So far, I have provided what seems like a lengthy discussion on everything under the heavens except contraception. There is a reason why I have done so: Paul VI does the same thing. However, we need this discussion is needed so that we might learn how we got to where we are and how we can move on from here. Furthermore, we must make the first principles that are guiding our reasoning clear so that we can make right judgments on the morality or absence of morality of artificial contraceptives. This is something people rarely do, but without clear principles you end up with a bunch of nonsense. Pope Paul VI has stated these principles repeatedly and now he proceeds to make his moral judgment.
The central purpose of Humanae Vitae is to declare whether artificial contraceptives are morally acceptable or not. It seeks to declare the official stance of the Catholic Church with respect to them. That stance is quite clear:
“We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.
Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.”
But, why? Why does the Church have such a negative view on artificial contraception? The explanation is simple and the key to it is our first principle when it comes to sexuality: that spousal love is meant to be a total gift of self. Both spouses are meant to give themselves completely to each other. This total gift of self includes, clearly, their reproductive capacities. When one of the spouses denies this capacity to his or her partner, the sexual act ceases to be a total gift of self. This love is then incomplete, crippled. Many people will argue that there are infertile couples and that, if what has been said is true, then their love would be incomplete as well. Paul VI responds by saying that this is not the case. Their love can still be a total gift of self because being infertile does not necessarily mean that they are holding something back. They simply do not have their own fecundity to give away. In a similar fashion, natural family planning is based on this principle. During the periods in which a woman is infertile, she has no fecundity to give away so she is not denying it to her husband. The immorality of using artificial contraception lies in the fact that it is a negation of the total gift of self. In consequence, the conjugal act itself becomes morally unacceptable because one of the spouses (or both) is withholding a part of his- or herself, making the act a selfish one and, therefore, contrary to the very meaning of love. A sexual act outside of the context of love is immoral because it goes against its very nature. Furthermore, it lends itself to the objectification of the other, to seeing the other as an object that can be used to satisfy a desire. It is then reduced to something unworthy of the dignity of man.
The idea that love is a choice, that is, an act of the will guided by the light of reason, implies a responsibility. This is what Paul VI refers to as Responsible Parenthood. Responsible Parenthood in this sense is completely different from the self-contradicting term that defenders of contraception use. It is ridiculous that those who are pushing to remove all consequences from the sexual act should talk about responsibility, especially when being responsible means accepting the consequences of one’s actions. Paul VI, on the other hand, proposes a coherent and rational explanation of Responsible Parenthood. It begins with the recognition, by both husband and wife, of their duties toward God, themselves, their families, and society. It also implies recognizing the fact that there are many things which are external to us and which we should not capriciously try to alter, particularly if they belong to the natural order. Once this recognition has taken place we can truly talk about Responsible Parenthood.
Responsible Parenthood consists in using our reason and will for what is good, not for doing whatever we desire. Our reason and will should be used to elevate mankind, not to degrade it. Hence, Responsible Parenthood means that both reason and will should be used to control emotions and instincts so that sexuality is placed at the service of love. Love is the opposite of selfishness; therefore, offspring should be welcomed even when it requires great sacrifices from the parents. A couple can only lawfully decide not to have more children when there are serious reasons for doing so. Selfish motives, such as maintaining a certain standard of living, are clearly not serious reasons. One aspect of Responsible Parenthood that is often overlooked is the social responsibility that a couple acquires when they decide to marry. This exclusion of social responsibility is caused, I believe, by an individualistic mindset. The consequences of overlooking this have become evident in our days. Children are vital for maintaining and preserving a healthy social order. Without them, for example, the population ages to a point where it becomes unsustainable. Such is the state we are beginning to observe across the world today. Parents have a social duty to bring forth new individuals so that society can be preserved. Doing the opposite is not only irresponsible, but self-destructive. And Paul VI, foreseeing this, prophetically announces the ways in which artificial contraceptives can bring about this destruction.
Humanae Vitae was written more than forty years ago. This means that we, modern readers, have an advantage over readers back then: distance in time. While the readers of the sixties had to look into the future, a future in which Paul VI’s warnings seemed like, at most, uncertain possibilities, we can turn toward the past and confront the reality of what has already happened. With those forty years of experience, we find ourselves in a position from which we can judge whether the “serious consequences of artificial methods of birth control” that Paul VI prophesied would occur were justified or not since we have lived through the results of having ignored them.
