Questions Answered

  • Many politicians have claimed that though they are Catholic, they are in favor of a woman’s right to choose whatever is necessary for her reproductive health. Can you comment on this attitude?
  • Some couples have chosen to practice contraception by vasectomy … Some are devout Catholics … Is there a moral obligation to reverse this procedure?

 Question: Recently, many politicians have claimed that though they are Catholic, they are in favor of a woman’s right to choose whatever is necessary for her reproductive health. Can you comment on this attitude?

Answer: The statement you describe is simply an impossible one for any Catholic to make. It rests on a theory of rights which is incompatible with Catholic doctrine. This theory and practice of rights is necessary to understanding the distinction between private conscience and public duty invoked by many Catholic politicians today.

The argument goes, that though they are privately opposed to abortion and the like, they do not have a right to impose their Christian moral opinions on others because of the separation of church and state. Though they look on abortion as murder in their private judgment, their public judgment must obey the will and good of the majority and so approve of the fact that there is a right to an abortion. This argument is flawed for several reasons.

First, the question of the nature of abortion as murder is not just an issue of private judgment or Christian morality. The existence of the human soul, and the subsequent fact that the right to life is inviolable, is based on reasoning which is accessible even to philosophy. The proof of the existence of the spiritual soul is based on the action of intelligence. Man demonstrates a kind of knowledge which goes beyond the physical order. Even Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle understood that man can arrive at universal ideas through sensible experiences. Though Socrates and Plato had trouble with the necessity of sense knowledge to arrive at these ideas, Aristotle did not.  Arguments therefore concerning the spiritual nature of man do not depend merely on religion, though the Christian religion presupposes them and makes that nature more certain.

The natural law is based on the spiritual nature of man, and rights like the right to life, marriage, religion, property, and the truth are not entirely dependent on faith. Of course, according to the social contract theory espoused by people like Hobbes and Rousseau, and the substantial influence on American jurisprudence by people like Oliver Wendell Holmes, there is no natural law. These rights, or lack thereof, are due to the merely human authority of the state. Though the state has the obligation to implement these rights, the state does not create them. Their source is an objective human nature which the state merely recognizes and does not create.

If these rights were created by the state, then man would have no recourse against the power of the state. Might would make right. The affirmation of the objective and spiritual nature of man is the only defense human beings have against becoming ciphers of the state.

Politicians who refuse to recognize the primordial sanction of the natural law as the foundation for human law open their nations to the whim of private interest. The common good has no meaning other than the collective good of the majority, who can persecute the minority or deprive them of their rights. In fact, there are no duties, only rights.

Conscience is a chain of reasoning in which the natural law is implemented in concrete choices.  If this is true of the private conscience, then when it comes to public duty, this must include applying this to the state, if the natural law, and not force, is to be the sanction for the civil law as well. The common good must be both the end and the order necessary to obtain that order. Both must be good and so based in the truth of human nature expressed in the natural law.

It is a red herring to claim the separation of church and state as an excuse for failing to guide the public good by the private conscience. What other guide is there, if both must be based on the natural law? In the film, “A Man for All Seasons,” Thomas More tells Cardinal Wolsey: “When statesmen forsake their private conscience for the sake of their public duty, they lead their country on a short route to chaos.”


Question: Some couples have chosen to practice contraception by vasectomy. They think they have had enough children. Some are devout Catholics who are not even aware that what they are doing is contraceptive. Later, they may change their minds and decide they do want more children. Is there a moral obligation to reverse this procedure?

Answer: First, it is important to state that vasectomy is a mortal sin. It is elective contraception.  The person chooses to mutilate his body with the sole purpose of precluding birth. Many men are not aware that this is a sin, because the propaganda involved in the contraceptive community has been so effective. It is even worse than pills or artificial devices because it is irreversible.

Msgr. Smith pointed out in a column he wrote in HPR on this subject in May 1996, that the Holy See had not authoritatively spoken to the issue of reversing vasectomy, and to my knowledge, that is still the case. Sexual acts performed when the man has had a vasectomy cannot result in birth and so would be contraceptive. Some people have adopted the rigorist conclusion that a couple should therefore abstain and basically practice celibacy.

