Simplifying Sex

What Some Priests Don’t Understand About Contraception

The current debate over health insurance and contraception has raised interesting questions for people of faith, particularly Catholics. I’m past menopause, and so contraception is not an issue for me. Yet I’m interested in it—in the same way I remain interested in pregnancy or childbirth. Avoiding or embracing pregnancy is the stuff of real life—the vivid centerpiece of youth and middle age. As a woman, a mother, and a Catholic, I’m part of it. I remember the drama, the excitement, the fear. Pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding are intense experiences. For the sustained nature of the physical bond, nothing compares. But it begins with sex, and sex is never simple.

And so it is unsettling when men who may never have experienced sex feel qualified not just to speak about it but to pronounce on it with certainty. In an article in the New York Times (February 18), Fr. Roger Landry, a priest in my old diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, is quoted as saying, “What happens in the use of contraception, rather than embracing us totally as God made the other, with the masculine capacity to become a dad, or the feminine capacity to become a mom, we reject that paternal and maternal leaning.”

Well, no, Fr. Landry, we don’t. We don’t reject it. We make a decision about it. We recognize that pregnancy is a possibility, and we decide whether this is the right time for us to have a baby. We acknowledge that we are more than just potential (or actual) parents. One of the surest signs of youth—in any profession—is an unswerving adherence to literal interpretations. New teachers cling to the curriculum, whether or not the class is getting it. Young doctors focus on the clear x-ray, unable to see the patient in front of them writhing in pain. Parish priests preach the letter of the law, while their parishioners refuse to follow rules created without reference to the reality they know. But the rules aren’t just unrealistic. They are often irrelevant, based on incorrect or incomplete information.

Fr. Landry goes on to say, “Contraception…make[s] pleasure the point of the act, and any time pleasure becomes the point rather than the fruit of the act, the other person becomes the means to that end. And we’re actually going to hurt the people we love.” At one level, this is insightful and nuanced. When he laments how frequently such objectification happens to women in sexual relationships, Fr. Landry sounds almost feminist. And he is right that a relationship that’s only about the pursuit of pleasure is demeaning and ultimately hurtful.

He is wrong, though, to assume that using contraception automatically makes “pleasure the point of the act.” This is how adolescents think. Teenagers dream of constantly available sex, uninhibited by any possibility of pregnancy. That priests would talk the same way about sex between a husband and wife who have chosen to use contraception reflects inexperience and adolescent projection.

Adults understand that good sex, with or without contraception, goes deeper than pleasure. It is complex and demanding. And pleasure isn’t necessarily a part of it. Any human encounter requiring honesty and surrender has the potential for both revelation and pain. The communication, healing, and strengthening that good sex ensures is foundational to a marriage. Pure pleasure the point of the act? What is Fr. Landry talking about?

Distrust of pleasure is one hallmark of the church’s teaching about sex. This is odd because, as Catholics, we also believe that “eye has not seen nor ear heard the wonders God has prepared for those who love Him.” But that aside, what is the church’s antidote to the dread prospect of people having too much fun in bed? Children.

The thing is, children are also a deep source of pleasure, joy, and fun. The bishops, while recognizing this truth, nonetheless focus on babies as natural results of the biological act, as consequences and responsibilities—not as persons who are sought after and gladly welcomed. (Indeed, people who seek too vigorously to have children are also criticized as trying to play God, to control what should be divinely ordained.)

I understand what is behind the bishops’ anxiety over designer parenthood—the demand for too much control over what kind of children we have. And I agree that sexual license is a serious threat to happiness, order, and the good of the human community.

But every human activity has the potential to become unbalanced. Having children mindlessly, year after year, as former generations of Catholics did, is just as harmful to the social good as the refusal to connect sex with pregnancy. Visit India, Fr. Landry. Talk with the women here who are treated purely as producers of sons.

To defend contraception within marriage is not to defend sexual license. Married couples who have pledged a lifetime of commitment to each other and their families have the right and the duty to make their own decisions about contraception. The church’s role is to help them arrive at the decision that is right for their lives. It is not to dictate one-size-fits-all rules that have no foundation in practical experience.

The church has made a spectacle of itself by promoting an immature version of sexuality that is missing the sinew of lived experience. It used to frighten people into submission. Now it simply makes them smile a little sadly. I’m a prolife Catholic who practiced only Natural Family Planning. But I’m smiling, too. Because I’m sad for my church.



Commenting Guidelines

Thank you Jo McGowan you've put into words what we and so many married couples know.  Bishops, for the most part, have no idea what married life is.  Many have no pastoral experience at all having come from administrative offices.  Even bishops who know better are constrained by threats and very few speak out about Vatican pronouncements.

