Does Contraception Foster Love? — Part 2 of 6

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).

heart-in-hand.jpgThe 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 (

Christopher West


Christopher West is a Catholic author and speaker, best known for his work on Pope John Paul II’s series of audience addresses entitled the Theology of the Body.

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  • Stirling

    Dear Mr. West:

    I’ve read your books and there is so much I wish we could have the opportunity to talk about. I admire your vision of Godly, sacrificial love. I sincerely hope that it is indeed what God intended for us in marriage. Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel that reality, without or without the issues of conception, is a far cry from your vision, nor am I sure that this vision is supported by precendent or Scripture. In no particular order I will just throw out some of the things that trouble me in hopes that someone may have some constructive thoughts.

    1. The idea of being “in love” having much to do with marriage is a relatively novel concept. For most of human history women were married off to husbands selected by their families — marriages arranged to be beneficial in practical matters: money, security, alliances, division of labor, etc. In this context (frought with “use” and hardly an exchange “freely” made), I cannot help but feel that the marriage act is more a matter of happenstance or obedience, and that the over-romanticised notions we have today were perhaps not really in the mind of the Creator. This is something of a cynical view, perhaps, but are we really to say that thousands of years of human history were wrong and we are only now grasping what marriage is? Or is it not more likely that we are superimposing a modern view onto an age old institution?

    2. Mr. West, in your book The Good News About Sex and Marriage you examine the correct disposition of spouses for ethically participating in the marital act. Essentially one must understand the Catholic ideal for marriage (faithful, free, fruitful, and unitive), and that one should be moved by these feelings, in a total reaffirmation of one’s marriage vows/total-gift-of-self when a couple comes together intimately. I’m sure we all agree this is a lovely vision. The converse, as you mention, is JPII’s evil of “use”, of reducing a person to a means-to-an-end.

    However I have two concerns on this point. First, if this is the ideal, then it seems to me that a great many couples would very rarly be intimate. Fine, you and other’s may say, but is it really a good idea for couples who are in trouble, to decide to stop being intimate with each other, indefinitely, because they cannot meet this ideal? We know from Retrouville that the third stage of marriage is “misery”. We know that a lot of dying has to happen for the two to become one. I just wonder if this ideal is assuming a rose-strewn path of marriage, when in reality, it is a tremendous cross for many, and that this ideal then takes away one of the resources couples have to keep the relationship glued together?

    Second, if the real tradgedy of our world as JPII and Mother Theresa observe (and I agree) is a poverty of love, then the issue of correctly using the gift of sexuality in marriage is much larger than contraception, which I’m sure plays a part, but to my mind, a small part compared to the larger issue. I often feel it would be more useful to hear some straight talk about authentic love in marriage from the pulpit. If this were properly understood and put into practice, I believe many couples would give up contraception as a result.

    So in sum: 1. Do we really dare to hope that earthly marriage was envisioned by God to be a romantic love experience, or do we need to adjust our expectations culturally to a more pragmatic arrangement? 2. If Mr. West’s ideal of marriage is correct, does this mean that couples in trouble ought to refrain from intimacy? 3. Is not the issues of authentic love in marriage much larger than the contraception issue, and ought not couples be more educated to it?

  • wgsullivan

    Could it be that we might be describing a maturing of love? My wife and I would describe our marriage as a work in progress and it will always be so until death do us part. Kinda like our faith life.
    I guess I’m a firm believer in using the Sacraments of the Church for supernatural strength in order to realize my eventual potential. The end to contraception may not be the cure all but the use of it is a darkening of the intellect, so many suffer, leading to other pitfalls. Not using the confessional and receiving Christ illicitly disables His life to grow in us.
    The Grace we receive from following God’s will in such a beautiful and basic teaching on life cannot be measured and put on the shelf for others to see.
    Intimacy is not the cure all for all troubles in marriage. Especially if the two join as one with the idea, “This will make it all better.” Could it be the two are thinking by being intimate that this will make “my” marriage better instead of this will make “our” marriage better?
    On the other side of that issue the hormonal flow of oxytocin can help with the unitive aspect of the marriage. However if we don’t work on looking inward at our weaknesses and especially selfishness, the oxytocin will be rendered moot.
    I would say our marriage is enroute to a deeper romanticism than we ever expected. As long as we remain diligent in deepening our faith life.

