In 1930, at a conference of Anglican prelates in the Lambeth Palace, for the first time in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Church of England declared that it was morally licit for married couples to use contraceptives under some very strict conditions. For example, if a pregnancy would endanger the life of the mother.
Until that watershed decision, every Christian church had taught that such artificial means of birth control were contrary to God's divine plan for marriage.
The Catholic Church's response to the Lambeth Conference was Pope Pius XI's encyclical letter Casti Connubii; the English title is On Christian Marriage. In 1968, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church's traditional teaching in his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, Of Human Life. One of the first things that one notices upon reading Humanae Vitae is that the document is an exposition of the Church's understanding of marriage more so than a prohibition against contraception. The same is true, of course, of Pius XI's encyclical entitled On Christian Marriage. This is because the Church's teaching against artificial birth control is primarily about preserving the sanctity of marriage, not about birth control.
It would seem obvious that all talk of the morality of contraception should take place within the context of marriage since all carnal knowledge outside of the marital covenant is already illicit. As much as our society wants to argue that contraceptives will prevent teen pregnancies and the spread of diseases, statistics have proven that they don't — asking a teen to be responsible with contraceptives is like asking him to be responsible with his chores. But even if they did prevent pregnancies and the spread of disease, what it also promotes is more illicit sexual activity, which means that it promotes more sin in our society, more fornication and sexual deviancy, which means more spiritual suicide.
What sane man would say, “Well, the Nazis are going to kill all the Jews, anyway, so let's just help them find painless, humane ways of doing it.” Or what loving father would say, “Well, my son is going to rob that bank, anyway, so let me buy him a bullet-proof vest so he won't get killed in the process.” So, why, then, would anyone say, “Well, my daughter's going to have sex, anyway, so I'd better get her on the pill and buy her some condoms so she won't get pregnant or sick.”
Obviously, murder is evil, so we do all in our power to prevent it. Stealing is evil, so we do all in our power to prevent it. And fornication is evil, so we do everything in our power to prevent it. What does it profit a man to preserve his body from disease but to lose his soul to the cancer of sin?
Therefore, it's only within the context of the marital covenant that we can seriously discuss the issue of artificial birth control; and it's because the Church wishes to be faithful to her Lord and to preserve the sanctity of marriage that she continues to defend the biblical and traditional condemnation of artificial birth control. Not because it's artificial, but because it's unnatural. That's a very important distinction to understand. There is nothing intrinsically evil about things that are artificial. Prosthetic limbs are artificial, but there's nothing evil about them. Air conditioning is artificial, but there's nothing evil about it. Light bulbs produce artificial light, but there's nothing evil about that. So, contraceptives are evil, not because they are artificial, but because they are unnatural, because they frustrate the natural ends of the conjugal act as God has designed it, those ends that unite man with God in the unitive and procreative aspects of conjugal love.
To understand what we mean by natural ends, consider the act of eating. What is the natural end of the act of eating? It's not to eat what we like. It's not to enjoy the company of friends. The natural end of eating is nourishment. It's good to eat the foods that we like so that we might enjoy eating; and it's good to eat with friends so that we might enjoy fellowship. But if we're stranded on an island without friends and without any food that we like, do we not eat? No! We still eat to stay alive. So, what do we call it when we willfully, deliberately frustrate this natural end of eating; when we willfully choose to stop the food from nourishing our bodies? What do we call bulimia and anorexia? We call them eating disorders!
Well, so too is the conjugal act disordered when we willfully frustrate the natural ends for which God designed it, when love and life (or more technically, union and procreation) are willfully divided or frustrated, which is precisely what contraceptives do.
This covenant of love and life is most apparent in this coming Sunday’s celebration, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. Our God is Himself a family, a communion of love and life, a Father, Son, and Spirit. The Father is a divine person who loves the Son with a perfect, self-donating, sacrificial love. The Son is a divine person who loves the Father with a perfect, self-donating, sacrificial love. And the love that is between them, the love that unites them is so perfect, so real, that it is itself a divine person, the Holy Spirit. That love is not just an abstract idea, but a real person. We profess this reality of the Trinity at every Mass when we pray, “Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is Yours, Almighty Father, for ever and ever. Amen!” The Holy Spirit is that unity, that bond of true love between the Father and the Son.
True love is always life-giving, always selfless, never life-taking, never selfish. True love always tends to reproduce itself, to make more of itself, because it comes from the Creator. What more profound statement of love can one make to one's beloved than, “I want to bring another one of you into the world”, which is precisely what the spousal act of love says and does. Just look at your children and you will see another one of your spouse in the world.
We learn about God through His works. In looking at His work of creation, we see that creation adds nothing to God. He's already perfect in Himself. So, the only reason for His creation is to share His perfection with His creatures. When we make something, we usually do it to fulfill a need that is within us. But God does not need fulfillment, hence, He created us for our benefit, not for His. That's the life-giving, self-donating, sacrificial nature of love and of the God who is love.
