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Frequent, Even Daily, Communion

by Michael Novak

in The Catholic Case for Contraception, Ed. D. Callahan, Macmillan, pp.92-102,1969.

How is it that Pope Paul VI and the writers of Humanae Vitae showed themselves incapable of under­standing marital love? Nothing in that text suggests that the Pope or his advisors understand the argument in favour of contraception, let alone have adequate answers to it; nothing shows that they understand marital love. One reads their instruction respectfully, weighs it against one’s own experience and one’s own context, and then makes a decision. The Pope’s word is but one of the words to be heard. It is not, on its own merits, a very perceptive or illuminating word. We have heard that word before, in fact, and have measured its inadequacy. Do the Pope or his advisors ever wonder why it is that men of good will, in good faith, do not see the matter as they do? Do they ever wonder why what seems obvi­ous and good to them does not seem either obvious or good to others? How can there be such a large gap of misunderstanding between brothers?

[p.93] The first assumption to make is that all parties to the argument are serious, of good will, and acting in good faith. Matters of life and death, of love and hate are at stake; our lives are touched at the very center by this discussion. I am willing to assume that the Pope and his advisors, and men like Cardinal O’Boyle, are not per­verse or malicious or acting out of duplicity. It is my temptation to think they are more concerned about the authority of the Church and about ecclesiastical con­sistency than about living human beings and the gospel of Christ. It is their temptation to think that those who oppose them are infected with secularism, subjectivism, or hedonism. If either side gives way to these tempta­tions mutual understanding is impossible.

The second assumption is that neither group has a privileged access to “objective truth.” The viewpoint of Humanae Vitae is, as nearly as the Pope and his ad­visors could determine, as close to the truth as they could arrive. But the viewpoint of those who defend marital contraception is also, in their considered view, as close to the truth as they can arrive. It is unlikely that both groups are totally in error, and yet at crucial points both views are in direct conflict. On these points, one of them is correct and one is incorrect; I do not accept an ultimate relativism. The first issue is to figure out why each side argues as it does—why serious men end in disagreement on such an important point. The second issue is to try to decide who is more correct and which view better incorporates the truth of the other. I do not wish to try to answer that second problem; I wish to address myself to the first. How can it be that the Pope and his advisors take the view they do? It is a puzzle to me, for I find that view so alien and strange [p.94] that I must work very hard to overcome the sensitivities and inclinations of intelligence developed over many years, in order to feel my way into their position. I can look at the world through their eyes only by the most strenuous effort of which I am capable. Correspondingly, I would feel more at ease if I felt that the Pope and his advisors would make the effort to look at the world through eyes unlike their own—if I felt that they truly understood what they reject.

Still, my main responsibility is for myself. And when I try to understand what I would have to change in myself in order to accept the viewpoint of Humanae Vitae, I find a whole series of presuppositions and attitudes that need to be brought into the light of day.

In the first place, there is a point of view suggested by the word “nature.” In my present point of view, time is as much a dimension of nature as space is. I imagine nature to be a four-dimensional continuum. It is as “unnatural” and “artificial” to intervene tempo­rally in this continuum as it is to intervene in it spatially. I do not understand why it is “unnatural” to block the spatial flow of the sperm so that it does not fertilize an ovum—to block it by diaphragm, or condom, say (however disagreeable such devices are)—and yet not “unnatural” to time the placement of the sperm so that it does not fertilize an ovum. In either case, human in­telligence is directing the process so that the ovum will not be fertilized. In the first case, a physical spatial object is inserted in the process; in the second case, an equally physical temporal gap is deliberately (and with such care!) inserted in the process. I do not understand why spatial objects are blameworthy, while temporal gaps are not. Both are equally “natural” (or “unnatural”).

[p.95] Second, I do not understand why men who take aspirin, cold tablets, pills for ulcers, inoculations for small pox, and other assorted measures to “kill” or to modify the relations of certain juices, organisms, and cells in the body suddenly become alarmed when pills are taken to “kill” or to modify the relations of other juices, organisms, and cells. Is the ovum more sacred than the brain, the heart, the blood, the kidneys? Our whole lives are directed and shaped by the technical skills of modern medicine. Hence, when persons accept countless varieties of artificial intervention in connec­tion with every other organism and cell, it is difficult to understand why suddenly their attitude changes when there is question of sperm or ovum.

