Thursday, July 26, 2007

Birth Control

I've struggled for some time with the Catholic Church's rejection of all artificial means of birth control. It is not dogma, that is, it isn't something about which the Church has taken itself to speak infallibly. But the Church does recommend the rejection of birth control. It recommends its rejection strongly.

Let me take a few moments to explain (humbly, ever so humbly) why I think that the Church is mistaken about the matter. I'll be as concise as I can be.

The Church (and by "Church" here, I mean the sequence of theologians, ordained or not, whose views have been adopted by the Church) derives its view from the so-called "Natural Law Ethic". This ethic looks to the natural purposes of things and seeks to derive from them moral dictates about how the thing can and cannot be used. It is natural (or so it is said) for a man to marry a woman and remain with her so long as both live. Thus it is concluded that it is right for a man to marry only a woman; and it is right for them to remain together so long as either lives.

The variety of NLE promulgated by the Church is of course the theistic variety. The natural purposes of things were implanted in them by God, and this divine act thus serves to define for human beings what they ought and ought not do. (For Thomas, it does not define all that they must do, for he claimed that there were duties of a higher sort, spiritual duties to God and neighbor, that come to us only by revelation and are not, as it were, written into our natural constitution.)

How might the NLE (of the theistic variety) be put to use to condemn the use of birth control? The defenders of NLE would ask us to consider the act of copulation. What, they would ask, do we find its purpose to be? They answer (and not implausibly) that its purpose is procreation. (We'll return in a moment to the question of whether this is the whole of its purpose. But let us pass by that for now.) If this is the right answer, then the NLE licenses the conclusion that copulation ought to be allowed to bring about its natural purpose. But of course birth control does not allow copulation to bring about its natural purpose, and thus we seem forced to say that its use ought to be rejected. (I've sometimes heard that the Church condemns birth control because of the intent of those who use it. This is a mistake. The moral error for the Church does not derive from the intent of those who use birth control. One is allowed to act with the intent to prevent pregnancy, for instance in an extended period of celibacy. For the Church, the moral error derives from the very nature of the act itself. When birth control is used, the natural purpose of copulation is impeded, and this alone - not the intent - makes it wrong.)

But let us return to the question of the purpose of copulation. How might we find what that purpose is? As with the purpose of any natural object or act, we look and see. (I don't ask you to go peep in the neighbor's window. Instead I ask you to reflect upon what your experience, and reports of the experience of others, have taught you. The question is to be answered empirically.) What do we find? We find that copulation seems to have a second purpose in addition to procreation. It creates an emotional bond between man and woman (or, if that bond is already in place, it renews or strengthens that bond).

Now we must ask what is the relation of these two purposes. (Call "procreation", "P". Call "creation of emotional bond", "B".) One might hold that B is subordinate to P. This would be so, presumably, if the bond between man and woman is important solely insofar as it creates the proper environment into which a child will be born. But is this so? Are man and woman to become bonded emotionally only so that they might make a good home in which to bring up a child? I think not. I do not deny that the emotional bond between man and woman is in part important for this reason. But I do not think that it is important for that reason alone. The emotional bond between man and woman is a good in its own right, i.e. it is good to have it even if it were not to bear the fruit of a well brought up child. Indeed, if anything, I would think that P is subordinate to B. We bring children into the world so that we might love, and be loved by, then. Procreation, then, is for the new emotional bonds that new life makes possible.

What has this to do with the NL ethic? That ethic, recall, tells us that we must not so act that we subvert the natural purposes of things. But a certain possibility has now emerged - the possibility that copulation should achieve its first, or higher, purpose even when birth control is used. For B is surely independent of P. It can be achieved even if all possibility of P is precluded. (Indeed the Church itself admits this possibility. The so-called "rhythm method", if carefully followed, cements an emotional bond though it will not lead to conception.) Moreover, as said above, B is the higher, or better purpose. It expresses that which P is ultimately for.

What, in light of this conclusion, would the NL ethic tell us about an act of copulation in which (i) birth control is used, and (ii) man and woman, already within the bonds of marriage, serve thereby to strengthen those bonds? Surely it would have to say that it's permissible. When an act has two independent purposes, and one is higher or better than the other, surely it is permissible to act in accordance with the higher alone. Of course on the NL ethic it would be wrong to act in a way contrary to both B and P. This would be a genuinely disordered act. But so long as one is pursued - in particular so long as the higher is pursued - there is no disorder.