Edicts on behavior from the Vatican are like a blind man telling an artist she/he must use different techniques and colors.


have love! sex is a means to love and also to creat. Have love, then do what ever you want, said saint Agustine. pleasure is part of love and procreation. the church project Love and procreation. that's great. that is the goal. action and pleasure are means. church wants that the means should not be demeaned. some regulations are said for the beginners. those who are advanced in love, please forget about such teachings. all church teachings are means to reach us the state of pure love. when u reach there, what is the relevance of the means then? In theory and in principle Church opposes many things. Church has to. But in practice Church cares for all. If u find confusion make a confession. that's never a humiliation but a humble step to glory. Halleluia. confession is not for those who are able to obey all the teachings of the Church. (that's impossible),so we can't say there should not be teachings!!! visible church is the human side of the real Church. as there is limitations and lackings in man so in Church. that's why we say Pilgrim Church, growing Church and so on. we are the church. first we the branches reach top then the stem become more strong and more mature, Halleluia, by Saju Avi

This is an interesting opinion. By like most they lend themselves to drift beyond validating ones perspective to misguided slander like the comment about "mindlessly" having kids. I think you portray a general lack of an understanding about how Catholic teaching works. First, a teacher teaches the facts. I get your attempt to link a novice with obedience, but an argument like tht only "preaches to the choir" it rarely convinces anyone of differing perspective. and being an expert doesnt mean i get to change the laws which govern chemistry, for example - a field ive been an expert in for 20 years. no. the fundamentals really dont change.

 Lets call your opinion what it is. An opinion. You, like all of us fall short of the teaching of the Church. But when my students make mistakes in the lab, I don't change the physical laws of chemistry so their failed experimental setup will work next time. Not like I could change these laws anyways, but if I could...what would I teach them about chemistry. Nothing. And that's what I think you understand about Catholic teaching. It's not about you trying to make your difficult life choices easier. Nor should it be changed to accommodate you. That's arrogant and not what our faith is about. It's tough. I, like anyone reading this, know its tough. But I can't ask God to change because things don't fit in my schedule. Hence prayer. Try asking what you can do for God, and not what God can do for you....and stop blaming those He gives teaching authority.

What started out as a discussion about sex quickly morphed into a debate between the orthodox Catholics and the cafeteria Catholics.  It's a debate which can never be resolved through reasoned argument, supported by always debatable appeals to Scripture and Tradition. It goes to the definition of The Church.  Who is empowered to define The Church?  Who "owns" The Church?  What is The Church? I think that this is really the essence of most of the debate on this thread.

I will say that there is a cognitive disonance when people in opposition to the principle of Magesterial authority recite their own "qualifications" ("years of study," etc.) to enhance the credibility of their own pronouncements. It would seem preferable let one's arguments speak for themselves, if one rejects the concept of "authority."  I like the analogy between Internet discussion boards and an overheard subway conversation. Both may be valuable for stimulating thought and reflection and further research.  Neither should be received as an epiphany.

The following are the ruminations of this particular subway stranger.

My favorite psalm is the 27th.  Real goose bump stuff.The things in which I believe are those which speak to my heart.  I don't consciously pick and choose; that's a trivialization of what's going on.  That in which I believe can either be proven true or else touches my soul in a manner which compels belief.  I'm not wired to believe what I'm told when it can not be proven, when it seems implausible, and when it neither speaks to my open heart nor touches my soul.  My faith in Catholicism is by now very real, but it is not based on a belief that Magesterial teachings are inerrant.  The clergy are essential, but not authoritative. They are guides like a GPS is a guide.  They almost always get you to the general vicinity, but you are ultimately responsible for getting yourself where you are trying to go. 

Will I ever be a true Catholic?  It depends on what the definition of "true" is.  It's a definition which may be debated by humans but determined only by God.

I continue to ponder the 1969 quotation by the Fr. Ratzinger:

“Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority."This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal [God], and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official Church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism." Joseph Ratzinger, Part I, Chapter 1, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Vol. V of COMMENTARY ON THE DOCUMENTS OF VATICAN II, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969, p. 134)

He was only a theologian, back then. But if Fr. Ratzinger could himself be capable of thinking in such terms, then it should be understandable that people like me do receive official Church teachings with varying degrees of acceptance.

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

Keeping marriages intact is a priority. If using contraception frees a couple to have good sex often and enhances their closeness then fine. Marriage should include the intent to have children. Have as many as you can within time, economic and physical constraints. Do what you can to keep your marriage strong. Aren't these goals the bottom line?

It is heartening to see so many new voices emerging to challenge the myth that the sexual revolution and contraception have been a good thing for society.Collen Carroll Campbell, "What Women Want" Joseph, "Serving an Epidemic of Sexual Excess: Free Contraceptive Coverage -- A Bad Joke Played on Women" Fulwiler, "The Contraception Trap": Eberstadt, "Has the Sexual Revolution Been Good for Women? No.": Rose, "Battle hymn of the anti-abortion feminist:" Hoopes, "The Truth About Natural Family Planning:" H, "Why the Catholic Church Opposes Contraception:" Smith, with the classic "Contraception, Why not?" Giesler, "Contracepting America: the real war on women"

Ms. McGowan states that sex is never simple. Actually, it's the most simplistic activity human beings could possibly engage in. For anyone to suggest that another human being must first have had sex in order to speak about it is ridiculous. Does one have had to be pregnant in order to deliver a baby; or to discuss what a woman will probably experience during her pregancy? No, because that would eliminate make obstetricians. Likewise, neurosurgeons discuss brain tumors, and have never had one.

