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May 08, 2006



My understanding is that it is pretty much widely accepted in Catholic ethical circles that you can actively try to prevent fertilization after a rape, so long as one avoids the possibility of abortion --- when it is too late, obviously. There is a debate in Catholic ethical circles as to whether this could include "emergency contraception," with the debate (I think) centering on whether the risk that one might commit abortion should or could outweight the legitimate defense against getting pregnant by rape.
I think there would be a significant moral difference between an act of force (rape) and an act in which the parties are engaging in the phony simulation of marital love that consensual intercourse represents outside matrimony.For that reason, I don't think the church will ever say, "if you must have sex outside marriage use a condom." That's because there is more than one "good" to protect besides the need to ensure a child has a family to grow up in: for instance, there is the need to protect Love itself, true Love, which should exist between people having sex. A condom could stop a sperm, but it could not stop the interchange of feelings, emotions, interconnectedness, commitment (in its most positive sense) that would take place in the sex act.

Ken Crawford

To further dive into your final couple of paragraphs Jimmy, I wonder if the reason there is no mention of contraception outside of marriage is similar to why it doesn't make any sense to discuss whether it is morally wiser during a murder to use a butcher's knife to slit the victim's throat or a butter knife to tear into their guts?

It's kind of missing the point, yes?

Or to use something similar to the raped nun scenario, I can't imagine the Church issuing a document giving detailed rules on how to behave while being murdered.

(sorry for the graphic analogies)

Ed Peters

does anyone recall WHO the authority was behind the Congo permission?

Jimmy Akin

I've read that it was Cardinal Pietro Palazzini and also the CDF, though I haven't looked up the records to see if Palazzini was an official of the CDF at the time (1960s).

Jamie Beu

Boy - I remember some people saying that the ectopic pregnancies answer was splitting hairs. If the "extramarital" explanations aren't splitting hairs, I don't know what is!

Isn't the the Faith supposed to be simple enough for a child to understand, yet complex enough to keep theologians busy for eternity? (I think C. S. Lewis mentioned something like that in Mere Christianity.)

Joy Schoenberger

As to the Congo permission, sterilization is about the only contraceptive method those nuns could effectively use that is not abortifacient, or that would not require cooperation of the rapist. Barrier methods, non-vaginal penetration, withdrawal, awareness of natural fertility, and abstinence all require cooperation. I've heard of rapists using condoms to avoid leaving DNA evidence, but I'm assuming that was not the case in the Congo. Intra-uterine devices and chemical contraceptives are abortifacient. The Pill can prevent ovulation, but it contains an anti-implantation ingredient as well, in case ovulation does occur. Considering the Church's position against abortion for rape victims, these methods would not be acceptable.

Was sterilization the "contraceptive" the Congo nuns were permitted to use? Otherwise, I just can't see the justification, even under the reasoning you outlined.

Jared Weber

My answer to the Congo problem might seem simplistic to some, but there's good evidence to back its effectiveness over any cooperation with would-be rapists.

It is this: arm the nuns, not with condoms, but with pepper spray or tasers or whatever else may be both useful and realistic up to and including fire-arms; teach them to use said weaponry and teach them to protect themselves without weaponry, as well; and if possible, give them protectors--gun-toting body guards, if necessary.


I'm with Jared on this one.

But I would think that the reason that the Church doesn't address the use of contraception in the context of extra-marital sex is because she has already made it abundantly clear that extra-marital sex is forbidden in any circumstance. It would be like saying, "Fornication is bad, but if you're going to do it anyway, here's the guidelines for when you can and can't use contraception." The Church should have higher standards than a sex-ed class.

As for prescribing precautionary contraception, per the nuns in the Congo -- if the nuns are going into a situation so fraught with the danger of being raped, it seems like it would be more advisable to give them a means of effectively resisting attack. Self-defense is not objectively sinful; contraception is. And then perhaps there would be less attacks on nuns if it was known that they were packing heat.

Ed Peters

Thx Jimmy.

OK, folks, SOP time. First, find the original document, and report back here. Dismissed.

Arm the nuns with prayer and tell them to care for any children who may be brought into the world because of rape. Sorry to be anonymous, but this cuts to the very heart of me.

