Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A bad argument against the Catholic teaching against contraception

Fairly frequently, one hears the following argument against the orthodox Catholic view that the use of marital[note 1] contraception is wrong: If Catholics were consistent, they would also prohibit Natural Family Planning (NFP), because there is no morally significant difference between NFP and contraception. One reason that this is a bad argument is that, as many authors have argued at length (here is my version), there really are significant differences between NFP and contraception, for instance grounded in the doing/permitting distinction.

But I think there is a simpler reason why this is a bad argument. For what is the conclusion of the argument? It is that if one rejects contraception, one should likewise reject NFP. Suppose that the argument succeeds in establishing this (it doesn't). Now the Catholic has to choose between two views:

  1. Marital contraception and NFP are both wrong.
  2. Marital contraception and NFP are both sometimes right.
But if that is the choice, it is completely clear what the Catholic should choose--namely, option (1). After all, the Catholic's biggest reason for being opposed to contraception is the Tradition of the Church, and until the early 20th century, it has been the unanimous teaching of Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) that contraception is wrong. Now there has been some fallible papal teaching, starting with the late 19th century, allowing NFP. But the doctrinal weight of this teaching is of a much lesser order than the combination of the even more definite papal teaching against contraception coupled with the unanimous agreement of the Christian Tradition. If the Catholic has to choose, the right choice by orthodox Catholic lights is clearly (1) rather than (2).

The argument is a bad one for the following reason. The proponent of contraception believes that (a) marital contraception is sometimes right, and, presumably, that also (b) marital NFP is sometimes right. The well-informed orthodox Catholic denies (a) but accepts (b). But the argument, if it succeeds, will shift the well-informed orthodox Catholic to denying both (a) and (b). Nor will this shift affect much else in the orthodox Catholic's web of beliefs. While the teaching that contraception is wrong is interwoven with significant amounts of other Catholic beliefs, the teaching that NFP is right lacks that sort of interweave, simply because the teaching on NFP is of such recent date. Hence, the argument, if it succeeds, will increase disagreement. And surely that is not what the proponent of contraception wants. Indeed, since the proponent of contraception typically believes that unlimited reproduction is bad for people and the world, by offering the NFP-contraception argument to a well-informed orthodox Catholic, and thus convincing the orthodox Catholic that NFP is wrong, she is apt to contribute to the very problem she is trying to counter.

There is a general structure to this criticism. Suppose A believes p and q, and B believes p and not-q. A wishes to convince B of q. So A offers B the argument that p and not-q are logically inconsistent. This is not going to be a good argument if B's main reasons for holding not-q are much stronger than her main reasons for holding p, and if denying p does not force the denial of much else that B is committed to. If the argument succeeds in showing the inconsistency, it is more likely (at least if we limit ourselves to rational persuasion) to move B to believing not-p and not-q, which A believes is further from the truth.


Heath White said...

In my experience, the use of the claim "there is no morally relevant difference between NFP and contraception" is slightly different, in one of two ways.

a) "There is no moral difference between NFP and contraception; but you favor NFP and do not favor contraception; therefore you are inconsistent. Get your act together before you come preach to me."

b) The argument runs as you have it, but the orthodox Catholic being addressed is psychologically much more attached to the ability to control his/her family size than he/she is to relative weights of orthodox teaching. You may not call this "rational persuasion." But it is "persuasion" nonetheless.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I suspect you're right that (a) is the more common use of the claim. But it's not much of an excuse against considering arguments for the position. :-)

I wonder if it would help the debate if orthodox Catholics were clearer in discussion on the difference in the weight of the two teachings. "We definitely think contraception is wrong, but also have some fairly significant reason to think that NFP does not fall under that prohibition." This shows a certain logical independence between the two claims.

Mike Almeida said...

I've actually had some difficulty seeing the moral difference. Here's why. Suppose in the not-to-distant future there is a near-perfectly reliable and portable blood test informing users of their precise point in the cycle of ovulation. Suppose family planners want to use this test to guarantee (say, to 99%) the failure of conception. That's not natural, and yet it seems permissible. It is difficult to see the moral difference between using such a device to prevent conception and using the current prohibited means.

