A Forgotten Argument about Contraception

Why do so few Catholics follow the Church’s teaching on contraception? Or let me rephrase the question, since I believe that contraception is not merely “against Church teaching” but also as plainly wrong as any other moral wrong, such as theft or adultery: Why do so few Catholics refrain from doing this seriously wrong thing?

It’s not from lack of good arguments. But on this point let’s first establish the proper context. It’s not, after all, easy to find arguments to explain why some wrong thing is wrong. It’s not easy to do so for those who already “see” that it is wrong, and it is nearly impossible for those who don’t already “see” it.

Consider what you would say to explain why theft is wrong, to someone who was disposed to deny it. Or why is it wrong not to say “thank you”, or to abuse a corpse, or to show contempt for the poor? How many arguments can you devise to explain these and like things? I would guess: not many.

For the wrongness of contraception, in contrast, we have an embarrassment of riches. Philosophers and theologians, popes and bishops, in the last few decades have been busy looking for arguments, and they have found lots of them.

There is the argument from consequences: nothing which leads to evident evils such as abortion, promiscuity, the extinction of the West, the eroticization of marriage, and the treatment of incipient human life as a commodity, can itself be good.

There is the old “perverted faculty” argument, that contraception is like the Roman vomitorium, insofar as it involves the perverted exploitation of a natural function for the pleasure of it, divorced from its natural operation.

There is the new “personalist” argument: sex as a sign of love should represent a complete gift of self, yet someone who practices contraception is withholding an important part of himself, namely, his or her fertility.

When I teach this subject, I give students a list of ten arguments and defy them to find some other area of morality that has been so extensively thought about. (Yes, the arguments are exposed to objections, as all arguments are; what is important is whether those objections may be answered.)

But even so an argument which is usually overlooked in such discussions is that offered in the great encyclical on contraception by Pope Paul VI, “Humanae Vitae”:

“Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one’s partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife. If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will.”

To understand this passage, consider the first sentence, “Men rightly observe ...” Here the pope wishes to establish that the appropriate attitude for approaching sexual intercourse in marriage is service and attentiveness to the consent of the other. We all recognize that it would be offensive for a husband to “force” himself on his wife--suppose physical force were used, or a drug were administered--or even to coerce or manipulate. And very often the wife’s unwillingness is related to her bodily condition, such as an infirmity or discomfort.

Now, suppose that husband and wife should not conceive of themselves as “masters” over sex and marriage but rather, as Paul VI also insists in the encyclical, as “ministers” of these things. It follows that, in this attitude of “ministers”, they need to be attentive not merely to the consent of each other, but also to the “consent” of God--which may likewise be shown or based upon the bodily condition of the man and the woman.

But then one wants to ask: How else would this attitude of “ministry” be put into practice, except by the attentiveness to the “capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into [sexual intercourse]”? How else would sensitivity to God’s consent, as the “third party” to a marriage, be shown?

That is, rejection of contraception is intrinsically bound up with viewing marriage as a kind of “stewardship”; to use contraception is ipso facto to claim an improper “lordship” over both marriage and nature. As Paul VI adds, “to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator.”

Let’s return to my original question, Why do so few Catholics follow the Church’s teaching on contraception? In part, from ignorance; in part, because they do not base their most important decisions on either reason or proper authority, following instead “what everyone else is doing.”

But in part, also, it is because--one suspects--they would prefer to be “masters” rather than “ministers.”

Michael Pakaluk, Professor of Philosophy at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, is also currently a Visiting Professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.