The Tentacles of the Contraceptive Mentality
Any good medical doctor knows that while it is often necessary to treat or control the symptoms of a disease, without treating its cause the patient will often be much worse off in the long run.
HLI’s founder, Fr. Paul Marx, OSB, ardently believed that, looked at one way, abortion is merely one symptom of a much deeper cultural and spiritual disease. Without addressing this deeper problem, he worried, we may well save many individual lives, but make precious little progress in turning the culture away from child-killing.
For his part, Fr. Marx believed that the root cause of abortion, and many of the evils of the Culture of Death, is the “contraceptive mentality.” As he said: “While we need a variety of pro-life groups hacking away at the anti-life monster, it is enormously futile and indeed grossly short-sighted to overlook the chief source of baby-killing, which is contraception.”
Unfortunately, many people, even those in the pro-life movement, still respond to Fr. Marx’s claim with incredulity. In many cases, even many of our own priests, bishops, and fellow Christians have swallowed the talking points and propaganda of the abortion movement. They naively believe that contraception is ultimately just a “minor” sin – if a sin at all – and a matter that is best left to the discernment of individual couples. Furthermore, for many people it’s very difficult to imagine how we might even begin to “put the cat back in the bag,” so to speak – that is, to convince Catholics, let alone the broader culture, to turn their backs on contraception. The technology is now so cheap, so easy, and so readily available, and the (apparent) benefits so enticing, that addressing the topic of contraception seems akin to tilting at windmills. Thus, they throw up their hands in despair.
In one sense, I can understand this defeatist perspective. In our current cultural context, it is difficult even to begin a calm, objective conversation about the morality and hidden costs of contraception without being shouted or laughed off the stage. On the other hand, the Church’s traditional teaching on the issue is so rich, and the evidence supporting that teaching so compelling, that I am sometimes amazed that so many still pretend as if everything Paul VI predicted in Humanae Vitae hasn’t come dramatically true.
Contraception promises consequence-free sexual pleasure. And who wouldn’t want that? And yet, since contraception was first manufactured and distributed on a massive scale, we have seen anything but consequence-free sex. Instead we have seen an explosion in abortion rate; a gigantic surge in sexually-transmitted diseases; a radical transformation of sexual morality, with the mainstreaming of pornography and meaningless casual sexual encounters, leaving countless men and women emotionally wounded; and the rise of coercive (sometimes brutally so) state-sponsored population control. All of which Paul VI predicted.
Misusing Our Freedom
However, the temptation of contraception, I believe, is a much deeper and more pernicious temptation than many people realize. It’s not just about sex. I recently ran across a highly illuminating quote in a biography about an Eastern Orthodox monk, St. Silouan the Athonite. “The temptation with freedom for the creature created in the Divine image,” said St. Silouan, “is to fashion his own being, determine himself in all things, become a god himself, and not just take what is given, because that would entail a feeling of dependence.” The most obvious manifestation of this temptation in contemporary culture is the trend of transgenderism, in which human beings declare their freedom by rejecting one of the most self-evident aspects of their nature – their biological sex.
However, I believe this same temptation is at play in the contraceptive mentality. Within God’s creation, sex and procreation are inextricably connected. This is a biological fact. It is one of the most self-evident facts that we know. It is something that is given to us in our beings from the moment we are conceived. Every aspect of our bodies, and indeed our minds, points to the fact that sexuality has what the philosophers would call a teleology – that is a directedness, an orientation, a motion towards a certain specific aim or goal. The Church has always taught that this teleological orientation is twofold: at the biological level, towards procreation; at the psychological and spiritual level, towards closer union with one’s spouse.
Contraception weaves the illusion that, by exercising our freedom, we can somehow overcome the givenness of this teleological orientation of our sexuality, that we can remake sexuality in our own image, as it were. Indeed, St. Siloan’s quote reminds me a great deal of something recently said by Cardinal Robert Sarah, another truly prophetic voice in our culture. “Our contemporaries are convinced that, in order to be free, one must not depend on anybody,” says the Cardinal. “There is a tragic error in this. Western people are convinced that receiving is contrary to the dignity of human persons. But civilized man is fundamentally an heir, he receives a history, a culture, a language, a name, a family. This is what distinguishes him from the barbarian.” Indeed, it goes deeper than this. For we have also received our bodies, and a human nature. As much as we may want to exercise absolute freedom by rejecting the limits imposed by that nature, when we attempt to do so reality itself pushes back.
