Monday, July 25, 2011
There Was an Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe
I was not going to write about birth control for quite some time. I wanted my blog to reflect some of my spiritual progress as I read through lives of the saints or came to realizations about my personal life. But this last week birth control has been in the news and out in the blogosphere a lot. The Medical Advisory board hopes to convince the President that birth control coverage should be mandatory coverage for insurance companies and certainly for the Medicaid program. As expected, the discussion has drawn criticism from every avenue, even among individual groups of religious people where birth control is controversial. Birth control itself (not mandatory insurance coverage) is hotly debated in real life but especially in the blogosphere. Jill Stanek, a very popular pro-life blogger, even has a poll up over on her site. Sometimes advocates of birth control can be quite vitriolic. Families with large numbers of children are the brunt of cruel jokes and silent scorn. This type of reaction is almost expected of the secular world. By definition, secularists are interested in worldly things and care very little for the religious or Divine. But when this reaction is prevalent among those proclaiming to be religious, there seems to be something troubling about it.
Like the Old Lady mentioned above, I have a fair number of children. Seven, to be exact. Each and every one of those children is special and unique—a precious gift from Our Lord. As hard as it is in modern times to raise a family, I don't regret for one moment the sacrifices we have made to care for them. It is not easy. It is downright difficult, especially when the entire world in which we live is focused on getting and acquiring material things. That particular discussion, raising a large family in modern society, is better left for another day. A more pressing discussion regards a deeper subject and question that needs to be addressed. Why is a person who uses contraception considered a virtuous person and one who does not considered a miscreant?
I have always considered myself lucky to be alive. My mother was an early feminist and, from her own admission, used various forms of birth control. My parents were married in 1959 and my brother came along in 1961. Shortly thereafter, the Pill became available and was marketed as the woman's "liberator." That one scientific contribution was the catalyst to change an entire society and, surprisingly, a fundamental moral and religious belief.
When I was a young girl in the 70s, families had already begun to experience the after effects of oral contraceptives. Since I grew up in a predominantly Protestant area, a normal family size by then was about 3. There were some families with 4 children and occasionally I met a family with 5 or 6 but that was rare by the time I made it into elementary school. And most certainly by the 80s, most Protestant families, and many Catholic ones, had adopted the secular view that two children was enough. In less than one generation, the secular world view managed to uproot traditional Christian morality. Now that another generation has passed, traditional Christian morality is more than passé—it is archaic and irresponsible. How did this happen?
Before Christ ascended into Heaven, He established His visible Church, leaving the Apostles with full teaching authority in regards to faith and moral law. On Pentecost, Our Lord sent the Holy Ghost to aid the Apostle in this manner. All that the Catholic Church teaches is revealed Truth. It is Truth because it is revealed by the Divine Master, who neither deceives nor can be deceived. As such, the Church has always taught that using contraception in any form, except under certain conditions, is always gravely sinful. This knowledge permeated all of Christian society, even when the Protestant churches began to spring up.
In Christian society, using birth control in any form, intentionally making the sexual act sterile, was a clear violation of God's moral law. Protestant churches held this position for centuries, until the Anglican Church opened the floodgates on this issue in 1930 at its Lambeth Conference. The "bishops" at this Conference declared that if married couples felt compelled for moral reasons, then they could use whatever means necessary to limit parenthood or avoid it all together. That declaration laid the framework for all Protestant denominations to re-examine the nature of marriage and sexual relations. Now, after only 80 years, the Truth that contraception is morally sinful is now so watered down that Protestant and Catholics alike are counseled to simply "follow their consciences", even if their consciences are formed through secular relativism rather than Divine Truth.
Before I continue, I would like to clarify this. Before 1930, two decades before the "Pill", contraceptive was morally sinful. Married people didn't use it and unmarried people, well they got married. Now, according to almost all Christians, contraception in some form isn't a moral issue at all. What gives? Well, it's all about sex---what it is and what God designed it for.
Before you start shouting at the screen, I've heard all the usual arguments and then some. I have had my feet squarely planted in many worlds, the pagan, the secular, the Protestant, the modern Catholic, and, now, the traditional Catholic. "Sex is a natural bodily function, just like digestion." "Marriage is about companionship." "The Church doesn't tell us to have as many children as we can!" "Sex is love." While all of these rationalizations and feelings may have some merit or contain some truth, they are not the Truth. There is a Truth, though. Christ and His Church hold the Truth and the leaders of the Church have been quite negligent as of late in disseminating that Truth.
