Friday, February 20, 2009

Contraception and Non-Christians

A reader writes: how do you argue against contraception from a secular point of view?

The Pro-Contraception Argument:

The procreative and unitive aspects of the marital act are separable, that is, that the procreative aspect can be nullified without in any way vitiating the conjugal act or making it less a unique expression of marital love and union.

Brief Response:

If one deliberately destroys the power of the conjugal act to give life, one necessarily destroys its power to signify love: the love and union proper to marriage.


(I will draw first from "Marriage: A Path to Sanctity" by Javier Abad & Eugenio Fenoy; next from "Covenanted Happiness" by Cormac Burke; and finally from "Contraception and Chastity" by G.E.M. Anscombe)

Why has nature made man and woman so different yet so complimentary, with different anatomical structures, different physiology and psychology? Why is there a strong attraction between the sexes? Nature herself has linked sexuality with a purpose and tells us plainly that man was made male and female to bring into this world new beings of the same species. The sexual act is naturally ordained toward the begetting of species—if it were otherwise, why should there be two sexes? The sexual drive facilitates and ensures the preservation of the species. Similarly, the special pleasure attached to eating gives us an extra incentive to nourish ourselves—to satisfy the irresistible appetite and therefore fulfill the need to keep ourselves alive. To arouse and satisfy the sexual drive without regard for the natural responsibility it entails breaks the link between sexual activity and procreation and thus constitutes an abuse of human sexuality. It’s like bullimia, eating for the pleasure then throwing up to avoid the consequences. Engaging in the act and violating the act.

Why does the sexual act signify love and unite the spouses in a way that no other act does, such as a handshake? What is it that makes it not simply a physical experience but a love experience?
Is it the special pleasure attaching to it? Is the unitive meaning of the conjugal act contained in the sensation, however, intense, that it can produce? If intercourse unites two people simply because it gives special pleasure, then it would seem that one or other of the spouses could at times find a more meaningful union outside marriage than within it. It would follow too that sex without pleasure becomes meaningless, and that sex with pleasure, even homosexual sex, becomes meaningful. No, the meaning of the marriage act does not consist in pleasure. Why should the marital act be more significant than any other expression of affection between the spouses? Why should it be a more intense expression of love and union? Surely because of what happens in that marital encounter, which is not simply a touch, not a mere sensation, however intense, but a communication, an offer and acceptance, an exchange of something that uniquely represents the gift of oneself and the union of the two selves.

The greatest expression of a person’s desire to give himself is to give the seed of himself. Giving one’s seed is much more significant, and in a sense more real, than giving one’s heart. “I am yours, I give you my heart, here, take it” is mere poetry, to which no physical gesture can give full expression. But “I am yours, I give you my seed, here take it” is not poetry, it is love. It is conjugal love embodied in a unique and privileged physical action whereby intimacy is expressed—“I give you what I give no one else”—and union is achieved. Take what I have to give. This will be a new me. United to you, to what you have to give—to your seed—this will be a new you-and-me, fruit of our mutual knowledge and love.” In human terms this is the closest one can get to giving one’s self conjugally and to accepting the conjugal self-gift of another, and so achieving spousal union.

Therefore, what makes marital intercourse expression a unique relationship and union is not the sharing of a sensation but the sharing of a power: of an extraordinary life-related, creative, physical, sexual power. In a truly conjugal relationship, each spouse says to the other: “I accept you as somebody like no one else in my life. You will be unique to me and I to you. You and you alone will be my husband; you alone will be my wife. And the proof of your uniqueness to me is the fact that with you—and you alone—am I prepared to share this life-oriented power.”

In this consists the singular character of intercourse. Other physical expressions of affection do not go beyond the level of a mere gesture; they remain a symbol of the union desired. But the conjugal act is not a mere symbol. In marital intercourse, something real has been exchanged, with a full gift and acceptance of conjugal masculinity and femininity. And there remains, as witness to their conjugal relationship and the intimacy of their conjugal union, the husband’s seed in the wife’s body.

