Interdisciplinary Approach to Moral Theology (With special reference to family planning)

Resources »EAPR »East Asian Pastoral Review 1994 »Interdisciplinary Approach To Moral Theology With Special Reference To Family Planning

George V. Lobo, SJ.


The aetiological. stories of creation in the Book of Genesis provide a foundation for an ethic of personal relationship with God, of interpersonal relationship, especially between the sexes, as well as responsibility in procreation and transformation of the world. Man and woman are to be "two‑in‑one flesh" so that they may transcend their loneliness and develop the image of God, (which in the light of the New Testament, is tripersonal). They are to "increase and multiply," not in a blind fashion, but in a responsible way as images of God who is eternal wisdom. They are to be stewards of creation, respecting the value of every creature and directing it consciously to the glory of God. Thereby, we see the personal, transpersonal and cosmic dimensions of morality.   

The Exodus event is a summons to enter into a covenant with God in the community in a spirit of freedom. As is indicated in the most important work of B. Haring, fidelity and freedom are to be the primary characteristics of Hebrew morality.     We see in the Prophets, an interiorization of morality and call to social justice, especially in Amos and Isaiah. The prophetic message perfectly combines fidelity to the God of the covenant with commitment to justice.

The New Testament deepens the interiorization of moral life. Jesus is the perfect exemplar of total union with the Father, expressed in love of neighbor. He lays down his life freely for his sheep. Thereby, he is the model of a free man whose life is wholly dedicated to the liberation of his fellow men and women. While upholding the basic validity of the Torah, he boldly challenges the legalism of the leaders of Israel of the time. By his redemptive sacrifice, he has brought radical freedom from sin and sinful structures and inaugurated a new community in which love, truth and justice would prevail. By sending his Spirit upon his disciples, he has further deepened their freedom enabling them to go out courageously to transform the world.

By his Damascus experience, St. Paul was liberated from the shackles of self‑righteousness and legalism and announced the message of love and freedom in Christ. He proclaimed the end of all particularisms, prejudices and divisions by his cryptic statement: "There is neither Jew or Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male or female." (Gal. 3:28).

The early Christians developed a close harmony between the vertical of Godward and horizontal of fraternal dimensions of Christian life. They did not hesitate to draw on the wisdom of pagan writers.2 Some like St. Augustine made profound philosophical and psychological reflections. St. Ambrose and others made a vibrant call for social justice. As to concrete norms for life, they did not hesitate to take over the precepts of the ancients giving them a new context and meaning.

To his contemporaries in the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas seemed to be "a courageous innovator ... the purveyor of a new brand of secular philosophy."3 He made free use of ancient philosophies, especially Greek with Arab developments. Inspired by his teacher, Albert the Great, he also adopted scientific knowledge, such as was available at the time, in his moral reflection.

His greatest merit was the complete integration of moral teaching with the doctrines of faith.

Moral theology after Aquinas gradually developed into a separate discipline. It became cut off from the mysteries of faith, became increasingly casuistic due to the preoccupation with resolving confessional cases, and indulged in excessively rational speculation. Although this last helped in refining moral principles and norms, these began to lose touch with concrete persons and their Christian vocation in the world. Apart from notable exceptions like St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696‑1787), moral theology deteriorated into a rationalistic, individualistic, legalistic and casuistic exercise.

Casuistry largely depended on the distinction between directly and indirectly voluntary.This has its value. But if it is pressed too far, it can lead to incongruous conclusions. Thus, in the traditional view, in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, it would never be permissible to shell out the fetus to obviate the chances of a dangerous rupture, since this would amount to "direct" abortion. But it would be permissible to excise the pregnant tube. The resulting death of the fetus would be "indirect" and justified in order to save the mother from the consequences of a dangerous rupture of the uterus.

This may look like a neat solution on the theoretical plane, but is not without serious difficulties. By removing the tube, not only would the fetus die, but the woman would have her fertility reduced, and even entirely lost if the other tube is already damaged. Besides, in the very process of excising the tube, as soon as the blood vessels are clamped, the fetus would lose its hfe.4

The first attempts at renewal began in the 17th century with a return to a more biblical and salvation oriented presentation of the demands of Christian life. For instance, F. X. Linsenmann (1855­1898) of the Tübingen School was concerned that moral theology should follow the spirit of St. Paul and give primary attention to the freedom of the children of God. He and other like‑minded theologians wanted a constructive dialogue with the best modern philosophies thus they paved the way to a more phenomenological and historical reflection on the exigencies of the Christian vocation.

Cardinal J.H. Newman (1801‑1890), while analyzing the act of faith, came up with a distinction that was to prove crucial in judging the imputability of human acts, namely,abstract and evaluative knowledge. This was a clear invitation to utilize the insights of modem psychology.

The recent existentialist and personalist trends had a deep impact on the renewal of moral theology. There was a shift in emphasis from isolated acts to the growth in human personality.

Meanwhile, there were extraordinary developments in human sciences like psychology, sociology and cultural anthropology. Together with these, the recent advances in biological sciences have provided both a challenge and opportunity to develop an integrated moral theology.

