by Stephen Patton M.A., J.D.
Florida Respect Life Conference, October 13, 2007
Greetings. This is Bishop Victor Galeone from the Diocese of St. Augustine in Florida. You’re about to hear a marvelous presentation by Steve Patton, the Director of our Family Life office. Steve clearly explains why the Church’s timeless wisdom dealing with marital love brings great joy to married couples and deep satisfaction to the priests who serve them. Be careful, though, this message could have a lasting impact on your life, for the better. Enjoy the presentation.
Good afternoon. I need to begin with a “viewer’s discretion advisory.” In this talk I’m going to discuss some details about the marital act: what takes place, what it means, and how it can be distorted. So if you’re listening now with young children, either live or on the recording, please take their ages into consideration and perhaps listen later when they’re not present.
I’d like to tell you about three people: a priest and a married couple. They’re fictional characters, but in a sense they’re quite real. Each represents a composite of the views of many actual priests and married couples in the United States today.
First, let me introduce you to Fr. Friendly. Fr. Friendly is loved and respected by his parishioners, and he loves and respects them. He knows all about the many temptations and tensions they face every day, and so he makes it a point to teach them often about God’s compassion and mercy. But of all the many issues that weigh down upon his flock, and so weigh down upon him, two stand out: abortion and divorce.
While he’s not what you might call an activist pro-life priest, he knows that abortion is a grave crime against the unborn. He has even occasionally preached about it, although always with compassion. He knows that most women make that awful decision not so much as a free choice, but because they didn’t think they really had a choice. He wants to reach out to them, and he wants to keep anyone else from making that same terrible decision. He wishes he could pinpoint why it is that so many people, including so many seemingly good Catholics, still fall prey to this sin by the hundreds of thousands.
He likewise grieves the epidemic of divorce. He has personally ministered to dozens of broken marriages and families. It saddens him deeply that this could happen to so many good couples, especially those who seemed to have it all together: regular church-goers, kind people, parents who love their children. He has preached about the sanctity of marriage, he has encouraged distressed couples to go to counseling, he promotes marriage enrichment programs. And yet the divorces continue to multiply.
One topic Fr. Friendly has never preached about, though, is contraception. He knows use of it is against the official teaching of the Catholic Church, and he knows that most Catholics don’t comply with that teaching. He doesn’t preach about this or bring it up in confession, though. He figures, with all the other burdens his flock is already carrying, he shouldn’t lay that one on them too. He suspects there is something wrong with contraception, but he’s always figured that it’s really not that big a deal, and that there are more important things to talk about.
Now let me introduce you to Mr. & Mrs. Goodpeople. The Goodpeople’s are active, contributing members of Fr. Friendly’s parish, and in each of the areas I just mentioned their views are virtually identical to his. They know that abortion is wrong and they don’t think anyone should ever have one. They’re also saddened at the epidemic of divorce all around them, in their own family and among their closest friends. They just can’t understand what’s going on. They take their own marriage seriously and they wish every couple would do the same.
But if they’re in tune with the teachings of the Church when it comes to abortion and divorce, they’re not when it comes to contraception. Mrs. Goodpeople has been on the Pill since she became sexually active as a teenager. No one ever told her there was anything wrong with this – not her parents, not her peers, not her teachers, not her doctors, not her priests. They’ve either said contraception was the good and responsible thing to do, or they’ve said nothing at all. For Mr. Goodpeople it was much the same way. So, the two of them took this way of thinking into their marriage. Except for when they wanted to conceive, they’ve always used contraception.
Every now and then they’ve heard something about the Catholic Church “frowning upon” contraception, or that it “disapproves of” it. But they’ve never heard that it’s a serious sin. It’s never been explained to them how it offends God and harms us. Somewhere along the line they’ve also heard rumors about something called NFP, but they’ve never looked into it. They don’t know anyone who takes it seriously, apparently including Fr. Friendly. The Goodpeople’s want to do the right thing, and they’d probably be open to learning about the church’s teaching if it was ever presented to them. But unless that happens they’re going to just keep on using contraception and eventually they will also probably choose to get sterilized.
It’s to all of you Fr. Friendly’s and Mr. and Mrs. Goodpeople’s out there that I offer these thoughts. I want to show you two things. First, I want to show you why contraception really is a big deal. I want to show you that no matter how passionate you or any of us might be about stopping abortion and divorce, until we start changing our contraceptive views and practices, we’re never going to see an end to either of those two evils.
Second, I want to bring all this home to us as a Church. What kind of effect, on us, does our complicity with the contraceptive mentality have? And what can we do about it?
Our Culture of Dual Death
So let’s look first at how contraception leads to both abortion and divorce.
