The debate over the HHS contraception mandate has reminded us yet again that very few Catholics follow the church’s teaching on contraception. Some people attribute this to human weakness. British novelist Piers Paul Read has written, “I myself have no doubt whatsoever that the church is right in its teaching on sexual morality—even in its teaching on contraception; and if for twenty years I have not practiced what is preached it is from the weakness of the flesh, not the commitment of the spirit.” Yet I believe that most Catholics who use artificial contraception do not do so out of weakness. They use it because they don’t believe it is immoral.
My own thinking on contraception has evolved. In 1959 I was taught at my Catholic high school that contraception is wrong because the primary purpose of sex is procreation. Even as a naïve seventeen-year-old, I knew that sex had other purposes—that physical intimacy also had something to do with emotional intimacy. (Since then, the church’s message has changed somewhat. Now we’re told that contraception is wrong because it separates the “unitive” and procreative purposes of the conjugal act, and thus prevents it from being a complete “self-gift.”) When I married three years before the publication of Humanae vitae, I had already decided that the church was wrong about contraception. I reached this conclusion largely because of discussions I had with my older sister, who believed that the rhythm method had harmed her marriage. I used contraception until after the birth of my third child and was then sterilized.
I now deeply regret both decisions. I believe that both the chemical contraception I used and the sterilization harmed my body. There is evidence that at least some early forms of hormonal contraception increased the risk of diabetes, osteoporosis, and cervical, breast, and liver cancer. The IUD has been associated with menstrual problems and perforation of the uterus. Meanwhile, the more I have learned about Natural Family Planning—an updated and more effective version of the rhythm method—the more I have come to regret that I never tried it. I no longer dismiss Humanae vitae as just plain wrong. I suspect there is wisdom in what Pope Paul VI said about the value of discipline in married life. I think Paul VI was right that the systematic practice of periodic abstinence within marriage “favors attention for one’s partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love, and deepens their sense of responsibility.” I have also been impressed by the insights of Wendell Berry, who, though not Catholic, has serious reservations about contraception. In an essay titled “The Body and the Earth,” he writes:
Culture articulates needs and forms for sexual restraint and involves issues of value in the process of mating. It is possible to imagine that the resulting tension creates a distinctly human form of energy, highly productive of works of the hands and the mind. But until recently there was no division between sexuality and fertility, because none was possible.
This division was made possible by modern technology, which subjected human fertility, like the fertility of the earth, to a new kind of will: the technological will, which may not necessarily oppose the moral will, but which has not only tended to do so, but has tended to replace it.... What is horrifying is not only that we are relying so exclusively on a technology of birth control that is still experimental, but that we are using it casually, in utter cultural nakedness, unceremoniously, without sufficient understanding, and as a substitute for cultural solutions.
Many people see the church’s teachings about sexuality as little more than a set of arbitrary constraints on our opportunities for sexual pleasure. But sexuality, like all good things, thrives best within limits. G. K. Chesterton argued that “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground.” He described a group of children playing on a high plateau. As long as there is a wall around them, they feel secure and play without fear. But, without the wall, their fear of falling off the edge curtails their exuberance.
So, NFP has much to recommend it. Besides allowing one to avoid unnecessary chemicals, it cultivates self-discipline and fosters greater communication between spouses about their sexual life. It may even help us to appreciate and enjoy sex more, just as fasting can help us appreciate food. We regulate and humanize many aspects of our lives by imposing some discipline and order. To quote Chesterton again, the proper form of thanks for the wondrous world in which we live is often “some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.” Maybe the best way to thank God for the gift of sexuality also involves restraint.
FOR ALL THESE reasons, I now believe that Humanae vitae offers the ideal way for married couples to live their sexual lives. Yet I still feel ambivalent about insisting that NFP is the only way for Catholics to limit the size of their family without committing grave sin. I would like to see the church promote NFP without condemning all other forms of contraception as “intrinsically evil.” I think it is this blanket condemnation that most Catholics still find so implausible. The fact that NFP has moral and cultural advantages does not make chemical contraception evil. Nor do the collateral effects of chemical contraception, however one assesses these. Although Pope Paul’s VI’s warnings about social effects of widespread use of contraception were prescient, we must put them in perspective. The sexual chaos of the past four decades came about not because married Catholics disobeyed the church and used contraception but because unmarried people took advantage of the ease and availability of contraception to have casual sex. In other words, it was promiscuity and the commodification of sex—not married couples using the Pill—that led to the social disruptions the pope foresaw. The advent of the Pill may have facilitated promiscuity, but that doesn’t make it intrinsically evil. (Drinking also facilitates promiscuity. Does that make alcohol intrinsically evil?) Instead of fixating on the evils of artificial contraception, Catholics would do well to concentrate on rehabilitating respect for the virtue of chastity, which has become a kind of joke in our culture.
I also question whether all couples can be expected to practice NFP. Those who speak glowingly of it are almost always deeply religious and fully committed to the self-discipline involved. What if one spouse is not Catholic and can see nothing problematic about artificial contraception? What if one spouse is selfish, emotionally immature, or alcoholic? Then there are the really hard cases, heartbreaking stories of couples who were told by their pastor that they could not use contraception or sterilization although another pregnancy would be dangerous, possibly even fatal, and so they practiced abstinence for the rest of their marriage—or used artificial contraception and stopped receiving the Eucharist (see Paul Baumann’s contribution to “A Modus Vivendi?” January 13, 2012).
Unfortunately, partly because of the fracas over the HHS contraception mandate, many Americans imagine that contraception is one of the defining issues of Catholicism. In truth, the church is not so much defined by the issue as polarized by it. On the one hand, there is a small minority of Catholics who embrace and defend the church’s teaching about contraception and use it as a litmus test for “orthodox Catholicism.” On the other hand, a large majority of practicing Catholics either reject or ignore the teaching. This division creates a kind of psychic wound within the church and erodes its moral credibility. I long for a serious conversation—among the laity, the clergy, and the bishops—that would try to heal this wound. Such a conversation would do justice to the experience of those on all sides of this issue. It would aim for something higher than the current modus vivendi, whereby the clergy agree not to talk too much about contraception as long as the laity do not advertise their dissent. Surely I am not the only Catholic who longs to see more congruence between official teaching and what Catholics really believe and practice.