The Unitive Meaning and Contraception

Every human act is a deliberate knowing choice. Every chosen act has an inherent ordering toward a proximate end, the moral object. When the moral object is deprived of a good required by the eternal moral law, that is, required by the love of God and the love of neighbor as self, then that object is evil, and the knowingly chosen act is intrinsically evil. All moral evil is the deprivation of some good required by the moral law. Intrinsically evil acts have an evil in the object of the act.

Contraception is any deliberate knowing choice which is ordered toward depriving sexual acts of their procreative meaning. The evil moral object is the deprivation of that procreative finality. If an act fails to attain this evil object, of thwarting the procreative meaning, and a child is conceived — as happens when contraception fails — the chosen act is still a grave sin, because the deliberate knowing choice was ordered toward that deprivation. The claim that contraception is only condemned within marriage implies the absurd conclusion that sexual intercourse outside of marriage is not naturally ordered toward procreation.

Contraception is intrinsically evil because it deprives sexual acts of their inherent natural ordering towards the procreative finality. But when a man and woman choose to use contraception, in an otherwise natural act of sexual intercourse, does the act remain unitive? Some theologians opine that the deprivation of the procreative meaning abolishes the unitive meaning as well. Some claim that only certain forms of contraception take away the unitive meaning, while other forms leave the unitive meaning present, yet harmed. But the wording of magisterial teaching implies that the unitive meaning remains, even when the procreative meaning is deprived.

The Vademecum for Confessors: “Special difficulties are presented by cases of cooperation in the sin of a spouse who voluntarily renders the unitive act infecund.” [n. 13]

Here the Holy See calls contracepted marital sex “the unitive act”. It could not be called by that term if contraception deprived sex of its unitive meaning.

“This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.” [Humanae Vitae 12]

This passage from Humanae Vitae has been interpreted by subsequent magisterial documents such that contraception separates the unitive and procreative meanings. This occurs in the situation proposed in Humanae Vitae 3, that a married couple leave some sexual acts open to life, but other sexual acts are contracepted. The unitive and procreative meanings are separated only if the contracepted sexual acts retain most or all of the unitive meaning. If contraception extinguishes the unitive meaning, then there would be no separation. The unitive and procreative meanings would be together in natural marital relations open to life, and both would be absent in contracepted sex.

The claim that condoms remove both the unitive and procreative meanings, while the more sinful abortifacient contraception only deprives sex of the procreative meaning is also confounded by Humanae Vitae 12. There is no indication in Humanae Vitae that this separation is a special quality of certain forms of contraception. Rather, contraception always separates these two meanings, because it extinguishes only the other.

We may say that the deprivation of the procreative meaning harms the other two meanings, since all three are intended by God to be together. But we may not say that contraception deprives sexual intercourse of the unitive meaning, nor of the marital meaning. Contracepted marital sex is still marital and unitive, though the latter two meanings are harmed. And the idea that contracepted sex between spouses takes away the marital meaning is also contradicted by Humanae Vitae, since contracepted sex is still termed “the marriage act” and similar phrases.

Familiaris Consortio also supports this position on the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings:

“When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion, they act as ‘arbiters’ of the divine plan and they ‘manipulate’ and degrade human sexuality — and with it themselves and their married partner — by altering its value of ‘total’ self-giving.” [Familiaris Consortio 32]

Again, Pope Saint John Paul II also sees contracepted sex as still unitive in its meaning. We can say, based on the holy Pontiff’s description, that the deprivation of the procreative meaning harms the other two meaning: it degrades them; it alters their value. But we cannot say that the deprivation of the procreative meaning extinguishes either or both of the other two meanings.

In his theology of the body lectures, John Paul II takes the view that contraception “separates” the two meanings. This necessarily implies that the unitive meaning is still present in contracepted marital sex. But he also explains the reason that the deprivation of the one harms the other.

“In the conjugal act it is not licit to separate the unitive aspect from the procreative aspect, because both the one and the other pertain to the intimate truth of the conjugal act.” [TOB 119, 6]

“It can be said that in the case of an artificial separation of these two aspects, a real bodily union is carried out in the conjugal act, but it does not correspond to the interior truth and to the dignity of personal communion: communion of persons.” [TOB 119, 7]

John Paul II holds that contraception represents a separation of the two meanings, implying that the unitive meaning is still present. Next, he explicitly states that it is still present: “a real bodily union is carried out in the conjugal act”, and yet it is harmed “it does not correspond to the interior truth and to the dignity of personal communion….

We also have the teaching of Sacred Scripture on this point:

[1 Cor]
{6:15} Do you not know that your bodies are a part of Christ? So then, should I take a part of Christ and make it a part of a harlot? Let it not be so!
{6:16} And do you not know that whoever is joined to a harlot becomes one body? “For the two,” he said, “shall be as one flesh.”

When the sin is extra-marital sex with a prostitute, the sexual acts are deprived of the marital meaning, but the unitive meaning is still present. Therefore, Paul can say that whoever has sexual relations with a prostitute still has the unitive meaning, expressed in Scripture as “one flesh”. If the deprivation of any one of these three meanings — marital, unitive, and procreative — destroyed the other two, then Scripture would be mistaken.

Finally, it stands to reason that an act of natural marital relations, unfortunately deprived of its procreative finality by a deliberate knowing choice, still retains much of what is defined as the unitive meaning. For the unitive meaning is not the mere depositing of semen in the correct location. The unitive meaning is a certain type of bodily union, the natural sexual act. And that union remains in its substance, even with a barrier type of contraception. But it also stands to reason that when three goods are closely related, as in the case of the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings, the deprivation of one or two will harm those that do remain.

I should also point out that, if it were the case — and it most certainly is not — but if it were the case that the deprivation of the procreative meaning also deprived sex of its marital and unitive meanings, then contracepted marital sex would be morally nearly the same, as concerns its objects, as homosexual sex. (The only remaining disorder differentiating the two would be the complentarity of the persons, though not the acts.) For homosexual sexual acts are non-marital, non-unitive, and non-procreative, making these acts inherently more gravely immoral than contracepted marital sex, or contracepted non-marital natural sex. The failure to understand this point, that the deprivation of one meaning does not take away the other meanings, makes homosexual acts seem no worse than any heterosexual sexual sin.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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