OK let’s be honest. A life without contraceptives would be a difficult life for many of us to live. Seriously, why does the church insist on tormenting all of humanity with such ancient rules and constraints? I have to say, after approximately forty years of rebuffing the church’s admonitions I’ve finally come to see the wisdom behind the admonishment. Or more precisely, her natural and protective instinct behind her loving reproof.
I was sitting in a Moral Theology class one day and my professor ever so eloquently explained it this way: In marriage what the church desires for the husband and wife is the experience of pure, unadulterated, complete conjugal unity whereby “the two become one flesh” (Mark 10:8). Artificial contraceptives inhibit this experience by obstructing the total reciprocal gift of self. The sincere gift of self comes from self-mastery and is free from constraint, wherein man exemplifies the image of God in the moment of communion. A love withheld is not love in its purest form and will not permit us to reach the fullness of our humanity.
Maybe you’re thinking, this all sounds like a nice fantasy. Or maybe you’ve heard this before and perhaps it hasn’t resonated with you as it did with me that day. If this is so, we are free to live our lives according to our choosing, and the beauty of our faith is that Christ will always wait with open arms for our return. However, despite our personal lifestyles we must respect that in order to be authentic the church must always mirror the life and words of Jesus Christ. Jesus withheld nothing and gave himself wholly in order to give us the gift of eternal life. The church, born through his suffering, death and resurrection, believes in the dignity of the human person because we were each created in God’s image and likeness. Since we are images of His likeness, why would His children, grace-filled human beings, need to rely on devices created by other human beings to control our capacity to conceive? If Jesus was able to give us his whole body, his whole self for our salvation, couldn’t we model a small version of that in the way we love the most important partner in our lives – our spouses?
Why would God make the human body fertile if He wanted man to block its reproductive faculties? Even if you have trouble conceding to this, surely you can understand why the Father of Creation would abhor something contra-creative. And even if a moral standard is difficult to adhere to it doesn’t make it unfair or unachievable. Whether or not a life without artificial contraceptives is personally attainable for you or me should not determine the validity of the precept. It certainly is attainable for many.
More than sixty years ago C.S. Lewis asked the following question: “In what sense is Man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?” His answer is quite riveting:
“Let us consider three typical examples: the airplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive. In a civilized community, in peacetime, anyone who can pay for them may use these things. But it cannot strictly be said that when he does so he is exercising his own proper or individual power over Nature. If I pay you to carry me, I am not therefore myself a strong man. Any or all of the three things I have mentioned can be withheld from some men by other men – by those who sell, or those who allow the sale, or those who own the sources or production, or those who make the goods. What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may or may not, allow other men to profit by.”
Here is one question to consider: Do you possess yourself? Would you consider yourself a person who has healthy, resolute control of your actions? As the Seinfeld episode would ask, “Are you the master of your domain?” If we need to regularly trek down to the local pharmacy and pop birth control pills manufactured by Pfizer the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” We cannot claim to possess interior strength if our power is derived from the scientific discoveries of some men who could potentially cease producing them, and furthermore could potentially cause us physical harm.
It appears we have been deceived and exploited by the age of relativism and pop culture. Today more than ever we have been seduced into thinking that convenience is better simply because it is easier when actually quite the opposite is true. While natural family planning may be hard to incorporate into our lives, it’s the hard that makes it better. Doing hard things makes for stronger individuals and stronger marriages, which is what society is seriously lacking today. Artificial contraception is not hard and requires no thought, discussion, discipline, abstinence, prudence or faith. By using contraceptives we are bypassing an opportunity for our own character formation and development. Some practices require more faith and discipline than others. Refraining from artificial contraception is one of them. We will never progress as persons if we continue to sacrifice the virtue of temperance on the altar of scientific progress.
Scripture tells us to train our body and keep it under control (1 Cor 9:27). In what way do we exhibit self-control if we must rely on artificial devices to control our selves? In fitness we push our bodies to reach their maximum potential. We train our bodies to accomplish all sorts of remarkable feats. We run marathons and ironman triathlons, yet when it comes to abstinence we are impulsive apes that have been reduced to depending on a piece of latex to manage our spontaneous urges.
The use of artificial contraceptives is contrary to church teaching because the church will always believe in our inner strength and our ability to possess ourselves. Jesus trusted and obeyed and the church was born. While societal norms may change like the wind, human anthropology doesn’t. Planning a family naturally in prayerful discernment with God was as challenging two thousand years ago as it is today.
And here C.S. Lewis explains an additional complexity:
“… And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”
It appears that what we may think is protecting women’s reproductive rights has turned out to be yet another prideful attempt to control human life and a woman’s reproductive capacities, notwithstanding the many potentially devastating health defects to which women, and men, risk exposure. We often hear that artificial contraceptives are used for noble causes, such as “population control” – as if the world’s population was in our control. We can control the actions of six billion people about as much as we can stop tsunamis or volcanic eruptions. Population control is a crafty idiom for life and death control. Instead of attempting to control the actions of others, for example, by imposing condom use on third world nations or morning-after pills on pre-pubescent students, why not attempt to control our own actions? Or better yet, teach our young methods to establish self-control, which is exactly what Mother Theresa was doing in Calcutta with natural family planning. Natural family planning respects and monitors a woman’s life cycle, while ingesting a pill may potentially harm it.
When Mother Teresa accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she said the following:
“We are doing another thing which is very beautiful – we are teaching our beggars, our leprosy patients, our slum dwellers, our people of the street, natural family planning. And in Calcutta alone in six years – it is all in Calcutta – we have had 61,273 babies less from the families who have had [babies], but because they practice this way of abstaining, of self-control, out of love for each other. We teach them the temperature meter which is very beautiful, very simple, and our poor people understand.”
Let us think twice about whom we are accusing of waging war on women’s reproductive rights. And we must not forget that health care is not an inalienable right, it is a privilege made possible only through the existence of such inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Hospitals didn’t exist before the church in all her wisdom and charity created them. Instead of using our personal inadequacies as a means to control the church, in the very least we should respect her position, as she is eternally worthy of accolade for making this gift possible. She sets and maintains high standards, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. For after all, we are images of God. With our countless demands for endless concessions we are acting like nothing more than ungrateful children. Instead of imposing on the church to make concessions for our weaknesses, maybe we should impose higher standards upon ourselves.
Mother also said in the same talk, “The poor people are very great people. They can teach us so many beautiful things. The other day one of them came to thank and said: You people who have vowed chastity – you are the best people to teach us family planning. Because it is nothing more than self-control out of love for each other.”
While artificial contraception may be convenient for the here and now, it disregards and compromises a woman’s life cycle and underhandedly imposes itself on the generations of tomorrow. Three popes have passionately explained the potential devastation artificial contraceptives will have on mankind over time. The church always seeks to strengthen us interiorly and empower individuals with knowledge of the truth – that artificial contraceptives will only enslave us. Make no mistake; the manipulation of life will have a grave affect on future generations, if it hasn’t already.
God said to Abraham, “I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore… In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen 22:18). Abraham ‘s choice for obedience clearly benefitted future generations. By grace Christ enables us to live the way God intends. And the pursuit of God pays off, for only through His blessing can we be saved.