All this talk about the evils of forcing Catholic institutions to provide insurance plans to its employees that cover contraception, contrary to freedom of conscience and religion, is important. However, it leaves unsaid why the Church would condemn contraception in the first place. As it turns out, that question is not unrelated, as there would be less demand for such coverage if priests and bishops taught more on these matters to the faithful. For my part, I can’t say that I have ever heard a homily at Sunday Mass that explained the Church teaching on contraception; but I am certain that I’ve heard the secular arguments for it repeated at least a couple hundred times, in the most common, day-to-day circumstances. I only learned the ‘why’ of this moral doctrine adequately from Catholic higher education, and by all accounts in this I am lucky – as many Catholic educational institutions drop the ball here as well.
No wonder Catholics largely ignore this moral teaching! No wonder the Church loses ground and has to battle intrusive edicts which injure her ability to carry out the mission given to her by the Lord!
It’s high time, then, for Catholics – the clergy and the lay faithful – to address the issue of contraception. Let’s be courageous and speak up about it! What follows is my humble contribution.
There is a recent article on the website of, of all places, “Business Insider”, that gives some needed perspective on the issue of contraception and the Church. Despite the title of the article, Time To Admit It: The Church Has Always Been Right On Birth Control, the authors actually spend their time pursuing the more modest goal of showing that the Church, at the very least, deserves the benefit of the doubt here:
Here’s the thing, though: the Catholic Church is the world’s biggest and oldest organization. It has buried all of the greatest empires known to man, from the Romans to the Soviets. It has establishments literally all over the world, touching every area of human endeavor. It’s given us some of the world’s greatest thinkers, from Saint Augustine on down to René Girard. When it does things, it usually has a good reason. Everyone has a right to disagree, but it’s not that they’re a bunch of crazy old white dudes who are stuck in the Middle Ages.
So on the one hand, there is the prevailing wisdom that laughs at the Church’s teaching, and it makes initial sense: What in the world could be wrong with taking responsible control of one’s reproductive capacity? What could be wrong about judging when it is a good idea to have a child and when it is not?
On the other hand (the authors of this article suggest), regardless of what sins have also been committed in her name, the Church’s antiquity, innumerable good works, and venerable intellectual tradition should elicit the respect of any reasonable person not hindered by prejudice. One ought to at least presume that the Church’s teaching on contraception has some thought put into it, that it is defensible – that there are intelligent, thoughtful, normal people convinced of it, and that there is at least some plausibility to their reasons. Is that too much to ask? Is it too much to ask that the Catholic Church get a fair hearing?
If you are someone who is puzzled by this teaching, or who opposes it, or who simply doesn’t give it a second thought, and yet who want to give it a fair hearing, consider this: ‘birth control’, per se, is not, and was never, the problem. In other words, there is nothing wrong, in the view of the Church, with a married couple responsibly spacing births or putting them off for a time if there is a serious (read: not fundamentally selfish) reason for doing it. They might even put off having children indefinitely, if the serious reason endures indefinitely.
The problem with contraception, however, which includes many (but not all) means of responsibly spacing births, however, is of a different nature. In the attempt to make this problem adequately clear, I’ve formulated a non-religious explanation that could fit into the proverbial nutshell. I did not think up any of the basic elements of the explanation myself, but simply formulated them in words that I think sufficiently sum up the matter. Here it is:
The institution of marriage and family is a foundational good, essential to the flourishing of human individuals and society. Because fertility and pregnancy are tied so intimately to it, they are valued together with this great good. For this reason, they deserve to be accorded profound respect and honor. At no time, under no circumstances, and for no ulterior motive, however noble, should fertility or pregnancy be dealt with as if they were diseases to be treated or prevented with pills, surgery, or any other implement thought up by human ingenuity. They are that important.
Now, I hope that everyone thinks that marriage and family is one of the most beautiful gifts that life has to offer, and that fertility and pregnancy should be respected and honored along with them. I hope that everyone thinks that fertility and pregnancy are very important. But I suppose that some may not think that they are so important, that to act against them with contraceptive pills or devices (or surgery?) would be absolutely morally excluded.
I can understand this position, to a degree. I think it is more or less the working theory that most contracepting Catholics (a solid majority of the Catholic population) function under. But think about what it implies. We know that pregnancy is a normal, healthy bodily condition for women, and fertility, for men and women. Are there any other healthy bodily conditions that we consider of so little importance that we think we can choose, willy nilly, to treat them as if they were diseases, as long as it is done for some good ulterior motive?* We ought to take pills, use medical apparatuses, and get surgeries because we are sick, not because we are healthy. To act in a way that treats fertility and pregnancy as if they were diseases, even if done once and for a good reason, is always an action that demeans them, that fails to value them as they ought to be valued.
Lastly, I want to propose that failing to value fertility and pregnancy as high as we ought to is a failing that, because of its many and grave negative consequences, we are already being held accountable for. In fact, these consequences were predicted decades ago. I will make another post on these consequences in the near future.
* Note: Harming one aspect of bodily health in order to reestablish the overall integrity of health, like with amputations, does not involve a choice that treats ‘healthy’ as if it were ‘unheathy.’ Contraceptive pills/devices/surgeries, as well as mutilation, excessive drinking, etc. do involve such a choice.