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Contraception: Sex as a Disease Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 19 September 2013

There is no question I am asked about more than Church teaching on contraception. It is the thing that either bemuses or confuses my questioners most about Catholicism:  “Catholics and contraception, it’s just so weird. What’s the deal with you people?” 

The “deal” has to do with the Church having a certain view of how sex fits into a healthy, flourishing human life. The Catholic Church teaches that sexual intercourse is best reserved for a long-term committed relationship open to the procreation of new life. Why?  Because, as I’ve suggested before, sexual intercourse involves the planting of seed in potentially fertile soil.

If the partners in this act are not ready for the potential consequences of the act – that is, if they’re not prepared to accept the child that is the fruit of their union – then they’re courting some serious unhappiness. Sex, the Church believes, should involve a selfless gift of oneself to another in a relationship of mutual self-giving, love, and concern.

Now, to be quite honest, this positive vision seems utterly unrealistic to many of my interlocutors: “That sounds nice, but it’s not doable.” So let’s be clear: The Catholic teaching on sex requires not only the virtues of prudence and temperance, above all it calls for hope.

I’ve found over the years that the problem isn’t that people want too much, it’s that they settle for too little. What God and the Church envision for couples is a relationship of mutual love and concern. Too often they settle on so much less.

Our first task, then, is to convince young women in particular that they’re worth more, and should demand more, than the kind of cheap sexual using of them that society currently encourages.

The Church’s message to women is basically this: Don’t let anyone convince you to treat your fertility as a kind of disease, as a pathology that needs to be “treated” with drugs or “cured” by surgery. What sort of odd mentality causes us to consider a perfectly healthy function of the human being as something that needs to be dis-abled? We don’t consider cutting off someone’s legs, do we, except in the direst circumstances? 

The “problem” in the case of contraception isn’t some dysfunction. The “problem” is precisely that the human organism is functioning perfectly. If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be any need for drugs or surgery!

When spouses insist on this particular “intervention,” they are saying (with their actions, if not with their words) something like this: “I accept you totally and completely in this sexual act, except for that troublesome fertility thing. So, before we have sex, could you please take care of that? 


              How sad is the conviction that one’s life might be over,
              because a new life has been created?

To my mind, this is like saying: I accept you totally and completely in this sexual act, except could you first please put on this blond wig for me, or could you first lose thirty pounds?  If you accept a person for who they are, then you accept them. You don’t force them to agree to an operation to “fix” themselves first. This is why John Paul II repeatedly taught that to insist on the disabling of fertility as a precondition for having sex is to destroy not only the procreative dimension of the sexual act, but the unitive dimension as well.

Granted, one needn’t always be intending to have a child (why insist on that?), but what do you want honestly to be able to tell your child?

            (1) “Well, Billy, we did everything humanly, medically possible to prevent your existence, but somehow, you squirmed through anyway. So, when we found you existed, we cried a bit but decided in the end not to terminate you. So here you are!”  Or:

            (2) “Granted, son, we were not intending you when you were conceived, but we were always open to new life. Thus, when we found out about you, we were filled with joy, because we never intended to prevent you.”

The sexual act is not meant to involve fear – specifically, fear of the natural consequences of the act actually occurring, which is a bit like being frightened that the nail might actually go in the wood when you hammer it. The notion of “safe sex” implies that sex itself (apart from the drugs and prophylactics they sell you) is somehow “dangerous,” which is like allowing people to convince you that eating is dangerous – perhaps even deadly – unless you take an expensive drug first.

We all know that under the current regime of sexual “liberation,” one of the most fear-inducing, toxic substances on the face of the earth is unwanted male sperm. You can’t spill a drop. One drop could kill you or destroy your entire life: “Oh God, my contraception failed last night”?  The sad irony is the conviction that one’s life might be over if a new life has been created.

It is important to note that a couple can adopt a “conceptive mentality” even when they are not using contraception. If the sexual act is done in fear of a child, then the couple is in the wrong place mentally and spiritually. There are few things more tragic than two human beings doing that most miraculous thing two humans can do with one another – creating a new human life together – and then having one partner say to the other:  “O dear God, no. Anything but that!” 