Vatican 11 has opened up new personalistic perspectives for moral theology. It has asked that in the renewal of theology, 1. special attention needs to be given to the development of moral theology ... It should show the nobility of the Christian vocation of the faithful, and their obligation to bring forth fruits in charity for the life of the world."5 When speaking about the question of harmonizing conjugal love with responsible transmission of life, the Council declares that the moral aspect of any procedure should be judged according to objective standards. "These, ‑based on the nature of human persons and their acts, preserve the full sense of mutual self‑giving and human procreation in the context of true love."6

Hence it is not sufficient to apply some abstract natural laws. Many theologians have rightly seen in this text a clear invitation to renew the whole notion of the "natural law", making it more personalistic and dynamic. This implies an investigation into the psychic, interpersonal, cultural and even biological aspects of the conjugal act or marital intimacy.

The Council notes that the modern mass media by setting off a chain reaction "are giving the swiftest and the widest possible circulation to styles of thought and feelings."7 The pressure of the media on individual and group thinking is posing difficult problems for the moral life.

The Council also makes a vibrant call to transcend a purely individualistic ethic amidst the rapid trend towards socialization and interdependence of people. 8

Finally, the Council calls for a secular commitment as essential to the Christian vocation. It "exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the gospel spirit... The Christian who neglects temporal duties neglects duties towards the neighbor and even God and jeopardizes his/her eternal salvation." 9

In more recent years, the justice and liberation dimensions of this commitment have come more and more in evidence. As recent Church documents have pointed out, there is a strict obligation to defend human rights, to establish just relations between nations and strive to combat injustice, oppression and exploitation from which various classes of people suffer. The ethical dimensions of ecology are also becoming dear.

Therefore, Christian morality has multiple dimensions. It is no more a question of merely applying a few abstract principles and quoting here and there some traditional writers or Church rulings. Moral theology has become a complex discipline that has to take into consideration the findings and insights of a vast number of theological, psychological, sociological, anthropological and biological sciences. Brief suggestions will be made regarding some of these aspects.


The days of using proof texts from Scripture to buttress a particular opinion are over. The Word of God is not a quiver of quotations to draw arrows in doctrinal and moral argument. Neither can one expect to find ready made answers to problems of our time. Besides, there is a certain pluralism in Scriptural texts arising from different contexts and mentalities in which they were written. Thus, using a partial approach, one could easily find justification for violence or non‑violence, especially in the Old Testament. A literal interpretation of the Bible has been even been used to defend racial prejudice in South Africa and elsewhere.

On‑the other side, it is not true to say that Scripture has no relevance or real authority for believers today. The cultural distance does not prevent the derivation of insights and inspiration for the most diverse times and places. W.O. Spohn explains how it can be so: "A text is a classic that speaks in the voice of one culture to a more universal human audience in subsequent cultures. The Christian belief that the same Spirit that inspired the authors of Scripture still inspires the use of the Scriptures in the Church today gives us hope of a faithful continuity with those early believers." 10

The Catholic insistence on the natural law does not diminish the importance of Scripture. It is true that Scripture does not provide us with a new "content" of morality. But it can draw attention to moral values and norms which the sinful condition of humanity may prevent people from discovering. It surely does provide new motivation for performing what is humanly and naturally right. J. Fuchs has shown how Christian responsibility can be grounded on a biblically informed natural law. 11 Hence, "Rather than seeking new commands in the Bible, Christians should look for the witness to the fundamental reorientation of their basic intentions towards God. Only the grace of Christ can provide this radical conversion of heart." 12

We have already seen how the Bible makes a call to freedom and fidelity, to love and responsibility. Thus what is said by Vatican II in general: "The study of Holy Scripture should be the soul of theology",13 should also apply to moral theology.14

Biblical revelation points to the divine plan for marriage and sexuality. These are God's gifts to be actualized according to God's will. Marriage is a commitment of love that is the reflection of the loving covenant uniting Christ with the Church. As Vatican II, resuming the teaching of Scripture, puts it: "Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents. The God who said: "It is not good for man to be alone" (Gen. 2:18) and "who made the human race from the beginning male and female (Mt. 19:4), wished to share with man and woman a certain special participation in God's own creative work. Thus God blessed male and female, saying: 'Increase and multiply' (Gen 1:28)."1‑9

Thus the Bible witnesses to responsible parenthood as the fruit of mutual love. It provides the motivation for exercising this sublime role in the Church and society. It suggests a positive link between marital love and fruitfulness. It excludes any arbitrary or selfish way of regulating births or any other way that offends against the dignity of the spouses or the welfare of the children. Scripture also inculcates trust in divine Providence and the spirit of sacrifice in this difficult area. The spouses themselves are to reflect, inspired by the Spirit and guided by the pastors of the Church, and make concrete decisions regarding the planning of their family and the means to be adopted for it.


Philosophy is an essential medium for ethical reflection. Hence the importance of the particular kind of philosophy used. The different varieties of Scholasticism have been influenced by "the insight into the act of being as the fundamental and distinctive doctrine of Aquinas."16

The philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas itself had a great spirit of openness. But this progressively declined with the excessive spirit of speculation divorced from concrete reality. Classical Thomism be‑came preoccupied with abstract thought. However, with M. Heidegger, M. Scheler, E. Husserl and others, a phenomenological or experienced based methodology developed. This has influenced as diverse persons as K. Rahner and K. Wojtyla (now Pope John Paul 11).17 When phenomenology is combined with hermeneutics, it is preserved from a non‑historical notion of essence of things and can address itself to real life problems.