You’ve probably heard the terms “culture of life” and “culture of death” that were coined by Pope John Paul II. I think we could split the term culture of death into two sub-categories: death to life and death to marital love.
By death to life, I mean not just to death to tens of millions of pre-born babies, but to a growing death to the very idea of babies. Across North America, Europe, and in virtually every other culture where abortion has become common, we can also observe declining birth rates and in many instances dramatically declining birth rates.
So a culture of death to life is culture with a generally declining view toward new human life. We’re either outright killing a huge percentage of our babies through abortion, or we’re taking a dimmer, more pessimistic view of conceiving them at all.
Our culture of death to marital love shows a similar pattern. We’re more and more seeing not just outright death to marital love in the form of divorce – which is tragic enough at about 50% of all marriages – but also a kind of death to the very idea of making such a commitment. Fewer people are getting married at all. Marriage rates in the U.S. have been steadily declining for decades.
What’s happening here? This notion of a man and a woman making a life-long commitment of love, and staying in it, has been around for thousands of years in every human culture. Why is it now, in our culture, gradually dieing away?
Look at abortion and divorce side by side. Keep in mind: neither is new to the human experience. Both have been around for thousands of years, but usually only as the extreme fall-back option. So why is it that both of them, at basically the same time suddenly came out of the dark fringes and mushroomed to epidemic levels?
What I suggest, is that all of this death and withering – in the forms of abortion, declining birth rates, divorce, declining marriage rates – all of this mushroomed together right along with the mushrooming use of contraception.
Our Culture of Contraception
I’d like to show you now what I can only describe as our culture of contraception, but first, I want to ask you to consider the terms “contraception” and “sterilization” to be virtually interchangeable. After all, contraception is basically a temporary form of sterilization, while sterilization is a permanent form of contraception. Each, though, is essentially the same thing: an act that intentionally renders the sexual act sterile. So when I refer to our culture of contraception, what I’m really referring to is our culture of sterilized sex. What do I mean by that?
The dominant, modern American view of sex is that for most if not all of a person’s reproductive life, their natural, healthy state of fertility needs to be sterilized. If you don’t sterilize it, then it is not, quote unquote, “safe”. The possibility that sexual activity could lead to pregnancy is something you need to protect yourself from. We understand the phrase, “responsible sex”, as in, “responsible people use birth control; irresponsible people don’t” in the same way.
Indoctrination to this way of thinking starts early. Whether it’s from our peers, parents, teachers, doctors or the media, instruction about birth control usually comes to us hand in hand with instruction about sex in general. It’s considered to be the normal, safe, responsible thing that people do. Now, please understand, we can and must oppose with this view. What I’m saying, though, is that there is wide support for it. You can be a well respected parent and civic leader not just in spite of holding this view but because of holding it.
The result of all this accumulated cultural pressure is that well over 90% of Americans will engage in sterilized sex in one form or another over the course of their lives, and Catholics like the Goodpeople’s are no exception. They and millions of others like them build their entire lives around this view of fertility. It’s just a given. It’s the air we breathe. Take sterilized sex out of the picture, and most Americans would feel their entire world seriously threatened. Even people who would oppose teaching children about condoms, or putting contraceptives into the hands of young or unmarried people, would see it, for married couples, as American as apple pie. It’s no wonder Fr. Friendly won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.
But just stop and think about the enormity of what’s going on here.
Just think about what it means from a medical standpoint to sterilize the reproductive organs, either temporarily or permanently. All of medicine, all of health care can be boiled down to this: you either help sick organs get healthy or you help healthy organs stay healthy. That’s it. Medical care is never supposed to make healthy organs sick or interfere with their natural operations. Sometimes we have to make healthy organs suffer as an unintended side effect, like when a person gets ill from chemo-therapy for cancer. But that’s only when the greater good of the person’s health is at stake. We’re never supposed to make an organ sick or mutilate it as the central, intended purpose. Doctors understand this, nurses understand this, we all understand this.
But for some strange reason how we treat the reproductive organs stands as the one, glaring exception to this rule. But fertility is a natural, healthy state. It’s not an illness that needs to be corrected with surgery. It’s not a disease that we need to be healed of with a pill. But sterilizing these healthy organs is not only widely accepted by health care providers; you’re considered backwards and irresponsible if you don’t accept it. In the medical community, contraception and sterilization have become the “standard of care.”
Why sterilized sex causes abortion and divorce
Now, let’s return to the question, why would this widespread acceptance and approval of sterilized sex give rise to widespread abortion and divorce?
I’m going to answer this question at two levels, first, the more apparent level, which I’ll call the tip of the iceberg, and then the more subtle level below the surface.
