Catholicism is countercultural on contraception
PATRICK LEE writes that our sexual lives must be grounded in reality and truth . . .
The Catholic Church teaches that sexual acts belong in marriage, that every marital act should be open to new life, and therefore that contraception is objectively immoral. This teaching, needless to say, is held in contempt by our affluent western culture.
While some Catholics are embarrassed by it (or reject it), it is the Church’s constant teaching and flows from the fundamental truths that human life is sacred — and that marriage is a two-in-one-flesh union. Catholics need to defend and explain this teaching. Two lines of argument can help them do so.
The first argument focuses on the goodness of human life itself. Morality centrally concerns how our choices bear on the intrinsic goods of human persons — goods such as life, health, knowledge and friendship. To choose contrary to one or more of these goods is to set oneself against an intrinsic good of a person and thus to act contrary to love of God and neighbor.
Contraception is the choice to deprive a sexual act of its potential to procreate. This choice is an interior act of will, carried out by an external behavior, either before, during, or after the sexual act. As its name indicates, it’s a choice directly against the coming to be of new human life. While it isn’t a choice to destroy a life that already exists, it is a directing of one’s will against new life. Just as it’s possible to direct one’s will toward goods that don’t yet exist — by willing to bring them into being — so it’s possible to direct one’s will against a good that does not yet exist by choosing to ensure it does not come to be. But it’s morally wrong to direct one’s will against the inherent goods of persons — including life itself.
People often object that contraception is morally indistinguishable from Natural Family Planning. However, there is a clear difference between the two. It’s not wrong to choose not to pursue a good because of the difficulties associated with that pursuit. If a student chooses not to take a summer course because of time and expense, he is not choosing contrary to knowledge. In the same way, a couple’s choice to refrain from intercourse during a fertile time is not a choice against conception. By contrast, contraception is a choice to do something to make sure a baby does not come to be.
A second line of argument concerns the relationship between the sexual act and the marital unity it is meant to express. The sexual act should express mutual love and commitment and thus not treat the other’s body like a tool for pleasure. But it can truly express love and commitment only if it actualizes a real bodily union, only if the man and woman become one flesh.
Marriage is the sharing of lives by a man and a woman on all levels of their humanity. And this sharing of lives — this bodily, emotional and spiritual union — is naturally extended and fulfilled, if all goes well, by their conceiving and rearing children together (even though not every marriage reaches that natural fulfillment). Children are the concrete fruit of the spouses’ marital union. But in contraception the will is directed against the coming to be of a child and so it is a choice contrary to the culmination of marital unity.
Moreover, marital intercourse is not just a sign or symbol of the spouses’ love — though it is that, of course — but it’s a real bodily union. In marital intercourse the spouses become the single subject of a single biological function, related to each other somewhat like the various organs — heart, lungs and arteries, for example — are parts of a single organism. If they have consented to share their lives on all levels — including, if all goes well, by becoming mother and father with each other — then this bodily union expresses and enables the spouses to experience their multi-leveled marital union. It is a constitutive part of their marital union.
But contraception closes the sexual act to procreation with the result that the associated sexual acts — for there is not a single, joint act — do not make them biologically one. Failing to embody their union, the sexual acts cease to be genuinely marital.
In today’s culture, feelings count for everything — even if they are illusory. But Christian teaching is that reality matters. Our sexual lives must be grounded in reality and truth. When Our Lord taught that in marriage a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two become one flesh (Mt 19:5), he was insisting that marriage is an objective reality, grounded in the genuine goods of life and bodily union.
PATRICK LEE, PH.D., is the John N. and Jamie D. McAleer Professor of Bioethics and the director of the Institute of Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville.