More on Marriage and Contraception

Intention Carries More Weight in Moral Judgment

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WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 8, 2010 ( Here is a question on bioethics asked by a ZENIT reader and answered by the fellows of the Culture of Life Foundation.

Q: If a husband and wife have a baby as a result of contracepted sex, was their marriage consummated?

What if spouses use contraception intending to minimize but not entirely impede the possibility of procreation? Have they contracepted? Especially if they actually conceive a baby as a result of the behavior?

How much in other words does your argument rely on the physical act of contraception as blocking consummation and how much are you presuming that the act shows a particular intention that would foreclose consummation? Maggie Gallagher — Washington, D.C. (

E. Christian Brugger offers the following response.

A: In a previous piece [“Contraception and Marriage“], I argued that contraceptive intercourse is not suitable to consummate a validly ratified marriage. I will briefly summarize my argument. To be consummative (i.e., to be an act by which the spouses become one flesh), intercourse must be “marital.” To be marital, it must be performed “in a human way” and must be “in itself suitable for the procreation of children” (1983 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1061).

To be performed “in a human way,” requires at a minimum that the performance is not contrary to human freedom (in the words of a 1986 document by the Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments, “not extorted through violence”). To be “in itself suitable for the procreation of children” requires that it is the kind of sexual act in which spouses would engage if they are trying to procreate. (Note: this does not mean the spouses must be trying to procreate; only that the act is the kind of act they would choose IF they were trying to procreate).

This would seem to require at a minimum that a man’s penis penetrate a woman’s vagina, that the man ejaculates while penetrating the woman’s vagina, and that neither the man nor the woman intends to render the act non-procreative as either an end or a means. Those who contracept aim to render their act of intercourse non-procreative (i.e., unsuitable for the procreation of children). So they intend a non-marital and hence non-consummative act. It follows that should they conceive a child contrary to their intentions, they do so by means of a non-marital act.

It is important to see that contraception as a moral act is not defined merely by some physical outcome. Rather, it is defined by what one intends as an end or a means. So, for example, if a husband and wife intend a complete act of intercourse, but the husband accidentally withdraws immediately prior to ejaculation and ejaculates outside his wife’s vagina, the spouses have not — morally speaking — contracepted. If, however, the husband withdraws before ejaculating in order to impede procreation, the act is contraception. The physical behavior may be the same, but the two moral acts because of the intentions of the agents are very different.

What if spouses use chemical contraceptives intending to minimize but not entirely impede the possibility of procreation? Morally speaking, have they contracepted? This question, it seems to me, is imprecisely worded and so presents an implausible scenario. Intention (whether of ends or means) is an act of the will, not a state of mind or emotion. Contracepting spouses may feel ambivalent about the prospect of conceiving a child; may see certain benefits (goods) to be achieved if they do conceive; and even feel attracted to these goods. But they also feel on balance that conceiving would present burdens they wish to avoid. Yet they do not want to avoid intercourse. So how can they realize both the end of engaging in intercourse and remaining free from the risk of pregnancy? They deliberate over means and conclude that some kind of additional behavior (say, the use of an IUD) will impede their intercourse’s procreativity; they go ahead and choose intercourse and the added behavior.

They may also be aware of the possibility that their contraceptive device may fail. Knowing that certain desirable things will come about through conceiving a child, and thinking, perhaps, that abortion is wrong; they resolve in advance to receive any child conceived despite their intentions. The spouses here consider contraception as an alternative precisely for its contraceptive quality (they certainly do not consider it in order to facilitate conception).

It seems to me the spouse’s so-called “openness” is simply consciousness of their willingness to accept a child whose coming-to-be they will against when they choose to contracept. Is this act less grave than a contraceptive act chosen with the conditional intent to snuff out the life of a child conceived as a result of contraceptive failure? You bet. Is it still a contraceptive act? It is. The object intended as a means under the description of “contraception” is precisely a-device-to-impede-conception. The fact that spouses are conscious that the contraceptives might fail, and “open” to accepting a child conceived as a result of contraceptive failure, does not alter the act of willing.

Can one knowingly render oneself physically infertile and not morally intend contraception? Yes. This is the case when a woman takes a contraceptive-type pill in order to regulate her menstrual cycle. (I mention this simply for purposes of illustration, not to recommend it as a treatment; there are less physically harmful ways to treat menstrual problems). She accepts as an unintended side effect that the medication will likely make her infertile. If she is newly married, and has intercourse with her husband for the first time under these conditions, the intercourse in my opinion would consummate their marriage.

To answer the final question then, sound Catholic moral reasoning does not assess the morality of action simply by looking at processes or events of the merely physical order, assessed on the basis of their ability to bring about a given state of affairs. It looks at the acts of willing of free human persons (see John Paul II, “Veritatis Splendor,” no. 78).

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E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation and is an associate professor of moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado. He received his Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford in 2000.

[Readers may send questions regarding bioethics to The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. The fellows at the Culture of Life Foundation will answer a select number of the questions that arrive.]
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