Birth Control and Confession

I am a nominal Catholic considering whether to make a real commitment to the faith. For the past several weeks I've been surfing the Net for information and inspiration. I've enjoyed reading your comments and homilies -- though I don't always agree with you, I've found your positions thoughtful and well- reasoned. I have some thoughts on the birth control issue that I'd like to run by you. (I haven't seen similar comments by others and apologize if I've missed them.)

I have been married for 14 years and have three young children, the youngest of whom just turned 1. Although we love our children dearly, I truly feel that three children is all we (OK, I) can handle. I know that we are blessed in many ways -- I had three easy pregnancies and deliveries, all our children are healthy, and we are reasonably comfortable financially. We could afford another child or two and there are no medical reasons why we couldn't have more children. I left my legal career after the birth of our second child, so there is no career or day care issue influencing my decision. As our youngest child has grown from a constantly nursing infant to a constantly moving toddler, I know in my heart that I have reached my limit. I am well aware that other mothers manage -- gracefully! -- with much larger families, and I admire them greatly. I also know many mothers of one or two who are amazed that I can handle three. The point is, everyone is different and has different talents and limitations. Not everyone is cut out for parenting a large family.

I have done only limited research into NFP methods. On other Catholic web sites, I have read postings by "experts" strongly suggesting that a married couple in our situation (i.e., no serious medical or financial obstacles to pregnancy) could not properly use NFP to permanently avoid further children. (Is this your view?) But since NFP is not 100% effective, it would not be a solution for us. Are we out of luck as far as the Church is concerned? (I'd like to write more, but my baby is screaming now and I've got to go!)

Thanks for your time.



Dear E.

Thank you for your e-mail and your kind words. Let me mention the case of a couple I counseled with a similar situation. They had only two children, but also decided that's enough. The Church has no teaching on the right number for a family, altho Dr. Janet Smith has a wonderful essay arguing that at least three is required to achieve "critical mass." And she says that she has heard many mother remark that after four, it does not make all that much difference if there is one more and then one more, etc. (The essay is printed in Why Humanae Vitae was Right and is well worth the price of the book.)

I don't have the persuasive powers of Dr. Smith, so as you can imagine, I did not get very far trying to convince this couple to open themselves to a third child. They did have a question about specific birth control. She was convinced that life begins at conception and did not want to use a method which could destroy a fertilized ovum. Her doctor had recommended Norplant, saying even tho it has some potential side effects especially in early months, once you have it placed you don't have to think about it for five years. And she (the doctor) told her it worked by preventing conception, not implantation. I told her I was not sure that was completely true, but if I got some other information, would she take it to her doctor? The Web, as you noted, has tons of stuff on the topic of birth control. One of the articles I found began this way:

Progestin-only Contraceptives:

Progestin-only contraceptives may be administered by mouth, injection, implants, intrauterine devices and vaginal rings. This discussion will focus on Norplant implant, followed by Depo-Provera injection and the mini- pill.

What is the mechanism of action of progestin-only contraceptives?

Pregnancy is prevented by inhibiting ovulation;
thickening and decreasing the amount of cervical mucus (making it more difficult for sperm to penetrate);
creating a thin uterine lining; and
premature destruction of the follicle that releases a ripened egg and becomes a corpus luteum.

(from "Contraceptive Technology" Sixteenth Revised Edition, by Robert Hatcher M.D.)

The third mechanism (creating a thin uterine lining) of course would be abortifacient. I noticed that the Planned Parenthood website was quite upfront about that effect. In addition they also mention that the IUD "prevents a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus." For sure Planned Parenthood would not agree this is an "early abortion." In describing the "Morning After Pill" they call it "Emergency Contraception" and say it "prevents an egg that may have been fertilized through unprotected intercourse from implanting in the uterus and causing a pregnancy." All this points to the fact we have blurred the line between contraception and abortion--and supports the view (propounded by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae) that use of contraception would lead to acceptance of abortion.

