|Newly engaged at the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris|
What can I say? We were young and in love, and Krista, my then-girlfriend, was studying abroad in France. Of course I had to fly out there to propose! I'd have been a fool to pass up such an opportunity.
It was the Spring of our Junior year at Wheaton College and we had the plan to get married that summer just before our Senior year. Before deciding to propose, I had done a lot of work figuring out how we'd get by for the year while we both finished our degrees, looking into everything from financial aid and health insurance to housing and making a budget. But there was one thing that neither of us considered in the least bit: children.
And why would we have? We were just wanting to get married, not start a family. Two entirely distinct choices, right? Marriage was just about us. As Christians, it was what would let us legitimately express our affections sexually.
Of course, we knew - more accurately, assumed - we wouldn't want a child right away. Not only were we both going to be still in school, but we just weren't ready for that yet, even if just mentally. We needed time for ourselves, for our relationship.
This all meant that we would need to use some sort of contraception. Not using contraception wasn't even a relevant option in our minds. Everyone used contraception. It was the responsible thing to do. The question for us, then, was what kind of contraception we would use. We were aware of the general kinds of contraception but since neither of us had been sexually active we were unfamiliar with all the details. Research needed to be done. We were both pro-life, and so we knew we didn't want to use anything that was abortifacient (including anything that prevents implantation).
Research led to a snag right away: reading about various types of contraception online, I was uneasy about all of them. While I had no objections to the idea of contraception in the abstract, all of the actual options seemed unappealing, even perverse. Have Krista take unnecessary hormones to make her body dysfunctional? Nope. Have some device implanted in her? Seems extreme. Or make sure we're always wearing plastic or using chemicals to protect ourselves from each other? Seems wrong to bring any foreign object into our most intimate expression of love for each other.
I didn't want any of that. Even at that point, I remember thinking, Why would we go so out of our way to disrupt what is so obviously just the natural process? The whole thing seemed a bit ridiculous to me. Why was it so important to be able to have sex and yet intentionally disrupt for what the act is clearly directed? Besides, most types were either known to be abortifacient or were suspected of it (though concerns regarding some forms of contraception being abortifacient have been challenged by newer research). There didn't seem to be many options for people who respect human life and didn't want to take any chances.
And yet, I knew that we couldn't possibly allow ourselves to conceive a child right away. Using nothing was out of the question.
|Enjoying Paris the day after getting engaged|
In the least, I was intrigued, and since we were looking into the matter, I figured it wouldn't be a bad idea to see what the Catholic Church had to say. I didn't think I'd be convinced to not use contraception at all - given our situation, such an extreme position would have been irresponsible - but I wanted to be informed about the different sides of the issue, and I knew reading the Catholic view would be worth my time.
I'm not entirely sure how I knew about Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical on proper and improper types of birth control, but I found it on the Internet and asked Krista, who was still in France, if we could both read it and discuss it. Krista agreed, though she has since told me that she wasn't expecting to change her mind about using contraception and read it only because I asked her.
Pope Paul VI begins Humanae Vitae by reminding Catholics that he, as Pope, is in a position to teach authoritatively on moral matters. I wasn’t Catholic and didn’t believe that the Pope had any authority, so I skipped down to section two. I was interested in his arguments.
Section two gave an argument from the natural law. ‘Natural law’ refers to the moral law that all people can know via their consciences. God has created the universe with a reasonable order. That order can be discerned by way of reason and must be followed. Morality, then, is simply acting in accord with reason and the way things are supposed to be. The natural law is "natural" in that it exists in nature and is prior to and independent of any civil law. It’s a ‘law’ in that all humans are obligated to follow it. The idea of natural law has been standard throughout the Church’s history and is reflected in passages from Scripture like Romans 2.14-15, Romans 1.26-27, John 1.1-3, et al.
So the starting point of the natural law argument of Humanae Vitae is simple: we have been made by God with purpose and this purpose must be respected. So what is the purpose of the sex act? We can discern its purpose by reason and examining the act itself.
