning." Chapter 28 of A Catholic Bill of Rights (Sheed & Ward, 1988) enlarges upon and explains Article 28. It includes a brief bibliography for additional reading. 


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 18 July 1999
Last updated 18 July 1999
Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer
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