That tragic reaction is possible whether or not a couple has been using contraception if they’re not open to the natural consequences of the act in which they are engaged: thus the importance of always remaining “open” to God’s creative act, even when not intending to have a child.

Is the Church’s teaching really so foolish, then?  Or are we? Have women in particular allowed themselves to set their standards too low? Aim higher, declares the Church.

 
Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
 
 
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Comments (23)Add Comment
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written by Bedarz Iliaci, September 18, 2013
I think that ideally one should never be intending procreation, while engaged in it. It should be done in the spirit of forgetfulness, in trusting God.
That is, the act itself, should be done in unitive spirit, while not frustrating the procreative end.
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written by Manfred, September 19, 2013
Mr. Smith: You may want to do some reading on "onanism", mortal sin and eternity in Hell. The teaching on human sexuality is from GOD through his Church. You never want to make an argument from this is what the CHURCH teaches as the response might be-MY church, synagogue, mosque, etc teaches something else. When you see the recent statements from Pope(?) Francis on divorced Catholics receiving Communion, sodomites in the priesthood, couples living together w/o benefit of marriage, etc., the Church's teachings become merely opinions or historical interpretations. That is the essence of Modernism, i.e., the Church's teachings must change in order to be relevant. That is the root cause of the clash with the traditional Church - Its teachings cannot change.
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written by Arthur, September 19, 2013
I appreciate your article taking seriously the Church's teachings on contraception. However, the language and analysis in your article seems to leave little room for Natural Family Planning (NFP). It is moral for a married couple to have sex during the infertile times for a variety of just or serious reasons. If the wife is told she is quite likely to die from another pregnancy, the couple is not forced into lifelong celibacy. Rather, they could practice, very seriously, NFP. And, by having sex during the known infertile times, they would fully participate in the unaltered sexual act but another pregnancy would not be the goal. There is better language to describe this from some Theology of the Body speakers. But, your article above seems to forget NFP. And, NFP should always be mentioned in the same paragraph as Humanae Vitae and contraception as many Catholics and non-Catholics do not know about it.
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written by kay, September 19, 2013
The root cause of the clash with the Church is pride which manifests itself in the refusal to accept authority. If a person can not accept Christ and his Church as is, then why should anyone accept some other version the person comes up with to suit his fancy. This is what Henry VIII and his cohorts did in England. We are seeing the results of that error today.
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written by Richard A, September 19, 2013
Seriously, Manfred, you must be a 'this glass has nothing in it at all' kind of guy.

Mr. Smith isn't (exactly) explaining why God teaches that contraception is wrong, because the world today does not believe in God. We all know what the Church's teaching is (you and I know, of course, that it's the Church's teaching because it's God's teaching), so it's helpful to explain why the Church teaches what she does. Perhaps as it becomes evident that the Church's vision of mankind is higher than the world's, more of the world will be encouraged to look higher than mankind.
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written by Chris in Maryland, September 19, 2013
I have 3 daughters and one son. My wife and I teach our children that unless a man is willing to sacrifice his life for a woman, he is not worthy of her, and unless a woman is willing to sacrifice her life for a man, she is not worthy of him, and unless they are both willing to sacrifice their lives for their children, they are not worthy of their children.
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written by Randdall Smith, September 19, 2013
The author replies:

Dear Arthur, just to clarify: My discussion of the Church's teaching does not cover everything, only one thing. What characterizes the proper use of Natural Family Planning is precisely that it doesn't treat fertility as a disease to be treated.

But please understand, going through the motions of NFP is not the only determinant of the moral quality of the act. If the couple is not using contraceptives, that's good, but if their procreative act is done in fear of a child, then there's a problem.

The Church's moral teaching is not primarily "legalistic": obey, follow the law, and that's it. The Church also has a long tradition of thinking about the virtues that make moral acts possible. What we're asking couples to do is to inculcate in themselves the virtues of
prudence, temperance, courage, and respect for life. Faith, hope, and love will be crucial as well.

