As the debate continues to rage on regarding the HHS mandate requiring religious institutions provide access to contraception as part of their health coverage, there has been renewed discussion regarding the Church’s teaching on birth control. Since there has been no single issue that has been more controversial and caused more widespread dissent and confusion than the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control, it is instructive to look at the reasons why she teaches as she does.
To begin, it is necessary to define precisely what we mean when we speak of artificial birth control. In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI defines it as “every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” (HV 14).
Because there is much confusion on the issue, it is equally important that the Church be precise in her language. The Church is not opposed to birth control per se, but instead she is opposed to artificial birth control. This is an important distinction and one that is often not understood. The Church does not call married couples to “breed like Catholic Rabbits.” Instead she calls upon spouses to exercise “responsible parenthood” by prudently and generously deciding to have more children or for serious reasons, deciding not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time. It is important then to establish that there is nothing necessarily wrong with the intention of spouses not to have a child when engaging in the marital act. The Church is merely proposing to spouses that they respect the nature of the sexual act itself.
This brings us to a second important distinction and that is what the Church means when she uses the terms “nature” and “natural.” For many people what is natural is what is normal and nature refers to what happens in the world of nature. Some might refer to certain drugs and devices such as a chart of one’s fertility cycle as unnatural. But the Church uses these terms in a more philosophically precise way. Nature refers to the essence of a thing and that which is in accord with nature is said to be natural. Drugs and devices are said to be natural if they work in accord with nature or restore something to its natural condition.
In examining human nature, one finds that man has a natural inclination to the good. As I have mentioned before, there are four intrinsic goods in which man is naturally inclined. First, all men have an inclination to conserve their being. From this inclination every man naturally does those things which preserve and enhance his life and avoid those things which would be harmful to it. Secondly, man possesses the natural inclination to marriage and procreation (including the raising and education of children). Thirdly, because man is a rational creature he has a natural inclination to know the truth, especially about God and finally to live in society. Whatever pertains to each of these inclinations belongs to the natural law. In other words, whatever promotes these goods leads to true human thriving and ought to be promoted and whatever is contrary to one of these goods is wrong and ought to be avoided. It is also important to note that something is wrong not simply because God said so, but because ultimately because it is harmful to us. That is why Aquinas insisted that we offend God only by acting contrary to our own good.
Notice further that in the list of intrinsic goods, marriage and procreation appear as a single good. That is because they are linked and anything that harms either of the two aspects harms both. Contraception is intrinsically wrong because it harms the good of marriage and procreation.
Many question how these two aspects constitute a single, inseparable good. If we understand marriage in the traditional sense to mean the one-flesh, communion of persons in which the spouses unite on all levels of their personhood (body and soul) and we examine the conjugal act on a biological level we can illuminate the inseparability principle (i.e must be both unitive and procreative). Professor Germain Grisez articulates this well when he carefully explains this based on the following principle:
“Though a male and female are complete individuals with respect to other functions — for example, nutrition, sensation, and locomotion — with respect to reproduction they are only potential parts of a mated pair, which is the complete organism capable of reproducing sexually. Even if the mated pair is sterile, intercourse, provided it is the reproductive behavior characteristic of the species, makes the copulating male and female one organism.”
Professor Grisez’s point is that destroying the reproductive function of the act, also destroys its ability to unite the spouses. The couple is only one “organism” when they engage in natural intercourse. His argument also shows that it is not a bunch of celibate men in Rome who came up with the Church’s teaching against contraception, but human reason.
While I said above that the laws of nature are not the same as the Natural Law, these laws can serve as a reliable guide in discovering the good. Because nature is intelligible, to act in accord with nature is to act in accord with reason and therefore to act morally. Conversely we can say that which is not natural is not in accord with reason and therefore is immoral. One can readily see based on this principle why there is an insistence against “artificial” methods of birth control and something like Natural Family Planning is in accord with the Natural Law. It is not because they are artificial per se but because they are unnatural. They do not restore the reproductive facilities to their natural state but instead render them defective.
There are many who question why contraception is morally wrong and practices such as Natural Family planning are deemed morally licit. They reason that because both the contracepting and the NFP couples have the same intention—to avoid pregnancy—that they are simply using different means to make this happen. But as we have seen it is not the intention that necessarily makes birth control morally illicit, it is the means by which this is done that can be problematic.
This also betrays a certain misunderstanding of what is actually being done (or in this case not done) when couples practice NFP. By abstaining from the marital act during periods of fertility, the couple is not falsifying the act in the way a contracepting couple does.
A straightforward way of seeing why NFP is morally permissible is through a simple three step argument. If there is nothing wrong with spouses’ choosing to avoid pregnancy for just reasons and there is nothing necessarily wrong with a couple choosing not to engage in the marital embrace then there can be nothing wrong with not having sexual intercourse with the intent of not getting pregnant.