Now if one deliberately nullifies the life-orientation of the conjugal act, one destroys its essential power to signify union. Contraception in fact turns the marital act into self-deception or into a lie: “I love you so much that with you, and with you alone, I am ready to share this most unique power…” But what unique power? In contraceptive sex, no unique power is being shared, except a power to produce pleasure. But then the uniqueness of the marital act is reduced to pleasure. Its significance is gone. Contraceptive intercourse is an exercise in meaninglessness. It could perhaps be compared to going through the actions of singing without letting any sound of music pass one’s lips… Going through the motions of a love-song; but there is no song.

Nothing can undermine a marrage so much as the refusal to know and accept one's spouse fully or to let oneself be known fully by him or her. In true marital intercourse, each spouse renounces protective self-possession, so as possess fully and to be fully possessed by the other. This fullness of true sexual gift and possession is achieved only in marital intercourse open to life. Sexual love is a love of the whole male or female person, body and spirit. In contraception, the body says, "I love you totally", whereas the spirit says "I love you reservedly."

G.E.M. Anscombe on the natural difference between contraceptive intercourse and the use of infertile times to avoid conception:

The reason why people are confused about intention, and why they sometimes think there is no difference between contraceptive intercourse and the use of infertile times to avoid conception, is this: They don't notice the difference between "intention" when it means the intentionalness of the thing you're doing - that you're doing this on purpose - and when it means a further or accompanying intention with which you do the thing. For example, I make a table: that's an intentional action because I am doing just that on purpose. I have the further intention of, say, earning my living, doing my job by making the table. Contraceptive intercourse and intercourse using infertile times may be alike in respect of further intention, and these further intentions may be good, justified, excellent.

But contraceptive intercourse is faulted, not on account of this further intention, but because of the kind of intentional action you are doing. The action is not left by you as the kind of act by which life is transmitted, but is purposely rendered infertile, and so changed to another sort of act altogether.

In considering an action, we need always to judge several things about ourselves. First: is the sort of act we contemplate doing something that it's all right to do? Second: are our further or surrounding intentions all right? Third: is the spirit in which we do it all right? Contraceptive intercourse fails on the first count; and to intend such an act is not to intend a marriage act at all, whether or no we're married. An act of ordinary intercourse in marriage at an infertile time, though, is a perfectly ordinary act of married intercourse, and it will be bad, if it is bad, only on the second or third counts.

It may help you to see that the intentional act itself counts, as well as the further or accompanying intentions, if you think of an obvious example like forging a cheque to steal from somebody in order to get funds for a good purpose. The intentional action, presenting a cheque we've forged, is on the face of it a dishonest action, not to be vindicated by the good further intention.

Finally, Janet Smith's entire lecture "Contraception: Why Not?" is a great source for understandable explanations and common-sense illustrations on this topic.


mad cow said...

You go, girl.

Molly said...

The bulimia comparison had never occurred to me...and is so right on, and seems like a good preliminary way to explain it to the people who look at you like you're nuts when you say you don't use contraception. Thanks for this, JM.

AWOL Mommy said...

JM, you gnarly, girl. I look forward to teaching this to Bella and V as our test cases in a few years, you are going to be my apologetic flying buttress on this topic!

Bethany said...

Here's my devil's advocate side coming out, but I have several friends who buy into the pro-contraceptive argument. Some of them, though not all, would argue against your premise that the argument is based on the procreative and unitive aspects of the marital act are separable.

For many of them it is the idea that the marital act simply does not exist or rather should not exist. Their argument being that biologically sex is simply for reproduction purposes. There is no need to be married for this to occur, because of that fact nature itself separates the unitive from the procreative and therefore if we don't have to be married to have sex and reproduce then we can be married and not reproduce or not be married and not reproduce, so on and so forth.

Most of the people I know who uphold this argument are the ones who aren't really sure if they'll ever get married because they see marriage as a useless institution that binds a woman from achieving her "real" goals.

So my question is how do you address this group of people who don't think that there is or should be a marital act to begin with?

MargaretJDMom said...

This is great! This is really the fundamental argument against contraception and premarital sex in general. Gotta love the natural law.

On an incomplete note, sort of an aside in terms of secular arguments against contraception there's a whole medical body of evidence against chemical contraceptives that the medical establishment chooses to ignore. Ask a catholic physician or nurse what they learn about contraception in medical school and then how they learn that all those negative health effects really don't matter as much as a woman's desire not to have children. I have countless jaw dropping examples from friends and family in the medical profession. The most egregious- a young woman with a blood clot who was not advised by her physician to get off the pill, God forbid she have a baby!

