Hard Cases

Some people erroneously believe that there are exceptions to the Church’s moral teaching, as exemplified in certain difficult circumstances or “hard cases.” We will review the principles and examine some of the hard cases.

Contraception is a serious matter. Humanae Vitae, Section 12: "There is an unbreakable connection between the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning of the conjugal act, and both are inherent in the conjugal act. This connection was established by God, and Man is not permitted to break it through his own volition."

Humanae Vitae, Section 14: "Thus, relying on these first principles of human and Christian doctrine concerning marriage, we must again insist that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun must be totally rejected as a legitimate means of regulating the number of children. Especially to be rejected is direct abortion -- even if done for reasons of health.

"Furthermore, as the Magisterium of the Church has taught repeatedly, direct sterilization of the male or female, whether permanent or temporary, is equally to be condemned.

"Similarly there must be a rejection of all acts that attempt to impede procreation, both those chosen as means to an end and those chosen as ends. This includes acts that precede intercourse, acts that accompany intercourse, and acts that are directed to the natural consequences of intercourse."

These moral principles invariably lead to some difficult struggles, which I will discuss as “hard cases.”

1. One spouse pursues virtue while the other chooses the sin of contraception.

It is in the present situation of massive moral non-compliance that we make our comments. What follows is not Magisterial teaching; rather, it is an informed theological opinion. We speak to what an innocent spouse can do on their own to rectify the abuses of their marriage. At this point in time, one is largely on their own, without the explicit public support of the clergy.

The spouse (husband or wife) who wishes to pursue virtue by following the teaching of the Church regarding the evil of contraception has an obligation to firmly, clearly and consistently communicate to their spouse that contraception is wrong. The moral principle is that one must not do evil to achieve good. The virtuous spouse must not accept the evil of contraception in order to achieve the survival of the marriage. The virtuous spouse must continually pray and work for the conversion of the offending spouse. This requires understanding what the spousal act was designed to express and accomplish. It means talking about these important matters. It means making sacrifices for one's spouse. The virtuous spouse should remind the other of the total immorality of contraception, the possible abortifacient factor in using the Pill, and encourage the other spouse to move in the direction of NFP. A good husband should encourage his wife to transfer her trust away from the Pill and place it in God’s providence, in her husband’s willingness to share with her the burden of family planning, and in God’s inexhaustible love for us.

Our Lord took people where they were, and pointed them in the direction they should be taking. He appealed to their good reason and to their better selves. He respected the freedom of their conscience. He proposed God’s plan for us, while never imposing it. He gave people, and continues to give us, a little time so that we could freely come to our senses. Eventually, however, the time will come when we will have to give a thorough accounting for all our choices and deeds. The Lord warned us that we are responsible for how we use our freedom.

What can a virtuous spouse do if the other refuses to move away from contraception? Could one decide to forego the marital act? Since we are not to cooperate with sin, and contraception is sinful, the virtuous spouse has a right and a duty to refuse to cooperate with evil, insofar as that is possible. A contracepted act is not a marital act, since it has separated the unitive from the procreative dimension. Now it is simply a sexual act. It is an act of conditioned self-giving, with many reservations. Such an act does not enrich the relationship; rather, it tends to unravel the fabric of their bonding. Rather than make a lie with their bodies, a couple should simply remain silent (abstain).

Such a choice will bring tensions to the marriage, but unnecessary tensions already exist. The only proper solution is to cease doing what is evil, and begin doing what is good.

The sinful spouse must change, not the virtuous one. Only when the sin is denounced and repented of, can the couple again enjoy the flow of God's graces, which come from their sacrament of marriage.

If a marriage separation does occur because the sinful spouse cannot see that the abstinence is a call to repentance and the sinful spouse seeks sexual pleasure outside of the marriage, the virtuous spouse is not responsible for the separation. Rather, the virtuous spouse has rightfully chosen a value that is higher than the marriage – honor and obedience to God. Contraception is a serious matter and should be treated as such.

2. The wife is told by her doctor that if she has another child, she would likely die.

The husband decides that the noble thing for him to do is to endure the pain and suffering of a vasectomy, rather than risk getting his wife pregnant. There is a serious flaw in this reasoning, which stems from the view of man that his passions cannot be controlled. The true noble thing for the husband to do is to totally abstain from intercourse.

There are several aspects of this case that demand close scrutiny. Many, many women have been told by their doctor that they would die if they have another child and then have subsequently gone on to have one or more children. Therefore, the truth about the medical situation needs to be closely examined and appraised with the help of second opinions. While death in child-birth is possible, it is highly unlikely, given that medical care since the 1950’s has been capable of dealing with almost any gynecological emergency.

If the risk of death in child-birth is a real concern, Natural Family Planning (NFP) offers another legitimate, precise and reliable means of postponing pregnancy indefinitely. 

There are two noble paths – abstention and NFP.

Rev. Matthew Habiger, OSB, Ph.D.

Brian G. Murphy, Ph.D.

See also "Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal life"