Fr. Matthew P. Schneider, LC, is most well-known for his presence on social media (@FrMatthewLC) where he has over 60,000 followers. Ordained in 2013, he is currently studying graduate theology and living in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Right now, we have a certain dichotomy in the Church regarding contraception. We know what the Church teaches. However, from surveys we see that many Catholics use contraception. and it is clear, but we also know that many Catholics, even those who attend weekly, use contraception.
This is a problem. First, we have the obvious problem of contraception being grave matter and thus mortal sin if done with knowledge and consent. This leads to unworthy Communions. However, this also leads to a certain cynicism toward other Catholic moral teachings.
Recently, I’ve been reading Catholics and Contraception: An American History by Leslie Woodcock Tentler. It’s a history of how the U.S. Church lost the laity regarding contraception. Most of the book covers before the open rebellion of the 1960s. It quotes extensive material from the time on contraception: from mission sermons, to pastoral letters, to priests’ magazines.
It is shocking how often these simply argue from authority based on the word of a pope, or point to accidental dangers without ever explaining the core of why it is wrong. To certain segments of the population, this might work, but this lack of explanation will eventually lose part of the population.
I want to take one example to illustrate this, point out how we can reverse this trend if we explain ourselves, and summarize why contraception is wrong.
Defending Church Teaching But No Reasons
Frs. John Connell and John P. McCormick had a column American Ecclesiastical Review answering questions. This was clearly a priests’ magazine with ads for clerical clothes. They supported Catholic teaching on contraception.
In the November 1964 edition, they took up the question of what to do if a penitent refuses to accept Church teaching on contraception. They respond, “If a Catholic, even though sincerely, comes to this judgement, knowing it is contrary to the teaching of the Church, he cannot be admitted to the sacraments.”
I would think that priest-readers would love to have arguments to convince penitents who were doubtful. However, all they offer is that Pius XII and Pius XI both say contraception is wrong. I’m thinking a priest who knew why would be much more likely to bring a penitent back to Church teaching.
Why We Need to Explain the Teaching
This simple call to obey what the popes have said, leads to a certain nominalism. True morality is based on it being right for the moral actor (you or I). Both virtue ethics and natural law – two classic systems of Catholic thought – are based on this.
On a practical level, as the general population has become more educated, they ask more questions about the faith and are less satisfied with rote citations of the Church saying things without further explanation. They want to know why.
1 Peter 3:15 states, “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” We often think about this in terms of explaining Jesus to others but it also applies to moral issues like contraception.
Three Arguments Against Contraception
I want to summarize three arguments that contraception is wrong: all are paraphrased from Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later by Janet Smith.
We know that the body speaks a language. In sex, it speaks a language of gift, of self-giving. This is objective, not just subjective language. Willing entering sexual intercourse objectively represents the mutual, total self-giving love of the spouses. In marriage, each spouse promises such mutual self-giving to the other. As the sexual language is the marital language, lying about it or destroying it, would interfere with marriage and thus be immoral. Contraception, instead, says that this person is taking back self-giving to just use the other for pleasure. Contraception destroys the marital language of mutual self-giving. Such a destruction of the language of marriage is immoral.
There is something unique about human life. We are biological like other animals, but God only infuses a soul into us through a special act of creation. Procreative acts, by their nature assist God in this special creation where he creates a new human soul. It is a unique moment of God’s creation. As this is an act of God, it is immoral to interfere with it: we cannot morally impede God’s action. However, contraception impedes this special act of creation. Blocking this special act is immoral.
Finally, there is a certain immorality with fully impeding with the natural purposes of organs or acts. Partial impediment – like how drinking a Diet Coke interferes with digestion – is different. However, there is a difference between partial and full interference. It would be immoral to consume nothing but diet coke and sugar-free gum – that would completely block our digestion, and could also be called self-starvation. Likewise, I can temporarily blindfold my eyes, but permanently blocking my eyes from seeing would be immoral. The purpose of sexual system and act is twofold: to produce children and unite the couple in love. While other biological systems act in a kind of continuous manner, the sexual system acts in a punctual manner, thus blocking once is a complete blocking of the system. It is hard to describe a single act of digestion but we can all recognize a single sexual act. Even systems that seem more punctual like breathing have a certain continuity: breathing gets oxygen to our lungs and even though we often think of it breath by breath, this system runs in such a way that a healthy person can hold their breath for 20 seconds without any blockage of oxygen delivery. Obviously, there are limits where holding your breath causes muscle or brain damage, and is thus immoral. As the sexual act has a certain punctuality, blocking it through contraception, even for one act, is immoral.
Hopefully, this helped you understand why the Church teaches contraception is immoral and might help you share this with others. We as a Church need to explain the immorality of contraception. Just telling people it’s wrong or stating the pope said so is unlikely to convince them.