Thanks, Mark John, for your thoughtful and comprehensive comments. I’d like to try and probe this a little more, adding some more ink to the gallons that have already been spilled on the subject.
1.) The passage that you cited from HV is quite clear, I realize, but I am having trouble with the question of what constitutes “action”. If we read this literally and say that ANY action PRIOR to intercourse that is specifically intended to prevent procreation is intrinsically evil, then wouldn’t this theoretically include the systematic avoidance of intercourse during fertile days (i.e. natural family planning)? And since every sexual act must be open to procreation (and not just the totality of marriage, as Bernard Häring suggested), then a couple that practices natural family planning, even temporarily, would be in violation. They would be taking an action—the conscious decision to avoid intercourse—prior to this act of sexual intercourse to avoid procreation. Now I suspect that since NFP is very much promoted within the Catholic Church, I’m missing something, and I suspect it has to do with my definition of “action”. I would be grateful for clarification here.
2.) I must admit that I find it difficult to swallow the notion that the use of contraceptives is intrinsically evil. I fully accept the idea that contraception can be used in a way that is immoral, that facilitates promiscuity, the objectification of one’s spouse (to say nothing of facilitating sex outside marriage) and in the case of abortifacient contraceptives, murder. However, I have a difficult time equating that with a situation in which two committed spouses need to limit or space births for reasons of economic or medical hardship (rather than avoiding births altogether). The drive for sexual consummation does not necessarily arise from mere animal lust but is indeed part and parcel of a marriage. “For this reason a man leaves his mother and father and clings to his wife, and the two become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24). Similarly, Paul acknowledges the integral relationship between sex and marriage as well as the great difficulty of perpetual abstinence when he writes:
“A wife does not have authority over her own body, but rather her husband, and similarly a husband does not have authority over his own body, but rather his wife. Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer, but then return to one another, so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, however, not as a command. Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” (1 Corinthians 7:1-7)
So Paul notes that abstinence for extended periods of time is difficult and not for everyone, but he does not insist on perpetual abstinence for the married; quite the opposite, though his reasons are less about the need to express love for one another than the need to avoid temptation to other kinds of sin. It is also interesting to contrast this passage with Humanae Vitae section 20, which reads:
“The teaching of the Church regarding the proper regulation of birth is a promulgation of the law of God Himself. And yet there is no doubt that to many it will appear not merely difficult but even impossible to observe. Now it is true that like all good things which are outstanding for their nobility and for the benefits which they confer on men, so this law demands from individual men and women, from families and from human society, a resolute purpose and great endurance. Indeed it cannot be observed unless God comes to their help with the grace by which the goodwill of men is sustained and strengthened. But to those who consider this matter diligently it will indeed be evident that this endurance enhances man's dignity and confers benefits on human society.” (HV 20)
So whereas Paul attempts to ease the burden on the early Christian couples by instructing them not to deprive each other of the “marriage debt”, Humanae Vitae insists that couples who for whatever reason cannot have more children must resort to perpetual abstinence or natural family planning, potentially putting them in a state that Paul knew to be an occasion for sin. From Genesis and 1 Corinthians, I conclude that it is natural for a husband and wife to desire each other sexually and that it is not necessarily a good thing to place the heavy burden of perpetual abstinence on a couple. One might argue that a couple can express their love for each other in non-sexual ways. This is true, and I do not wish to suggest that sex is the only means by which spouses can express love for each other, but as Genesis notes, the mystery of becoming one flesh is a fundamental part of marriage and a result of God’s creation, and the excision of sex from marriage for whatever reason must necessarily be a grave matter.
Returning to the question of the intrinsic evil of contraception, when I was reading Humanae Vitae I was struck by the reasoning that it uses, namely, that it focuses on the potential consequences of artificial contraception (section 17) rather than on the a priori elements that would have made any act thereof illicit. Humanae Vitae cites four potential dangers:
1.) Opening the path to marital infidelity and a “general lowering of moral standards”
2.) Tempting impressionable youth into immorality.
3.) Leading the husband to treat his wife as a sexual object to be used solely for his self-gratification.
4.) Tempting governments to integrate artificial contraception into draconian population control programs such as China’s One-Child Policy.
All these consequences are indisputably evil, yet each is also contingent upon the context in which the person commits the action, including the intent of the actor. A man who uses artificial contraception to abet an adulterous affair has already made the decision to have that affair in the first place long before putting on a condom. Perhaps the availability of a contraceptive may have made that decision easier for him to make, and perhaps his use of a contraceptive during sex with his wife made him see women as sex objects, but I would find it hard to swallow the notion that the use of contraceptives was solely or even largely responsible for tempting him to adultery. I would submit that his use of contraceptives was gravely disordered, not because the contraceptives were evil, but because the manner in which he intended to use them was immoral. Not every man who uses a condom during sex with his wife goes out and has an affair or even contemplates one, nor do all women who use birth control pills suddenly become sex objects in the eyes of their husbands. The reason is that relationships between husbands and wives are a union of sexual AND non-sexual interactions. A man who truly loves his wife is not going to suddenly treat her as a sex object because he knows that she is far more than that. Put crudely, people in love just don't throw out the richness of their relationships so easliy. So these arguments that contraception is evil because of its consequences don’t lend support to the notion that contraception is intrinsically evil, meaning that regardless of the consequences, contraception is wrong.
