The Synod and Artificial Contraception: Time to Teach Humanae Vitae
Janet Smith FAITH MAGAZINE May-June 2014
Professor Janet Smith says that any evidence of widespread unfaithfulness towards the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception is not a valid expression of a “sensus fidelium” but an urgent reminder of the need for more effective catechesis.
The questionnaire distributed by the Pontifical Council on the Family for the Synod on the Family to be held later this year asked whether or not Catholics are living by the Church’s teaching on sexuality. As I filled out the questionnaire, time and again I answered: “No, they are not, but they have never been taught these teachings,” or many others for that matter. Since Humanae Vitae was issued in 1968, it can be argued that no other teaching has presented Catholics with a bigger obstacle to embracing the faith of the Church wholeheartedly.
How sad it is that few people have ever encountered a robust defence of the Church’s teaching. A brief but nonetheless forceful explanation can be found in Humanae Vitae itself. An extended, biblically based defence can be found in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (enthusiasm for this defence is very high in the United States).
The Church’s teaching on sexuality seems puzzling to many people whose understanding has been clouded by the corruption of a culture that practises and glorifies sex without commitment or even deep feeling, a culture in which the most lucrative internet business is pornography.
The Church understands sexuality to be an inestimable gift from God, one that allows a man and a woman in a very personal, profound, spiritual and physical way, to express their deep desire to unite with another and to live out the essential human need to love and be loved.
God himself is a lover and in fact is Love itself. It is natural for love to overflow. Indeed, the whole universe is the result of an explosion of love. Spouses are meant to image the love of God; they are meant to be committed, unconditional lovers whose love overflows into new life. New life is, of course, not always possible because of infertility but the spousal relationship is the kind of relationship that is designed to foster love and life. God created the whole universe as a support system for human beings, beings he has destined for eternal unity with him. He chose to involve spouses in his creative, loving, fruitful enterprise. John Paul II spoke of spouses as being “co-creators” with God; they assist God in bringing forth new human souls.
John Paul II developed a Christian anthropology that demonstrates that it requires both male and female for the image of God to be represented because God is a union of loving persons. The body itself has a “spousal meaning” and shows that human beings are other-directed, that we are meant to be self-giving and fruitful. Human beings must be loving persons, who image the complete self-giving love of the Trinity.
The marital act speaks a “language”. It speaks the language of complete self-giving. It says to another: “I find you overwhelmingly attractive; I have chosen you apart from all others; I commit my whole life to you; I want to enjoy a powerfully pleasurable and bonding experience with you, and I am willing to be a parent with you.” Contraceptive sex cannot speak the language of love; it does not convey the life-time bonding message that “I am willing to bring about another you; I am willing to spend the whole of my life with you.” Even those who don’t want a bond with each other realise that having a child with another creates a great bond. Everyone knows the difference between saying to another with one’s sexual acts, “I am willing to be a parent with you,” and the message spoken by contracepted sexual intercourse: “I want to experience a great pleasure with you (but not children, no!).” The first is affirming in an unparalleled way; the second is all too often exploitative. Again, this is a vision of marriage and sexuality that nearly seems to have been forgotten by the modern age.
''Refraining from sexual intercourse before marriage and using NFP within marriage are two of the best ways to “divorce-proof” a marriage.''
Acts that are not in accord with human nature, with God’s plans, predictably have bad consequences. One method of helping people be open to the Church’s teaching is to alert them to the bad consequences that contraception has for individuals, for the culture and even the environment.
The case is quite easily made that contraception has greatly contributed to the increased incidence of abortion and single parenthood. After all, contraception tremendously facilitates sex between partners who have no intention of having a baby. Since all contraceptives have a fairly high failure rate, an unwanted pregnancy is often the result. At present about one out in four babies conceived in the United States are aborted, and 42 per cent of babies are born to a single mother. Moreover, many forms of contraception occasionally work as abortifacients, by preventing the implantation of the newly conceived human being in his or her mother’s uterus. Contraception also facilitates cohabitation, which has proved to be a very bad preparation for marriage. Approximately half of all marriages contracted today are likely to end in divorce.
Who can calculate the harm done to individuals who are in and out of sexual relationships and in and out of marriage? Who can calculate the harm done to babies born out of wedlock, to children affected by divorce? More than 80 per cent of children who experience long-term poverty come from broken or unmarried families. More and more women are becoming painfully aware of the negative health consequences of the chemical contraceptives (see, for instance, Holly Grigg-Spall’s Sweetening the Pill). The health risks of the chemical contraceptives have been known for a very long time and include weight gain, migraines, depression, and even death from blood clots. Oestrogen-progestogen oral contraceptives are Group 1 carcinogens, a category shared by cigarettes and asbestos.