Ed Peters

why are some people debating what advice should have been given to Congo nuns in 1960s?

the question before us is whether, and to what degree, ecc. authority approved the use of contraceptives qua contraceptives. The plight of Congo nuns in the 1960s, as it happens, is an alleged example of such permission, but it is NOT the issue we are trying to sort out.

We are trying to tract down a pastoral-doctrinal point, not weighing the relative merits of pepper spray vs. rosaries in combat situations.

that said: CLD 1958-1972 show nothing, AAS 1962-1965 show nothing upon a quick check of indexes. PALAZZINI was consultor to CDF, but was more prom with SCC. charlie curran brought it up once, but i can't find where. but, still looking.

Old Zhou

Dear Dr. Peters,

Charlie Curran brought it up in the media in March 2004.
Search Google with the words: Curran rape Congo nuns
You will get many media results, for example this story from CBS.
--- [begin quote]
On another side of the debate sits the Rev. Charles Curran, a Catholic professor of human values at Southern Methodist University who was censured by the Vatican in 1986 for his opposition to church teaching on contraception, among other issues, and barred from teaching theology at the Catholic University of America.

For him, the question boils down to the traditional Catholic understanding of advocating the "lesser of two evils" — if someone is contemplating killing his neighbor, one could counsel him to instead burn down his barn since that would be the lesser evil.

Curran cited an example from the 1960s: The Vatican itself condoned giving contraceptive pills to nuns at risk of rape by fighters in the Congo to prevent pregnancy.

If the issue were anything other than condoms and AIDS "they'd have no trouble with the 'lesser of two evils,"' he said in a phone interview. "They're so on the defensive on this that they're unwilling to recognize that traditional Catholic principles would allow this."
--- [end quote]

Here is an AP version of the same story from March 2004.

Jared Weber

The reason I brought up self-defense for Congo nuns is simply exactly what mrsdarwin states. This matter is closed. The Church makes no mention of extra-marital contraception because She has has already proscribed extra-marital sex. I merely brought up an alternative, and licit, solution to the problem.

Ed Peters

Thx OZ; i was not clear, i did find that news article, but not the citation CC was presumably relying on...this is weird. i found 1965 newspaper PDF file with Palazzini (and Hurth, and Lambruscini (sic) talking about liciety here, but not a cdf statement....odd.


I find it incredible that JPII had a quarter century to clean house and he didn't take the opportunity.


Mike S

Dr Peters, did you see this article?



Hrmm, easy enough to understand.

1. Sex outside of marriage is forbidden and is sinful.

2. Use of contraception before during or after the marital act between married couples is forbidden and is sinful.

3. In regards to use of contraception outside of marriage, see rule number 1.



Does anyone seriously believe that a Catholic could in good conscience counsel anyone to commit arson?

That's just nuts.


Jimmy, you can easily harmonize your personal opinion with that of the Church, because they are the same. Conjugal commerce presupposes marital intercourse in the sense that it is the only type of "conjugal commerce" that is authentic, or if you will, morally possible. It of course covers all sexual intercourse. Otherwise, the law would allow disparate treatment of the same moral act--i.e., contraception, and put the persons acting more morally under a more severe restriction. That would be an absurd result. I think, even if you disagree with this briefest of analyses, you would be better off stating that both of your views are your personal opinions unless the Vatican issues a further clarification. Your analysis, while not without its own logic, does not persuade.

Ed Peters

MikeS: i had not. thx ever.

It's still hearsay, of course, fwiw. we gotta find this original document. we just gotta.

J.R. Stoodley

btw, I don't think people knew in the 1960's that the Pill could be abortive. Now that we know it, clearly its use is unacceptible in any circumstances. Gelsbern's three rules apply to any circumstances where the act is consensual.

Therefore I think the only three questions we can raise are:

1. Is it licit for nuns to undergo sterilization?

2. Does fornicateing with non-abortive contraception constitute a lesser, greater, or equal evil than fornicating without contraception?

3. Does sodomy with contraception (to prevent disease) constitute a lesser, greater, or equal evil than sodomy without contraception?

My instinct would be "no, greater, lesser" but I have nothing authoritative to back that up.


Tim I wouldn’t be so dismissive of the language nuances here in regards to marriage. You are correct in your statements but that is only because you oversimplified Jimmy’s statement…

Let’s look for instance at Matt 5:32. Now in this verse if someone read it to mean that intercourse was intercourse one could read it to say, A person commits adultery unless adultery was committed… needless to say that would be an odd logic.

In Matt 5:32 there is a very distinct word, “pornea” which seems to relate an odd sort of conjugal relationship that does not occur within marriage.

Joy Schoenberger

The makers of "The Pill" certainly knew that it was abortive.

They first tried to design the pill to prevent fertilization only, but the ingredient that achieves that had to be in such high dosage that it was dangerous to take. They were forced to lower it, and thereby introduce the possibility of conception. The ingredient which thins the uterine lining to prevent implantation was added to account for the percentage of the time when fertilization may occur.

There is no data on how often The Pill is actually abortive in women who use it regularly and are sexually active. The woman never knows when it happens. Therefore, oral contraceptive makers and Planned Parenthood can conveniently claim that "there is no scientific evidence that this occurs."

Anyway, I don't know if it was common enough knowledge among the general public about how The Pill actually works.

George Smith

I enjoy your normally-wonderful website but this time I am a bit annoyed with you. I have no investment in what the actual answer on this issue is, save that I want to follow the Church and Christ. And yet I find your answer a very dangerous one to make because, basically you are issuing your personal opinion concerning document translation. You gave an entire section under the disclaimer that this was not your personal opinion, and then you didn't offer a shred of documentary evidence to clarify that conjugal does in fact refer only to marital. Sure, a translation of the CCC uses the word "conjugal act", and this is associated with marriage in the Webster's dictionary, but the Greek word for "sex" means "marriage". So, some translations of the Bible get away with calling "fornication" "unlawful marriage," when this is clearly not what Paul was meaning to refer to. The language game is tough, and I know you're acting in good faith, but you ought to have really consulted at least one ecclesiastical authority competent to answer this question about the limitations of scope of Vatican documents before you broadcast your potentially-confusing opinion to the whole world. I would appreciate a reply from you on this, as you have me rather confused at this point as to how you are so sure about your interpretation.


It's looking more and more to me like terminology is going to have to be refined before concepts can continue to make sense and be formed without seemingly contradicting other concepts.

A fine, recent example of this is how Jimmy mentioned that condomized sex was actually mutual masturbation. I'd seen that before, and I hold the same belief. I also do not believe that gay sex is actually sex.

Why? It's because we stray from ideals, i.e. what God intended, and what God's definitions must be. Our definitions should be the ideals, based upon what God intended.

What definitions should matter in morality are those which God intended. The ideal of what sex IS, is what God intended, and therefore, should be what We consider sex to be, regardless of what understandings are subsumed within common human vernacular. All else is merely clouding the issue and making things (unnecessarily) difficult.

Sex with a condom isn't really sex. It's masturbation with a piece of plastic as a barrier.

Rape is not sex. It's not within the confines of marriage, which is what God had in mind when he came up with sex, among other things which are very wrong about it. Only in the physical sense is it similar to sex, and for this reason, common vernacular has considered an act of rape to also be an act of sex, when in God's eyes, it needn't be so AT ALL.

Masturbation isn't really sex. This one is more obvious, because there is only one person involved.

See what I'm getting at?

It's only because we tend to CALL certain instances of non-sex, "sex", that we go along with the assumption that it IS sex. It is here where we run into these snags and make them more complicated than they need to be.

But I don't think we should. Go with God's definition--His ideal and what He intended for something to be, and use that as OUR definition. Things go much more smoothly if you do this.

It seems that common vernacular has influence over concepts that it shouldn't have, and one of the Church's primary goals should be reconciling ideals with definitions and making them one in the same.

In the case of the nuns in the Congo, it wouldn't be illicit to avoid conception in the case of rape. That's because rape isn't sex in the true definition of the word that God intended. If it's not what God intended sex to be; therefore, the rules that apply to contraception in what IS sex, do not apply.

And it's not wrong to contracept where there isn't really sex. You can avoid an entire manmade mess trying to contort your brain around whether contraception is okay in instances of rape, or you can decide that God's definition of sex--what He intended sex to be IS sex--is correct.

