A popular writer here at Patheos is Hemant Mehta, AKA the Friendly Atheist. Obviously, we often disagree. I understand that when he summarizes Catholic beliefs his summaries would be far from what I would write. However, in a recent column about a Catholic hospital aligning with Catholic teaching and no longer offering sterilization surgeries (Good news!), he states Catholic teaching in a way that directly contradicts the facts. I will point out the facts. Mehta said:
The Catholic Church is against all this because they believe pregnancy should be the goal of sex between married people. They oppose masturbation, sex between two men or two women, and birth control pills, and condoms, and any other form of contraception. (Their preferred method of having sex without getting pregnant is to use the rhythm method. Vasectomies and tubal ligations would prevent pregnancy, so both are forbidden by the Church.
I highlighted the factual errors. One might argue that some of his other descriptions aren’t quite accurate. For example, his description of why vasectomies and tubal ligations are immoral is wrong, but this follows partially from his first error and would be more complicated to explain.
The Goal of Sex
Is driving on the right side of the road in the USA the goal of driving? Of course not. However, we’d agree that driving on the right side is a requirement for proper and safe driving. We would just need to add points like speed, attention to the road, etc. to be safe. However, the goal is usually getting from A to B, or the joy of driving.
The Catholic Church sees sexuality in a way like this. We see that to be moral, sexuality can’t contradict the procreative (possible babies) or unitive (love between the couple) meanings. These can be the goals but as far as moral sexuality, all that is required is not to go against them. Humanae Vitae, the Church document on contraception, states this clearly.
[There is an] inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.
The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called.
Hemant says that we teach “pregnancy should be the goal of sex between married people.” However, what we actually teach is “openness to the possibility of life is one of the requirements for a moral marital embrace.” A Catholic couple can have sex for various motivations, so long as they don’t contradict either of two pre-requisites for moral sexuality.
Catholics Don’t Promote the Rhythm Method
Is it fair to compare two technologies using the version of one from WW2 and the version of other from 2018? I doubt it. Yet, this is what Hemant does. I’ve been around many Catholic circles where people avoid contraception or sterilization surgeries and I’ve heard of many different methods for monitoring your fertility, but I have never seen anyone promote the rhythm method, let alone say it is the preferred method. In fact, right now many use a modern technological device to measure hormones (it even has a touchscreen). The Church even prefers more accurate methods of monitoring fertility.
The Billings Method which was one of the first methods developed to help monitor hormones to know when a woman is fertile was developed starting in 1953 and widely available by the late 1960s. This is about the same time as the birth control pill’s development.
Hemant could have even found much of this on Wikipedia, so it isn’t like I went somewhere secret to find this. The Natural Family Planning page describes various methods approved by the Catholic Church and although the rhythm method is mentioned in passing, Fertility Awareness is far more spoken of. This Wikipedia page even states implicit Catholic preference for Fertility Awareness over the rhythm method from Humanae Vitae. It quotes, “It is supremely desirable… that medical science should by the study of natural rhythms succeed in determining a sufficiently secure basis for the chaste limitation of offspring.” Further, the Wikipedia pages for both NFP and Fertility Awareness mention the historical reality of the Billings Method coming about in the 1950s and 60s.
I don’t want to start an argument with Hemant Mehta. I’m not even going to critique him for his summaries of Catholicism that rub me the wrong way: he’d probably say the same about my summaries of atheism. (I also have to deal with the fact that atheists vary in belief. Catholic teaching authority makes it easier to avoid errors when talking about our teaching.) However, I do ask that he and other non-Catholics correct the factual errors above about Catholic teaching. I don’t think Hemant is alone as I have heard such mischaracterization of Catholic teaching before. Let’s try to at least get the facts right about others’ beliefs, even if we disagree.