Order in Creation
The Catholic Church holds that God created everything, and that everything God created has a purpose, is ordered to something, whether the thing or the purpose is simple or complex. Everything God created contains within itself an answer or answers to the question: “What Is This For?” Eyes see; leaves engage in a complex process of photosynthesis and respiration to give nutrition to their plant; rocks fall; amoebas multiply. It doesn’t matter whether this creation happened all at once or over millennia through a process of evolution. Some (if not most) things and parts of things have more than one purpose, but then the purposes have an order – they are not and cannot all be equal. Leaves give shade, but that is not their primary purpose. Eyes can be dressed up with mascara and eyeshadow, but looking attractive is not their primary purpose.
A good indication of a “what a thing is for” is whether if one were to remove that act or aspect from all of those things, one would have to change the definition, understanding, name of the thing. (If eyes in general could not see, they would not be what we call eyes. But the animal world contains plenty of very unattractive examples of eyes.)
Order, Purpose, and Sex
Our organs of reproduction have a purpose. [Hm. Note that these are never called our organs-of-being-united-to-another-person…] Their primary purpose is [drumroll, please] Reproduction. Now, before the complaints roll in about the Catholic Church being opposed to pleasure; only concerned about multiplying, etc., etc., let me explain a bit more. There are plenty of non-sexual ways to use our bodies to get closer to another person (talking, for instance); there is only one way to use our bodies to make babies. There are also plenty of non-sexual possibilities for bodily pleasure: eating, seeing beautiful things, music, etc. But only one way to make babies.
So. Sex has multiple purposes – good purposes – but reproduction is primary. Now, there isn’t a problem with focusing on non-primary purposes of things, but we do run into problems when we thwart, mutilate, or eliminate the primary purpose. Eyes are great for attracting members of the opposite sex – but it’s a problem if you make yourself blind in order to do it. Eating provides pleasure, but consuming laxatives so that none of that food nourishes is a problem.
Blindness and purging are just problems for an individual, though. It’s not that the Catholic Church says, “Okay, no problem – go ahead,” but along less extreme lines, there’s really no problem with walking on our hands, chewing gum, or piercing our ears. The issue is that messing with sex is more significant than gum chewing or even making myself blind to look attractive, because sex isn’t just about me. It’s about me within society, within the human race. My eyes only see for me; my “organs of reproduction” have reproduced two human beings for all of society, for all of humanity [whoa. bit of a feeling of vertigo there].
Furthermore, I didn’t – couldn’t have – reproduced those two human beings by myself. On my own, my reproductive powers are, well, incomplete. When the reproductive organs of a woman are united with those of a man, though, the combined organs form one complete system of human reproduction. [“One flesh,” as it were. Sound familiar?] These reproductive capacities aren’t there just for me & my own pleasure, or even for bonding with my husband. Those are good things, excellent things, even – but they should be appreciated while respecting, not thwarting, the primary purpose of sex.
Respecting the Purpose of Sex
Respecting the purpose of sex and our reproductive organs (internal and external) means that neither the reproductive organs nor intercourse should be “redesigned” or tampered with in a way that makes, or attempts to make, reproduction impossible.
Hormonal contraception, IUDs, and elective sterilization all attempt to make normally potentially fertile sexual organs infertile. They tamper with the sexual organs in order to thwart or eliminate their primary reproductive purpose.
Barrier methods, the “withdrawal” method, oral sex, anal sex, homosexual sex, and masturbation all attempt to achieve a sexual climax while physically blocking or completely preventing the potential meeting of sperm and egg. They tamper with the sexual act itself, thwarting or eliminating its primary reproductive purpose.
Natural Family Planning (NFP) in its various forms* and the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) (assuming barrier methods are not used) respect the integrity of both the sexual organs and the sexual act itself in that they neither interfere with the reproductive organs to make them infertile, nor do they tamper with the sex act itself to prevent the meeting of sperm and egg. [There is no requirement to have sex; “not having sex now” can no more be called “contraceptive” than not having a piece of chocolate cake can be called bulimic.] NFP and FAM rely on tracking the woman’s fertility and avoiding pregnancy (if that is desired) by not having sex when there are signs that the woman is fertile. Some methods focus on one sign of possible fertility more than others; some use more technology to arrive at a more precise identification of fertility – a thermometer, a monitor that tracks hormone levels – others less/none.
[*Forms of NFP include the Billings Ovulation Method, the Sympto-Thermal Method, the Kippley-Prem Method, the Creighton Model FertilityCare System, and the Marquette Model. All can be grouped under the umbrella term “Natural Family Planning.” The “rhythm method,” on the other hand, relies on the calendar – no physical signs of fertility – to predict when a woman is likely to ovulate & therefore (more) likely to conceive if she has sex so that she & her husband can abstain. It certainly doesn’t interfere with the sex organs or act, but it isn’t particularly reliable, either.]
What I have outlined here is known today as the “Catholic” moral teaching. For almost 2,000 years, though, this – the reasons and the conclusions – was just “the moral teaching” of what could be called the Christian West.* Did everyone follow it? No. [If everyone always followed current moral norms, we wouldn’t have to deal with child abuse, drunk driving, or many other things crowding our prisons. And despite plenty of wishful thinking otherwise, just because someone believes something is wrong doesn’t mean they won’t do it.] Then, after almost 2,000 years of a consistent social and religious code of sexual morality, the Anglican Church put the first crack into the united teaching on contraception with Resolution 15 of the Lambeth Conference of 1930. It’s worth reading the resolution just to see how drastically everything shifted in such a comparatively brief time:
Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.
[*It’s worth noting that Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, and Matthew Henry all have pretty scathing words about Onanism (the “withdrawal method”) in their various commentaries on Genesis 38.]
Rhetoric on Sex and Contraception
Prior to this, if you had asked anyone why contraception (or homosexual sex, masturbation, etc.) was wrong, the response would have been that it violated the order of sex as God established it in Creation. The truth of that answer has not changed. What has changed is its rhetorical persuasiveness. What remains true is that these things are wrong, at root, not because they can cause a host of societal ills; but rather that they are wrong, and therefore when they are practiced, societal ills are likely to follow. In a society that has rejected God – at least as a Creator who might have some say in His handiwork – arguments based on societal ills that are likely to follow tend to be more persuasive, however.
Pope Paul VI recognized this as he penned the encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirming the Church’s perennial teaching against contraception. His predictions of the dangers of contraception appear in paragraph 17:
“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.”
Has this come to pass? In a word: Yes.
I will let Mary Eberstadt’s article “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae” answer at greater, more sufficient, length. (Also check out Janet Smith’s audio recording “Contraception: Why Not.”)
And I will tackle marriage itself in another post.