One pledge I made for Lent is that I would attempt to write this defence of the Catholic teaching on contraception as well as an account of why I returned to Christ. The latter will hopefully be done by the end of the Lenten season. I hope to have it ready to post either Good Friday or Easter Saturday. Both this and the latter, I’m sure will be far from perfect. I am sure finding errors long after this post goes up but I want to do it anyway. This ended up being much longer and more personal than I thought, and I’m not totally happy with it. I thought this would be the easier of the two but it has been much harder. I think it is worth posting but I hope to improve on it.
Before it was widely available, contraception wasn’t a controversial moral issue for the church. It was upheld by virtually all Christian denominations and sects, and was (as I was surprised to learn recently), even condemned by Calvin and Luther, the latter calling it “a most disgraceful sin”, and the former stating:
“When a woman in some way drives away the seed out of the womb, through aids, then this is rightly seen as an unforgivable crime.”
The Catholic Church is also quite direct:
Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, “every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph #2370
It is generally understood that the time when most of the Christian world moved away from this view of contraception was the Council of Lambeth where Church of England Bishops collectively concluded:
“When there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipleship and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception-control for motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.”
I got the quote above from Chapter 4 of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism which I reviewed in December last year. Now the reason I put this large quote from the Church of England Bishops (in 1930 by the way), is because of how carefully and seemingly reluctantly the Bishops lay out the change while still insisting that the previous teaching was preferable. How quickly selfishness, luxury and mere convenience became the norm, not only in society but among committed Christians as well.
Indeed, I grew up in a church that had completely abandoned this teaching and being educated in the Catholic school system did nothing to mitigate this. I knew nothing of these teachings until adulthood and even then, mostly learned them from people who spoke of them with ridicule, if not contempt. The Church though, had never abandoned the teaching and strongly re-affirmed the teaching in the 1968 encyclical Humane Vitae, long after the Council of Lambeth took the Church of England and most of the rest of the Christian world the other way.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to state that one of the biggest challenges facing the Catholic Church is it’s teaching on contraception. Or rather, its historically and morally consistent teaching on contraception. I confess that on deciding to seek membership with the church that this was a personal problem for me as well; largely perhaps because of how I had been brought up and how strongly it contradicted what I’d previously believed and certainly how I’d behaved up to that point. The teachings on contraception was interestingly the way I learned I really was Catholic. I threw out a half-used packet of prophylactics and then two full ones before finally accepting it. It may be a challenge, but the fact that it has stuck to this teaching will be a source of strength in the long-term. It is also arguably proof that the Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ.
Leading up to writing this I read an essay by Professor Edward Feser who makes a very good argument in favour of the teaching from a natural law perspective, known as the “perverted faculty argument”. Late last year I also read this article which also makes a very good case for the traditional teaching. I don’t think I can do much better than either and the criticism I’ve seen in comment sections seem to be mostly trivial; as are some of the points rebutted in Feser’s essay by actual moral philosophers.
The perverted faculty argument is simply arguing that anything that actively frustrates a natural end in human beings is immoral. The purpose of the sexual act is procreation as taught by both biologists and the church. Rendering the act sterile in pursuit of the pleasure is perverting the faculty of the act. This of course is not the same as using glasses, walking on your hands or abstaining from using faculties altogether. As Feser explains:
“Nor does the premise imply that there is anything inherently wrong with having sex during pregnancy, or during infertile periods, or with a sterile spouse, or after menopause, or in general under circumstances where it is forseen that conception will not result. For none of this involves using one’s sexual faculties in a way that actively frustrates their natural end. Foreseeing that a certain sexual act will in fact not result in conception is not the same thing as actively altering the relevant organs or the nature of the act in a way that would make it impossible for them to lead to conception even if they were in good working order.”
As I said, these are better read than repeated by me. I only include this to give a brief overview and I want to encourage you to follow the links and read for yourself.
What I want to do is move away from the philosophical arguments and focus on the results of society not following traditional Christian teachings, which arguably began with the use of contraception. It should also be added that these teachings are not unique to Christianity though Christianity has historically been much stronger on sexual ethics than many other creeds and traditions. Has society been improved as a result of abandoning these teachings? Are things better? Surely, if the churches teachings are wrong, it should be crystal clear from the society we live in. I don’t merely follow Christian teaching because it is what is taught. I believe their are good reasons for all the churches teachings. I operate on the principle that God has reason for his laws and that violating these laws has clear consequences in this life as well as the next. If the church is wrong, it should be clear today as the teachings have been abandoned and society should have improved measurably as a result. It should also be clear that other traditions are wrong as other cultures adopt the same moral outlook as post-Christian nations. And let’s be clear, almost all Western countries are functionally post-Christian at this point.
