What do you think about this priest's advice regarding birth control?

Something I read on here recently reminded me of something that a priest said to me several years ago. I just wonder what the community on here thinks of it. He told me, without identifying anyone by name, a story about middle-aged Catholic married couple who had come to him for advice. My guess is that they were at a previous parish of his that was in a different city 50 miles away. So there was no risk of my having any idea who they were, just in case anyone worries about confidentiality issues.

In short, it seems that the problem the couple came to him with was that because they were leading an active sex life without birth control, the woman repeatedly became pregnant and each time had a miscarriage. Apparently they had been married for many years, had never used contraception, and had many children. They seemed to be presented as an ideal Catholic married couple. Their dilemma was, should they keep on having sex and seemingly inevitably have one miscarriage after another, or should they abstain until the woman had well and truly completed the menopause.

The priest’s advice was as follows, and I am necessarily paraphrasing as I wasn’t there: “Just use condoms. You have observed Catholic teaching through the whole of your marriage and you have had many children. At this stage in your lives, sex serves a different purpose. It is now about bonding you as a couple, not about having more children. If you keep having sex without birth control, you’ll keep having more miscarriages, which will damage you physically and emotionally. If you abstain from sex until you have completed the menopause, it will put an intolerable strain on your marriage. So, with my blessing and with a clear conscience, just use condoms for the next few years.”

At the time I thought that this seemed to be a very practical and pastoral approach to a difficult situation, but from what I have read on here I suspect that people will think that the priest was heterodox and may even have endangered his parishioners’ souls. I quoted the incident to an Anglican theology professor and he seemed to think that he priest’s advice was good, but he objected to the fact that a couple who have an urbane and sophisticated priest in Europe can get one kind of advice while couples in Africa would invariably be given another kind of advice.

I see a few problems with the priest’s advice. First, sex is never just about procreation, or just about bonding the couple. The unitive and procreative “goods” of sex, while distinct, are inseparable because they are bound up with the dignity of the person.

Secondly, the bonding that takes place between a man and woman during intercourse isn’t just a spiritual bonding. There’s an actual chemical bonding that takes place that literally gets blocked through the use of condoms.

Third, his logic is flawed. If I were to apply his logic to another situation - say, a man (or woman) who’s been faithful to his spouse but now wants to have an affair - I could just say, “Oh, you’ve been married for 25 years now and you’ve been faithful to your spouse the whole time. One little affair isn’t going to hurt. You’ve done your duty. Go ahead.” Just because a couple may have “done their duty” by bearing many children over the course of the years doesn’t mean that they are now free to dispense of Church teaching and the objective moral order and use each other as objects for mutual masturbation (which is what deliberately sterilized sex is). This is a recipe for disaster in a marriage.

The best solution would be to find opportunities for the couple to really dive into the teachings of Humanae Vitae, the Theology of the Body, and Natural Family Planning. Those three taken together really spell out a solid marital spirituality that, while admittedly difficult to live, is truly freeing and leads to authentically happy marriages when lived.

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Thank you. You are probably right that the priest’s advice was not strictly in line with Church teaching. He seemed to think that one has the discretion to be a little flexible under unusual circumstances.

One thing you say that puzzles me is this:

and use each other as objects for mutual masturbation (which is what deliberately sterilized sex is). This is a recipe for disaster in a marriage.

How would you apply that to couples who are Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Old Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Bahá’í, pagan, or non-religious (plus all the Catholics who use birth control)? That means that there are about 6.5 billion people on the planet who are just using each other as objects for mutual masturbation and having disasters in their marriages. That doesn’t appear to agree with the observable reality, which is that for the vast majority of people in the world it is possible to have a good relationship and a healthy sex life while using birth control.

They always had a third option available to them: observation of the woman’s cycle and periodic continence during fertile times.

The priest’s advice, if accurately relayed here, is gravely wrong. He is advocating an action that is grave matter against the sixth commandment.

This is called ‘proportionality’ and has been condemned by the Church. Dr Janet Smith has a great talk on this and why it isn’t compatible with Catholic teaching.

That is something for the woman’s doctor to establish.

This may or may not be true, depending on the couple. But, many couples through history have been faithful to the Church’s teaching and this sort of statement is an insult to every faithful couple.

He cannot give permission for contraception. He’s deluded on this point.

This isn’t ambiguous. The “advice” the priest gave is contrary to the Church’s teaching in all prior teaching documents up to and including Humanae Vitae and as outlined in the Catechism for reference.

Moreover, for some unknown reason the priest and couple don’t consider periodic continence at all. So, that’s puzzling.

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That isn’t really relevant since Anglicans are not Catholics and abandoned the universal teaching on contraception nearly a century ago.

That’s a rather silly argument as he doesn’t know what sort of advice couples get in any country. He knows this one anecdotal story.

The real tragedy is that couples would get “different” answers at all. A priest can certainly be pastoral, but not in opposition to Church teaching. Only within Church teaching. So, the priest could have given options of total continence or periodic continence if the couple no longer wished to continue with providentialism (which is not required by or advocated by the Church).

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It was more than “not strictly in line with” church teaching. It was in opposition to it.

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A considerate husband in these circumstances might well agree to abstain, but contraception is always a sin.

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I guess that if the woman was close to the menopause perhaps her menstrual cycle had become sufficiently irregular to make this option no longer practical. I am sure that they would have considered it and must have had good reasons why it didn’t work for them.

