Tomorrow (Friday the 25th) is the 40th anniversary of the issuance of Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s long-held denunciation of artificial means of birth control.
While that encyclical was widely reviled at the time (and today, although understanding of its wisdom is growing), it’s often forgotten that until 1930, Christian communities were nearly unanimous in rejecting artificial means of contraception. That year, the governing body of the Anglican Communion voted to allow contraception between married couples in limited circumstances. Within just a few decades, that new belief had spread like wildfire among Protestant communities, despite Pope Pius XI responding within less than a year with his encyclical Casti Connubi, rejecting the Lambeth Conference’s doctrinal innovation and reminding Christians everywhere of the consistent historic rejection by Christians of artificial contraception. (See here for quotes from early Christians, even as early as a few decades after Christ, rejecting contraception. Also, remember the story of Onan in Genesis 38:6-10, who God punishes for practicing coitus interruptus.)
Pope Paul VI, in Humane Vitae, didn’t just deal with theological issues though. Paragraph 17 discusses the likely consequences of popular acceptance of birth control:
Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. 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 favoring 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.
It’s certainly not true that respect for women has increased in our society. Between your typical magazine rack and the increase in violence against women, Pope Paul VI has been sadly prescient. So too has his prediction of government mandates of sterilization and contraception. Look at China with their one-child policy of forced sterilizations and abortions, which many international organizations, especially those related to the UN, hold up as a model to be followed, rather than a crime against humanity to condemned.
Similarly, the spread of abortion is clearly related to the acceptance of contraception. After all, if a child is a by-product we can actively avoid (something we’re “punished with“), why not terminate an existing pregnancy if contraception fails? It’s a very logical conclusion once pregnancy becomes something to be avoided. If a child can be rejected before conception due to inconvenient timing, why not soon after? This is why we won’t change the culture to reject abortion unless we also focus on getting the culture to reject contraception: it’s a straight line from contraception to abortion. A contracepting culture will be an abortion culture.
At the core of this issue is one simple question: what is sex for?
Nature provides us with two obvious purposes:
1) Sex makes babies (procreative)
2) Sex draws those involved in it closer to each other emotionally (unitive)
Simple observation has told us that for millennia. In so many ways, Catholic teaching on sexual morality can be drawn from those two points.
Sex is reserved for a marriage between a man and a woman because it provides the stability and environment best suited for raising a child. Children simply respond better to the complementarity of having parents of the opposite sex, and the bond of marriage provides a stability to the relationship that aids in keeping that complementary relationship around. The unitive aspect of sex can draw people who won’t make a successful marriage to believe they could. As has been said many times, sex is a great way to make up. Since sex releases the same hormones as love, having premarital sex can lead couples to confuse sex and love, leading to trouble in a marriage when the frequency of sex declines.
Similarly, contracepted sex denies the more obvious biological purpose of sex: reproduction. Sex while contracepting is really nothing more than mutual masturbation. Rather than two people coming together open to creating something greater than themselves, it ultimately becomes about pleasure, and often, their own pleasure. It takes an act that allows human participation in God’s act of creation and makes it solely about us, our wants, our pleasure, leaving God out of what is supposed to be a sacred moment. Indeed, under Catholic teaching, especially as expressed in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, sex is a sacrament.
So far from opposing or hating sex, as is often claimed, the Church teaches that is is given to us by God as a symbol of Heaven. The Church doesn’t place limits on sexual activity because we’re prudish or puritanical, but because it’s so wonderful that it must be treated with the respect and dignity it deserves, not just as another bodily function.
Sex is wonderful; treat it that way.