Birth Control, Contraception, and the Catholic Church

I cringe whenever people say that the Catholic Church opposes birth control. And, if it is appropriate in the context, I do my best to correct them: the Catholic Church does not oppose birth control; it opposes contraception. What is the difference?

Our good friends at Princeton remind us that:

  • Birth control is limiting the number of children born
  • Contraception is birth control by the use of devices (diaphragm or intrauterine device or condom) or drugs or surgery

So, birth control is anything that limits birth, and contraception is a specific type of birth control which limits birth in a specific way, namely through the use of devices which allows one to suppress fertility and separate sex and procreation.

Birth control is by definition amazingly broad. Anything from complete abstinence to abortion can count as birth control.

The Catholic Church opposes abortion because it involves killing a new human life.

The Catholic Church opposes contraception because it is contrary to the dignity of the human person in pathologizing and suppressing something as essential to ourselves as our fertility1. The Church also opposes contraception because contraception goes against the very nature of married love: a love which unites two people in the deepest of intimacy inherently connected to the transmission of human life. The Church opposes contraception because contraception destroys the intricate connection between the unitive significance and the procreative significance of sex.

But the Catholic Church does not oppose birth control. In fact, the Church urges people to live responsibly in the realm of parenting and to wisely take into account their situation in life when considering having children. A certain minority is called to have large families, and they are to be commended if they do so suitably after wise deliberation. But for most people prudence dictates that they limit the number of children which they bring into the world. The Catholic Church urges this prudence in the same breath in which she condemns contraception.

Those who refer to Natural Family Planning2 as “Catholic birth control” usually do not know what they are talking about. But they accidentally stumble upon the truth: frequently overlooked among the many problematic options, there is a Catholic form of birth control. It is the birth control which takes into account the complete reality of the human person and allows couples to avoid or achieve pregnancy without compromising the ultimate intimacy of their sexual relationship.

This is not to in any way imply that the Catholic Church’s teaching on the regulation of human birth is easy or fun or comparable to contraception it its daily implications for one’s sex life. It is not. But even though what the Church suggests is challenging, it is not stupidity or irresponsibility.

You are certainly welcome to disagree with the Catholic Church over its prohibition of contraception and abortion. But you should at least understand that its motivations are far more complected than the caricature of old white bishops wanting all married women to spend their lives giving birth.

In short: Contraception? No. Birth control? Yes.

1. This is actually a particular instance of the Church’s broader opposition to self-mutilation etc. The idea is that the human person, including the human body, is essentially good as naturally created by God, and (with the exception of medical reasons) amputation, mutilation, and sterilization are immoral.

2. Natural Family Planning is an umbrella term used to describe various methods of determining when sex is likely to result in conception, and thus allowing one to practice periodic abstinence to avoid conception.

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23 thoughts on “Birth Control, Contraception, and the Catholic Church

  1. Jackie

    Great post! In my public health class population control always comes up. I have mixed feelings about it – yes, developing countries may be over their carrying capacity, but I hate the idea that we are blaming the developing world for overpopulating the world. I think “birth control” can be put to good use.

  2. Sarah

    I get what you’re saying, and I agree with you. However, I think because in the wider world birth control = contraception, that’s why so many Catholics will phrase it that way (The Church is against birth control, or We don’t use birth control.)

    My husband is a convert from a liberal protestant family, and if I told them, “Oh yeah, we use birth control”, they’d ask me which Pill I was on. So it’s frustrating because I agree with what you’ve written, but it’s almost as though you can’t use the words “birth control” to talk about NFP because it is immediately conflated with contraception. I think that’s why some people use the phrase “responsible parenthood” which to my mind, encompasses a lot of the same ideas as birth control.

    1. Rae Post author

      “Responsible parenthood” is a great phrase!

      I may be unfair here, but I think that most Catholics who say “The Church is against birth control” don’t actually know what they’re talking about. I have seen *so* many people who should know better (like Catholic youth ministers!) explain that NFP is allowed because it does not actually counter fertility so it still gives God a chance to make a baby!

      Then others complain that the Church is stupid for allowing NFP if it is really as effective as studies claim since “there is no difference between birth control and NFP.” And they completely miss the truth of the difference between contraception and NFP.

      So I guess I agree with you that the term “birth control” should be used with care, but I think that when there is enough time and space to explain it, then it really works for increasing understanding and respect for what the Church actually teaches.

    2. Joshua Michael

      “My husband is a convert from a liberal protestant family, and if I told them, “Oh yeah, we use birth control”, they’d ask me which Pill I was on.”

      This may or may not work for your family, but when they ask that, you could just say something like…

      “Oh, we’re using a natural form of birth control that’s approved by the Church and doesn’t interfere with the way our bodies are supposed to work. It’s pretty awesome, because it’s totally organic, doesn’t rely on putting tons of synthetic hormones into your body, and it’s good for the environment too!”