In the same vein, it is difficult for me to understand why the Pope and his advisors do not recognize that it is as natural for a woman to be infertile as to be fertile. Why cannot human art enhance her infertility as well as her fertility? For infertility has its extremely impor­tant purposes as well as fertility does; a woman is, in fact, infertile for more days of the month than she is fertile. The act of intercourse is fertile only when a whole series of physiological conditions are in a certain configuration. Why is that configuration an es­pecially privileged one, such that it provides a norm toward which all human art must be directed? Are not the other configurations equally natural? (They are, in any case, many times more frequent.) The Pope says all too easily, and without supporting physiological ar­gument, that every act of intercourse is in itself directed toward procreation. That way of speaking is un­supported by either science or common experience, but is based on a concept which arose before the discovery of the cycles of infertility, and has in most circles been [p.96] discarded since that discovery. Most acts of marital in­tercourse, plainly, do not result in procreation. There is no special reason to suppose that each act of intercourse was ever intended by the Creator to be directed toward procreation. Such a view seems to be a mere prejudice. It was a useful prejudice in times when the human race suffered from the threat of under population and special reasons were needed to encourage large families. It is now a scientifically discredited prejudice, and a cruel and destructive one in practice, both for overpopulated regions of the earth and for fearfully strained families in advanced, industrial nations.

Third, it is difficult to understand why the Pope and his advisors have no insight into the destructiveness of fear and uncertainty upon young mothers in industrial societies, whose duties include far more than being the casual mothers of large rural families. In the economics of the large modern city, planning is the only route to survival, health, responsibility, it is immoral and irresponsible to bring new children into many situations. Women are entitled to all the possibilities of humanistic development formerly open only to men; the riches of western civilization are theirs, too. They, like men, need to plan their own careers, to devote time to study and to work at a profession, to continue a steady program of intellectual or other professional training. Their children benefit from such development on the part of the mother, both because the mother is then not so tempted to “sacrifice herself for her children” in a psychologically destructive way, and because the mother’s richer human development teaches the child, too, the value of freedom, discipline, and development. When she is un­certain which acts of lovemaking will dramatically alter [p.97] her life for the next several years, a woman makes love with fear, uncertainty, resentment, and depression, not with joy and affection. The Pope and his advisors show no awareness whatever of a feminine point of view.

Fourth, it is easy to understand that children are a major good of marriage, and that married couples have a moral invitation, if not obligation, to have children. But a healthy couple can have as many as twenty or thirty children in the normal course of marriage, if they care to. Given the diagnostic techniques of modern medicine, it is relatively easy to have as many children as a couple desires. One could, for example, decide to have twelve children and—with a little bit of luck—succeed in doing so with twelve precise acts of intercourse during the whole of one’s married life. Is it some sort of moral idea to have as few acts of intercourse as possible? It is difficult to understand why intercourse is to be treated in a different category from eating, drinking, sleeping, and other similar human activities—all of which are not merely physical but specifically human, symbolic, and communitarian. Why should not married couples be urged to have intercourse every day, or even more often if they can? The juices and movements of the human body have their own rhythms; why should they not be followed by drawing them into a whole human context of sharing and joy? It is good to eat and drink. It is good to make love. Why not eat, drink, and make love daily?

Fifth, it is easy to understand that intercourse seems to be mere indulgence, selfishness, and lack of self- control to celibate persons who are striving hard to re­main celibate. Their self-denial must lead them to imag­ine that intercourse is release, loss of self-control, soft­ness, [p.98] animality. Many married persons, too, have been taught by celibates to think of intercourse in that fash­ion. They are slightly ashamed to find themselves mak­ing love. To them, it seems like giving in to an animal instinct. “Why, if it were not for the prohibition against contraceptives,” more than one Catholic woman has been heard to say, “we would be like mere animals.” How sorry one feels for a woman’s husband and for her, if love-making is in her mind a nasty, short and brutish business, justified only by having of chil­dren. What terrors and ugliness her psyche must un­dergo, during love-making so accepted! One wonders what can have led human beings to have nullified the tenderness, playfulness, and restorative powers of love- making, and to have turned a joy of body and spirit into an exercise in bestiality.

For love-making is an act of the human person, of intelligence and sensitivity, of gentleness and respect for one another, of struggle and of happy combat. The whole psyche is involved in it: one’s skin, one’s emo­tions, one’s juices, one’s mind, one’s perceptions, one’s freedom, one’s aspirations. Animals have babies, but they do not make love. Human beings create an art of playfulness and make love, not when they need to, but when they wish. It is those who make love only in order to have children who mechanize and dehumanize the act of intercourse.

Sixth, I have never understood why there is anything especially sacred about male sperm. It is plentiful and a bodily juice like many others. For many men, the more they use it the more plentiful it becomes. There is no need, then, to venerate it. (Only last week I heard a Catholic college junior speak of spilt sperm as “the [p.99] murder of a possible child.” Recalling the role of women, the least he could have said is “the murder of half the possibility of a child.” Incredible notion!) The manifestations of masculine narcissism are devious beyond tracing; not least in a celibate culture. Most per­sons today would be embarrassed to take the veneration of male sperm seriously enough to argue against it; but the idea persists. It provides the image of contraception as an act of “malicious interference with intent to kill”; the sperm is imagined as a living being, a possible hu­man being. It is reverenced as the vessel of life. It is not treated as an ordinary bodily fluid like all the others.

