What does the Catholic Church teach about contraception?

Contraception is “any action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act [sexual intercourse], or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” (Humanae Vitae 14).  The teachings of the Catholic Church on contraception are derived from Scripture, Natural law, Apostolic Tradition, The magisterium and human experience. Marriage is a sacrament with both unitive and procreative ends. Therefore, the fecundity of marriage is vital in the Church’s teaching about contraception. Pope Paul VI, in his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae said this about marital love:  “Finally, this love is fecund. It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being. ‘Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare’” (Humanae Vitae 9). Similarly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 2366 teaches that “Fecundity is a gift; an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful. A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment. So the Church, which is on the side of life, teaches that it is necessary that each and every marriage act remain ordered per se to the procreation of human life. This particular doctrine, expounded on numerous occasions by the Magisterium, 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.”

It follows therefore that contraceptive acts which include all forms of sterilization, male and female condoms and other barrier methods, spermicides, coitus interruptus (withdrawal method), the Pill, and all other related methods of birth control sever the unitive and procreative significance inherent in the marital act. Consequently in Catholic health institutions only procedures that do not separate the unitive and procreative dimensions of the marriage act may be employed to help couples conceive. The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (5th edition) promulgated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops state that “Catholic health institutions may not promote or condone contraceptive practices but should provide, for married couples and the medical staff who counsel them, instruction both about the Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood and in methods of natural family planning” (# 52). The Bishops also declare that “Direct sterilization of either men or women, whether permanent or temporary, is not permitted in a Catholic health care institution. Procedures that induce sterility are permitted when their direct effect is the cure or alleviation of a present and serious pathology and a simpler treatment is not available (#53).