      That way, instead of coming across as a religious fundamentalist, you come across as a nice friendly eco-hippie. :-)

      1. Rae Post author

        Sarah, Josh didn’t know anything about your eco-friendly approach before posting this. I, of course, promptly laughed and filled him in. :-)

        1. Sarah

          Rae, that’s so funny! I should totally say that, because both of his sisters are all into local, sustainable, and eco-friendly (which we are too), but it does kind of baffle me that they won’t eat a piece of meat that’s been treated with hormones, but they both willingly pump themselves full of them each month! :0

  3. Ruth GR

    Great post! I am so glad to hear the clear difference made clear. I am not Roman Catholic but Anglo Catholic & thus follow many if the teaching of the Roman church partly because they are universally true, biblically and come by in a dilligent & scholarly way and that Anglicans are given a poor or non exsistant code of morality!!! However, this is a really hard one for me. I totally and utterly agree with all the above statements and applied them to me until I came across these two issues: I am sadly on a cocktail of drugs that keep me well enough to live relatively normal life … Removing myself from these drugs could hugely endanger my physical and mental health. Likewise if I remained on the med’s I would willingly damage a baby a life! I sought much advice on this when I realized the implications and in the end opted for contraception – it makes me ache with grief but I also have two beautiful lives to care for now. So hard! Secondly because I do not menstruate because of my medical condition & yet according to blood tests I am still fertile I cannot find an alternative natural birth control. This is a huge connudrum for me and others I’m sure how to remain in the churches sound teaching and yet maintain human life in others ways. I ponder!!!!

  4. Craig

    Oh Rae, always so afraid to tackle the tougher topics. (◠‿◠)

    This was such a great post the Vatican should hire you – your not on staff with the Vatican are you?

    And this, “old white bishops wanting all married women to spend their lives giving birth.” – funny !! Your way with words is astounding.

    God Bless and keep you and yours

  5. Blogomama

    I just wanted to offer a slight difference of opinion. I hesitate to you the term term birth control for so many reasons. First of all, I think Birth control is a false term. Barring total abstinence, both contraception and NFP using couples could possibly conceive. God is in control. We have to trust him. That is the first premise. Now, God asks us to pray about the number of children we should bring into the world and about the responsibilities love entails. Sometimes that means NFP, and exercising self mastery over our emotions and desires for the good of the family and sometimes it means over coming selfish reasons and being open to life. But always our actions have to be guided by a firm commitment to following what is moral no matter the cost with a total trust in God’s loving plan. When you start using the word CONTROL, you can forget that and then think “I have to take control of this situation, take matters into my own hands”.
    ” I CAN NOT HAVE ANOTHER BABY. Therefore, I better not trust NFP, I need contraception!!! REAL MEDICINE, because I need that control!”
    And then what can happen? Once you have this false idea that you are in control. Whoops. Birth control fails. “I am in a life threatening situation, I might die if I continue to carry this baby. I better take more control and terminate my pregnancy, because I need to CONTROL my future. God is great and all, but seriously I need to be in control.”
    NFP predisposes you to realize that you are ultimately not in control. Just my two cents.

    Also you claim that only a minority of families are called to large number of children. Where did you read that? What is the definition of large? 4? 5? I had never heard that? Humanae Vitae states this:

    “With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.”

    I don’t see the word minority, but perhaps you have a different text in mind. I’d be interested to read it.

    1. Rae Post author

      Good points. I certainly believe that faith and trust in God is essential to living out every area of our faith.

      I tend to assume that most people understand the inherent nuances of the word “control.” When I was driving in the winter for the first time my parents would warn me not to lose control of the car. But neither they nor I imagined that that meant that I was really in control. There would be other drivers on the road, the reality that the car could break down, and ultimately God is the only one in real control of anything.

      But, when used with appropriate care, the term birth control can be an appropriate common translation of what is known in church documents as “birth regulation.” You are quite right that people should not be mislead into imagining absolute sovereignty over their own lives–that only leads to heartbreak.

      “NFP predisposes you to realize that you are ultimately not in control.”
      I agree with you so much that I actually prefer the idea of teaching young people fertility awareness. Then they can learn that fertility awareness + self control = a natural way to plan your family. The more “control” you need at a certain time, the more self-control you exercise.

      And taking a look at the other extreme, saying that NFP is *not* birth control confuses people and makes them think that the Church has a ridiculous double standard.

      I think that perhaps you misunderstand this post because you seem to assume that I am quoting word for word from Humanae Vitae, which is certainly not the case. The Church is extremely clear in her ideals of parents educating their children well. Reality is such that only a minority can do so without significantly restricting their family size. You might understand more of my view if you re-read Vatican II on this issue.

