Remember that awkward moment when you got “the talk”? If you did get it, odds are it ranks among one of the more uncomfortably unforgettable moments of both your life and the life of the one who explained the intricacies of the birds and the bees to you. My dad gave me the talk while we were working on a furnace together. I fulfilled my customary role of flashlight-holder while he rambled on about the mechanics of sexual intercourse – the thing was that his head wasn’t even visible while he did so, as he was laying on the floor, head on the underside of the machine. I was grateful for that: no eye contact; my dad likely was, too. Yet, when all was said and done, one task got done the right way – the family was warm again – but the other was left horribly unfinished.

Odds are that most of our upbringings left us without a real, convincing understanding of the relationship between sex and love. Most of us got just the basics of how the biological act works, if we got the talk at all. Adding salt to the wound, the cultural surrounding continues to offer an impoverished understanding of both sex and love, leaving us rather confused and disoriented. In the midst of this void, we have a real need for clarity and truth.

And it’s in this light that I’d like to invite you to take an honest, objective look at the Church’s teaching on the immorality of artificial birth control. Often times, if we’re presented with an argument supporting the Church’s stance here, it’s given awkwardly and insufficiently. The common explanation basically runs like this: “You have to let God in and allow him to decide when and whether you have a baby, being open to life as a gift from Him.” This, understood in the proper light, is a true statement. It is also immensely unconvincing.

In fact, there seem to be many other things which God ought to be more concerned about in this regard: Doesn’t he care about responsible parenthood, having only the children we can support? Doesn’t God allow us and want us to use science to advance man’s dominion over creation and to better human existence? Doesn’t he call us to be stewards of the earth and our family? Doesn’t he know that having one more kid would kill me and my wife?

In the end, it seems that the Church has to pony up a little here and give an explanation that’s more understandable and convincing. The present article hopes to contribute to this discussion.

First, however, we need to understand something about how the Church views human sexuality versus how the society views human sexuality. We’ll look at it in three parts:

What is sex?

The Church: Sex is a beautiful gift of God, especially when considered on the level of a human being, who is a person capable of reasoning, freely choosing, and loving

The Society: Sex is a biological act that satisfies a basic need that must be met in whatever way possible, according to the desire of the individual

What does sex mean?

The Church: Sex is meaningful. It has a twofold, objective meaning: First, it expresses in a bodily way the deepest possible love that exists between a man and a woman. It says, in its action, “I give myself entirely to you in love.” This is a beautiful gift: the ability to express in the body a spiritual love. Secondly, sex is the way that a human being participates in the procreative work of God. The child conceived through sexual intimacy is only conceived along with God: while the couple offers the material body of the child, he alone fashions its soul. God is intimately involved in a couple’s intimacy. This twofold meaning gives direction to human sexuality.

The Society: Sex is meaningless. It has meaning only if I give it meaning. Sex is what I choose to make it. In itself, sex has no objective significance; however an individual chooses to use his sexual faculty is his prerogative; he decides how to satisfy this bodily need.

How is sex related to love?

The Church: Human sexuality is inseparable from love. If the act of sexual intimacy does not occur within the context of love, it fails to live up to its objective meaning. No one can perform an action that says, “I give myself entirely to you in love,” and at the same time not mean it without severely abusing the gift of sex and himself in the process. True love is committed, undying, self-sacrificial love: a type of love that is found in its totality in a marital relationship.

The Society: Sex is only connected to love if you want it to be. Ideally, it’s connected to love; however, if the urge needs to be satisfied, better just to scratch the itch.

The basic question that arises, then, is whether sex is meaningful or meaningless. For an experiential answer, find a 15-year-old girl whose 17-year-old boyfriend swindled her, got her into bed, and then dumped her and then ask what she thinks: meaningful or meaningless? It’s either one or the other. Without really believing everything above that the Church teaches about sex, we fall into a meaningless, empty view of sexuality that leaves us impoverished. Only living by an authentic view of sex really fulfills an individual.

And here is where the discussion of artificial birth control fits in.

Clearly, artificial birth control closes the most intimate action between a man and woman to the second meaning of human sexuality mentioned above (procreation). And in doing so, it destroys the first meaning: no one can say “I give myself entirely to you in love,” and at the same time withhold the gift of one’s fertility and openness to life. The gift is no longer complete and it becomes a lie: you’re not giving yourself completely.

But even more, the use of artificial birth control greatly damages your entire relationship. Because sex has become a lie, the focus of sex shifts, too: from being focused on the love you have for the other person, the focus now becomes yourself, the pleasure you experience, the satisfaction of the urge. No longer is sex an act of love, it’s an act of use. In turn, failing to express a total gift of self in your most intimate life together by refusing to be open to children worms its way through your entire relationship; it changes the way you think of her; it becomes a failure to give of yourself in your marriage itself. And failing to make a total gift of self in marriage leads only to distress, divorce, and suffering.