Wojtyla saw that metaphysical personhood contains only virtually the power of constituting oneself as an autonomous and responsible being. However, human personal subjectivity does not constitute a dosed structure, but opens the subject toward reality. "Even in the body, Wojtyla sees that certain states have to be developed by action before they begin to be influenced by the will which eventually gives them the mark of self ‑ determination. All this is to say that the somatic, psychic and spiritual tendencies which we potentially possess as persons must be actualized before they become self‑constituting and in a real sense make us the persons we become." 18

Hence, on the one hand, ethical reflection calls for a solid philosophical basis. On the other hand, this should be open to human experience and to examination of all the somatic, psychic and spiritual dimensions of the human person. Personal experience cannot be a blind guide to action, but needs to be evaluated according to the nature, dignity and call of the human person. Today there is also the need for further developing a social philosophy and a philosophy of liberation.

As family planning touches upon the basic freedom of the spouses and their mutual relationship, it has also a significant impact on their human personality. The vital decisions to be made in this area will depend upon the idea they have of their own person and its fulfillment. They cannot perpetually depend upon the guidance of others, but have to learn to make their conscientious decisions. Not everyone can engage in philosophical inquiry. But the rudiments of human reflection need to be inculcated in all so that they do not become the prey of manipulation by passing views of interested parties.

As to moral decisions regarding the methods of family planning, we should note the steady movement away from deontologism or adherence to objective and absolute norms. The influences of positivism and utilitarianism culminated in the situation ethics of the fifties and sixties. When this was found inadequate to protect human values, the t1feory ofconsequentialism and later proportionalism were evolved. According to the latter, prior to intentionality, a certain action may have a "physical", "ontic" or "premoral" evil. "Moral" evil arises only from irresponsibility or the lack of proportion between the premoral evil and the good to be attained in the circumstance. 19

This theory, or trend since it has many varieties, substantially departs from the traditional concept of "intrinsically evil" or moral "absolutes" other than the general statements like "justice is to be always done". While it has the merit of proposing a more flexible ethic according to the human values involved in a given case, it can also lead to subjectivism and relativism if it is not handled carefully. It seems to do away, like the opposite of excessive deontologism, with the real conflicts involved in the sinful human condition. 20


Ethical reflection in any area presumes a deep understanding of the implications of faith in concrete life. It is high time that the artificial separation between doctrinal and moral theology be dropped. As J. Fuchs remarks: "For confrontation with an absolute in conscience is a confrontation with God, the triune God, when the Father calls us in Christ in the Holy Spirit."21

The manner of living out one's human existence will depend upon one's conception of the origin and end of the human person and community. One's idea of god and relationship with God would colour one's sense and goal of life.

The Trinitarian vision of God in Christian revelation, however dim a glimpse it may provide of the divine mystery that is beyond all names, forms and concepts, should enlighten human life. The total self‑identity and eternal communication between the divine Persons must have an impact on Christian living, making it more and more personal and communitarian. The perichoresis or circuminsession of the three Persons in the Trinity must be reflected in the spirit of self‑giving and self‑sacrificing of Christians. The fruitful union of the divine Persons must again be manifested in all Christian communities, beginning with the family.

The Church is the visible expression of the inner life of the Trinity because of the grace of the Spirit of Christ pulsating within her. Christian marriage being a prolongation of the union of Christ and the Church, is also a manifestation and participation of the intra‑Trinitarian life of God. Husband and wife form one moral person, one single principle of generation reflecting the divine fruitfulness of the Father/Mother. The mutual gift of self in conjugal love finds its fruition in the child in whom the couple finds a living symbol of their unity. In Christian marriage, the union of husband and wife directed towards procreation expresses a living conformity with the life of the Blessed Trinity.

The mystery of the Incarnation has tremendous implications for understanding the sanctity of human love and its physical expressions. As Vatican Il declares: "By His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every person."22 St. Paul expresses this by saying: "Your bodies are members of Christ; the temples of the Holy Spirit in you." (ICor. 6:15,19).

Sexual union itself is the sublime expression of the mutual gift of the spouses that is to be free and loving. "This love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the marital act. The actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones."23 The sexual sphere as a gift of love has been taken up into the mystery of grace and salvation.

The sacramentality of marriage manifests the idea that the human love of the spouses has been caught up in divine love, that their partnership is, not only an imitation, but a vital sharing in the mystical union of Christ with His Spouse, the Church. As M.J. Scheeben puts it: "Nowhere does the mystical life of the Church penetrate more deeply into natural relationships than in matrimony. In this, the Church clasps to her heart the first of all human relationships, that upon which the existence and propagation of human nature depends, so as to make it wholly her own and transform it into herself... Nowhere has the truth more strikingly come to light that the whole nature, down to its deepest roots, shares in the sublime consecration of the God‑man, who has taken this nature to Himself."24

The fruitfulness of marriage leads to a new community that has been called "a domestic church" which is the basic cell of ecclesial and civil society.

Hence, these days, when there is a rightful preoccupation with the population problem and other reasons for regulating the number of offspring, Christian doctrine points to the basic need of fostering the fruitfulness of marriage without which there would be no true mutual fulfillment.


