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By Mitch Finley
Is birth control prohibited even if medical experts believe pregnancy could endanger the mother’s life?
Curiosity about the Catholic teaching on contraception is more common among non-Catholics than among Catholics. Also, questions like this one tend to be more theoretical than real because it is far from common that a woman could die if she becomes pregnant. However, if a woman’s life would be endangered by pregnancy the official position of the Catholic Church still forbids contraception. At the same time, it is also a fact that many—probably the great majority—of Catholic moral theologians disagree and would advise a woman that she may, in good conscience, use an artificial method of birth control to avoid a life-threatening pregnancy.
The larger context for this discussion, however, comes from the fact that survey after survey indicates that in the U.S. 85 to 90 percent of Catholic married couples use contraceptives. To be sure, some couples do follow the teaching of the (not infallible) papal encyclical “Humanae Vitae“ (St. Pope Paul VI, 1968) by using methods called Natural Family Planning (NFP). Those who promote these methods teach ways for couples to avoid sexual intercourse during a woman’s fertile times. Still, it’s not unusual for couples to find that NFP doesn’t work as advertised and/or stresses their marriage more than helping it. On the other hand, some couples insist that NFP is the best thing that ever happened to their marriages. So it goes . . .
Yes, the official teaching of the Catholic Church declares that each and every act of sexual intercourse must remain open to the possibility of conception. Therefore, it forbids the use of artificial contraceptives. However, the issue is, and historically has been, complex. The Wikipedia article on all this is good. And if you want to read an excellent book on the topic, get “Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission and How Humanae Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church,” by Robert McClory (Crossroad).
There is probably no other topic that will bring out the divisions between conservative and progressive Catholics as starkly as birth control. Right-wing Catholics will declare that any (“so-called” they will add) Catholic who doesn’t take “Humanae Vitae” as at least virtually infallible is a “bad Catholic.” Left-wing Catholics believe just the opposite, of course. Still, the contrast isn’t as clearly defined as one might expect. For there are countless ordinary, theologically middle-of-the-road Catholic spouses who see no reason to accuse pious, unselfish, faithful, church-going, loving Catholic couples of “living in sin” because they use contraceptives.
Indeed, right-wing Catholics will declare that the writer of these words is a heretic, while left -wing Catholics will quietly agree with him. Most Catholics, however, long ago made up their own minds about birth control—they have no problem with it—and will simply yawn.
Mitch Finley is the author of 30+ books on Roman Catholic theological topics and spirituality, all written to appeal to both non-academic and academic readers. Mitch holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University and an M.A. in Theology from Marquette University. He and Kathy Finley have been married since 1974 and are the parents of three grown sons. To learn more, visit his website.