Notice that my conclusion concerns only a single act of copulation, and what it says about that it need not say about the set of every act of copulation between man and wife. Procreation is a very great good, and one not, I think, except perhaps in quite extraordinary circumstances, always so act to preclude its possibility. But that one not always do this does not imply that one ought never do it.

Let me end with a word about B. (What I'll say is a series of impressions only. There's no tight argument. I hope to remedy that flaw later.) Marriage is, in part, the deep emotional bond that secures man to wife. Thus, I would think, copulation is the marital act. Copulation, with greater speed and efficacy than any other act, binds a man to a woman (at least when not disordered). Copulation (at least when not disordered) thus creates a marriage. This explains why Christ said that only adultery can destroy a marriage. Copulation creates a marriage and thus only it has the power to destroy it.


Anonymous said...

I believe in a natural law, though I'm not sure it's the same natural law ethic of the Catholic Church, and it doesn't involve so many axioms about how things "ought" to be or what their natural purposes are. My understanding of natural law is theistic, but it flows from the fundamental axiom of self-ownership which I do not think can be denied, and so I therefore regard it as the bare minimum of morality which can and must be agreed to by all people regardless of belief in God or not.

This natural law definitely doesn't lead to any obligation to procreate.

I'm interested in the comment by Thomas about how God's law in revelation goes beyond the natural law, as this is also my understanding. The natural law tells me that I must not murder my neighbor, any more than I may burn my neighbor's house, because neither my neighbor nor his house are mine. But it takes God's law to tell me that I must help my neighbor if he falls on hard times (assuming a few Scriptural caveats, such that his "hard times" must not be because he is refusing to work, etc.). Please pardon my ignorance, but who is the Thomas who said this? :) Thomas the apostle, Thomas Aquinas, someone else?

I cannot agree with the Catholic Church's reasoning against birth control using natural law as an argument. In fact it looks very much like begging the question to me. You've highlighted well the several assumptions they've made along the way, and I don't agree with all of the assumptions. :)

I think they could make a stronger case against birth control either by going to the Bible and showing God's feelings about children and being fruitful and multiplying (an argument which holds some weight to me but is still not persuasive that birth control is absolutely forbidden), or by going to their own claimed authority as Christ's church (an authority I don't accept :) ). I'd sooner accept "We are the keepers of the tradition of the apostles, and the tradition of the apostles is that Christians do not prevent conception, and this tradition is not merely coincidental but explicitly a part of the way God wants man to live" than I would accept the vague "Well this is just the way it should naturally be, and it's a violation of the natural order of things to try to prevent conception."

I very much agree with your assertion of the other purpose of sex, and I very much agree that it is more important.

I will say that most or all hormonal methods of birth control, particularly the pill, do more than prevent conception but take active steps to cause the death of an organism of the human species should conception occur, and I do not believe that this is acceptable. And I'll further say the truth that nobody wants teenagers to hear: condoms prevent conception and disease fairly reliably, but they also can interfere with the pleasure of sex, sometimes greatly.

All this leads me toward speculating that God may have a particular ideal in mind whereby married people never take steps to prevent conception, but it does not lead me to think that God is actively displeased with such steps. I think I even go further than you in that I don't think we can find room to condemn a couple that marry and always take such steps.

Of course, accidents do happen. And I'm glad of that. :)

BTW, I think it's technically not correct to equate "natural family planning" with the rhythm method, as there are additional means of fertility awareness involved in NFP. I don't think the Catholic Church promotes the rhythm method on its own any more.

Also, I think your last paragraph could be construed to say that a sex act alone can create a marriage, even without a ceremony, leading to the conclusion many people have about being "married in God's eyes" because of fornication. You might agree with that conclusion, and the Catholic Church might, but I don't, and I thought I'd point it out in case you didn't mean to say it.

Dr. M said...

Thanks for the lengthy and thoughtful reply. A few quick thoughts. I should be able to do a bit better after I've had time to digest what you've said.