Here's what we know about contraception: In cases of married sex, it is wrong. When you're not having sex, there's no question about whether contraception is licit, because you're not having sex .

However, the Pill is abortifacient. You don't want to compound an evil (rape) with the additional consequence of abortion.

Where there might be a way out is this: Not all forms of the Pill are understood to be abortifacient. The Mini-Pill is regarded as abortifacient while the other type isn't. NOW... If this is true, then this other type of Pill, if it exists, would be the one way I could imagine that a nun could licitly prevent pregnancy. She's not adding to the evil already done by risking abortion. And since rape can be said to NOT be sex, then preventing pregnancy in instances of rape is licit.

It is obvious that our words often corrupt our understanding of things, and I think the Church will need to concentrate on this.

This is why I also wrote in the other thread about the Chinese bishops, something along the lines of, their not being bishops in the true sense of the definition, since becoming and being a bishop carries a certain understanding of what being a bishop IS. It's core to actually BEING a bishop. And if you never had what is core to becoming a bishop (being in submission to Rome, becoming a bishop for the right reasons), then you're simply NOT one, even if you went through the external motions.



Karen, although much of what you write is interesting, some of it just isn't correct. Your basic idea, that the "spirit" of something renders the externals of it validly-reflective of what the thing is, is not a concept fully-accepted by Catholic theology. For instance, were someone to be ordered at gunpoint to masturbate, it would still be masturbation--even if they weren't enjoying it--simply because the object of the motions is to stimulate that region of the body. With regard to hte bishops, they _are_ in fact bishops even if they have never submitted to Rome. The bishops of the Orthodox Church have certainly never submitted, but they _are_ considered to be bishops, even if there are debates about the propriety of their episcopal actions. The SSPX bishops, certainly ordained without submission to Rome, are considered to be acting illicitly but most certainly _not_ invalidly.

On these two counts, your notion that rape simply isn't sex is true in one sense -- rape is nothing like what sex is supposed to be. However, rape _is_ still sex, and so is fornication, and therefore Jimmy's case for saying that the Church hasn't addressed unmarried contraception is a bit weak.

St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century railed against contraception, and the main target of his ire wasn't married couples, but prostitutes (who were contracepting a lot more, apparently). The Church's tradition on contraception, on the basis of the constant witness of which Paul VI made his proclamation, has not separated marital from non-marital intercourse when dealing with the matter of contraception.

We must be very careful in these waters.


Sex with a condom isn't really sex. It's masturbation with a piece of plastic as a barrier.

Karen, the above comment exemplifies what I'm talking about. According to the Church in its interpretation of divine law, sex with a condom is sex, it's just illicit sex. That's why unmarried couples who have sex with a condom are considered to have fornicated, not to have engaged in mutual masturbation.

One can have varying opinions about Church doctrine, but one ought to be precise in differentiating one's own opinion from what the doctrine states.

Anything outside of God's will for what sex should be is a mockery of sex, not "sex".


The devil wants us to confuse mockeries of sex for "sex". It gets us all confused and wastes our time. Accept God's definition of sex, which is His ideal, and settle for no less. Then it becomes clearer.

Rape. It is not sex. However, one evil you can avoid, is taking actions that will kill any children you might conceive. If you can contracept without compounding the evil in this way, you're within your means, because contraception is a sexual issue having to do with sex, not rape.

Masturbation at gunpoint: This doesn't have to do with defining anything and gets off-topic. Jordan, what you're going after is whether someone is morally culpable for sinning at gunpoint. It's a whole other issue and I don't see how it fits into what I say about tightening up definitions.

It's relatively easier to formulate a definition about sex, from what we already know--God's ideal. Why don't we just make that our definition and go from there instead of assuming the devil's corrupt definitions of "sex" he so much wants us to accept.

Masturbation is an attempt to simulate sex just as fornication is an attempt to simulate what sex is, and is supposed to be. Both are mockeries of sex. Masturbation is simply easier for us to identify as Not Sex, simply because there's only one person involved, while what we usually CALL sex involves two persons. But even these days, sexual vernacular includes "masturbation" within the definition of "sex". They call unabashedly it "self-sex" now, and other similar things, including it with the definition of "sex".

