ASK FATHER: My unbaptized wife insists on contraception

From a reader…


I’m a youngish Catholic man who very much wants closeness with Christ through the Church in Her teachings and Sacraments. I’m also a Catholic man married to an unbaptized woman, who has been insistent on taking hormonal contraceptives.

I’m well aware of the difficult and dangerous situation I’ve put myself in (the Vademecum for confessors has us between a rock and a hard place- I am unable to receive the sacraments). I beg daily for my wife’s conversion and for the sanctification of our marriage. Do I have any hope of my prayers being heard? What more can I do?

Please pray for us, and thank you for for your constant truthfulness.

I will continue to pray for you.


In his encyclical Caritas in veritate, Pope Benedict XVI said that “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality.” Attempts at truth without charity also fall flat.

You state, “I am unable to receive the sacraments.” This is not entirely true – presuming, of course, that your marriage either took place in the Church or with the appropriate permission.

What you are unable to do is to receive the sacraments and engage in contraceptive sex with your wife. You have to make a choice. Granted, it is a very difficult choice.

Interfaith marriages are difficult. Marriage is difficult, but marriage between two people who don’t share a basic outlook on life (and faith is – or at least should be – an essential part of that) is exponentially more difficult, as you are finding out.

It is a shame that, in many places, the Church’s requirement that Catholics marry other Catholics is taken lightly. That requirement should be dispensed only in cases where it is clear that the Catholic party will be able to continue practicing his faith to the fullest (and that’s more than just being able to get to Mass on Sunday).

Even more tragic is the fact that, when an interfaith marriage is permitted, it seems rare that adequate marriage preparation is done. The couple is not given sufficient preparation for the difficulties that will surely arise once the bright sheen of limerence has begun to wear off.

Praying for your wife’s conversion is certainly key, and, until such time as she is willing to engage in intimacy that is open to the transmission of life, refraining from all sexual activity is the other essential element.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. maternalView says:

    I will offer prayers for this young man. Rarely do family or friends understand choices made to save one’s soul. Even the most “Catholic” people have told me “well…I can’t believe God would expect that” when suggesting abstinence from sex because of medical problems/drug side effects. So I can imagine abstaining because of birth control use by the wife would be beyond most folks’ comprehension.

  2. Diana says:

    Something I have encountered in recent discussions regarding unequally yoked marriages: don’t forget to FAST for your spouse. Fasting is very effective, and as Jesus Himself said of some demons: “this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”

    Praying for you both.

  3. David says:

    With all due respect to Fr. Ferguson, it is not clear to me how Fr. Ferguson’s statement:

    “What you are unable to do is to receive the sacraments and engage in contraceptive sex with your wife.”

    squares with the Vademecum for Confessors, 3.13:

    “Special difficulties are presented by cases of cooperation in the sin of a spouse who voluntarily renders the unitive act infecund. In the first place, it is necessary to distinguish cooperation in the proper sense, from violence or unjust imposition on the part of one of the spouses, which the other spouse in fact cannot resist. This cooperation can be licit when the three following conditions are jointly met:
    1. when the action of the cooperating spouse is not already illicit in itself;
    2. when proportionally grave reasons exist for cooperating in the sin of the other spouse;
    3. when one is seeking to help the other spouse to desist from such conduct (patiently, with prayer, charity and dialogue; although not necessarily in that moment, nor on every single occasion).

    Furthermore, it is necessary to carefully evaluate the question of cooperation in evil when recourse is made to means which can have an abortifacient effect.”

  4. haydn seeker says:

    This resonates with me, it’s my exact situation. Since my second child was conceived seven years ago our married life has been great in every way except one. I don’t know your wife, but if she is anything like mine I would settle in for a LONG haul on this one. I miss that conjugal part of our life, but I remain convinced that aiming for what the Lord intends for us is the only course that leads to real life. My two pieces of advice are:

    1. (Re)read Humanae Vitae, it really does describe the most beautiful life that we married faithful should all aim for.

