The October 2014 Synod on Family’s statement on contraception – “We should return to the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul VI, which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods in regulating births,”  – is, to say the least, profoundly disappointing and inadequate. Humanae Vitae and the subsequent writings on marriage of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI put forward far more than the mere need for “respect” on this crucial matter.
Fr. Mark Pilon recently wrote here about the theological and social dimensions of contraception. Those considerations are important and far-reaching. But as a Catholic psychiatrist who has worked for almost forty years with thousands of married couples, families, and youth, I’m convinced that it is medically and psychologically clear that the widespread use of contraceptives (roughly 75 percent, even of Catholic, couples) has also severely harmed marriage, families, children, the priesthood, the Church, and the larger culture.
A clear and scientifically irrefutable relationship exists between the use of contraceptives and the plague of divorce, with its life-long damage to millions upon millions of young people, loyal spouses, and their families worldwide. Many days in my work, I feel like an army medic on a battlefield strewn with people of various ages and conditions, severely wounded by something essentially ignored.
The failure to address the psychological and sociological science related to this damage needs to be corrected – and the subject directly confronted – in next October’s Ordinary Synod on the Family.
Contraceptive use increases marital mistrust, anxiety, anger, selfishness, and conflicts in communicating. Contraception is a way of saying to a spouse, via the language of the body, that, “I will withhold the total gift of myself to you and not trust you with our fertility.” As both personal anecdotes and statistics bear out, this momentous decision – contrary to rosy predictions of greater marital happiness when contraception was first legalized – has undermined the foundation for giving and receiving love from one’s spouse.
The growth in marriage from “me” to “we,” which St. John Paul II describes as an aspect of betrothed love in Love and Responsibility, is also dependent upon trusting the Lord with every aspect of one’s marriage. In using contraceptives, the couple is unconsciously communicating to the Lord, “We do not trust you with our fertility.”
This stance slowly and unconsciously weakens the ability to entrust all aspects of the marriage, children, and family life to the Lord. And a further consequence is that it makes it more difficult for the couples to turn to Him and seek his help for the numerous challenges and stresses in married and family life.
When anxiety increases, so too do irritability and anger. Mastery over anger in married life is essential because excessive anger damages the ability to communicate effectively and to give and to receive love. A major research study at the University of Minnesota has demonstrated that not being able to talk together was identified by 53 percent of those surveyed as the leading factor that contributed to the decision to divorce.
The use of contraceptives has also resulted in most Catholic couples deciding to have no more than two children. We should call this phenomenon by its real name. It’s a lack of generosity in being open to children – a radical departure from the past for Catholics, but also for others in society. And the effects do not stop there. Lack of generosity leads to the growth of selfishness in each spouse, which is the major psychological enemy of marital love
A very common consequence is that spouses turn inward upon themselves, which damages the cheerful self-giving that is essential for marriage. Many wives complain that contraceptive use has led their husbands to treat them as sexual objects. They no longer maintain good communication – the marital friendship and romantic love outside the bedroom – and yet expect sexual intimacy whenever they want. This silent mistreatment of wives has contributed to the research findings that 70 percent of divorces are now being initiated by wives and, surprisingly, in marriages that display low levels of outward conflict.
John Paul II, the patron saint of the family, has warned that, “safe sex” is radically not safe and, to the contrary, should be regarded as extremely dangerous. The danger is the loss of truth about one’s own self and about the family, and consequently of a loss of love itself.
And since the family – not the individual – is the primary cell of society, what damages the family portends a loss of freedom:
The family has vital and organic links with society, since it is its foundation and nourishes it continually through its role of service to life: it is from the family that citizens come to birth and it is within the family that they find the first school of the social virtues that are the animating principle of the existence and development of society itself. (Familiaris Consortio, 1981)
All this needs to be talked about – a lot – between now and the upcoming Synod. The assembled bishops and the whole Church need to be prepared in advance to embrace the wisdom of St. John Paul II during this challenging time for family life, marriage, and the health of our whole society.