Monday, April 02, 2012

Love and Life: what the Church teaches about contraception

Here's a talk I prepared for tonight's RCIA...

What does the Church teach about contraception?

We believe that love, sex, marriage and family are all bound up together by God’s design.

This is the design: that sex and love go together: so no sex outside of marriage; and sex, love and life go together: so marital acts should always be open to the gift of life--not altered or manipulated to exclude life.

So: no contraception or sterilization.

How do we know these things?

Again, from observation: sex is about giving life. And we observe that people find meaning when they give life.

What does Scripture say?

God created humanity in his image and likeness.

When a couple comes together in the marital act, it is the only time when human beings can do what otherwise God alone does--create out of nothing: and they create another image of God!

We also see in Scripture that God welcomes life: children are a blessing. Nowhere in Scripture do we see the mindset that there are “too many people.” That is a secular mindset that solves the problem of poverty and hunger, not by feeding and clothing people, but by getting rid of people.

Also, isn’t it interesting that when God made a covenant with Abraham, what was the sign? Circumcision. What a curious way to do it. While Scripture doesn’t explain this sign, we might note that the key promise God made to Abraham and Sarah was children. When Abraham and Sarah, and Jewish couples afterward, came together, they would be reminded of their covenant with God. We know that the misuse of our sexuality causes tremendous suffering. It’s almost as if God wanted to remind men in a powerful way, “I’m in charge here.” It’s a message our society could use.

Is this a new teaching?

No--it was always possible to avoid pregnancies; we have new technology but it’s not a new thing. Christians have always believed it was wrong to seek sex only for pleasure and deliberately excluding it’s life-giving power.

What did Pope Paul VI say in 1968?

A group of theologians were called together to study the issue, and there was some expectation that they would change the Church’s teaching. Many of them wanted to do so. But Pope Paul VI did not find their reasons persuasive. He issued a letter called Humanae Vitae--“Of Human Life”--that restated the Church’s longstanding teaching.

He said that the two aspects of marital relations--that they are unifying and they are life-giving--are bound up together by God’s design and it is gravely sinful to separate them.

But I’ve heard lots of people, even lots of Catholics, say that he was wrong and out of step.

This letter is now almost 45 years old; and the birth control pill was around for a few years before it came out. So we have a good 50 years of seeing how the spread of contraception has worked out.

And we have a chance to revisit Pope Paul’s words and predictions, and see how they stand up.

Pope Paul made four predictions:

1. “Open the way to marital infidelity.”

One of the arguments made for contraception was that it would promote marital harmony. It hasn’t worked out.

2. “General lowering of moral standards.”

Another argument for contraception was that it would prevent abortions; yet contraception has never been more easily obtainable, never been so widely promoted, and treated as routine--yet we have a million abortions a year, far more than 50 years ago.

3. “Men will forget the reverence due a woman, and treat her as a mere instrument.”

4. Public authorities would get involved.

Consider these words of Pope Paul--in 1968, remember:

Who will prevent public authorities from favoring
those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective?
Should they regard this as necessary,
they may even impose their use on everyone.

Notice how just in the last six months, our government has mandated, not so much the use of contraception, but that they be included in everyone’s health insurance, whether folks want that or not.

In fact, elsewhere in the world contraception has, in fact, been mandated. And we in this country aren’t far from that.

Meanwhile, there are other things that have resulted with Pope Paul did not predict. By separating lovemaking from life-making, notice that just as society has sought to have sex without procreation; it has gone the other way, too: have procreation without acts of love.

This has not worked out very well at all.

There’s no question that infertility is a terrible cross for those couples who face it.

But when you have technicians creating human life in a laboratory --so-called “in vitro fertilization”--notice what happens:

* Many babies will be created
* Several may be implanted in the mother’s womb
* The rest will be kept in cold storage
* When the children develop in the womb, sometimes the doctor will selectively abort some of them.
* In vitro clinics nationwide have hundreds of thousands of unborn children, in the embryo stage.
* Their parents either are keeping them “just in case”; or else they abandon them. They get treated as property in divorce cases.
* Remember the dispute over “stem cell research”? One of the arguments that was used was that all these embryos would “go to waste”--so why not use them for research.
* And that’s what we do: they are manipulated and destroyed in order to generate stem cells--one purpose of which is to test flavors for food items, including Pepsi products for example.

What about overpopulation and related problems?

That was the argument for many years--that we have too many people and not enough resources.