  5. haydn seeker says:

    2. Pray for yourself. Resentment will creep up on you, and I did some stuff I regret when I indulged it. It’s an insidious emotion, be forewarned.

  6. jim123 says:

    Having carefully read the relevant Vademecum, I think it is very far from clear that it teaches that the questioner simply cannot engage in sexual relations. It says that an unwilling participant in contraceptive sex can engage in conjugal relations provided that there are “proportionally grave” reasons for doing so. The proportionally grave reason in the questioner’s case would seem to be the possiblity of the break-up of his marriage. (Even the case where hormonal contraception may cause the early death of an embryo does not necessarily rule out conjugal relations, because the death has not been brought about by anything that the unwilling spouse actually did to the embryo.) I really wish that this guest responder had been much clearer in this area.

  7. Deborah Y says:

    There are more reasons than just religious ones to avoid hormonal birth control. Perhaps your wife might be more open to listening to these? I’m currently reading The Unholy Trinity by political commentator Matt Walsh in which he covers some of these arguments in a fairly eye opening manner.

    Many prayers for you and your family!

  8. moon1234 says:

    Marrying another catholic really is important. The hard part is so many people today pick and choose what they are willing to follow regarding the Church’s teachings. When my wife and I were dating and then engaged with met every few weeks with a Priest friend of the family. He would guide on us many aspects of our state in life. When we were meeting during marriage prep he would outright ask us about “How do you plan to handle money when your married?”, “How many children do you think you will have?” “What if you have more or less than that number.”

    All of this was woven into also having discussions about life in general. Hobbies, cars, etc. Father also told us about his own life and history. What we both learned, much later, is that Father was helping us to learn about each other and in a comfortable way. We had a general idea on how we would handle money, that one of us would stay home with kids if possible, etc.

    What I learned MUCH later in life is that this experience was very unique. Many of our friends had little marriage prep and what they did have was in a group and did not force them to talk about all of these issues before marriage.

    I guess the takeaway is that Priest’s can have a profound impact on those souls in their care. Having a personal vs professional relationship can shape people in very positive ways. I just wish that our current politically charged environment would allow Priest’s to have the same type of positive impacts that we had. Speaking about WHY a person should marry another good catholic instead that they should.

    It might be good for the original questioner to speak with a Priest he trusts and ask for guidance. If he can get his wife to go as well, that would be great. If not, then the positive impact of good in person spiritual guidance can do more for the soul that reading multiple books.

  9. fr.ignatius says:

    I’m not so sure.

    I have always thought, for example, in the case of sterilisation that if the wife, let’s say, gets sterilised and the husband is opposed to it and tries to persuade her against it, if she still gets sterilised I understand that so long as he is clear that he has not willed the current situation and at times reminds her that he wants her to have this reversed it would still be morally licet to have sexual relations with her. Certainly, it would be a better witness and more perfect to completely abstain from then on, but I don’t think this is demanded from him.

    He neither wills the evil of her sterilisation nor had co-operated in any way in bringing it about. He opposes it and wants her to reverse it, and yet at the same time, he is a man, and is entitled to sexual relations with his wife as a remedy for concupiscence.

    Again, you get the couple who both regret the sterilisation and now wish to reverse it and are raising the money… they have repented of the act of sterilisation and have received absolution. I understand it is permitted for them to consumate their marriage….

    Are these situations different in some way from use of the pill? Or is this incorrect? Certainly this is widely taught.

  10. Baylor_convert says:

    My heart goes out to this reader. I’m a convert, and a Billings Natural Family Planning instructor, and I appreciate all NFP methods. If there’s any way I can help, email me at HTurnerNFP [at] gmail [dot] com. Contraception isn’t the only answer to postponing pregnancy!

  11. onemore says:

    On other websites I have seen reference to this document:

    Item 13 is presented as allowing the marital act in situations like the one described in this post. Would love to hear Fr Tim or Fr Z address how this document should be understood.

