Contraception and the Catholic Vision
On May 10th, Pope Benedict XVI called Paul VI’s landmark encyclical On Human Life an act of courage which has “become a sign of contradiction.” He made his remarks at a conference on the fortieth anniversary of the encyclical held at the Pontifical Lateran University. While many Catholics still find Humanae vitae’s condemnation of contraception difficult to understand and accept, it should be more than evident by now that the Catholic vision of life and love enunciated by Pope Paul VI is one of the great keys to reviving our dying culture.
Rejection of the Encyclical
I take it as a given that the widespread use of contraception among Catholics does not reflect a reasoned response to Church teaching. Rather it arises from the prevailing patterns of our sex-saturated culture and the widespread rejection of Humanae vitae by the secularized moral theologians who have passed themselves off as Catholic teachers over the past two generations. While it did take some time for the Magisterium and faithful theologians to articulate persuasively the reasons for the immorality of contraception, it has long since become clear that the immediate and prolonged rejection of the Church’s teaching was rooted as much in moral turpitude as in intellectual difficulties. Many in the academy and elsewhere had their own perverse sexual habits to protect.
Essentially, Paul VI articulated the timeless Catholic teaching that there is an inseparable bond between the unitive and procreative aspects of marital love, and that it is always wrong to deliberately frustrate either the unitive or the procreative purpose of the marital act. The core of the teaching, which is a matter of the natural law, is most succinctly summarized in section 12:
This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.
Reading a little further, in section 13, we find the essential moral context, with a strong suggestion of the nobility of adhering to God’s plan:
Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will. But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of Catholic couples have never been presented with a clear outline of the Church’s teaching on this matter, nor of the consequences of ignoring it, nor of the benefits of following it.
In his comments at the anniversary conference, Pope Benedict emphasized that “no mechanical technique can substitute for the act of love that husband and wife exchange as a sign of the greater mystery, in which they are protagonists and co-participants in creation.” Paul VI saw clearly that this “act of love” is not merely a physical act, but a truly marital act of love in all of its dimensions, an act which both recognizes and expresses the dignity of the spouses and their mutual relationship to God, and an act in which the spouses surrender themselves to each other, holding nothing back, yet without ever losing that fundamental discipline of love which puts the other and God above their own individual pleasure. In a critical passage in section 21, which is worth quoting at length, Paul VI expresses something of the true and complete dimensions of this act of love:
The right and lawful ordering of birth demands, first of all, that spouses fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life and that they acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions. For if with the aid of reason and of free will they are to control their natural drives, there can be no doubt at all of the need for self-denial. Only then will the expression of love, essential to married life, conform to right order. This is especially clear in the practice of periodic continence. Self-discipline of this kind is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character. And if this self-discipline does demand that they persevere in their purpose and efforts, it has at the same time the salutary effect of enabling husband and wife to develop their personalities and to be enriched with spiritual blessings. For it brings to family life abundant fruits of tranquility and peace. It helps in solving difficulties of other kinds. It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another. It helps them to repel inordinate self-love, which is the opposite of charity. It arouses in them a consciousness of their responsibilities. And finally, it confers upon parents a deeper and more effective influence in the education of their children. As their children grow up, they develop a right sense of values and achieve a serene and harmonious use of their mental and physical powers.
Humanae vitae was prophetic when it was first promulgated, because the consequences of breaking the bond between the unitive and the procreative in marital love were not then as clear as they are now. Within twenty years, however, the trends had become very clear indeed: contraception leads to selfishness, the pursuit of sexual pleasure for its own sake, objectification of spouses, pornography, sexual exploitation, divorce, homosexuality and abortion. These trends are now so obvious that Catholic leaders who do not yet instinctively understand the centrality and importance of the Church’s vision of human life and love are simply incapable of representing the Church and transmitting Christ’s salvific power to society today.
The Contraceptive Mentality
Every age and culture is marked by characteristic vices. Our culture is drowning in sexual selfishness, an insatiable desire for constant gratification without consideration of the consequences. Of course each person is highly complex, and I do not mean to suggest that everyone who uses contraception will inevitably be led into every other sexual vice. But the connections are there. As soon as we start thinking of sex only in terms of pleasure, divorcing it from the power to generate new life, we not only trivialize it but also alter its defining purpose. The clearest example of this is the use of abortion as backup contraception. If the sole purpose of sex is pleasure, then one can only assume that it is perfectly moral to attempt to prevent conception. If the attempt fails, abortion becomes the logical means to retain the original goal of trouble-free sexual pleasure.
Moreover, the connections between contraception and homosexuality (and other forms of sexual perversion) should by now be equally clear. If the purpose of sex is pleasure, then its purpose is properly fulfilled by any use of our sexual faculties that brings pleasure. It is very nearly impossible for someone who approves of contraception to argue against homosexual acts, or even homosexual “marriages” (which arise when marriage is redefined as a close personal union designed to give pleasure). No, the key to that castle has already been given away. But this is also true of every kind of perversion, including the most widespread contemporary form, pornography. For pornography is also a use of our sexual faculties to produce pleasure. When the ends of human sexuality are not understood, pornography is self-justifying.
Yet it is precisely in the worldwide pornography epidemic that we can most easily see the power of ill-defined sexuality to destroy relationships. Since this is more commonly a male problem, I’ll illustrate it in male terms. The husband (or significant other, already a distortion) finds pleasure in certain pornographic images. He becomes dissatisfied with the pleasure “produced” by his wife. He wants her to do things differently. He begins to twist her into a sort of performing object for his own sexual gratification. Still unsatisfied, he begins to look for even more gratification elsewhere. Respect and love vanish. The couple is now on the path to pain, rejection, divorce. But of course it can start even earlier. A young man more or less habituated to pornography will have a very difficult time forming a whole and deeply personal relationship with any woman. Far less often, but with no less devastation, the pornographic shoe can be on the feminine foot.
The purpose of sex is not merely pleasure. Its purpose is the procreation of new life with God in a unifying embrace which progressively forms a couple into a stable, mature and self-sacrificing union designed for their own sanctification and that of their children. This is what marital love means, and this is what human sexuality is for. Therefore, when couples catch the vision of Paul VI—when they “make love” in a context of self-discipline, deep mutual respect, sacrifice for the other and openness to life, including periodic abstinence – they find that their personalities really do develop. They become more sensitive to each others’ needs, more inclined to communicate in other ways, more capable of working through problems and deficiencies that stand in the way of marital growth.
Chastity, one of the great virtues of self-mastery, is no less needed in marriage than in the single state. The fruits of this virtue are enormous, fruits directly opposing those of the contraceptive mentality, which is the hallmark of our culture’s collective abandonment of chastity. I repeat that Catholic leaders—for example, professors, priests and bishops—who cannot by now see these connections are uniquely unfit to minister to the pressing Christian needs of contemporary civilization. For it is not that the Catholic Church is “hung up” on sex. Rather, it is contemporary culture which is “hung up” on sex-for-pleasure. This is a lethal fixation, a poison that leads only to death, death at every conceivable level. Not surprisingly, the only antidote is to reinvest into sexuality the one thing that it has been missing now for far too long, that is, Life—the life of our spouse, the life of our child, the life of our God.
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