– The Tip of the Iceberg
So, let’s first look at the more obvious level of how a culture of sterilized sex leads to a culture of death.
– Death to Marital Love
First, by it leading to a culture of death to marital love, I mean this. It used to be, before the contraceptive revolution, that there was a pretty clear and firm connection between sex and marriage. Married people had sex, unmarried people didn’t, or if they did, they more or less knew that they weren’t supposed to. Most everybody knew this.
But over the course of the twentieth century, as contraception became more socially accepted, more available, and more effective, all that began to change. By the time the sixties rolled around it was becoming clear, to married and unmarried people alike, that you didn’t have to be married to have sex. Contraceptive practice had made sex into a recreational activity that everyone has a right to.
What did this mean for the unmarried? Well, you probably heard the old saying, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” Widespread acceptance and availability of contraception has led to widespread fornication. Pre marital sex is now not only socially acceptable, but socially respectable. It’s no different among Catholics. 90% of engaged couples in the U.S. who come to the Catholic Church for marriage are already sexually active. 90% Yes, people do still get married, but in fewer numbers. Why? Well, one of the reasons a man and woman used to get married was to start having sex, and contraception basically removed that as a reason.
What did the contraceptive revolution do to married people? There are three ways that it led to an increase in divorce rates.
First, it’s the flip side of what I just mentioned: if sex is no longer a reason to get married, then it’s also no longer a reason to stay married. Anyone can have it. It’s pretty much a commodity. But once sex is removed from the portrait of all those things that make marriage unique and valuable, then a married couple at risk will have one less reason to try to make it work.
Second, widespread contraceptive practice in many cases removed another reason that has traditionally held together married couples, namely, children. There is something to be said for a couple trying to make their marriage work for the sake of the children. But what happens when there are no children? More contraception has led to fewer children, and in many cases to no children at all. Divorces naturally followed.
Third, widespread use of contraception by married couples also led to an increase of adultery. Once you take away one of the greatest fears of extra-marital sex – which is pregnancy – you’re going to see an increase of that activity. And when there is an increase in adultery there’s also going to be an increase in divorce.
In net effect, our culture of sterilized sex has made marriage on the whole a less attractive institution to enter into, and an easier institution to get out of. It’s contributed to the demise of millions of marriages, both those that actually took place and those that should have taken place, but never did.
– Death to Life
Let’s look now at how our culture of widespread sterilized sex has also led to our culture of widespread death to pre-born human life. Keep in mind that for the moment we’re looking only at the tip of the iceberg. We’ll look at the deeper level in a moment.
How does widespread contraception lead to declining birth rates? Well if the life-giving potential of sex is pervasively removed from the picture, a cultural mindset is gradually fostered in which children themselves are pervasively removed from the picture. They tend to be viewed not as gifts but as liabilities, spoilers of a pleasurable lifestyle. We might have one or two, if that would be pleasurable to us, but after that the norm is to reject them.
How does widespread contraception lead to widespread abortion? I credit Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse with summing up the motto of our culture of sexual liberation this way, and keep in mind that our culture of sexual liberation was made possible only by our culture of contraception: She says ours is a culture in which, “all adults are entitled to unlimited sexual activity without a live baby resulting.” I’ll say that again, “all adults are entitled to unlimited sexual activity without a live baby resulting.”
What Dr. Morse touches upon is our culture’s prevailing disconnection between sex and babies. Before contraception was king, the prevailing assumption was that a baby was a natural consequence of sex. If you chose to engage in sex, you knew it could result in a baby. You might not have wanted that to happen, but you assumed that it could happen. If a baby did result, it was because of your freely chosen action, and so you were likely, not necessarily, but likely, to feel a certain kind of responsibility toward that child.
The contraceptive revolution changed all that. It led to the prevailing assumption that babies really shouldn’t have anything to do with sex. That is, not unless you wanted a baby to have something to do with sex, not unless you allowed that. Or as Dr. Morse said, not unless you’re into that kind of thing.
Now couples who think this way do know that keeping a baby out of the picture doesn’t just happen by itself; you have to do your part. You have to do something to the sexual act to make sure that a baby won’t be conceived. That’s what, quote unquote, taking responsibility for your actions now means with respects to sexual activity.
But if a couple has this kind of attitude, then when the contraception fails, as it often does, and there’s a pregnancy, they’re not going to tend to think the baby’s there because of their actions. They’re going to tend to think the baby’s there in spite of their actions. In other words, their mindset is not so much that this is their child that they conceived. Rather, they’re going to tend to think it’s an invader that they failed to repel. This kind of thinking is likely to foster quite a different sense of what’s the responsible thing to do next.
