Catholics are unique for a number of reasons, not least of which is that we hold to a strange (read: counter-cultural) view of “purpose” in sex. A while back, I took a look at this phenomenon from the perspective of same-sex marriage. And now, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on its relevance for contraception.
To be sure, one way of dealing with this question would be to perform a philosophical analysis of the meaning, scope, and aim of human sexual contact. But equally valuable, I think, is to take a look at the role contraception plays in contemporary society, and at some of the puzzling scenarios it provokes.
A few points to frame the discussion. First, let’s not be concerned with whether or not contraceptive practices are wrong—clearly the Church teaches that they violate the dignity of spousal union, and that they are in no manner acceptable. And, as a matter of doctrine, this isn’t a matter of invasion of privacy but of absolute truth.
Second, let’s note that the word “contraception” is oftentimes used equivocally, both in reference to a thing—i.e., condoms, the pill, IUDs, etc.—and to a type of action—e.g., to “practice contraception.”
One thing we can be sure of: contraception (in whatever form) is just as much a mentality as it is a phenomenon. In other words, contraceptive acts and products exist not in mere isolation, but rather in a broader context. As Aristotle says, there’s no science of particulars. But we have endeavored upon quite the science of contraception. For one thing, as Scott Lloyd points out, we’ve encountered the staggering fact that “among the users of contraceptives, the margin of error is enough to create nearly the entire demand for abortion in this country every year.” And these numbers are supported by the research of the Guttmacher Institute.
Then there’s the undeniable fact that couples practicing Natural Family Planning experience dramatically lower rates of divorce.
Of course, neither of these implicates a causal connection (e.g., that contraception is responsible for more abortions or divorces). But scientifically speaking, the preponderance of the evidence seems to point in that direction. At the very least, there’s an unmistakable link between contraception and other destructive practices, and this is a clear sign of some shared, underlying worldview.
Because of its ubiquity, the significance of “contraception” is gravely misunderstood. Because of efforts to stop the spread of diseases like HIV, condoms were originally identified with “safe” or “protected” sex. But the meaning of the term “safe” has been dragged through the mud of sexual liberation, and is now used to refer not only to disease-free, but also to sterile intercourse. (The same idea has even been applied to abortion as a “safer” resolution to pregnancy.) Although this double ‘benefit’ is condom-specific, the nomenclature has stuck for all forms of birth control—just skim Planned Parenthood’s “Health Info” page for examples.
This general confusion has been particularly damaging in certain Catholic circles, where legitimate theological debates on the possibility of condom use for stopping HIV transmission are mired by comments like, “Finally, the Church sees that condoms—and contraception—might be a good thing.” Perhaps no where was this more visible than in the media flurry surrounding Pope Benedict’s recent comments on condom use by sex workers. Ultimately, the connection between contraception and safety is hard-wired into our brains; and there’s no easy way to dissolve it.
All of this goes to show, I think, that contraception is more than a throw-away dilemma. Those interested in upholding the dignity of the human person—and human life—cannot focus simply on what’s most obvious. We need to inform ourselves with the (observable, scientific) facts, and use our judgment to recognize that something even more insidious is afoot—and all the more dangerous because of its covert character.
Many of us are unafraid to confront abuse of human life in the public square, and rightfully so. We believe abortion and embryonic stem cell destructive research are wrong because they’re categorically evil. But we’re much less willing to confront such personal evils as contraceptive use and, in a more general way, the contraceptive mentality.
Indeed, this is the next frontier in defending human dignity. And it’s one we ought to realize is encroaching upon us more and more each day.