These days, it might take a child to recognize the abusrdity of this. When I first heard at the age of 9 that a man could actually rape a *boy*, I demanded an explanation. That's because I knew a man couldn't "have sex" with a boy. Then I heard about how a boy is "raped". The definitions disturbed me. That's not "sex". It's tangentially sexual since there is at least one sexual organ involved, BUT it's nothing to do with actual "sex". And according to my definition of "rape", it wasn't "rape", either.

Words, words, words!

It is my belief that in the new millennium, a priority of the Church needs to be, refining definitions. It can't be more obvious to me.

Jared Weber

Guys: Seriously, y'all need to chill on this. You're making this way more complicated than it needs to be (and I'm usually the FIRST to get hacked off when someone says that, but this time, I believe it's true).

See gelsbern's rules above:

1. Sex outside of marriage is forbidden and is sinful.

2. Use of contraception before, during, or after the marital act between married couples is forbidden and is sinful.

3. In regards to use of contraception outside of marriage, see rule number 1.

It really needn't go beyond that.

The only acceptable "use" (inaccurate word, I feel, for 'twill serve for now) of the sexual faculty is that between husband and wife which has the possibility of procreation. This definition holds for those who are sterile through no fault of their own and for those who have fully repented of their willful sterilization.

All other "uses" of this faculty is, in fact, abuses of the faculty and, all are gravely sinful behaviors.

Old Zhou

I don't think we will ever find the original, source ecclesial document for the "Congo nuns in danger of rape may use contraceptives" ecclesial urban legend.

If such a document actually did exist in the 1960's, I'm sure somebody already destroyed it, probably at least by the papacy of John Paul II. It would have been a major case of embarrassing "toilet paper" hanging on somebody's shoe at the Vatican.

And, besides, if it did exist, in the modern era of leaks, cell phone cameras, faxes to PDF files, the internet, and web, it would have been all over the world already as the "See, the Vatican allows contraception" poster.

It does not exist, IMHO. It is just dissident like Curran that keep the ecclesial urban legend alive.

Jared Weber

Shoot. I meant "All other "uses" of this faculty ARE, in fact, abuses of the faculty and, all are gravely sinful behaviors."

Old Zhou: I agree.



"In the case of the nuns in the Congo, it wouldn't be illicit to avoid conception in the case of rape."

This was the claim that caused me to dispute your notion that the immorality or evil distortion of an act was sufficient to render the act so categorically different from marital lovemaking that the Church's ban on contraception would not apply. What you are saying concerning rejecting the devil's distortion of sex is laudable, but to move from that to saying that the Church's teaching on contraception is concerned only with, say, 'authentic marital lovemaking', and doesn't extend also to false distortions of what God intends the act to be, is a leap that I feel is not warranted by the Church's teaching or by any of this discussion.

If "true sex" were necessary to bring the ban on contraception into play, then would a wife who was regularly raped by her husband be permitted to render herself infertile in order to prohibit conception? These are difficult moral questions, but they can't be answered simply by saying that "a husband raping his wife is not authentic sex, ergo the ban on contraception doesn't apply." The same is true of the example that you raised concerning the nuns (which, as somebody else has pointed out, is not necessarily even a true story).


I have an idea. Move the nuns to a place where they will be safe.

Donna Marie Lewis

I read awhile back that South Africa is experiencing a horrifically high rate of rapes in recent years. A female doctor there developed a device, which fits into a woman's body like a tampon. However, if the device is triggered by her vagina being entered, the device sends hundreds of barbed hooks into the... ahem..offending member- causing excruciating, disabling pain and requiring surgical removal of the device. From the design, it would also seem that it would block the flow of semen.
I'd think this would probably be acceptable for women in high-risk situations, as being self-defense, but maybe I'm missing something...


Under the traditional notion of the "principle of double effect", this barbed device would be admissible since its primary object is defense-against-entry. Its prevention of flow is a mere side effect. The point of the object is not to prevent pregnancy but to defend against entry. This is quite different from the idea that the Pill is "self defense" (against pregnancy). Anyway, in the case of the barbs, I'm not sure that there would be any "flow" from an assailalant who had immediately been impaled upon entry.


