The Catholic Church’s teachings about marriage are based on the natural law, and provided that absolute morality is understood, they can be easily be understood based on proper application of right reason. The primary purpose of marriage is the procreation and education of children. Naturally, this tenet raises questions regarding contraception, infertility, and homosexuality. These topics are all interconnected and will be discussed in the next few posts. This installment is about contraception.
There are many paradoxes, that is, apparent contradictions or things seemingly difficult to reconcile, within the Church’s teachings about marriage. For example, if the purpose of marriage is having children, are people who are infertile permitted to get married? If so, why cannot homosexual couples get married as well? And are couples required to try to have as many children as is physically possible? If not, why does the Church permit one method or type of birth regulation and not others?
The answer to this conundrum lies in understanding two simple rules: respecting fertility as a healthy condition and maintaining the integrity of the marital act. This is based on the natural law, as it has been understood by all cultures throughout history. The Roman historian Livy even quipped, in Book VI, Chapter 6 of The Rise of the Roman Empire, “The intercourse of the sexes is a universal instinct of nature, and the birth of children is the result.” That is, our natural and proper instinct is to perform the act that children can be procreated from. Hence it follows that the only proper form of the sexual act is the one that actually has the capacity to bring children into being. Anything else is an aberration from the ways of nature and a perversion of our healthy instinct.
What is meant by ‘proper form’ is that the external action, the actual fleshly union, must be done in the way whereby it is possible for conception to occur. It is also clear from natural law that fertility- that is, the ability to procreate upon having intercourse- is the normal, healthy condition of our bodies, and therefore it is wrong to seek to change that fact.
This is why any and all forms of artificial contraception are wrong. Throughout most of human history this was almost unanimously recognized by respectable society. A condom, diaphragm, or other barrier, a spermicide, a vasectomy, and ‘coitus interruptus’ are all examples of methods that are designed to prevent the proper form of the sexual act from occurring. To be specific and blunt (and I do not normally like to speak this bluntly here on the blog, but for this context, it seems to be unavoidable, so here goes!), the proper form is that the man’s fertile semen must be allowed to flow freely through the woman’s vagina and reproductive system, in order for conception to potentially occur, and these methods are all designed to prevent this from happening. This is, therefore, a perversion of our normal, healthy instinct, and as such is wrong.
Meanwhile, hormonal contraceptives such as a pill or injection, an implant such as an IUD, or a tubal ligation are all examples of methods that are designed to mutilate the body of one of the partners, usually the woman, such that it is no longer physically able to perform its normal healthy function of procreating children. This too is a complete perversion of nature and is wrong. The ability to produce children is wholly good and natural, as well as wholly integrated with a woman’s overall health. Hence, it is completely illogical to deliberately destroy that function. What is worse is that many of these methods are abortifacient, designed to end the life of a newly-conceived child who may come into being in spite of the contraceptive effort.
I recognize that this all may seem very heavy-handed and harsh. We live in a world where contraception is paramount, viewed as normal by most of society. Most people today have probably never stopped to consider whether or not it is appropriate. If they are even aware that the Church teaches that it is wrong, they likely assume that it is simply a freaky Catholic thing. It is important, therefore, to understand and demonstrate that, whether we realize it or not, artificial contraception does grossly violate human nature, and causes damage wherever it is used or endorsed.
Pope Paul VI famously prophesied in his notorious 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (which I highly encourage anyone to read who is able to!) that a society that endorsed contraception would experience a serious lowering of moral standards, an epidemic of women being disrespected and used for a man’s mere sexual pleasure, and even public authorities beginning to require the use of contraception as an efficient ‘solution’ to various problems. Some books that reflect and expound on the fulfillment of these prophecies are Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader and Why Humanae Vitae Is Still Right edited by Janet E. Smith, and Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of The Sexual Revolution by Mary Eberstadt. (Note: This paragraph contains paid affiliate links.)
In essence, we must realize that, because the primary purpose of our sexuality is fertility and conception, it is simply not appropriate to tamper with our bodies or with the form of the sexual act in order to prevent conception from happening. We must remember that the unitive and procreative aspects of the conjugal act are meant to be inseparable from each other. Ultimately, it is wrong to place our own convenience or pleasure over respecting God’s design for married love and procreation.
The next post will discuss the issues of infertility and periodic continence in regard to this issue.