"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Contraception: the state of the question

Such a title might seem merely academic. Everybody knows that for the majority of married couples, including Catholic ones, contraception is not a question but an answer. But it is also an answer rejected by a norm that's been "constantly preserved and applied since the beginning" by the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. (For the provenance of the quoted phrase, go here; the authority issue is the same regardless of what else is at issue.) So if that authority is considered authoritative, in principle and in general, about things so taught, preserved, and applied, then the majority are wrong. Granted, my if-clause does not matter to non-Catholics as such. But why are the Catholics in said majority wrong as Catholics? The reasons why explain the topic's general interest too.

I have written about contraception several times before, both here and at Pontifications. Aside from the issue of the Magisterium's authority, the topic is vitally important in light of the demographic winter approaching what was once Christendom. My occasion for addressing it again now is the discussion on contraception that spread through the Catholic blogosphere late last month. The best and most extensive took place at Amy Welborn's Open Book and Matthew Lickona's Godsbody. The latter refers to the former; both threads contain excellent links and references. Beyond the sensitive, well-considered arguments in the Church's defense, what most struck me was the common theme running through the criticisms of the Church's teaching.

It boils down, really, to claiming that "Natural Family Planning" is an oxymoron. If that were true, then the Church's now allowing NFP while forbidding contraception would be conceptually incoherent. Now one must certainly concede that the current teaching of the Church is a development. It is a development for which there was ample reason; see Elizabeth Anscombe's classic essay Contraception and Chastity, which well explains that in the context of what turns out to be a generalized defense of the Church's teachings about human sexuality. But does the development negate the doctrine it developed from? In my Pontifications article I answered no and explained why. But many people clearly don't agree, and I wonder what else can be said to get the debate off the dime.

I think we need to start by distinguishing various senses of 'natural'. Most people, including many loyal Catholics, seem to be under the impression that when the Church unconditionally condemns something called contraception and conditionally endorses something called NFP, she does so partly because contraception is "artificial" and NFP is "natural." But that doesn't get the distinction quite right. In the morally significant sense, 'contraception' means the direct, voluntary interruption of the generative process before or soon after sexual intercourse. Nowadays, that usually involves some form of human artifice: e.g., sterilization, anovulant or abortifacient pills, and barrier methods. But it need not. The same effect is sometimes sought and achieved—albeit less efficiently—by any sexual encounter in which the man either does not ejaculate or does so somewhere other than in his partner's vagina. Even though no artifice is used thereby, such forms of intercourse were traditionally condemned by the Church as "unnatural." And while that term is rarely used anymore, the content of the condemnation stands: such sexual acts are not "open" to procreation, which really means that they bear no intrinsic relation to procreation.

Obversely, NFP itself is effective only when a measure of human artifice is employed to determine "safe" periods for intercourse. And NFP is something other than natural in yet another sense of 'natural'. Merely by requiring rational decision-making, cooperation, and calculation between spouses, sex with NFP is deliberative and considered, unlike "spontaneous" sex in which the couple don't consciously advert to the question of conception. NFP thus has that much in common with contraception, at least within a marriage where the couple are being honest and mutually cooperative. So if NFP is natural in a sense in which contraception is not, that's got to be in some sense of 'natural' other, and more basic, than the ones we've been considering.

That sense is the one employed by authoritative papal teaching: Casti Connubii (1930), Humanae Vitae (1968), and most clearly and recently, Pope John Paul II's "theology of the body," developed throughout his long pontificate. Periodic abstinence, of which NFP is one form, can be natural because it can accord with God's natural design for marriage, in which the unitive and procreative aspects of vaginal intercourse express and enhance each other. Contraception can never be natural in that sense because it actively separates those aspects from each other.

The standard objection to that distinction and corresponding claim is that, since the aim of NFP and contraception respectively is the same, the difference of means is not morally significant. And there are indeed cases where that objection holds. A couple who avoid conception for insufficiently serious reasons are opposing God's design for marriage regardless of which means they use. It is therefore possible for NFP to be morally wrong in a way that makes it oxymoronic in the sense of 'natural' I am now employing. But to imagine that such an objection is decisive against Church teaching is to miss the point of the teaching.

The teaching entails that contraception, by actively blocking contraception, necessarily embodies the intention to oppose God's design, whereas NFP can but need not do so. After all, the latter merely involves abstaining during the woman's God-given times of fertility and thus restricting intercourse to her God-given times of infertility. Birth control, to an extent, is built into our natures by God, and NFP merely employes our God-given reason and freedom to make conscious use of it. So birth control is not per se unnatural in any morally objectionable sense. It becomes that, and intrinsically so, only when people take active steps to block a generative process that might otherwise result from what they do. The problem is with the means, not necessarily with the end.

Knowing people as I do, I don't expect everybody to agree with what the Church teaches about that. My aim has only been to add enough clarity to blunt the objection that NFP is an oxymoron. One must admit that it can be. But unlike contraception, it needn't be.
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