God created marriage, the most perfect sacrament of the Trinity in His creation. Within marriage, a husband loves his wife with a self-donating, sacrificial love; and a wife loves her husband with a self-donating, sacrificial love; and the love between them becomes so real that nine months later they might have to give that love a name. It's no longer just an abstract idea, but a reality, a tangible reality.
Even when the act of love does not beget life, there's still a tangible reality that is given. It's not just the poetic language of metaphors anymore. All the poetry that a groom may write for his bride is merely symbolic of the gift of his heart, merely symbolic of that part of himself that he wants to give to her. He can never really, physically give her his heart. But in the conjugal act, the man does leave something real, something tangible, a part of himself within his bride. To reject or deny that procreative gift, that life-giving aspect is to reject or deny the unitive gift, the love-giving aspect, also.
When we frustrate that covenant of love and life, we turn the conjugal act into an act of selfishness rather than an act of total self-donation: “I give you all of me except my reproductive self, except my openness to life”, which, in turn, means that I've also closed off my openness to love. For it's a covenant of love and life, not love or life.
As in the nature of love, in the nature of the Most Holy Trinity who is love, true love is always life-giving, always desirous of reproducing itself. Only our children can reproduce love. Cars, houses, clothes, furniture, do not love. The only things that we make that are capable of love are our children. And that's because we do not make them, but God does, in His divine image, through us. Children are God's gift to spouses. It's not their right to have children, of course; but it is God's gift, for only He can create life; and He always does it deliberately, never accidentally. God does not make mistakes. There is no pregnancy that is unplanned in the mind of God.
This is why the world is so wrong when it teaches us that children make a rich man poor. The truth is that children make a poor man rich: rich with divine favors and blessings, rich with treasures in Heaven, for only souls go to Heaven. What's the point of having a nice house if there aren't any children to play in it? The house doesn't go with us to Heaven, the children do.
But then the question is asked, “Why does every conjugal act have to be open to life? Can't a marriage be open to life as a whole without every conjugal act being open to life?”
Why not ask: “Does every conjugal act have to be with one's spouse? Can't one be faithful to one's marriage as a whole without every sexual act being with one's spouse?” Obviously 99% of the time is not sufficient to make one faithful to one's marriage as a whole. And so it is with the covenant of love and life.
That first conjugal act is the sealing of the marital covenant. And every subsequent conjugal act is the physical renewal of those marital vows, vows that were expressed freely and unreservedly, vows of total self-donation: “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” No matter what! “I give myself to you totally and completely no matter what.” This is what the marriage vows say and what the marital act repeats. This is John Paul II's famous language of the body. The conjugal act speaks a language of fidelity, a language of permanence, a language of self-donation, of exclusivity, even: “I give myself fully to you and to you alone.”
When we use the conjugal act for our own selfish purposes, when we exclude love by manufacturing life in a petri dish, when we exclude life by the use of contraceptives or sterilization, or when we exclude both through self-abuse, then we lie with our bodies. We no longer respect the image and likeness of God that is within us and that is within our spouse.
Among the many myths about this subject is one myth that is ubiquitous in our society: the myth of overpopulation. This objection is often brought up when this topic is discussed, although it has very little to do with the objective morality of contraception, because we can never do evil that good will come of it (cf. Rom iii, 8). I should encourage you to do the math for yourself, but it is a fact that the current world's population could fit into the state of Texas. And each one of those six billion people living within the state of Texas could have over 1200 square feet of property for himself. That means that a family of five would have over 6000 square feet of living space, assuming a one level house. If we add floors to that house and include apartment buildings and high rises, then the amount of living space increases. Now, even in Texas, 6000 square feet of living space would be considered a mansion. And that would leave the whole rest of the world for agriculture.
Besides natural disasters and other uncontrollable factors that have nothing to do with population, the reason there is hunger in the world is not that there are too many people. It's that there are too many selfish people. That's what we should be trying to overcome in the world, selfishness. And that's not done by promoting a contraceptive mentality. Contraceptives lead to a lack of respect for the dignity of human life, not a greater respect for it. If we do not respect the sacredness of an act, then we will not respect the sacredness of the product of that act. As Catholics, we're called to be pro-life, that's not just anti-abortion, that's pro-life. Well, one cannot be pro-life and at the same time pro-contraception. Contraception is contra-conception, against-conception. Against the conception of what? Against the conception of life. One cannot be pro-life and at the same time against the conception of life. Our respect for the sanctity of the human person, for the sanctity of life, begins with our respect for the sanctity of the conjugal act, the act that begets that life.
Love and Life: You can't have one without the other.
© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange
(Fr Augustine H.T. Tran attended seminary at the North American College in Rome, Italy and was ordained to the priesthood in 1998. He serves in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and is currently in residence at St. John Catholic Church in McLean, Virginia, while he completes a Canon Law Degree at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He may be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)