I have little to say about this principle of self-ownership. It would seem to imply that there are certain things that others cannot - absolutely cannot- do to me. This seems right. But is this principle supposed to account for the positive duties I have to others, the duties to give them the goods they need to live or to flourish? You seem to think that it cannot. But I would be surprised if a natural law ethic were impotent to give definition to positive duties. That would seem to be a strong objection to any ethic.

I mean Thomas Aquinas, the great defender of the natural law tradition in ethics.

I do think that copulation can in itself give rise to the commitment that is sufficient for marriage. I would think that a marriage ceremony and recognition by others is incidental the fact of marriage. A man and woman marooned on an island could marry. They could marry without ceremony of any sort. If they made the commitment to one another - the promise to remain for a lifetime, the promise to benefit for a lifetime - then the marraige is perfectly real.

This is what I mean when I say that copulation is the marriage act. Naturally it creates deep connection and deep commitment. Thus it naturally creates marriage. When it becomes something done merely for pleasure, it is deeply disordered.

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

I don't have anywhere near the mental capacity to take on high philosophical concepts like you discuss in your post. :)

However, I would say this:

Regardless of the Church's rationale behind their position on the issue, to me, the proof is in the pudding. What I see happening to women, to couples, and to society in general thanks to acceptance of contraception indicates to me that this simply cannot be a good thing.

The acceptance of contraception leads people to disregard the power of sex and forget about its potential for procreation. People slip into a mentality that there are two "kinds" of sex, the kind of sex that is just for pleasure, and the kind of sex that is used (rarely) to create children. People come to expect consequence-free sex as a sort of right, and feel no qualms about aborting unexpected pregnancies since, in their minds, they weren't even having that kind of sex that leads to children and therefore see themselves as sort of innocent bystanders who unfairly had this pregnancy foisted upon them. (I'm not saying this makes a lot of sense logically, but I used be very liberal/pro-choice and I saw this mentality all the time).

Also, *in theory* a couple using NFP to avoid conception by conservatively restricting copulation to non-fertile times of the cycle is not doing anything different than a couple using contraception since the odds of pregnancy are about the same in both cases...however...that is not the way it works psychologically. For one thing, the act of going to the time and expense of bringing in a foreign device to sterilize the sexual act sends a loud message to your spouse (and to God) that "I really, REALLY just want this to be about pleasure and not about creating a life." Also, I don't know any NFP-only couple who are so confident in their charts and fertility observations that they're *sure* that by restricting copulation to this time of the month they won't conceive. You have to be in a mentality of openness to life to rely on NFP only to avoid conception, since there's always that doubt in the back of your mind that you may have misread a fertility signal or done something wrong with your charts. (As a woman who is about to have three children under three and does not feel like I could handle four under four, I assure you this is true!) :)

And, finally, as a woman and a convert who only recently came to agree with Church teaching on contraception, I've been stunned at how much my life and my self-image has improved since accepting this teaching. I've come to rely on God and embrace my vocation as a mother in a way that I never would have if I felt like the number and spacing of children were 100% within my control. And my self-image has done a 180-degree turn around, which I discussed here.

Sorry to take up so much space in your combox! This subject is just fascinating to me.

Anna said...

Excellent post especially on noting that procreation grows out of the emotional bond, and thus is the higher purpose. I think though that those who purposely choose not to have children at all shortcut part of the fullness of what a marriage is meant to be.

God created us to be constantly going out of ourselves and the sacrifice and love invovled in having children is one of the major avenues that God has given us for nurturing selflessness.

Although, I agree with Jennifer about the benefits of being willing to live by faith and trust for God to provide, I also do not think that the Catholic Church in mandating no birth control is adequately considering the personal needs of women. We are each limited in what we can do and children are a big responsiblity.

It is a one thing for a woman to volunatrily take on a walk of faith and another entirely for a woman to avoid using birth control out of obedience to impersonal rules when she has not the faith to trust God for the results. This latter will end up in a broken and despairing woman. Without faith she has no means of securing the Grace and energy needed to go beyond herself in taking care of her children.

Dr. M said...


Just a few quick thoughts.

I hadn't considered what one might say about the consequences of the use of artificial birth control ("abc"). My intent here was to consider a certain view about the intrinsic quality of abc. The Church holds that, regardless of its consequences, it is still wrong, for it is intrinsically disordered. This seems wrong to me.

