The Church is both right and wrong about contraception
There are so many reasons why a reasonable person might think the Catholic Church is wrong about contraception they can hardly be listed. If you wanted an example for why atheists think religion is toxic surely it is here. Time and again attempts by the United Nations to address the world population crisis by handing out free condoms have been frustrated by the Vatican, supported by its equally benighted Islamic allies as it abuses its technical identity as a nation state. Indeed, the failure of the Church authorities to address the population issue is deeply shocking. Surely we have here an example of the unhealthy obsession of a celibate clerical culture with sex. It becomes understandable when we reflect that the early Church grew up in a Roman Empire that was totally obsessed with sex. In Rome there was a brothel in nearly every street, advertising its services by a huge erect phallus brazenly displayed above the door. When St Paul castigated the Romans for their perverted sexual behavior he knew what he was talking about. But the Christian reaction to all this was often as obsessed as that it was appalled by, except in reverse. Most of them were, after all, cultural Romans too. Some of the statements of the Church fathers about the evils of sex in general and women in particular as Jezabel Eves lasciviously flaunting this demonically glowing red apple before weak men are cases for the psychiatrist.
We don’t know why Paul VI confirmed the ban on contraception in Humanae Vitae. But he certainly accepted the view of the minority report from the commission he set up to examine the issue. The theological thinking of this minority report was just about as theologically bad as anything could be. Its gist was that this was a doctrine that had always been taught by the ordinary magisterium of the Church, that is the Pope and bishops speaking together, and since not only the Pope when he speaks ex cathedra is infallible but the ordinary magisterium also – a doctrine that had only been re-iterated by Vatican 2 a year or two before – the Pope could not change the doctrine even if he wanted to. This was quite wrong thinking. For Protestants the Church is the product of the Bible, the enduring rock upon which faith rests. But for Catholics the Bible is the product of the Church. The Church is not an unmoving rock, as it is so often unfortunately portrayed, but a living organism which, as organisms do, grows and changes. The whole point of infallibility is to set up an authority strong enough to declare that fresh insights into the meaning of Scripture are as worthy of belief as the Scriptures themselves, in other words development of doctrine.
This can sometimes mean an actual reversal of what had hitherto always been believed. For example, at one time it was thought that the doctrine of extra ecclesia nulla salus,, outside the church there is no salvation, literally meant what it said, with the corollary that it is right to burn heretics alive, because it was better that they should burn for a few hours in this life than that those they might influence should burn for ever in the next. But then theologians developed the doctrine of baptism by desire, and nobody would think now that the previous understanding was true (although I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there are still a few reactionaries in the musty back rooms of the Vatican who still do). So it is here. The idea that doctrines can never change is about as un-Catholic as it is possible to be. Perhaps we should take into account too that the Church’s most intransigent opponent of contraception, John Paul II, was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, an affliction that in its late stages can lead to dementia. Surely the atheists are right. If you want a demented doctrine this is it.
Yet in spite of all this, the Church in my view is in principle right. Remarkably in nature, the human female is sexually receptive most of the time outside her fertile period of three or four days each month. Sexual communion during this fertile time is participating with God in the creation of the world, it is as sacred as the high priest entering the holy of holies one day each year on the Day of Atonement. Most of sexual time belongs to humanity but this time belongs to both humanity and God. In my view what brings happiness above all else to humanity is significance, and few human behaviours could be more significant than this. In a Darwinian context sex is about spreading genes as widely as possible, so it makes evolutionary sense for men to have as many affairs as possible outside marriage and for women to desert their present partners for new ones with better genes to offer. But Christ presents us with another marital possibility for human beings, a faithful union which is ever moving forward, ever more wonderful, ever deeper, ever more exciting as we hasten onwards together towards our heavenly kingdom. Isn’t this just a lovely fantasy? Clearly it isn’t, for there are uncountable Christian couples who have experienced this deepest of joys and would affirm that Christ was right. A view of sex as an especially sacred part of marriage – and if you hold such a view surely it can’t be right to deliberately frustrate God’s action in nature – is all of a piece with a Christian view of marriage. How noble a view is this compared with the sexual degradation, and extreme unhappiness it often causes, we see all around.
But as usual the Church has fouled up its own beautiful doctrine. It has been presented as an arbitrary rule which carries the sanction that if you break it you will spend all of eternity in hell (not by Humanae Vitae which is a compassionate and sensitive document). Can we seriously imagine Jesus sending people to hell because they had been using condoms? The harlots he consorted with must have been using them the whole time, rather inefficient ones made of sewn up pigs’ intestines smeared with crocodile dung. Nowadays, of course, it has become so much easier to detect the fertile period, the doctrine does not present the problems that once it did, for most people. For most, should they wish to accept this invitation to a greater life, it should not be too difficult to observe. But this is by no means the case in all cases. The teaching is not a manacle, a penitential discipline designed to ensure the maximum sexual misery. It is an invitation to a greater life, and if people don’t quite feel able to respond to that as they might wish, well we are most of us failing to respond to invitations to a greater life most of the time. Every time you get yet another begging letter from a charity and with a vague sense of guilt perhaps throw it in the bin, it probably doesn’t cross your mind that you might go to hell. Yet Christ never mentions condoms but tells us to share our goods with the poor with the greatest urgency. We just have to do our best.
We should never forget that in sex we are both closest to and furthest away from the animals from which we evolved. Nothing is so physical as sex. Yet no animal will throw away thrones for love. That is why sex is both comical and transcendentally wonderful. In a world that has materialized so much the Church has struggled to retain this sense of the transcendental and for that we should honour and revere it. But it has made awfully heavy weather of it. Maybe a Vatican congregation for laughing both at sex and itself wouldn’t be a bad idea either.