(a dialogue with Ken Stuart, whose e-mail appears first.)
First let me say that I enjoy your web site, and have learned a lot from it.
Second, I should say that I feel that the teachings that come from years of tradition is generally quite valuable, and should be given great weight.
Having said that, I'd like to dialogue a little about the teachings on contraceptive use.
I entirely agree that the effect of the birth control pill are exactly as you describe, ie that it has had a negative impact on society concerning morals and values. However, despite my agreement, I'm not sure that this is relevant to pronouncements about what is and isn't sinful for individuals. In other words, I'm inclined to think that it is not reasonable to pronounce the activities of loving, moral couples as sinful, merely in an attempt to morally uplift society as a whole. If the pill made it easier for people to cheat on their spouse, this should be confronted by stronger condemnation of adultery, not by condemnation of the contraceptive method that can also be those who are not adulterers.
But, I don't want to elaborate too much on that, because it is not the main point of this message.
My biggest objection is that the teachings seem to not be consistent. If it is sinful to prevent conception by using a barrier contraceptive, because one should not willfully prevent conception, then using the rhythm method or the Billings method is equally sinful because they also willfully prevent conception. In fact, either spouse saying that they have a headache on a fertile night is thereby also sinful. :-)
It seems to me that all the arguments I've seen deal with whether it can be demonstrated (using pages of quotes from early church fathers) that contraception is sinful, whereas none deal with whether any of the contraceptive means accepted by the Church are really any different than those that are condemned.
If we take the example of Onan, there is really little difference between his actions and motivations and those of any couple using the rhythm method or the Billings method. In both cases, the desire is to prevent pregnancy. (A side issue is that the tale of Onan is very sketchy, and one can easily interpret it as talking about obedience rather than contraception.)
While I agree with your claim that practices such as the Billings method do a lot to foster respect between spouses, nevertheless this is again a social engineering aspect and has little bearing on the sinfulness of contraceptive actions taken by loving couples who already have respect for each other.
Thanks for your time, and I am quite interested in reading your reply.
First of all, I wish to thank you for visiting my web site and for your kind words. Also I appreciated your questions, the clear and thoughtful way you express them. And for allowing me to answer "on-line." I know that many others ask questions similar to yours.
You are not alone in recognizing the negative impact of "the Pill" on our society, yet still asking the question about its morality for each couple. For sure that is the correct focus. When all is said and done what matters is not so much "society as a whole" but the individuals who make it up. Sometimes we talk about the world "going to hell in a hand basket." But society cannot actually go to hell; only individual humans can have that fate. What matters is not "saving our country." The U.S. is destined to disappear; but as for the persons who now constitute it, we are eternal.
More than any other writer I know, C.S. Lewis brings out the stark seriousness of the decisions each one of us makes each day. By those choices we are becoming a thing of brilliant beauty or everlasting horror. As Jesus made clear in last Sunday's Gospel, we will either hear "Go from my sight to the eternal fire," or "Come, enter…" (Mt 25: 34ff).
Now, Ken, I assume this perspective is familiar to you. Even though it is not directly what you asked about, I believe it is important to put our discussion in that context. What is at stake is much more consequential than improving society or "social engineering" (Rosseau's dream and Russia's nightmare).
This perspective immediately plunges us into a dilemma. St. Paul recognized it in his letter to the Romans: "Is the Law identical with sin? Of course not. But except through the law I should never have become acquainted with sin." (7:7) In other words, talking about the moral law makes people aware of sins they never even knew they were committing. As you note many couples who practice birth control think of themselves loving and moral. Not just Protestants, but the majority of Catholics consider this a non-issue. Why trouble their conscience? I have asked myself that often and especially in my early years as a priest I shied away from raising the question. It is enough, I thought, to work with a small minority who can give a witness to the rest of the Church. Today I consider that approach inadequate and I would like to explain why.
In the first place, I am less convinced that people are untroubled by their practice of contraception—even within the loving and moral marriages you mentioned. I have been in discussions where the issue has surfaced. The participants start out calm and unruffled, but pretty soon tempers begin to flare, the Vatican is roundly denounced as medieval, backward—or worse. Not only are Catholics bugged, but Protestants and even professed agnostics. Presumably the pope's opinion on birth control should matter as little to them as whether he wears a fiddle back chasuble, but that is hardly the case.
Paul saw something similar when he surveyed the Greek world. Even though the pagans did not have the clarity of the Law, still he perceived a "law inscribed on their hearts." (Rom 2:14) Humanae Vitae argues that contraception is wrong not only for Catholics, but for everyone. The encyclical meant to elucidate a moral law which is in some sense is "natural" to all human beings. Just as everyone would recognize first principles like "you shall not steal" or "you shall not lie," so everyone would somehow see that "every sexual act must be open to the possibility of procreation."
Still, as you noted, to many people "the teaching seems to not be consistent." As you ask, why accept the periodic continence involved in the Billings Method and reject artificial contraception? Some very conscientious people have attempted to resolve the apparent inconsistency in a way opposite from what you suggest. They have concluded that even methods based on self observation are wrong. The only legitimate options, as far as they are concerned, are either total abstinence or accepting whatever children God sends.
