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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