The lesser of two evils

Here at BCC we have feted Pope John Paul II and expressed our admiration for all things Catholic. Religious leaders are not immune from saying crazy things, however (see, “Smoothies, TK”). In 1981, the Pope stated that “every conjugal act must be open to life.” This has been interpreted to mean that contraception is forbidden by God.

Several consequences derive from this view, all of them bad. The strict Catholic is either forced to have more children than they can perhaps cope with, or they have to restrict their “conjugal acts” to times when they are happy to accept the possibility of conception. This may also lead them to invent silly shortcuts around the law like the “rhythm method.”

It can also be downright dangerous. Let’s say one half of the married couple has HIV. Strictly interpreted, they either don’t ever have sex, or the spouse gets infected. This is insanity. Now, I know that many (most?) Catholics also think this injunction is nonsense, but it’s a shame when a church sets itself against the common sense of its members.

Happily then, the Guardian reports that the Vatican is rethinking this stance. Mexican cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, who heads the papal department responsible for health issues, has commissioned a review. Barragán himself is thought to support the use of condoms in marriages where one of the partners is HIV-positive.

Italian newspaper La Repubblica, has said that the Vatican will “go from prohibition to the definition of exceptional cases in which it would be possible for the faithful to use prophylactics to avert fatal risks.”

If ratified, this review may also help lift the taboo over condoms in general. Despite pleas for chastity, people have sex outside of marriage (gasp!). Given this fact, it must be stressed that casual “conjugal acts” should in no way be “open to life.” The use of condoms may help reduce the appalling figure of 40 million people affected with HIV. (BTW, according to posters I saw in DC this week, the rate is higher in DC than in sub-Saharan Africa.)

Which brings me to the Mormon view. As an aside, it is interesting to note that an anti-contraception stance was one once advocated by many Mormon leaders, but is quietly being dropped (“quietly dropped” being the preferred Mormon way of changing doctrine). But more to the point is this: chastity will always be held by the church as both morally important and the best way to avoid STD’s and unwanted pregnancy. Abstinence education is therefore central to the Mormon approach to sex.

But should there also be a footnote to this commandment? “Don’t have sex before you’re married, but if you do, use a condom.” Is this something you would tell your teenage child? After all, you want them to be chaste, but if they choose not to be, you really don’t want them getting a disease or having a baby. Given one evil, should we encourage people to avoid the other?


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m really glad I live in a time when our church has (quietly) looked the other way on birth control.

    And personally, I would express the footnote. I realize some people would be aghast at that, and take it as expressing to your child tacit permission to have sex. But I don’t see it that way. Maybe that’s because I’m a lawyer, and we’re used to arguing in the alternative (which seems counterintuitive to us when we’re first starting law school).

  2. when our church has (quietly) looked the other way on birth control.

    Which included at least one Ensign article stating that abstinence was a bad choice of a method for birth control.

    Not so much quiet in the response to the change in practice as restrained as the strident voices are stilled.

  3. Yes. We have to teach our children correct principles, and then allow them to govern themselves. But, if they choose to disobey, then we just as rightly ought to teach them to at least exercise common sense. Compounding sin upon sin is no way to teach repentance, it only make repentance harder, if they ultimately choose to do so. Telling your kid flat out that they are sinning is a parentle obligation, and so is trying to keep them out of more sin. It would be a heart wrenching thing to do, but faced with children who chose to engage in this behavior I would tell them to use protection, only because I feared worse consequences they couldnt fully repent of, and encourage them to entirely repent before they entangled others lives in their bad decisions.

    Also, on nit to pick, the RC Church does not forward the Rhythm Method anymore. The forward Natural Family Planning.

  4. Mohamed ElBaradei has said on numerous occasions in defense of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty that critics ought not let the good become the enemy of the best.

    In other words, having some protection, however flawed, against bad stuff is better than none at all in anticipation of an ideal state of affairs that is unlikely to materialize any time soon, if ever.

  5. Julie M. Smith says:

    Ronan, I have several friends who are Serious Catholics, and by that I mean that they do not use artificial birth control. But they do use (with a great degree of success) natural family planning. So I have to take exception to your attitude toward that practice–it can be effective and rational. (I do object to efforts to foist NFP on LDS as a preferred method however.)

