The final day of the calendar year has come, December 31. This day in history marks a special 84th anniversary. On this date in 1930, Pope Pius XI promulgated a wonderful papal encyclical titled Casti Connubii (of Chaste Marriage). Among other things, this work lays out brilliantly Catholic teaching on contraception.
The historical significance of this encyclical must be recalled as well. Earlier that year on August 15, 1930, the Anglicans’ Lambeth Conference made a historic decision. They concocted a doctrine that members of their congregation could use contraception.
In so doing, they became the first Christian congregation to break from historic Christianity in condemnation of birth control use. Not even the Protestant Reformers balked at the teaching.
Seeing a Christian denomination toss aside 1900 years of Tradition, Pope Pius XI wrote Casti Connubii in response. Although he never names the Anglicans, it is pretty obvious he has them in mind. Just look to paragraph 56 for the allusion.
In this document he spells out the Church’s beliefs about Holy Matrimony. For my purposes today, I want to highlight paragraphs 53-59. In this section, Pope Pius XI addresses the purposes of sex, as well as the Catholic teaching on contraception.
I will now go through each of these paragraphs of the landmark encyclical. I will add my commentary as we go along.
WHAT IS THE PRIMARY PURPOSE OF SEX?
54. But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.
The Catholic Church upholds what Natural Law already tells us. That is, “the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children.” Therefore, any act that “deliberately frustrate[s]” this end of sex is “shameful and intrinsically vicious.”
By definition, contraception intends to frustrate the conjugal act from its fruitful end. Therefore, using birth control is gravely immoral.
55. Most notably in this paragraph, Pope Pius XI quotes Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. “Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented” (De coniug. adult., lib. II, n. 12, Gen, XXXVIII, 8-10). This is a portion of the Doctor of Grace’s commentary on Genesis 38:8-10. In that Bible passage, God kills Onan immediately for committing a contraceptive act.
56. “Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.
Did you catch the reference to the Anglicans?
Also here, the Pope reiterates that contraceptive sex is an offense against nature and a grave sin against God.
57. In this paragraph, the Vicar of Christ warns priests that they must not give council permitting contraception use. After all, he reminds them, they too will stand before God is judgment.
How sad to hear that some Catholic priests continue to advise couples that contraception use can be tolerated. This defies the historical Catholic teaching on contraception. What scandal that creates.
WHAT ARE THE SECONDARY PURPOSES OF SEX?
58. For this paragraph, the Holy Father commends mothers for risking their lives to bear their child in difficult pregnancies. He acknowledges mothers can feel their lives are threatened in pregnancy. By trusting in the Lord in these difficult circumstances, the Pope says, each mother will be rewarded.
59. Holy Church knows well that not infrequently one of the parties is sinned against rather than sinning, when for a grave cause he or she reluctantly allows the perversion of the right order. In such a case, there is no sin, provided that, mindful of the law of charity, he or she does not neglect to seek to dissuade and to deter the partner from sin. Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.
I realize the final paragraph I decided to highlight is dense. Let us break it down.
In the first three sentences, Pope Pius XI says it is not uncommon for one spouse to sin against another in the conjugal act. He says this is done when one insists on engaging in the conjugal act “although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth.”
So long as the reluctant spouse tried to dissuade the other from such acts, he or she is not guilty of sin by engaging in contraceptive sex against their will.
The reason for this, the Pope explains, is that the conjugal act has secondary purposes beyond the primary purpose of procreation. He lists them as “mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence.”
Taking the second one first, this is plain to see. One of the purposes of sex is to enhance the intimacy of the married couple partaking in it. They are engaging in an act, which by its very nature, is exclusive. Again, this is a secondary purpose to the conjugal act.
The first and the third seem to me to go together. What does Pope Pius XI mean by “the quieting of concupiscence?” He means a spouse can (and must) assist the other spouse is quieting his or her passions.
We being carnal beings have fleshly desires. We naturally desire sexually our spouses. Each married person owes help to the other in this area. This is Church teaching.
I hope this introduction to Casti Connubii sheds some light for you on the topic of birth control. I realize this encyclical is not the end all, be all in Catholic teaching on contraception.
However, I hope you will see it does point to it being the historical teaching of the Church that the primary purpose of sex is procreation. Nothing else is elevated to that primary slot. After that, secondary purposes, such as “the cultivating of mutual love” can be found.
I hope this gives couples pause about their intentions in their actions. To be married in the Church requires an openness to life.
Natural law does not permit a couple to reinvent sex for their liking. The procreative power must be respected.
I hope this gets a discussion going here. I have to imagine it will.
Please, tell me, where does Pope Pius XI’s encyclical fit into your understanding of Catholic teaching on contraception?
Please sound off below!