Contraception Commentary

Say that 10 times fast!

I've decided the discussion going on a few posts down needs to be highlighted in its own post, now that it seems to have reached a conclusion of sorts. A commenter named PilgrimScribe engaged in excellent dialogue with my friend MarkJohn. Read the original post to get yourself caught up. Herewith follows the exchange:

[Pilgrim Scribe] I am in virtually complete agreement with you here as far as the proposition that natural family planning is more in tune with God's design, but I do have a few points for consideration that I would like to run by you.

1.) It is not so much the artificial barrier of a contraceptive that the Church is concerned about but a "contraceptive mentality" which consciously attempts to avoid rearing children without a good reason. So a childless couple that uses the Billings Ovulation Method (which qualifies as natural family planning) for the express purpose of avoiding children and avoiding interference with, say, their advancement at work would still be violating Catholic doctrine. On the other hand, I wonder if it is ever possible for a couple to use artificial contraceptives and yet not harbor a contraceptive mentality? I submit the following scenarios to you.

2.) In my field research here in the Philippines, where I am studying the Catholic Church and family planning, I have encountered stories about poor farmers who have far more children than they can afford to support. In one example, a farmer living on the equivalent of $14 a week had to support his wife and 13 children. In the absence of social services, they had to beg their relatives, friends and neighbors to adopt their children. While it is undoubtedly fortunate (and a testament to Filipino community values) that the children were able to benefit from the close network of personal ties that the parents could call upon, it's not clear what would have happened if the networks were not as widespread as they were. Children are an absolute good, of course, but it strikes me as irresponsible parenthood to accept another child when one clearly lacks the resources to care for him/her. In this case, natural family planning would have been helpful, but suppose that the couple in question had used a "backup" method like a condom? At this point, to have another child would place intolerable strains on their entire family. Their desire to avoid childbirth would not come from a hedonistic selfishness but instead from a real love and sense of responsibility for their family. Should we expect them to observe perpetual abstinence from then on (telling them that it is illegitimate to suggest that it is impossible as per Casti Connubii)? Is this a case of the ends of being able to support the family not justifying the means of artificial contraception or a case of choosing the lesser of two evils (bringing a child into the world that one knows one will be unable to support and who might die vs. using artificial contraception in conjunction with natural family planning)?

3.) Natural family planning only works when both husband and wife cooperate. What is a woman to do if she knows that it is inopportune to bear children (perhaps for the same reasons as the family in the above example) but her husband is coming home drunk every night and forcing her to have sex with him? In the Philippines, divorce is illegal and there are very few options for a woman who is trapped within an abusive marriage. Regardless of contraceptive use, the man is simply using his wife to satiate his carnal desires. There is no procreative consideration on his part; there isn't even a unitive act because it is not a mutual self-giving but rather a forcible taking. What is a woman in this situation to do? For that matter, what is a priest to do in a pastoral situation like this?

[Mark John]
I would like to respond to the three points that Pilgrim Scribe has made.

1) The fact is that the Church is concerned about BOTH the contraceptive mentality and the individual act of illicit methods of contraception. There has been much magisterial ink spilled on this in the last forty years. Humanae Vitae makes it clear: "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" (Paragraph 14).

2.) With all respect and compassion for the difficult situations in which many people find themselves, a good end can never justify an evil means, nor can the principle of tolerance of the lesser of two evils be applied when the act to be undertaken is itself evil. And this (that the act of contraception is immoral) is precisely what is being taught and argued by the Church. Perhaps a careful reading of Humanae Vitae, and Familiaris Consortio (par. 28-35) would be helpful here. One of the ideas I am thinking of here is that of our eternal destiny: that because human sexuality and procreative capability is a personal--not merely biological--reality, it is tied up in the human person's orientation to eternal life, and can not be submitted merely to earthly considerations of utility, but must bring in its ultimate reference to God, whose image is revealed in natural human sexuality.
A second, and related idea, is that it is a truly odd thing to think that to deliberately frustrate through technology (not to assist) our natural bio-spiritual realities could be thought to ultimately satisfy us or be for our good. Of course, concrete situations can often make human nature a burden--sometimes we feel sunk under the weight of our humanity--but that is no reason to seek to sidestep it, but rather to live through it in faithfulness to its demands, thereby to find its true and divine meaning. In other words, God rewards faithfulness to his design, his plan. He will not abandon us to crushing calamity if, following the right way, we trust in him.

3.) As for the case of the husband who will not cooperate with NFP, I will be unable to unfold the various pastoral possibilities here. A few comments, however: the lack of recourse to divorce should not be a hinderance to a woman getting out of an abusive situation. What relevance does the proper spacing of children have in an abusive marriage? The wife needs to get out of the range of her abusive husband, not plan ahead the spacing of future children. What is a priest to do, pastorally, in such a situation? Facilitate the woman's safety and well being through the support of the larger christian community, and, if possible, reach out pastorally to the husband to seek his conversion.

Something that I think is important for anyone who has difficulty in accepting the Church's teaching on contraception, is to be aware that no one is trying to condemn those who have judged that it is OK to use contraception in their marriage, but, rather, they are seeking to show that the way that the Church, in faithfulness to the revelation of Christ on the meaning of human sexuality, wishes to draw them to understand and be faithful to a truth that brings fulfillment and happiness to those who follow it, because it is God's beautiful and loving plan for human sexuality.

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