So, men, while she’s using the pill [or any form of artificial birth control], you’re using her. She’s become a thing, a thing meant to satisfy you. And she’ll never become a person to you again until you get her off of it.

If the most intimate part of your life, the part that expresses the depth of your love in bodily form has become self-centered and pleasure-seeking (which is what artificial birth control makes it), your relationship as a whole will be devastated. It becomes as meaningless and empty as your sex life; you become objects of use to one another and no longer persons worthy of love, worth suffering for, worth dying for.

So, brothers, it’s time to reevaluate. Look into Natural Family Planning (NFP) for responsible ways of managing birth according to your resources, while remaining open to life and love within your marriage. It’s effective (about 98%, perfect use, depending on the method – same as the pill, perfect use). So, check it out; and join the fight to turn from a relationship of use to a real, fervent, fulfilled relationship of love with your wife.

  • John

    Unfortunately this article makes one of the most common and I would say most damaging mistakes in Catholic life today. It inverts the ends of marriage by listing procreation as the second meaning of sexuality. The first words that God spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were ““Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…”. He spoke these words before the fall, therefore before dis-unity had entered into the relationship between man and woman. It is this inversion of the ends of marriage, which no longer teaches that the primary end of marriage is children, and that the secondary ends of marriage are at the service of the primary end, which opens the door to contraception in the first place. God bless

  • Confused Catholic

    I’m a bit confused…what do you mean when you say that NFP is “effective”? From your given statistic, “98%, perfect use” would imply that you mean it is effective in preventing pregnancy (not sure what else it could imply in this context).

    If you are using NFP to prevent pregnancy–how does the thinking explored above (and quoted below) not apply here as well?

    When using NFP to prevent pregnancy, doesn’t this also occur?: “sex has become a lie, the focus of sex shifts, too: from being focused on the love you have for the other person, the focus now becomes yourself, the pleasure you experience, the satisfaction of the urge.”

    When using NFP to strategically have sex to maximize pregnancy prevention (at a 98% rate, with perfect use)…how does that not make sex “self-centered and pleasure-seeking”?

  • Michelle

    Perfectly articulated article Father. Thank you for writing this!

  • Erin

    “NFP for managing birth…” IS birth CONTROL. Whether ‘artificial’, by means of medication or barrier, or abstaining, or the rhythm method, you are trying to CONTROL fertility. Please I really wish the Church would stop this petty argument. Either you have sex whenever, however, and really leave it up to G-d, or you are try to control. If you are against birth control, fine, but don’t then practice NFP and preach to me about the ills of BC. On a slightly different thought, there have been documents found that insinuate that the priesthood and nunnery is ‘celibate’ not necessarily due to dedication to G-d, but because the Church knew if they allowed the priests to have families, they would be HUGE. They didn’t want the financial responsibility of thousands of large families to provide for.

  • Allie

    Interesting article, and I agree with a lot of what’s said here. My biggest concern for birth control is that it could prevent a fertilized egg from attaching (a very early form of abortion) or that it would screw with my hormones/health (I avoid taking medications – even ibuprophin – unless extremely necessary). Personally, my husband and I wanted all of our kids back-to-back, so we haven’t tried to put space in between them.

    That being said, I’m a bit confused by your reasoning here. Wouldn’t the above argument make it “use” of one another even in a family planning setting (avoiding intercourse during ovulation)? You are specifically choosing to have sex when her body is not preparing for procreation. And wouldn’t that same line of reasoning follow that it would also be treating her as an object of she was already pregnant (any concern/chance for further life is gone)? Or, what about a woman who knows she is unable to concieve? I guess I feel like this reason of use falls a bit flat in the full picture of the marriage relationship, but I may not be understanding you correctly. It is very important not to use one another (and I believe the article makes very insightful points here), but I’m not sure how you can quite make the argument of procreation being a major factor in that equation. Pregnant or sterile women seem just as capable of being used, using or being properly loved in a meaningful way as those avoiding pregnancy.

  • Chris Gallagher

    A one-sided argument. Women, like men, have desires, or an urge to be scratched. It’s human nature, with nature being the more operative word here. Your description of the idealized relationship involving sex is beautiful but fails to consider the biological drive of all animals, humans included. See in the context of the husband wife relationship you described is beautiful, and should remain that way. There are contraceptive techniques (e.g., condoms) that avoid insemination yet allow a couple to achieve that special meld of body, spirit, and soul that exists between husband and wife. The Catholic Church would be better positioned to guide couples on sexual relations if they took the core animal instincts into account with their doctrine, teaching, and guidance.