This week's Reader Question comes from Steve Cantu, who writes:
Is using birth control a mortal sin? If yes, does the Catholic Church believe that those practicing birth control would go to hell due to the state of the soul at death? If the answer is yes, then why do I not hear priests speaking on this and warning people at Mass of the consequences of their actions. Please do not give the obvious answer: "Well, if they are Catholics, they already know the consequences of their sins." Even if I know what the Catholic Church teaches as the consequences of specific sins, my parish priest could have an influence on my decision to use birth control if he spoke out against it at Mass. It seems to me to be an avoided subject.
This is a very good and very involved series of questions, to which, unfortunately, it is impossible to give a simple answer. That said, let's examine each of Steve's questions in turn.
In Casti connubii (1930), Pope Pius XI declares: "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."
So there we have the "grievous matter." "Sufficient reflection" and "full consent of the will," however, are a bit more tricky.
Because there is so much confusion about the morality of the use of artificial birth control, sparked both by widespread and vocal dissent from the Church's teaching and by the lack, as Steve points out, of catechesis on this matter by priests who uphold the Church's teaching, I think that, in many cases, Catholics who use artificial birth control have not given the matter sufficient reflection.
As for full consent of the will, even that may be less than complete for some. For instance, if a husband insists that his wife use the Pill, and she submits out of a desire to please her husband or to maintain peace in the family, that's something less than full consent. Likewise, a husband who does not want to use artificial birth control but who has intercourse with his wife even though she uses the Pill is not fully consenting in the sin.
All of that said, the Church's teaching has always been clear: Those who die in a state of mortal sin risk eternal damnation. (We can never say for certain that someone who seems to have died in mortal sin has gone to hell, because we do not know what God in His mercy may have done.)
Because of poor catechesis and immersion in a culture that is passively anti-Christian at best, and often actively anti-Christian, many Catholics today do not know the consequences of their sins. Even if a priest at a Catholic funeral refrains from declaring that the deceased is already in heaven, the deceased's friends and family will usually say so. The possibility that anyone might end up in hell, or even in purgatory, simply isn't considered by many Catholics today.
So why don't we hear more priests speaking out about artificial birth control? The best spin I can put on it is that many priests regard this as a pastoral matter better handled on a personal basis—say, in Confession. But since many Catholics never go to Confession, and many others go very infrequently (at most once per year), and most priests have congregations that are large enough that they don't have the opportunity to interact with parishioners personally, that's not really a satisfying answer.
For some, cowardice undoubtedly plays a role, by which I don't necessarily mean moral cowardice but a practical cowardice. Knowing his parish's finances, and knowing that the majority of married couples in his parish are practicing some form of artificial birth control, a priest can come up with lots of excuses for not preaching on something that might drive donors away. He can convince himself that the right way to approach this is to try to draw his parishioners closer to Christ, and let Him sort it out.
While I wouldn't endorse such reasoning, there may actually be a certain practical wisdom in such an action. After all, every Catholic today who is using Natural Family Planning made a conscious decision either to quit using artificial birth control or to embrace NFP rather than artificial birth control. Since people do make this decision on their own, one can see how a priest might convince himself that the best course of action is to shepherd his flock in the right direction without ever mentioning the immorality of artificial birth control.
Most couples I know who are using NFP today came to it through the efforts of their fellow laymen. A priest who avoids the topic might still welcome a presentation on NFP from the Couple to Couple League, allow a parishioner to place NFP-related material in the church's literature rack, or even be willing to have the parish sponsor an NFP teaching couple.
The lack of teaching from the pulpit provides a tremendous opportunity for evangelization by the people in the pews. If you support the Church's teaching on birth control, why not make the most of that opportunity?
More on Natural Family Planning:
- What Is Natural Family Planning?
- Natural Family Planning Methods
- Summary of Humanae vitae (Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical on birth control)
- Natural Family Planning: A Personal Perspective
- Wordless Wednesday: The Fruits of NFP
- Reader Question: Is NFP Really Effective in Avoiding Pregnancy?
- Notes on the Guttmacher Institute's "Facts on Contraceptive Use in the United States"
- Reader Stories: NFP and Openness to the Lord
- More Reader Stories: Why I Decided to Use Natural Family Planning (NFP)
If you have a question that you would like to be featured as part of our Reader Questions series, please send me an e-mail. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.