Seventh, those who think contraception is evil seem to have an inexperienced and lamentably deficient image of the uses of intercourse. To assume that image, many married couples would have to alter their entire experi­ence. The root of the difficulty is that the Pope and his advisors assume that theirs is the moral view of inter­course; whereas it seems that their view is gravely in­adequate, and even immoral. It is immoral not only in the larger sense that they fail to address the over­whelming problem of overpopulation. It is immoral in the more intimate sense that they fail to understand the occasions, the feel, the significance, the moral value of intercourse. When they speak of marital intercourse, they try to speak of a beautiful ideal; but their ideal is in fact out of touch and, in the end, morally ugly. They seem to imagine that intercourse is an animal act, a selfish act and often an act of lust, a loss of self-control, a demeaning of one’s humanity, a giving way before indispensable but shameful instincts, an act of efficiency redeemed only by the possible production of children.

[p.100] They seem to want the fewest number of acts of inter­course possible; whereas it seems both more human and more Christian to encourage couples to make love as often as possible. They seem to want each act of inter­course to carry the risk of childbirth; whereas it seems both more human and more Christian for couples to seek to have children at precisely those times when their sense of responsibility instructs them it is prudent. The repercussions of having a child are too important to en­trust to chance; and to depend upon Providence in mat­ters that depend upon ourselves is not at all praise­worthy.

Thus, finally, the argument between the Pope’s theo­logians and those theologians who defend contraception is not between the former’s morality and the latter’s immorality, but between opposite views of what is moral. What the Pope proposes as moral seems to many of us immoral; and what he calls immoral seems to us more moral by far than his own views. To have chil­dren is, for most couples, easy; and apart from those two or three or four or five times in their life when having intercourse is to result in having children, intercourse is their joy, sustenance, and precious instructor in understanding and love. It is not easy to arrange to have intercourse. Children keep the house in confusion; daily occupations fill the mind, drain the emotions, and eat up the hours of the day and evening. At night, one or the other partner is sometimes tired; the other may be away or busy at work. The routine of marriage makes passion quiescent. Unless the partners positively strive to arouse desire and responsiveness, they can easily drift into a sort of mechanized, pragmatic part­nership. It is extremely important for them to create [p.101] occasions for lovemaking, and to develop their physical warmth and responsiveness. The desire for lovemaking is not automatic; it needs cultivation, the more so in proportion as the daily schedule is heavy. There is a danger in modern households that lovemaking will be­come pale and routinized, unsatisfactory and finally abandoned altogether. And when lovemaking dies, something most precious in the development of the couple dies.

For contraceptive lovemaking teaches gentleness, alertness, responsiveness, patience, humour. It operates as a measure and criterion of full and perfect love. For as a symbol it says more adequately than words can that the two are one. The resistance and reluctance that one or the other partner sometimes feels instructs them that something is injuring their oneness; it suggests hidden resentments, fears, complaints; it forces the lack of unity out in the open. Moreover, lovemaking in its in­timacy prompts a couple to do what modern couples seldom have time to do: talk. It provides quiet hours of conversation, of shared grief and successes, the sad­ness of partings and the overflowing joy of return. It knits the emotions, feelings, and instincts of the couple together. It does not allow them to live together like college roommates or mere chums; it introduces them to a wholly different—and infinite—dimension of inti­macy. It liberates both wives and husbands in a competitive society from the atmosphere of fear, efficiency, and productivity; it allows them to play, with spontane­ity, in an act of love that is an end in itself. It prevents them from becoming indifferent to one another, from succumbing to routine, and from merely taking one another for granted. It obliges them to try to penetrate [p.102] through to the secret and hidden recesses of one an­other’s passions, fears, and hesitations; it leads them to unsuspected capacities for joy, excitement, and arousal. It makes them feel that they are still young, alive, and full of love.

For all these reasons, frequent intercourse is a moral imperative. It would be nice if there were no ants at picnics, no need for impeding clothes to protect us from rain, no usefulness in inoculations and pills against diseases. Pure spontaneity without technique would be like innocent childhood. But at every important point in human life, human art is called upon to enhance nature, to liberate it, and to lead it to its highest fulfilment. Children are lovely and, in their own right, a very special joy. But even when children are not in question, lovemaking has an indispensable and important role in marriage. It is as natural for sperm not to meet ovum as to meet it, and human art is appropriately applied to either goal: lovemaking in and for itself, or love- making with the additional purpose of having children.

I wish, as a minimum, that the Pope and his advisors could show some understanding of this and other points of view. But my long-term hope is that one day the Catholic Church will support the idea of contraceptive love-making in marriage, not grudgingly, but with the enthusiasm that arises from perceiving clearly the power of love and joy that flow from frequent, even daily, marital communion.