I’ve been writing about why I think the Church’s teaching on sexuality — particularly homosexuality and contraception — is evil. Mostly I’ve been talking about history, and the question of how the teaching came to be what it is in the first place. I want to put that aside for the moment and talk about the present: how do these teachings cause grave and demonstrable harm to real human beings living in the world right now?
I’m going to start with contraception.
In theory, the Catholic Church recognizes two essential (and essentially correct) principles regarding reproductive choice:
1. That people should practice responsible parenthood, seeking to have children only when it is responsible and reasonable to do so, and
2. That the decision to seek or avoid pregnancy is private, that only the parents can determine whether they are financially, emotionally, physically and spiritually able to care for a child.
What this means, actually, is that certain people within the hierarchy made good arguments in committee meetings showing that providentialism (the belief that you should just have as many children as you can because “God will provide”) is a terrible idea. One suspects that these individuals expected the Church to arrive at the obvious conclusion: that the teaching prohibiting contraception needs to be overturned because it is opposed to reason, common-sense, and the actual good of human beings. In practice, however, these obviously sane observations were incorporated into the documents in principle, but undermined in practice.
The problem is that responsible parenthood and parental discernment only become possible when people have access to reliable means of avoiding pregnancy. But thousands of years ago men who did not understand how human reproduction and sexuality actually work came to the conclusion that sex is fundamentally problematic and can only be grudgingly justified when it is necessary for procreation.
Overturning the flawed reasoning of these men would involve admitting that celibate guys might not have infallible insight into human sexuality — and if that were admitted, the entire house of cards might start to collapse. People might see that priests, bishops, canonized theologians and even popes are just ordinary, fallible human beings and not specially selected ambassadors of the Holy Spirit with magical powers to know the truth about things they have no experience of.
So the Church came up with a compromise that provides the worst of both worlds: you are obligated to think carefully about whether having a child is a good idea and to choose responsibly — and then you are supposed to effect those decisions using hideously unreliable means.
The Tree By Its Fruits
NFP allows the Church to maintain that they have been right for all of those centuries while acknowledging that choice and responsibility are necessary elements of any reasonable sexual ethic. It’s a perfect solution with only one niggling drawback: it doesn’t work. Of course, if you’re an unmarried man who is only accountable to other unmarried men, this minor difficulty can be overlooked for the sake of the obvious institutional advantage of being able to claim infallible insight, prescient wisdom, and pastoral understanding while also shoring up the putative moral superiority of the celibate class.
This is why I call Humanae Vitae evil. It is a document whose fundamental purpose is to maintain the power and authority of the Catholic hierarchy regardless of the harm that this does to the people who have to practice it. Some of those responsible for formulating the doctrine, like Ottaviani, almost certainly knew this. I suspect that most of its supporters, however, have convinced themselves that there is no real conflict of interests, that on some deeper level the good of humanity is best served by upholding the power of the Church — or that the doctrine really is about the “truth and dignity of human sexuality” and not about the need to avoid the embarrassment of admitting that over a thousand years of teaching had been wrong. Few people are genuine Machievellians, and there’s been a lot of ink spilled trying to show that NFP is better for women, better for children, better for society… If you and your colleagues don’t have to actually live with the consequences of the teaching, it’s not that hard to assume that the rosier portrayals are probably the most accurate.
In reality, though, Humanae Vitae was not prescient, wise or merciful. Widespread access to contraception has not resulted in increased government interference in people’s reproductive lives: the forced sterilization campaigns and coercive birth-limiting policies that Paul VI predicted have not materialized. On the contrary, in the years since the publication of HV such policies have become increasingly unacceptable to individuals and to the international community. Why? Because it turns out that when you give people access to reproductive choice, they will generally make reasonable and responsible decisions. In areas with stifling population densities, like Japan, birth-rates fall. In times of traumatic population loss, like World War II, there are baby booms. It’s almost as if our species has evolved to survive without the reproductive management of the Vatican.
The Church’s teaching on contraception is, however, deeply harmful to the minority of Catholics who sincerely believe that the Vatican has the right to regulate their sexual behaviour. It is coercive, misogynistic and harmful to children.
