Op-Ed Contributor – The Catholic Church and Birth Control, 40 Years Later – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com
FORTY years ago last week, Pope Paul VI provoked the greatest uproar against a papal edict in the long history of the Roman Catholic Church when he reiterated the church’s ban on artificial birth control by issuing the encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” At the time, commentators predicted that not only would the teaching collapse under its own weight, but it might well bring the “monarchical papacy” down with it.
Those forecasts badly underestimated the capacity of the Catholic Church to resist change and to stand its ground.
Such unwillingness to change can be a resolute stand for all that is right and good, but it can also be simple obstinance, blindness to how the world is changing around you. An encyclical, of beautiful poetry on on the innate value of human life, does nothing to comfort me when confronted with the horrors of overpopulation and sexually transmitted disease, nor does it temper my belief that access to birth control could allow women to have more power over their male lovers by allowing them to make sex something other than a contract to form a household and raise children without end. I hope that in time, the Pope will see birth control the way the rest of the world sees it: an imperfect but valuable tool to allow women to take control of their own love and sex lives, so that men and women can reap the benefits of that independence.
I’m not exactly sure what value there is in tying sex, marriage, and procreation together in the same act. Doesn’t that seem like overdoing it? As we say in relationships: take it slow! One thing at a time!
But also, by not accepting the realities of how world culture has changed, the church risks making its own valuable messages irrelevant by making them seem inapplicable to the lives of young people. How can you teach sexual responsibility at the same time as absolute, unyielding fidelity before marriage? How can you teach safe sex if you are teaching no sex? How can you teach to care for your partner, to listen to his or her wants or needs, if sexual desires are rendered illegitimate for all but childbearing? And does it really value children to imply, in a backhanded way, that they are handy excuses to have sex? (What I mean is that the church runs a harsh risk by tying sex exclusively to children: that, instead of making sex more meaningful by tying it to children, they make children less meaningful by tying them to sex. That disturbs me greatly.)
I admire standing on principle, but they have to be timeless, unyielding, and grounded in the ultimate sancticity of life. I don’t think there’s anything in the Bible prohibiting medical implements that would not be invented for thousands of years and have no historical analogue. There’s a legitimate argument (one I do not subscribe to) against abortion, but it distresses me because it comes close–not there, mind you, but close–to an argument that a potential baby is the same as a birthed one. (I’m sorry to bring up abortion here because I know it’s a touchy subject. I promise to address it later in full.) The argument that emergency contraception, desperately needed in times of (as the name implies) emergency, is “effectively” abortion crosses this line, as does the even more insipid argument that any birth control does so by preventing children from ever being concieved. (Emergency contreception, it should be noted, does the same: no baby is concieved, or aborted.) One more step and we’re saying that something else is “effectively” abortion: abstinence. Apparently, if but one of a woman’s eggs goes unfertilized, that’s a potential baby lost for the ages. I would much rather have men and women make responsible choices about whether or not they can really raise a baby than make unrealistic vows never to have sex until they do so.
I’ve never had sex. I am a virgin. Given that I am in my early twenties, this puts me in a minority. However, teen pregnancy has, thank the Lord, gone down in recent years, upticking only recently (and though I know many factors can influence such statistics, I have to be irked at how our youths’ promising tradition of lowering these rates came to an end as students taught under federally supported abstinence-only education started going off to college in large numbers). If the church cannot bear to stress the importance of sexual responsibility–requiring it to jettison its view of sex outside of marriage as innately wrong–it is writing itself out of young people’s lives and out of history, which is tragic because I would wager young people need this message now more than ever. I’d think that increased interconnectedness has given young people more peer influence than ever, and given parents less control over the envrionment that kids grow up in. That would mean kids need the message of sexual responsibility reinforced all around them, by people they respect, in school, in the home, and in the church. That means that church leaders must step up to the plate and be involved in students’ lives, and not surrender them to the seductive terror of unfettered, selfish, irresponsible sexuality.
There’s nothing Godly about making yourself unhappy, and nothing inherently sinful about sexuality. The scourge in question is selfishness, nihilism, the unrestrained quest for self-fulfillment, one that never ends. You are not, realistically, going to make your children uninterested in sex, no matter how many promise rings they wear upon going to college. Far more important is arming them against the forces of temptation to lose themselves in ceaseless self-gratification, and to teach them how to respect themselves and their partners. Such precautions have a multiplier effect for human rights, here and in the entire world. We can stand by our children through harrowing times, or we can abandon them in the name of principle, principle as well-meaning as it is misapplied. It’s that simple.
One argument remains, which is that birth control makes sex easier for people, and will cause them to do it more, resulting (somehow) in sexual irresponsibility. I dislike this argument because I think babies are a harsh disincentive, and I do not want to devalue children by making them a token punishment for sex rather than beautiful human beings in their own right. But also, I do not think it is fair for us to limit people’s choices in this way. We can model good behavior, we can demonstrate good behavior, we can advise good behavior, but we cannot force it, and doing so for a person’s own good is morally reprehensible. If somebody wants to lose him or herself to mindless pursuit of pleasure at the expense of all else, fine. It’s best to make sure that we do not involve children in such mindlessness by forcing the duty of parenthood upon such people ill-suited for the job, and to ensure our children know how best to avoid falling into such traps, traps of forcing themselves to be unhappy or traps of thinking of nothing but making themselves happy (and never reaching it). (People, incidentally, have a way of sharply flipping between these extremes. It’s best not to encourage either.)
Our bodies, our sexualities, are beautiful, they are gifts from God. Why should we not cherish and respect them, and treat our own and those of others with the dignity they deserve? Why should I not allow the church’s teachings into my sex life when I think they may be useful, as the essential rightness of what Jesus says does not somehow end at the bedchamber? Why should I not respect myself and those I love by engaging in sex when taking physical and emotional precautionary measures on behalf of us both, and choosing not to when it would not be a good idea? If the choice to have sex is out of your hands, so is the choice not to have sex, and the choice to have sex on your own terms. When overpopulation, STDs, and the suboordinate status of women are stubborn problems in the developing world linked to all others, it makes the breaking of the taboo of sex, in dorm rooms, dining rooms, and churches, more critical than ever.