Merely going through the motions of NFP does not necessarily mean a couple is "open to life." And "openness to life" is one of the dispositions the Church is asking us to nurture and develop in ourselves.
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written by Manny, September 19, 2013
It's one thing to say that all sex not for procreation is a sin. That's coherent given Jesus's teaching on lust. Frankly I find the arguments here ridiculous. Who says that if one uses contraception (non abortifacient kind) that you are not totally embracing the other person? What kind of logic is that? That's the disconnect between the current teaching and general society, including many Catholics. That's a non sequitor.
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written by Jack,CT, September 19, 2013
@Chris in Maryland: Simply Beatiful, you
said it all!
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written by Randall Smith, September 19, 2013
Manny,

The Church does not teach that all sex not for procreation is a sin. Why would the Church have to say that? Why must the Church insist that couples must always be intending to have a child in every sexual act. God has so designed human nature that there are non-fertile periods. Are human beings morally obliged to avoid the non-fertile periods? Why would they be? What the Church advises is that all sex should be "open" to the procreation of a new life. Why? Because that is always a possibility.

The suggestion the Church makes (especially John Paul II) is that, to insist on the disabling of a person's fertility as a precondition for the sexual act is in fact to do damage to the unitive dimension.

You can keep SAYING "who says that if one uses contraception that you are not totally embracing the other person?" but (A) it's not a question of WHO says it, it's a matter of the truth of things, and more to the point, (B) again, saying "get rid of that fertility thing" as a precondition for sex is simply NOT to embrace the other person in their totality. It is to say, "I want you --- just not that perfectly natural part of you as a man or woman: namely, your fertility." It would be like saying: "I want you --- just not that red hair of yours. Please shave it all off first."

Would you then scold me again and say: "Who SAYS that if a man demands that a woman shave off her red hair and put on a blonde wig as a precondition for sex that he is not totally embracing the other person?"

If so, then I guess we just have an entirely different sense of what it means to "totally embrace the other person."

As for the "disconnect" between the "current" (that is to say, centuries-long) teaching of the Church and "the general society," I am not entirely scandalized by this, given: (A) the current state of the general society, especially with regard to sex, divorce, abortion, and marriage; and given (B) that the Church teaches a lot of things that involve a "disconnect" with "general society," such as consumerism is a problem; persons should be primary in economics and business; lying is wrong; abortion is wrong; easy divorce is a bad idea; human beings have a soul. The list is potentially endless.

In each case, I find the Church wise and what passes for the modern "wisdom" foolish. And I find people who insist that the Church "get with the program of the modern world" given the state of the modern world, to be something like those who would advise that you walk blissfully and without concern into a burning building or surf in a hurricane.

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written by Chris in Maryland, September 19, 2013
Thank you Jack...this is what is in our hearts as Catholics...of one heart.

In Chritus Veritas
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written by DeGaulle, September 19, 2013
Mr Smith, that last paragraph of your reply to Manny should be read out loudly and clearly at every Mass forthwith. Thank you.
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written by Chris in Maryland, September 19, 2013
Bravo Randall Smith!
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written by Seanachie, September 19, 2013
I wonder, Randall, if church teachings on contraception and a number of other human relations issues are about to change? As reported in Newsmax, Pope Francis said in a recent interview with an Italian Jesuit publication that the Catholic Church should not allow its bans on gay marriage, abortion and contraception to dominate its teachings, but must be a more welcoming Church where priests are understanding pastors and not cold, dogmatic bureaucrats. I'm not sure what this means but it appears that significant change (with which I may disagree)via Pope Francis may be forthcoming.

