Wednesday, July 4, 2012

4) The Morality of Birth Control - Periodic and total abstinence

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5) Having acknowledged that the practice of periodic abstinence (NFP) to avoid conception does not square with patristic teaching, how are we to understand the Church’s current promotion and acceptance of the practice? In 1968, a Catholic commission examining married life and birth regulation awaited the publication of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Speculations ran wild. Catholics of a traditional mind knew that the Pope could not contradict the teaching of the Church. Catholics of a progressive mind hoped for a sweeping reform of Catholic sexual ethics. This is what they received. So outraged were some that artificial contraception was not permitted that they failed to observe that this document does indeed represent a development of the Church’s doctrine about sex. What Paul VI approved, which we now call NFP, was specifically condemned by early Church teaching. Regarding NFP, Paul VI writes,
 Pope Paul VI in 1977
"If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births…, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles" (HV 16).
Furthermore, his acceptance of such a method is based in part on his new emphasis on the goodness of marital sex as a means of unification and an expression of love, which was not often recognized in the early Church with its overemphasis on ascetic renunciation of pleasure for the sake of freedom from the passions. Such renunciation is laudable provided that it is freely undertaken and provided that it is not done in the spirit of condemning those who enjoy certain pleasures in this life. In recognizing the goodness of marital sex as a pleasurable expression of love, the Church has recovered the scriptural understanding of sex as having good ends other than procreation.

If the Church now acknowledges these good ends, why does she persist in forbidding artificial contraception? NFP is permissible while artificial contraception is not because NFP does nothing against the created nature of sex. Artificial contraception, regarded by its users as a form of health care, treats human fertility as one would disease, illness, or injury whereas NFP acknowledges the basic goodness of the created human physiology with all of its natural functions unimpeded. If contraception were health care, that would mean that natural human fertility would be an unhealthy state. NFP leaves intact and unaltered the healthy functioning of the human body whereas contraception attempts to interfere with natural and healthy human fertility. Periodic infertility is a healthy part of created human nature.

6) The most effective method of birth control – total continence – has never received criticism from the Church. All those in an unmarried state are morally obligated to practice total continence (CCC 2349). Furthermore, the Church has always acknowledged that some are called to perpetual continence in celibacy – which is recommended by Paul and exemplified by Jesus himself (1 Cor 7:8, 27, 38). Even within marriage, indefinite periods of continence are permissible – for prayer, as Paul writes (1 Cor 7:5). The Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, of course, were perpetually continent within marriage. Other married saints in the history of the Church have decided, after having had children, to live the rest of their lives in continence.


bill bannon said...

Hmmm. Fr. Bernard Haring rightly noted that we are not that committed to first Corinthians 7:5 which is the Holy Spirit urging against overlong abstinence to a portion of marrieds. Read the whole chapter 7. There are two groups: those of verse 5 are more sexual and are not to remain in prayerful separation overlong...and are to marry rather than burn with desire.
The later group in chapter 7 can take marriage or leave it and thus can emulate St. Joseph perhaps if need be. Mary is not a good exemplar in such matters because Aquinas said concupiscence left her after she gave birth to Christ. To this second group...those used to virginity... Paul says something much less dramatic than " better to marry than to burn". He says instead instead something that bespeaks their subdued
sexuality: v.27 "are you free of a wife? Do not go insearch of one. Should you marry however, you will not be committing sin."
Thus I Corinthians is addressing two groups not one and the first group are mandated not to try long separation from sex as per Joseph. The second group are capable of the Josephite marriage. But as Haring noted, Catholic literature rarely notices that there are two groups

Anonymous said...

Hey John:

This has been a very edifying series and I'm grateful for the opportunity to read it - your comments on the stance of Eastern Catholics navigating between the Eastern and Western traditions were particularly helpful. On the topic of this post, I've done a bit of informal investigation, and I offer the following for your reflection.

Regarding your first paragraph, it's my understanding (I have this not from a book but from a fairly reliable philosophy professor who studies John Paul II's 'Theology of the Body' and its background) that the idea of a change in the Catholic position on birth control in the 1960s related specifically to the pill. Papal statements had condemned barrier contraception earlier in the 20th century when some Protestant churches began to accept it; but the pill (developed with the assistance of a Catholic biologist) was intended not to impede the the procreative aspect of sex, as a barrier would, but to cause the woman's body to mimic a non-fertile state. There was a genuine expectation that it might therefore be acceptable for Catholics (since recourse to infertile periods had already been approved - see below).

As we know, of course, the Papal Commission, although concerned about a 'contraceptive mentality,' proposed that devoutly Catholic married couples could prudently used artificial contraception without sin. Given that the NFP of the time (rhythm) was notoriously unreliable, the pope's conclusion that he could not in good conscience permit the pill and had to re-affirm the RC opposition to cover all artificial contraception was more an enunciation of principle, a promise for the future, than an effective counter-proposal.

So I think you're right in saying that there was something new in 'Humanae Vitae.' But it should be noted that both the ideas that led to HV's balance of procreative and unitive purposes, as well as the concrete conclusions on NFP, were foreshadowed at least as early as 'Casti Connubii' (1930), perhaps earlier. Therein, Pius XI notes, on the one hand:

“This mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, as the Roman Catechism teaches, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof” (24).

This points towards viewing sex too as having a significant role in spousal mutuality rather than solely in procreation; it also echoes (perhaps unwittingly) St. Gregory of Nyssa's statement in 'De Virginitate' that the reason people get married is the joy of 'symbiosis' (shared life). Pius XI also explicitly notes:

“Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved” (59).

So here the unitive aspect is a secondary, rather than an equal, end, but you can see how the teaching of HV is forecast.


Anonymous said...


Finally, I hope that we can find a more contextual and generous explanation for why the Fathers did not articulate such a teaching than an "overemphasis on ascetic renunciation of pleasure". First, pleasure isn't indicated in these papal documents as a proper end of sexuality, but rather mutual self-giving. Second, the cognitive disjunction may lie in the fact that the Fathers probably saw non-sexual friendship rather than sexual marriage as the most intimate human relationship, so the idea of expressing profound intimacy through sex may simply not have occurred to them. Indeed, part of what worried them about fallen sexual desire (and the passions in general) was precisely the fact that they cause us to use other people for our own gratification; only when the passions are restrained can agape/caritas spring forth that genuinely seeks the other's good.

I hope there's something useful in that. Thanks again for this series!

Ian Gerdon

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