Now, I realize, we’re not talking about abortion, yet. Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer, and not everyone who uses contraception goes on to have an abortion when it fails. What I’m saying, though, is that contraception, by its very nature, and as a broad social phenomenon, tends to incline the heart of a nation toward abortion. As John Paul II put it in Evangelium Vitae, Latin for the Gospel of Life, the contraceptive mentality strengthens the temptation to abort. Contraception and abortion are not the same thing, but as John Paul put it, they are as closely connected as “fruits of the same tree.”
Under the Iceberg
We’ve looked at the tip of the iceberg. I want to show you now a deeper view of how widespread sterilized sex leads to both abortion and divorce. To do that, I need to show you first the way sex is supposed to look like, the way it was made by God.
When God created sex, he made it to serve two purposes or meanings: # 1. to express the bond of marital love between a husband and a wife, and #2. to create new human life. And here’s a crucial point. He also made those two meanings or purposes to be intimately, organically bound up in one another. In other words, together the two form a whole, such that anything a person might do to disrupt the organic union of those two meanings would jeopardize the well-being of both. The meaning of marital love would be jeopardized, and so would the meaning of human life.
How are these two meanings – marital love and openness to life –expressed together in the sexual act as it was made by God?
The pinnacle moment of sex, for both the husband and the wife, is the moment of orgasm. In that one moment, which ideally happens for them at the same time, they experience together the most intense sensations of physical pleasure and emotional connectedness. By that act their bodies express all the values of the union of love which holds them together as husband and wife. They are each saying to the other, with the language of their bodies, “Oh my Gosh! I love you and I want all of you and I give all of myself to you!”
Meanwhile, consider what’s happening physiologically to heighten and reinforce this sensation of union. During orgasm, in both the man and the woman, the hormone oxytocin floods into their bloodstreams. Now ordinarily it’s understood that this happens for the woman, but it also happens for the man, at a lower level of intensity, but it still happens for the man as well as for the woman.
Oxytocin is nicknamed the hormone of love because it is involved in social recognition, bonding, and the formation of trust between people. So orgasm is deeply wired to express and affirm a bond of love. This doesn’t mean that sex is actually always used in that way, but at a deep organic level that is what it was made to do.
What about the life giving meaning? Consider what happens with the man’s and the woman’s reproductive organs. For the husband, the moment of orgasm is the moment in which he releases, into his wife’s body, not just a fluid, but literally his seed, his genetic identity. For him then that act of orgasm simultaneously expresses not only his loving union with her, but also any hope he has ever had or ever will have of becoming a father with her. Perhaps, in his mind, he may not actually want to become a father with her by this particular act. But, and this is crucial, his body nevertheless craves to express openness to that possibility. In and through his body he is saying, “Oh my gosh! I could become a father with you!” And even more, “Oh my gosh, my body is actually trying to become a father with you!”
Meanwhile, for the wife, just as with her husband, the experience of orgasm is also deeply connected to the possibility of creating a new life. For her, orgasm comes in the form of uterine contractions. The neck of her uterus literally dips down repeatedly toward the pool of her husband’s semen, in a kind of lapping motion. Please understand what’s happening here. Her body is not just launching into some kind of non-directional ecstasy; it wants that seed! It wants to help it reach its goal! So, just as with her husband’s act of ejaculation, in the very act of her uterine contractions she is simultaneously expressing not only the most intense feelings of union with her husband, but also her own deepest bodily desires to become a mother by him.
Let me add another physiological fact about the woman’s body that illustrates this deep wiring to reproduce. For the man, sexual desire for his wife is fairly constant from one day to the next. Not so for her. As you may know, the days when she is likely to feel the most intense sexual desires for her husband are those few fertile days of the month when she is most likely to conceive. In her mind, she may actually want to conceive, or not, and she may actually be able to conceive, or not. But in a sense, none of that really matters. What matters is that her body in its own way, and her husband’s body in its own way, are both deeply wired such that they are always trying to say the following two things by way of sexual intercourse, and to say them simultaneously: “I love you forever” and “I yearn to create new life with you.”
Now let’s look at what happens to this marvelously complex picture of human sexuality when a couple purposefully thwarts the life-giving meaning, and see how that can incline them toward both divorce and abortion. By the way, please don’t think in any of this that I’m referring to couples who are infertile through no fault of their own. The decisive factor is not sterility, but deliberate sterility.
