Fulton Sheen famously said that “there are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church – which is quite a different thing.”
In the years since I became passionate about the defense of my faith, I have found this to be profoundly true. In one area in particular, especially with people my own age, I always find Sheen’s statement popping into my head. After countless discussions on the topic, I have crafted my own corollary of his wise theorem.
It goes something like this: I have never met a single person who can accurately describe the Catholic Church’s teaching on human sexuality and who, in spite of this, believes it to be wrong.
Not a single person. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had where people (sometimes Catholic, sometimes not) tell me they don’t agree with the Church’s teaching on birth control, and then, when I question them, turn out to know nothing about it beyond “birth control is not allowed.”
Well, yeah. If that was all I knew about it, I’d be inclined to reject it too. No wonder so many Catholics openly reject the Church’s ban on birth control, if they’re as uneducated as the people I’ve run across. They can hardly be expected to follow a rule when they have no idea of its purpose.
Now, in a certain sense I think it’s not entirely these people’s fault that they don’t have the information they need. I’ll be the first to admit that catechesis in America is sorely lacking in many ways. I have no statistics on this, but based on my experience I’d say that almost no young American Catholics are taught the truth about Church teaching on sexuality.
I want to talk about birth control here for two reasons: first, because I want do my part, however small, to help people understand; second, because an understanding of Catholic teaching on sexuality in general, birth control in particular, goes hand-in-hand with an understanding of Catholic teaching on ART (for the uninitiated, that’s assisted reproductive technology). Lots of people have asked me about Catholicism and ART, and I’m finally getting around to writing about it. This is the introduction; the actual ART post will come later.
I don’t want this to turn into a free-for-all, so let me make myself clear: I am explaining the Church’s teaching, not starting an argument with you. If you’re Catholic and think I’m stating the Church’s position wrongly, feel free to correct me, but I’ll expect citations from the Catechism at the very least. If you’re Catholic and don’t accept the Church’s teaching, please understand that I’m not damning you – I don’t have the power to do that even if I wanted to, which I don’t – and if you’re feeling benevolent, do me the favor of listening to what I have to say. If you’re not Catholic, sit back and enjoy the ride! I’m glad you’re here.
As Catholics, we believe that all of creation is held in being by God, and everything in creation has a specific nature. Nature in this case has nothing to do with Mother Nature or the environment – it means essence, the whatness of a thing. Christian theologians from the time of Christ (and, heck, philosophers from time immemorial) have spent a LOT of energy discussing the nature of things. Over time, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church has given definitive descriptions of many things of theological importance. Baptism, for example, is clearly defined: the matter is water; the form is “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit;” the purpose is to cleanse from sin and give new life.
As you can see, the purpose of a thing is an integral part of its nature. A child learning about the nature of things often learns about them first by the purpose they serve. To a very young child a kitchen table is not “flat top, four legs – sometimes three – quite often made of wood, standard height thirty-six inches” but rather “that thing we eat off of.”
Eventually we get older, and know about all the simple things, (you guys knew what a table was before I told you, right?) so we learn about more complicated things, and purpose is rarely the most obvious aspect of the nature of a complicated thing. We learn the physical characteristics of things way earlier than we learn the metaphysical characteristics of things. Often because those metaphysical characteristics are up for debate. I knew what dating was, for example, way before I knew what dating was for. In fact, were it not a moot point for me now, I’d probably still be trying to figure out the exact purpose of dating. I know people who debate the topic, early and often and sometimes quite eloquently.
None of them with as much enthusiasm, however, as people in our society use when debating the purpose of sex. The more lenient say that sex should be whatever you want it to be, as long as it’s consensual; the more traditional try to draw lines, and rarely agree about where to draw them.
The good news for Catholics is that we don’t have to throw ourselves into that particular fray. Look! The groundwork is done for us.
That’s a link to the section from the Catechism on the sixth commandment. (Start with 2366 for the section dealing directly with artificial birth control. If you want more, Humanae Vitae is also an indispensable resource on the topic.) If you read through it, I hope you’ll be struck by the same thing that strikes me more as I learn about it.