This is the area of theology that is most significant for morality, especially for marriage and sexual ethics. After long centuries of dualism deriving from Persian and Greek thinking, theology is returning to a more holistic idea of the human person. Vatican 11 has sanctioned the return of this biblical conception. 25

According to the biblical vision, the human person does not so much possess a body, but is a body. He or she is an animated body. We have no proper existence except as rational or human bodies. It is the "body that expresses the 'person"', as Pope John Paul 11 expresses it. 26

Hence the dignity of the spirit extends to the body with all its functions. Sexuality becomes an expression of personal relationship of love. It is a language of love, which can express truth when the sexual act is an expression of committed love in marriage or express falsehood when it is performed outside the context. As Vatican 11 declares: "This (conjugal) love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the marital act. The actions in marriage by which the couple are united chastely are noble ones. Expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions signify and promote that mutual self‑giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and thankful wiH."27

The Council poses the problem of family planning in this context and declares: "But where the intimacy of married life is broken off, it is not rare for the faithfulness to be imperiled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined."28 The Council takes seriously the normal way in which the couples are to express the depth of their mutual love. When such expressions of love have to be suspended because of the need for regulating the size of the family, there is the danger of fidelity being imperiled and the quality of fruitfulness ruined.

Of course, between uncontrolled sexual activity leading to irresponsible procreation and total abstinence, there is, the possibility of periodic abstinence or natural family planning. However, the concrete feasibility of this approach in a given case will have to be examined with the availability of proper instruction, mutual understanding and the particular life style of the couple.

Now let us come to the crucial dividing point or veritable parting of ways between two tendencies in the Church:

  1. that which insists on respecting the physical integrity of the natural processes of generation; and
  2. that which would permit a modification of the same when this seems to be called for by the demands of personal fulfillment and marital love.

In a way the issue is the stand which one takes towards biotechnology. Recent documents of the 'Church, particularly Donum vitae,29 call any dissociation between the procreative and unitive dimensions of the marital act as unacceptable "manipulation". It would be a Promethean effort arrogating to oneself power over the process of human life.

Until recently this "traditionalist" stand held unquestioned sway. However, due to various factors like

  1. advance of scientific or empirical mentality;
  2. historical understanding of the person and culture together with sensitivity to human freedom;
  3. more existential and phenomenological thought patterns; and
  4. experiential consciousness, a new approach has risen.

Now "biology is no more destiny". Relationship and relationality are considered necessary elements of being human. The biological and genetic dimensions do not constitute the trulyhuman, but form only one aspect of it. From the more personalist idea of Vatican 11 it would seem to follow that the morality of an act is not determined according to some physical law of nature, but rather from its conformity with the reasonable nature of the acting person.

From this one would conclude that the processes of life could be suitably modified in order to realize the higher goals of the human person.

This older view was dubbed "physicalist" or "biologist" 30, while the new view was termed "personalist". For some time, the new seemed to triumph almost completely. The traditionalists were largely on the defensive.

However, now a strong reaction has set in. While the Magisterium has been repeatedly reaffirming the traditional position like "contraception is intrinsically evil", it has made efforts to present the doctrine in more personalist terms. The present Pope, in particular, has condemned contraception as against the personal dignity of the couple. 'This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totahty."31

Already D. von Hildebrand had brought out the close connection between the biological nature and the person. Physical processes should be expressive of spiritual attitudes. In the matter of contraception, there is involved, not only a biological process, but an essentially human value. It is not merely a physical connection but rather a sublime mystery that God has entrusted in the generation of the human being, which is a participation in the very creative act of God.32

Some writers like W.E. May go on the counterattack and dub the newer position as "dualist". He says: "it is not proper to liken contraception and sterilization in rendering intercourse infertile to such medical interventions as the removal of a diseased tooth or organ, to such technological interventions as damming rivers, digging tunnels, or irrigating deserts ... It is not as though a human being were a composite of an animal and a human nature, with human nature consisting in thought and free choice... Our bodies, with their physiological and biological constitutive processes, are integrally human and their mutilation in contraception and sterilization requires a genuine therapeutic reason, as does the removal of a tooth. A latent dualism or angelism is discernible in the arguments advanced by many contemporary Roman Catholic moral theologians to justify contraception and sterilization."33

The modem trend seems to go back to Descartes, who in his famous cogito, ergo sum,"initiated a dualistic trend. It helped the development of modem biology and medicine, but, when pushed too far, it serves the unity of the two dimensions, bodily and spiritual, of the human person. So for many modems the body is an instrument of the spirit, while the traditional view, in spite of its other limitations, maintains better the unity of these dimensions. The body would, be understood as icon of the Spirit.

L.S. Cahill is more even‑handed in leveling the charge of dualism: "To say that biology sets all the limits or can never set limits at all is, I think, to adopt a dualist anthropology, in which the person as spirit or freedom is served from the personal as corporeity."34

Instead of accusing each other of "physicalism" or "biologism", on the one hand, or "dualism" or "angelism", on the other, it would be more worthwhile to see the value in each other's position. Then the close link between the procreation and unitive aspects of the marital act would become apparent. Thereby the loss of moral value in contraception would be recognized. It would never be accepted without reserve. Everything would be done to obviate the need for artificial contraception or sterilization by having diligent recourse to natural family planning. On the other hand, traditionalists would be able to recognize conflict situations in which a couple might see some form of contraception as a last resort and a lesser evil.


