On the Catholic Doctrine on Birth Control

This post has been crossposted to the People’s Republic of Seabrook.

Over a month ago, while talking about the Papacy’s apparent condemnation of the Harry Potter book series, I said the following:

This simply means that Harry Potter will, like birth control, become an item that a lot of Catholics cheerfully use in defiance of official doctrine. Because, like birth control, these officials within the Catholic Church are on the wrong side of the issue theologically.

A polite gentleman wrote to me and asked me to elaborate on this statement. It was one thing to disagree with the Catholic hierarchy’s position on birth control, but to say that it is theologically wrong is kicking it up a notch. So, I’ve decided to explain. Here goes…

The Catholic Church’s position on birth control is theologically wrong because it is inconsistently applied, in such a way that violates the theological principles that supposedly brought down the condemnation in the first place. At least, in terms of the reasoning as explained to me, it doesn’t make sense. And, believe it or not, most sound theology makes sense. And sound theology does exist.

And I’m not alone in this sentiment, even though I’m speaking as an Anglican. I know a significant number of Catholics who disagree with the Catholic hierarchy’s position, and they’re willing to defend their moral choice in a way that is consistent theologically. For this reason, most Catholics cheerfully ignore their Church when it comes to birth control. And I think they stand a reasonable chance of not being damned because of it.

Ask a number of religious individuals, including Catholics, why they frown on premarital sex, and some will tell you that sex is an act made solely for marriage. Why? Because the primary purpose of sex is procreation, and a child born of sex is best raised within a happily married family.

I actually don’t have a problem with the statement that a happily married family may be the best situation in which to raise a child, though I will not presume to judge the countless other happy families who have raised happy children in non-traditional arrangements. But I digress.

Since the primary purpose of sex is procreation, they argue, then sex without thought to procreation is an act that runs counter to its natural use. Using it so frivolously offends God and/or is a sin.

Again, I have no problem with the statement that using gifts from God frivolously is a sinful act. But, the problem lies with the false premise expressed in the first sentence of this explanation: procreation is not the sole reason for sex.

If indeed God intended that procreation be the only reason to have sex, he would have wired us that way. We would mate in seasons. We would be unable to resist the urge. We would engage in instinctual mating ceremonies that probably involved males fighting each other for territory and the right to mount as many females as possible within a 24-hour period. We’d become Vulcans, compelled to mate once every seven years, or risk emotional collapse and death.

This method of reasoning, incidentally, is called natural law, advocated by Thomas Aquinas, and most definitely supported by the Catholic Church.

Though it does seem that males (especially teenage males) do fight each other for territory and the right to mount as many females as possible, the fact remains that most of us don’t do this. Even before the onset of Christianity, we have separated the act of sex from the instinctual desire to procreate. Instead, sex has become something more. The many different life-rituals we’ve had around sex and marriage are too numerous to count, and in today’s world, sex has become an experience that we can enjoy for pleasure alone. If used properly, sex can become a powerful means of expressing the love between two consenting adults, regardless of whether or not they expect a baby to result from the end of each sexual act.

And support for this position — that sex is a powerful expression of the love that two individuals feel for each other, regardless of the likelihood that babies will be made — comes from none other than the Catholic Church itself.

Consider this: if birth control items like the condom are wrong because they allow the act of sex to be done without thought to procreation, just what business does the Catholic Church have in endorsing any birth control method at all? And they do. It doesn’t matter if it’s the rhythm method, or coitus interruptus, or the far more effective symptothermal method, it all amounts to the same thing: an attempt to have sex without having a baby. If a condom is wrong on this basis, so are these methods that the Catholic Church endorses.

My wife, good Catholic Erin came up against this flaw in theological logic during her time at a Catholic girls’ high school. At the time, the entire school was brought down to the auditorium for a sex education lesson, which could have been subtitled “the rhythm method: it works; here’s how.” On stage was a married couple who explained that by marking off dates on a calendar as days when they would refrain from sex, they not only reduced their risk of pregnancy, they improved their marriage by spicing up the sex they had on the days when they were free to make love without fear of procreation.

But wait, thinks Erin: if the primary purpose of sex is procreation, what the heck is this married couple doing trying to avoid it? Isn’t this act just as sinful as using a condom? So, being a plucky young lady, she went to the microphone and put this question to the couple, in front of the whole school.

The couple were clearly unprepared for the question, and started to burble on about how there should be no mechanical barrier in the birth control, and that they should always be open to the possibility of procreation—

At which point, Erin blurted out: “let me get this straight: it’s okay because it might fail?!”

At which point the assembly ended.

Students congratulated Erin for weeks following this incident, but she regretted not getting an answer. It was a genuine question.

So that’s where the Catholic doctrine on birth control is theologically illogical. By supporting any method of birth control whatsoever, such as the withdrawal method, the rhythm method or coitus interruptus, they have no basis on which to speak out against the pill or the condom. They can’t even point to the pill or the condom’s high rate of effectiveness, since their newly touted birth control method: the symptothermal method, is boasting effectiveness rates equivalent to that of a condom.

So, how do we repair this damaged theology?

And, yes, I believe that it can and should be repaired, since I am a religious man, and I know plenty of religious as well as non-religious people, all great friends and great human beings alike. After all, those Catholics who use condoms still consider themselves to be Catholic. How do they get around the fact that they’re at odds with the papacy’s official doctrine on birth control?

Well, ironically, we go back to that couple on stage, and the answer they tried to give to Erin. Ignore the “there must be no mechanical barrier” statement and instead focus on “you must be open to the possibility of procreation.” And there you have it.

Sex remains the best way we know to have a baby — to produce a new life that you are (or should be) responsible for. To ignore this real possibility, to be unprepared for the consequences, is to show little care for the life you might be producing, and that’s a sin.

And, by sin, I don’t mean to make you out to be a monster. I’m a sinner too. But the fact remains that even though a condom is a very effective means of birth control, it still has a 94% effectiveness rate. Meaning that, out of one hundred normally sexually active couples making use of this birth control method over the course of a year, six will be pregnant at the end of it. Even the pill isn’t 100% effective. Only abstinence is. If you are unwilling to accept the consequences of your act, then you probably shouldn’t be engaging in it, if you have a choice.

On the other hand, a married couple prepared for the possibility that their condom might break is engaging in an act no more sinful than the Catholic-sanctioned symptothermal method. Indeed, I would be hard pressed to say that any couple, be they married or not, who are making love out of genuine love, and who are prepared for the consequences, are engaged in an act of sin.

In my opinion, there are reasons a sin is a sin, and those reasons can be sorted out logically from basic moral principles. If, however, the logic breaks down, then an act is probably being called a sin only because it has always been considered a sin, and the time is ripe to challenge such lazy theology. After all, God didn’t give us eyes and brains so we could blindly embrace dogmas. He gave us eyes and brains so that we could see the world around us, and change it as necessary.

Quote of the Day

“It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics and chemistry.
— H. L. Mencken

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