Low Fertility Is Just the Half of It

A friend – a good Catholic and good man – objected recently when I argued that contraception and the contraceptive mentality have not only radically changed our society’s understanding of marriage and the family, but have perhaps terminally undermined Western, formerly Christian cultures and nations. It’s a dark view, I admit, but also, I hold, quite realistic – and absolutely necessary for Christians to address.

His counterargument was that my view is too simplistic, and ignores the fact that the decline in birth rates predates the invention of the pill by a century or more. Further, it has many, complex, underlying causes besides contraceptives, causes that are economic, social, geographic, etc. All that’s quite true.

But it misses the main thing. Contraception is not the unique cause of radical population decline, but is rather the means for pulling it off effectively in so many places. Ideological currents have obviously played a major role, such as the anti-population-growth movement. And certainly economic and others factors are involved. But they do not really explain what is different and utterly new about this century-old decline in fertility rates.

People have historically curtailed the size of their families for various reasons, both personal and social. But when people downsized their families in the past – mainly though abstinence or barrier methods – they were not denying God’s plan for marriage as such, but simply refusing to follow it for their own reasons, good or bad.

They were neither affirming, as growing numbers do today, that sterility is actually preferable to fertility, nor asserting that sterility in marriage is equal to, if not preferable to, fertility in marriage. In other words, they were not really involved in redefining the essential relationship between offspring and marriage.

That is no longer the case. And the widespread and growing acceptance of marriage equality for homosexual couples is a powerful sign of the times in that regard, the ultimate development of the implications of contraception for marriage, and for society.

The contraceptive mentality is not a purely mental construct, nor a matter of secondary significance, as Peter Steinfels suggested in a recent article in Commonweal, urging the Synod to finally overthrow the Church’s teaching on contraception. It is this precise mentality that is utterly new in this historical trend of infertility, the trend to radically separate fertility from marriage, to deny that procreation is an essential ordination of a true marriage.

"A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids" by William Holam Hunt, 1850 [Ashmolean Museum, Oxford]
“A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids” by William Holam Hunt, 1850 [Ashmolean Museum, Oxford]

That trend has now climaxed in the assertion, by law, and in mass opinion, that the ultimate form of infertile sexual union, sodomy, is now to be recognized as an equal basis for marriage. That is what marriage equality is really all about, the equalizing of sodomistic acts with acts which are intrinsically connected with fertility, even if not always productive of offspring. Gay marriage is the final step in the redefinition of marriage in relation to fertility and offspring. That process of redefining marriage began with the gradual moral acceptance of contraception.

A further step has involved the development of contraceptive means and techniques that directly cause sterility, not simply in the act but in the person acting. The pill was regarded as a temporary (but perhaps not so temporary for many women) alteration of a woman’s body to prevent fertility. Now, surgical operations have been developed, for both men and women, that render the body permanently sterile, an even more radical alteration of human nature.

Obviously these inventions had great social and cultural consequences that affected both marriage and family. Today, we routinely deny contraception’s significant contribution to the contemporary breakdown of these institutions, as well as the new life style that has emerged. True blindness, but that is not the worst effect.

When we began technologically to alter the human body and its fertility, that step was a true watershed in our relationship to God. Fertility is not just another aspect of our bodily nature. It is not like our appendix, which is suitably named, just an appendage to human nature. It is the most intimate link of man’s bodily nature with the God of creation, an essential part of ourselves as made in the image of God.

God is truly the God of fertility if not the fertility god of the pagans. Indeed, at least the pagans were thus paying tribute to the essential relation between human fertility and the divine. They got it. Our enlightened world no longer does. That’s why St. John Paul II taught that contraception was also a sin against the first commandment. It is a new form of idolatry where man sets himself up as God, and the consequences are far-reaching indeed, way beyond just the evils of contraception.

Contraception has affected everything: marriage, faith, moral conscience, magisterial authority, not to mention the breakdown of society caused by the sexual revolution it at least facilitated, and now the destruction of whole populations and nations.

It matters relatively little what five Supreme Court justices will decide about the nature of marriage in June. The polls already reveal the malignancy that has taken hold of masses of people in Europe and here, the support that even many Christians give to the proposition that a deeply perverted notion of marriage is to be accepted today as equal to the plan for marriage put forward in Genesis.

This attitude will quite probably seal the fate of many nations.

Fr. Mark A. Pilon (1943-2018) was a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA. He received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He was a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at littlemoretracts.wordpress.com.