Sunday, July 20, 2008

Humanae Vitae All Grown Up

My generation has been brought up in light of contraception. Most of squeaked into existence between suppressed ovulation cycles, and a good deal of us got here by luck or "accident." A great many more of us didn't get here at all.

We've been told all our lives that contraception is an inalienable right, a necessary component of any healthy sexual relationship. The first question teens are encouraged to ask their potential partner is not whether or not they should sleep together, but what kind of birth control they're going to practice. Safe sex, we've all been taught, is the best kind.

Or is it?

40 years ago this month a short document entitled Humanae Vitae was released, and the world was forever altered. A short document-fewer than 40 pages in length-said in a few succinct paragraphs what the Church has taught on human sex and love for the past 2,000 years. And it got people talking.

According to recent statistics, as many as 95% of Catholics disagree with at least some of the Church's teachings, especially on matters of sex and morality. This comes as no surprise in a culture so saturated with sex that we can't decide on a brand of shaving cream without the assistance of mild titillation in ad campaigns.

What is surprising, however, is the Church's hard line stance against the Pill, condoms, and other various and sundry forms of widely acceptable - hell, applaudable - forms of contraception. From the reception that every new advance in the field of "women's health" receives in our news media, you might safely assume that pregnancy is a dreaded plague that stalks the 15-50 demographic with a ruthless vengeance.

And for most of us, that is the assumption. Whether or not we personally ascribe to popular opinion regarding matters of copulation, we can't help but view sex, love, and babies as three distinctly separate and disjointed entities. One no longer leads to - nor proceeds from- the other. At least that's the lie.

And we've all internalized it, to some degree. How can we not have? Even within the deeply pro-life movement towards natural family planning, or NFP, there is a negative mentality that many couples bring into the bedroom: we must keep from getting pregnant.

I am not arguing that every act of intercourse should - or does - result in conception. That's not the point, and our bodies certainly don't function that way. What I am suggesting is the insidious anti-life mentality that has pervaded modern thought, whereby pregnancy has become a symptom of "unsafe" or "failed" sex, and conception is an unfortunate side effect or a utilitarian achievement at best.

Even for couples practicing NFP, so often they use the language of "trying" versus "not trying." Here's the linguistic difficulty here: if you're not "trying" to get pregnant, chances are that if you have sex and do "get" pregnant, you're going to be surprised, oftentimes unpleasantly so.

And this was never God's design for sexual love. He didn't attach pregnancy to copulation to punish or enslave his children for their sexual appetites. There are natural goods (desire, pleasure, stimulation) attached to sex because of the greater good (the creation of a unique human being) that sex is capable of producing.

The language here is still painfully inadequate and unavoidably utilitarian in the face of the majesty of the human person, but I'm trying to make a point. Simply, that sex resulting in babies is not a bad thing, as every commercial, magazine ad and sitcom plot would imply, but rather, is a good thing. A very good thing.

We've taken it out of context, distorted the design, and are now suffering the "consequences" of an impoverished view of sexuality. We are creatures of mind and body, much as we foolishly persist in adhering to Descartes's dualistic separation of the two. What we do with our bodies we do with our selves. We are not "ghosts in the machine," but embodied souls.

This is why contraception is so damaging, ultimately. For all the evil effects on the physical level, we hardly give a moment's thought to the reality of what happens to our hearts when we deliberately divorce meaning from action. When we speak this way, meaning one thing but consciously saying another, it is called a lie. When we speak the language of the body without integrity, we lie also, to ourselves, to God, and to the other whom we are engaging.

Contraception is perhaps the greatest falsehood we can speak with our bodies. And my generation can't remember a time without widespread acceptance and even celebration of its use. No wonder we're so screwed up -pun intended- when it comes to all things sexual. We've been lied to our whole lives. And when we at last encounter the truth, the dignity of human sexuality, we can't bear to look at it. Hell, we don't even have the language to discuss it. Imagine living your entire life in a dimmed cave and suddenly stepping out into brilliant sunshine that illuminates every darkened corner. You can't look at that, you can only cover your eyes and pray they adjust, gradually, to the brightness. And it hurts.

But that doesn't make the light bad. The light is good; very good. We need to train our minds and hearts to adjust to the light, praying that our eyes might be strengthened to open fully and see the splendor of what lies illuminated before us.

1 comment:

  1. A great challenge Catholics will face in the coming years (beyond fidelity to the Church) is proving, clearly and step-by-step, how the embracing of artificial birth control lead to a unraveling of social structures and moral norms. It is often pointed out that the acceptance of birth control has resulted in an increase in socially harmful practices, such as divorce. Could be, but as a correlation isn’t tantamount to causation, the connection between the two will need to be thoroughly revealed by using scientific arguments.

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