For those who have never been a devout believer in an authoritarian religion, it can be difficult to relate to the way in which religious authorities are able to exercise control over adherents. Even now, as someone who had that experience, when I look in from the outside I’m perplexed. It seems so obvious that there is no being outside of time and space who will torture people for eternity if they use a condom. That this has never happened. Could never happen. That even if God existed, it would still be a preposterous belief.
When you’re in that world, though, it somehow seems real. And in the case of contraception, it’s particularly insidious.
With most “sins,” Catholicism offers an escape clause. In some cases, this takes the form of straightforward justification: stealing isn’t stealing if it’s the only way to feed your children, killing isn’t killing if you do it in self-defense or in war, missing Mass doesn’t count if you’re sick, etc. With contraception, however, there is no justification for married couples. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to prevent the transmission of HIV, or if your children are literally starving to death, or if another pregnancy would put the mothers life at risk. Contraception, unlike driving a bayonet through someone’s innards, is intrinsically evil. This means it can never be morally acceptable.
The other “escape clause” in Catholicism is forgiveness: sure, you’re not going to live a perfect life, God understands that. You will sometimes be overcome by temptation. You’ll drink more than you intended, you’ll break down in a moment of weakness and watch porn, hell, you might even lose control of yourself and kill your spouse in a fit of rage. God understands. If you are sorry for what you have done, you can confess your sins confident in God’s forgiveness.
What you can’t do is presume on God’s forgiveness. You can’t set out to commit a sin thinking “Meh, I’ll do this now and go to confession later and it’ll all be good.” This is actually an important idea: in the case of evils that are, you know, evil, it’s an essential safeguard. You can’t be a serial rapist who scrupulously schedules your predations around the confession schedule at your local parish, and you can’t be a gangster who plans to make it all good in the end with a deathbed confession and a hefty donation to Mother Church. You can’t treat the confessional as a loophole that relieves you of your moral obligations to other people.
For most sins, this means that you can both believe in hell and exist as a human being without being in a state of constant, paralyzing terror. You try your hardest, sometimes you fail, God is merciful. But with contraception, if you are “trying your hardest” to avoid contracepting, you will in fact not succeed in avoiding pregnancy. You can’t get your tubes tied or go get the shot with the intent of confessing it later — that’s presumption. If you go to confession and seek forgiveness for using a condom or taking the Pill, you’re not really contrite (and therefore cannot receive absolution) unless you intend to throw away the rest of your contraceptives when you get home.
Effective contraception involves a committed, deliberate, long-term, rational choice. You have to think ahead, discuss it with your partner, and take responsibility for your reproductive life. It’s not something that you do on the spur of the moment, in a fit of weakness, because your “flesh” got the better of you. Weakness, lust and irresponsibility are much more likely to result in failure to use contraception, and possibly in unplanned pregnancy. People don’t get vasectomies because they are overcome by temptation — they get vasectomies because they’ve concluded that it is the rational, moral, responsible thing to do.
It is exactly this kind of deliberate, conscientious, rational discernment that the Church cannot tolerate if it leads to the conclusion that the Church is wrong.
The Existential Smoking Gun
This is why the teaching on contraception becomes so burdensome, so coercive. You are quite literally being told that if you make a responsible decision — the right decision for yourself and for your family — you risk eternal torture. Good Catholics are encouraged to meditate on “the Last Things,” and there is a great deal of spiritual art and writing that describes in vivid, lurid detail the horrors that await the damned. Also, even if you are reasonably confident that God will be merciful and you won’t suffer forever, the Church assures you that you will face the pains of purgatory: hundreds of years of horrific misery and torment where you receive a “temporal punishment” for your sins that vastly exceeds any actual harm and suffering that you might have brought about by, say, masturbating in the shower or sleeping in instead of going to Church on Sunday.
In the case of contraception, you will have to suffer for the harm that you have caused to the Church by selfishly refusing to be open to life.