Now while I laud such peoples' earnestness, I am convinced that self observation or "fertility appreciation" is far from being a concession to human weakness. Apart from the side benefits which you note (fostering mutual respect, dialogue, self-discipline—cf Catechism 2370) it involves something I can only describe as "sacramental." It continually brings the couple face to face with the mystery of their own fecundity. And fecundity is the bottom line of human sexuality (cf Gen 1:28). The self-donation involved in sexual relations is not total without that openness to bringing forth new life. Dr. Janet Smith has developed a convincing presentation of this inter-connection.
Now, I agree that it is theoretically possible for a couple to use self observation to deny the true meaning of their marriage. You could imagine a husband saying to his wife "let's use the Billings technique to have our two children. It might even help us to obtain our boy when we want him and our girl when it is the right time for her." Meanwhile they dedicate themselves to the actual purpose of their marriage: a nice home, fun vacations and a retirement plan. It is possible to imagine all that, but in practice it does not happen that way. Fertility awareness has a way of keeping the couple focused on the real meaning of their marriage and sexuality.
The decision to use fertility awareness organizes the rest of couples' choices. It is so powerful that some are now seeing it as the prescription for a troubled marriage. I heard about a woman married to a man with a drinking problem. She attended a course on Natural Family Planning and decided to implement what she had learned. She told her husband that she did love him and even that she would obey him, but she had to obey God first. She gave him a lightening course on the fertility cycle and said she would keep him posted on what was happening inside her. The husband was skeptical but he went along. It worked magic in their marriage.
Are those who reject this "magic" committing a sin? I have to ask that kind of question when engaged couples who have been living together come in to get marriage. By an objective standard, yes. Subjectively, probably not. Living together before marriage is so accepted in our society that if a priest brings it up, he is the one on the spot, not the couple. Most priests I know do not even bother. Still, cohabitation has been shown to have a negative effect on any future marriage. A priest would be falling down on his job if he does not speak up. "If you do not warn them…I will hold you answerable for their death." (Ez 3:18). Living together is like purchasing an apple tree, plucking its fruit, but never actually planting it.
Something similar applies to the question of the sinfulness of artificial birth control. It can weaken, even destroy a marriage. There is a lesson we can learn from Onan. He accepted the pleasure, but rejected the consequence. Notice that Onan did have a younger brother Shelah who simply refrained from sexual relations with Tamar, and God did not take his life. (I agree this story is sketchy, but we cannot ignore that the Church Fathers almost universally interpreted it as a condemnation of separating sexual pleasure from procreation. That judgment was common Christian teaching till this century. Martin Luther called birth control a "sin worse than incest or adultery!")
If we were trying to really nail down the difference between Billings and contraception (and I admit it is darn hard to do) I believe it comes down to a distinction crucial to all human life questions. In dying there is a world of difference morally between choosing not to use extraordinary means and administering a drug to hasten death. Saving a mother's life by removing an ectopic pregnancy is wholly other than destroying a viable fetus. Respect for human life is a bedrock principle and if erodes we have nothing else to build upon. That respect has to extend to the very act by which human life is conceived. We need to reflect on the consequences of violating it in a way that goes against rhythms God has placed there.
I realize this is dreadfully hard for modern man. It is not that we are in rebellion against all forms of authority. Just the opposite. We too readily bend to a certain type of authority. An advertiser can sell his product by having someone say "My doctor said Mylanta." Most people, I have found, do not really make much of a personal decision about birth control. It is a case of "My doctor said the pill was the best choice for me," or "He said it was time to have my tubes tied." When I called around to physician referral services to identify doctors open to Natural Family Planning, I was told by one service with a few hundred doctors "we don’t offer that." Another response was "you might try naturopaths." I did eventually find some medical doctors in Seattle who will work with couples on NFP but I had to face a few raised eyebrows.
You can understand an overworked physician preferring pills to charting changes in cervical mucus. Even though studies have proven the reliability of NFP, if used correctly, still "correct use" does require more study and self-discipline than using the pill. And neither can compare with Norplant as far as ease. Doctors, like the rest of us mortals, will follow the line of least resistance. Nevertheless we are the ones who place most of the decision in the doctor's hands. It is easier for a couple to ignore a sticky moral dilemma, and almost without thinking, the M.D. will oblige that desire to be put at ease.
Artificial birth control is part of a dazzling new world of technology. I am using a little of it right now to add to this home page. I admit it attracts, even awes me. The atmosphere seems something like Eden. Still there is a caution, "you may eat of all the trees except the one in the middle of the garden." The tree in the very middle is the one that deals directly with the creation and destruction of human life. We all want to be "like the gods," have that control right in our own hands. To make ourselves into little gods is of course what destroys the beauty of our world and mars any genuine human advancement. I am convinced that artificial birth control is ultimately that type of usurpation, radically different from the respect inherent in fertility appreciation. God has entrust creation to us, but one intimate part he wishes to keep under his own direct power. We can only prosper by respecting His pattern in that area.
Ken, I have taken quite a few bytes to respond to your question. It is not an easy one. Wiser heads than mine have worked on it and will continuing to struggle with it for some years to come. Let me know what you think.
Your comments or questions are welcome.
Germaine Greer on Birth Control
Stem Cell Research: Teaching of Bible & Catholic Church
Human Cloning: A Catholic Perspective (How the Unthinkable Became Inevitable)