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written by Avery Tödesulh, September 19, 2013
Well, Mr. Smith this is one well-written column. And it really just repeats well-known Roman Catholic Church positions. So why bother writing it? At least that's what I take away from Pope Francis' recently released interview. Your column concerns one of those "small-minded rules" that the Pope decries. He tells Jesuit Fr Antonio Spadaro that "The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”

So no longer shall you write these columns about "small things" that the church "has locked itself up in." Rather give us some super-pastoral stuff about how God loves us and Jesus has saved us. Oh, you say that the moral teaching at the heart of the Roman Catholic Faith is how God loves us and why Jesus saved us? Well, how come the Pope doesn't seem to know these things? After all he says that, if you continue to write as you do, “even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, September 19, 2013
If the Holy Father is under the impression that one can hear a steady diet of pronouncements against homosexual marriage, contraception and abortion at Sunday Masses in the USA, he is really out of touch. Most Catholics who attend Mass regularly will complain, instead, of never hearing difficult teachings of the Church from the pulpit. If this is what the Holy Father is advocating - less emphasis on morality issues - then what the French say applies: "La plus que ca change, la plus que la meme chose."
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written by tom, September 19, 2013
Interesting that we have here an article on contraception, on the very day that Pope Francis said we need to be talking about other things...more important things.
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written by Brad Miner, September 19, 2013
@tom: What can be more important that respecting God's plan for the creation of life?
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written by ib, September 20, 2013
Yes, Ed, I think he is out-of-touch with North American and Western European realities when it comes to the dearth of doctrinal preaching.

But he may be very much in touch with the success the Pentecostals have had in Latin America, Africa and to a lesser extent Asia. Pentecostal preaching is focused mostly on what Pope Francis calls "the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you." So it's quite possible he has a different point of departure for his less-emphasis-on-doctrine approach to pastoral ministry. This MAY be a very savvy insight into getting the New Evangelization rolling in those parts of the world.

But for us in North America and Western Europe it can seem like throwing in the towel, just when things were starting to come around slightly. As pne commenter on the Pope's interview put it:

"I feel like he cuts me off at the knees. He hits at everything I hold dear. A sacred liturgy without novelties, pro-life issues, marriage and family issues. I am deeply disappointed. Why have worked to save babies all these years, and then be told we should have been so vocal. Where is pastoral approach for those who want to have liturgy that is faithful, and not one that is someone's invention week by week? So people like Pelosi, and Kerry, are okay? We were all wrong to try to save babies? We are wrong to say a marriage is between one man and one woman. We can believe it, but just not talk about it. Maybe Christ should not have told the women at the well she was not really married to her 7th husband. He should have said something nice."
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written by William Manley, September 20, 2013
I love Tom's comment. This site continues to be obsessed with the three topics mentioned by the Pope: abortion, gays, and contraception. Leaders of this site: please take heed of the Pope's wise words and move on to more evangelical topics such as love, forgiveness, mercy, redemption, and repentance - what the Pope would call the full flavor and fragrance of the Gospels. Thanks.
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written by Randall Smith, September 20, 2013
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Please take the time to read the Pope's entire set of comments, and not merely those the New York Times decides to quote out-of-context for its own partisan purposes.

With regard to the pope's actual comments, he makes a very important point. I have been arguing over the past several months that the Church's moral teaching is based on the "good news" of the Gospel. The Church has an important insight into the infinite dignity of the human person and speaks eloquently about those things that are in accord with true human flourishing. Our goal is to have life and have it to the fullest. Many people mistakenly think that money, power, fame, or pleasure are the means to human flourishing. The Church has a wiser vision.

But the negative prohibitions of the moral law must always been seen in the context of the positive view of human flourishing and our ultimate end in communion with the Triune God. We need to keep repeating this positive view of human flourishing and not allow the media to characterize us as nothing more than nay-sayers.

I've attempted to characterize the Church's teaching in terms of the positive. John Paul II did this particularly well. So did Pope Benedict. Pope Francis isn't saying anything particularly scandalous or new.

Our job is to preach the Gospel and preach it as "Good News." At the heart of the Christian faith is Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. If we lose sight of Him, we allow ourselves to become just another partisan group. That's not what we're called to by our Lord.
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written by K in BC, September 20, 2013
The holy father has said it succinctly:
“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you"
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written by William Manley, September 20, 2013
Randall Smith: excellent comment. Please expand this into a full length essay. It would be very instructive to me and others who have been surprised and pleased by the Pope's recent interview.

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