Alexander R Pruss said...


There are a couple of stories one can tell about the difference.

One way is to start with a method that has a 100% chance of preventing conception (except in cases of rape): abstinence.

That there is a difference between abstinence and contraception is fairly clear, even though in both cases the goal may be the same--not having children.

Now imagine a couple who have opted for abstinence because they have some good reason. They are doing something relevantly different (vis-a-vis the kinds of reasons that defenders of the prohibition on contraception have) from the contracepting couple.

Suppose now that such a couple on a given day happens to learn, e.g., due to the machine you mention, or some other observation, that intercourse on that day would not result in conception, and they unite maritally. Are they doing something tantamount to contraception now? Surely not. For by deciding to unite maritally, they have not done anything to render that union infertile. By deciding to unite maritally they have increased the probability of conception.

But suppose that instead of stumbling into the knowledge that they are infertile on that day, they deliberately sought out information. That does not seem to change the situation very relevantly. Nor does it change the situation relevantly if they have a habit of doing this.

If one looks at NFP as having the same modus operandi as abstinence, except that the abstinence is punctuated with times during which the couple has no rational reason for abstinence and hence does not abstain, I think one sees a difference. It is, in part, the difference between doing and refraining. It is a combination of instances of the couple's not having sex that causes them not to conceive.

Heath White said...

I also have had trouble seeing the moral difference. I think it has to do with the fact that I haven’t seen good arguments for the badness of contracepted sex per se. What I can see is the badness of a fear of children, or being closed to new life, or an overweening desire for control of one’s life, or something of that sort. But people practicing NFP could be just as guilty of all that, as people practicing contraception.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Since "morally relevant difference" is probably best understood as relative to a particular moral argument, it does seem likely that those who do not see a good argument against either A or B, and who see A and B as alike in some way, are apt to see there not being a morally relevant difference between A and B.

The non-authority-based argument that I find most convincing is that the two ends of sex are procreation and union (premise), and the best analyses of sexual union (as found in Wojtyla, Finnis, George and others) have the union be constituted by a biological process which is biologically aiming at reproduction, so that contraception deliberately disrupts the very process by which the couple is (hopefully) trying to unite, contrary to integrity considerations. Anyway, relative to this argument, because the union requires a reproductive process and not reproductive success, there is a difference between NFP and contraception: the former does not and the latter does disrupt the unitive process. Crucial to stories like this is a rejection of account of union in psychological terms. For instance, I reject psychological accounts of union on the grounds that sexual union is essentially embodied in ways in which psychological union is not.

The authority-based arguments, of course, are based either outright on the infallibility of the Church in universally magisterially taught matters of faith and morals, or on some idea that there is at least a strong presumption that moral beliefs held by all of Christendom (as the beliefs on contraception were up until about a hundred years ago) are true.

peter said...

Two points:

(a)A minor comment on the last paragraph of your post starting with "There is a general structure to this criticism." and concluding with "it is more likely ... to move B to believing not-p and not-q, which A believes is further from the truth."
The original purpose of A's argument was to point out that believing p and -q are logically inconsistent. Hence, assuming this is true, 'p&-q' are necessarily false. Therefore 'p&-q' is "further from the truth" than '-p&-q', in some intuitive sense "further from the truth".

(b) I think that the intuition behind the argument that there is no moral difference between contraception and NFP is the following. We can think of sex as having two functions: (i) procreation; (ii) pleasure.
The prohibition against the use of contraception derives from a more general principle, namely, the prohibition in engaging in a sexual activity for the purpose of pleasure alone by intentionally taking measures to reduce the probability of procreation.
Now, if this general principle is correct, then there is no relevant moral difference between contraception and NFP, for both are instances of pursuing sexual activity for pleasure alone with the intention to reduce the probability of procreation.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But the Catholic tradition sees sex as having two legitimate purposes: procreation and union. (Thus Vatican II speaks.) Pleasure isn't on the list. The Catholic tradition rejects the permissibility of sex for the sake of pleasure alone, though sex for the sake of union alone is permissible. And then we have the arguments of Wojtyla and others that the relevant kind of union depends upon the functioning of the body in such a way that contraceptive activity is anti-unitive.

