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Contraception and Our Abdication of Fatherhood

In the Year of St. Joseph, the celebration of Father’s Day last Sunday stands, to the days that come after it, in much the same way as a feast day like Easter Sunday conditions the “ordinary time” in the rest of the year.  This year, fatherhood is simply too important a topic of reflection, to relegate to one Sunday in early summer. On such a premise, I want to investigate the connection between contraception and fatherhood.

My thesis is that contraception negates fatherhood, is at war with it, undermines what it means to be a father. Where widely adopted, it works out that effect in all aspects of society.  We are familiar with the idea, championed by St. John Paul II, “the Great,” that contraception attacks the unity of husband and wife. The unitive dimension of the sexual act will not survive, he taught, if separated from the procreative.  I want to add: fatherhood will not survive if the sexual act is separated from its fatherly aspect.

That contraception negates fatherhood should be obvious on its face. A man places himself in a position where he can declare for or against becoming a father: he declares against. He deliberately removes the possibility of fatherhood from the act designed to make him a father.

(Note that by this language of “declaring against,” it’s easy to distinguish NFP from contraception.  Someone who practices NFP, while perhaps refraining from “declaring for,” depending on his ultimate purpose, never “declares against.”  NFP is like silence on the issue, and silence is interpreted as consent.)

Suppose we say that fatherhood represents the perfection, the full realization, of what it means to be a male.  This is plausible because the sexual power is the sole complementary power, of its essence, of men and woman. To be a man is to be such as to procreate with a woman; to be a woman is to be such as to procreate with a man.

We can use more shocking language, but language which our forebears had no difficulty with (read Matthew 1): to be a man is to be such as to beget in a woman; to be a woman is to be such as to bear what is begotten by a man.  This is why the language of Theotokos, or “bearer of what is begotten by God,” is so much more suggestive than “Mother of God” – because it clearly expresses the complementarity of human and divine nature, which was effected precisely through the Incarnation.

If these things are so, then, when a man declares against fatherhood, he declares against his masculinity too.  By deliberately removing the core of fatherhood from his action, which is the core of his masculinity, he effectively agrees to the redefinition of his masculinity by something connected with, but incidental to it.

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We live in a society where women think they become men by taking on characteristics incidental to masculinity.  But for decades men, negating their fatherhood in contraception, have been re-identifying and repackaging themselves as men in the same way – by how they dress, by how they act, by the shape of their bodies.  If you are a man and you practice contraception, then, arguably, the label “cisgender male” does not entirely miss the mark for you; at least, there’s something deeply correct about it.

He declares not only against his masculinity, however, but also against his relationship with God, by cutting God off from the matter. Because God is the source of his authority as a man. And in cutting off God, he undermines his own authority as a man.  Let me explain this important thought.

We cannot know the future; it’s unreasonable to make representations about the future except in matters that depend directly on our control: hence our commitments reaching far into the future should be few, and the fact that they are unconditional (“for better or for worse, in sickness and in health”), surprisingly, makes them better able to be kept, because then they are insulated from contingency.

But to consent to the conception of a new being, through one’s own actions, is to make oneself responsible for an undertaking of nurturing and educating that child, which reaches at least 20 years into the future.  Since we cannot know the future, such an undertaking is reasonable only if it is regarded as a joint undertaking with someone who does know that future, that is, if we regard it as done with the approval and blessing of God in his providence.

That is to say, for a father to conceive a child in openness to life, is for him to place himself under God: he recognizes himself as a subsidiary source of life and, therefore, since he has become a subsidiary agent, he enjoys a subsidiary authority.

But look what happens if he uses contraception and conceives a child only – he thinks – when he has sufficient control over his circumstances.   Rejecting reliance upon God, he has replaced authority with the very different realities of control and power. His authority, if he had claimed it, would have been inherent in his “office” as father, but his control and power, notoriously, are shifting and cannot be counted on.  Moreover, the field of power is vast, and a local power is easily swamped by large-scale external forces, or overtaken by a more general power – the government, for example.

No genuine authority is ever lost through being taken away; all genuine authority is abdicated before it is taken away.  We can look throughout our society and see many signs that might lead a perceptive observer to conclude that genuine fatherhood no longer exists.  I will not detail them here but leave that exercise to your discrete consideration.

One might blame the Supreme Court, the media, the market, or a “culture of expressive individualism” for this.  These have indeed worked to take away the authority of fathers.  But what if men had abdicated that authority first?

 

*Image: First Steps [1]by Jean-François Millet, c. 1858-66 [Cleveland Museum of Art]

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available.