Marriage is what is complex, not sex. It's the human relationship between a man and a woman--the two totally different natures representing the two halves of the human race, spending a lifetime together in understanding and appreciating the differences of the other. Love in a marriage comes from a deepening of admiration and respect for the other and a tempering of needs and desires by virtue of the respect for the other's nature. One doesn't have to have been married to understand and counsel a man and a woman in their relationship. Problems they have are not new--they are part of human history.

Part of Ms. McGowan's attitude toward sex seems to come from feminism. Theories of feminism are clueless when it comes to understanding a woman's relationship with a man or visa versa. If one believes these theories, one is likely to create problems where none exist. The operative word when it comes to feminism is believe--those theories are all wrong and wrong because they seek to make a woman equal to a man.

Women were never equal to men. In order for a woman to be equal to a man she would have to be dragged backwards down twenty-five steps of a ladder. If you're a feminist, you believe that women were twenty-five steps below a man--that's just insulting. No man believes that--boys and girls who never mature believe that. And, there's the disconnect. Fr. Landry is a man, not a boy and Ms. McGowan is a girl not a woman.

Contraceptives should be a private issue, she says, for a married couple to decide. Although Ms. McGowan thinks her sex life is private, it's not. Every word one utters and every gesture made in public towards your husband and/or wife lets the entire world know how much you actually care for each other. For Ms. Gowan's focus of marriage to be on herself, women. pregnancy is an indication that her husband is lost in her shuffle for center stage. If he's even still around--she didn't mention him, just used the royal "we." 

Then she moves in for the kill with this gem: "Distrust of pleasure is one hallmark of the church’s teaching about sex. This is odd because, as Catholics, we also believe that “eye has not seen nor ear heard the wonders God has prepared for those who love Him.” But that aside, what is the church’s antidote to the dread prospect of people having too much fun in bed? Children." Is she equating sexual pleasure with the wonder of God's love? Dear God, I hope I misunderstood that one because equating love in that sentence with a basic physical  act similar in nature to eating is grotesque--unless one worships the act to the point of believing it's the whole purpose of life and thast all we are is sexual beings. That too is an insult to any thinking human being--especially a woman.

So, contraceptives. What do I think? I'm married 20 years, three teenagers--they're a blast. We have the coolest family and the greatest relationship, T.G. I've never taken the pill or used contraceptives--tmy husband either. No, we don't do NFP. We know biology--it's pretty basic. The magic numbers are 24 hrs, 72 hrs and that's about it. 

Sex, like any other behavior--sucking your thumb, picking your nose, scratching your body in public--requires awareness and self control. Contraceptives are marketed by advertisers to simple minded women who they've convinced need to constantly entice men with sex in order to be loved. These women do not know why men fall in love with women--it's never about sex. 

Sex is nice--but it's certainly not what life is about. That this is a Catholic forum and women are shouting about their contraceptives is actually pretty funny. Isn't the point of life in Catholicism to direct your mind, spirit and body towards a more spiritual plane? Isn't our body a sacred temple--a woman's to a greater degree than a man's even, because she potentially houses the development of another temple to God--a child? 

Where's the self-respect for being a woman--where's women's God given wisdom gone?

I think the misunderstanding Ms. McGowan has with the Church is that she is hearing consequences and responsibilities of sex as if they are talking about children. They are talking about her formation of her conscience and character--that's the consequence of thinking of sex as she does. 

We all have free will and choice--I refuse to pay for, be a party to or condone women's irresponsible behavior, irresponsible and disrepectful behavior towards themselves, towards men,  children,  pregnancy, the Church, religion in general, neighbors and God.

On a final note, she mentions India and the women having boys. How about the fact that people in the US are buying a woman's uterus in India for $5,000 to house a baby and then treating that woman like dirt? Where are the feminists voices there? Where are they when women have abortions are suffer from depression? Contraceptives don't prevent diseases, heartbreak, or self-hatred--they increase the possibility x 100.




The Church has never been against family planning (or contraception) as long as it is done "naturally." That is better known as Vatican Roulette. 

I am very "pro-life" but I can assure you that there is nothing "natural" about natural family planning.

My wife and I have nine children.

That should be proof enough that natural family planning is not natural.

It might be more persuasive if the discussion were elevated above -- or perhaps might resist the temptation -- name calling.  Characterizing the clergy as immature does not address the issues.  This may or may not be the case, but it adds little to the dialogue.  And the notion that one must have subjective experience in order to have a point of view is pitch perfect for the age of narcissism. 



About the Author

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.