I guess what I am trying to say is that there seems to be a scale of wrongness. I am fairly certain that the man who uses contraceptives to hide an adulterous affair is committing a far more egregious wrong than the couple that has been married for 20 years, has successfully raised 4 children and decides to use artificial contraception in conjunction with natural family planning because the wife is medically unfit to have another child. In an ideal world, there should be no need for contraceptives. Every child would be wanted; every child could be given all that they require for a life abundantly full of God’s gifts, and married couples could freely express their love spontaneously and genuinely, whether through sexual or non-sexual means. Yet we live in a broken world and we struggle to look through that dark mirror to discern God’s will. In my own struggle to understand the problems ordinary Catholics face, this is what I see so far. Perhaps that will evolve as I get older, but right now, I am having problems accepting this teaching in its entirety.
Pilgrim scribe, thank you for responding. I'll see if I can clarify the issue a bit more.
In response to your points:
1) Concerning the quote from Humanae Vitae #14 ("similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation— whether as an end or as a means"), you said: "If we read this literally and say that ANY action PRIOR to intercourse that is specifically intended to prevent procreation is intrinsically evil, then wouldn’t this theoretically include the systematic avoidance of intercourse during fertile days (i.e. natural family planning)?"
It would seem so, if you take the sentence absolutely literally, and out of the context of the rest of the encyclical. But no one could reasonably argue that Paul VI was excluding methods of Natural Family Planning here, because in the same encyclical he explicitly affirms the legitimacy of recourse to the infertile periods when done for serious reasons. A more precise way, then, to say what we already know Paul VI intended, would be to say, "similarly excluded is every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible." In avoiding conception through natural family planning, the couple is not rendering procreation impossible, nor impeding procreation per se, because the sexual act has already been made infertile by God who created a woman's cycles of fertility.
And so it is not your understanding of the word "action" that is at fault here, but rather your understanding of what could be meant by the word "prevent." In the context of the encyclical, it is clear that what is meant by "to prevent procreation" (the latin: ut procreatio impediatur - "so that procreation is impeded") is limited to prevention of the procreative capability of sexual acts that may be fertile. Again, the choice to abstain from fertile acts and make use of infertile ones does not prevent procreative capability, but makes use of what is already, by nature, the case.
Further, you said:
"And since every sexual act must be open to procreation... then a couple that practices natural family planning, even temporarily, would be in violation."
I can understand how one could have this idea, especially in light of what I said above.
It could sound as if the Church's teaching here contradicts nature. How can a non-fertile act be open to procreation?
In the sense that the Church proposes for belief, this means simply what was said above, that the couple must not deliberately frustrate any procreative capability that their sexual act may have. It does not mean that the couple may not, in choosing to engage in sexual intercourse at a specific time, intend to avoid children, nor does it mean that every sexual act is, in fact, fertile.
You say that you have difficulty swallowing the idea that the use of contraceptives is intrinsically immoral/evil.
One of your reasons:
"I have a difficult time equating [selfish uses of contraception] with a situation in which two committed spouses need to limit or space births for reasons of economic or medical hardship."
I have a difficult time equating them, too, for they are not the same. The church's teaching that contraception is immoral does not require us to equate them, for one involves bad means and bad ends. The other involves bad means and good ends. But for an act to be good/moral, both the ends and the means need to be good, or at least neutral.
Next, you compare Saint Paul and Pope Paul VI concerning the question of sexual abstinence for the married: "So whereas Paul attempts to ease the burden on the early Christian couples by instructing them not to deprive each other of the “marriage debt”, Humanae Vitae insists that couples who for whatever reason cannot have more children must resort to perpetual abstinence or natural family planning, potentially putting them in a state that Paul knew to be an occasion for sin."
I am not able to understand why you bring in "perpetual abstinence" here, for Paul VI does not refer to it in the quote you gave, nor does he refer to it in the whole of Humanae Vitae. The methods of NFP do not require perpetual abstinence, but only abstinence during the fertile times. In the quote from 1 Corinthians that you gave, Saint Paul advises couples not to abstain from sex for too long, to avoid temptation, and he also gives prayer as a reason that the couple might use for abstaining for a time. NFP involves abstaining from sex for a time so as to avoid untimely pregnancy. There is no contradiction between St. Paul and Pope Paul here.
