The Church and Contraception (Part I)
by Fr. William P. Saunders
The topic of contraception is so controversial. It seems to always come up at work, and I do not seem to know how to defend the Church as well as I should. Could you give an explanation?
On July 25, we mark the anniversary of Pope Paul VI's encyclical "Humanae Vitae" which affirmed the consistent Catholic teaching on the sanctity of marital love and the error of contraception. Granted, this topic is definitely the one that prompts headlines and excites some people to say, "I disagree with the Church" or "The Church is wrong." I have even had Catholics report to me that when they have visited a Protestant Church, they have heard sermons denounce the Church's teaching on this subject. Sadly, many Catholics do not understand the Church's teaching on this issue. Moreover, many priests have failed to address this subject from the pulpit — whether in a positive, rational way or at all. So we need to put aside our prejudices and our misconceptions, open our minds and hearts, and approach this issue. The next several issues of Straight Answers will be devoted to this topic and hopefully provide a clear and better understanding about this subject.
However, before addressing the issue of contraception per se, one must first understand the Church's moral teaching concerning marriage. The Church does not simply deliver a moral teaching in isolation; rather, the moral teaching is undergirded by a moral framework of how life ought to be lived in the eyes of God. In this case, the moral framework is what God has revealed concerning marriage.
In the creation account of Genesis, we find the beautiful truth, "God made man in His image; in the divine image He created him; male and female He created them" (Genesis 1:27). In this one verse, we find an intrinsic goodness and dignity to each human being. We also recognize a goodness to our human sexuality — both man and woman are made in God's image and likeness, and both masculinity and femininity are equally good. Yes, man and woman are different — anatomically, physiologically, and even psychologically (as admitted by many psychologists, even "feminist" ones). These differences do not indicate inequality, instead complementarity.
With this truth, we must also view our human life not just by the confines of this world, but also with a view to a supernatural and eternal destiny. God has made us for Himself, and we hope one day to find this life fulfilled in the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the next verse of Genesis (1:28), we read, "God blessed them, saying, 'Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.'" Here is marriage, a God-given, God-designed institution. If we could think of the best way to realize that "image and likeness of God," it would then be in marriage. In this sacred union, man and woman — each made in God's image and likeness with their similarities and their uniqueness — come together as one.
The second creation account of Genesis reinforces this idea: Here, God takes the rib from the man to create "a suitable partner," whom the man recognizes as "'This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called 'woman' for out of 'her man' this one has been taken.' That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body" (2:23-24). Pope John Paul II reflected that in marriage "man" in the moment of communion truly becomes the image of God, "an image of an inscrutable divine communion of Persons."
Our Lord, Jesus Christ, in the gospel affirmed the teaching of Genesis. When asked by the Pharisees about divorce, Jesus replied, "Have you not read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and declared, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become as one'? Thus, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, let no man separate what God has joined" (Mt 19:3ff).
Given this basis in Sacred Scripture, we hold marriage as a sacrament in our Catholic belief. Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World ("Gaudium et Spes") spoke beautifully about marriage: Marriage is a partnership of life and love designed by God and endowed by Him with its own proper laws, with various benefits, and with various ends in view. Both husband and wife "surrender themselves to each other" and give their "irrevocable personal consent." Marriage involves a mutual giving of two persons, which entails total fidelity and permanence.
Moreover, the love of husband and wife which binds them together as one overflows, and they may participate in creation, giving birth to children. Through the sacrament they live and the bountiful graces offered by our Lord, couples are fortified to fulfill their duties to each other and their family. As such, marriage is clearly the foundation of the family and the whole human race.
Therefore, we speak of marriage not as a contract but as a covenant. Just as God made a covenant of life and love with His people of the Old Testament through Abraham and Moses, just as Christ made the perfect, everlasting and life-giving covenant through the blood of His cross, so marriage is a covenant, a permanent bonding of life and love. (For this reason, St. Paul frequently used the image of Christ and His Church in explaining the love of husband and wife (e.g. Eph 5:22ff).) Therefore, when a couple exchanges vows, they are promising a love of fidelity, permanence, exclusivity, and perpetuity to each other and God. Man and woman enter into a life-giving covenant with God as husband and wife.
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'Straight Answers' reproduced with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald
. Copyright © Fr. William P. Saunders. All rights reserved.