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

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The war (?) on contraception

As a comment on my previous post about contraception, Fr. Philip Powell, OP drew my attention to last Sunday's lengthy New York Times Magazine article Contra-Contraception, to which I responded by promising to comment once I'd read the article. I have now read it; since it is the cover story and quite balanced by Times standards, I am happy to keep my promise herein.

It's well worth a read, which is free online if you register. Its author is Russell Shorto, the sort of person who would have been described in the not-too-distant past as a "man of letters." His best-known book is a history of Manhattan, but lately he's taken to writing shorter pieces on religion and the range of sex-related issues—i.e., abortion, contraception, artificial reproduction, and embryonic stem-cell research—so beloved of "social conservatives" such as myself. Essentially, his thesis is that "the Right" in the U.S has moved beyond mere opposition to legal abortion toward using government power as a means of reasserting traditional sexual morality. The keystone of that effort is the "abstinence movement," much beloved of President Bush, whose premise is that promoting contraception as a way to reduce abortion only encourages sexual promiscuity and thus, in the long run, more abortions. While the contraception-abortion connection is statistically murky, some evangelical Protestants are increasingly questioning the wisdom of contraception even as most Catholics reject the Church's historically consistent opposition to it. Once again, conservative Protestants are way out ahead of liberal Catholics in putting the question to the Zeitgeist.

Shorto sums up the facts pretty well, presenting both critics and defenders fairly. His one major error was to equate "natural family planning" with "the rhythm method," but he's already corrected that at his website. To me, though, the most interesting part of the article was the section on how Pope John Paul II's "theology of the body" has influenced a growing cadre of young, educated Catholics to embrace and promote the irreformable teaching of the Church about sex, marriage, and contraception. That alone is a big step past what one usually gets from liberal MSM outlets such as the Times.

Shorto chose the spokesperson for such Catholics well:

Kimberly Zenarolla, for one, is applying the theology of the body to the American political sphere. She is the director of strategic development for the National Pro-Life Action Center, a two-year-old organization with 10,000 members that lobbies on abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research and contraception. She's also a single 34-year-old who lives in Washington with, as she put it, "a group of young professionals who are living the countercultural message of chastity to its fullest expression."

Zenarolla told me she converted to Catholicism two years ago: "I tell people I became Catholic because of the church's teaching on contraception. We are opposed to sex before marriage and contraception within marriage. We believe that the sexual act is meant to be a complete giving of self. Of course its purpose is procreation, but the church also affirms the unitive aspect: it brings a couple together. By using contraception, they are not allowing the fullness of their expression of love. To frustrate the procreative potential ends up harming the relationship."
The more Kimberly Zenarollas we get, the better.

Unlike the Times' cover, I wouldn't call the trend described by Shorto as a "war" on contraception. Americans aren't about to abandon contraceptives and won't tolerate any attempt to make them illegal or even much harder to obtain than they are now. But over the last several years, we've begun seeing a natural backlash against that "sexual revolution" spawned in the 1960s and 70s by the unprecedented availability of cheap, effective contraception to the masses. I say "natural" because I don't think anybody can seriously maintain anymore that the sexual revolution has been good for America's social fabric. And so a reconsideration of contraception makes sense even apart from Catholic doctrine.
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