This Heavenly Life said...

This was really great. Something that struck me...I'd never thought of it in this way before...was the part about marrital intercourse not being merely a symbol, but a real, physical exchange. Like the Eucharist is not a symbol, but the real, physical presence of Christ.

I'm new to the whole idea of NFP and a non-contraceptive marriage. I'm also new to the idea of the real presence in the Eucharist. (I'm currently in RCIA classes) It seems meant to be, this connection between Christ and his church and a husband and wife. Where have I heard this before!? :)

This was so helpful for me. Thanks!

Joanne said...

This is wonderfully written, a pleasure to read! I'm not sure if you could make an argument that would completely please everyone, though, and I don't really see the point in trying. If someone doesn't believe in Marriage, how could they believe in the Marriage Act? I know SO MANY Catholics that supposedly believe in Marriage and in the Marriage Act that would never consider using NFP, I can't imagine trying to make clear the joy of a non-contraceptive marriage to a person who wasn't even a believer at all.

I would add this as a simple argument. I truly believe that my contracepting friends are not as happy or as complete in their marriages as I am. That is not to show off or brag, but is coming from a real place of concern and love for them. I have a good friend, who is Catholic, who is currently *miserable* because her husband will not even discuss having a third child, at all, ever. I feel like they might not be able to get past it and that it is going to affect their relationship forever. It is always such a relief to me that no matter what else my husband and I have to worry about - exhaustion from having two (soon three) young children, worries about money so that we can afford to send our autistic son to the best school for him, etc. - we never worry that we are alone. We know that God has a plan for us and for each of our children. I have my moments of doubt and of shock and concern, but they are just that - fleeting, teeny tiny moments, and for that I can only thank God and the RCIA program that my husband went through, which has made me a better Catholic than I ever could have dreamed of being before.

moira said...

Ok, bear with me, this is related.
A doctor friend told me the story of a patient who came in who was homosexual and whose partner was known to be HIV positive. For ten years, they used condoms to protect the man who did not have HIV. Then he finally contracted it, when they gave up condoms. The physician asked him why after so long he decided to run that risk and I thought his answer was so interesting: he said that they just wanted to be close, and that it didn't seem real to have a barrier.
I thought, if even such a distorted experience of sex could still not hide the fact that intimacy requires a totally unreserved giving to be a true union, then we really can't lie to ourselves about how unnatural contracepted intercourse within a marriage relationship really is.

Catherine said...

Juris Mater, thanks for the cogent argument for openness to life.

Joanne, I appreciate your comment too and your concern for your friend. However, I've heard it said that there are no unhappy marriages, only two unhappy individuals. It seems more likely that the use of contraception in your friend's marriage is a symptom of deeper unhappiness rather than the sole cause of the marital breakdown. Certainly I know some unhappy Catholics who are using NFP, so it's not a guarantee in and of itself of a happy marriage. I also know contracepting couples who have a happy relationship. According to our faith, those couples would have a more complete marriage without contraception, but it doesn't follow that their marriage is (solely because of the contraception) without grace or happiness.

MargaretJDMom said...

I would argue that contracepting couples do suffer from a loss of grace though- it may not be without grace, but less grace is going to have its effects. Check out this quote from the QandA from Janet Smith's lecture on "Contraception- Why Not?" available at

"Loss of Grace in Marriages Due to Contraception

Hindering full involvement in Church life

Is there an impact of the loss of grace on marriages? I think obviously that 50% of marriages ending in divorce, among Catholics as well as the rest of the population, suggests that there's an impact of the loss of grace in this. I think that those who contracept, even if they're confident that what they're doing is right, they can't feel quite as enthusiastic about their Church as otherwise. They can't be quite racing to be full-fledged members of this Church. Many of them are very active in their parishes and love their Church, but they've got this sort of, "My Church teaches something that's wrong." And you can't have that full embrace. You're not confessing this because you don't think it's wrong. You'll not get the healing graces and the empowering graces from confession that you would get. I think couples who use Natural Family Planning will tell you that prayer and the sacraments are at the heart of what they do. They need that help to be faithful to what they believe and to raise the children that they have. It's always hard to measure the impact of grace; I mean, it's an unseen reality. It's there, but to measure it...But, it can be seen as far as what is happening with marriages. I think that if you're around couples who use Natural Family Planning, you really do sense a quite spectacular closeness that they have and self-respect and mutual admiration that I think is not as often clearly there in couples who contracept.

