Contraception is a hot topic in Catholic teaching. It is defined as;
“The deliberate use of artificial methods or other techniques to prevent pregnancy as a consequence of sexual intercourse.”
Despite how current a topic it is, contraception is nothing new. Thousands of years ago, Greeks and Egyptians used plants and dung to make spermicides. Even the Bible records a man named Onan using a contraceptive method to avoid having a child, an act that was “displeasing in the sight of the Lord.” To the modern mind, the idea that contraception is wrong might be a little strange or old-fashioned, but its widespread acceptance is only a recent phenomenon. We’ll look now at why the Church has always argued against it.
Saying “No” To God’s Plan
As mentioned, human beings have attempted to make their sexual acts barren for a long time now, but even non-Christians have understood how this violates the moral law. Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, said that “if artificial [birth control] methods become the order of the day, nothing but moral degradation can be the result”. How is it that contraception and “moral degradation” go together? The immorality of contraception stems from the fact that it’s a “No” to God’s plan. God has a plan for human sexuality, and this is easily observed whenever we consider the human body and the language it speaks. “Male and female he created them” speaks to the complementary nature of the sexes. Our identity as a man or a woman points us towards the truth that we’re designed for life-generating union with another. This creative union is a sharing in the creative power of God, and to say “No” to it is to deny the meaning of the human body. When a person uses contraception to artificially prevent pregnancy, they are preventing the creative action of God in the world. They are, knowingly or unknowingly, saying “No” to God and his plan for them, and the children they could have had.
Barrier To Self-Giving
Love is self-gift, and the sexual union of husband and wife is a visible sign of the invisible reality of their spiritual union. In sex, the partners say to each other with their bodies, “I give myself totally and freely to you”. Union is what happens when two become one, and we can only truly say, “the two have become one” when a husband and wife freely give their whole selves to each other in sexual intimacy. This is not possible if the couple is using contraception, as it is essentially saying, “I want most of you, but not all of you. I don’t want your fertility.” Contraception acts as a barrier to total self-giving.
We must remember that sex is only truthful when it is an act that speaks of total union and of procreation, and contraception hinders and distorts both of these elements. If the woman makes it impossible for her husband to share in her fertility by blocking it with hormones or barriers, this distorts the procreative purpose of sex. The same is true of men whenever they use condoms or other methods to prevent conception taking place. A husband and wife cannot become one if they withhold from each other their bodies’ powers of reproduction.
If sexual intimacy is to accomplish its purpose and speak truth, it must express total self-gift on both the unitive and procreative levels, and contraception makes this impossible. When the ultimate expression of self-gift is removed from the marital act, true love suffers. It can easily result in husband and wife merely using each other for sexual pleasure. Pope Paul VI foresaw the wide-ranging effects of the “contraceptive mentality” in his prophetic exhortation Humanae Vitae, so we’ll look now at what that contained.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI published his famous encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which specifically outlined the Church’s opposition to contraception. The encyclical contained four main predictions that Pope Paul VI saw as being the long-term effects of contraception on relationships, sexuality, and society. These were:
Infidelity and moral decline:
Pope Paul VI predicted that the widespread use of contraception would lead to “marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards”. He remarked that a person need not have much experience of human weakness to see that humans, especially young people, need incentives to follow the moral law, and contraception opens wide the way to the breaking of the moral law.
Loss of respect for women:
He predicted that man would likely “forget the reverence due to a woman” and would disregard “her physical and emotional equilibrium”. He suspected that the widespread use of contraceptives would “reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his (man’s) own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”
The abuse of power:
Pope Paul VI foresaw the “danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law”, if contraception use became the norm. He poses the question of how a government can be blamed for adopting the same solution as families to the problems faced by society at large. He asks who there will be to stop authorities from favouring the contraceptive methods they consider to be most effective. He chillingly suggests that contraception may come to be seen as necessary, prompting public authorities to impose their use on everyone.
Finally, Pope Paul VI went on to warn that contraception would lead man to believe that he had unlimited dominion over his body. This attitude can be discerned when the overwhelming use of sterilization is considered. The growing acceptance of phenomena such as “test-tube babies” and euthanasia point towards man’s uncomfortableness with his natural limits. People seek to adjust their bodies according to their desires, rather than living according to their needs.
