A friend of mine, Joël, asked me an number of good questions about Catholicism. Unfortunately, I can’t remember all of the things he brought up (Joël, if I forget anything, please remind me!), but here is the first of the questions I remember him raising.
How can we expect young people today to follow Catholic teachings on birth control, particularly with the growing debts many young people face? Won’t a ban on birth control lead to families larger than can be supported?
I. The Catholic View on Sex and Birth Control
To begin, the Catholic view on sex is that it’s supposed to be within marriage (I don’t think I’m surprising anyone here), and supposed to be total self-giving. This sort of total self-giving is for two purposes: unitive and procreative. In other words, this is the number one way that spouses can show love for one another, and through the act, the two become one flesh (Genesis 2:23). It’s a beautiful and sacred thing. But this unity is also connected to the idea of procreation: that even while the two become one, they’re also, at least potentially, creating a third life. So it’s a three-in-one concept, which we view as reflecting the Trinity in Heaven. Specifically, we think that the Father loves the Son, and the Son love the Father, and that Love is manifest in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the One to the Other. They’re three and one, simultaneously. Marital sex is the closest thing on Earth to understanding this heavenly reality. So Catholicism loves sex, but views it as an incredibly powerful force which should be treated with respect and care. Treating sex like mere recreation, or an answer to hormonal impulses isn’t sexual liberation – it’s the destruction of all that sex is and ought to be.
With this view, birth control is absolutely irreconcilable. Physical impediments, like condoms, restrict the unitive purpose of sex: you’re not giving yourself fully, even giving yourself fully physically. And all forms of birth prevention intentionally mar the procreative aspect of love, reducing it from a total act of self-giving to something which is (at least potentially) much more selfish. Considering the Trinity again, imagine if the Son said, “Don’t create humanity, I want to bask in your Divine Love alone for all of eternity; if You create humanity, it’s going to complicate things. They’re needy, they’re always messing things up, and they’re going to make Me come down there so they can torture and kill Me.” He’d have legitimate reasons for not wanting to create a human family, but it would still be an act of self-preservation triumphing over love. Remember that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s fear – and so love requires a lot of bravery. It requires God to allow Himself to become a vulnerable Baby, a condemned Criminal, tortured and spat upon. The best love’s never glamorous, it transcends glamor. So marital sex should be done in a brave and complete act of self-giving, or not at all – don’t do the thing halfway, as it degrades sex, your spouse, and yourself, as well as any children who might be formed from the union.
II. Answering the Question
With that brief explanation, a more specific look at the question. Both Joël and his girlfriend attend Georgetown with me, so I understand his perspective in asking this question. If, for example, two law school graduates married immediately after law school, they could easily be facing combined student loan debts of $200,000 or more. Georgetown’s roughly $40k a year (all things considered, not just tuition) if you don’t get financial assistance, so two people going the full three years are looking at a bill of about $240,000, plus college loans, plus the expenses of the wedding, buying a house, etc. In better economic times, a high-paying firm gig was almost a guarantee, so one or both of you could start paying that down right away, before the interest ate you alive. Now, even that’s in question, and so I can see why it might seem crazy to say, “Be fruitful and multiply!” when both spouses feel a real need to be working around the clock.
So how to act under these circumstances?
I think that there are three points worth consideration. First, in most cases, couples can afford children, even when facing lots of student debt. After all, we’re talking about one or both spouses working as attorneys here, and both spouses would have J.D.’s. So they’ve got marketable skills, and skills which can likely be used in ways which are conducive to child-rearing, as well. Not every law-related job requires sitting behind a desk 8 hours a day, so finding a job that allows plenty of “home time” might be a solution. Then again, it might not be — this is a question which couples are best capable of answering for themselves, after lots of prayer. But the first step in this process is taking a realistic look at finances, and learning to trust God.
The second step is figuring out how open you are to having children at this time. I don’t mean, “Should we try and have kids?” I mean, “if me/my wife were pregnant today, would we welcome this new gift from God?” It’s a hard question to ask, since it’s almost impossible to know the answer, in reality. But if you’re strongly inclined towards a “no,” the appropriate response is abstinence. You’re mature adults, not animals in heat. You don’t need to follow every pelvic impulse. So decide if you’re willing to have kids. If you are, you can give of yourselves fully to one another (and proceed to step 3); if you’re not, just abstain. It’s 100% effective, and you can show affection to one another in other ways until you’re ready to again give yourselves fully.
Step 3 is deciding whether to attempt any form of “family planning” or not. By this I don’t mean contraception. Birth control, in this situation, seems like an easy answer, but it’s not, in real life. The American Pregnancy Association estimates that condoms have a failure rate of 14%, and other forms of birth control have failure rates of up to 40%. It would be folly to think that this as some sort of fool-proof solution. And what message does each of you signal to your spouse about how much you desire children when you use birth control? If this turns out to be one of those 14% of cases, and your wife gets pregnant, she gets pregnant knowing you tried to stop her from having your (and her) child. It’s an early red flag that the child won’t be viewed as the gift from God that every new life is. The impact that this can have, even subconsciously, on relationships isn’t healthy. As for the more effective forms of birth prevention, they usually work by altering, long-term, the chemicals inside the woman’s body. They turn her body from its natural state of relative openness to new life into something more hostile and inhospitable. In many cases, chemical forms of birth control can increase the risk of ectopic pregnancies which kill the unborn child and threaten the life of the mother, and most chemical forms make it harder to conceive later. Some are, in fact, abortificants, by making the uterine lining less hospitable, so that the young unborn child starves to death (since he or she can’t attach to the uterine lining for nutrition). And even when the birth control isn’t an abortificant, it’s couples who use birth control who are causing most of the demand for abortions. When you make yourself into God, and decide that you (not He) get to decide when new life is and isn’t created, it’s not as surprising that abortion becomes the “eraser” you use when “mistakes” happen.
In contrast to all of these, the Catholic Church suggest NFP, or natural family planning. Using medical and hormonal clues, this process signals when a woman is most and least fertile. When you’re open to new life, but not seeking it, NFP allows you to give yourselves fully when there’s the least likelihood of pregnancy. Used properly, NFP can be 90-98% effective, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. According to information the Richmond Diocese provided on the topic, “In early 2007, a large-scale German study also confirmed that NFP is highly effective. Researchers studied cycles of 900 women and found that couples who used the sympto-thermal method and abstained during the fertile time had a pregnancy rate of less than one percent.”
And there are plenty of additional benefits. Unlike chemical birth control, which radically alters the woman’s natural cycles, natural family planning embraces and works within that system. It’s totally natural, and in accordance with nature. As a result, the couple grows together, rather than apart. The divorce rate for spouses using NFP has been estimated (as a result of various studies) as between .05-3%, while the overall divorce rate among Catholics is 21%. And while it’s true that one reason for this may be that NFP users tend to be more religious, and thus, less likely to divorce, that’s not at all clear from the actual divorce rates: Born-Again Christians are much more likely to divorce than atheists and agnostics, for example (27% v. 21%), so there’s hardly a clear correlation between religious belief and not divorcing.
In other words, NFP is proven effective at bring couples together and leaving them open to new life, while not overwhelmed by new children at a time when they don’t feel fully prepared.
I know that the Catholic teachings on this issue are quite at variance with the rest of what society preaches as gospel, but the Catholic view is actually on the side of the best and most persuasive evidence, and a more fundamentally correct view on what sex is, and how is should work.