Move the nuns to a place where they will be safe.

Christians throughout the world have risked their lives to bring the Good News.

One should also add that when you are trying to convert people, and run away from danger, there is real danger of scandal: the converts will think they can fall away in order to save their lives.

J.R. Stoodley

Anyway, in the case of the barbs, I'm not sure that there would be any "flow" from an assailalant who had immediately been impaled upon entry.

I'd say its virtually impossible there would be any flow except that of blood. I don't see what moral objection anyone could raise toward this device. It seems clearly not to be contraception to me, but something more akin to a chastity belt. My only doubt would be whether it is more dangerous than it is worth. It seems to me many rapists rather than running away would become so enraged they might even kill the woman.

J.R. Stoodley

I would say, leave it up to the nuns. If they are willing to continue to live in a dangerous area, let them. But if their homeland becomes dangerous give them the opportunity to get out of there if they wish.



I don't understand how, in such "close quarters" the barbs could go into the man but not the woman. Don't really want to continue that line of enquiry, though.

The way I heard it, the Church allowed the nuns to use diaphrams (sp?). They might not be the most effective form of birth control but they're not abortifacient and wouldn't require the rapist's "cooperation". Then again, maybe the whole thing is just a Catholic urban myth....

In Jesu et Maria,

Donna Marie Lewis

Re: the anti-rape device. I believe it is in the testing stage right now, and has not yet been marketed.
The device does not just pierce- the barbs remain in the wounds, rather like porcupine quills. Thus the pain remains even when the perpetrator withdraws. The only way to remove the device is surgically. I believe the idea is that the continual pain will be so excruciating the rapist will pass out, giving the cops the chance to cart him off to jail- after a stop-over in the hospital.


Donna, if a rapist has AIDS and the woman being raped is wearing one of these devices during the rape, the likelihood of transmission of the virus probably increases a hundredfold. Not my idea of a great rape prevention device.

The idea of arming nuns seems a little naive too. Go ahead and arm the nuns if you're going to send them to bootcamp and they learn how not to get disarmed, but somehow it still seems a bit ridiculous to think that a nun is going to actually be able to shoot a stronger man in close quarters, instead of winding up at the wrong end of her own gun. Ditto tasers.

Jared Weber

Jenn: The statistics will bare out that, with minimal, but thorough training (i.e. not "bootcamp" as you suggest), most individuals are able to successfully defend themselves, and the odds go up with the quality of weapon and training.

According to 1994 National Survey of Private Ownership of Firearms in the United States, conducted for the Police Foundation under the sponsorship of the National Institute of Justice, statistics show that people who resist crime with a firearm are less likely to be injured, or are likely to be injured less severely, than persons who either cooperate (do not resist at all) or resist by any other means. That even remains true even if the assailant is armed with a gun. The National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), a Dallas think tank, reported, "Each year, gun-wielding citizens kill an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 criminals in self-defense, three times the number killed by police." The NCPA further noted: "At a maximum, criminals take a gun away from armed victims only 1% of the time." In the U.S., guns are used at least 800,000 times a year by private citizens to prevent crimes and defend lives.

Even without a gun, victims of violent crime who resist lower their risk of being seriously injured if they resist. Anyone who has faced off against a playground bully can tell you why: aggressors want easy targets. Make yourself a hard target and they're less likely to take the trouble to attack you.

I fail to see how it is "naive" or "ridiculous" to believe the statistics or even, barring stats, to think that individuals in areas of high-crime/social unrest are better off with some ability to defend themselves is naive. In fact, I would venture to say that it is unrealistic and cruel to NOT give these poor women a chance to defend themselves. If the places in which they do God's work are so bad, then they need commensurate protection.


Words, words, words.

Well, if "mockeries" of sex or "simulated sex" (i.e., any acts which are NOT permitted by God, per Karen's definition) are not subject to the Catholic proscription on contraception, then 99% of the world's contraception users ain't sinning.


Come to think of it, a married couple that is contracepting isn't exactly having relations the way the good Lord said to. So, I guess their use of contraception is allowed?

In which case, it would be absolutely meaningless for the Vatican to issue any statements about it.

So you tried to tighten a definition, but instead you took the words and emptied them of all meaning. Congratulations.

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