A bishop, defends Humane Vitae, or what’s wrong with contraception anyway?

Recently Bishop James Conley of Nebraska did the unthinkable; he reiterated and indeed defended the Church’s teaching on contraception, that is the idea that contraception is intrinsically immoral.  Given that the culture detests this teaching and virtually everyone rejects it, Bishop Conley should be commended for his bravery.  His full commentary can be viewed here .


It is worth spending a few minutes on contraception discussing why it’s wrong.  We have frequently noted that something is not good when it fails to fulfill its natural end. Sexual intercourse has a natural end aimed obviously enough at producing children. It has a secondary purpose the end of uniting the spouses (both as an expression of love and a remedy for concupiscence.) When someone alters the sex act so as to render it infertile one replaces one’s own end for the act with its natural end, and this renders the act sinful. This kind of choice typically lead to us to engage in sex in a manner not governed by reason but solely as a slave to our pleasure.  This is true of any act that has pleasure attached to it but whose end is not solely or even principally the pleasure. The natural end of eating is to provide our body with nutrition. The act of eating is associated with pleasure, if we separate the end of eating (nutrition) from act of eating and engage in eating purely for the pleasure we will ultimately end up harming ourselves and potentially end up seriously deranged.  To some degree many in society are doing this now which is why we are facing an epidemic of obesity and even eating disorders.  Of course misusing the act of eating admits of varying levels of gravity and is usually venially sinful (Truly significant gluttony that is not secondary to physical or mental illness could potentially be more seriously sinful but this type behavior is rare.)  It is then obvious that a good activity (eating) can be corrupted by diverting it from its natural end.


Sexual activity is concerned not merely with biological survival as is eating, but is the cooperation with God in bringing new souls into the world and fostering the most important unit of society ( the family) as such diversions of sex away from its natural end are ordinarily always grave matter, so sins involving sex are typically more serious. It’s that simple.


Now all of this may strike many as cold scholastic philosophy not suitable for our modern times. We note the obvious fact that the “coldness” of the philosophy tells us nothing about the truth of the argument. The proof of Fermat’s last theorem is pretty “cold” but Fermat’s last theorem is true nonetheless. (For those wondering, Fermat’s last theorem states An + Bn = Cn has no integer solutions for values of N > 2, you can read about it here.  Have fun…). In fact if someone was intellectually serious, to refute the moral case against contraception one would either need to prove that an act’s goodness is not defined by whether it is oriented to a proper end of man or that sex is not oriented to procreation. Since the later is a very tall order, you are left with the former. It is very difficult to understand what makes an act “good” once we dispense with the idea of an act being oriented toward a particular end, or the idea that man is oriented to a particular end.  It is not an accident that the rejection of Humane Vitae was soon followed by all kinds of moral “innovation”, since it necessarily entailed an underlying rejection of what makes an act moral or immoral. Many people do not realize this, but it is so regardless. Unfortunately we no longer live in an age in which careful reasoning about what is “true” motivates people.


We do live in a time that supposedly claims to respect science and empirical evidence. Maybe some empirical evidence might be an interesting thing to look at. In fact there is some sociological evidence of sorts, regarding the truth of the Church’s teaching re contraception as well as the notion that once contraception is accepted other evils will soon follow. This can be found by comparing what Pope Paul VI predicted would follow if contraception was accepted to what in fact has happened now that contraception is fully and completely accepted as a positively good thing. We can read what Paul VI “predicted”  in Humane Vitae:


“Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective?”