The right relationship between the sexes is vital to proper exercise of responsible parenthood. P. Allen has distinguished various views regarding this relationship and proposed the idea of integral sex complementality.35

1) Plato's view of sexual identity devalues the bodily differences between women and men. He seems to believe that the soul, a sexless identity is *incarnated in different kinds of bodies, male or female. The theory reappeared in the Cartesian emphasis on a common "sexless" reason in all human beings.36

Karol Wojtyla has shown the crucial importance of accepting the significant sexual differentiation between man and woman in order that love and affection might be expressed properly in the marital act as well as in abstinence during the fertile period: Precisely because a slower and more graded rise in the curve of sexual arousal is characteristic of the female organism the need for tenderness during physical intercourse, and also before it begins and after its conclusion, is explicable in purely biological terms. If we take into account the shorter and more violent curve of arousal in the man, an act of tenderness on his part in the context of marital intercourse acquires the significance of an act of virtue... specifically, the virtue of continence, and so indirectly the virtue of love." 37

2) Sex polarity. This recognizes significant differences between the sexes, but tends to defend the superiority of one sex over another, generally of the man over the woman. In this perspective, family planning becomes the responsibility only of the man. He decides whether to have another child or not, and what method is to be used to regulate conception. Often dangerous procedures like pills with strong side effects, invasive laparoscopy and IUDs creating problems like hemorrhage are imposed on the woman.

3) Sex complementarity as such is right. However, it can become "fractional", that is dividing masculine and feminine characteristics into parts as if one sex necessarily had one aspect, and the other the complementary aspect. If leadership is assigned only to the male, as is often done, then this theory suffers from similar limitations to the previous.

4) Integral sex complementarity. This is based on the understanding of man and woman as persons. The complementarity of qualities rather than roles is stressed. Each understands oneself as "a complex interweaving or clustering of sexual as well as other characteristics into an integral identity as a man or as a woman."38 Here each respects the other, fulfills oneself through intimate relationship with the other and the two jointly make vital decisions regarding the expressions of their relationship and the fulfilling of their common vocation to parenthood.

In natural family planning several sexual factors have to be taken into consideration:

1) Sexual union is one of the most important expressions of marital love and, therefore, is not to be avoided unless there is a sufficiently grave reason.

2) As sexuality is not a need as food is, abstinence as such does not affect the physical or mental equilibrium of a person. Even when there is physical desire, it can be brought under control. This is best done, not by sheer will power, but by deepening mutual love.

3) It is true that women tend to have a greater sexual urge during the time of the greatest fertility. However, this is not true in all women, unlike in animals. Moreover, even a strong urge does not mean that one has to yield to it. The normal human person has always the capacity, under the right conditions, to control the urge without any damage to the personality. However, achieving of such control may take its own time. Hence a certain gradualism may be needed in achieving control during the fertile period. In this connection, Pope John Paul 11 admits "the law of gradualism or of step by step advance", which', however, he says, "cannot be identified with 'gradualism of the law' as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations." 39

4) Recent research has shown that there is a certain conditioning in the brain, apart from actual influence of the hormones, towards certain modes of sexual behavior. "It (brain science) is telling us that all these things ‑ inability, education, failings, unhappiness and sexual problems ‑ are etched into the structure and chemistry of the male and female brain."40 This may explain, at least to some extent, the sexual behavior of a person. But it does not mean that he or she is necessarily determined to that kind of activity by the formation of the brain.

Still, it must be recognized that sexual incompatibility partly depends on the way the brain has been plastically shaped. "It is the seat of your personality, your aspirations and your drives. In it lies the answer to the question: how is my personality deployed, stored, regulated and expressed." 41 While the spouses could learn to adjust to the sexual reflexes of each other by cultivating the right attitudes, and when necessary through the help of competent guides, more care will have to be taken in the choice of partner to ensure basic compatibility needed for marital harmony.

Those who propose mere technical solutions to the family planning problem like the use of the 'pill' should be aware of the profound effects such procedures can have. "The hormones given in different forms of birth control pill have been found to have side effects that affect not only the health of the body (phlebitis and heart disease) but the moods and sex drive of the brain‑irritability, depression and the loss of libido. There have been no long‑term follow‑up studies on the effect of the years of technical pseudo­pregnancy that the pill induces. And all too often its effects have been treated as if they were the result of a psychological rather than an organic disorder, brought on by the pill's hormones themselves."42

The pill is supposed to allow the woman to satisfy her sexual urge during her fertile phase, but in fact it results in suppressing or lowering the urge! On a wider perspective: "The irony, then, is that what is seen as freeing is actually imprisoning. Women now feel a terrible guilt if they get pregnant‑ as if it is their fault, as if the man has nothing to do with it. And often they have abortion, with psychological consequences that we know little about. At the same time, because of female contraception and the freer exercise of sexual choice it allows a woman, a man does have less confidence in his paternity if a pregnancy occurs. It is a vicious circle. Responsibility and guilt in women. A forced irresponsibility in women, and bravado and cruelty in men. It is no wonder that women feel angry and bitter about contraception even though they may not know why." 43

According to M.R. Joyce, "The most dramatic sexual act is devaluated by those who think that it is a necessity for the emotional stability and growth of their marriage."44 She explains that true sexual freedom is not genital license, but ability to regulate one's sexuality. It is freedom toward more than freedom from. It is ability to respond appropriately to a given situation. Hence the abstinence required in natural family planning should enhance the freedom and inter‑personal relationship of the spouses.