    But I agree with your main point and I’m not the first to point out that for a conjugal act to be “open to life” it probably shouldn’t risk the life of the participant and, potentially, a child. The “open to life” phrasing is very convenient here in that it almost seems to demand the use of condoms to protect a spouse if the other is HIV positive.

  6. “Don’t have sex before you’re married, but if you do, use a condom.” Is this something you would tell your teenage child?

    As a teenager in Big Ten Country a score of years ago, this teaching was openly taught by youth leaders and parents (if not overtly shouted from the pulpit).

  7. Last Lemming says:

    On page 65 of The Miracle of Forgiveness, Spencer W. Kimball identifies fornication, pregnancy, and abortions as “ugly sins” (in the context of unmarried young people). Fornication and abortion are straightforward enough, but pregnancy? You can decide whether or not to commit fornication or have an abortion, but you can’t decide whether or not to become pregnant. So how can it be a sin?

    Well, strictly speaking, it isn’t. But although one cannot choose whether or not to become pregnant, one can certainly affect the odds. Thus, it could be useful for unmarried young people to treat pregnancy as if it were as sin and do everything in their power to avoid it.

    And this isn’t just a footnote to a commandment. It is treated by a future prophet on the same level as fornication and abortion.

  8. Julie,

    Here’s my problem (actually, it’s not a problem, I don’t lose any sleep over it, but anyway…): NFP is still a method of contraception — you do it because you don’t want sex to produce life at the particular time you do it. I guess it’s still “open” to the possibility of producing life, but you hope it doesn’t. So, it sounds to me like a technicality: one is trying to circumvent, but not break, the law. Of course, we Mormons do this all the time. It’s lame when we do it too.


    I’m surprised this suggestion hasn’t gone down in flames. (Not yet anyway…) I’m impressed!

  9. Julie M. Smith says:

    Ronan, I don’t know much about Catholic thought, but my understanding is that their beef is with artificial methods of birth control in themselves. Limiting births via natural methods is completely acceptable. I think this is confusing to Mormons because under old school Mormon thought, any effort to avoid having children was a sin. So for a 50s Mormon, NFP would have been a sin. We have superficially similar but radically different ideas here of what precisely is the sin.

  10. Julie M. Smith says:

    Maybe I could have been more clear:

    Hypothetical 50s LDS couple uses NFP and has zero children. They are sinners. Hypothetical modern Catholic couple uses condoms but has 10 kids. They are sinners. We’ve defined the sin differently.

  11. “Don’t have sex before you’re married, but if you do, use a condom.” Is this something you would tell your teenage child?

    Absolutely. As the mother to both sons and a daughter (all still too young to have even asked where babies come from) we WILL give them full information when they are age-appropriate.

    Since my husband and I are both adult converts, wrong or not, we both entered our marriage with previous experience. I am grateful, that in rolling the dice pre-membership, we were responsible with our health and protected ourselves, and thus were able to enter marriage as healthy adults. Do I want my children to take the same path? No way. But…

    We intend to teach them correct principles, and give them moral guidance and hopefully circumvent them taking the crooked path we walked. But hiding one’s head in the sand about the possibility of pre-marital sex is horribly irresponsible.

    As an aside, I am glad the Church has “quietly dropped off” on this subject. I really don’t want the Church micro-managing such personal things as my choice (or not) of contraception.

  12. Bizarre. Oh well.

  13. Tracy,
    I’m glad too. It’s a fairly new thing. For fun, take a look at “Birth Control” in the Bible Topical Guide.

    There is a problem, you know. So, this dutiful 1950s Mormon housewife has 10 children. It was a struggle, and often she felt like it was too many, but she felt she was doing God’s will. How does she now feel when the Church backs away from the very policy that caused her to do what she did?

  14. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    I don’t know. There is certainly some sense in teaching people how to have safe sex. On the other hand, when I was learning to drive I was told not to look where I don’t want to go. Can kids help looking when you’re deliberately putting it in front of them?

    Also, I’ve heard that nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by a herpes virus. This virus is so small that condoms do not protect against it.

    Accidents happen. Condoms break. That dose of antibiotics you’re taking can interfere with the effectiveness of chemical birth control. Chemical birth control may have undesirable side effects; it can low testorone levels and even trigger the serious-see-a-doctor kind of depression.

