Not as Simple as ABC
I frequently listen to the Open Forum for Non-Catholics on the Catholic Answers Live Radio program. Certain questions come up repeatedly. They involve papal infallibility, praying to saints, purgatory, Mary’s role, Sacred Tradition, confessing to a priest, development of doctrine, moral issues, and the list goes on. The regular apologists do a wonderful job charitably explaining the Catholic faith to inquiring callers, but I occasionally find myself thinking that the explanation falls short in convincing non-Catholics of the Catholic position.
One of the touchier areas is birth control. The Catholic stance is clear. Even though the number of children can be limited for legitimate reasons, the Church says, “Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).” [CCC2399] In this world where vasectomy is routinely performed without any consideration of its moral implications, trying to explain Church teaching often bring incredulous stares.
The commonly used explanation is a reference to the Pope Paul VI encyclical, Humanae Vitae where the conjugal act between a man and wife is expressed as both unitive and procreative, an inseparable connection established by God, which may not be broken by human initiative. Therefore, each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.
Try explaining this to anyone having little or no fidelity to the Catholic faith. As Catholics, we must accept this teaching as a matter of obedience. Yet, I acknowledge that reasonable people may find this hard to understand and accept, especially when no abortifacient is involved. Their argument is often that the procreative aspect can be nullified by the normal cycle, biological abnormalities, or old age. Even the provisionally acceptable use of Natural Family Planning, abstaining from sexual relations during fertile periods, might seem to be interfering by human initiative. Does lacking the natural possibility of procreation negate the openness to the transmission of life? The Church says no, but the operative word is ‘natural’. If the possibility of procreation is negated by human initiative, we have a problem.
Is it wrong to have relations strictly for a unitive purpose? In the course of a long marriage, a couple may have conjugal relations thousands of times. Even if ten pregnancies resulted, the percentage of fruitful unions is small. So, the vast majority of conjugal relations are unitive and not necessarily procreative even if open to procreation. The problem arises when we take God out of the equation. Yet it is difficult to convince people to put complete trust in God in these matters. God even allows rape victims to occasionally get pregnant. The Catholic answer is that God allows bad things to happen to bring about a greater good, but that argument is a tough sell.
The unitive aspect is important to the marital relationship between husband and wife. Yet, many couples today would say sexual activity need not always be unitive. To them, it can be analogous to occasionally eating a hot fudge sundae strictly for enjoyment absent any nutritional benefit. Our culture bombards us with the idea that anything goes, even outside the bonds of marriage. In this Godless climate, how can we expect people to take Humanae Vitae seriously. To say every marriage act must be open to the transmission of life is a hard teaching. Many married couples would be unwilling to engage in marital relations if any possibility of pregnancy could result. This can put a strain on a marriage, especially if husband and wife are not in agreement.
Families are generally smaller now than they were many years ago. It is difficult to imagine that most couples, even Catholics, are not doing something beyond NFP to prevent conception. A co-worker’s wife recently gave birth to their third child. Talking among a group of guys in the shop, he said he thought they were done and was going to make an appointment to be clipped. As the stories circulated around the room, it turns out I was the only other man who had not had a vasectomy. It is just a part of the secular mainstream now to permanently end any possibility of pregnancy at some point of a marriage. The others in the room were not Catholic, but I wonder how many Catholics in the communion line have been sterilized.
Unless we willingly submit to Our Lord and the authoritative Church He established, the necessity to maintain openness to life is not a consideration for most couples. These decisions tend to be self-centered, based on what we perceive as personal matters between husband and wife. In many ways, we have become estranged from God in deciding these matters. As the scientific community’s invasion into the realm of God becomes more commonplace, the chasm between the secular and the spiritual will continue to widen.
As Catholics, we are bound by the teachings of the Church. In making the case for the Catholic teaching on sexuality, the Catholic Answers apologists often recommend Patrick Coffin’s book, Sex Au Naturel: What it is and why it’s good for your Marriage. Mr. Coffin was a former dissenter who wrote the book “to give orthodox Catholics intellectual ammo in how to understand and explain Humanae Vitae, as well as to challenge dissenters to see the beauty and truth of the teaching.” I have not read his book yet, but I should do so to aid in my own understanding. In the meantime, I defer to the Church, the pillar and foundation of truth, for what I believe.