Moreover, contraceptives negatively affect the natural “chemistry” between males and females. Males and females exchange hormones called “pheromones” and these are the cause of the chemical attraction between them. These hormones are received through the olfactory nerves. Many women testify that one of the things that most attract them to a man is the way that he “smells”. Some studies show that males and females who are more biologically compatible – that is, those who are more likely to be able to reproduce with each other – are more attracted to each other.
But hormones also affect our judgement and responses in other ways. Women who are on chemical contraceptives have squashed the influence of their normal fertile hormones. Chemical contraceptives work by putting a woman in a state of pseudo pregnancy. Researchers who invented the chemical contraceptives realised that they could “deceive” a woman’s body into “thinking” that pregnancy had begun by giving it synthetic forms of the hormones that are present when a woman is pregnant. One problem is that women respond to men differently when they are pregnant, or using a chemical contraceptive.
“A recent study has shown that 37 per cent of women aged 18 to 34 who attend Mass weekly and have been to confession within the past year completely accept the Church’s teaching on family planning”
And men respond to women differently. Men produce more testosterone when they are around women who are having fertile cycles. One study showed that males who were in the presence of female fertile hormones found the pictures ofordinary women more attractive than pictures of super models. How strange that women are deliberately repressing their most natural means of attracting male attention.
Chemical contraceptives also reduce the amount of testosterone that a female produces – and for females, as well as males, testosterone is the source of sexual desire. Thus, women on chemical contraceptives find their sexual desire is reduced; and possibly, when they come off chemical contraceptives, it may never return to the level it reached before they began using such contraceptives.
So we see that women are choosing their mates, not under the influence of their own more reliable fertile hormones but on alien synthetic hormones. When they come off the chemical contraceptives, they may find that they have a higher sex drive, but that they may not be much interested in the man they are with! Contraceptives obviously have a negative effect on the delicate ecological system of a woman’s fertility. The oestrogens in contraceptives also have a lethal effect on some elements of the larger environment; they have been shown to destroy the fertility of some groups of fish, for instance.
Spouses who truly appreciate the gift of fertility understand that when they are not prepared to accept the gift of a child, they should abstain from sex when a pregnancy is possible; that is, they use a method of natural family planning (NFP). Many studies and testimonies affirm the benefits of using NFP, even the benefits of what is difficult about abstaining. Wives feel more treasured and revered by their husbands, who would not subject them to the dangers of contraceptives. Males appreciate the esteem earned from their wives and benefit from greater self-esteem.
Couples invariably speak of an improvement in communication that comes with the use of NFP and better communication always strengthens marriages. The biggest selling point for NFP is that NFP couples almost never divorce. Young people hate divorce; they desperately want their marriages to last. Refraining from sexual intercourse before marriage and using NFP within marriage are two of the best ways to “divorce-proof” a marriage.
Some have argued that since 98 per cent of Catholics (who have been sexually active) have used contraception (according to statistics in the US), the sense of the faithful (the sensus fidelium) is that the use of contraception is not incompatible with the Christian faith. That seems to be the position of the bishops of Germany. But if Catholics have never been taught the Church’s teaching, isn’t it more likely that they have been formed more by the culture that surrounds them than by their Church? One of the first to articulate the principle that the receptivity of the faithful to a teaching – those who practise the faith – is an indicator of the truth of a teaching was John Henry Newman. Yet he promoted the practice of consulting the sensus fidelium in respect to an undecided doctrine, not one the Church has constantly taught.
Would Catholics accept the Church’s teaching on contraception, if they were taught it? We have some evidence that a sizeable portion might. A recent study, “What Catholic Women Think About Faith, Conscience, and Contraception” (see whatcatholicwomenthink.com), has shown that 37 per cent of women aged 18 to 34 who attend Mass weekly and have been to confession within the past year completely accept the Church’s teaching on family planning. Somewhere, somehow, those women have been exposed to the Church’s teaching and have found that it is compatible with their faith and enriches their lives.
Cardinal Caffarra of Bologna has recently forcefully said that Catholics deserve to be exposed to a robust defence of the Church’s teaching on sexuality. It would certainly help stem the tide of human misery caused by sexual confusion if the Synod would urge bishops, pastors, theologians, and laypeople to embrace Humanae Vitae.
Janet E Smith is a professor of moral theology and the Fr Michael J McGivney chair of life issues at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.