If marriages should be fruitful, can we use contraceptives?

While contraceptives are not intrinsically wrong, the ordering of a marriage toward fruitlessness is—and contraceptives often end up being used to establish such a pattern.

When we say that sex that never produces children is deficient, it’s natural to wonder things like:

  1. Does that mean contraception is wrong?
  2. Must I have as many children as possible?
  3. Is oral sex out of bounds?
  4. Surely children aren’t the only purpose of sex?
  5. What are you, Catholic?
  6. Also, I don’t much like your tone?
  7. And who the heck do you think you are anyway to instruct me on my sex life?

Mostly reasonable questions, that we want to answer…

We don’t believe contraception is always wrong, because we think in terms of patterns versus acts. A pattern of contraception is the problem. Look at our culture, which has made the fruitfulness of women a pathology to be cured. We’re fairly sure we’re on safe ground in seeing a connection between that, and the extraordinary rate of depression in women. When you turn the right order of fruitfulness into a disorder, and insist on ordering society in rebellion against God’s instruction (Gen 1:28; Ps 127:3), then you have a pattern of contraception, and you’re facing judgment.

On the other hand, a pattern of fruitfulness doesn’t mean blindly trying to have as many children as possible. It means honoring all of God’s instructions in how you order your marriage. God says children are a blessing, so your marriage must be ordered toward children; but he also says not to put him to the test, so your marriage must not be ordered toward children in a way that lacks sense. If you’re already cramming two kids and yourselves into a two-bedroom apartment, God is not pleased with you having contraception-eschewing sex. But everything else being equal, God is also not pleased with you having contraception-using sex while you’re refusing to move to a bigger home.

The key point is whether you’re ordering your marriage, rather than individual sex acts, toward fruitfulness. Our view of sex is not reductionistic: we don’t think it must be open to conception every time, because we don’t see the act in isolation. God made the physical world to image the spiritual, and sex images the marital covenant. It images and renews the entire relationship, from its hierarchy (the mechanics of sex) to its love (the climax of sex) to its fruitfulness (the product of sex). “Right sex” is therefore not about whether every orgasm can make a baby. This reduces the question to individual acts and an individual goal. Rather, it’s about whether any orgasm can make a baby. This focuses on the holistic pattern of acts, in relation to all the goals. God made sex for many purposes, and each of them occasions a legitimate reason to have it (including, therefore, oral sex; cf. Songs 2:3; 4:16).

So not every occasion of sex must accommodate every purpose of sex. But there’s a difference between not always allowing sex to be fruitful, and always not allowing it to be. Hence we can approve of sometimes using condoms, while simultaneously disapproving of the Catholic NFP method. One is as a pattern of thwarting the fruitfulness of theoretically fruitful sex acts. The other is not.