This is not generally held, even by orthodox moralists. For one thing, people perform the conjugal act in other circumstances where conception cannot result. This would be the case, for example, after menopause. The same would apply to married couples who have undergone this procedure, provided it is not easily reversible.

Though there are some very dedicated Catholic physicians working on trying to reverse vasectomies with procedures which would be generally successful and inexpensive, such is not the case at the moment. If it were ever to happen that the medical community were to develop a procedure which was highly successful and inexpensive, then the couple might be obliged to seek to reverse this procedure. Since this is not the case now, such a requirement would fall under “extraordinary means,” and thus, not be morally obligatory. Nor would people be committing a sin in performing their marriage duties in such circumstances.


Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

Please send your questions to:
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
375 NE Clackamas St.
Portland, OR 97232
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  1. Avatar k.c.thomas says:

    We understand the Church teachings on contraception and try to follow though very difficult. However we hear that some theologeans hold the opinion that each couple should act according to their situation. Some retired bishops say that contraception is not morally wrong.. How the faithful are confused. It is not good for some authorities express such personal opinions and ask us to follow their advice when the Church has its own rules



  2. When I had to grapple with Humanae vitae, the question I asked myself was,” Am I being asked to do something sinful?” The answer that I found I had to make was it wasn’t sinful, just difficult; that is no different from every other behaviour: it is not always easy to be charitable, not to lie, to be faithful to Sunday mass and daily prayers etc.; all these are difficult to some degree, so this was just another difficult cross I was asked to bear.
    Now, looking back, I wonder why I made such a fuss- it really wasn’t that difficult at all. God has told us that His grace is sufficient so, have faith and frequent the sacraments. Nothing worthwhile is achieved without a struggle, if I in a mixed marriage can succeed, then almost everybody can.

  3. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Three comments:
    1)Given all the discussion over the last 40 years of contraception and the Church’s teachings relative to the various means it is very hard to believe that anyone that is sentient believes that a vasectomy is OK to the Church. ‘Confusion’ is a wonderful hob-goblin for willfully misunderstanding — used to also be called ‘priest shopping’.
    2) In a “vasectomized” marriage you seem to say that the only mortal sin committed is the original vasectomy – what about all the instances of intercourse while in that condition?
    3) Also you really thru me with the last sentance in the last para. “Nor would people be committing a sin in performing their marriage duties in such circumstances.” Does that mean what it says in relation to someone that has had a vasectomy that is still irreversible?

  4. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    The understanding of natural law based on the philosophical principles of Greek philosophy are not universal. Our communities ion the United States are composed of people from many different cultures that are not based on the Western notion of natural law. There is a great need to find some other way to establish universal principles of life that integrates Asian, African and other cultural explanations of the universal. The Gospel of Jesus Christ which is not an ethical theory invites conversion. Starting from the initial conversion, the believer comes to an understanding of the sacredness of life. Indeed, this seems to be universal experience of Christians in all cultures.

    On the question of vesectomies, some among us have had surgical procedures for health reasons that prevent fertile intercourse. Certainly, this is not a condition of mortal sin. There certainly needs to be dialogue about sexual morality that includes the experience of married people. This is not to say there is not objective morality, but it does always require a deep sense of reverence for the human role in creation and the mercy Jesus always had in relation with those, like me, who are sinners.

  5. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Certainly anyone who has had a vasectomy for purposes other than contraception is excluded from my comments. Vasectomy for the purpose of limiting births is objectively wrong no matter how anyone tries to circumvent it.
    Isn’t “natural” by it’s very nature applicable to all humans? Doesn’t respect for life spring from our very nature as human beings not from a conversion to Christianity? Christian philosophy does neatly make the connection but wouldn’t seem to be the only way of arriving at recognition.

  6. Avatar Michael Baker says:

    Sadly politicians do not speak what they feel in their hearts they say what is politically correct at the time . Why do we place so much trust on political people ?