The Gift of Law and the Law of Gift

God the Father by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), (Bolognese) 1591-1666.

“I can’t understand why your Church makes you live that way,” a friend of mine once said to me, “it’s just not natural!” I fear that many, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, have a similar misunderstanding about nature, law, and the foundations of religious morality. Recent political events and social trends warrant a review of the Church’s philosophical tradition, and what it can tell us about contemporary moral issues.

According to Natural Law Theory, all of creation exists for a specific purpose, with specific characteristics and obligations which are ordered towards its natural end. When things act in accordance with their purpose, they achieve positive results; while disordered actions result in negative consequences. Christian natural law philosophy takes into account immediate, temporal results, as well as long term, eternal consequences. While some actions may seem to create success in the short term, it is quite possible that they will result in negative consequences in the long term. On the other hand, some actions which seem to produce undesirable results may ultimately reveal themselves to be the source of great benefit.

One serious philosophical mistake made in our society stems from the confusion of “natural law” with the “law of nature.” The law of nature may be thought of as simply a summary of tendencies as we experience them, while natural law has much more serious implications, and requires human reasoning. Much of our society believes that since sexual desires are experientially natural, we ought to have the right and ability to act on those desires whenever we please. Our culture fails to understand the natural law principle that things are natural only when they act in accordance with their intended purpose. A purely humanistic ethicist might say that engaging in sexual relationships with extra-marital partners is “natural,” while a Christian moralist would recognize that this lifestyle is decidedly “unnatural.”

We must develop a valid understanding of the human person, and what is ultimately good for him or her in order to make decisions in pursuit of that good. In Christian belief, the ultimate end of man is the beatific vision. The mystery of the Trinity tells us that God is, in his very essence, relational. Although reflection on the Trinity may seem to be primarily theological speculation, this doctrine sheds light on the intended end of human existence. In striving to become like God and, through his grace, to be united to him, humans must strive to mirror him in his relationality. Specifically, we need to be receptive to his self-gift to us, and respond with our own participatory action. Using the life and work of Jesus as our model, we believe that we are called to lay down our lives by making a gift of ourselves to God through our human vocations, and our membership in the mystical Body of Christ; the Church.

Natural law ethics dictates we ought to do nothing which would impede our ability to communicate with God, as our primary end, or within our earthly relationships, as they are our means of realizing our call to self-giving in imitation of Christ. Selfish individuality disqualifies us from fruitful activity in accordance with our particular vocational states. Each vocation requires a complete gift of self, and it is through this personal donation that the Christian truly flourishes; becoming more and more the person God wants them to be throughout their earthly journey until ultimately seeing God face to face in the beatific vision.

The issue of artificial contraception strikes at the heart of the married vocation as it threatens to remove the essential total gift of self from the nuptial union. Married persons are called to give themselves freely, totally, faithfully, and fruitfully to God; using the Trinitarian love of God as their model. In his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI stated that the marital act, when properly shared by spouses, “capacitates them for the generation of new lives, according to the laws inscribed in the very being of man and of woman. By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination towards man’s most high calling to parenthood.”1 Commenting on this text in his general audience of August 22, 1984, John Paul II noted:

In the conjugal act, it is not licit to separate artificially the unitive meaning from the procreative meaning, because the one, as well as the other, belong to the innermost truth of the conjugal act. The one is realized together with the other and, in a certain way, the one through the other. Thus, in such a case, when the conjugal act is deprived of its inner truth because it is deprived artificially of its procreative capacity, it also ceases to be an act of love.2

When a couple engages in artificially contracepted acts, they are withholding an essential part of themselves which renders their self-gift incomplete. This impoverished gift breaks the necessary bond between the unitive and procreative components, seeking to isolate the former from the latter. This divorce foundationally weakens the marriage bond by taking away one of its structural pillars and, in fact, makes it unnatural. According to Paul VI, “to use this gift destroying, even if only partially, its meaning and its purpose is to contradict the nature both of man and of woman and of their most intimate relationship and, therefore, it is to contradict also the plan of God and his will.”3

There are some who claim artificial contraception has the ability to promote human flourishing and, thus, should be considered as compatible with natural law. Advocates of this line of thought most often come from the school of utilitarian ethics, which seeks to maximize the good without any consideration of moral responsibilities, or compatibility with natural law. This brand of consequentialist ethics identifies as “goods” such factors as the peace of mind of contracepting couples which results from their confidence that they will not achieve an unintended pregnancy, having greater resources available for children already in the home which will not have to be divided with an additional child, and the lessened burden on society or the state.

While each of these results could bring some good, this line of reasoning neglects not only the moral implications involved in advocating the means which would produce these ends, but also fails to account for the greater goods which would be forfeited: the joy of a couple in parenthood, the joy of a child who is given the chance to live, the benefit which comes to each member of a family through their relationship to one another, and the positive contribution each person can have to society.

