21 July 2008

Contraception in Today's Christian Landscape

"Life begins at conception."

So writes "S" on a message board I frequent.

I agree.

When the contraceptive debates began in the 1960's in the Church, it was a time of great social and scientific upheval. Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical on contraception (Humanae Viate) outlined the teaching of the Roman Church, which was that all sexual activity had to have no human-imposed barrier to concieving children, and that to reduce sexuality to only one of its components (sexual gratification) weakened the marital bond, and resulted in a growing trend towards lack of faithfulness in marriage, and the growing number of divorces he was witnessing in his own back yard at the time.

The problem is, Paul VI based his appeal to avoid contraception on the wrong premise. Instead of going on about the teritary effects of chemical contraceptives (i.e., the abortifacent effect), he chose to take the theological tack. Noble, from an ecclesial perspective, but very, very lousy from a public relations (and, ultimately, from the faithful's) perspective. I believe that if Paul VI had done two things, he could have nipped Roman Catholic usage of chemical birth control and IUD's in the bud before they got anywhere near what they are today:

1) Accept barrier birth control methods that do not result in the possibility of an abortifacent effect on a concieved child. (Edit: I am not saying hand them out or encourage their use, as NFP should remain the norm. See my follow-up disclaimer for more on this...)

2) Explain the objection to the Pill and the IUD based on the abortifacent effect, without trying to solely appeal to the masses on the basis of flawed Augustinian logic and theology.

Unfortunately, Paul VI chose what is, in my opinion, the wrong tack... and Roman Catholics now are on par with their non-Catholic neighbors in usage of the Pill and the IUD... and most of them aren't aware of the abortifacent objection that should really be far more of a concern.

Don't get me wrong, Natural Family Planning is great, and my wife and I took it before we got married. But even there, in our very Roman NFP class (all we could find in our area), they never mentioned the distinction between barrier contraceptive and chemical contraceptives. I felt they did a disservice to the engaged couples there, most of whom one could hear walking out the door laughing about the class and how they were only there to get their 'card punched' so they could have a church wedding.

The Roman Catholic Church (and other Churches and clergy who, like me, object to abortifacent birth control) need to start explaining their objection in this fashion, and should consider some level of tolerance for those who make their own concientious determination to emply non-abortifacent methods of birth control; allowing them to use their God-given wisdom to decide on family size.

FOLLOW-UP DISCLAIMER: Lest anyone get the idea that I am calling for an opening of the floodgates when it comes to barrier contraceptives, let me note that I believe that NFP is the best route to go if a couple is choosing to delay pregnancy. That being said, I know that NFP can lead to other issues in the sexual lives of couples, especially if one or the other party is less than convinced about NFP. Couples who marry must be open to life, or else it is not a valid Sacramental marriage. Couples who are incapable of having children biologically should be moved by pastors to consider adoption or other involvement with children (foster parenting, teaching, etc.) to display that openness to life. The use of any form of birth control should, however, always be a last resort, and should only be undertaken by Christians after serious consultation with their pastor.


Wowbagger July 21, 2008 at 4:30 AM  

Yes, I stalked you over from the BBS. Not likely to check back here, so don't spend a lot of time crafting a delicate response to me. (You could always PM me, though. I do check my inbox.)

The thing with Roman teaching is that the doctrines of the Church not about public relations or the approval of the faithful or any of that stuff. They're about the revealed truths of Christ, made through his Church, which guide we, the faithful, to eternal happiness with Him. When Paul VI condemned all forms of artificial contraception, he was not making a considered ruling, taking into account all the pros and cons and possible outcomes of his decision. One might even say he wasn't making a decision at all; he was conveying an important truth about the human person, which is that all forms of artificial contraception are harmful to the users, making it more difficult to reach God. He did so as completely and as logically as he knew how.

Don't get me wrong: there's a clear and important distinction between barrier methods and abortifacients, and the Church should do a helluva lot more to educate the faithful about that difference. But the Pope is not in a position to make a prudential compromise on regarding the promulgation absolute moral truth. Indeed, it was not Pope Paul's decision at all. We face a very serious problem in the more or less complete failure of this teaching to sink in with the American Catholic Church, but the solution, whatever it might be, is not to deceive the flock about important questions of right and wrong.

Rumor has it that misunderstanding this very important point is what killed Pope John Paul I. But I'm sure you've heard that rather dubious tale.

Incidentally, I note that you write Library Computer. I had no idea, since you don't add "Fr." in your bylines there. Love the column; read it voraciously, even when I don't comment. Great work, and God bless.


Father Robert Lyons July 21, 2008 at 5:23 AM  

Thanks for your comments!

Believe me, I understand your point of view, and I find much of what Paul VI had to say in Humanae Viate to be prophetic. We do live in a culture of death, and that culture isn't helped by the proliferation of birth control.

That being said, I guess my disagreement with Paul VI's theology goes something like this:

St. Paul makes it clear that maritial sexuality is a remedy for sexual immorality. With the exception of brief breaks for prayer and fasting, he encourages couples not to forsake one another's sexual needs.

Interposing any form of birth control into the mix, even NFP, when used to prevent pregnancy, would therefore not live up to biblical quality of the Pauline call for occassional abstinence. His call was not intended to prevent childbirth, but to focus on prayer. Paul's abstinence, therefore, cannot be used as moral justification for NFP's use as birth control.

Thus, the question has to become, is there any legitimate reason to prevent pregnancy? If there is a legitimate reason, then it doesn't really matter what form of non-abortifacent birth control you are using, since the main goal of the form is to avoid conception of a child. Using NFP is just as 'selfish' in the theological sense as is using a condom. There is no real moral difference in birth control until you get to abortifacent (or, as you have dubbed them, killifacent) forms.

Killifacents (care if I steal that?), by preventing the implantation of an already fertilized egg (a real, ensouled person) should be morally repugnant and unacceptable to all who follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So, we are now left to face the question, "Is any kind of birth control, including NFP, morally acceptable."

As someone who did NFP and who also insists that couples preparing for marriage go to NFP... well, obviously, I can see a reason for a couple to delay pregnancy and plan their family without denying themselves a sexual experience. But if a family is unwilling to display an openness to life, then I can say with a clear conscience that even if they are using NFP to achieve their childlessness, the Sacramental nature of their marriage is in doubt.

You may wish to view my follow-up disclaimer at the site on the topic. I'm in the middle of adjusting from dayshift (Sunday) to working nightshift for a week to cover for a vacationing chaplain at the hospital, so my thought processes aren't quite as polished as I would like them.

All original material (C) 2007-2010 by Father Robert Lyons.

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