Contraception is contra-Catholicism
Letter to the Editor | Thursday, March 22, 2018
In the Feb. 27 edition of The Observer, a Viewpoint by Zacharias Thundy praised the University administration’s decision to provide contraception to employees and graduate students as “admirable and justifiable.” Thundy asserts that it is “not true” when people claim that “Notre Dame’s move is not in compliance with Catholic faith and teachings,” arguing rather that Notre Dame “paid close attention to Catholic teachings” when it agreed to provide coverage. Thundy provides four arguments: First, he argues: “Church teachings on changing morals are teachings and not necessarily commands” and that “it is one thing to accept a teaching, quite another to obey an order.” Second, he notes: “many Church teachings have changed over time” and are “therefore not immutable at all,” referencing Galileo. Third, he gives examples of Popes Paul VI, Benedict XVI and Francis seeming to condone contraception. Finally, he uses probabilism, a moral theory which states that in the case of doubt about an action, one may act a certain way provided that the action is probably moral and has some support, to show how in “gray areas of life” like contraception, probabilism is a “guiding light.”
On the contrary, Paul VI in his encyclical “Humanae vitae” writes: “excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means.”
We respond that Notre Dame’s decision to provide contraception to its employees and graduate students is against Catholic faith and teachings, and ought not to be lauded, but condemned. To show this, we will treat each of Thundy’s arguments in turn.
To the first argument: First, the Church does not treat in “changing morals.” She has never and will never change her teaching on moral issues. To do so would be to go against her infallible character. The first counter-example that anyone will bring up is slavery; there is little space here to respond, but in short, the Church always permitted just slavery and condemned unjust slavery. That slavery as it was understood from the 16th century, and remains today, was eventually deemed unjust is a clarification, not an alteration, in position. This distinction also explains similar issues. Second, to say that one can accept a teaching without obeying a command implied by that teaching seems contradictory. It is clear, as quoted above, that “Humanae vitae” forbids contraception. This implies a command: Do not use or actively promote contraceptives. Faithful Catholics must act on what is implied by Church teachings, since “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).
To the second argument: The teachings of the Church do not change over time and are immutable. Catholics believe that the Church is infallible regarding matters of faith and morals (“Pastor Aeternus” Ch. III, “Lumen Gentium”). If the Church once taught what wasn’t true (regarding faith and morals), and then changed to what was true, or vice versa, she wouldn’t be infallible. The Galileo affair cannot be treated here comprehensively, but in short, it is not a sufficient counterexample. The Church determined, albeit after the Galileo affair, that geocentrism was not a matter of faith and morals, and furthermore, never actively taught geocentrism as such, even during the affair. What the Church condemned was the direct challenge Galileo posed to the Church’s authority to interpret Scripture, which is a matter of faith and morals.
To the third argument: In each instance, a proper understanding of the Pope’s words can lead us to understand that each of them did in fact have a problem with contraception. The example of Paul VI allowing nuns in the Congo to employ contraception is (1) an unsubstantiated story and (2) in all versions of the story, only in cases of rape. In regard Benedict XVI, the Pope said contraception was not “a real or moral solution” to the problem of HIV. Therefore, to say that Benedict “had no problem” with contraceptives, as Thundy did, seems misleading. The same can be said of Francis. The best Francis can do to defend contraceptives is calling “avoiding pregnancy” a “lesser evil,” though he still explicitly names the “evil of avoiding pregnancy.” If contraception is an “evil,” as is unanimously taught by all three Popes, it may only be permitted to prevent a greater evil. In all three cases, the Popes permitted contraception in extraordinary situations involving serious bodily harm. The University is not in that position. We cannot conceive of a greater evil that the University is trying to prevent which would approach the physical violence of rape or death, with the possible exception of abortion. However, there is a host of reasons why saying that the University is providing contraceptives to prevent the greater evil of abortion is problematic.
To the fourth argument: First, probabilism as a position is contentious, and not universally held. Second, Thundy’s argument from probabilism requires that contraception be a disputed issue within the Church’s authoritative statements, and that there is some (even if only a little) support for both sides. This is not the case. “Humanae vitae” is a blanket condemnation of contraception. In it, Paul writes: “Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil … it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it.” In paying for and providing contraception, the University does evil; no result can justify it. Furthermore, the way Paul calls contraception “intrinsically wrong,” and the unanimous agreement of subsequent Popes and the magisterium, reveals that for Catholics, contraception is not a “gray area of life.” The Church’s position on this issue is not in doubt: The Catholic Church stands against contraception, and Notre Dame ought to, too. That our University has chosen not to is neither “admirable” nor “justifiable,” but rather something to be condemned.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.