HOW FAR CAN AN INNOCENT SPOUSE GO IN REFUSING TO COMPLY WITH A CONTRACEPTED SEXUAL ACT?
May a husband engage in the marital act when his wife is using the Pill, even though he knows that contraception is wrong?
This is a tough question, because there is clear teaching from the Church that contraception is intrinsically evil and sinful. Despite this, there is massive moral non-compliance among Catholics. 85 percent of Catholic couples of childbearing age are contracepting or sterilized. Yet many of these receive the Eucharist on a regular basis without using first the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Very seldom do Catholics hear anything from the pulpit about the moral evil of contraception.
This leaves the impression that the teaching church is clear about the immorality of contraception, but is not prepared to put that teaching into pastoral practice. If there is silence from the pulpit, then the unspoken message is that couples can continue in their contraceptive lifestyle and not be concerned about the morality of what they are doing.
A very different situation would arise if an entire diocese, with all the priests in a united front with their bishop, were to take a clear position on the immorality of contraception. Then all engaged couples would be strongly encouraged to learn NFP. The intention to use contraception would be grounds for a priest to refuse to marry a couple. For already married couples, pastors would teach that contraception is a serious moral evil, and must be confessed and repented of before receiving the Eucharist. All couples would be strongly encouraged to learn morally acceptable ways of planning their families. Some proportionate form of restitution would be recommended for those who have sterilized themselves. Catholic doctors would be warned that they cannot receive the Eucharist if they are prescribing contraception, performing sterilizations, or making referrals for these.
It is in the present situation of massive moral non-compliance that I make my comments. What follow is not Magisterial teaching; rather, it is an informed theological opinion. I speak to what an innocent spouse can do on his own to rectify the abuses of his marriage. At this point in time, he is largely on his own, without the explicit public support of the clergy.
The innocent spouse must continually pray and work for the conversion of the offending spouse. This requires understanding what the spousal act was designed to express and accomplish. It means talking about these important matters. It means making sacrifices for her. The innocent spouse should remind the other of the total immorality of contraception, and the possible abortifacient factor in using the Pill, and encourage her to move in the direction of NFP. A good husband should encourage his wife to transfer her trust away from the Pill and place it in God’s providence, in her husband’s willingness to share with her the burden of family planning, and in God’s inexhaustible love for us.
Our Lord took people where they were, and pointed them in the direction they should be taking. He appealed to their good reason and to their better selves. He respected the freedom of their conscience. He proposed God’s plan for us, while never imposing it. He gave people, and continues to give us, a little time so that we could freely come to our senses. Eventually, however, the time will come when we will have to give a thorough accounting for all our choices and deeds. The Lord warned us that we are responsible for how we use our freedom.
What can an innocent spouse do if the other refuses to move away from contraception? Could he decide to forego the marital act? Since we are not to cooperate with sin, and contraception is sinful, the innocent spouse has a right and a duty to refuse to cooperate with evil, insofar as that is possible. A contracepted act is not a marital act, since it has separated the unitive from the procreative dimension. Now it is simply a sexual act. It is an act of conditioned self-giving, with many reservations. Such an act does not enrich the relationship; rather, it tends to unravel the fabric of their bonding. Rather than make a lie with their bodies, a couple should simply remain silent.
Such a choice will bring tensions to the marriage, but unnecessary tensions already exist. The only proper solution is to cease doing what is evil, and begin doing what is good. If nothing else, simply do nothing!
Many divorces can be traced back to the damage done by contraception. The high divorce rates in this country took off at the same time that the Pill arrived. If we are to address the problem of a 50% divorce rate among Catholics, then we must get to the root cause. And if this requires a change of attitudes, values, and practices, then that is what must be done.
Doing good for our neighbor also includes helping them resist evil.
Fr. Matthew Habiger OSB