And I think most contraceptors are what I would call subjectively innocent. They're doing something that is objectively wrong, but they are not getting up in the morning and saying, "I want to perform an offense against God, I want to be hostile to my fertility, and I don't want to give myself to my spouse completely." They're not saying that, but again, their act says that; and I think they are going to be suffering harmful consequences from what they do and kind of be surprised at this.

Distorting married life

Let me give this anecdote. I have a friend who has seven brothers and sisters. They were all raised Catholic and very few of them are practicing Catholics now and all of them are contraceptors except one couple. The couple that is not contracepting, using Natural Family Planning, has four children, all planned, etc. The other couples, again, have no children, all contracepting, two income households, lots of disposable income, lots of time for romance and fun. And one night the eight of them were having a very open discussion about their sex lives. And all of the women, the contracepting women, were complaining that they felt that they were just being used in the sexual act. They felt that this was just one more thing that was expected of them, and they felt used. And the men were complaining. They were complaining that they had been reduced to begging for sex, which they found demeaning, and that they were engaging in sex with a woman who just wasn't all that engaged. She might just as well be watching TV. The couple using Natural Family Planning were kind of looking at each other quizzically and saying, "What are they talking about? Is sex not interesting? Is sex not as interesting as TV? Begging for sex? I don't know what this is all about." They're doing just fine.

Now, if you were to look at these couples: I mean the contracepting couples-two incomes, fitness clubs, designer clothes; the couple with the four children-getting pudgy, gray, financially stressed, not as much sleep, etc. Say um, which couples are having a satisfying sex life? It's amazing, but it's the opposite of what one would expect. And I think there's something there, in Natural Family Planning, that causes this kind of closeness and love between a couple that is really the heart and soul of what makes sex good. It's not having a designer body and designer clothes and lots of disposable income. That won't buy you a good sex life. It's really trust and love and tenderness and really knowing and communicating with the individual with whom you are having sex. And that's what Natural Family Planning brings about.

And so, these contracepting couples, to suggest to them that contraception is the problem, it would be astonishing for them to think that that might be the problem. But it seems to me again there is good reason to think that maybe, in fact, that is what is making things flat in their relationship."

Ok. Sorry that was long.

Catherine said...

I agree that contraception is contrary to human dignity and its use results in an incomplete marital relationship. However, many other sins can exist in NFP-practicing marriages, also resulting in incomplete relationships. The NFP divorce rate is low, but there is still a divorce rate. There are other factors to consider in interpreting the statistic, namely that NFP-using couples have more children, and couples with children are less likely to divorce, despite significant unhappiness. I know NFP-using couples who are very unhappy but would not consider divorce. It's really wonderful that their children provide them with an extra incentive to stick it out; the point is just that NFP is no guarantee of a happy marriage and it is misleading to present it as such.

This is because the use of contraception is not the cause of problems in marriage; contraception is the symptom of erroneous beliefs about the human body, sexuality, etc., which cause unhappiness in marriage. Appealing to fear (you will have a higher chance of divorce if you contracept) is not an effective way to help people understand the truth about marriage and sexuality. Not only does fear not lead to true beliefs about marriage, but the dire predictions do not always come true. We all know contracepting couples who have close, enjoyable marriages.

The Church distinguishes between two forms of motivation for choosing the good: imperfect contrition (choosing the good because you fear the consequences of the bad) and perfect contrition (choosing the good because you love the good). Ultimately, we want to inspire people with the beauty of the Church's teaching on marriage, not try to scare them with predictions of unhappiness if they contracept.

MargaretJDMom said...

I think perhaps we are disagreeing over the meaning of the word "happiness". I am sure there are tons of people living less than exemplary moral lives who would describe themselves as happy. But what is true happiness? Union with God.

