Contraception and Signs of Contradiction: Part I

Contraception as Apparent Moral Good.  Most persons who use contraception conceive of it as a moral good.  They see an unruly, pullulating nature directed toward nothing other than its own continuance all about them; and in their sexual desires and fertility they find, unsurprisingly, an image of this endless profusion.  In response, they believe that the use of contraceptive technologies makes possible the near mastery of the human intellect over the otherwise undirected, at times dangerous, abundance of their inner natural world.  By suppressing fertility for much of their lives, and having children only at those moments they think most propitious, they hope to attain several goods that they believe to be both individually attractive and publically beneficial:

a) one can wait to have children until the most convenient moment, so that one’s career or economic well-being can be on a good footing, and that one’s career can be minimally sidetracked;

b) one can have just one or two children, so that the promise of sufficient time to dedicate oneself to one’s spouse and one’s children and the prospect of being able to provide for their every material want to great advantage seems most likely to be manageable;

c) planned parenthood in general provides numerous public benefits: a decrease in illegitimacy and abortion; allowance for later marriages and a consequent increase in fidelity and a decrease in divorce;

d) finally, in a world swelling with huge masses of humanity, a mastered and limited fertility can allow one to have a child or two without contributing to the long-prophesized fear of overpopulation.

These views are so common as to be practically universal; they are the common sense of our day and the guiding principles of much of our public policy in America and in the West as a whole.  To call any of them into question seems absurd.  To doubt the goodness of these things, more specifically, seems outright threatening.

Persons who use contraception believe themselves to be experiencing its goodness in every way: in the freedom felt in the very absence of a daily grind of daunting responsibilities for other lives; in the sigh of relief breathed as one loses a job or fails to earn what one had expected.  They see stories of child abuse or neglect on the news, or hear their friends’ tales of divorce, and reaffirm that children will have to wait until they are emotionally ready for that unique, privileged, and immense job.  They look to it as a moment to be prepared for, a singular episode to be lived through.  Moreover, they look at the images of urban slums abroad and at the high rise projects uptown; they see the very density of traffic on their own suburban roads, and they cannot help but wonder whether the blessing of each new child born—so palpable a joy in the singular—is not contributing to great social and material harm in the aggregate.

The Fragility of the Catholic Consensus.  One may hardly be surprised, then, that the Catholic teaching on the evil of contraception has, for forty years, met with visceral scorn and vitriolic contempt everywhere outside its parishes.  Nor need one be surprised that, in its parishes, such teaching has not infrequently been met with silence and evasion not just by lay Catholics but by priests.  For decades, a contract has been tacitly maintained between pulpit and pew: we will not preach against the secret practices of the bedroom, if you do not speak of them with casual acceptance.  One may contracept, so long as one remains too embarrassed or well-mannered to speak about it.

These last months have brought the silent shame and embarrassing teaching to the center of our public life in a way few of us could have anticipated.  The Obama administration has disrupted the shrouded-in-silence status quo of American Catholics as part of a larger political strategy further to fragment what remains of the Catholic vote.  It has thus rendered that quiet bargain so long ago struck in the old churches of Somerville and the parishes of Peoria uncomfortably visible and, consequently, simply unsustainable.

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