In the sex act, the man and the woman express their love for each other by giving of themselves in total to each other as male and as female, and in doing so consummate and express their marital unity ("and they shall become one flesh" Gen 2.24). In this complete openness and self-gift, the couple is at the exact same time engaging in the procreative act. The unitive act is the same thing as the procreative act. So the sex act has two natural purposes or ends towards which it is ordered: the unity of the couple and the procreation of children. Both aspects are part of the natural purpose of sex and, since we are "not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design" (HV, 13), both must be respected. Any attempt at frustrating either purpose is contrary to the nature of the sex act and therefore immoral.
It’s obvious that contraception frustrates the procreative aspect (that’s its explicit, intended purpose), and by that fact alone contraception is contrary to nature and therefore immoral. But contraception also frustrates the unitive aspect. The only way for contraception to close the sex act to procreation is by preventing the man or the woman from giving of themselves as male and as female to the other in total, which is a frustration of the unitive purpose. Thus, since it frustrates both of the natural purposes of the sex act, the use of contraception is immoral.
|Pope Paul VI, who promulgated Humanae Vitae in 1968|
[T]he innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality. (Familiaris Consortio, 32)
So, sex is ordered toward the unity of the couple and the procreation of children. That may sound fairly simple, but life is never that simple. What if someone needed to, say, take the Pill for medicinal reasons? Pope Paul VI makes it clear that the Church does not intend to limit the use of legitimate medical treatments:
[T]he Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever. (HV, 15)And what if a couple honestly cannot handle another child?
If...there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth... (HV, 16)This technique is known as natural family planning and is based on how our bodies already function naturally. It requires no hormones that mess up the woman’s cycle, no implants, no barriers between the husband and wife - there is no need for anything artificial to distort the sex act. It requires only a knowledge of the woman’s monthly fertility cycle and the self-control and mutual respect to act accordingly. Thus, natural family planning works with the order of nature rather than against the order of nature as contraception does.
Before closing with some pastoral directives for the application of Humanae Vitae - including a call for scientists to develop easier methods for couples to determine when a woman is fertile and thus when to abstain when they want to avoid conceiving a child - Pope Paul VI makes one last argument against the use of contraception by predicting the negative consequences of its widespread use. He warns:
(1) "[F]irst consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards...and especially [for] the young..."
(2) "[A] man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection."
(3) There is "danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? [...] Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone." (HV, 17)
|Overlooking the Seine in Paris|
My first time through Humanae Vitae left me rocked. I found it well reasoned, nuanced, and - most unexpectedly - very compelling. But I honestly did not want it to be right. I had read Humanae Vitae just to be more informed, not to have my plans turned upside down.
We were going to be in school. I'd have no way to provide for a wife and child if we were to conceive right away. Of course, it would be possible to not consummate the marriage for a few months, but that didn't seem to make any sense. If we were going to get married, we were going to be having sex, which meant it would be possible to conceive a child right at the beginning of the school year. I figured out that if we were to conceive right away, Krista could be going into labor during finals week. It was also very important to me that Krista was able to finish her degree. Another option would be to put off the wedding for a year. But we had already gone through a long process of thinking through when we wanted to get married, and we had already gotten engaged, set a date, and made the announcement - it would be embarrassing and disappointing to change it all now.
We still had several months to work it all out, though. I had time to give it more thought. And besides, the question wasn’t mine to settle alone. Krista and I would discuss Humanae Vitae in a few days and we would think it through together. I was sure she’d bring me back to my senses, that of course it was the right thing for us to use some sort of contraception.
Keep reading: Part 2: Flipping the Switch
This is Part 1 of a six-part series:
Part 1: Asking the Question
Part 2: Flipping the Switch
Part 3: No Longer Afraid
Part 4: Hey Baby
Part 5: Tested Twice
Part 6: No Regrets
- Humanae Vitae
- Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan
- Children of the Reformation: A Short and Surprising History of Protestantism and Contraception
- Sanger's Victory: How Planned Parenthood’s Founder Played the Christians—and Won
- Birth control is moral (but not all methods)
- Organic Sex, Organic Farming
- The Vindication of Humanae Vitae
- Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution
- Find an NFP class