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What’s Wrong with Contraception, Anyway?

OBJECTOR: It seems to me that the Catholic Church is way out of date with its opposition to contraception. In the United States, contraceptives have been used widely since the 1960s. Why is the Church so backward on this issue?

CATHOLIC: The Church believes that truth does not depend on being up with the times. Although we come to recognize truth at specific moments of history, the truth discovered is itself not subject to changing times. The use of contraception violates human dignity because it purposefully cuts off our reproductive powers, which are a part of our humanity.

OBJECTOR: That doesn’t make any sense to me. How could the use of contraceptives endanger our humanity?

CATHOLIC: To a person who has grown up within a contraceptive culture, it may seem that contraceptives not only do not hurt human beings but actually help them. But the Church sees this issue with a larger perspective. Every culture that has used contraceptives and infanticide, such as the Romans, have devalued children, and with them all humanity.

OBJECTOR: That may be, but oral contraceptives are much safer than methods used in ancient times, so your argument from history doesn’t hold water. Contraception has made for safer sex.

CATHOLIC: We could argue long and hard about the societal effects of modern contraception, but let me point out just one: Would you say that more people are having sex outside marriage today than forty years ago, or less?

OBJECTOR: Definitely more! But that’s not a bad thing. And that’s one more reason that we need contraceptives, because they reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancies and other undesirable effects.

CATHOLIC: The Church, along with many other thoughtful people, has another solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancy and venereal disease. In fact, it proves to be 100 percent effective when followed diligently.

OBJECTOR: Oh, you mean abstinence. That just shows again the outmoded thinking of the Church. No, I would go even further and say that it shows how inhumane the Church is. Does it really expect young people who experience strong sexual urges to practice abstinence? How impractical!

CATHOLIC: I find that view of young people demeaning. It says basically that they are not capable of controlling themselves much like other animals in nature. We believe that human beings are capable of rising above their primal urges for a higher purpose. The Church believes that young people have the potential to live lives of purity if that ideal is set before them.

OBJECTOR: What higher purpose? You mean not having sex.

CATHOLIC: No, I mean having sex in its proper context of marriage. The Church believes, in accord with the broader Judeo-Christian heritage, that sexual activity outside of marriage is always an abuse of our sexuality. In addition, sexual activity without the commitment of marriage lessens the special character of marriage and retards the formation of solid lifelong marriages.

OBJECTOR: I think experience with sex prior to marriage may enhance marriage once people enter into it.

CATHOLIC: The statistics don’t bear that out. Studies show that couples who have refrained from sex before marriage have a greater chance of holding their marriage together than those who don’t. The divorce rate is higher among those who have engaged in sex prior to marriage.

OBJECTOR: I don’t know if that is true, but it’s not the business of anyone beside the couple whether they engage in sex prior to marriage or use contraception. If I understand the Catholic Church’s teaching correctly, it says that even the use of contraception in marriage is morally wrong. Isn’t that right?

CATHOLIC: Yes. Contraceptives thwart our reproductive powers and so deny one of the basic purposes of sex in marriage: the procreation of children.

OBJECTOR: The number of children a couple chooses to have is their choice, not the Church’s.

CATHOLIC: Though there are basic criteria about making these decisions responsibly, the Church holds that, ultimately, the decision of how many children to have must be made by the couple. That is not the issue.

OBJECTOR: But it seems to me to be precisely the issue. Who decides whether the use of contraception is right or wrong? Certainly not a bunch of celibate males who don’t have to deal with the responsibilities of raising children.

CATHOLIC: You have focused on the process, on the who of the decision, but that doesn’t answer the question of the what or the why—that is, whether the use of contraception is morally right. Let’s talk about the substantive issue of the morality of using contraceptives.

OBJECTOR: Okay. I say that it’s a good thing that people use contraception because it helps them act responsibly in bearing children.

CATHOLIC: I am glad that you brought up the issue of responsible parenthood. In the encyclical Humanae Vitae, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968, the Church said that being responsible parents is at the heart of the issue of contraception. Catholics believe that we should encourage responsible sexuality, especially among young people. Responsible use of sexuality means refraining from sexual activity until one is ready for a lifelong commitment of marriage and the raising of children. For the same reason, the Church says that a married couple acts morally only when they are open to and ready for children.

OBJECTOR: But that seems to me to be an argument for using contraception in marriage. A couple can enjoy sex in marriage without fear of pregnancy until they are ready to have children. Isn’t that responsible parenthood?

CATHOLIC: Let’s distinguish between two very different exercises of responsible parenthood. One is the attempt to negate one’s reproductive powers by introducing an artificial means to prevent pregnancy; the other is the decision to space out the births of children in light of the total factors (e.g., economic, physical, psychological) involved in a marriage.

OBJECTOR: But I don’t see any substantial difference between these two. If it’s okay to engage in sex outside the fertile period—when we know that conception cannot occur—then why isn’t it all right to use contraception to achieve the same purpose? It seems to me that a Catholic couple could use the infertile periods to enjoy sex while preventing pregnancy.

CATHOLIC: That is possible. If a couple engages in sex with the intention of preventing pregnancy—without just cause—their motives are wrong. They have misused their sexual powers. But because sex is also for the closer union of husband and wife, they may engage in sex outside the fertile period as long as they don’t attempt to prevent pregnancy by interfering with how their bodies are supposed to work.

OBJECTOR: I still don’t see any major difference. Whether they use natural or artificial methods, the result is the same.

CATHOLIC: But we have to ask what makes an action moral or immoral. Motivation is one factor, as are results, but these are not the only factors to take into account. Even if the motives of couples using contraceptives and those not using them are similar—and of course judging motives is a tricky business—we still have a great difference in the objective methods being used.

OBJECTOR: What difference does that make? If I allow my body to heal from a bacterial infection by riding it out or I choose to use penicillin to speed up the healing process, I am achieving the same end.

CATHOLIC: Your analogy is misguided. Using medicine to achieve health is attempting to restore the body to its natural state. Using contraception is against the natural functions of our bodies. As is commonly said, the pill tricks the woman’s body into thinking that it is already pregnant.

OBJECTOR: Whether a couple wants to get pregnant is a matter of choice. It’s not a natural function of the body.

CATHOLIC: With that statement you have put yourself in the position of one who is denying the obvious. The male and female bodies are designed specifically for reproduction. That is so obvious as to be undeniable.

OBJECTOR: That’s true in general, but getting pregnant in a specific instance is a matter of choice.

CATHOLIC: Pregnancy is not a matter of choice. Engaging in sex is a choice, but pregnancy is not. It is a matter of the natural processes once one engages in sex. In sexual morality, the crucial distinction is between working with the natural structures and functions of our body and working against them. A married person is obligated to follow the moral standards implied in that state of life. The Church’s teaching is not out of date. Rather, not using contraceptives is valid for all times because marriage is always ordered toward raising children, in addition to other purposes. Even cultures that have not been influenced by Christianity directly recognize this. They have seen it in the natural law, that is, the morality implied in the natural state of things. Sex leads to children. We act morally when we engage in sex with the intention of working with the natural processes. The Catholic view advocates what is best for the human race because it encourages us to use our sexuality responsibly for the promotion of the human race.

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