The complaint that the Catholic Church is wrong to oppose the distribution of condoms to stop the spread of HIV is a bit puzzling, when you think about it.
The ABC’s of ABC
After all, the vast majority of those who have the virus got it by having sexual intercourse outside of marriage. Many are homosexuals or men who were unfaithful to their wives.
Does anyone think that these men are not using condoms because the Catholic Church says they should not? Are there any social services organizations or governments who don’t distribute condoms because the Church disapproves of them?
Perhaps the charge is that Catholic hospitals, social services organizations and educational institutions should be distributing condoms. But the Church thinks the real solution is chastity before marriage and fidelity within it. It believes that, with God’s grace, we can control our sexual appetites.
It seems unreasonable that, in a world that promotes widespread distribution of condoms and accepts the fornication and promiscuity that lead to the serious problem of HIV and its ravages, the Church should be expected to join that disastrous program.
Certainly, many people still think that the Catholic Church will join the modern world in seeing contraception as a great aid in liberating people from their sexual biology. That’s because they haven’t taken much trouble to understand why the Catholic Church (like practically all Christian bodies before 1930) opposes not just condoms but all contraceptives. Although a full explanation of the teaching would require a book, the basics are not that hard to grasp.
The widespread use of artificial contraception in our time has coincided eerily with widespread societal dysfunction.
Since the birth control pill arrived in the 1960s, we have reached the point that nearly a third of the babies conceived in America are aborted, and a third are born to single women. Today, one in four Americans has an incurable sexual disease. Cohabitors divorce at about twice the rate of those who do not cohabit. Children raised by single parents more often live in poverty, suffer more depression and addiction, commit more crimes, and have more unwed pregnancies, abortions, and divorces.
These would be sufficient reasons for all sensible human beings to be wary of any claims that contraception is going to improve lives or solve societal problems. Isn’t it likely that it pours fuel on the fire of the sexual revolution and its destructive aftermath?
There is opposition to chemical contraceptives in some surprising quarters.
A feminist writing in Elle magazine recently warned of bad side-effects of the pill. Women don’t much like the weight gain and the increased propensity to irritability and depression that come with the pill, not to mention the less-common but more-troublesome migraine headaches, ovarian cysts and a myriad of other maladies.
Even more damaging is that fact that chemical contraceptives basically annihilate a woman’s libido, and she does not receive the pleasure she should from the sexual act. Elle warns that the pill distorts a woman’s judgment of men and often when women go off the pill, they find they do have newfound exhilarating sexual desires, but not for their current partner.
When contraceptives became widely available, the Church predicted that women would suffer the most from the disregard for the physical and psychological health. Here we have Elle and the Church in agreement!
The description of the condom as a “barrier” method is most apt. Barriers are not appropriate between those who love each other. Those who don’t love each other (and who haven’t made the lifetime commitment that sex ratifies) shouldn’t be having sex. The Church is not in the business of advising those who engage in immoral activities, such as robbing banks or having sex outside of marriage, on how to do it “safely.”
If a man loves a woman, why would he risk giving her a sexually transmitted disease?
The Church teaches that sexual intercourse is a kind of “body language”; it is properly an expression of love and lifetime commitment. Whatever their intentions, couples who engage in contraceptive sex are “saying” with their bodies that they want only a momentary union of pleasure; couples engaging in non-contraceptive sex are expressing a willingness to share a lifetime union, since children help to create such a union.
The ability to co-create a new life with God is of inestimable value and should not be treated as a physiological nuisance. How difficult it is for those living in our licentious times to understand that sex is sacred, children are sacred and the connection between them is sacred.
Prescription for Happiness
So does the Church teach that spouses must have as many children as their bodies and finances will bear? Absolutely not.
Rather, it teaches spouses who have good reasons for limiting their family size may morally use natural means, means that should be particularly appealing to our age that is coming to prefer all things organic.
Modern methods of Natural Family Planning (not the old “rhythm method”) have enormous benefits; they cost nothing, have no bad physical side effects, and are as effective as any form of artificial contraception.
Those who use natural family planning testify that they have very satisfying sex lives; they do not commit adultery; they grow in love of their spouses and they almost never divorce.
Is it so outdated or crazy to continue teaching an ethic that would eliminate abortions, sexually transmitted diseases, unwed pregnancies, and lead to happy marriages?
Human beings who are not nursing emotional wounds caused by the sexual revolution will have the energy and focus needed to bring health both physical and spiritual to the human community. The Catholic teaching on sexuality is demanding, but as millions of Catholics can testify, with the help of grace it is eminently livable.
Granted, not all will live by these teachings. But then again, not everyone abides by the Ten Commandments. Clearly, no one is suggesting that teachings on these other issues be changed. No one suggests that we should change our standards on telling the truth on racism or exploitation, or on generosity and kindness. Instead, we ask that people change their values and behavior.
And, in fact, people have: We can learn from the citizens of Uganda, who increasingly save sex for marriage and remain faithful within marriage. Not surprisingly, it is the only nation that has successfully reduced transmission of HIV. The programs that provide condoms, sometimes dropping them from the sky (along with many defective ones), have had virtually no success anywhere.
Millions of young people went to Rome to pay their loving respect to Pope John Paul II. What they received from him was not a packet of contraceptives but the confident affirmation that they are capable of self-control a virtue essential to human dignity and happiness.
Should we not be grateful?
Janet E. Smith is the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.
This article previously appeared in the National Catholic Register and is used with permission.