On the other side, many have remarked that abstinence according to the biological rhythms of the woman diminishes the spontaneity of conjugal intimacy. R. Ruether, for instance, remarks: "The couple should not feel forced to love for reasons external to their personal well being. Above all it should be an act arising from the total concern of the couple, without calculation, so that, for example, a conversation in the evening which brings with it a deepened sense of person to person understanding might lead on to the expression of their relationship in physical union."45

She goes on to say that periodic abstinence "forces a mechanization of the affections of the couple who must artificially I schedule' their mutual affection at the time of the infertile period, and this takes from the couple their freedom to choose to love as an expression of their mutuality, and make them subservient to an impersonal biological cycle which has no genuine relationship to their human experience of mutual love." 46

The fact of the sexual desire being greater in women, at least in many, during the fertile period also leaves room for diverging evaluation. Some would dismiss the difficulty by saying that the woman must learn to control her libido. Others would give greater weight to this factor.

The impact of periodic abstinence on the personal and mutual life of the couple would seem to need much more empirical investigation.


The Church's official position in her most authoritative statements steers clear of 1) the Malthusian crisis view in which most of the economic and social ills of the time are attributed to population pressure;47 and 2) the improvident view of some conservative thinkers like A. Zimmerman 48 that is unilaterally natalist and tries to deny that there is any real population problem.

Vatican 11 recognizes the reality of the population problem while referring "to those who, in addition to many other problems, are today often enough burdened in a special way with the difficulties stemming from a rapid population growth." 49 However, the main solution proposed is international and national effort towards increased production of the necessities of life and their better distribution.

The Catholic viewpoint gives greater importance to the welfare of the family. It is primarily the mission of the spouses to transmit life with human and Christian responsibility, being aware they are cooperators with the love of God the Creator. Vatican 11 asks that in making conscientious decisions, "They will thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which may be foreseen. In this accounting they will reckon both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state of life. Finally, they will consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself." 50

Even though apocalyptic scenarios ought to be avoided, the reality of the demographic pressure ought to be evident. The present Pope too has stated: "One cannot deny the existence, especially in the South, of a demographic problem which creates difficulties for development."51

J. Porritt presents the figures in a telling way: "5.3 billion in 1990; 6 billion in 2000 and 8.5 billion by 2025. This is an increase of 3.2 billion in 35 years, 3 billion of whom will be born in developing countries. On an average, every minute of every day, 274 people are born and 97 people die. 177 extra people every minute means 93 million extra people every year."52

Demographic increase involves more than increased requirement of food, which has often been calculated merely in terms of calories or cereals, and not including vital elements like protein. Rapid increase of population means heavy pressure in different sectors like housing, sanitation, education, medical facilities, transport and employment. Social scientists would add the problem arising from overcrowding in cities in inhuman conditions, thus leading to law and order problems.

What is becoming increasingly evident is the ecological disturbance from overpopulation. Especially in poorer countries, the forest cover is being fast depleted and the fertility of the soil is being reduced by inconsiderate attempts at “green revolution”.  There is also a disturbance of the rainfall patterns and soil erosion leading to silting of rivers and floods. In richer countries the average consumption of energy and other resources is very high while poorer countries do not have the means of controlling pollution. Dangerous wastes are dumped in the sea or on the coastline of poor countries. In recent years there has been a phenomenal advance in the depletion of the protective ozone layer and such other ecological disturbances. ‘A large number of species of flora and fauna are destroyed or threatened.

The deleterious effects of pollution and disturbance of the eco­systems are specially felt by urban slum dwellers and the rural poor, particularly the tribals. Increase in every form of energy production has its own disadvantages. Of late, even the innocent looking big dams are known to cause great harm to the eco‑system, especially for the people living around.

Part of the problem arises from some richer countries blocking and adopting exploitative measures for their own advantage at the expense of poorer countries. Thereby, the demographic pressure becomes more serious in the latter.

Women often become the main victims of this situation. Females are the first to suffer from shortage of food and other basic facilities. Pregnant women and their babies are affected by industrial pollution when safety measures are lacking. "Throughout the Third World women are food producers, household managers and parents. Yet such women are often undernourished, overworked, burdened with constant pregnancies, and culturally oppressed."53

Hence we see that the demographic and ecological problems are closely linked. Instead of an unchristian fatalism or improvidence, their seriousness must be recognized. The current ecological crisis brings out the obligations of individuals and societies towards maintaining the ecological balance to make the earth a proper habitat for the present and future generations.

While the population problem is real, any solution adopted should not aggravate it in human terms. Vatican 11 grants that "Within the limits of their competence, government officials have rights and duties with regards to the population problem of their nation, for instance, in the matter of social legislation as it affects families, of migration to cities, of information relative to the conditions and needs of the people." 54 However, the Council "exhorts all to beware against solutions contradicting the moral law, solutions which have been promoted publicly or privately, and sometimes even imposed."55 The Council insists that the decision as to how many children should be born belongs to the honest judgment of parents and can in no way be committed to the decision of government.

In fact, an effective human solution can be found only on the level of the family. As G.S. Pathak, the former Vice President of India remarked: "We must find human solutions to the population problems which are essentially the problems of ordinary men and women who have their own private histories and responsible identity as members of a family group and are situated in a particular cultural environment. While planning the solution of the population problem it is necessary to remember that we are not dealing with things but with men and women and must never forget this crucial fact even though we may be tempted to do so when population data are presented as impersonal statisfics."56

Pope John Paul 11 has strongly condemned imposition of demographic solutions: "It is very alarming to see governments in many countries launching systematic campaigns against birth, contrary not only to the cultural and religious identity of the countries themselves but also contrary to the nature of development. It often happens that these campaigns are the result of pressure and financing coming from abroad, and in some cases they are made a condition for the granting of financial and economic aid and assistance. In many event, there is an absolute lack of respect for the freedom of choice of the parties involved, men and women often subjected to‑ intolerable pressures, including economic ones, in order to force them to submit to this new form of oppression. It is the poorest populations, which suffer such mistreatment, and this sometimes leads to a tendency towards a form of racism, or the promotion of certain equally racist forms of eugenics.57

