Contraception and Discernment
A little more than three years ago, when I first moved to Austin, I had very few friends of my own in the area. The nearest and dearest person I knew was my brother, who at the time lived less than a mile away from my apartment complex. He was a residential assistant at the time, and so lived in the dorms and had all of the duties and responsibilities which go with that post. I spent a good deal of my free time with him at St Edward’s, but he often had to make rounds or resolve some crisis or other, and so I spent a good deal of time talking to his fellow RAs and his residents.
I remember very few specific conversations which I had, but one stands out a bit in my mind today. One of the residents had taken up riding horses—my favorite activity growing up, and a thing which I still dearly miss—and so I had frequent short conversations with her. We talked a few times about horses, but on this particular night, we talked about something else. I don’t specifically remember how we got onto the topic of birth control and religion, but we did. It actually may have been a conversation about religion—she was an Anglican of some sort—but it drifted into the realm of birth-control. At some point, she mentioned that some relatives of hers were Catholics and that they insisted that one couldn’t use birth control. They didn’t know why they couldn’t, only that they couldn’t BECAUSE THE CHURCH SAYS SO.
She complained that as a result, they had too many children (whatever that means), and they couldn’t even give a good explanation as to why. There are, of course, a few separate issues present here, first and foremost a bit of a crisis in catechesis: it’s good to know that there are still other Catholics who have such trust in the Church, but at the same time one ought to be able to give a good account of these teachings (Romans 14:12, 1Peter4:5). This is the basis for apologetics, but also for catechesis. The Church doesn’t lay down arbitrary rules, there is always some reasoning (and often quite a bit of reasoning) behind each of the Doctrines of the Faith; or as one (Protestant) friend of mine once put it, the Church is very self-consistent in her teachings.
Crisis in catechesis aside, why does the Church oppose birth control? The short answer is that she does not—at least, not entirely. If this seems like a bit of a dodge, I will return to this point momentarily, but suffice it to say that a more accurate statement is to say that the Church opposes the use of contraception. I will discuss the difference shortly, but as a working definition, contraception is any artificial form of birth-control: condoms, the pill, spermicide, sterilization (especially the forced sterilization schemes proposed by such people as Sanger, Ehrlich, and Holdren), etc.
With this distinction in mind, it is fair to ask why the Church opposes contraception. There are certainly a few consequentialist answers which rely on prudence, but few of them pertain to a married couple. In the case of an unmarried couple, the sin in question is fornication, but this is a topic for another day. I suppose that there are a few consequentialist answers which apply to married couples: the pill can cause an abortion if taken “the morning after;” the pill wrecks her natural hormone cycle and can lower her sex-drive; the condom can break (a problem which is especially bad with Planned Parenthood's condoms--a coincidence, no doubt); the pill can have long-term repercussions for a woman’s fertility (ever notice how many “fertility clinics” have sprung into existence in the last few decades?); and a federal study has confirmed the link between contraception to an increased risk of cancer..
These are all prudential reasons against using contraception, and can certainly be debated and debunked or affirmed on their own merits. But they are not sufficient to make contraception a sin, for which reason alone the Church says it ought not be used. There is a moral reason which underlies the Church’s prohibition of contraception, one which the secularist would brush aside but which ought to hold far more sway with Theists, particular Christians and especially Catholics.
Every pregnancy results from an act of a man, a woman, and God*. In the act of procreation, man and woman become “coauthors” in creation, but coauthors with God, Who alone can will a new life into being. Thus, the life of the child which is being prevented by contraception is a life which is willed by God, and so the couple who are contracepting are pitting their wills against God’s will. Moreover, they are doing so knowingly and in a deliberate manner—present are all three components of a mortal sin: grave moral evil, knowledge, and consent. It is a grave moral evil because the couple is subordinating God’s will to their own, and because if there is an evil worse than murdering, it is the act of preventing a life from ever existing.
This statement then poses another question: if contraception is a sinful subversion of God’s will, then why would the Church permit any form of birth control? Or, alternatively, why does it matter whether the form is natural or artificial? Without going into too much detail as to how the natural form of birth control—Natural Family Planning or “NFP”—works, suffice it to say that a woman is naturally fertile during one part of the month and naturally infertile during the rest. This is a part of human (and indeed mammalian) biology; in essence, the Catholic understanding is that God made women that way, and that the fertility cycle is a part of His design.
The ability to “plan” children is a sort of built-in feature of our design as humans. But there are several additional differences between NFP and contraception. First and foremost, NFP stresses the openness to life. While NFP is very effective for planning and spacing children, the only “foolproof” method of birth control is abstinence. Thus, should a couple conceive while practicing NFP to not conceive, they are ready to welcome the new life into the world, even if only to place him up for adoption; the same cannot generally be said about contraception. Second, NFP relies on abstinence during fertile periods; if it is not a perfect conformity to God’s will, it is at least a closer conformity than contraception, for NFP recognizes that procreation is an important part of sexual intercourse, while contraception divorces the two. Thus, NFP recognizes God’s will through our design, and attempts to work within that design. Third, contraception has the tendency of reducing a woman (and often the man as well) to a mere sexual object; it eschews Kant’s Categorical Imperative by essentially reducing the woman into a machine with several functions which can be individually “activated” and “deactivated” as desired.
Perhaps most important is that NFP is not only a very effective method for preventing conception, but is also the most effective method for conceiving. Most forms of contraception have the side-effect of working longer than intended, so that when the couple really wants to have children, they find it difficult. If anything, NFP makes conceiving easier, because the couple is well-aware of when the woman is most fertile. Further, since NFP involves abstinence during the fertile time of the month, it requires communication between the spouses.
This communication will surely also involve much prayer and discernment. Thus, the couple is constantly asking, “What do we want, and what does God want?” The latter part of the question is very important, yet it is often missing from the lives of the couple who contracept. How easy it is to forget that the first vocation of every married couple is parenthood, and that like any other vocation, it must be discerned.
*Some may argue that it’s really a matter of a man, a woman and biology, and that God never comes into the picture. It is entirely possibly that biology is entirely autonomous, and that even “ensoulment” happens without God’s intervention: that a soul grows out of the mystical union between the souls of lover and beloved. Granted even these conditions—none of which are truly certain—I would argue that God has a role to play. As evidence—shaky evidence, perhaps—I would cite the tragic condition of miscarriages. They are fairly common (a sizeable percentage of all pregnancies end in miscarriage), but are generally through no fault of either parent. Perhaps—and this is speculation only—the miscarriage is God’s way to end a life which He did not will. The theology behind miscarriages is an undeveloped field, as far as I know, so there are few answers stated—or even questions posed—here. I also don’t necessarily see miscarriage a punishment from God—and my heart certainly goes out to those families who have known the pain of a miscarriage—but I don’t think it is a punishment since it is thought that the majority of these occur without a woman’s ever even knowing that she was pregnant.