Let’s look at divorce first. The bond that holds a married couple together is made up of a variety of forces: moral, social, religious, emotional, economic, and so forth. As any one of those forces fades or weakens, so too will the strength of the marriage bond also fade or weaken. Divorces likewise will increase. One of these forces that holds a married couple together is regular, meaningful sexual relations. “Meaningful” is the key word here. If for whatever reason their sexual relations become less meaningful, or perhaps altogether meaningless, then so too will their marital bond weaken. So, if marital sex, as a broad social phenomenon, is becoming less meaningful, then we can expect that divorces will begin to multiply.
This is indeed what has happened to the meaning of sex in our day. By our nation’s pervasive removal of the life-giving meaning of sex, we have made sex that much less meaningful. Think of the millions of couples who have contracepted themselves right up to the point where one or both of them complains that their sex has become basically meaningless. God hard-wired that life-giving meaning into the core of the sexual experience. It was made to be a major part of the wow factor of sex: the spark, the mystery of life itself. So then we turn around and do everything we can to cancel that meaning out? Don’t we think negative consequences might follow?
Please ponder the irony here. The married couple who sterilizes their sex imagines that by doing this they will enhance their relationship. You know, they get to have sex, when maybe they wouldn’t have had it otherwise, and that will strengthen their relationship, right? Well it doesn’t work that way. Yes, they might have an orgasm together and that would probably feel pleasurable at a purely physical level. And it could also be an affectionate, tension-relieving moment for them. But what they’ve lost through doing this is the fullness of the meaning of their sexual relations, and that is a huge loss. However much they might truly love one another, and want to express that love, if they’ve done something to remove that “we could have a baby” meaning, by doing that, they have diminished the meaning of the act as a whole.
And it gets worse. John Paul II pointed out that because of that organic, symbiotic connection between the two meanings of sex, if a couple takes away the life-giving meaning they are, by doing that, in some mysterious way, also taking away the love-giving meaning. In this view, to sterilize sex is to completely rob it of meaning.
A study just published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine seems to support this view (J Reprod Med 2007; 52:263-272). The authors of the 2007 study, entitled, “Effects of Tubal Ligation Among American Women,” found that women who have had a tubal ligation were more likely than women who have not had one to report two things: #1. stress interfering with sex, and #2 seeing a physician regarding sexual problems. In addition to their own findings the authors refer in their article to past research which has shown, and I quote, “that women with a tubal ligation have a tendency to report a kind of mutilated body image.” They conclude, and again I quote, “it is reasonable to ask whether tubal ligation in some way disrupts the emotional bond between the partners.” In some way it disrupts the emotional bond. What they can’t quite identify, this “some way,” is that mysterious connection between the life-giving meaning and the love-giving meaning. To disrupt the life-giving purpose or meaning is to disrupt the love-giving meaning or purpose.
And the tragedy, again, is that this is not at all what the couple that gets sterilized desires. Quite the contrary. They do it because they think it will enhance their emotional bond. But like drinking salt water to quench one’s thirst, engaging in sterilized sex will not quench the human thirst for love. Not only is the deep need not met, it is worsened. Our contraceptive culture has left us bloated with sex, and dehydrated for love. And thereby inclined toward divorce.
Let’s look now at what distorting the sexual act means for abortion. Recall how in the moment of orgasm, the man’s and the woman’s bodies each in their own way convulse together in a shared effort to conceive a new life. I repeat what I said a moment ago: their bodies will try to do this every time independent of either their intention or their ability to actually conceive a new life.
In light of this fact, I think it’s beautiful to think about a couple in their seventies making love. She hasn’t ovulated in decades. There’s no possibility of conceiving a new life. And yet there are their bodies, still doing that mysterious fertility dance together, still striving, against all odds, to conceive a baby. From the beginning of their marriage all the way to its end, their love for one another is somehow always mysteriously connected to creating new life together.
But what does a young, fertile married couple do about this if it really isn’t the right time for them to have a baby? Well, if they want to live in harmony with their bodies, they will wait for a naturally infertile time. When that time comes, their bodies will again come together and do that fertility dance. They will strain to conceive. That’s very likely not going to actually happen, but it won’t be because they have done anything to thwart the life-giving potential of their own bodies. This is a natural, holistic way of living with your fertility. You always treat it with reverence, awe, and gentleness. You always receive it and work with it, even if this means having to suffer occasionally.
Compare this approach with the far more popular alternative that couples choose these days, which is not to work with the life-giving mystery of their own bodies, but to work against it. The gift of fertility is not received, it is rejected. It is not treated gently, it is interfered with, or manipulated, or surgically mutilated. By whatever method they choose, couples who sterilize their sex apply force against themselves. It’s a kind of violence done to the human body, and mind you, violence done to very special parts of the human body at the very moment when they are eagerly trying to carry out a very sacred function: to create new human life.
