Question 97



Richard Fehring published a study on American Catholics and sterilization (”Trends in Contraceptive Use Among Catholics in the US: 1988-1995,” Linacre Quarterly, 68(2): 170-185). He produces figures that in 1995, 40.7% of Catholics of child-bearing age were sterilized. This compares with 38.6% for the American public at large. 29.1% of Catholic women and 11.3% of Catholic men are sterilized. In 1988, seven years earlier, 19.9% of Catholics were sterilized, compared against 39.2% for the public at large. Over these seven years Catholics reduced their use of the Pill from 35% to 29%. Only 3.2% of Catholics are using NFP. 

What is going on here? Catholics are achievers, but this is ridiculous! Why are Catholics taking the lead here? It is one thing to be an achiever, but we ought to be very careful about what we are achieving. Racing to be in the lead of those who have permanently destroyed their fertility is a sign of mental imbalance and low self-esteem. 

What makes sterilization morally wrong? Why is it against the 5th and 6th Commandments? Our fertility is a gift from God. When God created us male and female, as bodied persons, fertile and sexual, He chose to make us sharers with Him in the creation of other persons who would exist forever. Our fertility excels that of the animal kingdom by an infinite degree. Animals reproduce, live their lives and then die. End of story. But a human person created in the image and likeness of God, endowed with intelligence and free will, exists forever. God did not create us simply to occupy this planet for so many years. He created us so that we might have the opportunity to enter into his divine communion of love and life forever. We have a destiny and dignity that excels the entire material universe. 

The choice is ours. Either we can limit our attention to this short life on planet Earth, or we can recognize our dignity as sons and daughters of a loving God and Father, destined for the divine embrace of love and life forever, and act accordingly. 

Our fertility is connected with our sexual organs and with our sex drive, which is the natural attraction between the two sexes. God designed the sexual act to be pleasurable. But pleasure is not an end unto itself. That would be base hedonism, which is self-destructive. Sensual pleasure can become addictive, and any addiction reduces our freedom. Sexual pleasure helps to draw man and woman together, and encourages them to pass life on to the next generation. We are to understand the role of sexual pleasure and integrate it into our lives in such a way that it enhances the goods of marriage and family, without endangering these goods. 

When a person seeks a sterilization, he has made a decision that sterile sexual pleasure is his highest end, and that an unwanted pregnancy (the gift of the child) is a curse. Their hierarchy of values is confused and turned upside down. 

Sterilized spouses send unspoken signals to their children, to themselves, and to their God. To their children they say: “You were wanted, but your future brothers and sisters are unwanted.” To each other they say: “I don’t want to be open to the gift of life with you. Our fertility has served its purpose, and now it can be disposed of. Sterile sex is our sign of companionship from this time forward.” To God they say: “From now on we do not want to receive your gift of the child to us. We choose not to fully open our lives to you, and risk being procreators of a new person’s life with you. Your life-giving love is not welcome in our sexual union. We choose an orgasm, a tickle in the groins, in preference to making the total personal gift of ourselves to you and receiving the Holy Communion of yourself to us. We refuse to acquire the self-possession and self-mastery that marital chastity requires. Immediate gratification is a non-negotiable absolute in our lives.” We should not be surprised to find that there are major repercussions that result from these signals.

The choice for having a sterilization reveals a very flawed anthropology, or self-awareness. Such a person regards his or her body, with its fertility, as a sub-personal, non-essential, part of themselves, over which they have total control. This creates a dualism (the body and soul are separated entities) where there ought to be a composite whole (an integrated union of body and soul). This dualistic view identifies the real person with his consciousness, with his ability to communicate, and with his capacity for friendship and relatedness. The body is merely something sub-personal, sub-human; and as something coming from the earth and then returning to the earth, it belongs to an impersonal nature. We ought to have total control over our fertility, just as we have over raw nature. 

But this view fails to see that we are incarnate spirits, bodied persons, whose bodies reveal the presence, thoughts, wishes and affections of the unseen immaterial interior spirit. We do not have bodies (like we own something); rather, we are identified with our bodies. What you do to my body, you do to me. If I willfully destroy the integrity of my body through contraception or sterilization, then I am violating myself and attacking my own self-dignity. We did not design our human nature, or our bodies. That is God’s prerogative alone. 

We must recognize our true condition as bodied-persons and then choose to respect the limitations that our bodies impose upon us. One of these limitations is the need to acquire self-mastery over our sexual impulses. No one can force us to accept the truth about these matters. But no one can prevent the repercussions that such a denial of reality inevitably brings to our selves, to our marriages, to our families and to our relationship with God. 

It is very sad to say, but many Catholics now reject God’s plan for marriage and the spousal act. A 50% divorce rate, an 80% cohabitation rate, and an 85% contraception/sterilization rate (where 40% are sterilized) are clear evidence of this massive rejection. Some Catholics may not know God’s plan for these matters, since they never heard of them from the pulpit or in catechesis. But many Catholics do know the teaching and reject it. Dissenting theologians have contributed heavily to this disregard for good moral teaching. The secular culture, heavily influenced by Planned Parenthood, has been the “magisterium” for many Catholics. Medical doctors, the American Medical Association, the American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians, driven by the pharmaceutical companies and big profits from the sale of contraceptives, have influenced attitudes of Catholics. Less than 1% of Catholic Ob/Gyns refuse to prescribe contraception/sterilization. The others received their medical ethics at state universities, and have no clue about the rationale which supports a Catholic sexual ethic. Moral relativism prevails: “I have my moral truths, and you have yours. So, don’t force yours upon me.” 

This environment explains the palpable hostility today to Humanae Vitae. All this makes it very difficult to appeal to Catholics to return to God’s plan for marriage, spousal love and family. But massive opposition is not a good reason for despair and defeatism. In this world there will always be a battle between the forces of goodness and evil. The task of the clergy is to propose God’s plan and explain it goodness and inner logic. Truth always has its own appeal. Goodness always exerts its own attraction. Everyone wants to have a strong marriage and a healthy-happy family. Then the task of the laity is to understand that plan, and then freely choose to incorporate it into their lives. 

If God’s plan is proclaimed, and people freely choose to guide their lives by that plan, then all of these things are possible. If moral guides and spiritual leaders will not propose these values, then we can expect further deterioration in marriage and family life. This will come in the shape of same sex marriages, below replacement fertility rates, expanding euthanasia, fewer vocations to the priesthood and religious life, massive abortion used as a backup for failed contraception, greater promiscuity and more sterilization. 

Faith and persecution go together. The world is the better for the presence of the martyrs, whose lives point to the splendor of the truth that they were willing to suffer detraction and die for. It is the worse for their absence. 

Good resources on explaining how to deal with the problem of sterilization can be found at these websites: One More Soul (, the Edith Stein Foundation (, NFP Outreach ( and The Couple to Couple League (

Cordially your,
Fr. Matthew Habiger OSB