Now people may plausibly state that in the short-term, we have become a much more affluent and somewhat more peaceful society over the past fifty or so years. But this was also over one of the biggest periods of economic expansion in global history and this is now coming to an end. As can probably been understood by the popularity of post-apocalyptic media, we are no longer thought to be heading in the Star Trek direction. And it certainly isn’t religious zealotry that is the cause of this. And the technological progress we have seen over the past century does not necessarily mean our society is a better or more moral one. What has happened over the same period is a slow but steady erosion of moral order. The full consequences are not yet fully visible but they will be when and as economies collapse in the West.
Let’s look at sexual license in general. One of the arguments heard by people like Richard Dawkins is that if everyone followed the Catholic Churches teachings on birth control, than everybody would die of starvation due to overpopulation. People like this of course assume that there is no way anybody can possibly control their sexual desires, though they are expected to exercise control over many other appetites. As there is now evidence for a genetic basis for proclivities towards criminal activity; one would assume in following the same logic that people with these predispositions will not be expected to restrain them either. But people can, do, and for most of human history, people mostly did. They very often had little choice not to.
I would agree that it is much harder today to restrain sexual desires but this is more because restraints that were once in place have been broken. I can’t walk into any convenience store in Japan without seeing pornographic magazines at a perfect eye level for elementary school aged children. You certainly can’t watch television, see films or even read many more recent novels without suggestive if not explicit sexual imagery. The Internet is jokingly said to exist exclusively for pornography and jokes are only funny when there is truth to them. So when people tell those who argue for traditional morality that it doesn’t work, they are similarly stating that a bucket that has been broken won’t hold water. Of course it won’t, it was broken it has to be repaired or replaced.
The other common argument connected to this is the idea that just because people will do it anyway; it should be allowed. As mentioned, the reason people do is because the restraints that were in place have been broken. This was not always the way and it certainly doesn’t have to be. The same thing is often said of drug use; that because drugs exist, people will and must use them. I don’t take this argument seriously because it isn’t one. It is a self-serving excuse.
Moving on to contraception itself, a fellow a fellow Christian may want to stop me and ask why focus on contraception and not just pornography, fornication and other perversions? Why is it bad for a married couple to make use of contraception if they are living a life of fidelity? If I were to answer without pointing to tradition, I would answer simply because the use of contraption makes all of what I have mentioned above possible in the first place. It is at the root of the collapse of sexual ethics and this is something that all Christians need to come to terms with.
The following quote comes from a Daily Mail article about the discovery of an ancient Roman brothel in England:
“With little or no effective contraception available to the Romans, who also considered infanticide less shocking than it is today, they may have simply murdered the children as soon as they were born.”
Early Christians were documented to have rescued babies left to die of exposure by parents and people running places like this. This was the reality of what is today only jokingly referred to as “fornication” for most of human history. It really still is today if you put abortion in the same category as infanticide which the majority of professing Christians still do. But effective contraception has allowed this reality to be somewhat sanitised, and far less confronting than a ditch full of dead babies is.
Ignoring the side effects of the birth control pill, it’s effectiveness makes sin less likely to have temporal consequences and therefore much more tempting. The same is true of other forms of contraception. But this is mostly just a problem for the upper classes of society as the dropping of the cultural guard has had its most devastating effects on the lower classes. As has been observed, the less intelligent you are, the less likely you are to use contraception effectively – if at all. What used to protect people from their stupidity was cultural (meaning religious), pressure.
As Swift pointed out when a peasant is given reason to believe there is no consequences in the afterlife, he logically concludes:
“Why, if it be as you say, I may safely Whore and Drink on, and defy the Parson.”
That is the reality of what the majority of people will conclude and it’s been exactly what has happened. This is verified by simply looking at what has happened to society and there are plenty of horrifying statistics on divorce, STDs, and general moral breakdown to show this. I remember a personal experience many years ago where a little girl (from what was once called the underclass), telling me she didn’t want to see a visiting Christian group at the school I was working at because her mum said it was “bull****”. This little girl very likely didn’t live with her father like many other children at her school, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to find out she was herself now a single mother.
Let Pat Buchanan tell it from the American perspective:
- The U.S. illegitimacy rate has rocketed from 5 percent of all births to 41 percent.
