Evangelization is hard work. Sometimes it seems like it might be a lot easier if all we had to do was convince people to come to Church, receive the sacraments, and pray, without having to worry about all of the strict rules that make being Catholic seem onerous. Chief among these apparent obstacles, in my experience, is contraception. Using it can seem harmless, if not downright smart. But the Church has rules for a reason, and that reason is that it is better, for you, to follow them than not to. So why not use contraception? In this case, it’s not just because it would be better for you not to; it’s because it would also be better for everyone.
No action is purely private. Since man is a social animal, every one of our actions has some effect on other people. This is especially true of sexual actions, since sex is the means by which the next generation comes into being. Sexual norms are therefore not just something that exist only to be ignored by people enjoying themselves in the privacy of their bedrooms. Rather, sexual norms exist for the benefit of the whole society. Pope John Paul II said, “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.” The same might be said for sex.
Sounds a bit overdramatic? Consider a simple thought experiment. Imagine that you could go back in time one hundred years and ask a random couple on the street this question: What is sex for? How do you think they would answer? They’d probably say “for babies.” Now imagine going back 50 years and asking the same question. What would be the answer? Probably, “for love.” Now imagine asking that same question to a couple today. What answer would you expect? I’d expect them to say, “for fun.”
What can explain this? There are doubtless many factors. But there is one key element that I think is often overlooked: contraception. Contraception is not a thing. It is neither a balloon nor a pill. It is rather a type of action. Humanae vitae refers to it as an act that separates the “unitive significance” from the “procreative significance” of the conjugal act. By “unitive” the Church refers to the bonding effect brought about by sexual relations. Prior to contraception, there was a clear connection between the unitive power of sex and the procreative power of sex. When contraception became popular, the hope was to throw away procreation but keep unity. Unfortunately, history has shown that sex which is not open to both unity and procreation will do a poor job of facilitating either. The two are made to go together.
The thing about sex is that it is a natural type of action with a natural structure. Destroy the natural structure and everything falls apart. Sex is indeed pleasurable, and it is made to be so. This pleasure is a good thing as it can bring unity to a married couple. Nevertheless, sex does not exist for pleasure. It exists for the sake of procreation, and when procreation is removed from the equation unity often goes as well. If you try to change sex into something it isn’t, to treat it as if it were merely a means of expressing love without any connection to procreation, you won’t get what you’re looking for. And this is exactly what happened 50 years ago. People then had adopted an attitude toward sex that would have been impossible to have unless it were presumed that sex would be contracepted by default. And now, people don’t even see sex as something to be saved for someone special, to do only with someone you love. It’s just another way to have fun.
What is at play here is an implicit shift in the way people think about sex. In an era before the use of contraception became widespread, sex and procreation went hand-in-hand in peoples minds. Now, however, sex is thought to be sterile unless deliberately rendered fertile.
What happens when sex is presumed to be infertile by default? People get reckless. They have sex with whoever happens to be around when they’re bored. And, since contraception is not perfectly effective, eventually this behavior leads to unintended pregnancies. The main reason why the Church teaches that sex should only be had in marriage is precisely to ensure that each child born be born into a family. Freely available contraception enables casual sex to become more frequent, which makes this noble goal harder to achieve.
Another unintended consequence of presuming that sex is normally infertile is that people have come to see having children as a mere lifestyle choice. In a society where the use of contraception was nonexistent, it would simply be presumed that people would pair off and have children. But now that sex – in the modern mind – has to be made fertile, having a child is a choice, much like having a dog. Literally. What else could explain the rise of the dog mom phenomenon? Many people today really do seem to think that having pets is equivalent to having children. Some people just prefer having little cats to having little humans. As a person who has both, let me tell you, they are not at all the same. But more to the point, the survival of human society depends on one and not on the other.
Of greater concern, however, is that when having children is seen as a lifestyle choice, it follows in people’s minds that the only people who are responsible for raising children are the people who chose to have them. But it takes more than two people to raise a child. In fact, it takes a village. Nevertheless, having children has become a private, personal affair, and people without children seem not to appreciate that sometimes a parent has to put their children before their job. Consequently, many people feel pressured today to delay having children until they are more stable in their careers, or until they have more money, or until they own their house. If you are wondering why America’s birth rate is declining, consider that the widespread use of contraception may be a factor.
Using contraception is hardly a private matter. It affects the way we think about sex, which affects the way we think about children, which affects the health of our society as a whole. Think of the children. Do not use contraception.