    When it comes down to it, there’s no such thing as safe sex. Just “marginally less risky.”

  15. PDoE,
    I’m very sorry, but “marginally” represents complete misinformation. No wonder American HIV/STD/teenage pregnancy rates are sky high if that’s what you’re telling people. This is not about chastity. I’m all for chastity. But I’m all for saving lives and bringing down teenage pregnancy too. European kids are having plenty of sex — alas. But the attendant social ills of sex are massively lower in Europe, because they know that contraception works at rates far better than “marginal.”

  16. PDOE, it is human papilloma virus and there is now a vaccine for it. What a great blessing for humanity. Of course no method is full proof, but mitigating risk is important, I believe.

    Dialogue has some interesting historical perspectives on this issue:

    Bush, Lester E., Jr. “Birth Control among the Mormons: Introduction to an Insistent Question.” 10 (2): 12

    Lester E. Bush, “Ethical Issues in Reproductive Medicine: A Mormon Perspective.” 18 (2): 41

    Tim B. Heaton and Sandra Calkins, “Contraceptive Use Among Mormons, 1965-75.” 16 (3): 106

  17. In other words I wish, oh I wish that the choice was as easy as sex or no sex. But it just isn’t. For most people — without the spiritual and social power of Mormonism behind them — the choice is between sex and safe sex. Please don’t go around telling people that there is only a marginal difference between sex and safe sex. That is rubbish.

  18. Cervical cancer is caused by the human papilloma virus (not herpes which causes genital herpes). A condom is effective against HPV, but any skin to skin genital contact can transmit the virus. How it would eventually make to the cervix from the labia, I do not know. Condoms also help clear HPV infections in women and men more rapidly.

  19. I agree that contraception is more than “marginally” effective from a practical standpoint. From the theological standpoint, thought, PDoE’s point still seems to let a Catholic off the hook. If I was a Catholic, I would be holding tightly to the position that sex with a condom is, indeed, “open to life.” From a theological standpoint, even abstinence is “open to life.” Witness the immaculate conception.

    (I am skeptical of Julie’s #9, can anyone confirm or deny.)

  20. PDoE–if you’re margin of decreased risk is greater than 50%, I’d say that’s pretty good and worth it. Condoms and birth control aren’t perfect, but they are so much better than nothing I support their inclusion in sex ed.

    Besides, telling kids to use a condom puts “deliberately puts sex in front of kids eyes” far less than media portrayals of “typical” teen-age relationships.

    I actually found birth control makes me happier and less depressed (as an aside, and bit of a thread jack) and I know several people who say the same thing. I’m hoping that means I’ll be a happy pregant woman someday :)

  21. Jacob, here is a great article by Justin that explicates the Mormon position vis a vis having many children. A very great read.

  22. Julie M. Smith says:

    So, this dutiful 1950s Mormon housewife has 10 children. It was a struggle, and often she felt like it was too many, but she felt she was doing God’s will. How does she now feel when the Church backs away from the very policy that caused her to do what she did?

    I’ve wondered about this, too.

  23. “Don’t have sex before you’re married, but if you do, use a condom.” Is this something you would tell your teenage child?

    No. I told my children about the consequences of sex before marriage, and all the available ways of avoiding each of those consequences, including their failure rates. Thus it’s not “if you do, use a condom” it’s “using a condom will protect you from this, this, and this, with a failure rate of X. Also, studies show that people who use condoms do not use them 100% of the time as the duration of the relationship continues, and any failure to use a condom eliminates all of it’s potential protective benefits. And using a condom will not make you feel less used when the guy who said he would love you forever stops calling after you have sex.”

    We also talked in real terms about abstinance, not only as the most effective way of avoiding those consequences, but for avoiding the consequences of being sexually active prior to marriage, including the reality that not nearly as many kids are having sex as other kids think, and those who are aren’t having nearly as much as other kids think.