- Among African Americans the share of births out of wed-lock is 71 percent, up from 23 percent in 1960.
- The percentage of households that were married-couple families with children under eighteen had plummeted by 2006 to just 21.6 percent.
- Since Roe v. Wade fifty million abortions have been performed.
Suicide of a Superpower, page 63
For the more intelligent and elite, this obviously isn’t going to be the problem it is for the poorer classes. However, the fortunes of families travel both up and down, and I have seen plenty of similar problems arise in otherwise middle-class and wealthy families. The more pressing problem here though is that many people (including many observant Christians), are opting to have one, two or no children at all. This is good for them while they live but devastating in the long-term for society. And as many have observed, the less intelligent in society are out-breeding the more intelligent. This includes a great many immigrants who generally do not share the values or culture of their host nation. The upper classes in society are having children below replacement level and immigrants and poorer are having many children, the latter of whom are raised in dysfunctional homes and grow up to repeat the same mistakes. The former do not share the common values of their host culture, including many beliefs we foolishly take for granted.
Now I am totally against any form of eugenics but people will increasingly become sympathetic as society continues in this trajectory. The problem here is that even if you employed eugenics to solve this, you couldn’t do so without obligating the more intelligent to have more children and the less intelligent – less. This would start with incentives but probably require something more authoritarian which means sexual license will once again be restricted. So even if the West doesn’t return to Christianity, it will be forced to turn to something else and it will involve regulating sexual behaviour or it will change beyond recognition or die. Would, what could be called, the natural eugenics of making people responsible for their actions be preferable to the more severe methods that would be employed by a state apparatus? I think so.
Someone might want to again stop me and ask what precisely could be done anyway?Contraception can’t be uninvented. If the state were to forbid it, a lucrative and enthusiastic black market would spring up. This is all very true and this very thing would happen. I wouldn’t argue for such a cause though as it is useless.
What has to happen is for Christians to turn to the root of the teachings. They must start having children. They must make more effort to restrain their passions and Christianity will again flourish. They will will converts wanting to save themselves from this corrupt generation and Christianity will grow as these families do. This will not be easy and life will be far less comfortable but a society that does this will survive. The people who practice sterility will be sterile and they will die.
I have mentioned some personal experiences in this post and many people who knew me well as a teenager and young adult would likely delight in reminding me of the sort of behaviour I got up to then and continued into adulthood. My closer friends and acquaintances might remind me of many shameful events in my life; though I have not forgotten them and will not hide from them. Some who don’t know me might merely dismiss everything with a psychological analysis that concluded there was something wrong with me or hidden and that this is why I believe what I do. Doing either would be to avoid thinking about everything else I’ve written and more as a personal defense of their own than a merited attack on what I’m trying to argue here. Whatever relevance it has to my own experience, perhaps first consider what motivates you to draw such conclusions? What we all live in is a society where everybody’s dirty and if someone wants to be clean, everybody will remind them how dirty they are. This is a losing game and I am committed to washing myself no matter how many times I fall in the mud or have it thrown at me.
On of the biggest, often repeated lies about sexual acts is that they are merely biological actions like moving your arms and legs or eating. People who say this know they are lying and I knew it was a lie from my first experience. Whatever circumstance you experience it, it will effect far more than your pleasure senses. Sure, this can be blunted over time much like feeling can be lost with damaged nerve endings but this isn’t normally the way of things.
It isn’t just the profound effect it has on individuals but also for all society. People who deliberately practice sterility, may live a very pleasurable and joyous life. And even if there is no God, as they probably hope there are still the people who come after them that have to live in the world they’ve left. I have consciously committed many mortal sins but I decided that I want to do better for my children and for Christ. I want to wash the dirt away as best I can. The question of contraception was one of the hardest I had to consider when returning to Christ, but consider it I must. Even if one ignores the philosophical arguments, it is hard to deny that it has done immeasurable damage to society as a whole and it’s loss of force among Catholics and abandonment by protestants has done the same to Christendom. The latter can never be destroyed but it can be reduced to very few.
To end on a very personal note, the most fulfilling sexual experience I ever had was the one that resulted in the conception of our first child. It wasn’t wild, passionate or forbidden but it was a true act of love with desire to bring life into the world. Despite the fights, the struggles and the difficulty that comes with raising the fruit of this union, it remains one of the purest experiences I have ever had. This I believe came totally from the intent of the act. It wasn’t done to satiate our desires but with the firm intention that our union would bring forth life. And that felt better than any illicit sexual act that came before.