Contraception: Why It's Wrong
The recent debate over contraception between Fr. Thomas Euteneuer of Human Life International and nationally syndicated talk-show host Sean Hannity has brought to center stage an issue which most Americans—and most Catholics—simply do not understand. Let’s review what’s wrong with contraception.
The intrinsic moral issue of artificial contraception is a marriage issue. Contraception has little or no intrinsic moral relevance outside of marriage. This contributes to the difficulty our culture has in understanding the problem, because our culture doesn’t understand marriage either. After all, only about half of all couples are formally married. For this reason, it is perhaps best to start with what we might call the extrinsic moral issues associated with contraception, which apply to all sexual relations.
The Consequences of Contraception
I am using the word “extrinsic” to apply to the consequences of contraception as opposed to its own essential moral character. Catholics are not consequentialists, and we don’t determine the morality of an act by attempting to foresee all its consequences. But we do determine the prudence of an act by assessing its potential consequences. For this reason, it is highly instructive to examine the extrinsic moral issues associated with contraception.
Even morally neutral acts can have good or bad consequences and should be selected or avoided accordingly. It is a morally neutral act, for example, to dam a river, but one wants to be pretty sure of the consequences before one builds the dam. So too, many moralists have argued (I believe correctly) that contraception is morally neutral in itself when considered outside of marriage. But contraception suppresses the natural outcome of sexual intercourse, and in so doing it has two immediate and devastating consequences.
First, it engenders a casual attitude toward sexual relations. An action which, because of the possibility of conceiving a child, makes demands on the stability of the couple is stripped by contraception of its long-term meaning. The mutual commitment of a couple implied by the very nature of this intimate self-giving is now overshadowed by the fact that the most obvious (though not necessarily the most important) reason for that commitment has been eliminated. This clearly contributes to the rise of casual sex, and the rise of casual sex has enormous implications for psychological and emotional well-being, personal and public health, and social cohesion.
Second, it shifts the emphasis in sexual relations from fruitfulness to pleasure. Naturally-speaking, the sexual act finds its full meaning in both emotional intimacy and the promise of offspring. For human persons, sex is clearly oriented toward love and the creation of new life. By eliminating the possibility of new life and the permanent bonding it demands, contraception reduces the meaning of human sexuality to pleasure and, at best, a truncated or wounded sort of commitment. Moreover, if the meaning of human sexuality is primarily a meaning of pleasure, then any sexual act which brings pleasure is of equal value. It is no surprise that pornography and homosexuality have mushroomed, while marriage has declined, since the rise of the “contraceptive mentality”. Abortion too has skyrocketed as a backup procedure based on the expectation that contracepton should render sex child-free. All of this, too, is psychologically, emotionally and physically damaging, as well as destructive of the social order.
The Intrinsic Evil of Contraception
Now all of these evil consequences apply both inside and outside of marriage. Within marriage, however, there is an intrinsic moral problem with contraception quite apart from its horrendous consequences. Outside of marriage, sexual relations are already disordered. They have no proper ends and so the frustration of these ends through contraception is intrinsically morally irrelevant. Outside of marriage, contraception is to be avoided for its consequences (consequences surely made worse by the difficulty of psychologically separating contraception from its marital meaning). But within marriage, the context changes and the act of contraception itself becomes intrinsically disordered.
Within the context of marriage, the purposes of sexual intercourse are unitive and procreative (as Pope Paul VI taught in his brilliant and prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae). It is worth remembering that there is no proper context for sexual intercourse apart from marriage; this is why it is impossible for human persons to psychologically separate contraception from the marital context. But the point here is that marriage has certain ends (the procreation of children, the stability of society, the mutual happiness of the couple, and their mutual sanctification) and so does sex within marriage. The purposes of the marital act are the procreation of children and the progressive unification of the spouses. These two purposes are intimately related, for it is through marriage that a man and a woman become “two in one flesh”, both through sexual relations and, literally, in their offspring.
It is intrinsically immoral to frustrate either of these purposes. Let me repeat this statement. It is immoral to choose deliberately to frustrate either the unitive or the procreative ends of marital intercourse. It is immoral to make of your spouse an object of your pleasure, to coerce your spouse, or to engage in sexual relations in a manner or under conditions which communicate callousness or contempt. These things frustrate the unitive purpose. It is also immoral to take deliberate steps to prevent an otherwise potentially fruitful coupling from bearing fruit. This frustrates the procreative purpose.
Because it causes so much confusion, it is necessary to state that it is not intrinsically immoral to choose to engage in sexual relations with your spouse at times when these relations are not likely to be fruitful. The moral considerations which govern this decision revolve around the obligation married couples have to be genuinely open to children insofar as they can provide for their material well-being and proper formation. There is nothing in this question of timing that frustrates the purposes of a particular marriage act.
Statistically, couples who avoid contraception find that their marriages are strengthened, their happiness increased, and their health improved. Some of these considerations are topics for another day. But Fr. Euteneuer is clearly correct and Sean Hannity is clearly wrong. Contraception is a grave evil within marriage and has grave consequences not only within marriage but outside of marriage as well. Both individual couples and society as a whole will mature into deeper happiness by freeing themselves from the false promises of contraception, and from its moral lies.
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