      One of the things I was thinking of was
      “Parents should regard as their proper mission the task of transmitting human life and educating those to whom it has been transmitted. They should realize that they are thereby cooperators with the love of God the Creator, and are, so to speak, the interpreters of that love. Thus they will fulfil their task with human and Christian responsibility, and, with docile reverence toward God, will make decisions by common counsel and effort. Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself. The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God. But in their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel. That divine law reveals and protects the integral meaning of conjugal love, and impels it toward a truly human fulfillment. Thus, trusting in divine Providence and refining the spirit of sacrifice,(12) married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate. Among the couples who fulfil their God-given task in this way, those merit special mention who with a gallant heart and with wise and common deliberation, undertake to bring up suitably even a relatively large family.(13)”

      It seems fairly clear to me that “special mention” is deserved because it is a special group in question, namely a minority.

      And if you look around at other posts here you’ll see that I think of 4-5 as a standard Catholic family in the West, not at all “large.”

      Does that eliminate some of the misunderstanding?

  6. Blogomama

    Thank you for responding. Regarding the Birth Control term, upon further reflection, I have often explained to my friends that we are against “artificial birth control,” but I guess I just prefer to use the word Natural Family Planning because of the cultural implications of the term “birth control” in our society.

    Regarding family size, I understand your interpretation of “special mention” as meaning “minority.” I guess we can agree to disagree on that one!

    Just one more thing. You said, “The Church is extremely clear in her ideals of parents educating their children well. Reality is such that only a minority can do so without significantly restricting their family size. ” That is a very broad statement requiring a more in depth conversation about what constitutes the ideals regarding the formation of a child that must take into account culture, class, country, economic situations. But as I type that, I think that is often a source of stressful conversation in the blogosphere. What constitutes “significantly restricting their family size” will be different for everyone and I have noticed that those types of conversations are not particularly fruitful for anyone. God loves each of us so much and has a plan for each of us.

  7. Marc Cardaronella

    Awesome explanation Rae! Really great!

    I think when most people say the Church is against birth control, they’re thinking of some form of contraception. Birth control just has that connotation. Responsible parenthood is good. Birth regulation is another good term to use.

    I’m happy to see someone addressing the fact that the Church is not against responsibly limiting the amount of children a family has. So many Ultra-Catholics are on “huge is better” bandwagon. I’ve seen many couples have more children than they can responsibly handle because they thought they had to do that to be holy. They sometimes end up taxed beyond their capacities. I love the way you put it, “A certain minority is called to have large families.” That is exactly what the Church teaches. But for many faithful Catholics that filters down as “the holy and worthy are called to have large families.” The Church is so wise and reasoning in all her teachings. Why do people have to dumb it down and make it irrational?

  8. alison

    Super late on this as well, but as you and other commenters have mentioned, the cultural reasons the term “birth control” is usually avoided is because until about maybe 25 years ago – prior to developed NFP methods – the only reliable option for “birth control” was artificial means. So of course the term developed from, or took on a distinct meaning that was almost synonymous with, contraception. The unfortunate reality is that most people do not even know about NFP or that there is a difference between birth control and artificial birth control. I think its only natural, good and necessary that we revisit this idea like you’re doing here and point out the difference and re-train our idea of what “birth control” really is!

    I love it when good science promotes good theology!

  9. Molly

    I know this is an older post, but I’m finally getting caught up with my blogs.

    When I was in the hospital recovering from my c-section one the first things the doctor wanted to talk about everyday for 3 days after the routine questions was birth control once I left the hospital. I told him our choice (NFP with the use of barrier methods) but I could tell he wouldn’t have been happy unless I told him I was becoming a nun. Of course now that I work in that same hospital I see why they’re so adamant because we see a lot of unfit parents come through our l&d ward.

    I also wanted to chime in my original reason for my birth control methods was mentioned in the comments above, but not talked about a lot. Hormonal birthcontrol is still relatively new, we still don’t know exactly what it can do in the long run and personally I try not to alter the natural rhythms of my body like that.

    Also I too liked the idea of “responsible parenthood” – I would love to have more children if God lets be beat my c-section discovered endometriosis again, but children are both a blessing and responsibility and I believe that it’s our job to arrange for things to best of our abilities to properly take care of an blessings and for us that means waiting at least another 3-5 years before trying again. (just to expand a little, this is because if we get another chance to expand our family we want to be more stable in many respects in order to care for a fourth person).

  10. Sergey

    First of all,I consider that contraception is necessary . Yes, without it birth rate will increase, but whether the children growing in such families will be happy…..?If you need some superior papers you can just look at my website

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