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Birth Control and the Deposit of Faith

Robert J. Siscoe POSTED: 8/14/12

On July 25 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which condemned the use of artificial birth control and sterilization and warned of the dire consequences that would follow if this teaching was ignored.  Forty-four years later, the warnings contained within this encyclical read like a prophecy.  In this article, we will consider the origins of the moral and doctrinal teachings of the Church, the means by which they are made known to us, and why we must accept them.

The Deposit of Faith

The Deposit of Faith is the body of doctrines handed down from Jesus to the Apostles, from the Apostles to their successors, and so forth to our times.  The Deposit of Faith contains the complete body of doctrines that make up the Catholic Faith.  Nothing can be added that is not contained, at least implicitly, within the Deposit of Faith, and nothing can be taken away, for public revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle. 

The means by which the Deposit of Faith has been passed down to us is through the written word of God and the unwritten word of God, handed down orally by the Apostles.   The written word of God – the Holy Bible – exhorts us to hold fast to both the written and unwritten Traditions we have received – “therefore, brethren, hold fast to the traditions which you have received, whether by word or by epistle” (2 Thess. 2:14).  Holding fast to both the written and unwritten Traditions is necessary to preserve the integrity of the Gospel.

"Of the dogmas and messages preserved in the Church" writes Basil the Great in A.D. 375 "some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the Tradition of the Apostles, handed on to us in mystery. In respect to piety, both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the Gospel in its vitals..." (Basil the Great - The Holy Spirit 27:66).

The Magisterium

One of the primary duties of the Pope is to guard and protect the Deposit of Faith:  “One of the primary obligations assigned by Christ to the office divinely committed to Us of feeding the Lord’s flock” said Pope St. Pius X, “is that of guarding with the greatest vigilance the Deposit of Faith delivered to the Saints, rejecting the profane novelties of words, and the gainsaying of knowledge falsely so called” (Pascendi).

The Pope, whether acting alone or within the context of an ecumenical council, has the duty, and therefore the corresponding right, to clarify points of doctrine that are being obscured, denied, or called into question at a given time.   When a Pope defines a point of doctrine to be held by the universal Church, such a decision is protected by God from error, and as such is both infallible and irreformable.

In order for a point of doctrine to be the subject of an infallible declaration, it must be contained, at least implicitly, within the Deposit. Not even the Pope can add to the Deposit of Faith by disclosing new doctrines, for his duty is to guard and protect that which he has received, as the First Vatican Council teaches: “For, the Holy Ghost was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard sacredly the revelation transmitted through the Apostles and the Deposit of Faith, and might faithfully set it forth” (First Vatican Council).

When a Pope acting alone, or within an Ecumenical Council, defines a point of doctrine contained within the Deposit of Faith, the point of doctrine is articulated in a manner that is completely free from error.  At this point, the doctrine becomes a dogma, articulated infallibly through the dogmatic definition.

The ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church, which is exercised in various ways, is also considered infallible.  The ordinary and universal magisterium is the ordinary magisterium of the Church teaching a point of doctrine that has been believed universally – that is, always, everywhere, and by all.  Such teachings possess the character of infallibility, even if they have not been the subject of a solemn definition.

Once a point of doctrine contained within the Deposit of Faith is defined by the Church, or proposed for belief by the ordinary and universal magisterium, a Catholic can be certain that it is true, and as such must give the assent of faith.  "All those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the written or unwritten word of God, and which are proposed by the Church as divinely revealed, either by a solemn definition or in the exercise of its ordinary and universal Magisterium" (First Vatican Council).

And it should also be noted that the understanding of doctrine cannot change over time.  True development of doctrine, as opposed to the error of evolution of doctrine, only adds clarity to what has been believed, and never departs from the original understanding.  Evolution of doctrine, on the other hand, which often hides behind the term development of doctrines, seeks to change the understanding of what has been believed, under the specious pretext of a more profound and deeper understanding.  This common error of our time was infallibly condemned at the First Vatican Council.

First Vatican Council

''The doctrine of the faith which God revealed has not been handed down as a philosophic invention to the human mind to be perfected, but has been entrusted as a divine Deposit to the Spouse of Christ, to be faithfully guarded and infallibly interpreted.  Hence, also, that understanding of its sacred dogmas must be perpetually retained, which Holy Mother Church has once declared; and there must never be recession from that meaning under the specious name of a deeper understanding  [can. 3].  ‘Therefore … let the understanding, the knowledge, and the wisdom of individuals as of all, of one man as of the whole Church, grow and progress strongly with the passage of the ages and the centuries; but let it be solely in its own genus, namely in the same dogma, with the same sense and the same understanding. …”.  “If anyone shall have said that it is possible that to the dogmas declared by the Church a meaning must sometimes be attributed according to the progress of science, different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema”.

