Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Catholics and Contraception: Setting the Record Straight
There is no issue in which the Catholic Church is more counter-cultural than in the assertion that every single sexual union between spouses should be open to life, thus opposing any deliberate efforts to sterilize the sexual act (either temporarily through contraception or withdrawal or permanently through vasectomy or tubal ligation). The Catholic Church does not view this teaching as true only for Catholics--like the abstinence of meat on Lenten Fridays--but rather a universal moral principle that applies to all persons in all situations (like prohibitions against stealing and murder).
It's a radical assertion, no doubt, one that sets up a question of opposite polarities: Either the Catholic Church is hopelessly antiquated and out of touch with modern moral truths, or the Catholic Church is virtually the lone voice of reason on an issue in which the rest of the world has lost its mind. It really can't be anywhere in-between.
Why is this teaching so intrinsic to the Catholic moral vision about the nature of human sexuality?
First of all, let's clear away the false perceptions. To start with, the Catholic Church does not reject contraception because we are opposed to medical technology. We're all for pacemakers, respirators, insulin pumps, and cochlear implants. Secondly, the Catholic Church does not reject contraception because we are opposed to responsible family planning and demands that couples accept a "as many as God will send" providentialism. Finally, the Catholic Church does not reject contraception because we believe that sexual intercourse is otherwise "dirty" and only justified if it results in procreation. These are all well-entrenched myths that are easily dispelled through reading the Church's own teaching on the matter.
It's not possible to understand this Catholic teaching without a fundamental knowledge of the nature of a human person. The Christian view is that a human being is a profound union of body and soul. We don't just have a body, like ghosts in a machine by which our bodies are mere avatars for our souls; we are fully integrated beings. While death will bring an unnatural separation of our soul from our body (for a time), the end of human history will see our bodies raised, transformed, glorified, and reunited with our souls; our heavenly destiny is as embodied spirits.
Our belief in this body/soul unity is illumined by our belief in the goodness of creation (i.e. God likes matter) and confirmed by the revelation of the central dogma of the Christian faith; the incarnation, in which "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
This belief in our body/soul unity has been under attack fairly consistently throughout human history, and the same is true today. Many in our culture believe that the true part of our identity is our desiring self, with our bodies simply along for the ride. According to this belief, I can do whatever I want with my body--particularly sexually--and still be a "good person," because the actions of my body have no real connection with who I am. In this view, sex (whether as behavior or gender identity) has no intrinsic personal meaning other than the meaning I assign it through my desiring self.
But classically, Christianity has asserted that sexuality is intrinsically oriented toward a defined end, i.e. it has a particular "teleology." In the "one flesh" encounter, the man and woman unite their bodies, and thus their entire persons, in an interpenetrating embrace that expresses the fullness of what marriage is; all that he is united with all that she is in a sign of the interpersonal communion that is uniquely marital and images the union of persons within the Holy Trinity.
I've heard it expressed this way. In the Trinity, the Father loves the Son from all eternity--pouring all his love upon the Son, with nothing held back--and the Son receives that love and returns that love to the Father--also from all eternity. And the love they share is so infinite and eternal that it IS a third person, the Holy Spirit, who, as the Creed affirms, "proceeds from the Father and the Son."
In marriage, the husband loves his wife--pouring all his love upon her, with nothing held back--and the wife receives that love and returns that love to her husband. And the love they share is so infinite and eternal that, where God graces, the love can BECOME a third person, a child, who proceeds from the husband and the wife.
Thus, man and woman, made in the image of God, embody the interpersonal communion of the Holy Trinity in their very flesh.
In this understanding, sexual intercourse has a proper end. It is the definitively embodied expression of marital love, which by its nature is a complete act of self-giving, an abandoning of a spouse's entire self to the other--their heart, their soul, their mind, their bodies, their present and their future, all that they are, contained within the totality of their person.
Fertility, of course, is an integral dimension of the whole person. Thus, for the sexual union to be an authentic act of marital love, the man and the woman must hold nothing back from one another. The human person is a comprehensive whole, and fertility--yes, even sperm and ova-- is an integral part of one's masculinity and femininity. To withhold some aspect of one's self is to deny the totality of the act, and to intentionally construct a barrier to one's full union with one's spouse (whether physical, chemical, or hormonal).
Any sterilization of the act--whether temporarily through contraception/withdrawal or permanently via tubal ligation or vasectomy--fundamentally reduces the sexual act to a partial gift and distorts the language of marital love into an act that is objectively counterfeit in nature. It doesn't mean that every married couple who contracepts does so for nefarious reasons--sometimes they do so out of ignorance. It also doesn't mean that couples who contracept will not enjoy sex, and that they will not find some intimacy and pleasure in it. But fundamentally and objectively, sterilized sex is a dishonest act that mimics total self-giving, objectively reduces the act to orgasm exchange, compartmentalizes the person, and forsakes the proper end of sexual intercourse--the uniting of the couple in a uniquely spousal act, a total, unconditional gift of love open to the fruit of new life.
As stated above, this is not mean that the Catholic Church opposes family planning. In fact, couples are advised to use prayerful prudence in the generation of children. So technically speaking, the Catholic vision is not incompatible with "birth control," per se. But any form of family planning must respect the fundamental meaning of intercourse. Thus, for couples who have legitimate moral reasons for avoiding or delaying a pregnancy, they can learn to identify the biological signs of feminine fertility present in each monthly-ish cycle, and choose to abstain from intercourse during the 7-10 day fertility window.
For those who say, "You are splitting hairs! What's the difference between periodic abstinence and contraception? Both approaches seek the same end, the avoidance of pregnancy." But equating ends does not morally equalize certain acts. A person who manages their weight through exercise and proper diet has the same end in mind as a person who gorges and purges (reducing eating to the mere pursuit of pleasure). And yet the former respects the nature of eating (whose end is nutrition) and the latter corrupts it. Similarly, the contracepted union distorts the meaning of sex (compromising both bodily unity and procreation) while abstinence honors the meaning of the act.
That is why the Catholic Church opposes contraception and sterilization, and always will. It is also why every Christian communion opposed the use of contraception from the beginning of the faith until 1930, when the Anglican Church (Church of England) at their Lambeth Conference decreed that married couples in extreme circumstances could avail themselves of contraception. Of course, you know what they say about the proverbial foot in the door.... Don't take my word for it--do the research and see what you can find about the history of contraception within Christianity.
And I haven't even mentioned the larger societal repercussions of a civilization that embraces contraception, including:
-An increase in sexual recklessness, due to a false sense of security.
-An increase in out-of-wedlock pregnancy (since contraception isn't fool-proof)
(it's risen 820% since 1960, the year the Pill was introduced).
-An increase in fatherless children (see pregnancy stat immediately above).
-An increase in adultery, thus an increase in divorce (see recklessness above).
-An increase in abortion (since contraception fosters an anti-child mindset).
-An increase in pornography (since contraception reduces persons to objects).
-An increase in prostitution and sex trafficking (see link).
-The virtually irreversible trend toward childlessness and it's accompanying
-The environmental impact of synthetic hormones in our water systems
-An increase in the acceptance of homosexuality (since sex is now merely about
the exchange of pleasure between consenting adults, why does it have to be
between a man and a woman).
As I said, we are all free persons, and thus responsible. If you freely reject this ancient and abiding moral vision of the meaning and end of human sexuality, at least be sure you know what you are rejecting.