I relay it almost word for word as he described it to me. I can even hear his tone of voice in my head as I recall it. There is no doubt in my mind that that is almost precisely his advice as he told it to me.

He seemed to think that it was within his remit as a diocesan priest to counsel his parishioners in line with what he believed was faithful to Church teaching, but making allowances for individual circumstances.

I was more citing it not as something relevant to Church teaching, but as something relevant to the way Catholicism is perceived by those outside the Church. You have to agree that most people outside the Church believe that prohibiting artificial birth control has had a deleterious effect on people in developing countries, especially in Africa, and especially women in Africa. We cannot ignore that that is how the world sees us.

He had lived in different parts of Africa for a long time and was an expert on contemporary affairs in Africa. He believed that he had first-hand knowledge of how the Catholic Church operates in Africa.

I can see what you are saying there, but this priest certainly felt that his conscience was clear on this point. He worked in the Vatican and knew Pope John Paul II, so he presumably knew what he was talking about. Perhaps he knew that he was in opposition to Church teaching but opposed it anyway.

Yes, but you seem to be assuming that sex within marriage is all about satisfying the husband’s demands. For all we know, the wife may have had a high sex drive (which I believe is not uncommon as women approach the menopause) and it may have been the woman’s desire for sex within her marriage that was in the lead rather than her feeling that she had to give in to her husband’s demands. This sounds like a very old-fashioned view that assumes that sex is something that men demand and women submit to grudgingly.

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Assuming that all of these people are using artificial or onanistic birth control — which is a pretty broad assumption, but granting it for the sake of argument — that is precisely what they are doing. Whether they are having “disasters in their marriages” is beside the point. Committing objectively mortal sins is the true “disaster” here. Many people have outwardly happy marriages, and outwardly happy lives, while committing mortal sins. The only “happiness” that really matters is eternal happiness in heaven.

It may be “good” and “healthy” in their own eyes, and the eyes of the world, but as I alluded to above, the only goodness and health that matters is that which is in conformity to the Divine Will. It is entirely possibly to have a difficult and miserable life in the temporal realm, yet be wholly pleasing to God in that you are suffering for a short time in this world, while storing up eternal treasures in heaven.

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I make no apologies for it being an old fashioned view - but I doubt that she prefers sex with miscarriage to abstaining. If she does and the problem is not inevitable then they can continue as they are. If not abstinence either completely or a very conservative NFP is the alternative.

I too have been counseled to use birth control. And that fact is one of the reasons I struggle with the Church.

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Why can we not ignore how the world sees us? What is more important is how the Church sees the world, no?

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He’ll have to answer for giving that advice.

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Women enjoy sex too. It’s not just about bringing pleasure to the husband. There’s no reason to believe that fellas have a stronger or more passionate libido than women.

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“Regularity” isn’t a requirement for NFP. You observe your actual fertility each day. There are instructions for perimenopause.

As a woman who has just gone through it for the last 7 years, NFP works just fine.

It doesn’t sound like they did at all. If it wasn’t an option for them, then total continence would be the option. Contraception is never a moral option.

People are human and error. It is unfortunate that someone in such a position would be ignorant of Church teaching. If it was willful, then that itself is very grave matter.

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Your Anglican theology professor comes across as smug and more than a little racist by comparing the “urbane and sophisticated” white priest against the ignorant and backward black priest.

He may want to be careful of that.

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Yep. Totally racist!

Cardinal Arinze is certainly neither of those things!

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Yes, I can see that up to a point, but happiness in this life counts for something too. Years ago I remember Christian Aid ran a campaign with the slogan “We believe in life before death”.

Presumably this would be the case. I think the priest thought that he was helping them by suggesting a way in which they did not have to abstain.

My apologies if this is too personal a question, but since you brought it up, do you mean counselled by a priest or counselled by a doctor? I find the Church’s teaching on birth control problematic in general, and I am surprised to find that the consensus of opinion among the laity seems to be that a priest is wrong to permit any deviation from the strictest adherence. And the priest in question is not noted for his liberalism. He served in the Roman curia under John Paul II and under Benedict XVI, who appointed him a chaplain to His Holiness. This same priest once flatly told me that he would refuse to marry a couple who didn’t want to have children.

Yes, how the Church sees the world is important, but I also think it is important when I see what people outside the Church are saying about the Catholic Church and the two things that come up every time are the sexual abuse crisis and birth control, especially in the developing world.

I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t work the same way for every woman.

On the contrary, he was an extremely nice chap and he and his wife had both dedicated their entire working lives (and retirement) to Africa. The fact is that Catholicism was exported to Africa by white people. Almost all of the most senior clerics in Africa have been educated in Europe or north America, often in the former colonial powers such as France, Belgium, Portugal, and even the UK. The Church in Africa is also heavily dependent upon western aid money. You cannot simply say that when somebody criticises the Catholic Church in Africa he is being smug and racist and highlighting the ignorance and backwardness of black people. On the contrary, I think he is highlighting the process of colonialism and its ongoing legacy. He is highlighting the hypocrisy of white Europeans exporting their belief systems and cultural norms to Africa while permitting themselves rather more flexible standards in the mother country.

Since you don’t know the person in question, it seems extraordinary that you are content to call him “totally racist”.

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