This might not have too much to do directly with your question. You and your husband may be considering sterilization which is a whole other issue. But one of the interesting things I noticed in doing the above research is that no method (even vasectomy or tubal ligation) is 100% effective. (Even with Norplant which does not have the "user effectiveness" problem of the Pill or NFP, still one in a hundred women would be pregnant within the first year of use.) No doubt you already knew that and your concern about the effectiveness of NFP was a relative one.

My question back would be: How much control do you want to have? In the little things in life (like buying a house or choosing a career) it's OK to want a fair amount of control, but in the really big things (like getting married or becoming a priest or having a child) a certain abandonment is best. The mystery is so much greater. Not that we don't use our reason, but finally it is a matter of surrender.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. You seem like such an honest person I believe you will make a good decision. May I recommend the Sacrament of Reconciliation? There are so many other considerations (your age, your husband's position, etc.) that it is best to lay it before a priest you have confidence in.

Let me know if there is a further way I can help. Meanwhile you have my prayers.

God bless,

Fr. Phil Bloom

P.S. If you do have a fourth child and I am in some way responsible, Phillip is not a bad name. :-)


Thank you very much for your time. I never expected a reply so soon -- you must work around the clock. (Just like me!) I will think about what you said, especially about control and surrender, two particularly difficult areas for me. I'm afraid that I have not located a priest I can confide in, otherwise I wouldn't have bothered you with this. I like your idea about Reconciliation. My son just recently made his first confession and, surprisingly, never asked us whether we go to confession too. I haven't for years, felt that I was setting a bad example, and took the plunge a few weeks ago. I picked the wrong priest. Since I was having obvious difficulties accounting for my activities over the past several years, he "helped" me by asking specific questions regarding contraception and various sexual matters. I panicked and lied, I'm very ashamed to say. (I was also genuinely unaware that the Church considered certain sexual activities to be mortal sins, but that's another story.)

So should I find another priest and start over? Or should I not try confession until I can honestly say that I believe these activities to be sinful? I'm all mixed up. I'd be eternally grateful for any insights. (For what it's worth, our third child was conceived while I was taking the Pill (and sinning I guess), so I'm very familiar with surrender).

Thanks so much!



Dear E,

Sorry I am so late in responding. I seem to work in spurts, but I wanted to get back to you in case you are planning on another confession before Holy Week (maybe you already have gone). I'm sure it is no news that priests are across the board on their approachs to this moral issue. But the point is not to search out one who will agree with you, but really to determine what point of conversion you are. I am saying this badly but there was a Vatican document to confessors which urged them to keep this acheivable ideal before our married couples and at the same time have compassion for specific circumstances people find themselves in. Pope Paul VI alluded to that is in words to priests at the end of Humanae Vitae. This does not mean a kind of abdication by saying it all just a matter of conscience to the neglect of the whole question of proper conscience formation. When I read thru Part Three of the Catechism (on the Ten Commandments) I came away with an awareness of how far I am from living the whole the law of Christ. Not because it is a burden, but because it so beautiful and all-encompassing. I'm constantly amazed when people come to confession that they are struggling with such complex and often painful decisions in the lives. So far (26 years) I have never refused absolution to anyone. I figure that walking thru the confessional door itself takes a lot of courage and humility. Sometimes I have asked people to do further reflecting or reading. Or even to take certain information to their doctor so he or she can help them make the most informed decision. They can be across the board too as I am sure you know.

Would it be OK if I put this on my website? (Not using your name or even initial if you prefer.) People have heard about a lot of "rhythm babies." We don't always hear about the ones born holding a pill in their little fists. :o)

Let me know how all this goes.

God bless,

Fr. Phil Bloom


Fr. Bloom --

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. Yes, you can post this (no names please) as it may help someone else. As you mentioned, it takes courage and humility to walk through the confessional door and I seem to be lacking the former right now, especially after my last experience. But my son wants to go to confession again before his First Communion, notwithstanding the deplorable example his parents are setting in that department, so perhaps I will find myself there before too long!

Many thanks.