    It is irresponsible to not discuss all forms of birth control with your child in an age appropriate way, including how they work, what they do and don’t protect against, and their failure rates. It is more irresponsible to discuss those options in a way that doesn’t make it absolutely clear that abstinance is without question the best way to go for medical, social, emotional and moral reasons, and how to structure their social interaction and romantic lives to make abstinance more possible. Once we accept “kids will be having sex even though we want them not to” as the end of the subject, we have lost the battle. Kids will be having sex even though we want them not to, but that doesn’t remove the responsibility we have as parents and adults to our children and the children in our communities to give them good information and the benefit of our experience and judgment in learning how to interpret that information.

    Kids having sex when they aren’t ready for causes wreckage to their lives that never goes away. It provides cover for child molesters who pick older teens as their targets. We can not turn a blind eye to the problems that it causes just because we might have been sexually active at that age ourselves (or wanted to be but didn’t find the opportunity), or because we’re lust addicts and like the visuals that come into our minds when we think about sexually active kids. This is where the action is.

    “Birth control” v “no birth control” is a legitimate issue for married people, and the Church is wisely acknowledging the reality that they can’t even tell when people are making that choice. When talking to kids, it’s a side subject at best.

  24. We can not turn a blind eye to the problems that it causes just because we might have been sexually active at that age ourselves (or wanted to be but didn’t find the opportunity), or because we’re lust addicts and like the visuals that come into our minds when we think about sexually active kids.

    Well, I was kind of with you until this bit. Blimey, man. I hope you’re not accusing anyone on this thread of having these motivations.

  25. I agree with Blain. Kids need accurate, detailed information long before they might need it. They need to develop plans for how they intend to handle it when someone they really care about pressures them for sex. They need to know personal stories of friends and family members’ experiences, as appropriate. They need examples of adults they know who made those same mistakes when young, and to understand how the consequences changed their lives.

    Also, they need to know that all the stories in all of literature about how often guys bail out on girls when things get hard for them, when lifelong choices are involved, it does too apply to even the sweet and good wonderful guy they are in love with, and not just the sleaze-ball guys in books. It’s very sad to think that, but it’s so often true. Even guys who seem sweet and loving and concerned for a girl as a person, may find their interest completely evaporates when there are more serious lifelong issues to deal with, such as “we’re pregnant, now how do we support ourselves and raise this child and give it a good life?”. And all the protestations of undying love beforehand, when pressed about what that meant, the girl might hear “you say what you have to say”, or, paraphrased, “I was lying to you in order to get sex”. :(

    It’s not shocking that some guys are like that. After all, what have centuries of literature told us? What’s shocking is that *this particular* guy could possibly be like that. And that’s what both girls and guys need to be made aware of up front. This situation happens over and over again, it’s almost built in to our society and our deepest impulses as men and women.

    Guys, too, might find that someone they love, their child, who is half themselves, is going to be murdered in utero by a girl they thought they knew better than that. Or else that she’s going to raise the child in circumstances which are very unfavorable, and will need child support payments from the father for 18 years in order to bring up his child in ways to which he deeply objects. They need to know that they are putting enormous power over their lives into the hands of any girl they have sex with, and that she too might show very different facets of her personality under different circumstances.

    They need to know *all* the facts, including the subjective ones. And parents should acknowledge that the decision will be their alone. The teenagers will be the ones who ultimately decide. So it’s crucial that they are prepared up front to make good decisions. Also, they should practice how to say no thank you when pressured for sex, how to set lines and enforce them, how to recognize when their own resolve is weakening and change the situation, etc.

    Nature makes it hard not to make this mistake. She has many ways of tricking people. After all, all your ancestors for 5 billion years are the ones who did get pregnant. =) We owe it to our kids to give them 100% accurate information to enable them to make the right choices for them.

  26. 24 — If I meant anybody in this thread, I’ve had identified them. I don’t particularly not mean anybody here either, though. Those to whom it applies know who they are.

    25 — I’ve also told them that sex is fun, but it’s not going anywhere, and it’s not something to build your life around.

    I just read my comment to my daughter, and she said “Yeah, that’s about what you said.”

  27. To comment on #22…

    I do not see the present church stance on birth control as “quietly dropping” the subject. Like with other points of the gospel the church is leaving the decision to us. The church has in fact grown into itself in that sense…teaching principles and allowing its members to choose for themselves. There are endless statements from church leaders from the present back to JS that discuss birth control. Simply because an entire priesthood session or general relief society session has not been dedicated to the topic, I would not dismiss how important the issue is in the eyes of the church. Simply, I believe we as members are in error if we sit back and take the Brethren’s silence as a sign that birth control of all kinds and in all situations is now acceptable in the eyes of the Lord. Even if it is not ‘cool’ in the 21st century, we have to remember that the first commandment given to man was to procreate. And following that commandment was another…for us to fulfill the measure of our creation.