  12. TonyO says:

    I would like to ask a clarifying question here for Father Z (or you other priests who comment here, of course):

    I have heard it argued that in a situation like this: “Let us suppose the husband sincerely and strenously argues against his wife using the contraceptive, and indeed commands her to not use it, (since he is the one in authority – subject to Christ – within the family). The husband and wife each owe “the marriage debt” to each other, this is a fundamental obligation of marriage. Let us suppose the wife takes the contraceptive anyway, in disobedience to her husband. The husband is still “within his rights” to require the marriage debt to be paid, in conjugal relations, and the sin of “having contraceptive sex” is on her, but not on him because her action was against his will. ”

    I understand Fr. Z to be indicating above that this theory would be wrong. I also see parts of at least 2 reasons why it would be wrong, at least indistinctly. But I am not sure I have the reason in full and would appreciate clarification. The two facts that I would suggest that bear on this are (A) that the marriage debt is fundamental to marriage, but it is not an obligation that exists freely at every moment and under every circumstance. It would be wrong for a husband to seek payment of the debt at wrong times (such as when they are in public), or under wrong conditions / circumstances (such as if he is drunk, or if they have definitively grave reasons not to conceive a child and she is in the most fertile part of her cycle). And (B) properly speaking, conjugal relations pertain to sexual relations wherein the spouses have not made the act unable to be fertile. The “marriage debt” is not merely the obligation to have sex with your spouse, but also to be willing to give him or her children (if God should decide to bless the act with the conception of a child), and giving her husband sex without the possibility of children is NOT paying the marriage debt properly speaking.

    I don’t know whether these answer to the theory properly and fully. I would appreciate correction.

  13. BrionyB says:

    I had understood that as long as the Catholic partner was not using any contraceptive method themselves, and not facilitating or encouraging the other’s choice to do so, they weren’t obliged to abstain from marital intimacy? That’s the impression I got from Christopher West’s books, though maybe I have it wrong. And I suppose there’s an added complication if the method used also has the potential to cause early abortion.

    I agree about the difficulties of mixed marriages, but they will always happen, if only because some people convert (or revert) to Catholicism after marriage. Prayer and patience and Confession when necessary – and depending on the age of the couple, it may (or may not!) be a comforting thought that this particular problem does go away eventually in the natural course of ageing, in one way or another…

  14. thomas tucker says:

    Since she is the one contracepting, and he is open to life, why is he guilty of sin if they have relations?

  15. Bonaventurian says:

    This is pretty much my exact situation. I am a very recent convert to the Church and my wife is still an agnostic. I’ve had this discussion with her and she just loses it when I suggest she go off contraception. Although, my confessor told me that it is not my sin if she refuses to get off of it, not that that is any license to indulge my passions. I try to avoid relations, partly because I don’t have much of a sex drive thanks to a new medication. I’ve been praying fervently for help on this, but she will not budge. This is made even more difficult when I have two kids that I really want to raise Catholic, but she stands firm against that as well. (She was not happy to hear I took my 2 year old to Mass last Sunday).

  16. BrionyB says:

    I meant to mention also that in seemingly intractable situations like these, it can be a great help to pray a daily Rosary, meditating on Our Lady’s perfect obedience and trust in God’s will even through the darkest and most difficult times, and asking Her to help and guide us.

  17. Depending on the circumstances, including possible consequences of abstaining from sex (steadfastly refusing it if your wife doesn’t accept your decision to refrain from sex if she uses contraception), marital intercourse might be possible without guilt for the man in this case, as tolerating the contraception rather than willing it.

    Pope Pius XI writes in Casti Connubi: “59. Holy Church knows well that not infrequently one of the parties is sinned against rather than sinning, when for a grave cause he or she reluctantly allows the perversion of the right order. In such a case, there is no sin, provided that, mindful of the law of charity, he or she does not neglect to seek to dissuade and to deter the partner from sin.”