So how many of these things have come to pass? Lots of people have pointed this out before, but let’s just go through the exercise: Is marital infidelity more common than it was prior to the wide spread use and acceptance of contraception? This is almost self-evidently true! In fact we now have dating services that specifically cater to those seeking extra-martial affairs. ( No we are not going to substantiate this claim with a link or specific reference… for all the obvious reasons involving proximate cooperation with evil… you will just need to trust me on this one..) It is also obvious that the young are engaged in all kinds of sexual permissiveness to the point where we have an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases with almost 20 million new sexually transmitted diseases/ year, and about 50% of these occur in those younger than age 24. This is documented by the CDC here . There is also an epidemic of out of wed lock births (as of 2010 this was about 41% of all births) with the consequent financial and social problems associated with this, documented here .  We will only mention in passing the huge increase in abortions all this entails. In some places there are almost as many abortions as live births as described in this article looking at New York City here . As for governments manipulating the birth rate by forcing contraception and even abortion we have the vile Chinese “one child policy” described in all its brutality by the New York Times, hardly a paper favorable to Catholic thought. An Op-Ed on this topic can be viewed here . Although not quite government forced contraception, the Obama administrations mandate that the Church finance contraception and even abortifacients is yet another form of tyranny linked to the view that contraception is a positive good. Finally although not specifically predicted by Paul VI, there is a demographic implosion that is occurring throughout the Western world and Japan, with consequences that are unlikely to be good, and the extent of which are unknown. You can read about what all this might mean here . As just one little piece of the puzzle, a society built on programs like medicare and social security in which old folks get health care and retirement paid for by taxes on younger workers, will not do well as the ratio of people working to retirees shrinks. It is going to get very ugly. For a more fanciful yet frightening treatment of the ultimate view of the kind of world we might be ultimately looking at, it might be worth taking a look at the movie “Children of Men”. You can see a clip here .


Leaving aside hard cases such as those in which a medical condition makes pregnancy a significant health risk for the mother, there is at its root a selfishness behind a mentality that makes children a terrible side effect of having sex that must be avoided at all costs, almost like a disease and that thus views “contraception” as health care. A society that views children as an unwanted medical complication of otherwise desirable sex is not going to be a loving society. It will ultimately be one that views pleasure as a god and where people exploit one another. Liberal feminists rightly decry the objectification of women, but what they fail to realize is that the modern view of sexual morality they and their left wing allies promote will necessarily result in the objectification they claim to hate. Perhaps this is why most recently their major goal appears to be that women behave in ways so as to use men for sexual pleasure as much as men have used women. Isn’t equality great?


I would like to close on a personal note. When I was a boy, perhaps around 9 or 10 years old I saw one of the early “Planned Parenthood” TV advertisements. It concluded with the tag line that their goal was “every child a wanted child”. Who could disagree right? Well, when I was a boy I disagreed. In fact I recall thinking this was a vaguely creepy line. In a way that I could not articulate I saw this concept of “wanted child” as something evil and ominous. I thought it horrible that if a child was not “planned” they might be “unwanted”. In the world I grew up in your parents did not “want” you because you were planned or because you were good, or useful or cute or anything specific at all. You were wanted, that is to say you were loved, because you just “were”. The love of a parent for a child was (or at least should be) unconditional.  I am not suggesting I could have phrased it quite this way when I was a child, but I am certain that is how I felt. Time passed and the image of the PP ad receded into the back of my mind. It returned to me about 20 years later, when I was serving as neurology resident rotating at a large pediatric hospital in the East. Our team was asked to evaluate an infant, born during a difficult delivery and because of complications relating to the delivery likely had some degree of brain injury. We were asked by the parents how much brain injury was present.  What was disturbing to me at the time, was that the parents were not so much interested in getting help finding ways to mitigate the brain injury or plan how to get help to care for a child injured at birth, but really made it clear that if the child had significant brain injury they would prefer the child be allowed to die of their medical problems. Now it is true in Catholic theology there are times when the burdens of treatment outweigh the benefits and it is reasonable to not pursue further medical care that is “extraordinary” but this is not what I have in mind. In this case the child was stable at the moment but likely would need other various medical interventions down the road. No, the family was not so much concerned with the burdens of the interventions but the future abilities of the child. In fact the parents were clear that were the child brain injured to the point of not being able to attend college and “at least grow up to be something like a dentist” The thought it better the child die.  (Keep in mind becoming a dentist requires 4 years of college, gaining entrance to dental school and then 4 years of dental school with further training depending on the dental specialty). Is this what being a “wanted child” meant? To this highly educated ( dare I say elitist, ) set of parents the idea that the child might become oh.. who knows? Someone who did not excel in post graduate education,  but maybe someone who became, something “less”, say a factory worker or taxi driver, etc meant the child was better off dead. Somehow the implications of “every child a wanted child” became very clear. A person was only valuable if they had certain qualities, and if you lacked or lost the qualities, well time to dispense with you. This occurred in the early 90s. If anything our morals have been steadily degrading over this time.


Since the time of Humane Vitae and the Planned Parenthood Ad we have come a very long way. We are now in a very difficult place. Hat’s off to Bishop Conley for trying to begin the long slow climb back.

Lord have mercy on the rest of us.


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