  28. 27 — As a matter of policy, approaches to birth control in the Church have shifted to the point that statements that used to be quite clear about birth control not being acceptable are now replaced with statements that use of birth control is acceptable, so long as it’s not used for selfish reasons.

    Birth control is used widely in the Church. We have a handful of families in my ward with more than 5 children — those who have substantially more than that are welcome to pipe in. Mind you, we have a lot fewer 0-2 child families than you see outside the Church in our area, so we still stand out, but birth control is clearly in use.

  29. “He who is commanded in all things is a slothful servant.”
    We need to do as the prophet Joseph taught us to do with our children. “Teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.”

    We should have age appropriate discussions with each of them on a one on one basis about the sacred nature of the pro creative processes of the human body. We should also be very frank about what God’s law.(The scriptures) say regarding the use or miss use of these powers means from an eternal perspective.

    We should also teach our children the adverse consequences from a physical, spiritual, health, financial perspective of violating Gods law of chastity.

    After our children understand these principles if they then make the decision to exercise their agency to violate Gods laws. We are left to help them through the consequences of their flawed judgment.

    I am a father of 5 daughters, 3 of which are over the age of 18 and out of High School. 20 years ago as a young father I maintained I would never teach my daughters to use birth control under any circumstances. As I matured in the realities of parenthood of teenage girls I saw the wisdom in teaching them to first honor Gods Law. If you choose not to, please protect your health, from some of the negative consequences of sexual activity by using condoms. I then proceeded to give them all the reasons why condoms are not fool proof and had a very frank discussion about all of the emotional, spiritual, financial, and logical reasons that Chastity really is the best policy and the only way to guarantee yourself not to have these negative consequences.

    I then proceeded to teach my girls of the beauty of this process when it is done within the bounds the Lord has proscribed. What a miracle it is to create a new life with your spouse and God.

    Thank goodness this appears to have worked with my first three girls. Knock on wood and wish me luck for the other two who are just now reaching those wonderful teen years. Thanks for the post Ronan.

  30. Such an emotionally fraught subject, Ronan.
    I see sex with a spouse as open to life regardless of whether contraception is used.
    Condoms are highly effective for limiting transmission of STDs. Condoms are highly effective for limiting conception. Addition of spermicides adds effectiveness.
    There is of course no guarantee, and abstinence has a higher rate of success than condom use, but arguments that condoms are minimally effective seem to be false scare tactics that will backfire as people discover they’ve been lied to. Surely there are better ways to encourage maturity in sexual practices.

    Re: HPV speculation, I’m unaware of any studies that examined cervical cancer rates in patients whose only exposure to HPV was superficial, in large part because the question is a little bizarre, and public health as a discipline has supported condom use. Viruses can easily spread through shedding from lysed cells, though, and in general it is not a surprise to see viruses migrate surprising distances given their small size. It is not impossible to imagine a case of cervical cancer from a superficial exposure. Certainly HSV can be transmitted by minor contact, as can syphilis.

    I suspect the reason such practices as scheduled abstinence (what is “natural” about coitus timed to cervical mucus viscosity and core temperature?) appear to be acceptable to the Church is that the practice arose as a folk practice that the Church had great difficulty eradicating. It’s also a practice that limits spontaneous lovemaking and requires huge mental and emotional resources with an ongoing awareness of the religious practice that underlies it. Hormonal or barrier contraception was introduced for public health reasons, as part of a movement to emancipate women, and it comes from an authority other than the folk or the church. These other factors I believe are more important in determining the meaning of these methods, which is why other attempts to logically rationalize the distinction between scheduled abstinence and hormonal contraception are unlikely to bear much fruit.

    To me there is a reasonable analogy in intoxication. Tell your kids not to get drunk, but if heaven forbid they should get drunk, they need to know that they must never operate an automobile while intoxicated.