Paul VI’s vision wasn’t all negative, however. He reminded us of the beauty and dignity of God’s plan for marriage. He reminded us that marital union is much more than the symbolic union of two people that the world often takes it to be. Marital union is the union of a couple in love, with the God who is love. In this union, both couple and God work together to bring forth a new person. Paul VI so valued God’s creative plan for sex that he designated the first sentence of Humanae Vitae to it when he said that the “transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator.”
Why Was Contraception Invented In The First Place?
The main consideration in the invention of contraception was as an aid to responsible family planning, to regulate and separate births. Secondarily, it was supposed to allow a couple more freedom in their sexual expression within a marriage. Predictably, it achieved neither of these objectives, and it instead set about redefining sex and its purpose. Contraception is neither an aid to family planning, nor to married life. The effects of widespread contraceptive use are directly contrary to its intended aims and demonstrate that contraception destroys marriage as created by God.
Secondary considerations in the development of contraception included the desire to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and STIs. However, the mainstream introduction of contraception has increased promiscuity, causing an increase in both unwanted pregnancies and STIs. Sigmund Freud, a father of the field of psychoanalysis and a harsh critic of religion, insisted that any attempt to separate intercourse from its procreative purpose was doomed perversion when he stated:
““. . . it is a characteristic common to all the perversions that in them reproduction as an aim is put aside. This is actually the criterion by which we judge whether a sexual activity is perverse – if it departs from reproduction in its aims and pursues the attainment of gratification independently . . . Everything that . . . serves the pursuit of gratification alone is called by the unhonoured title of ‘perversion’ and as such is despised.”
Contraception was invented in an attempt bring our sexuality in line with our desires, but the aftermath of this attempt has proven definitively that reality cannot be altered. In fact, we only find fulfilment when we live according to God’s vision for our sexuality. To live in accordance with his will for our sexuality is to live chastity.
How Can Chastity Replace The Contraceptive Mentality?
The catechism defines chastity as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being”. In our blog, “What Is Chastity? (And What It’s Not)”, we discuss exactly what chastity is, and what the practice of chastity entails. For now, all we’re interested in is how living chastely offers us an alternative.
Using contraception fosters in us a “contraceptive mentality”, which conditions us to seeing people as objects of our sexual desires. It degrades sexual intimacy by reducing it to casual encounters and hook-ups. Even when used within an exclusive marriage, the total “self-gift” of sex is distorted by contraception as it is not possible to truthfully say “I give myself totally to you”, while one or both partners is holding something back. If these are the effects of contraception on our understanding of, and engagement with, sex, how can chastity help us?
Chastity is primarily about how we look at other people, which means that to live chastely is to attempt to look at people as Christ looks at them. When we see people as Christ sees them, we come to value them for no other reason than their personhood. We come to understand that people are inherently deserving of our love and respect, and practicing chastity is an attempt to live out this understanding of the human person. Does any of this explain how practicing chastity combats the contraceptive mentality? Indeed, it does. When our perception of people changes on a fundamental level, our behaviour must change too. Whereas once we might have entertained casual sex or hook-up culture as just “a bit of fun”, stress relief, or even a pastime, chastity teaches us that people are far too important to be treated this way. They don’t deserve you for a night; they deserve you for a lifetime. They don’t deserve part of you; they deserve all of you. With this understanding established, contraception seems to lose its place in true, loving relationships.
If I’m Practicing Chastity, How Can I Plan A Family?
When considering chastity, the misconception is often formed that everyone called to marriage is also called to produce a large family very quickly. While some couples may be, it is certainly not the case for all. God knows this and provided chaste ways to naturally space children, one of which is called Natural Family Planning, or NFP.
NFP uses science and simple observation to determine, with great accuracy, if a woman is likely or unlikely to become pregnant at any given time. Unlike contraception, NFP does not sterilize the marital act. It is just information about the way our bodies work, information we can use to decide, along with our spouse, whether to invite the possibility of new life by engaging in the marital act or to abstain from sex in order to avoid that possibility. By abstaining from sex (sacrificing) rather than sterilizing it (insisting on pleasure alone), we show respect for the full meaning of human sexuality as God made it.
Contraception is widely used and accepted in the modern world, but God calls us to a far greater reality than this. He calls us to chastity, and the total self-giving love that it requires. Contraception introduces a mentality that leaves us feeling used and abused, chastity leaves us feeling loved. We were all made for love and we shouldn’t settle for anything less.