Natural Family Planning Works With God
Some people have a very hard time distinguishing between using contraception and trying to avoid pregnancy by means of Natural Family Planning (NFP). They point out that in both cases the intention is the same: to avoid pregnancy. But this is a sadly superficial analysis. They fail to understand that contraception and NFP involve radically different mentalities. Whereas contraception attempts to overcome the givenness of our bodies, NFP seeks to work with that givenness. The contracepting couple is seeking to control – and even to transcend – nature, whereas the couple using NFP is demonstrating a profound awareness of and respect for the nature that God has given us. Whereas the contracepting couple is playing at make-believe – the make-believe that technology has successfully separated sex and procreation – the couple using NFP is constantly reminded of that connection, and by the logic inherent in the practice of NFP, above all the logic of self-sacrifice, forced to continually re-evaluate their intentions. Whereas the goal of contraception manufacturers is to create a contraception that is so effective that those using their product will never even have to think about the possibility of a baby, the married couple using NFP is reminded, daily, about the fact that sexual intimacy and babies are, in God’s great design, part and parcel. The contracepting couple wants to put their (non)-fertility on auto-pilot, and to live their lives unencumbered by the responsibilities inherent in sex. In contrast, the married couple using NFP wants to seek God’s will for their lives, and is pushed to prayerfully seek to know his will every time they undertake an uncomfortable period of abstinence to postpone having another baby, and then only for certain serious reasons allowed for postponing pregnancy.
From a distance this may look similar – like two different couples avoiding having children. Look at it more closely, however, they could not be further apart. The one method is predicated upon a desire for dominance and, ultimately, an illusion. The other method is predicated upon respect for God’s commandments, humility, and a profound awareness of the way things truly are. The one seeks absolute control, the other fosters self-control.
What if the Church Really Preached Humanae Vitae?
I sometimes wonder what our world might be like if the Catholic Church and all Her ministers had, in the wake of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, enthusiastically embraced that teaching – both by firmly rejecting contraception, and by developing and promulgating Natural Family Planning. What if every priest had convincingly proclaimed the truth about the two-fold ends of marriage – the procreative and the unitive – and the sinfulness of contraception? What if Catholic scientists had turned their attention to fine-tuning our knowledge of NFP; and what if parishes had introduced effective, chaste, theologically accurate, and scientifically grounded programs in NFP?
Could we then at least have insulated the Church from the worst effects of the sexual revolution? From divorce and family breakdown? From the suspicion that has developed between the sexes since the sexual revolution? From the hurt experienced by so many women who have been used by the men in their lives for sexual pleasure and then discarded? From the emasculation, degradation and shame of men who have not been shown how to direct their sexual passions productively towards creating families and growing in authentic, self-sacrificial love for their spouse? And, ultimately, from the horrors of abortion: from the millions of dead babies; from the women who live with the secret scar on their souls of having been involved in the murder of their child.
Could we have set a better example for the world?
I do believe that we will not end the violence of abortion, reclaim a moral society, protect the sanctity of marriage and its openness and generosity toward life, and promote purity and chastity unless we address the toxic contraceptive mentality. The contraceptive mentality is identical to the abortion mentality. The reasons women use contraception are the same as the reasons they have abortions: They have too many children already, they don’t have enough money, they want to get an education, they don’t want their parents to know they are having sex, and so on. Additionally, many women whose contraception fails believe that they are the victims of a technological failure, and that they are thus entitled to another form of medical technology (abortion) to compensate them. In fact, half of all women seeking abortion today were using contraception when they got pregnant.
Ultimately, fighting abortion while not exposing its primary underlying cause ― contraception ― is like trying to get rid of a weed by pulling off its leaves. As long as the contraceptive mentality remains, the abortion mentality will flourish. At HLI, we have had decades of experience speaking to people one-on-one regarding this topic. We have found that contraception is usually the “hinge” issue in a person’s thinking about the life issues. When people compromise on birth control, they find it much easier to compromise on other evils such as abortion, divorce, and homosexuality. Likewise, if they see the evil of contraception, they will reject these other evils as well. In other words, if we convince people about the evils of abortion but not about those regarding contraception, we have simply wasted our precious time.