So what is the Truth, then, about contraception? Using contraception, in whatever form, is a mortal sin. Those are powerful words indeed. But before we can really understand why that is so, we must really understand marriage. I hope to write another post in the near future on the topic of marriage, but for the sake of this conversation, I will only address the main points. Marriage was designed by God for pro-creation. In marriage, the spouses have an immense love for God and each other. It is through this love that God brings new life into the world. It is only through sexual relations that the pro-creation can occur. In other words, the end or purpose of marriage is for the birth of children and their education. Since marriage was ordered by God in this manner, contraception, because it purposely seeks to frustrate or interfere with this purpose, is always morally sinful.
This is something our Christian ancestors seemed to have understood. Marriage was made for having babies. If you wanted to have children, then you got married. If you didn't want to have children, then you didn't get married. Now of course, there have always been exceptions to the rule. Some people got married for money or property or lust. Some people who got married, didn't really want the responsibilities of children. Others who wanted to have children didn't get married. There have always been illegitimate children and barren women. But the general rule was always understood---marriage was for having and raising children. And couples had the number of children that God intended for them to have, whether that be1, 3, 8, 12, or none. It was God's design and no one dared attempt to alter what God had established. At least not until the Anglicans in 1930.
Perhaps the Anglicans thought they were doing a great favor to their Protestant members. Perhaps they thought men and women shouldn't have to make that many sacrifices in order to raise a family. Maybe they didn't want people to suffer in poverty or to become overburdened. Whatever the reasons, I am convinced that they really believed it was a positive re-examination of marriage. Actually what they did was institute a new way of thinking about marriage and sex and that way of thinking has taken root in Christianity like a weed. Contraception allows for the possibility that marriage is not designed for having children, but simply having sex. Thus the natural sex act, in essence, becomes unattached to the conception of children. In other words, sex no longer means "having babies" and "having babies" no longer means sex. What we have in, then, is a "contraceptive mentality."
As the Anglicans were paving the way for the contraceptive mentality to take root in Christian culture, the Catholic Church was attempting to battle it. In response to the Lambeth Conference, Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical, Castii Connubii, on the last day of the year in 1930. It is an amazingly beautiful document outlining clearly the nature of marriage, the role of the spouses, and their responsibilities. The Pope reaffirmed what the Code of Canon Law of 1917 had already clarified: "the primary end of matrimony is the procreation and the education of children." (Canon 1013). Pope Pius XI specifically declared that "no reason, however grave" could make any act intrinsically against nature "conformable to nature and morally good." In other words, nothing that is morally sinful (contraception) can ever become morally good, regardless of the reasons or justifications for participating in the act. He goes on to explain that Christian doctrine makes it perfectly clear that humans do not have an "absolute dominion" over their bodies. We have control over its use, of course, but we must always use it according to the will of God.
Unfortunately, huge societal changes were sweeping across the world in those years regarding marriage, sex, and contraception. Before the birth control "Pill" came onto the market, the Protestants were poised to embrace the secular world's scientific contributions to contraception as commendable and helpful. By 1958, most Protestants had accepted the idea that responsibility for the number of children a family had fell onto the consciences of the husband and wife and they could utilize whatever means necessary in attaining that goal, including sterilization. Two generations later, every Protestant I know firmly believes that using birth control to determine for themselves when they will have children and exactly how many is responsible Christian parenting. They believe it and they will adamantly confirm that God doesn't have any problem with it. They also believe that if God really wants them to have children, then they will regardless of their use of contraception.
I would like to say that, in spite of the secular world and the Protestant sects, that the Catholic Church has remained steadfast and strong regarding the issue of birth control. Sadly, that would not be true. In wake of the 1960s societal changes and Vatican II, the leaders in the Catholic Church waited a very long time to address the issue. By the time Pope Paul VI issued his Encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, the damage had already been done. Priests and bishops across the world had been encouraging couples to "follow their conscience" regarding the use of birth control. Although Pope Paul VI's examination of birth control was quite prophetic, he did may have actually opened up an avenue for Catholics to change their views of marriage and contraception, as well. He identified fecundity as a "problem." He also emphasized and elevated a secondary aim of marriage—that it is "primarily ordered to the good of the spouses." That marriage is primarily for raising children has been de-emphasized in the modern Church. In fact, a large proportion of faithful Catholics use various means of birth control. Those that are particularly conscience of the Church's teaching now use a "natural" form of birth control entitled Natural Family Planning. While time does not allow for an analysis of this at the moment, I will say what the Church has merely tolerated for centuries among Catholics is now being taught in parishes and promoted as a moral good.
Sadly, we are living in a culture where even the Christians no longer know what is good or evil anymore. We are lost and no one knows how to read a map. The fruits of our contraceptive mentality are glaring us in the face---abortion, economic collapse, euthanasia, demographic decline, and homosexuality. Do we have the courage to change it? I certainly hope so.
St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us, that we may welcome each child God gives us as another soul for heaven.
St. Girard Majella, pray for us, that childbirth is once again embraced and treasured.