Speaking of self-violence, guys, think for a moment what really happens when you have a vasectomy. Your testicles are still there, but they’ve been sliced away from the act that they were created for. Now they’re just hanging there, inert, like the living dead – little zombies. By the way, if you have been sterilized, either by a vasectomy or a tubal ligation, the procedure can be reversed. You can return those organs in exile to the land of the living.
I’m not here to cast stones. I’m just asking you to stand back and think about what we’re actually doing with sterilized sex. Regardless of our motives, or our moral culpability, or whatever, we are engaging in a kind of alienation and war with our own bodies. And think about it happening not just with one couple one time, but over and over again, by millions of couples, year after year, to the point that this is now the normal way our nation, and our Church, treats the mystery of life in sex.
So here’s the punch line: Do you think that our nation’s common pattern of rejecting our fertility might have a spill-over effect in how we treat our surprise pregnancies? Is it not reasonable that violence regularly done against the life-giving potential of sex could lead toward violence done against life itself? Again, I’m not saying that any given couple, like the Goodpeople’s, who sterilize their sexual relations will necessarily themselves get an abortion or even think that anyone else should ever get one. What I am saying, though, is that any couple who uses contraception needs to know that their acts of sterilized sex are not isolated. They fit into a broad cultural pattern, and they contribute to that pattern. And it’s the very same cultural pattern that encourages abortion.
What Does This Mean for Our Church?
At the beginning of this talk I said I wanted to show you two things. I’ve just tried to do the first, which is to show you that contraception really is a big deal; that it’s at the root of our modern day cultures of abortion and divorce. Now I want to show you the second, which is what our Church’s complicity with the contraceptive mentality has done to us, and what we as a Church can do about it.
First, what do I mean by our Church’s complicity? Poll after poll, study after study, show that contraception is just as popular with us Catholics as it is with the rest of the United States public. And this is not just the case for those who say they’re Catholic, but never go to church. It includes active members like Mr. & Mrs. Goodpeople, people who attend Church regularly, who say their religion is very important to them, and who otherwise hold orthodox views. This was shown again in a May 2007 study published by Marquette University researchers, Ohlendorf and Fehring. (“The Influence of Religiosity on Contraceptive Use Among Roman Catholic Women in the United States,” The Linacre Quarterly, May 2007, Volume 74, Number 2, pp. 135 – 144.) In fact, their study showed that regular, church-going Catholics are more likely to get sterilized than Catholics who don’t go to church.
What has this done to us as a Church? I found some insight from an unusual source. When I was preparing this talk, I was trying to come up with words and images to describe a world with contraception, and a world without contraception. I turned to the 6th edition of the Roget’s International Thesaurus, copyright 2001. If you’re not familiar with this book, it is, first of all, THE authority on the English language, and, second of all, it’s a totally secular resource. It has no religious or moral agenda, good or bad. It simply does what a thesaurus is supposed to do: it groups words, as they are commonly understood, into categories of similar words, and then contrasts those categories with other categories.
The word contraception was grouped in a word category entitled “Unproductiveness.” Before I read some of the words and phrases from that category, I want to read you some of the words and phrases from the contrasting category right next to it entitled “Productiveness.” Now there are dozens of words in each of these categories, and I’m not going to read all of them. This is just a sampling to help create a picture for you.
First, under the category, Productiveness, are these words: fruitfulness, fertility, fecundity, pregnancy, richness, lushness, generousness, abundance, rich soil, compost, manure, swarming muck, land flowing with milk and honey, hotbed, and here’s the kicker: teeming loins.
Now contrast this picture with the words from the category, Unproductiveness: dryness, famine, sterility, contraception, barren wasteland, lunar landscape, howling wilderness, ineffectual, drained, childless, impotence, planned parenthood, dry womb, and finally: withered loins.
If it is indeed true that at any given time 85 percent of American Catholic couples of childbearing age are either contracepting or sterilized, then we have indeed become a Church of withered loins. Is this what we want to be? Is this what the Mystical Body of Christ is supposed to look like? Or do we want to become again what we once were, a Church of teeming loins? Let’s compare the two.
A Church of withered loins is a Church with little to say to the sexually confused world around it. If we, the devout church-goers, can’t get it straight, or refuse to get it straight, about the God-given connections between sex, love, marriage and babies, then God help the rest of the world. For example, take the growing normalization of homosexuality. There was an article by a gay activist that came out a few years ago entitled, “We Are All Sodomites Now.” He basically argues, now that you heterosexuals have completely embraced your style of sterile sex, then you’re hypocrites to question our gay style of sterilized sex. He gets a lot wrong in that article, but he sure has a point there.