  18. David says:

    Tried posting yesterday with a link to the Vademecum, but still in moderation. Suspecting that the link may be the reason for moderation, and that our host is busy this weekend, I’ll try again without the link:

    With all due respect to Fr. Ferguson, it is not clear to me how his statement:

    “What you are unable to do is to receive the sacraments and engage in contraceptive sex with your wife.”

    squares with the Vademecum for Confessors, 3.13:

    “Special difficulties are presented by cases of cooperation in the sin of a spouse who voluntarily renders the unitive act infecund. In the first place, it is necessary to distinguish cooperation in the proper sense, from violence or unjust imposition on the part of one of the spouses, which the other spouse in fact cannot resist. This cooperation can be licit when the three following conditions are jointly met:
    1. when the action of the cooperating spouse is not already illicit in itself;
    2. when proportionally grave reasons exist for cooperating in the sin of the other spouse;
    3. when one is seeking to help the other spouse to desist from such conduct (patiently, with prayer, charity and dialogue; although not necessarily in that moment, nor on every single occasion).

    Furthermore, it is necessary to carefully evaluate the question of cooperation in evil when recourse is made to means which can have an abortifacient effect.”

  19. adriennep says:

    It is interesting that women are the most rabidly self-righteous, especially with contraception. One hears of plenty of mixed marriages where the non-Catholic spouse graciously accompanies the Catholic to Mass. And frankly, that often results in a conversion. These Catholic husbands are also having to work to get their wives to Heaven…on top of everything else. So I implore you to continue going to Mass alone in a blaze of happy sanctity. Say the rosary every day in the living room. Your devout ways will only shine the light right back at her. And let no Devil stop you from raising your children Catholic!

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  21. chantgirl says:

    Some concrete things which can be done in this situation:

    -Ask St. Joseph to intercede for your wife and your marriage. He has never failed me, especially when it came to family issues.

    -Perform small acts of kindness/affection toward your wife. She will likely see you withholding sex as a rejection of her, especially if you do not show her alternate means of affection. With couples who practice NFP, it is not unusual for a wife to notice that when sex is off the table, a husband will often neglect to engage in other forms of affection like kisses, hugs, cuddling. The man may refrain from those things because he doesn’t want to get himself aroused, or because he associates them with sex, or just because of carelessness. A wife in this situation will frequently feel that she has been cut off from affection, and is being given the cold shoulder. In short, many women and men have been formed to think that sex=love, so when sex is missing in a relationship, people feel that the love is also gone. If couples who are on the same page about the meaning of sex experience these difficulties, it is only more difficult for couples who are not on the same page.

    -Offer your sacrifice for your wife’s conversion, especially before the Blessed Sacrament. St. Paul calls husbands to offer themselves up for their wives, as Christ offered Himself up for His bride.

    – If you can find a priest who respects God’s commandments, ask him to give you ongoing direction.

    – If you can find a solid group of nuns, perhaps the Carmelites, enroll you wife in their prayers, and have Masses said for her.

    Prayers for you! Many will not understand your situation, not understanding why you won’t take the easy way out. Others will not understand how difficult your sacrifice is. I have seen those who are unmarried, even priests, downplay the difficulty of this type of sacrifice. Until someone is truly in love, and has to sleep next to the person they love, and abstain, it can be difficult for others to understand what you are going through. Abstinence can be an heroic act of virtue when the object of your affection sleeps right next to you.

    May the Holy Family protect you and your marriage, and may God bring healing to your family.