    For now I’m planning to put my daughters in one of those John Travolta plastic bubbles to avoid having to confront the problem.

  31. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    I like what Tatiana had to say.

    I’m sorry some of you seem to feel I was attacking anyone; certainly the responses seem…hrm, a little strong. I was seriously asking.

  32. as a recovering catholic whose mother verbalized preferring her daughter’s hypothetical teen pregnancy to her daughter’s also hypothetical use of birth control, i’m digging this thread.

    i’ve also often wondered why nfp doesn’t count as birth control in the rcc when it absolutely is birth control. what makes the most sense to me would be if they forbade abortificants versus something like condoms. i just don’t get those crazy catholics!

    my catholic upbringing still affects me in this arena. i have a tough time even considering something as benign as condoms. i try to keep up with the church’s ever-changing counsel on birth control. i disagree that they’ve “quietly dropped” anything. to me, it’s been clear that the rules about birth control have drastically changed. we still only use nfp, which works phenomenally well for us, but it’s been comforting to know that i’m not going to lose my recommend if there’s a box of condoms in the nightstand.

    as the mother of three still too young daughters, i’m not sure how exactly we’ll approach this. it’s not fun to think about, that’s for sure!

    as for hpv and the new vaccine, i wouldn’t consider it a “blessing” just yet. vaccines have before been approved, administered, and then pulled due to dangers. i think the shift from administering the hepb vax to teens to the current recommendation of vaccinating against it at birth is sad and my views of the hpv vax are likewise tainted. it’s scary to me that people are so willing to run out and line their children up for the latest and greatest vaccination available without weighing risks and benefits and the likes.

  33. J.,

    Thanks for the link. The part of Julie’s statement that surprised me was her claim that the Catholic doctrine was only concerned with the artificialness of the birth control. She says they don’t care if you limit the number of children as long as you don’t use a condom (or some other form of artificial birth control). Probably I am exposing my ignorance of Catholicism, but I was surprised by that.

  34. Julie M. Smith says:

    Jacob, as I said, I am not an expert on Catholic thought, but my friends who actually are Serious Catholics and use NFP do not hesitate to publicly discuss with me that they are actively using NFP to limit the number of children they have.

  35. i can confirm julie’s experience based on our family and friends. devout catholics using nfp, but not condoms because condoms are of the devil. or something like that…

  36. Sex is a topic that humbles human beings.

    No species is in control of procreation. Neither are we. With respect to chastity and birth control that cuts both ways. Chastity is a matter of choice and luck. The same is true of pregnancy and birth control.

    There are no guarantees when it comes to sex.

  37. We tend to believe that its only the under 21 year old set who are having, or thinking of having, unmarried sex. Most of my unmarried LDS friends regularly have sex.

  38. I am not an expert on Catholic thought, but my friends who actually are Serious Catholics and use NFP do not hesitate to publicly discuss with me that they are actively using NFP to limit the number of children they have.

    Also, I did some research in Texas, among Catholic Hispanics, and found a significant percentage of married couples who regularly practiced anal intercourse as a method of natural birth control.

  39. This is a hard topic to blog about. I have 4 kids and am contemplating a 5th

    Couple of quick opinions:

    1. Glad the Church has backed of the anti-BC stance.

    2. NFP is BC.

    3. LDS birthrate is down partly as a result of #1. I am anticipating a big push on Multiply and replenish any time soon.

    4. Teenagers should be given the facts of BC and preached Chastity.

    5. I concur with #37. Many many LDS unmarrieds are engaging in fornification. I would guess a majority if you count up everybody.

  40. I’m of the opinion that the ‘if you do, use a condom’ advice would act as a further deterrent to premarital sex because it makes the act more deliberate. Teens can convince themselves that since they just lost control of their impulses, the sex they had wasn’t that bad. The use of a condom or other form of BC adds a premeditated element that most people who subscribe to chastity as an ideal are uncomfortable with.

    When faced with the decision at that crucial moment of putting on a condom and continuing, or just stopping altogether, many will go ahead and stop. Having the advice to use a condom gives them that moment of decision that they may have otherwise ignored or glossed over.

    I also agree with the sentiment that the goal should be to give kids and teens correct accurate information. Accurate information about the risks of protected and unprotected sex will generally lead most people to make wise decisions.

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