The Catholic Church remains almost a lone voice in our age defending the view that contraceptive sexual activity in marriage is wrong. Many young Catholic couples either are not aware of this teaching or simply choose to ignore it.
When asked, few can explain the reasons behind it. Some venture to say that the Church opposes sex in general and pleasure in particular. Others think that the Church wants everybody to have as many kids as possible.
Some are even more cynical, and suggest that repressed, gray-haired celibates enjoy being able to stick their intrusive noses into people's bedrooms.
Whys behind teachings
The reasons behind the Church's position on contraception, however, are actually a far cry from any of these old clichés. Among the deeper reasons behind the teaching, the Church stresses especially how contraception forces us to speak a false and contradictory language to our spouse through our body and our sexuality.
Because sex is a deeply interpersonal form of communication, we can consider some related examples of personal communication to see how the language of our own bodies is violated whenever we engage in contraceptive sex.
Would it be normal, for example, for a wife to insert earplugs, while trying to listen attentively to or carry on a conversation with her husband? The earplugs bespeak the view that, "I don't really want to hear you and be with you" and they disrupt the couple's mutual communication.
If a woman inserts a cervical diaphragm or a vaginal sponge while having intercourse, she is likewise employing a language that says she doesn't really want to communicate openly and fully with her husband.
She wants to keep part of who he is at a distance, at arm's length; that is to say, she shuns his fertility and fruitfulness. In that moment, she is rejecting the paternal aspect of his masculinity, and refusing to share with him the deep maternal meaning of her femininity.
We can further inquire whether it would it be normal to surgically excise healthy vocal cords, and then try to carry on a conversation with our spouse. Opting for a vasectomy and then pursuing sex involves a similar contradictory language of the body.
When a husband puts on a condom during intercourse, he disrupts that intimate communication that is written right into the language of his body, much as if he had wrapped his mouth in cellophane before trying to have a verbal conversation with his wife.
Not a disease
As Professor Bill May puts it, a person does not put on gloves to touch a beloved one tenderly, unless one thinks that some disease may be communicated. But is pregnancy a disease? And is not the use of condoms, diaphragms, spermicidal jellies, and the like similar to putting on gloves?
Do husband and wife really become "one flesh" if they must arm themselves with protective gear before "giving" themselves to one another genitally?
The problem here is clear: marital sexuality is actually all about loving someone totally and unreservedly, giving and receiving totally, and not holding back who we are for ourselves. It is a unique language of total self-giving.
Contraception, on the other hand, allows marital sexuality to devolve into a kind of mutual masturbation where each pursues erotic satisfaction apart from the total gift of self, and apart from any openness to life. Because of contraception, marital sexual activity slips into a subtle mode of mutual exploitation - a lifeless, self-focused, needs-centered apparatus.
Misusing our bodies
Malcolm Muggeridge, the famous BBC correspondent who converted to Catholicism late in life, instinctively appreciated how the Church was resisting this trivializing of the gift of sex by its strong stance against contraception:
"It was the Catholic Church's firm stand against contraception and abortion which finally made me decide to become a Catholic . . . As the Romans treated eating as an end in itself, making themselves sick in a vomitorium so as to enable them to return to the table and stuff themselves with more delicacies, so people now end up in a sort of sexual vomitorium.
"The Church's stand is absolutely correct. It is to its eternal honor that it opposed contraception, even if the opposition failed. I think, historically, people will say it was a very gallant effort to prevent a moral disaster."
The idea of serially eating and purging, in order to be able to eat and purge yet more, is a striking example of misusing our body in its most integral design. The one who dines in this way is seeking in a sense both to eat and not eat at the same time.
Objectively speaking, he is engaging in damaging and contradictory behavior, violating the inner order and meaning of his own body, and cheapening the basic and quintessential human activity of eating. This destructive behavior crosses a real moral line insofar as a person freely and knowingly chooses to do it.
Contraception involves this same sort of destructive and contradictory behavior. Unlike the case of the vomitorium, however, sex is an inherently relational activity involving two people. For that reason, the damage done by engaging in contraceptive sex as a couple will extend beyond the fabric of their individual persons and trigger damage at the heart of that delicate relationship which is their marriage.
The choice to use a condom during sexual intimacy speaks the same contradictory language of the vomitorium: the language of trying to have sex, but not really have it; of trying to do it, without really doing it. One is militating directly against the sexual act itself, violating its inner order and harmony by actively flustering its obvious life-giving designs.
Contraception, thus, always involves an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other in the face of that innate language of sex which calls for a complete self-giving.
The reasons behind the Church's teaching thus run deep and flow from profound considerations regarding the integral design of human sexuality. Pope John Paul II put it well when he stressed how couples who use contraception in their marriage presume to, "act as 'arbiters' of the divine plan and they 'manipulate' and degrade human sexuality and with it themselves and their married partner by altering its value of 'total' self-giving."
Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, Pa.
Growing in love and virtue:
The Vatican II fathers remind us that the Lord doesn't leave out married folk when it comes to holiness: "The constant fulfillment of the duties of this Christian vocation demands notable virtue.
"For this reason, strengthened by grace for holiness of life, the couple will painstakingly cultivate and pray for steadiness of love, largeheartedness, and the spirit of sacrifice."
Growth in virtue does not happen automatically. But by the grace of God, it can happen. Love leads to life, and life leads to sacrificial service.
Part of that sacrifice is a call to generosity. The Church calls us to give generously of our time, talents, treasure, and, yes, our bodies in order to build up the kingdom of God within our families, in the Church, and throughout the world - and in that order.
When we are generous toward God, we discover a basic principle: We cannot outgive God. As St. Paul says, what you sow you shall surely reap (see 2 Cor 9:6-15). This generosity, in turn, strengthens our witness to our children about the trustworthiness of God to provide for our needs and to use us to provide for the needs of others.
A priest once came into a second-grade CCD class to see what the children had learned. When he asked the children what Jesus said about marriage, there was an uncomfortable silence. Then a little girl in the front row raised her hand and ventured: "Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.'"
We smile at her innocence. Yet, in fact, most of us did not deeply comprehend what we were entering when we walked down the aisle and took our vows before God.
Every Catholic wedding includes a pledge of openness to life by both the husband and wife. St. Paul teaches, "Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty" (1 Tm 2:15). Given other scriptural texts, this passage applies only to married women.
If a married woman is open to life and God has not yet blessed her with a child, she is still sanctified through her obedience and the suffering of waiting.
Note the conditional clause: It is not enough to produce children; salvation results from ongoing faith, love, and holiness, of which bearing children is only a part.
St. Paul urges young widows to remarry and to establish households: "So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, rule their households, and give the enemy no occasion to revile us" (1 Tm 5:14). Rather than being gossips who waste time giving Satan opportunities, women who are busy in the affairs of the married state strengthen the body of Christ.
In Titus 2:3-5, St. Paul instructs older women to teach the younger women how to love their children and husbands, so that the Word of God will not be discredited. These passages highlight the role of the service of motherhood, not only for the benefit of the family but also to limit opportunities for sin.
Motherhood is the fullest expression of a woman's femininity as she collaborates with God to create and sustain life. Pope John Paul II declares that of all titles that Mary has received, her most important is Mother, for "to serve means to reign."
By the mercy of God, Mary was faithful to her call to be the mother of the Savior of the world. Likewise, by the mercy of God, we can be faithful to God's call in our lives to bear and guide godly offspring.
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