Referring to recent hormonal techniques, the Pope remarks that they are "poisoning the lives of multitude of defenseless human beings, as if in a form of 'chemical warfare'." 58


Modern sociology has uncovered the human basis for moral codes and values of different cultures and religious groups. As E.K. Nottingham puts it, "The sharing of belief and ritual implies that the relationship of the group members to the sacred is in some way intimately connected with the group's moral values. "59

Religious founders have always, in different forms, referred their moral teaching to the will of the divine powers so that a sacred sanction is attached to their injunctions. Religious leaders adopt a similar approach.

In the Catholic Church, the Magisterium claims to speak on divine authority. Pope Paul claimed that the right to speak on divine authority extends even to matters of the natural law "which is also an expression of the will of God, the faithful fulfillment of which is equally necessary for salvation." 60 The Pope affirms that obedience to the teaching authority of the Church" obliges not only because of the reasons adduced, but rather because of the light of the Holy Spirit, which is also in a particular way to the Pastors of the Church in order that they may illustrate the truth."61

From the experience of change of doctrine on such important matters as religious freedom and slavery, one wonders whether a particular moral teaching should not be examined in the light of the reasons adduced as well as the historic and social conditions in which it was proclaimed. In spite of the divine origin of the Church, her human aspect makes her open to the influences of history and culture in the development, not only of her laws, but also teachings concerning morality or the natural law.

Another point arising from sociological studies is the moral value to be attached to surveysconcerning certain behavior patterns among believers, for instance regarding the use of contraception, divorce and so on. Pope Paul warns against a certain type of "scientific reductionism". ‑ From an analysis of the mode of behavior of a group one could not drop normative conclusions. "One must be no less attentive to the actions which the human sciences can instigate, giving rise to the elaboration of models of society to be subsequently imposed on men as scientifically tested modes of behavior. Man can thus become the object of manipulation directing his desires and needs and modify his behavior and even his system of values."62

If it is shown, for instance, that among practicing Catholics over 807o freely use contraceptives, would it follow that it is an acceptable practice? Mere counting of heads is no moral argument. But facts such as this would have to be seriously considered. There is also the question of sensus fidelium which is recognized as a doctrinal source. However, facts like the active support of the overwhelming majority of White Christians in South Africa till a few years back for the obnoxious practice of apartheid should make one careful in drawing conclusions. Other instances would be the horrors of imperialism and colonialism, which were perpetrated often in the name of religion. "Practice" of religion does not necessarily guarantee the rectitude of the believer's conduct.

The third area in which sociology is relevant to moral thinking is in drawing attention to the social dimension of ethical behavior. Sociology is uncovering the social roots of many evils like alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution and violence. Unless these social roots are eradicated, efforts at rehabilitating individuals will have limited success.

It is now becoming clear that massive poverty and misery cannot be tackled merely on an individual basis. There is need for a radical change in social, economic and political structures. The prevailing unjust and sinful structures must be replaced by more just and humane ones. For this some sort of scientific social analysis is indispensable.

Pope Paul VI recognized that human sciences could assist Christian social morality in making critical judgments on the behavior and values of a particular society. 63

Social sciences could help in placing the problem of family planning in the right perspective so that an overall solution could be arrived at. Responsible parenthood and the adoption of natural family planning require the creating of a mentality of generosity, self‑control and mutual understanding.

Various psychological systems have uncovered the factors that help or hinder moral growth. Provided deterministic theories are not used to manipulate behavior, psychology can be of great help in facilitating human growth and moral life. 64

On the other hand, we now have a better understanding of how people are influenced by conscious and unconscious motivation, especially at the mass level65. Dedication to fruitfulness of marriage is greatly influenced by the mentality prevailing in a group. The anti‑natalist trend in some modern societies makes it difficult for couples to devote themselves with a generous heart to the bearing and rearing of a reasonable number of children just as in the past a numerous progeny was considered a blessing even if the children were neglected.

The ability to observe continence during the fertile period depends on the power of self‑control, and much more on the quality of relationship between the spouses. Hence psychology can do a lot to promote freedom of the partners from psychosexual determinisms and enable them to fulfill each other's effective needs when intercourse is not indicated.

The distinction between abstract and evaluative knowledge is useful in judging the guilt of people who go in for unacceptable methods of family planning and even abortion. The diminution of freedom through mass suggestion must be* considered.

Social pressures can induce people to acquire relatively useless products ‑and then feel that they cannot accept another child. The anxiety about avoiding another pregnancy may impel them to use contraceptive techniques. A technological mentality may lead them to judge a priori that artificial methods are better and more secure than natural family planning. Mass propaganda conducted by interested parties like large pharmaceutical companies may confirm the belief. As a consequence, particular couples may have little psychic freedom to adopt natural family planning with its demands of generosity and self‑control.