Suppose the prohibition is on having sex while intending to decrease the probability of conception. This prohibition is ambiguous. On one reading, it prohibits having sex while intending to decrease the probability that this sexual act results in procreation. On this reading, NFP doesn't fall under the prohibition, because the sexual union that the NFP user engages in is no less fertile (or at least not intentionally so--there might be some accidental issues) than their sexual act would have been had they not been engaging in NFP.

The other reading of the prohibition is that it is wrong to have sex while intending to decreasing the probability of conception overall. That would prohibit a couple who doesn't use NFP, but who want to decrease the probability of conception simply by having sex rarely. But the latter has surely never been prohibited by the Catholic tradition.

peter said...

I am not that well versed in the Catholic tradition and teachings; thus, I am not sure I understand the intended meaning of ‘union’ as you use it in your response. So I will not address this part of your comment until I have a better grasp on this concept.
The rest of your response seems to make the following point. On the first reading, the prohibition applies to a given method of decreasing conception only if the use of the method on a given occasion of sexual activity alters the fertility rate (or potential) from the fertility rate it would have been without its use. Since the use of NFP does not alter the fertility rate (or potential) on a given occasion, the prohibition does not apply to it.
The difference between NFP and the use of contraceptives on a given occasion, according to this argument, is that the use of contraceptives as a method would alter the fertility rate on a given occasion of use from what it would have been without the use of contraceptives on any given occasion.
So you maintain that a necessary condition for the applicability of the prohibition to a method of decreasing the probability of conception is the method’s facility to change the fertility rate on any given occasion of use.
While this tells us one of the necessary conditions for the applicability of the prohibition, it does not specify any sufficient conditions. I suppose you would agree that intentionality must play a role as well: i.e., intentionally using a given method to decrease the probability of conception on a given occasion must also be relevant to the applicability of the prohibition.
But, now, let us suppose that a couple finds out that the female’s fertility rate on a given occasion, say one minute after midnight on the first Tuesday of the month, approaches zero. And suppose that for some reason that is not very relevant here they find their sexual union enhanced by the use of a condom. Since her fertility rate on that occasion is no different than what it would have been if they abstained from using the contraceptive on that occasion, I suppose you would accept that the prohibition on the use of the contraceptive in this case should not apply.
Does it?

Alexander R Pruss said...


This is a good question, and I apologize that I can only answer it by going into some graphic detail. Readers who don't want to read that should skip this comment.

Barrier methods like condoms are a somewhat different case from hormonal contraception. As far as I know, the majority of orthodox Catholic thinkers think that either an actual deposit of seminal material or an intention for such a deposit is a necessary condition for a sexual act to count as sexual intercourse. Hence, while sex with the Pill is immoral, it can nonetheless consummate a marriage. However a condom between husband and wife is not only immoral, but according to a standard commentary on canon law, does not even consummate a marriage.

The use of the condom, on this view, changes the act from the category "contracepted intercourse" to the category "unnatural act" (which category includes coitus interruptus, masturbation, sodomy, etc.). Hence the act you describe is wrong not because of the contraceptive intention, but for other reasons.

If, on the other hand, the couple deliberately make a hole in the condom, the act will probably be just fine, since the transmission can still happen. Punctured condoms are one method of collecting sperm for fertility testing.

This is a very important issue, because on this issue rests the question whether it is licit for condoms to be used by a married couple one member of which is HIV positive. Basically, those Catholic ethicists who accept the above analysis think that the use of condoms in such a case is wrong, e.g., because it is incompatible with marital union--it turns marital union into a completely different kind of act. But there are some respected and otherwise orthodox Catholic ethicists who do not accept this analysis, and who think that the only thing wrong with use of condoms is a contraceptive intention, and hence the use of condoms to prevent HIV transmission is licit.

