Birth Control: The Case for the Catholic

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In the Atlantic Monthly for July, Mr. Eduard C. Lindeman discussed 'The Responsibilities of Birth Control.' While dissenting radically from the views of Mr. Lindeman, the present article is not intended to be a direct rebuttal of his presentation of the case. Its sole purpose is to explain the attitude of the Catholic Church toward what is commonly called 'birth control' -- that is, the use of some physical means or method for the purpose of frustrating the reproductive efficacy of sexual intercourse. I shall expound chiefly the moral aspect of the subject. This is an aspect with which Mr. Lindeman was not concerned, but which to many persons, nonCatholics as well as Catholics, is a factor of paramount importance. Since numerous points are involved in the question, my treatment must necessarily be summary; but I trust it will be found clear and consistent.

The discussion of this subject as I intend to present it will be fully appreciated only by those who admit that there is a Supreme Being, whom men are obliged to serve and to obey. It is well to remark in passing that the Catholic Church does not expect anyone to accept the existence of a personal God merely on faith or through an unreasoning impulse. It is a factual truth that can be convincingly demonstrated by logical, unemotional argumentation. However, the necessary limitations of this article compel me to assume that my readers are sufficiently acquainted with at least one argument proving that there is a God whose laws are binding on all mankind.

In common with most Protestants and Jews, Catholics hold that the Almighty has made known to the human race through inspired prophets certain doctrines that transcend man's natural intellectual powers and certain precepts that exceed his natural duties. These truths and commandments constitute supernatural revelation. However, we are now concerned, not with superadded obligations imposed by the Creator on mankind, but with obligations which are incumbent on man by the very fact that he is a rational creature, and which are within the scope of his own intelligence. Human beings can discover these obligations by their own reasoning powers, although the Almighty has included many of them in His revelation, such as 'Thou shalt not kill. -- Thou shalt not steal.' These obligations constitute the natural law of morality. The most general norm of right and wrong established by this natural law is that a person's actions are morally good when they are in conformity with God's will, and they are. morally bad when they are in opposition to God's will.

Throughout the entire universe wisdom of God can be perceived, ingeniously  adapting means to ends, coordinating causes and effects. This divinely planned harmony is particularly manifest in the constitution of living beings. Each organ has its proper purpose, each faculty its proper function. Now it is certainly the will of the Creator who adapted these vital powers to definite ends that they should operate toward the attainment of these ends. He Himself directs the activities of irrational creatures by providing them with certain irresistible inclinations, so that they necessarily employ their faculties for their proper purpose. The effect of this guidance in animals we call instinct. The bird will infallibly use its wings to fly; the bee is certain to employ its marvelously constructed organs to gather pollen and to make honey. But to man, the most exalted of the living things of earth, God grants freedom of choice in the use of his powers. A human being can direct his faculties of soul and of body to the purposes intended by the Creator, or he can distort them to other ends. And on the way he chooses to employ them depends the morality of his actions. When a person uses his faculties for their proper purpose, his action is morally good, for it is in accordance with God's will; when he deliberately frustrates their proper purpose, his action is morally evil, for it is opposed to God's will. The gravity of the sin is proportionate to the gravity of the harm resulting from the action.

For example, the faculty of speech is designed to enable men to communicate their ideas to one another. When a person uses this faculty to express truth to his fellow men, he is employing it for its proper purpose and acting lawfully; when he deliberately tells a lie, he is frustrating the proper purpose of this faculty and acting sinfully. The nutritive faculties are intended to sustain man's bodily health, and one who eats and drinks with due moderation is performing a morally good act, whereas the glutton and the drunkard are doing wrong inasmuch as they are defeating the proper end of these faculties by their excesses.

Among the most important of man's faculties is the sexual power. Its chief purpose is the generation of new life. This purpose pertains to the social order; it concerns the common good rather than the individual good. When husband and wife perform their marital functions in the natural manner, they are concurring in the designs of God toward the preservation and the propagation of the human race. The full import of this objective is perceived only by those who admit the eternal destiny of mankind. To them parenthood means, not merely the procreation of another member of society, but primarily coöperation with the Almighty in the creation of an immortal soul that is destined to be happy with God forever.

However, when husband and wife deliberately and positively frustrate the procreative purpose of sexual intercourse, they pervert the order of nature and thus directly oppose the designs of nature's Creator. And since the reproductive function is so vital to the upkeep of the race, and since any exception to this law would be multiplied indefinitely, every act of contraceptive frustration is a gravely immoral act, or, in Catholic terminology, a mortal sin. To quote the terse phrase of Pope Pius XI in his Encyclical on Christian Marriage: 'Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.'

II

I have said that contraception is opposed to the chief purpose of sexual intercourse. Certainly there are other ends to which nature ordains conjugal relations, especially the alleviation of sexual craving and the fostering of a deep and abiding love between husband and wife. It is absurd to imagine that the Catholic Church regards conjugal coition as nothing more than a physical medium for the generation of offspring. Its psychological value as an expression of mutual self-surrender, its innate power to arouse a generous idealism in a married couple, are readily acknowledged by Catholic moralists. But these ends are manifestly subordinated to the Creator's primary purpose in endowing men and women with sexual potency -- the conservation and the propagation of the human race. Indeed, there is an acknowledgment of this primary purpose of sexual relations in the principle, admitted by all civilized nations, that conjugal intercourse is lawful only between husband and wife. The basic reason is that only in the permanent union of marriage can a child be properly reared; consequently, the child is the main object of sexual intercourse. In the words of Dr. Alexis Carrel: “Whether conscious or unconscious, the reproductive urge is the source of love….The sex act has been deprived of its natural consequences by the technical progress of contraception. However, the biological law of reproduction remains imperative. And transgressors are punished in a subtle manner. It is a disastrous mistake to believe we can live according to our fancy. Being parts of nature, we are submitted to its inexorable laws” (Reader's Digest, July 1939).

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