But my claim is perfectly consistent with the view that abc has pernicious effects, and let me take a moment to say a word about that. It seems wrong to me to say that, when abc is used, pleasure is the sole goal. It might sometimes be, but often (as in my case) the goal is to connect deeply with my wife. The pleasure, while welcome, is not the point. If this is so, it need not follow that an unplanned pregnancy will be seen as something unwelcome, or as something to be ended.

I would guess that the pernicious effects of abc of which you speak follow not so much from the mere use of abc as from a certain attitude that accompanies it. The attitude I mean is that sex is something rather unimportant, something that is merely for pleasure, something that has little to do with the rest of one's life. These are all false, and it seems to me that one can, at one and the same time, both use abc and reject them. (Indeed on my view, I don't know how sex could be more important. It is, I say, the marital act par excellence. By itself, and if not disordered, it creates the deep bonds constitutive of marriage.)

Dr. M said...

Grace says: "I think though that those who purposely choose not to have children at all shortcut part of the fullness of what a marriage is meant to be."

I fully agree. There might be extraordinary cases where this is not so, say if a man and woman were to freely take over care of a dozen orphans. But in almost all cases, any marriage should open itself up to the possibility of children at some point. Indeed I would think that this is not only a duty of husband to wife and wife to husband. It is a duty of both to the species. The existence of homo sapiens is a very great good, and it seems wrong to depend on others to make certain that it continues for another generation. One should do one's part, and the part of most is to reproduce.

Anonymous said...

But is this principle supposed to account for the positive duties I have to others, the duties to give them the goods they need to live or to flourish? You seem to think that it cannot. But I would be surprised if a natural law ethic were impotent to give definition to positive duties. That would seem to be a strong objection to any ethic.

Yes, it explicitly doesn't include that.

I'd call that a weak objection, if any. To me the field of "ethics" doesn't make man good ... it just means the absence of "bad." It doesn't prevent a person from choosing self-destruction, and it doesn't require a person to have positive obligations to anyone else. It's the absence of those things that can be universally agreed to as being wrong to a neighbor. To paraphrase Romans 13:10, doing no wrong to a neighbor is the fulfillment of the law. One might also note that this ethic accounts for pretty much all of the things that are universally agreed on by the different religions as being required. The specifics of what more is to be done in order to be truly good have to come from somewhere else, and I believe they have to come from God.

Romans 1 reveals, I think, that the universe shows us something of the nature of God and gives to all men a portion of the law written in their hearts. I believe this is the things we can reason out on our own. I believe this probably even goes so far as to tell us that there is a Creator and that we have a singular positive obligation to be grateful to Him. But I don't believe that any more information could come without revelation from that Creator. We can't know the specifics of how He wants that gratitude expressed without His revelation.

I do think that copulation can in itself give rise to the commitment that is sufficient for marriage. I would think that a marriage ceremony and recognition by others is incidental the fact of marriage. A man and woman marooned on an island could marry. They could marry without ceremony of any sort. If they made the commitment to one another - the promise to remain for a lifetime, the promise to benefit for a lifetime - then the marraige is perfectly real.

I agree with all of this, and in fact I believe the state has an obligation to stay out of it. I was just thinking it might not be clear to some of your readers that you do believe (I think) that it's still possible for someone to engage in sinful fornication without becoming married. There's an idea out there that even if the sexual intercourse is what you would call "deeply disordered," that under any circumstances at all, sex with that first person becomes marriage. I don't agree with that, and I don't think you do. :)

You've got me musing now about what positive obligations might be revealed from nature. (Romans 1 has me musing about this now, too. :) ) But I still have the things I mentioned before as the foundation of the ethics that are in my mind. :)

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


If you look for attempts for being really precise, as far as the issue permits, when formulating philosophical and theological reasons for the Catholic teachings about contraception and sexuality, try especially Alexander Pruss and Janet E. Smith. They both have websites with available papers. If you look for a more accesible, but still very precise explanation, try Christopher West (mainly his book Good News About Sex and Marriage; he has a site, too).

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

On the Right Reason, there also was a deep discussion about the relation of natural law theory, other theoretical approaches, contraception and sexuality: