Sunday, May 26, 2013

Why We're Contraception-Free, Part 1: Asking the Question

Newly engaged at the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
It was nighttime and we were at the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France when I knelt down on one knee, pulled out the ring box, and asked Krista if she would do me the honor of marrying me. The reply: "Yes with all my heart!"

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
While thinking all of this through, I remembered from my time in Catholic schools growing up that the Catholic Church taught that the use of contraception was immoral. I basically had no idea why - it had something to do with the purpose of sex? - but something about the idea had always sort of rung true for me. Though I was still an evangelical, by this time I had a growing interest in the Catholic Church. I had come to respect the Church's theology as being well thought-out, consistent, and representative of historic Christianity, even if I wasn't sure I agreed with everything. Since most of my research into the Catholic Church had focused on the more central issues of authority and justification, I hadn't studied their sexual ethic at all.

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
Pope Bl John Paul II later put the same idea this way:
[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)
In trying to frustrate the natural procreative aspect of sex by the use of contraception, one is necessarily - even if unintentionally - frustrating the unitive aspect as well.

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
Has contraception encouraged sexual promiscuity, particularly among the young? Definitely. Now that the use of contraception is expected, are men more likely to view women as mere sex objects to whom little responsibility is owed? No question. Have governments used contraception against their own populations? China’s brutal one-child policy is just one example of many in the last few decades. It seemed Pope Paul VI was right.

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.

But my conscience had been twinged.

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
Post Script

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


  1. Awesome! Looking forward to the rest of the series, Brantly. I did a post about Pope Paul VI and the movie "Pope In The Tempest" that you might be interested in.

    Beautiful family! God bless, Cindy

  2. My husband and I read HV as part of our marriage prep. We knew where the Church stood and wanted read the document supporting the teaching. I think that EVERY SINGLE Catholic couple who is getting married in the Church should have to read HV as part of their marriage prep. I think it would rock alot of couples world's if they knew the ins and outs of that short document.

    Looking forward to the rest of the posts!


  3. theveilofchastity and The KIbbes!,
    Thanks! Yes, HV should actually be read by more people. And it's not very long! It wouldn't be that hard to do.

  4. That's awesome I sadly don't have that option due to severe female health issues, but if I could I totally would

    1. Lexie, Very sorry to hear that. Medical problems like that have to be very hard. God bless

    2. Unfortunately, many severe health issues do have options, but doctors simply do not present those options. Our medical culture is very pre-disposed to just prescribing hormones and masking those issues instead of actually treating them and seeking to heal. Often, there are options that conform to Catholic teaching and actually treat the issue, but doctors don't tell their patients about them .. if they even know about those options themselves.

      I have no idea what your issues you are facing and how they might fit in here and don't want this to come across as any kind of judgement. It is hard, and most doctors don't make it easier.

    3. Right, without knowing anything about Lexie's medical issues, just wanted to reiterate what was stated in the post, which is that the Church's position says that legitimate medical treatment - even if it has a contraceptive side-effect - is entirely permissible as long as the contraceptive side-effect is truly a side-effect and not the desire effect.

      God bless

  5. Brantly, thank you so much for posting this! Not only does it really encourage and challenge me in my personal thinking, but I'm excited to share this with my friends who have similar questions. Your testimony is so real and accessible to those of us "common people" who are just trying to please The Lord and get it right. Can't wait for installment #2! Please tag me or something so that I don't miss it. -Charlotte

    1. Thanks for the encouragement! I hope you are doing well

  6. I can't think of any prose that better explains and dignifies marriage more than HV. I too read it on the cusp of marriage, and it thoroughly renovated my worldview of sex, marriage and babies. Actually some of its sensibility has crept into my 6th-grade Catechism class.

    1. Great to hear. As I said to your comment on Part 2, it's great to hear your witness. I think there are lots of other people out there like this, and we need to get our stories out there so people know there is another way. God bless

  7. hey Brantly! I'm a Catholic student at Franciscan University of Steubenville. I caught your post about contraception on, finished it, then read your conversion story. Frankly, as a cradle Catholic I find every conversion story deeply inspiring, as well as encouraging.
    Quick question: did the exchange program between Wheaton and Franciscan make any difference to your conversion? (I'm pretty sure the program happens once each semester). For example, do you remember chatting or hanging out with any Franciscan students, for just a couple of days?

    1. Hey Jeremiah! Honored you took the time to read my stuff here. I believe the Wheaton-Steubenville exchange program got started while I was at Wheaton. I had heard about it, but I didn't get involved with it at all and never talked to any students from Steubenville. I knew a few students who did it though.

  8. Wow. I had a vasectomy and am damn glad for it. We have one planned high achieving daughter and a real possibility at retiring at age 54...only ten more years. Like it ornot our family structure is more than reality today and reflects the futre.

    1. Your future is the one high achieving daughter. Think about it!

    2. Culture of death much?

  9. Brantly,

    I find your story on this topic as well as your conversion story inspiring, and very similar to mine. I just entered the Church a few months ago after growing up in evangelicalism. Anyways, I've researched some of the natural law reasons why contraception is immoral, and have granted its sinfulness as divinely revealed on the authority of the Church. But I'm wondering, how do we know that if the sex act is against nature (neither procreative or unitive) that is is immoral?