All or Nothing

If a Catholic withholds belief in one point of divinely revealed truth, the consequence is the total and complete loss of the theological virtue of faith.  Just as one mortal sin destroys all supernatural charity from the soul, so too the rejection of a single divinely revealed doctrine destroys all supernatural faith.

The theological virtue of faith is a supernatural virtue, the purpose of which is to help us believe the truths God has revealed, that is, all the truths contained within the Deposit of Faith and proposed to us by the Church.  If a person willfully rejects a single doctrine revealed by God and proposed as such by the Church, he sins against faith, and therefore loses the theological virtue.  The formal object of supernatural faith is God revealing; the material object is the entire Deposit as a whole, as well as each individual doctrine contained within it. Therefore, when a single article of faith is denied, it constitutes the rejection of the formal object – God revealing – and, as such, all supernatural faith is lost.

St. Thomas: “Just as mortal sin is contrary to charity, so is disbelief in one article of faith contrary to faith. Now charity does not remain in a man after one mortal sin. Therefore neither does faith, after a man disbelieves one article. (…)  Therefore it is clear that such a heretic with regard to one article, has no faith in the other articles, but only a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will”. (ST. Pt II-II, Q. 5, A. 2)

The denial of a single article of faith results in the complete loss of supernatural faith, and if faith is lost salvation is not attainable, since “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb.).

Pope Leo XIII: “Faith, as the Church teaches, is ‘that supernatural virtue by which, through the help of God and through the assistance of His grace, we believe what he has revealed to be true, not on account of the intrinsic truth perceived by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself, the Revealer, who can neither deceive nor be deceived’ (Conc. Vat., Sess. iii., cap. 3). If then it be certain that anything is revealed by God, and this is not believed, then nothing whatever is believed by divine Faith: for what the Apostle St. James judges to be the effect of a moral delinquency, the same is to be said of an erroneous opinion in the matter of faith. ‘Whosoever shall offend in one point, is become guilty of all’ (Ep. James ii., 10). ... he who dissents even in one point from divinely revealed truth absolutely rejects all faith…” (Satis Cognitum).

Since the object of supernatural faith is the entire Deposit as a whole, if a person who rejects one doctrine, adheres to others, his belief in the other points is not an act of faith; rather, it is held on the level of a personal opinion, “for they, who take from Christian doctrine what they please, lean on their own judgments, not on faith” (Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum). For such a person, his belief in other articles of faith lacks that supernatural certitude which the virtue of faith provides, and therefore the other points of doctrine are much more easily abandoned.  Furthermore, since the person who denies one article loses all supernatural faith, his personal conviction in holding other points of doctrine will not profit him unto salvation– “In many things they [the heretics] are with me, in a few things not with me; but in those few things in which they are not with me, the many things in which they are will not profit them" (S. Augustinus in Psal. liv., n. 19).

Since the Church’s condemnation of artificial birth control was an act of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church, the rejection of this teaching is, in and of itself, a mortal sin against the virtue of faith.  Whether or not a person personally practices artificial birth control is only a secondary consideration, since the mental act itself of rejecting this teaching results in the loss of the virtue of faith and a fall from grace.  The use of artificial birth control would only add sin to sin.

Each point of doctrine has been revealed by the same source – God – and proposed for belief by the same authority – the magisterium.  As such, the rejection of one point of doctrine has the same effect as the rejection of any other.  Whether we reject the Divinity of Christ, the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or the Church’s teaching on birth control, the effect is one and the same.


The virtue of faith, in relation to the Deposit of Faith (what is believed), can be compared analogously to the relation of the human soul to the body.  When the soul separates from the body, the body dies and begins the process of decomposition.  Likewise, when a person loses the virtue of faith through the rejection of a single teaching of the Church, the entire Deposit of Faith begins a process of decomposition in the mind, for when the other articles of faith are held on the same level as human opinion, they are easily lost and replaced by other opinions.  The end is the rejection of the Church, or the desire for the Church itself to abandon the faith so that it conforms to the person’s ever-changing opinions.

Let us thank the Good God for the truth He has revealed to us, and with our whole heart and mind let us hold fast to “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).  And to the faithful Bishops and Priest we say: Stand firm and “guard the deposit  committed to thy trust, avoiding the profane novelties of words and opposition of knowledge falsely so called” (1 Tim 6:20).

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