Heath White said...

OK, Alex, here is what I don’t get. You say, “The two ends of sex are procreation and union.” This phrase “the ends of sex” clearly does not mean, “the ends a person has in mind when having sex” or “the reasons for which someone has sex”, since lots of people have sex solely for pleasure. Probably it means, “The proper ends to have in mind when having sex” or “the proper reasons for having sex.” That is, it’s a normative claim. OK, fine, let’s grant that.

If I am having sex in order to procreate, clearly contraception is dumb. So the union claim is key. And the claim is that I can only achieve union with a woman (just as I can only procreate with a woman) by participating in a biological process whose biological aim is reproduction. If this were true, then contraception would be as dumb in the aim-for-unity case as in the aim-for-procreation case. But I do not believe it is true. Is there anything to be said for it?

(Obviously we can define “union” in such a way that it is true. But then I will worry about the normative claim. Can we say with some precision what “union” is?)

I have some other worries about the line of argument but I’ll save them in case I’m misunderstanding.

Alexander R Pruss said...


On my view, it's dumb to contracept while wanting union in pretty much the same way in which it's dumb to want to drink H2O while avoiding water. In other words, it's dumb when one realizes the constitutive facts, such as that water is or is constituted by H2O and that erotic union is or is constituted by mutual cooperative biological striving of the relevant sort.

In both cases, of course, an argument is owed for the constitution/identity claim. In the one case, the argument is scientific in nature. In the other case, it might be based on what does justice to various intuitions (such, as for instance, that the wrongness of rape does not depend on whether the victim finds out), or to Scripture, or to Tradition. My own best take on this is in my unfinished book MS, and a paper I wrote for a Catholic audience.

peter said...

Thank you for the clarification. Sorry to have forced you into such graphic detail.
I wish to be clear about one thing: do you agree with my statement that according to you a necessary condition for the applicability of the prohibition to a certain class of cases is that these cases are instances of employing methods that are intended to alter the fertility rate for the purpose of decreasing the probability of conception.
Or am I to think that your last post adds further constraints on the applicability of the prohibition?


peter said...

To All!

I think that anyone interested in these and related issues should read Alex's paper linked to one of his responses to heath.
It delineates very lucidly the fundamental divide between secular and (some) religious thought on marriage and, I assume by inference, other related matters. His defense of the later is lucid and raises deep issues about these matters. Perhaps those interested can then have a discussion on these issues.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Yes, I think it's wrong to try to alter the fertility rate in order to decrease the likelihood of conception.

Jeremy Pierce said...

I'm worried that the doing/allowing distinction isn't going to do the work here that you want it to do.

In a sense you're right that NFP is allowing. You simply refrain from doing something that would have the possibility of leading to conception. But it's part of a larger action that involves doing. If you're engaging in an actual effort to reduce the chances of pregnancy by having sex only during times you have reason to believe will be infertile, then that action is not just an allowance. The action consists of doing and allowing, and you've isolated the component doings and allowings for your analysis. But I'm not convinced such a microscopic analysis does justice to the overall purpose of NFP, which is to decrease the chances of pregnancy, and on the Catholic view that's a bad motivation for people who are uniting sexually. The whole process is an active pursuit of that goal rather than just an allowing of that goal to take place somehow involuntarily. It seems deceptive to me to classify it the way you have.

Alexander R Pruss said...


See tomorrow's post on this topic. :-)


Michael said...

@Jeremy above:

Indeed, I believe that the use of NFP is clarified in the catechism as needing good reason - yet this has not been defined; what good reason do people use it for, if not for avoiding the risk of pregnancy? Yet this is a Catch 22 as this runs against the very basic arguments of not having contraception in the first place. Further to that, even abstinence within marriage for the specific motive of reducing risk of pregnancy is not allowed!! How does any of this then hold weight?!

Michael said...

(i realise that this debate has been silent for some time - sorry to bring it back!)