Paul VI mentions the three most evident dangers that the use of artificial birth control brings: a general degradation of morality, beginning with an increase in marital infidelity; a loss of respect toward women; and the possibility of contraceptives being used as an instrument of dominion by the public authorities. These conclusions are obvious when you begin your analysis from the fact that human nature is a fallen nature. This, like many other teachings of the Church, has been misinterpreted by many who have identified it with one of the two extremes that the Church herself has condemned. In that way, the opponents of Humanae Vitae confuse the notion of fallen nature with the idea that human beings are naturally bad and they base their criticism on that error. The fallen nature of mankind means that our nature is “wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 405) but it is not completely corrupted. It is weakened and has a tendency toward evil but it has been redeemed and can, through divine assistance, overcome this weakness. Ignorance of this reality, as the Catechism says in paragraph 407, “gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action, and morals”. These kinds of serious errors are what Paul VI says will arise from misunderstanding sex and original sin.
The problem lies in that the prevailing ideology of our time, that of the Enlightenment (or what’s left of it), denies the Catholic understanding of original sin. Depending on which side you like to take within the many branches of Enlightenment philosophy, you will either deny the natural propensity to evil and blame it on someone or something else, or you will exaggerate it. In any case, you will probably disregard Paul VI’s warnings. Let us analyze these warnings from within the Catholic framework, and compare them with the actual facts.
In the first place, we have the danger of a general degradation of morality. It is unquestionable that the morality of our times has radically changed from that of the days in which Humanae Vitae was written. There might be people who will argue that it has changed for the better, but I believe most of us would deviate from that view. If it has changed, it has been for the worse. Many indicators point toward a worrisome generalized state of mankind’s morality: divorce rates, teen pregnancy rates, depression levels, suicide rates, drug abuse and alcoholism, etc. All these indicators, though showing, in some cases, a decrease with respect to previous years, are nowhere close to their pre-Humanae Vitae days. It is widely held, at every level, that something is wrong. Is it too far-fetched to believe that Paul VI was right and that contraceptives have somehow ushered in, or at least accelerated and intensified, this moral decay? I don’t think it is.
This moral decay has been encouraged by artificial contraception for a very simple reason. What contraceptives do is attempt to remove one of the natural consequences of the sexual act. By doing this, they remove the responsibility that the act brings. Being responsible means recognizing and accepting the consequences of your actions. With no consequences, there are no responsibilities. But being responsible for one’s acts is one of the pillars of all morality. Without responsibility there is no real freedom and without freedom there is no morality. Animals are not subject to morality because they are not free. This absence of consequences is only apparent because the sexual act is much more than a purely biological or “animal” act. It is a human act with repercussions in every aspect of human life, that is, it involves the entirety of the person, not just his or her genitals. Paul VI is very clear when he says that the main victims of this irresponsible sexuality are women.
It is easier for men to separate the physical from the emotional when it comes to sex. Whatever the reason for this, we are hard-wired that way. If a man has “consequence-free” sex, this act can very easily become for him nothing but the satisfaction of an appetite. This, obviously, implies that the woman involved was nothing but an object to satisfy that appetite, which is clearly a violation of her dignity. But there is a more subtle side to this. The unitive and emotional aspect of the sexual act is much stronger in women than in men. For women, physical union also implies, in a natural manner, an emotional union. When the procreative aspect is voluntarily destroyed, the unitive aspect tends, as I stated previously, to disappear. If the unitive aspect is, by default, weaker in men, it follows that it more easily disappears when the procreative aspect is gone. Therefore, the emotional bond is only established on the woman’s side. This lack of emotional correspondence can gravely affect a woman because it makes her feel like she was used and not loved.
On the political and governmental levels, this lack of responsibility means that governments do not seek the most adequate solutions to social problems, but only the easy ones. It is much easier to control the population through sterilization programs than to create the necessary conditions for new generations to live in a dignified way. This is a reality that has been lived in the Third World. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been sterilized, many times without their consent or even without their knowledge, by unethical government authorities who have implemented population control policies which do not respect human dignity. This has happened through orders from international organizations and powerful foreign governments. Today, here in the United States, we find the government trying to force the acquisition of contraceptives on all of us, even when we find it morally objectionable. Paul VI was not simply imagining things when he mentioned that there was a real possibility of this happening.
The alternative to all this chaos is an ordered sexuality, respectful of human dignity according to God’s will which, in this case, is revealed in the laws that govern human sexuality. The Church cannot change these laws (which is why it is ridiculous for people to think that someday the Pope might change these teachings); all she can do is remind us to respect them. Paul VI is not so naive as to believe that without contraception human life would be perfect. However, there is no doubt that it would be better, especially if accompanied by a proper understanding of sexuality. And so, Paul VI ends his encyclical by calling all the Catholic faithful to recover the authentic meaning of sexuality and to share it with the world. As I said before, this correctly understood sexuality has love as its root and it demands sacrifice and self-gift. This is impossible without self-control and the practice of the virtue of chastity. Restoring this meaning represents a huge job for the faithful. It demands an enormous work of education that begins at home, with the family, and then is extended to all society through cultural, social, and political action. This is the duty we have as Catholics and which we have, unfortunately, ignored for too long.Tags » contraception, sexuality
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