    1. Hey Christie, Glad you're in the Church, and I'm honored you've taken a look at my blog. And great question too as to why "contrary to nature" = bad. First off, that's the implication of Scripture. From Romans chapter 1: "26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are **contrary to nature**; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error."

      But then, why does Scripture think that? "Contrary to nature" is what perversion is. Perversion is taking the good things God has created and misusing them, or, using them in ways that go against their own order or good. That is what all sin is. All sin is taking the good things of God and misusing them, debasing them, perverting them, etc.

      Feel free to dialogue back and forth if you want. Also feel free to email me if you'd like ( God bless!

  10. Brantly,

    Thanks for the informative answer! Yeah, the blog is a good resource, I've been following your posts for a while. The one on Confession was especially helpful the week before my First Reconciliation haha. I've recommended your blog to some of my non-denom friends.

    Anyways, you definitely answered that question, but it made me step back and think about how we know that the unity necessitated by natural law requires marriage. For example, why would it be against natural law (sinful) for a couple to, say, have procreative sex prior to marriage? According to the natural law I'm assuming we can know that sex prior to marriage is wrong because it is not unitive (and usually not procreative, but let's just say it is for this hypothetical). The procreative aspect would be there, but how could one say the unitive aspect was not there?



    1. Hey Christie,
      Great question. Sex (done correctly) is an expression of a full gift of self and of unity. If you're not actually committed to the other person totally, then it's a contradiction: you're saying one thing with your words (I'm not committed to you), but saying another thing with your body (I'm one with you).


    2. Brantly,

      How can we know from natural law that sex is inherently procreative, and that it is God's intent for each "marital act" as they say should be "open to life", as they say. Should it just be obvious that sex is procreative, and that it must be that way? Because it's definitely not obvious to modern-day post-1930's Protestants, or me actually, haha.


    3. Hey Christie, Great question. Procreation is simply what happens from normal sex. The fact contraception exist proves that sex is ordered to procreation. If sex wasn't ordered to procreation, you wouldn't need contraception. The reason this is hard for us to understand is because of the distorted mentality contraception has created about sex. Contraception has become normal, and so we no longer think of sex itself just simply ordered to procreation. But in reality, contraception is the added on, outside force. Sex itself is procreative. That's the primary reason we have sex to begin with. E.g. Why do we have food? There are many purposes, but the primary purpose is so we can get the nutrients we need. People who lose sight of that entirely fall into the sin of gluttony.

      God bless!

  11. Brantly,

    Thank you! I guess where I would've disagreed with you before becoming Catholic is on your emphasis for of the "primary reason" we have sex. [And I'm still struggling with it]. Marital sex can do many things -- procreation being one of them, spousal unity and pleasure are others. How are we to know that taking away the procreative part makes it unnatural such that its 'primary purpose' is lost, if it has other primary (you could say) purposes that could be very important as well (like pleasure).


    1. Great questions. One key thing to remember is that it's impossible to distort the act so as to block procreation without also necessarily distorting the act to block the full expression of unity since they are they same act. If a couple is using contraception, they are infringing on both the procreative and the unitive aspects.

      Also, it's not so much that "taking away the procreative part makes it unnatural", but more that anything done to alter the act in order to block procreation is....altering the act. One can use our knowledge of the human body in order to time when one has sex (NFP), and thus avoid procreation, but one isn't distorting the sexual act. Contraception, on the other hand, is a distortion of the sexual act.

      I've never seen pleasure named a purpose of sex in magisterial teaching on sexuality. Nonetheless, pleasure is a good from sex. But it's not a good that can be pursued by perverting the sexual act.

      God bless!

  12. Brantly,

    I guess you could dispute my claim that pleasure is a purpose, instead of a positive benefit, of the 'marital act.'


    1. The "pleasure" in sex is in the service of its procreative purpose. Pleasure is not the purpose of sex. It is the reward which God has added to the act in order that creatures would want to come together in sexual union and multiply. If the act were not pleasurable, our species would probably die out.

      Having said that, the "pleasure" of sex also enhances the "unitive" purpose amongst willing participants.

      I don't believe that pleasure is always present in the sex act, especially when it is forced upon one party by another.

      You seem to be arguing in favor of contraception for the purpose of experiencing sexual pleasure. As Brantly has tried to explain, sex which is removed from the main purpose of procreation is UNNATURAL to do so. And thus it is a sin against God who is author of nature.


      De Maria

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  17. Brantly and Krista, Ignatius Press invited me to do a review of Jennifer Fulwiler's conversion book - SOMETHING OTHER THAN GOD - HOW I PASSIONATELY SOUGHT HAPPINESS AND ACCIDENTALLY FOUND IT. She took the teachings of the Catholic Church seriously just as you two did. Her book makes great reading.....hard to put down. I feel that God raises up people like yourselves and her as something of a wake-up call for people.
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