We continue a series of reflections on the issue of contraception in light of the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. When Pope Paul VI issued this document on July 25, 1968, it fell like a bomb. Many people wished the issue would just go away. It hasn’t. And it won’t. In fact, it can’t “go away.” This encyclical takes us to the very foundations of human life (humanae vitae).
In the last column, we looked at how contraception has played a key role in the cultural chaos in which we’re now immersed. Here we’ll look briefly at what seems to be at the heart of the matter — love. It all comes down to this: What is love? Does the mere exchange of sexual pleasure offer any surety of love? Our culture is sated with sexual indulgence but remains starved for love. Perhaps contraception has had something to do with this sad state of affairs.
It seems what we often call “love,” when submitted to honest examination, amounts to little more than mutual using for pleasure. In the language of John Paul II, the opposite of love is not hatred. The opposite of love is using another person as a means to an end. I know this is a cliche, but why do so many wives claim “headache” when their husbands want sex? Might they feel used rather than loved?
The Catholic teaching on sex is an invitation to embrace the love that really corresponds to the deepest desires of the human heart. That is a demanding love, to be sure. Should we expect it to be otherwise as followers of Christ? “Love one another,” Jesus says, “as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). This means it’s going to hurt. It’s going to demand sacrifice.
St. Paul says it plainly: husbands are to love their wives “as Christ loved the church” (Eph 5:25). Then he concludes this marvelous passage with the most exalted presentation of sexual love in all of human history: “‘’or this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:21-32).
The Church, so often accused of devaluing sex, ascribes to sexual love the highest possible value — it is meant to be a merging of the human and the divine. Anything less, the Church proposes, is a counterfeit for the love we yearn for at the deepest level of our beings. Sexual love is meant to image the mysterious and eternal “exchange of love” within the Holy Trinity. In the normal course of events, the mutual exchange of husband and wife leads to a “third” — a new human life conceived through the work of the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the Giver of life.”
Contracepted intercourse marks a determined “closing off” of the sexual act to the Holy Spirit, to the very life and love of God. In short, whether they realize this or not, contracepting couples are saying, “We prefer the momentary pleasure of sterlized sex over the opportunity of participating in the eternal love of the Trinity.” To which I respond … bad choice! But do you think if couples really knew they were saying this, that they would continue to do so? “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
Most couples simply have no idea what they’re getting themselves into when they sterilize their sexual acts. So none of this is about assigning culpability. If I drink a cup of poison — but don’t know it’s poison — I haven’t committed suicide; I’m not culpable for my own death. But it will still kill me, because whether I think it’s poison or not has no bearing whatsoever on whether it is poison or not. Furthermore, if you know it’s poison and I don’t, what would be the loving thing to do if you saw me reaching out to drink it?
The Church is not trying to impose her morality on us. Like any loving mother, she is trying to prevent her children from unwittingly ingesting a very dangerous “poison to love.” As the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae approaches, let us thank Pope Paul VI for loving us so much.
[Editor’s note: Please enjoy regular features from this and other enlightening authors discussing Catholic teaching on sexuality in CE’s Theology of the Body channel.]
This column first appeared as part of Christopher West’s Body Language series for the Catholic press (http://www.christopherwest.com/).