A Church of withered loins likewise stutters when it tries to talk to its own young people about chastity. Millions of concerned parents like Mr. and Mrs. Goodpeople know all about the sexual meat-grinder of a world out there, and they dearly want to protect their children from it. But how will they be able to speak convincingly to their children about how a young person can go happily without sex, maybe for years, when they can’t go without it for even a few days a month? Please don’t get me wrong – we need abstinence education programs. But until we, the grown ups, can start walking the talk, then we’re pretty much just wasting our time.
A Church of withered loins also produces only a trickle of priestly and religious vocations. Vocations do not spring forth from a vacuum. They spring forth from lives, families, and parishes that are characterized by hopefulness, generosity, self-sacrifice and self-control. Sterilized sex reinforces the exactly opposite values of fearfulness, self-absorption, and self-indulgence.
What does a Church of teeming loins look like? Well it has struggles of its own. It’s not an entirely pretty picture. By the way, to help make this point, I made sure to include words like swarming muck and manure in the image of productiveness I painted a few minutes ago. But unlike the struggles of a Church of withered loins, the struggles of the Church of teeming loins are wholesome, natural, and, in the end, redemptive.
If you want to imagine what a Church of teeming loins looks like, imagine an immigrant parish of a hundred years ago, or an Irish parish of fifty years ago, or an African parish of today. It’s a parish with lots of babies: smiling babies, crying babies, soiled babies, drooling babies, sniveling babies – all those liquids of life and all their smells. It’s a parish of large families, poor families, struggling families, sacrificial families, families that help other families, families that stick together no matter what, families that build cathedrals. And oh by the way, a parish of teeming loins is also a parish with a teeming abundance of priestly and religious vocations.
Encouragement to Married Couples
How can we become this kind of a Church again? Let me offer some encouragement now to all of you Mr. & Mrs. Goodpeople’s out there, and then to all of you Fr. Friendly’s.
Mr. & Mrs. Goodpeople, I hope you know, that I know, that life can be difficult and there really can be legitimate reasons for a married couple to forestall having a child. The Church is not saying you need to have fifteen children to be good Catholics. What I’m asking you to do, though, on behalf of the Church, is to look at this over-sexualized world around us, and consider how it has maybe influenced some of the ways you view sex, fertility and babies. Those ways of the world, in many respects, are contrary not only to God’s plan but to your own happiness.
Let me quickly add this, in case you’re thinking, well, Steve, we’re pretty happy as we are with contraception, thank you very much. First, if you were to live your entire lives in a contraceptive mindset, you’d never know what a great difference you might have seen without it. Couples who make the switch regularly talk about the profound improvements they’ve seen in their marriages, their faith lives, and in their sexual lives.
Second, and this is even more important, what you think, or what I think, or what anybody thinks, is going to make us happy is not the bottom line when it comes to doing what God wants us to do. Sometimes he wants us to do things that might not feel so good, but we’ve got to do them anyway. Rejecting contraception is one of them. It’s a bad choice, but it’s not just a bad choice, like eating a Twinkie. Objectively speaking, it can sever us from friendship with God. Therefore, it is something we have to confess.
Maybe you’re still not convinced. Maybe you’re thinking that you don’t need the teachings of the Catholic Church to figure out what’s pleasing to God. Friends, please understand that this teaching and any teaching of the Catholic Church is true not because the Church teaches us that it’s true. It’s the other way around. The Church teaches it because it is true. So sure you can choose to disobey the Church’s teaching on contraception, but that’s not going to make it untrue. And it’s also not going to mean that you won’t have to suffer the consequences that will flow from your choice.
The bottom line you need to keep in mind, though, as you ponder what to do, is that this teaching of the Church is not given to us to spoil our enjoyment of life. It’s given to us so we might enjoy life to the full. So, yes, the Church lovingly invites us to treat God’s gifts of sex, fertility and babies in a way very different from the easy way the world says we should treat them. But I say to you that that easy way of the world, that way of contraception and sterilization, is the way that leads to death. Death to life. Death to love. We can choose to follow it, and we may stay married, and we may still look okay and feel okay, but in the end the sin will still have its effect, one way or the other, on our souls, on our marriages, on our church and on our country.
Or you can choose the way of God taught by the Church, which means choosing the way of life. It would mean taking time to learn about the natural cycles of your fertility. It would mean never intentionally doing anything to your bodies that would alter, mutilate, block or otherwise mess up your fertility. If there are times in your marriage that you really do need to avoid getting pregnant, it would mean abstaining from sex during the wife’s time of fertility, which is usually around five to eight days every month. No doubt, this can be difficult, but you can do it, you really can! And for making these small sacrifices you would get to live your sexual lives and your marriages in full harmony with the divine plan.