  1. See the title of B. Häring's main work, Free and Faithful in Christ( Slough: St. Paul Publications, 1978).
  2. For example Moralia in Job of  St. Gregory the Great, (+604).
  3. A. Dulles, "The Revolutionary Spirit of Thomas Aquinas” Origins (Feb. 1975), p. 543.
  4. For an overall treatment of the question, see my paper, "Moral Absolutes: Towards a Solution" in Moral and Pastoral Questions (Anand: Gujerat Sahitya Prakesh, 1985), pp. 36‑52.
  5. Optatam Totius, n 16.
  6. Gaudium ef Spes, n 16.
  7. Gaudium et Spes, n. 6.
  8. Cf. Gaudium et Spes, n. 30.
  9. Gaudium et Spes, n. 43.
  10. What Are They Saying about Scripture and Ethics? (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), p. 4.
  11. Natural Law: A Theological Investigation (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965), see also Human Values and Christian Morality (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1970), pp. 76‑91; 112‑147
  12. W. O. Spohn, op. cit, p. 13.
  13. Dei Verbum, N. 24; Optatam Totius N. 16.
  14. See E. Hamel, “L’Ecriture,âme de la théologie morale?" Gregorianum, 54 (1973), 417‑445.
  15. Gaudium et Spes, n 50.
  16. H. J. John, The Thomist Spectrum (New York: Fordharn University Press, 1966).
  17. See J. J. McCartney, Unborn Persons: Pope John Paul II and the Abortion Debate (New York: Peter Lang, 1987), pp. 18‑36.
  18. J. J. McCartney, op.cit., p. 16. for the exposition of his own thought, see K.Wojytla, The Acting Person (Dordoret: D.Reidel Publishing Co., 1979).
  19. Cf. my work, Christian Living according to Vatican II (Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 1982), pp. 231‑239.
  20. Cf. my attempt to resolve the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between "deontologists" and "teleologists" or "proportionalists", op. cit., pp. 245‑265.
  21. Human Values and Christian Christian Morality (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1970),. pp. 153‑154.
  22. Gaudium et Spes, n. 12.
  23. Gaudium et Spes, n. 4.
  24. The Mysteries of Christianity (St.Louis: Herder, 1946(1887), p. 610.
  25. Cf Gaudium et Spes, n. 14.
  26. Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechism on the Book of Genesis (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1981), p. 109.
  27. Gaudium et Spes, n. 49.
  28. Gaudium et Spes, n. 51.
  29. “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Ong‑ins and on the Dignity of Procreation,” 1987.
  30. For instance, C. E. Curran speaks of the "physicalism" of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, "Moral Theology in the Light of Reactions to Humanae Vitae", in Transition and Tradition in Moral Theology,University of Notre Dame Press, 1979, pp30ff.
  31. Apostoloc Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, 1981, N32.
  32. The Encyclical "Humanae Vitae": A Sign of Cntradiction ( Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1969),pp35‑39.
  33. Human Existence, Medicine and Ethics (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1977), p. 82.
  34. "The Unity of Sex, Love and Procreation", in Gift of Life: Catholic Scholars Respond to the Vatican Instruction, ed. by E. D. Pellegrino (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990), p. 143.
  35. Cf. my paper "Family Planning and Human Values" in Moral and Pastoral Questions, pp. 194‑207.
  36. "Integral Sex Complementarity and the Theology of Communion", Communio, 17 (1990), 523‑544.
  37. Love and Responsibility (New York: Ferrer, Straus and Giroux, 1981), p. 275.
  38. P. Allen, art. cit., p. 536.
  39. Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, 1981, N. 34.
  40. Cf J. Durden‑Smith and D. de Simone, Sex and the Brain (London: Pan Books, 1983), p. 30.
  41. Op. cit., p. 38.
  42. Op. cit., pp. 32‑33.
  43. Op. cit., p. 214.
  44. Love, Responsible to Life: The Challenge of "Humanae Vitae" (Kenosha, Wis.: Prow, 1971), p. 15.
  45. “Birth Control and Sexuality", in Contraception and Holiness (New York: Herder and Herder, 1964), p. 68.
  46. Op. cit., p. 72.
  47. Cf R. M. Green, Population Growth and justice ( MissoulaMont: Scholars Press. 1976), pp. 16‑27.
  48. Note the tendentious title of his main work Catholic Viewpoint on Overpopulation (Garden City, N.Y. Hanover Press, 1961). The one‑sided presentation of the Catholic position by such writers has done much to confuse the issue. For a more balanced presentation of the Catholic view, see A. McCormack,The Population Problem (New York: Crowell, 1970).
  49. Gaudium et Spes, n 87.
  50. Gaudium et Spes, n. 50. Cf. Encyclical Humanae Vitae on the Regulation of Births, 1968, n. 10.
  51. Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis on Social Concern, 1987, p. 25.
  52. "People Pressure", Tablet (27 April 1991), p. 502.
  53. Art. cit., p. 503.
  54. Gaudium et Spes, n. 87.
  55. Ibid.
  56. Report of the International Conference on Population Growth and Human Development, ed. by A.A.D'Souza and A. De Souza (New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, 1974), pp. 12‑13.
  57. Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n. 26.
  58. Encyclical Centesimus Annus, 1991, n. 39.
  59. Religion: A Sociological View, (New York: Random House, 1971), p. 20.
  60. Encyclical Humanae Vitae, n. 4.
  61. Encyclical Humanae Vitae, a 28.
  62. Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens, A71, n. 39.
  63. Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens, n. 40.
  64. Cf. B. Haring, Free and Faithfid in Christ, Vol. 1, pp. 168‑181.
  65. See J.C. Ford, and G. Kelly, Contemporary Moral Theology, (Westminster, Md.: Newman, 1958), Vol. 1, Ch 10 and 11.
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