In connection with this you argue that sexual desire in marriage is natural and good, using Genesis 1 as evidence.
"The drive for sexual consummation does not necessarily arise from mere animal lust but is indeed part and parcel of a marriage."
You are absolutely right in all this. But the Church's teaching does not deny this, but in fact teaches the great importance of conjugal love and the value of sexual intercourse as the union in love into one flesh. The church just sees both the procreative and unitive aspects of sex as needing to be preserved in every act, arguing that the two cannot be opposed to one another.
Next, you argue that the reasons given in Humanae Vitae for the immorality of contraception have to do with extrinsic consequences, and not the act per se, and conclude, "These arguments that contraception is evil because of its consequences don’t lend support to the notion that contraception is intrinsically evil."
You are of course, right in your conclusion.
But the consequences you cite (from section 17) are expresely given so that "Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue." In other words, they are not meant to establish the truth of the Church's teaching, but to support it.
More importantly, however, these reasons from section 17 are not the only reasons given in the encyclical. Other reasoning, concerning what is intrinsic to the act itself, is made especially in sections 12 and 13, which are immediately followed in section 14 ("Therefore...") with the condemnation of direct abortion, direct sterilization, and contraception.
Here are the relevant passages:
Section 12 - "the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason."
Section 13 - "an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will. But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source. "Human life is sacred—all men must recognize that fact," Our predecessor Pope John XXIII recalled. "From its very inception it reveals the creating hand of God.""
While this argument, as stated, may have needed expansion by others to be more convincing, it is a real argument--in this case, an argument from natural law. And it does involve what is intrinsic to the act itself, not the consequences. The act of contraception, no matter what the circumstances surrounding it, or the consequences, is contrary to natural law, because it is the deliberate frustration of the procreative meaning of the sexual act.
"I guess what I am trying to say is that there seems to be a scale of wrongness...."
There is, of course, a "scale of wrongness." As you say, a man who uses contraception to aid an adulterous affair is certainly doing a greater wrong than a couple who after having four children uses contraception together with NFP because the wife is medically unfit to have another child. But that doesn't change the fact that both uses of contraception are wrong--they are just wrong to different degrees. Neither should be permitted.
The above should clarify the matter more for you. But perhaps my response raised more questions as well. In that case, ask away.
In any event, I think that the issue of a correct anthropology, which I referred to in a previous post, is of utmost importance in this issue. What does the belief that the use of contraceptives is morally licit say about our understanding of the human person? Can the natural, healthy working of our body ever be ultimately bad for us? Can we choose to deliberately frustrate the natural and healthy working of our bodies and expect to be ultimately fulfilled as human persons? Do our bodies participate in our personhood or are they enemies of our fulfillment as persons? If a man can deliberately frustrate his fertility and think it good, can he also deliberately cripple himself and think it good?
Either of these may be for one's temporary good, but not for his true, spiritual good, because God endowed his nature with transcendent meanings. Again, sometimes we feel very burdened under the weight of our humanity, but that doesn't justify us seeking to get out of it, but faithfulness to it, with the help of God, must lead us to understand and find fulfillment in its deeper meanings.
Thank you very much, Mark John, for your lucid and comprehensive comments. Just a quick point of clarification, what I meant by "perpetual abstinence" is the scenario in which a couple absolutely cannot afford to have another child or they will literally starve (this is sadly not uncommon in the Philippines). You are absolutely right in that NFP is not equal to perpetual abstinence, but NFP does not always have a 100 percent success rate, and there is always room for human error. So if the situation is so dire that another child would drive the family into abject poverty, then perpetual abstinence is the only surefire way.
At the end of the day, I understand the Church's position and why it must take the stance it does. One of my interviewees, a priest who is also a bioethicist, said that people fall short of the standard set by the Church for all sorts of reasons, some of them more well-intentioned than others, but the Church's role is not to lower the bar but rather to help people meet that standard. The assessment of how well they're doing that seems to vary, even among my interviewees who are clergy, but most seem to concur that the Church needs to do a better job teaching NFP methods as an alternative to artificial contraception. This seems to be borne out by the statistic that less than 0.5% of married Filipina women aged 15-49 use a "modern" form of NFP (i.e. not "rhythm" or "calendar" methods) as opposed to 48% who use either a traditional or folk method or an artificial contraceptive method (See Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, "Mainstreaming Natural Family PLanning in Ipil Prelature" in "A Balancing Act: Social and Catholic Perspectives on Population and Development", 2006)
Now, of course, my mind is starting to race because I'm thinking of Catholic teachings that HAVE changed over time, such as the teaching usury or the teaching on religious freedom. Perhaps I may need to add another comparative chapter to my dissertation...
Many thanks for your patient and comprehensive comments!
Thanks, Mark John, for your thoughtful and comprehensive comments. I’d like to try and probe this a little more, adding some more ink to the gallons that have already been spilled on the subject.