Here’s where the snake starts to eat its tail. On the one hand, you are supposed to practice responsible parenthood. On the other, you are always supposed to be “open to life.” Even if you have carefully discerned that it would be an absolutely terrible idea to have a child right now, you are still supposed to be open to the possibility that God wants you to have a child. How do you know God wants you to have a child even though it seems like a bad idea? Well, you will know if you find yourself facing an unplanned pregnancy. So if, for example, you use a highly ineffective method of family planning because it’s the only one you are permitted to use, and it fails, that’s not evidence that the method is hideously flawed and unreliable — it’s evidence that God really wanted you to have a child right now. It is therefore very selfish of you to practice responsible parenthood in a way that has a reasonable chance of succeeding.
A woman in this position feels as if she has a massive existential gun to her head. The threat of hell has been reinforced and magnified by repeated graphic depiction and internalized through meditation practices designed to instill intense fear in the believer. Authorities that you trust have told you that you will be punished with pain so severe that it exceeds your most horrific imaginings, and that this pain will go on for periods of time that you can’t even begin to wrap your head around. If you “selfishly” withhold your reproductive labour from your husband and from the church, you are not only doing evil, you are turning yourself into garbage that deserves to be burned in eternal fire.
But if you just give up control of your life and your body and endure the finite and measurable sufferings that you face in the present, then you will be redeemed. So which is it gonna be, doll?
This kind of coercion is traumatic. You are psychologically held down by the weight of hundreds of years of tradition and the authority of thousands of powerful men, selected by God to enforce his commandments. You are terrified to struggle free or to try to run because you sincerely believe that there is an all-powerful, all-seeing deity who has your body and your soul in his crosshairs. You are also terribly confused because you’ve been told that this psychological violence is the only true kind of love and that this is being done to you because it’s the only way to make you into a worthwhile person.
Women and Children Last
So you submit. You obey. You hope and pray and plead with God and try different kinds of NFP and every time it fails, you blame yourself for having failed yet again. You’re told that NFP is as effective as the Pill. You’re told that the problem is you. And you don’t find that hard to believe. After all, even if you’ve only just done one year of praying the rosary every day, you will have repeated to yourself that you are a sinner over 20 000 times and pleaded to be saved from the fires of hell 1825 times. That’s only one year, one type of prayer… Catholicism is very good at imprinting the idea that if there seems to be a problem, it’s probably you.
The second worst thing about it is that NFP fails the most spectacularly for the people who need it the most. It doesn’t work for the poor because its success rate plummets without consistent support from a qualified NFP instructor — and access to good, free, support is spotty at best. It doesn’t work for women in abusive marriages because its success is completely dependent on the idea that the couple is a unit, that they are working together in a mutually supporting way to make the method work. It doesn’t work for women who are overworked or have complicated schedules like, say, mothers with lots of children because the success rates plummet if you aren’t able to take measurements and record symptoms consistently at the exact same time each day. It doesn’t work for women who are stressed and sick — nobody has even gathered statistics on whether the method is successful at all for women with irregular menstrual cycles. It doesn’t work for women struggling with addiction or mental illness because it relies on a woman’s consistency and control over her actions.
In other words, many of the more serious reasons for avoiding pregnancy reduce the likelihood of being able to effectively use NFP.
The worst thing about it, though, is that when you force women, especially women in poverty, in abusive situations, in crisis, to rely on a method of family planning that does not work, the result is that children are born into poverty, abuse and crisis. It’s not just that the hierarchy is shoring up its own “infallible” authority at the expense of women. It is also doing it at the expense of children. In almost every case where a woman does not think it is a good idea for her to have a child, it is not a good idea for her to have a child. Having more children than you can handle is not good for the children. Having children in an abusive marriage is not good for the children. Having children because you are afraid of hell is an absolutely terrible reason to have children.
Using coercive threats to force women to risk pregnancy against our better judgement is an act of violence against women and children. The Church engages in this violence because the hierarchy is too arrogant and stubborn to be able to say “You know, we have learned a lot in the past centuries and we got some things wrong.”
This is evil.
Next time, we’ll look at how the same kinds of misogyny and power-lust are at the heart of the Church’s teachings on homosexuality.