Contraception: Sex as a Disease

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 a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.