Marriage and Family Life

Why Not Contraception?

The question of contraception is without doubt one of the hot potatoes of our time. The aim of this article is to give some clarity about the issue. It is easy enough to outline the Church’s teaching, which we do below. But actually saying why the Church teaches that contraception is wrong is the interesting question. We are long past the days when people would do what the Church tells us simply “because the Church (or Father, or Sister, or father or mother) says so”. In any case such a form of argument is weak. But the truth of the matter is that we need to listen to what the Church says not simply because “the Church says it”. Rather, we listen to what the Church says because what the Church says is true.

That is, it actually makes sense.

There are some very entertaining talks or informative websites about the issue. The Catechism of the Catholic Church also deals with the question very sensitively. Here we will stick to the basics: what the Church teaches about contraception and why she teaches it.

It is probably fairly safe to say that most people think that the issue of contraception is a specifically “Catholic” topic. Yet until 1930 all Christian denominations agreed with the Catholic Church’s teaching, that contraception is gravely wrong. Then, in 1930, the Lambeth Conference (that is, Anglican leaders) decided that contraception was permissible in some circumstances. Swayed by growing social pressure, the Church of England little by little allowed contraception without exception. Today, only the Catholic Church upholds the historic Christian position on contraception.

What the Church actually teaches about contraception

To be clear then, what does the Church teach about contraception? We start by looking at the issue “in the face”. What are we talking about? Sex. When we are discussing contraception, we are talking about sex. And the most obvious thing to say about sex is that sex is an action.

For any action to be meaningful, it needs a purpose. This applies just as much to everyday actions as to the more “profound” ones. Most of the time we do not think too much about the purpose of our actions, coming as they do almost spontaneously. For instance, we pick up a spoon to eat cereal, we drive a car to get to work. We tie shoe-laces to look neat and to stop ourselves tripping up. We study hard to learn. We pray to become closer to God.

Being a human action, the sexual act (sexual intercourse) also has a meaning. That meaning has two purposes. The first purpose is to unite the couple. The second purpose is to bring about children. The Church has termed this meaning the “unitive and procreative” purpose of the marital act.

Maybe the terminology puts people off. But because sex is serious (it is not just copulation, which animals do), it needs to be taken seriously. So the terminology, arcane as it might seem, provides a help to understanding what is actually going on in sex.

Men and women are attracted to each other – it’s natural

That there are two purposes of sexual intercourse stands to reason: a simple look at male and female interaction anywhere from underground trains to lecture theatres, from roadside cafés to department stores, from the family home to cinemas, gives ample proof that we are all – literally – “made for each other”. Men are (in general) attracted by women; women (in general), by men. It’s natural. And the sexual act is one of the greatest and natural expressions of this mutual attraction and love that develops out of that attraction. In it, a couple become a “gift” for one other, where nothing is held back. So the attraction does not have anything to do with possessing the other person in a kind of frenzy of pleasure; rather, it is based in the profound need to give. And the giving of a gift engenders further generosity. That is why it becomes fruitful.

Our bodies are geared towards this too. Obvious physical changes happen to the bodies of either sex when two people are attracted to each other. Coming together as “one flesh”, a couple can eloquently express the unity for which we are all made.

The nature of love leads, naturally, outwards. That is to say, love is fruitful. Take the example of the husband who goes to work, day in, day out, because he must earn his keep. Or the young mother who is constantly looking to the needs of her children. Or when we give gifts as a mark of our affection for someone else. These actions are the specific fruit of love. The specific fruit of the sexual act is children.

Become au fait with fertility

In a nutshell then, the sexual act is naturally ordered to the procreation of children and the unity of the couple. Or, as it has been put more colloquially, “for babies and for bonding”. During sexual intercourse, a couple give themselves freely, totally and faithfully to each other, sharing the possibility of bringing about new life. Without this, something is missing and the act loses its meaning.

It is important to mention at this point that sterility (a natural inability to conceive) does not deprive the sexual act of its meaning. This is because sterility is not purposefully brought about by the couple.

Contraception distorts the meaning of the sexual act. It blocks the procreative purpose of love. But it also upsets the “bonding” purpose. For example, studies have shown that those who use contraception are more likely to get divorced than those who do not.

Contraception limits the communication between couples. To put it more positively, couples who use the natural cycle to regulate birth (Natural Family Planning is 99.4% effective if used properly) need to have an awareness of each other’s bodies in a way that is not necessary between couples that use contraception. For example, the man needs to be aware of his spouse’s fertility, with the result that on a regular basis the couple are communicating about their choices, their aspirations of whether or not to have children (this in itself is very healthy for the couple). A result of this is that that good communication between such couples is fundamental to the relationship. Perhaps then it is no surprise that the divorce rate is negligible in couples who do not use contraception. (See too Janet Smith, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (Washington DC: CUA Press, 1991), pp.109-128).

So much for the teaching. But why is contraception wrong?

From the outset, it must be made clear that couples who use contraception do not necessarily know that they are doing wrong. Or, to put it more positively, that refraining from contraception actually enriches a relationship. But because the act is made up of the two purposes – unitive and procreative – then if either or both purposes are limited, or nullified, then the act itself is not a real act. The act loses meaning. It is a little bit like having a tiny stone in your shoe. You will hardly notice its presence at first, but over time it will have an effect on you.

If you are a gardener, you need light, warmth and soil for your cabbages to grow. Take away one of the elements (e.g. grow your cabbages in the bedroom cupboard) and you don’t get cabbages but something a little bit shriveled. Cabbages do not grow unless they are given the conditions that nature requires.

Human sexuality has a certain nature. Unless it too is given the right conditions, it will not develop as it is meant. And how wonderfully God provides those conditions! Take, for example, the female reproductive system and monthly cycle. These are a work of art, a detailed reflection of how finely-tuned women are. Stuff the body with unnatural chemicals, and chaos ensues. This is evident even at the most exterior level: common side effects of the Pill include increased irritability, increased propensity to depression, weight gain and a reduced libido.

There is something about the use of contraception that (literally) blocks the life-giving purpose of sex. If a man uses a condom, it is as if he is saying to his wife “I give you myself, but only this far”. We are not saying that there is no pleasure in contracepting sex, or that the intention is to limit one’s love for one’s partner. Rather, this pleasure, this love, is not as full as it might be if it were as free and total as nature intended it. The use of contraception distorts the natural law. As much as cabbages need light, soil and moisture to grow, so sexual intercourse needs to be fully open to life if it is to be experienced as nature intended it.

The prophetic work of Pope Paul VI

In July 1968 Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical letter, Humanae vitae. This is probably the most maligned and widely misunderstood document ever produced by the Church. In it, the Pope makes a few observations about the consequences of birth control. Speaking about the need for couples to understand the effects that contraception has on various aspects of life, he said:

“Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings – and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation – need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

“Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favouring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.”

So the Pope makes three predictions. He says that the widespread use of contraception will lead to:

1.sexual exploitation and general permissiveness;

2.a lessening of respect towards women;

3.the possibility that governments impose practices that undermine family life.

Even a superficial glance at the daily papers reveals how true these predictions were.

Contraception does not simply undermine full expression of love between couples. It is also at the root of some of the problems that affect the very fabric of society today.