The Battle over Contraception and Its Significance
by William E. May
Most people in the Western world today, including Catholics, approve of contraception and practice it as a way of controlling birth. Young persons growing up in our culture for the most part consider contraception an intelligent way of coping with difficult problems; it is the “natural”, “responsible” way to act. They find the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception a relic of a bygone age, unrealistic, impracticable.
During his pontificate, John Paul II sought valiantly to show that contraception violates the “language of the body” and the love that spouses are to have for one another. Thus in Familiaris Consortio 32, he wrote:
When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion, they act as “arbiters” of the divine plan and they “manipulate” and degrade human sexuality and with it themselves and their married partner by altering its value of “total” self-giving. Thus the 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.
He also frequently noted that contraception is “anti-life” (e.g., in his Homily to Youth in Kenya August 17, 1985) and in Familiaris Consortio 32 he also wrote: “the difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle, is much wider and deeper than is usually thought. It is a difference which, in final analysis, is based on irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.”
Here he had in mind the mentality rooted in a dualistic understanding of the human person that regards the “person” as the subject conscious of himself or herself and capable of relating to other conscious selves and the human body as an “instrument” of the person. This understanding of human persons and of human sexuality considers our biological fertility part of the sub-personal world over which the “person” has been given dominion, and as “persons” we have the right to suppress this fertility by using contraceptives should its continued flourishing inhibit our participation in the “personal” values of human sexuality.
This mentality, as John Paul pointed out in Evangelium Vitae 19, is one of the bases for the “culture of death”. On this view not all living members of the human species are “persons”, but only those who are capable of conscious awareness; the unborn, the severely mentally crippled, and those in the “vegetative” state thus do not count as persons, who alone are the subjects of rights that must be recognized by the state.
From this it can be seen that contraception is the “gateway” to abortion and other grave offenses against the goodness of human life. Contraception paved the way for abortion, which is frequently considered a backup to failed contraception. All this explains why the Catholic Church is so opposed to contraception.
When God made man, He did not make a subject aware of itself as a self and capable of relating to other selves to which He then added a body as an afterthought. Rather, when He created man, “male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27), i.e., he created them as bodily, sexual beings, whose fertility is a blessing, not a curse.
Moreover, when the eternally begotten Son of God, His “Word”, became man to show us God’s love for us and to redeem us, He became living flesh: “the Word became flesh”. (Jn 1:14) He became incarnate.
Thus the Church’s teaching on contraception goes hand-in-hand with the great truth that human persons are bodily persons and that every living member of the human species, the unborn as well as the born, the severely mentally impaired as well as the mentally gifted, is a person, a being of moral worth, a living image of the one and triune God.
William E. May is the Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. In 2009 Pauline Books & Media will publish his book, Pope John Paul II’s Teaching on the Person, Marriage, and Family. He and his wife, Patricia, are the parents of seven, and grandparents of fourteen.
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