  • hanley18106

    In the interest of full disclosure, I will preface my response to the questions posed by Stirling to Mr. West with the fact that for most of our marriage my husband and I used contraception. I entered the Catholic Church in 2001 when my daughter was born, and after our son (our second boy and third child) was born, we started looking how to keep our family size at 3 children. I suggested we take NPF classes, just to make sure we were covering all our bases, so to speak, before doing something more permanent. From this perspective, I offer my thoughts.

    As regards point #1: If one looks at marriage with the perspective that contraception is okay, today’s ideals for marriage do seem over romanticized. I have no doubt many people watched the movie “Enchanted” and thought “Wow, wouldn’t it be nice if marriage was truly like that.” I walked away thinking…you know, that’s kind of how my life is (without the theatrics like singing in Central Park of course, but the feelings the two main characters had for each other struck a chord with me). When my husband and I used contraception, those feelings weren’t there as much, and the daily grind took its toll on us. But now with a built in cycle each month of “dating” (during the periods of abstinence) and then coming together, we have a much more exciting view of our relationship than Engaged Encounter, Marriage Encounter or several sessions of counseling with a priest ever gave us (what was missing in all three? Any mention of what damage contraception causes in the relationship).

    As regards point #2: Did we fully understand the Catholic Church’s vision of marriage when we first started using Natural Family Planning (NFP)? No. That took a few years to sink in. We really started using NFP (in 2005) because the alternatives didn’t seem so appealing, so we thought we would give this a try before moving on to something more permanent or drastic. It did not all click at first, so yes, we were intimate several times without fully understanding what was going on. THEN, the feelings began to develop, and only afterwards did we read materials that completely confirmed what we were experiencing even without knowing what it was we were supposed to experience. So the disciplined behaviors came first (and not necessarily motivated by what the Church said) and then our hearts were forever changed.

    This change in our hearts has completely spilled out into so many areas of our life, that when JPII or Mother Theresa talked about a poverty of love, we really get it. How? Now knowing how precious our marital love is has compelled us to show love and compassion towards our children (we actually want to spend time with us even though they still drive us to fits of despair), we have compassion toward the neighbors and the struggles they face in their marriages, we are so satisfied in our marital relationship we don’t have the appetite we once did for all the materialistic entertainments of our society (going out the movies, buying the latest fashions, getting the biggest car or house etc.) and we are very conscious of being generous to the poor and want to make sure they get what they need more than we get what we think we want. I don’t think people would be motivated to give up contraception in order to help the poor, but if more people gave NFP a try, I think more poor people would be helped because so many hardened hearts would be softened, marriages would be more stable and with fewer divorces to deal with people might have more time and energy to help the less fortunate.

    In sum, do we dare put hope in such a grand vision for marriage? I reply, what on earth do we have to lose? What on earth are we giving up for such a vision…a tired, worn out existence of just trying to get by? Doesn’t it seem worth the risk to try to achieve something so great? People are so frightened of what might happen (usually they are afraid they will get pregnant). If only they understood there is so much to be gained, no the least of which is, ultimately, a longing for God, a God who could have such a wonderful vision for marriage that yes, we are only just beginning to grasp. Refrain from intimacy? What is intimacy…only sexual contact? Hardly. Our society’s problem is that we have such a limited understanding of intimacy. It is way too narrow. An acceptance of contraception completely limits our ability to engage in authentic love, whether you are married or not. If you really want to see authentic love sweep this world of ours, the kind of love God intended us to have, turn your back on contraception and instead of the precipitous cliff you thought would be there you will find this amazing new world that quite frankly almost seems like heaven. Life is amazing and it is happening right now…most of us are just looking in the wrong direction. Turn around! The transformation will take your breath away!

  • mkochan

    So Hanley, when do I get your article submission for CE?

  • krby34

    Hanley well said.

    Stirling – I would just remind you that God’s plan has not always been mankinds action.

    In reference to your first point that “For most of human history women were married off to husbands selected by their families…” I would say that just because mankind has done it for thousands of years does not make it God’s plan for how mankind should have done it. No other person ‘selected’ or ‘married off’ Eve to Adam. God selected Eve and made he especially for Adam to be a suitable partner. Marriage in God’s plan is not all about sex, reproduction, etc. but about being partners in everything. When two wills (a man and a woman) join to become one will (a marriage) and unite in all things becoming one. This helps to build the fullness of mankind being made in God’s image, two persons beget a third person. Yes we are to say that human history was wrong and we need to return to God’s plan. Human history has continued to become a focus on self preservation. God’s plan has been one of Love’s preservation and we all exist and are preserved in this Love.

    In regards to your second point, like Hanley points out, intimacy does not equal love or partnership or sex but rather it is a component of a strong marriage that permeates all parts of the relationship. To believe that by having sex one can build intimacy comes from a false presumption that sex is intimacy. It is certainly not. Animals have sex but that does that make them intimate nor does it make them love one and other.

    I have not attended a Retrouville weekend but I hear great things about them. While misery is indeed part of life and therefore going to be part of a marriage as well I am unsure about your reference of it being the third stage of a marriage. Since I am unsure of your points specific reference I will respond by saying the misery experienced in marriage can be overcome with intimacy and communication, as I believe Retrouville helps to start building in the relationship of a marriage. Misery cannot be overcome by sex. Sex may be used by some to get through the miser like taking a pill removes pain from the body. The sex may cover up or disguise the misery, like pills can do for pain, but it does not deal with or remove what created the pain. If you don’t want the backache to return you stop the behavior that created the pain or you develop methods of performing the task that do not strain your back. In a marriage you need to take the same approach, determine the source of the misery and through intimacy and communication as a couple choose a way to keep the pain from returning. Sex may have led to a pleasurable moment that got you through the misery but it does not assure it will not return. In a marriage to succeed long term you need to deal with what causes the pain/misery not cover it up with sex.

    As to your final point I think most people here would agree with you that some more straight talk from the pulpit about real love, how a man shows love to a woman in a godly way and how a woman shows love to a man in a godly way are necessary and would be welcomed. Contraception is a small part of a large problem but it is a part of a big focus on self and currently is a part receiving a great deal of attention outside the church. Since outside the church it is in such a prominent position we, as Mr. West ends in this article, have an obligation as Christ’s Church to help others to recognize the poison for what it is and the grand part this small thing can play in destroying marriages.

    A stone castle, like a marriage, is made of many parts but removing one key stone can bring down a significant enough portion of the building that the rest of it becomes defenseless. Contraception is one method for removing one of those key parts of what a marriage is supposed to be, and by removing that stone contraception has broken through the defense of many marriages and corrupted the true meaning and purpose of those unions.

  • gadjmljj

    I so agree with mkochan! I could totally relate to what you were saying Hanley.
    I have nine children and 2 grandchildren. When we got married I didn’t understand the Church’s teaching on contraception either. It was actually my husband who was coming into the church, after we were married, who taught me what it meant to be Catholic. While I was ready to dissent from this teaching (as so many catholics I knew did, and partly because I thought it would be too difficult for my husband) He said “If that’s what the Church teaches aren’t we suppose to follow it?” I was so proud of his committment to the faith and inspired by it, it became a real turning point for both of us in our faith. Here I thought I was the one teaching him the faith but he taught me more by the sacrifice of his obedience than I had ever learned before. It seemed to just open our minds to understanding the importance of following what you believe and made God and his Church so much more real and important in our lives. In years that followed we learned to keep the teachings of the Church (which is one and the same as Christ’s own teachings) as the rule and guide for our lives. If one of us would begin to waiver, God always seem to keep one of us strong to help the other hold fast.
    Fr. Corapi once said “Faith precedes understanding.” In following the teachings of the Church we have come to understand the dignity of every person, and truly what sacrificial love is all about. This one teaching of the Church on openness to life has had the most profound impact on our marriage and our whole life together. We began to live our marriage not just in a natural way but in a supernatural and sacramental way. Every sacrament imparts a particular grace, to live out that sacrament as God intended. We had blocked this grace by our disobedience, but by the mercy of God he called us back and we could begin again.
    I believe one of the greatest reasons Catholics reject the teachings of the Church is that they separate Christ from His Church. They don’t really think they’re disobeying Christ Himself, or maybe they think their obedience to certain things really doesn’t matter.
    Just think of the bread of life discourse in the Gospel of John. Four times Jesus asked his disciples to “believe in Him” before he began his teaching on eating his flesh and drinking his blood (the Eucharist). Jesus knew this would be a hard teaching to understand because they could not see how they could follow that teaching at that point in their lives. Sometimes there are tachings that we struggle with too, but Jesus calls us to believe because it is HE who is teaching it to us. And we have to trust that his ways are better than our ways. The bible shows how many disciples Jesus lost that day because they said this is a “hard teaching”. But the reward for those who had faith in Him would be that they would be given one of the greatest gifts we can receive here on earth. To be able to receive the very body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Himself. Next to the miracle of the Eucharist the greatest miracles have been my children.
    We expect our children to have faith in us as parents, and it’s good that they do. But Jesus said “If you who are evil know how to give good things to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask it.” God instills in children a faith and trust for their parents for their own good. But at the same time he calls us to that same childlike faith and trust in order to follow him. “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child shall not enter it.”
    Just as children show their love by obedience so Jesus calls us to love him through our obedience, “If you love me you will obey what I command”.
    Children come to a greater understanding of what is right and good as they live out what they are asked to do. Perhaps is has taken a long time for us to come to understand the teachings of the Church on marriage. But I believe that this is because we have disobeyed for so long. With Theology of the Body there is a whole new generation coming, who have seen the effects of contracepting world, and are looking for truth. The new springtime is coming and Theology of Body will help to bring it about.

  • clara27


    I can very much relate to the points you made in #1, I’ve found myself thinking about those very things. You talk about the practicality of marriage for matters of “money, security, alliances, division of labor, etc.” You mean to say that there is something, shall we say, useful about marriage? Sure, why not. You make the point that arranged marriages have been the dominant way the union was entered into. You’re probably right although it would be impossible to prove it with data although it’s certainly true in a lot (most?) areas of the globe today. Is this Church making a statement to unjust societies that condone forcible marriage against the will of one party (usually the woman)? I have wondered about that and it is possible, if only because I would expect that from what the Church teaches about the nature of God he isn’t too happy about practices that don’t recognize the freedom of the person. But that would be a topic for another day…
    But I don’t see why we ought to conclude that the union of marriage is not sacred. Because plenty of people around the globe and throughout history don’t recognize it as such? Not so convincing.
    Maybe I’m guilty of a little of that “over-romanticism” you talked about, but I think God must be a pretty good anthropologist. You know what one of the main tools of study in anthropology is: kinship ties. So to take such a common, ordinary–not to mention foundational institution of society–and make it holy? Makes some sense, doesn’t it? Not to mention how all of the other “common and ordinary” parts of life are also caught up in the life of faith—IF we choose to make them so by offering them up as a holy sacrifice to God, uniting our joys to Christ’s, our sufferings with His. Theology and anthropology and political economy do not seem in contradiction to me on this teaching. In fact, I would say it really makes Mother Church look like quite consistent in Her teachings.
    Finally, if we believe the Church’s teachings are universal, that is not to say they are not articulated in language or ways that might be more familiar in one cultural setting over another. But again, that is in keeping with what we know of the character of God: he speaks to people in words that they understand. He came to earth at a particular time in human history, in a particular place.
    The heart of the message is still global, I believe.

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