In fact, we have an abundance of natural resources in our world--the problem isn’t the supply but the distribution.

Also, the experts that used to talk about “overpopulation” for so many decades don’t say that anymore. Instead, they are increasingly concerned about a “demographic winter”: lots of older folks, but not so many younger folks coming up behind them.

A growing number of developed countries, including Russia, Japan, and many countries in Europe, are having so few children that their population is either declining right now, or else it will happen soon. Even China is facing this problem because of a forced, one-child policy. China will get old before it gets rich.

So what are couples supposed to do? Have 20 children?

The issue isn’t how many children a couple has, but deliberately excluding life-giving from love-making. Church teaching allows for couples to space the birth of their children using natural means. There are several forms of Natural Family Planning, and they are fairly sophisticated. They use a variety of means of observing a woman’s fertility, so that a couple can avoid those days when she is likely to conceive.

This has many advantages:

--The couple must work together; as opposed to contraception being one spouse’s responsibility.
--The husband must learn to appreciate and respect a woman’s fertility--rather than expect her to “deal with it.” It’s part of who she is; it is part of the couple’s life.
--No massive doses of chemicals introduced into the woman’s body to cause distortions and long-term damage (which is still being researched). A lot of folks who aren’t particularly religious will use NFP for this reason alone.
--It does require some sacrifice--several days’ abstinence each month. Why is this a bad thing?
--It puts the Cross--dying to self--right at the heart of a marriage.
--This may explain why NFP couples report more satisfaction in their intimacy and fewer divorces.

A lot of Catholics don’t follow this teaching; and a lot of folks say it’s really up to individual Catholics’ consciences whether to follow it.

It’s true many Catholics don’t seem to follow it. I think a lot of the statistics you hear quoted are inflated; because there may well be a lot of Catholics who have used contraception at some point, but changed their minds--that doesn’t mean they disagree with the teaching.

But what does it prove to say that a lot of people don’t live up to this? All the Commandments get broken sooner or later--should we eliminate some of them?

As far as individual conscience--it is true that each of us must, in the end, choose whether to believe what the Church teaches. That is true not just in this case, but in the case of everything that makes up the Catholic Faith. Does God exist? Does he speak to humanity? Is God a Trinity? Is Jesus God? Are the sacraments real? And so forth.

What people sometimes mean is that the Church’s teaching on contraception isn’t as serious as other teachings. But the Church doesn’t teach that.

This concerns the moral law--the use of our gift of human sexuality, which always is a grave matter. Contraception, like marital infidelity, or sex before marriage, is a mortal sin. As are lots of other things.

While this teaching hasn’t been defined infallibly, that doesn’t mean it’s not true, nor that we aren’t obliged to believe it. It’s part of the Catholic Faith.


Kathy said...

Fantastic summary. Oh how we could use more priests like you in our diocese. Sigh....

Green said...

Thanks for teaching this important Catholic teaching with honesty and clarity.

This past Saturday, St Gertrude in Cincinnati had an amazing presentation by a Dominican Nun who is a practicing physician of Internal Medicine and someone well versed in science and medicine. Also Dr Parker from Columbus who converted his entire practice over to NFP losing about half his patients with the conversion but bless with many more seeking out someone who promotes a natural way rather than putting chemicals into their body at a horrible cost. Also Jenn Giroux who is a speaker on the issue of birth control and is a regular on a number of Catholic programs and also a long time nurse and mother of nine. She talked in depth about cancer and the pill along with other facts which the two doctors confirmed. I saw that they taped this entire panel discussion, but not sure what they are doing with the tape.

Dennis said...

I think all Catholics miss the most important part of the teaching, which is that it is for our happiness.
Since God is good, and all his teachings are for our good, then they will all increase our happiness when we follow them. Pope Paul VI made that clear in the very beginning of the encyclical when at the beginning he said that these issues have to do with "the happiness of human beings"
and at the end he said "For man cannot attain that true happiness for which he yearns with all the strength of his spirit, unless he keeps the laws which the Most High God has engraved in his very nature"
Thus the whole encyclical is to enlighten us on what God teaches so we can be happy. The end results show that those who use natural family planning when they have to, have a divorce rate of 4% or lower, (less then .1% if they also both pray and go to mass on Sunday) compared to the normal divorce rate of 20% to 30% for most Catholics.
Thus God's laws are not some arbitrary rules that He lays down to burden us, but they are all for our happiness in this life. If only we would trust in God and His goodness we would be a lot happier in this life.