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.
About the Author
Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.