Catholic teaching on sexuality is not – despite popular opinion – about what you must not do in order to avoid the wrath of God. The exact opposite, in fact. It’s ordered toward dignity. It’s ordered toward love. It’s ordered toward happiness, that perfect happiness which is nothing less than union with the One who created us.
In case you don’t have time to do all this reading right now, I’ll give you my own outline – with the caveat that I am bound to do a less-than perfect job.
The purpose of sexual union is two-fold: the unitive and the procreative. The love, and the natural result of the love.
Remember, Catholics are creationists. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we reject the Big Bang theory, but it does mean that we believe God created things the way they are for a reason. Some of this, no one argues about. Eyes? Obviously for seeing. Hey, that’s an easy one.
Sexual union – sperm, egg, all that – is naturally fertile. Sometimes it gets messed up (obviously) but that doesn’t change its basic nature, any more than the fact that there are blind people changes the basic nature of the eyes.
And procreation is much more important than sight, for the very specific reason that it is in the union of man and woman that God gets the chance to put new people in the world. (Infertility has put this into sharp relief for me by making it very clear that we, hard as we try, actually have no ability to create. That’s why it’s called procreation – we act for the sake of creating; God is the one who creates.)
So if we take the procreative aspect out of the sexual union? We take something that should be giving God the chance to create a new person, and we use the parts of it we enjoy, but refuse to give God his chance. Even though the only reason we have the opportunity to enjoy it at all is because God created it as pure gift to us. See why this might be a little bit of a problem?
Despite the fact that we do have a duty to use the things God created for the purposes for which he created them, Catholic teaching on sexuality is not centered around duty. It’s centered around perfection, by which I mean not flawlessness, but fullness. A perfect thing is a thing which is exactly what it was created to be. Catholic teaching on sexuality is about the perfection of the sexual act itself, and about the perfection of the people performing it.
It can be explained a lot of ways, but this is one of my favorites: Love is gift. Perfect love means abandonment of self. The sexual union is a way that husband and wife give themselves to each other, but if they contracept – if they make what would be the natural result of their love an impossibility – then they’re holding back. They’re not giving themselves fully to each other; they’re not letting their love follow through.
Also, like I said, they’re not giving God his chance to create. Which means they’re not giving themselves to him fully; they’re not letting him have charge of his own domain. Things aren’t meant to be that way.
Find a Catholic who really understands the Church’s teaching on sexuality and lives her life in accordance with it, and you won’t find her complaining about how she’d love to be able to use birth control. She knows that marital love that doesn’t allow procreation is impoverished, less than what it’s meant to be. She knows that when she abandons herself in the sexual union for the sake of her love for God and her husband, she’s doing something that makes every aspect of her life better. Fuller. More perfect. You might feel sorry for her when you see her in the grocery store with her eight children, but I promise you that if she understands and has assented, she’s not feeling sorry for herself.
When Bryan and I were engaged, a college acquaintance who knew of our commitment to our faith told us, “You could use birth control. No one would know.” (We actually did use NFP to avoid conception, but NFP is not the same as birth control because the nature of the sexual act itself is not compromised in any way.) I honestly didn’t know what to say, because he didn’t understand that our compliance with Church teaching on that subject had nothing to do with fear, and everything to do with wanting what is best.
Good parents don’t let their children stuff themselves with candy and watch cartoons all day instead of going to school, because even though the children might want that, the parents know they need to learn instead. God is a good father: he doesn’t want us to have everything we want; he wants us to have everything we need. I’m working very hard to accept that even though a child is what I want, it might not be what I need right now. I wish married Catholics could figure out that the converse might be true for them: even though another child might not be what they want, it could be exactly what they need.
But regardless of whether that next child comes, it’s profoundly true that acting for love, acting in accordance with love as God created it, is exactly what everyone needs at all times. Holding on to the procreative aspect of sexual union is just one part of doing that.