Let’s set romance aside for a moment and talk about something important: is the use of contraception during sex with your wife a sin? A reader asked me my opinion on contraception and if my wife and I used it. He was Catholic and had struggled with this for a while because the Catholic Church considers contraception in any form a mortal sin.
My first thought was: “there is no way the modern Church feels this way.” So I looked it up. I was astonished! They clearly teach that contraception is a sin – as far back as one can trace up to present day.
Pope Paul VI claimed:
Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” (emphasis added)
The Pope says that the use on artificial birth control could lead to infidelity; however, on the other hand, the Apostil Paul says that husbands and wives should fulfill their marital duties to each and not deny each other in order to keep Satan from tempting them away. (See quote from 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, below) He basically says that if you’re not taking care of things in the bedroom, then one or both of you will be tempted due to your lack of self control. So he is saying to have sex to keep your spouse satisfied and to keep him/her from being tempted to stray. But if you only have sex for procreation (or possible procreation), then surely one spouse or the other will be left wanting – and possibly looking elsewhere.
I should note that while the Catholic Church widely accepts this view, there are dissenting groups in the Church who do not adhere to it so strictly.
Presumably, using contraception will allow for married couples to have sex more often. So basically, the Pope says that having more sex will cause the husband to objectify his wife as a sex tool. Not only does this fly in the face of research that shows that frequent mutually satisfying sex in marriage creates a stronger bond between husbands and wives, it seems to contradict what the Apostil Paul says. Let’s look at the Scripture more closely:
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” ~ 1 Corinthians 7:1-5
Some would contend that there are marital duties other than sex that Paul could have been referring to. But when you combine ”marital duties” with the exhortation not to deny your spouse so that Satan may not tempt them, it is clear that in this context, he is referring to sex. Surely he is not referring to your wife’s need for you to help with the dishes or balance the checkbook so that she is not tempted to hire a housekeeper or an accountant. Paul is saying that you should satisfy your spouses desire for sex. If you don’t, then he/she will be tempted to find satisfaction outside the marriage. This also supports the command not to cause your brother in Christ to stumble into sin – by denying your spouse, you may cause him/her to stumble.
Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 says to take a break and deny each other in only one case: by mutual consent to devote yourselves to prayer. And then it says to come together again (have sex again) to keep temptation away. It does not say “Come together again only if you want to possibly get pregnant.”
Even using the Natural Family Planning (NFP) method is difficult for most. The window in which one can have sex without conception is pretty small. The rest of the time (three weeks out of the month – **see note directly below**) the couple must abstain if they do not want to risk conception. The fact is that, in a man’s case, he physically needs sex more often because his semen reserves are filled 100% every 72 hours or so and his urges increase. So going three weeks without relief is difficult and leads easily into temptation.
UPDATE NOTE: It was brought to my attention that the abstinence period when using NFP is not 3 weeks – I did some research and found this to be true. There are 5 methods of NFP – for one of them I found that the “safe period” for sex is only “10 or 11 days at the end of the cycle and the dry days”… not sure what that means because I have not studied NFP in detail. And of course, “the fertile period starts with the first signs of mucus and continues until 4 days after the peak day.” Ok – I’m no rocket scientist, but: huh? It still looks like 11 days of sex and 20 days of no sex (which is fine, IMO, as long as both spouses are on board). I can see that the NFP method takes a lot of work in tracking, testing, etc – in other words it is still a very deliberate and intentional form of birth control. I am sure that NFP works for some, and God bless them for their diligence.
Aren’t people who use NFP still using birth control? People who use NFP are trying to enjoy sex without getting pregnant – and being very careful and scientific about it. The results are the same as using a condom or the pill: 90%+ effective (once you get all your charts, calendars and timing down right). This means that either way, God can still plant that seed if he has plans for the family to have a child. Who thinks God cannot break a condom? Anyone? No hands were raised – not that I could see, anyway. :) Reference: The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
I don’t know of anywhere in the Bible where it says having sex within marriage without wanting to conceive is a sin. So on what Scripture does the Catholic Church base it’s doctrine regarding the use of contraception? I am not a Biblical scholar, so I could be mistaken, but as far I can tell, they base this teaching on what is known as the “sin of Onan.” And here it is:
Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Lie with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother.’ But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so he put him to death also.” – Genesis 38:8-10
The Catholic Church seems to see only two sentences in this passage: “…he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight…” So, they say: this is contraception and the Lord says it is wicked.
But look at it in the context of the situation and actions as a whole: Onan does two things here: 1) he disobeys the Lord and does not allow conception – so that make his actions adulterous - and 2) he deceives his brother’s wife into thinking he is sleeping with her to conceive a child and then withdraws so as not to conceive. He does this more than once. Furthermore, he seems to do this specifically so he can sleep with his brother’s wife and NOT have offspring for his brother. So he is disobeying a Command and getting pleasure through his deceit – which is akin to rape. So God sees this is wicked and kills him. (This is all Old Testament, by the way)
Does this mean that if a married man interrupts sex with his wife to climax outside her, he has sinned? No – he is having sex with his own wife and not sleeping via deceit with another man’s wife (and he is not disobeying a direct command from God). Does this mean that every time a married couple has sex, they should try to have or risk having a baby? I think not. It means that if you have sex under false pretences, it is a sin – and if you have sex outside marriage, you have committed the sin of adultery which is warned against numerous times in the Old and New Testament.
The Apostil Paul’s exhortations are not to deny your spouse – to fulfill your marital duties. If you cannot have sex because, perhaps, you already have three children and don’t want any more because you are in your 40s, how can you fulfill your marital duties and not deny each other? You have to deny each other. This sounds like an invitation for temptation.
Consider this: what about when your wife is too old to have a child without serious dangers but has not reached menopause? Are you supposed to wait two, three, five or six years before you have sex again? How does that reconcile with Paul’s warning against depriving your spouse of sex because of Satan’s temptation? It does not.
I sincerely believe that God intended married people to enjoy their lives together – and to share their bodies with each other via sexual relations. You will be as one flesh. You will be close and in love and you will not need to deprive each other – and as a result, Satan will not be able to tempt you away from each other.
Paul also warns time and again that no one is to add anything or take anything away from the Bible – but saying that contraception is a mortal sin seems to be doing just that – adding to the Bible.