Noncontracepting marriages have their fair share of hurt and suffering, no doubt. Being a practicing catholic is no gaurantee that we will escape crosses and trials in live and love.

My only point is that there is a lack of grace in contracepting marriages that is going to have an effect on eternal happiness. So many people are hurting with regard to today's sexual mores and I think the church's teachings are a way to help that hurt. Will it make all unhappiness go away? Of course not. There can be a lack of grace in noncontracepting marriages too, no doubt! But at least people following the church's teachings have the tools at their disposal for true happiness, the true happiness that is only found in God.

I guess I would argue that part of the beauty of the church's teaching that we want people to see is that it opens the door for greater happiness!

Catherine said...

I don't think we disagree about the nature of true happiness, that it means perfect union with God. Obviously it's very rare for someone to achieve perfect union with God/ happiness in this life, but we all experience portions of this happiness on earth. I think we disagree on the degree to which contracepting couples can experience a portion of true marital happiness.

But even that distinction is, I believe, a minor point. My main argument is that I do not think warning people of the higher divorce rate for contracepting couples is the best way to convince people of the Church's teaching on marriage. It is more respectful and effective to present a positive vision of Christian sexuality than a warning about the negative consequences of contraception. The latter relies on fear, while the former appeals to love.

Joanne said...

Catherine, I think maybe you are seeing the cup as half empty, as far as the divorce rate goes. I have always heard the statistic about lower divorce rates among NFP couples and thought that maybe I could have that benefit - I certainly was never SCARED that I might get divorced if I used contraceptives. I don't really see that statistic as relying on fear, is what I'm saying, as long as fear is in the eye of the beholder.

Also your comment:

According to our faith, those couples would have a more complete marriage without contraception, but it doesn't follow that their marriage is (solely because of the contraception) without grace or happiness.

I disagree that it doesn't follow - how do we know what follows and what doesn't in a marriage? In any relationship? My friend is a Catholic and so is her husband, I feel like their using contraceptives (even though they know what the Church tells us) is maybe a symptom of their unhappiness in their marriage, but it could be that they are unhappy because they are doing something wrong and on some level, they know it. I couldn't know, I suppose, unless I was them.

What I do know is that (to look at this in a positive, loving way) is that even when I am an unhappy individual, I am part of a happy, loving marriage. Personally, speaking only for me (and perhaps looking at it in a more positive light than another person would), I attribute that happiness (however you define it) to the fact that my husband and I know that ultimately, God is in charge of our marriage and family.

Catherine said...

Hi Joanne,

Thanks for your comment. I understand what you are saying that you are not motivated to use NFP because of a fear of divorce. That's exactly my point. Most people will not be convinced by those statistics, which people know can be manipulated by different perspectives. They will be convinced by a positive presentation of the Church's teaching on marriage, and then look at the statistics as possible benefits.

I know Protestant Christians and non-Christians who have deep, abiding love in their marriages, and they also contracept. I also know disaffected Catholic baby boomers who grew up with parents who were open to life, had many children, but also had a very dysfunctional and unhappy marriage. So I think we can present the importance of the Church's teaching on contraception while also acknowledging that there are a variety of causes of marital breakdown.

Thanks for the good discussion, ladies. I enjoyed it and plan to go visit your blogs. God bless!

Courtney said...


I appreciate your perspective. As someone who continues to struggle in my marriage on whether or not to use NFP, I appreciate the warm, loving approach you presented. Thank you.

Juris Mater said...

Thank you all so much for the discussion here. I wish I knew all you kindred souls personally, but if a blog is the best we can do, I'll take it!

The true meaning of marriage and sexuality is so outside the cultural mainstream, but it's SO fundamental to everything we stand for. Margaret, like you said, "gotta love the natural law". Our sexuality, as male and female, is the foundation of who we are as humans individually and in community, and not only to we lose a bit of ourselves when we stray from this, we also lose our foothold in arguing against all kinds of things including homosexuality and abortion. I have realized I need to start praying right now for my husband's and my ability to model this to our children so they love and understand the truth as we do.

Juris Mater said...

By the way, Mad Cow, can you tell us more about the inseparability of unity and procreation in bovine mating? Or are you just expressing your agreement with this truth in human relationships?