  22. tomd123 says:

    This situation I think is actually less clear cut that Fr. Ferguson describes. It is not the case that questioner has to refrain from sex. It is not intrinsically sinful to have sex with someone who is using hormonal contraceptives. If it were the case, then it would be sinful to have sex with someone who is infertile for whatever reason (e.g. old age). Additionally, this would suggest that if someone had to take the pill for a medical reason (something morally permissible as St. Paul VI points out in HV), then she could not have sex with her husband. The teaching of the Church is that hormonal contraception is a sin of intent. This means that if the person who submitted this question in no way consents to his wife using birth control, then it is not a sin for him to have sex. This is not to say that his situation is ideal or that this exonerates him of all responsibility. It would obviously be psychologically tricky to not consent to contraception when your spouse is using it. This could lead down a slippery slope morally speaking. Also, he would have to do what he can to dissuade her from using birth control. But he does not sin by having sex with her per se. (What is said here does not apply to all forms of contraception since some forms make the sex act unnatural).

    Although I think the reasoning above is sound, I can also back up this position from authority. According to Fr. Jone’s Moral Theology (a classic pre- Vatican II manual), in no.759, it says “if [the husband] cannot hinder [his wife] from [using contraceptives which prevent conception (i.e. to be distinguished from those which perevent insemination)], he must conduct himself in a manner similar to that of a woman in regard to a husband given to the practice of onanism.” And that manner is as follows (758): “if abstinence is a grave inconvenience for her, the wife may lawfully request the debt from a husband who will render it onanistically. She may consent to the pleasure but not the concomittant sin of her husband.”

  23. richiedel says:

    Refraining from sexual intercourse with the wife will very likely cause the situation to resolve itself, one way or another – for better or for worse. It won’t be easy, and will occasionally involve explaining carefully and succinctly how refraining from intercourse actually shows how he loves her more as opposed to not loving her at all, but holding out will do worlds more than any verbal persuasion. Persevere and hope!

  24. EC says:

    The primary subject of sin is one’s own will… not one’s flesh, not another person’s flesh, not another person’s will. So, the basic question is, “What do I want?” This breaks into two parts – what do I do, and what do I hope to achieve by doing that.

    It is not the man’s will that his wife has made the choice she has, therefore, he does not cooperate in the reordering or frustration of the sexual faculty which contraception (as such) implies. So a sexual act that is itself open to life according to its species (viz. normal unitive intercourse), which is what he himself is doing on his part, will not be sin for him so long as his act is intended for sufficiently good reasons. Concern for scandalizing the wife should not be *that* high, insofar as the immoral choice on her part has already been made virtually and formally, while this act is simply its material completion.

    You might try spending time around married friends who have lots of kids, and talk with them openly and directly about how much they enjoy each of their children… It’s not just that contraception is a bad thing to be avoided, it is also that having kids is a wonderful joy!

  25. beelady says:

    Some thoughts from a female perspective-
    #1. Does your wife understand why you have changed your mind about contraceptive use?
    #2. Have you attended a NFP class together? If not, I think this would be a great place to start. She may not fully understand how it works.
    #3. Is your wife absolutely certain that you will abstain when she is fertile?
    #4. Does the questioner understand why
    his wife wants to avoid a pregnancy at this time? My hunch is that this issue is the root of the problem. She does not want to become pregnant and is afraid that she will if she goes off birth control pills.
    #5. Please be patient with your wife and remember that NFP can be difficult even when both partners are committed catholics.
    I would imagine that it is especially challenging to someone who does not have the graces of Baptism.

    I will pray for both of you.

  26. veritas vincit says:

    tomd123: I have similar concerns as yours. It does not seem a given that a husband having sex with his wife who uses hormonal contraceptives without the husband’s consent, is closely cooperating with the sin of conception and is therefore, himself sinning. Not being an expert moral theologian, however, I might try to get a more expert opinion from a faithful and trusted priest or theologian, and abstain in the meantime.
    But there is another issue: The “contraceptive” might actually be an abortifacient. If that is the case, the sex act, if it leas to conception, would then be followed by abortion. If there were any doubt as to the nature of the contraceptive, I would definitely abstain. I want absolutely no part of abortion. Te very thought fills me with horror.

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