What Lies Beneath? Contraception

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, in his Phenomenology of Spirit (and quoting Diderot), describes the subtle way that the French Enlightenment brought about a sea change in worldviews:

The Enlightenment, as an invisible and subtle spirit, slinks through the honorable segments little by little, and soon has essentially achieved control of all the innards and organs of the unsuspecting idol. And then, ‘on one fine morning it gives the idols of its contemporaries a shove with the elbows, and crash! bam! the idol is lying on the floor.’ On one fine morning, whose noon is not bloody, as long as the infection has pervaded all the organs of spiritual/cultural life; then only memory still preserves the dead form of the previous stage of spirit, like a history that, somehow or other, has run its course. The new serpent of divine wisdom which is elevated for worship has thus, when you come down to it, merely painlessly shed its wrinkled old skin.

Hegel, disillusioned like many of his contemporaries with the Enlightenment, describes in a subsequent chapter how these subtle and apparently bloodless changes led to the Terror and the Guillotine.

The way that the contraceptive mentality has taken over the modern world is analogous. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Dalton, spearheading the Eugenics movement; Margaret Sanger’s championship of birth control to reduce the number of “defectives”; the Anglican 1930 Lambeth Conference making modifications in the traditional Christian rejection of contraceptive methods; the steady growth of acceptance of contraception in mainstream Protestantism; Griswold v. Connecticut finding a new “penumbra” in the Constitution for privacy; then the discovery of the contraceptive Pill. Everything had changed in the 1960s, and many Catholics, during the Second Vatican Council, were expecting the Church to follow suit.

But then, “crash! bam!” Pope Paul VI issued Humanae vitae, reiterating the constant Christian tradition condemning contraception, and apparently ignoring the sea change that had taken place in the once-Christianized Western world. Catholics were shocked, hundreds of theologians published a full-page protest in the New York Times, many bishops and priests objected or waffled. The authority of the Church was called into question. Individual dissenting “conscience” became the “new serpent of divine wisdom.”

And we are now witnessing some of the inevitable side effects predicted by Pope Paul, and some of us are wringing our hands about the “infection” that has “pervaded all the organs of spiritual/cultural life.” Surrounded everywhere by reminders of a fait accompli, faithful Christians are forming cadres, here and there (including “cyberspace catacombs” like TCT), hoping to reverse some of the grosser results of the sexual revolution.

TIME magazine, Apr. 7, 1967
TIME magazine, Apr. 7, 1967

Certainly abortion is one of the ugliest moral developments. And resolute opponents have devised numerous strategies for arresting that development: restriction of abortion after the first two weeks when “twinning” is possible, or restriction to the first twenty weeks, or to first indications of a beating fetal heart, or to the ability to feel pain. Or the strategy of legal requirements for pregnant women to view ultrasounds, or waiting twenty-four hours. Or the strategy of working for a constitutional amendment, or for making abortion laws into an issue of “states rights.”

Similarly – with regard to the recent judicial and legal transformation of what used to be “sodomy” into legal and institutionalized “marriages” – shocked bystanders are gathering their forces to try to restore their topsy-turvy world to right-side-up: Possibly we need to separate the governmental and religious jurisdictions of priests, so that they will not be coerced to officiate at homosexual or lesbian marriages; or we have to be proactive in making laws to protect bakers, florists, and photographers, who have conscientious objections against contributing to gay marriage; or maybe, as a last resort, we might restrict marriage to two adults, or even two human beings, to prevent some of the more ghastly possibilities.

But all such measures are equivalent to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, as long as contraception is almost universally accepted – especially The Pill, which by using artificial hormones puts perfectly healthy young women into a state mimicking menopause, but is promoted for “women’s health” in spite of multiple physical and emotional side effects (discussed in my previous column).

For contraception implies a right to sex without procreation – allegedly a moral right, and protected legally by that “penumbra” of the Constitution discovered by Supreme Court Justices – the right to privacy.

And the consequences of asserting this right are inevitable. As the Hobby Lobby case demonstrates, not every contraceptor will extend this moral and legal right, of sex-without-procreation, to actually killing the new human being that accidentally shows up in her womb, in spite of meticulous use of contraceptives. There are, of course, multiple levels of wrongdoing. Many professional thieves might balk in pursuing their occupation when it would involve killing another human being. But many contraceptors, convinced of their newly discovered right not to be encumbered by progeny, will extend this right to its ultimate conclusion.

Likewise, some married contraceptors will balk at recognizing the liaisons of homosexuals and lesbians as institutionalized “marriages” equivalent in validity to their own. But because of fuzzy logic they fail to see that these others have the same right to non-procreative sex that they claim for themselves.

Catholic pundits frequently fault bishops and priests for not being more vocal in condemning abortion and the legalization of gay marriage. Some of them do. But the most fundamental and courageous move would be a concerted condemnation of contraception. Among politicians, Rick Santorum has come out strongly on the issue, as well as the USCCB and some bishops. The most important voice, however, should be on the “front line,” the parishes. As Archbishop Chaput challenged priests in his diocesan newspaper, “If priests don’t preach the Church’s message about contraception, heaven loses people. Don’t be afraid. When Jesus preached the truth, He lost people. But, little by little, He gained even more people. Take courage in the Lord.”

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.