Encouragement to Priests
To our priests, and also to our bishops, I would respectfully offer these thoughts. From what I’ve observed, some married couples will discover, on their own, without any guidance from you, the truth about contraception and Natural Family Planning and make changes. But I think you know, as well as I do, that without your leadership in this area not much is ever going to change. Your influence is enormous.
I gave a presentation once about NFP to some priests, and afterwards one of them pulled me aside and said, referring to the laity, “Steve, they’re just not buying it.” And I said to him, Father, respectfully, if they’re not buying it, it’s because you’re not buying it. I know this because I know priests who do buy it, who really do understand the gravity of contraception, what’s really at stake, and who are able and willing to talk to their people about it. And they have seen their people rise to the challenge and make the necessary changes.
These priests need not thunder down threats of hell. They just firmly and lovingly explain what human sexuality is about and what we do to ourselves and our relationship to God when we use contraception. Will some people still choose to contracept and get sterilized, no matter how kindly and lovingly you speak? Sure. It happens with other issues. Will some leave the Church? Maybe. But, respectfully, Father, that is not your problem. That’s between them and the Holy Spirit. Your job as the clergy is to preach to us the truth in love, the whole truth. Our job as the laity is to hear it. When the seed falls on good soil it will bear fruit a hundred-fold. But the seed has to be sown first.
If you want to address this topic in your parish, but you don’t yet feel equipped to deliver a full homily on it, consider using what Dr. Janet Smith calls “drive-by orthodoxy.” This is when you raise the sinfulness of contraception indirectly when you’re addressing another issue. So, for example, in a homily on the sacrament of confession you could include contraception and sterilization in a list of serious sins for which a person should go to confession before receiving communion. You could also bring in a priest to give a homily. An organization called NFP Outreach, nfpoutreach.org, has several priests on staff who travel to parishes around the country giving missions on this subject. They also have lots of other resources on their website to help you educate yourself and your parishioners about this issue.
Here are some other resources: One More Soul, at omsoul.com, has probably the largest variety of educational materials on NFP, contraception, sterilization and sterilization reversal. Ascension Press, which is at AscensionPress.com, also has a wide assortment of resources on Theology of the Body, including many resources by Christopher West.
Other things you can do. Bring the issue up in confession. I know people who would have never even thought about confessing contraception until a priest gently asked them about it in confession. Always cover the matter of birth control when you’re preparing a young couple for marriage. Give them materials to review and then go over it with them afterwards. Let them know not only that God expects them not to use contraception, but that couples who use NFP have much happier marriages on average and a divorce rate that’s a fraction of the general population.
You can also make your parish as baby friendly as possible. At the end of mass many priests will openly recognize those who are celebrating a birthday or an anniversary. You could also recognize anyone who has just had a new baby or a new grandbaby. There might be many Sundays when there would be no response to that question, but that’s part of the point, right? Then when there is a new one lifted up, and she is greeted by thundering applause, the point will really be made. And give special, positive recognition to couples who have made the heroic decision to have a number of children. Usually, if they get any recognition at all, it’s negative, like, “So are you stopping now?” Let that never be the case with us, and, Father, you please lead the way. It doesn’t mean you can’t be playful. I just would love to hear a priest say something like this at the end of mass, “How many is that for you now, Ed & Ruth? What’s your secret? What kind of water are you drinking?! That’s wonderful! God bless you from all of us.”
It’s also important, though, to go beyond mere words like these and to recognize the very real financial and emotional challenges that many couples face, challenges that might make it hard for them to welcome a new child, or that might make it easy for them to succumb to the lure of contraception or sterilization. Just like it is with our fight against abortion, our fight against contraception must be more than just trying to persuade people not to do something. We also need to respond pastorally by helping to create home and parish environments where it is easy and desirable for families to care for children and to welcome new children. So let’s identify the couples that need our help, and, yes, let’s pray for them, but let’s also ask them what they really need, and help them find it.
In this talk I hope I’ve shown you that I love our Church. It is because of that love that I want us to be freed of what I can only describe as our bondage to contraception. For that to happen, we need to change a lot of hearts and minds and that will only come by a lot of prayer and a lot of work. But if we will turn to the Lord about this serious matter, with humble and contrite hearts, then he will renew us and heal us and set us free. New fountains of living water will well up within us and flow out from us. In time we will become what God made us to be, and what the culture of death around us so desperately needs us to be: uncompromised witnesses to the sanctity of human life and marital love.
Let me close now with these words of God, spoken through the prophet Isaiah, which give us a picture of what our Church, newly freed from her bondage, can become to the dry and withered land around us: “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers. For I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, the people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise.” Isaiah 43:18-21.