The National Catholic Review

This is a great article! I would like to hear from a former atheist or convert to Catholicism regarding the issue of contraception. I have a Catholic friend who sees no problem with using contraception, but she is against abortion. However, she used to make exceptions for rape and incest, but she is beginning to understand her former position as “situational ethics.” She is not currently using contraception because she has reached menopause. She has two daughters who use “the pill” and she is perfectly accepting of this. How do I effectively bear witness to my friend about this issue?

Deborah Sturm
Steubenville, Ohio

First of all, I agree with your pro-life stance. I clicked over from your blog which I started reading a few weeks ago. I was very interested in your conversion. I’m not from a Catholic background, but I am a Christian….I assume what you are saying in this article is that sex should only be engaged in if you are willing to produce life (a child)? In that case, don’t have sex unless you intend to get pregnant? I have never heard this before could you tell me what you and your husband thinks about this? Do you plan to never have sex again if you don’t plan to have more children?

Trina Pinson
Alabama

I find this to be a convincing story as to why you are now pro-life, but I don’t find anything to support your position that contraception is wrong. If anything, I think that it’s a fallacy to say that using a condom to prevent pregnancy is thwarting God’s will, but abstaining from sex to prevent pregnancy is not.

John Smith
Atlanta, Ga.

OK, abortion is killing a baby; agreed. Not to be done. But contraception? why is that wrong? Must one have a baby a year? We were well on that path, when our third child was born before our eldest was three years old. We tried the rhythm method and almost lost our marriage. The scars remain. Our fourth child was born by choice, and then I took the pill, which had just become available. This was the time of Vatican II; we had great hopes that the church would listen to the faithful and come to a less “all or nothing” approach to marriage; a commission was appointed to study marriage and eminent Catholic leaders like the Crowleys from Chicago were on it. But when the group presented its conclusions, they were the wrong ones, i.e. they did not echo the church’s position, so they were dismissed. What after all did married people know? So we don’t listen to celibates on the subject of marriage! A grandmother of 10, married 50 years.

Tricia Harrigan
Corona del Mar, CA

TALKING TO OTHERS ABOUT CONTRACEPTION

Deborah, you asked: "How do I effectively bear witness to my friend about this issue?" I think the best route here is to just pray for the Holy Spirit to guide you. I wish I could offer something more concrete than that, but it depends so much on your friend’s situation, your relationship with her, etc. I don’t think there’s one answer that fits every situation other than starting with prayer.

CATHOLIC TEACHING ON CONTRACEPTION

Trina, you asked: "I assume what you are saying in this article is that sex should only be engaged in if you are willing to produce life (a child)? In that case, don’t have sex unless you intend to get pregnant?" I apologize that I wasn’t more clear on that. That’s not the Catholic position. The Church teaches that every sexual act must be "open to life," meaning that even if you’re trying to avoid conceiving a child and/or don’t think that it would be possible, you acknowledge this as the act that creates human life, and you implicitly say to both God and your spouse that it is OK with you if this act were to create a life (even if you think it’s impossible or unlikely).

The Catholic Church teaches that the fullness of the human sexual act includes both the bonding/pleasurable aspects,and the potential for creating new human life. These elements are inextricably entwined, and to try to sever its life-giving potential by sterilizing the act is wrong because it rejects the fullness of an inherently good thing. Again, this doesn’t mean that we must actively try to create babies with every act; but it does mean that if we’re vehemently opposed to creating new life, then we should abstain from the act that creates new life lest we alter the nature of this most important gift from God. (This is why doing Natural Family Planning with a "contraceptive mentality," i.e. feeling entitled to the pleasure of sex while in a state of loathing its potential for creating life, is also considered wrong.)

John, you said: "I think that it’s a fallacy to say that using a condom to prevent pregnancy is thwarting God’s will, but abstaining from sex to prevent pregnancy is not." Again, to clarify, the teaching isn’t exactly that barrier methods of contraception thwart God’s will; it’s that they fundamentally alter the nature of an inherently good thing. Also, unlike with contraception, working within the female body’s natural cycles of fertility and infertility forces people to mentally link the concepts of sexual activity and creating new life since people must consciously exercise control over their sexual appetites on a daily basis in order to avoid pregnancy, since they don’t get to choose when and how long the periods of abstinence are.

To use a rough analogy: what contraceptive culture tells us is like saying that it’s fine to use loaded guns as toys as long as you put blanks in the chamber; the Catholic position is that, while guns may have some fun and recreational uses, they must always be used within clear boundaries, and that guns are never, ever to be thought of as playthings alone -- not just because that is a dangerous mentality that will inevitably lead to disaster, but because it’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of a gun. This is an imperfect analogy in many ways, but I offer it mainly to illustrate the danger that can result from misunderstanding the nature of powerful forces.

I’ll end with this: I come from a background of lifelong secular atheism, so I know how crazy the Church’s stance on contraception sounds. Up until a few years ago, I didn’t know that anyone was even opposed to contraception anymore; I’d heard something about the Catholic Church being against it, but I thought it was an urban legend.

When I began to look into Christianity and was researching the Catholic Church, however, what I found when I read up on its views of human life and sexuality was nothing short of breathtaking. The wisdom I found in reading things like the Theology of the Body or Humanae Vitae was so counter-cultural, so unexpected, and yet resonated so deeply as being true, that for the first time I started to think that this Church might be telling the truth when it says it’s guided by Something more than just the opinions of men. John Paul II once said, "the difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle...is much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one which involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality." I have found this to be true.

I don’t think there’s any way I could properly defend this teaching in all its fullness here in this little blog post. If anyone would like to read more about the Catholic stance on this issue from people who are far more qualified to defend it than I am, I once posted a collection of resources on the subject here.

CHALLENGES WITH THIS TEACHING

Tricia, it’s nice to hear from a fellow member of the "three under three" club! I recently had my third baby in three years, who arrived before my oldest turned three. I know that you can imagine how many cups of coffee I had to have this morning to get through liveblogging today.

On a serious note, it sounds like you had a really difficult time. It must have been very painful, and I am truly sorry to hear about the stress you were under. I can definitely relate to having challenges of remaining open to life. In addition to having had three children in three years and being an introverted only child who is not naturally good at dealing with noise and chaos, I have a serious blood clotting disorder that is exacerbated by pregnancy. I already had a life-threatening blood clot (a DVT) when I was pregnant with #2. I have to give myself shots in the stomach every day throughout all pregnancies. It’s hard to find insurance that fully covers these shots, and out of pocket it costs more than $2,000 for a 30-day supply. Because of this disorder, my pregnancy and postpartum care requires the supervision of multiple specialists and frequent trips to the doctors office for blood draws. In the postpartum period I have to take an FDA Category X drug that is so prone to causing birth defects that it’s usually recommended that women have tubal ligations before taking it. In addition to the risks to my health, if I were to ever lose my insurance a new pregnancy would cost around $40,000. Even with insurance it’s about $8,000. We’re still paying off medical debt from baby #3 and will be for a while.

All that is to say: I am the last person who would say that this teaching is easy. However, I think the focus needs to be on whether or not it’s true. For example, oftentimes we find ourselves in situations where it would be easier to lie than to tell the truth, and when we tell the truth we end up with a whole lot more difficulty than if we’d lied. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to tell the truth, just that it’s difficult.

You said: "we had great hopes that the church would listen to the faithful...But when the group presented its conclusions, they were the wrong ones, i.e. they did not echo the church’s position, so they were dismissed. What after all did married people know? So we don’t listen to celibates on the subject of marriage!"

I’m right there with you that I don’t have a big interest in anyone telling me how I should run my family, especially if they can’t relate to my situation. However, if the teachings of the Catholic Church are founded on the opinions of celibate dudes in Rome who have a bad habit of not listening to the opinions of the faithful, then we as Catholics have a lot more to worry about than just the issue of contraception. If, however, this is the Church that Christ founded, and if the Holy Spirit works through the fallible humans in this Church to reveal God’s will for humanity, then even the most difficult -- sometimes agonizingly difficult -- teachings are sure to lead us through the narrow gate that we seek to enter.

Jennifer Fulwiler

Comments

Anonymous | 7/9/2008 - 9:08am
Also note that divorce among those who use NFP is rare.
Anonymous | 7/8/2008 - 2:28pm
Can we also point out that "the rhythm method" is NOT the same thing as NFP? I believe that part of the resistance to the Church's teachings on this is due in large part to people's ignorance on what, exactly, NFP is. The rhythm method is (rightly) a big joke, yet so many people think it's synonymous with NFP. In my experience, women I know who use NFP combined with ecological breastfeeding tend to have children around 3 years apart, which isn't a bad spacing.
Anonymous | 7/9/2008 - 11:30am
Well said, Jenn. I'm amused by the "How can celibates lecture married people about sex?" comment. I've never heard the other two remarks: "How can people who take vows of obedience lecture us about free will?" or "How can people who take vows of poverty lecture us about the use of wealth?" Are there people who think that if St. Francis of Assisi can't give you hot stock tips then he has nothing to teach you about the use of money? Conversely, I can imagine a child saying "How dare my parents lecture me about my candy consumption? They don't even eat candy. What do they know?"
Anonymous | 7/8/2008 - 2:39pm
''If, however, this is the Church that Christ founded, and if the Holy Spirit works through the fallible humans in this Church to reveal God's will for humanity. . .'' Right on point, Jennifer! The Catholic Church's position on marital chastity seems totally ''impossible'' to the modern mind. Yet how many other teachings are also impossible? Stay married for life. Forgive those who hurt you. Pray for a ''good'' death. And the most ''crazy'' belief of all, that our Lord Jesus Christ is actually present in the Eucharist!
Anonymous | 7/8/2008 - 2:26pm
beautifully said. The Church's teachings on sexuality also lead to clarity, although not popular, when dealing with infertility. Don't separate the duality of sexual relations....no to advanced reproductive techniques. This not only honors the dignity of the child one hopes to be blessed with (not have a right to as if property) but also protects the couple from turning the physical expression of their love into mechanics to be manipulated.