Some claim that artificial contraception is not a violation of natural law due to the possibility of the presence of good intentions. James DuBois argues that natural law philosophy cannot make conclusions about moral absolutes due to its situational characteristics. He calls into question the principle of “double effect,” and claims that circumstances and intentions of an action can actually change the nature of an act; thus allowing one to justify some actions that would have otherwise been disqualified using the traditional model. According to DuBois, this principle “denies the view that natural reason can know, either through intuition or an analysis of basic good, that contraception is always and everywhere wrong.”4

While DuBois rightly points out some problems with taking a purely natural law approach, we cannot say that the inherent goodness or evil of an act is dependent upon intention, especially when we are considering questions of doctrine as opposed to evaluating individual cases of culpability. According to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudiam et Spes), “when there is question of harmonizing conjugal love with the responsible transmission of life, the moral aspects of any procedure does not depend solely on sincere intentions, or on an evaluation of motives, but must be determined by objective standards.”5 Paul VI echoed this assertion by stating “it is not licit, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil so that good may follow therefrom, that is, to make into the object of a positive act of the will something which is intrinsically disordered and, hence, unworthy of the human person, even when the intention is to safeguard or promote individual, family, or social well-being.”6

Charles Curran claims the teachings contained in Humane Vitae should not be considered morally binding for Catholics. He bases his argument simply on the recognition that some people do not like it. According to Curran, “most Catholic believers disagree with the hierarchy’s absolute condemnation of masturbation, contraception, sterilization, and divorce. Many Catholics also question Church teachings on homosexuality and premarital sex.”7 When Curran speaks of the opinions of “Catholics,” he fails to recognize the fact that there is a significant difference between a nominal and a practicing Catholic; the opinions of the former are irrelevant when coming to conclusions about the opinions and actions of members in communion with the Church. Additionally, a distinction must be made between disagreement in belief and non-compliance. While many people may fail to comply with Church teaching, it does not necessarily mean that they truly disagree on logical grounds. Many claim to disagree as an attempt to justify their own behavior by a frustration-based dissent which is not based on any valid reasoning.

That being said, does it really matter if some people do not agree with Church teaching? Individual laypeople do not determine doctrine. Curran wrongly states “the great discrepancy between Catholic teaching and Catholic practice has called into question the credibility of the hierarchical teaching office.”8 Individual actions of members of the Church never nullify or discredit Church teaching. After all, we are a Church of sinners.

Avery Cardinal Dulles presents a counterpoint to Curran’s relativistic stance. In his 1986 article, “Authority and Conscience,” Dulles admits that we do not have to follow authority in all instances, and that we can rightfully choose to reject it if we believe it is in error. However, he makes an important distinction between secular authority, and Church authority, by saying “unlike any secular organization, the Church has a deposit of faith that must be maintained intact and transmitted to new members. Thus, the Church cannot accommodate the same kind of ideological pluralism that is acceptable in the secular state or university.”9

Those who vehemently disagree with the teachings of Humanae Vitae forget that, ultimately, the answers to moral questions must be embraced through personal understanding and consent. The Church seeks to help guide its members towards lives of greater holiness which will lead to happiness, but the Church will never force people to agree with certain doctrines, or behave in certain ways. It never imposes; it always proposes. The Second Vatican Council stated “man’s dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated, and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse, nor by mere external pressure.”10 Cardinal Dulles explains this brand of encouragement by saying that the Church uses “only the sword of the spirit, which works through love and persuasion, and does not impose even spiritual penalties, except in the hope of bringing about repentance and reform.”11 While the Church desires that all its members adhere to its teachings, it limits itself to the role of shepherd and teacher, not that of a punisher, especially in matters of private morality.

Catholic teaching regarding artificial contraception must be seen as a clarion call to men and women who seek true Christian discipleship. This teaching is not burdensome, and is not wielded by the Church as an authoritative ultimatum. This teaching is given to us as a gift by the Church in order to bring us into fuller membership in Christ’s body; leading us out from our current state in order to realize our true nature. We fully realize our nature only in participation with Christ, and this communion can only come about by following his law which changes us from sons of men into sons of God.

  1. Pope Paul VI. 1968. Humanae Vitae. Boston: Pauline Books & Media, paragraph 12.
  2. Pope John Paul II. 2006. Man and Woman He Created Them—A Theology of the Body. Boston: Pauline Books & Media, page 633.
  3. Humanae Vitae, paragraph 13.
  4. DuBois, James M. 2008. “Is anesthesia intrinsically wrong? On moral absolutes and natural law methodology.” Christian Bioethics 14, no. 2: p.214.
  5. Gaudium et Spes: The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Accessed online at:, paragraph 51.
  6. Humanae Vitae, paragraph 14.
  7. Curran, Charles E. 1987. “Roman Catholic sexual ethics: a dissenting view.” The Christian Century (December 16, 1987): 1139-1142, paragraph 1.
  8. Ibid, paragraph 2.
  9. Dulles, Avery Cardinal. 1986. Authority & Conscience. Church (Fall 1986): 8-15.
  10. Gaudium et Spes, paragraph 17.
  11. Dulles, paragraph 10.
Dusty Gates About Dusty Gates

Dusty currently serves as the director of adult education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, and as an adjunct professor of theology at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas, where he resides with his wife and two children.


  1. Yes . Unitive IS procreative and procreative IS unitive.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Gates, for this article. Marriage and the family are pivotal, crucial, foundational – and now urgent – issues for our times. The Catholic Faith has it exactly right, and the secular world is continuing to dig a hole deeper and deeper into moral darkness, and toward cultural and social suicide. The truth deserves to be proclaimed and lived, because it is true! Your presentation in this article is well-done, and I hope that you can present it far and wide to many in the diocese in which you serve. The dark world needs light, and the Church was sent to be that light!