Personal Reflections on Birth Control
By Charles E. Curran
in The Catholic Case for Contraception, Ed. D. Callahan, Macmillan, pp.19-29,1969.
(& from Christian Morality Today, fides, 1966)
. . . I have added my own “Amen” to those who are asking for a change in the present teaching of the Church. Why the change?
My arguments in favour of the present teaching of the Church developed along the lines of the controlling and directing influence of love with regard to sexuality. The present teaching of the Church emphasizes the dignity and spiritual freedom of man who controls and determines his whole life. The spiritual core of man guides and gives intelligibility to the material part of human nature. Contraception, by not directly appealing to the higher forces of love and control, could easily enclose man in the realm of the purely material. Sacrifice and control will always be a part of man’s life. True Christian [p.20] asceticism does not constrain the individual; rather it enables the Christian to participate ever more in the freedom of the children of God which only the life- giving Spirit can produce. Like Christ, man dies to self and rises in the newness of life.
A brief reflection shows that the position outlined above is more of a defence than an argument. The reasoning assumes the present teaching of the Church and then tries to explain it within the whole context of the Paschal Mystery which is the basis of all Christian life. But theologians cannot merely assume the truth of the present teaching of the Church. Is such love and control an essential element of Christian marriage?
Contact and dialogue with many married Christians forced me to reconsider my views. Many couples found themselves in the dilemma of realizing a need to express their love in a human way and yet dared not have any more children. Family love and marriages were weakened and at times almost destroyed because couples could not fully express their love in a sexual way. The question arose almost instinctively—would such a couple be breaking their relationship with God by using contraception? In some cases I was sure that the couple would not be guilty of mortal sin.
Some had taken the risk and decided to use contraception. Many other conscientious non-Catholic Christians are doing the same. Are they breaking their relationship with God? How can I tell? The criterion frequently proposed in scripture is the love of our neighbour. How can we love the God we do not see if we cannot love our neighbour whom we do see? The last judgment as portrayed in Matthew’s account bases man’s relationship with God on his relationship with [p.21] his fellow men. “For when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink. . . .” (Matt. 25:31-46). Some people using contraception are most generous in their love of God and neighbour. A good number have followed the teaching of the Church, but now find that their marriage, their health, and their finances persuade them not to have any more children. They are devoted husbands and wives, fathers and mothers; they give of their few moments of free time in projects for the betterment of society; they are kind to all; they go out of their way to help others; they try to overcome their feelings of vengeance and rancour. By their fruits you will know them. They seem to be good Christians who have not broken their relationship with God.
Theologians have always admitted that something can be objectively sinful even though for a particular person because of subjective circumstances it might not be a subjective sin. But the frequency of the subjective occurrence does raise doubts about the objective sinfulness. My attention focused on three aspects connected with the present teaching of the Church: human sexuality, the nature of the moral judgment, the authority and teaching of the popes.
Does the present teaching of the Church reflect the complex reality of human sexuality? Through their sexual union husband and wife express and intensify their union of love. Three influences—comparatively recent medical knowledge, various theological aberrations, and a celibate attitude toward sexuality—have tended to give a rather distorted notion of sexuality.
For centuries the lack of biological and medical knowledge made it impossible for man to separate procreation [p.22] and sexuality. St. Alphonsus, the eighteenth century patron of moral theologians and confessors, followed the biological concepts of Aristotle and Galen. The uterus was the nest in which the child developed. The woman contributed certain fluids or even a type of semen which mixed with the male semen in the uterus, coagulated, became frothy, and evolved into the embryo. New scientific discoveries, aided by the invention of the microscope, expanded medical knowledge in the late seventeenth century. For example, de Graaf proposed the evidence that the female testes are ovaries, and he described the follicles that ever since have been associated with his name. Only with the work of Ogino and Knaus (1929-1930) did man become certain of the comparatively short time in a female cycle when a woman is fertile. Until a hundred years ago, inadequate medical knowledge led theologians to believe that every sexual union was connected with the real possibility of procreation. The science of theology in accepting the theological principles of older theologians has also, perhaps unconsciously, accepted a rather one-sided concept of sexuality.
The theological aberrations of Gnosticism, Jansenism, and all others that look down on the material part of man have tended to overemphasize the procreative aspect of sexuality. For many centuries it was the intention of procreation which alone completely justified marital intercourse. Theories proposing the evil of matter concentrate on sexuality. Many zealots falsely interpreted the Pauline dichotomy of flesh and spirit in an ontological sense as the war between the spiritual and the material in man. Today theology has a renewed consciousness of the value of earthly realities. [p.23] Matter is not bad; it is a part of the order of creation and the order of the redemption through the Paschal Mystery. Sexuality no longer appears as an evil which is tolerated for the purpose of procreation.
My own celibacy puts me at a disadvantage in considering marital sexuality. There is no experimental knowledge of the meaning of sexuality in marriage. In addition, a celibate mentality can easily form a warped concept of sexuality in marriage. I too was trained in the idea that the pleasures of sex make up for the burdens of marriage. Masturbation thus appears as the starting point for a theology of marital sexuality! Even though I reject such a concept of sexuality, I have still been influenced by it. A celibate attitude does tend to see sexuality only in the light of pleasure and procreation.
Today theologians acknowledge the love-union aspect of marital sexuality. In fact, the love-union aspect of sexuality “justifies” marital sexuality when procreation is impossible. With the acceptance of rhythm, it seems that the Church has admitted the love-union value of sexuality as a value in its own right apart from procreation. Seen in such a light, contraception does not differ that much from rhythm. It is true that sexuality must always be an expression and intensification of love, but conscientious husbands and wives should know best the demands of love in their own lives.
The moral judgment is the final and ultimate judgment, reducing, as it were, all the other aspects of the question. The moral judgment presupposes all the other considerations bearing on a particular problem—the sociological, psychological, pedagogical, hygienic, etc. Every other consideration is partial and particular with [p23] regard to the moral consideration. The moral judgment considers all the various aspects and then arrives at its final judgment. In most moral judgments some particular value (not a moral one as such) might have to be sacrificed for the good of the whole. Nothing in this world is perfect from every conceivable point of view. Every other aspect of the problem is relative to the final moral judgment. What if the biological integrity of the marital act destroys such other considerations as the educational, the love union of the spouses, the psychic and physical health of the spouses?
It seems that only in our own times has the consideration of biological integrity interfered with the other aspects that enter into the final moral judgment. Previously the cruel forces of disease and famine made the problem of family planning much less acute. Likewise, an agrarian culture was more in keeping with larger families than our highly industrialized civilization. The formation and growth of Planned Parenthood in the present century indicate that the recognition of the problem of family planning has come about only recently. Catholic theologians have popularized the expression “responsible parenthood” only in the last decade. Perhaps in earlier times the biological integrity of the marital act did not interfere with other values. But today the biological integrity must be considered together with the love-union aspect of sexuality, the health of the partners, the proper education of the children, and demographic circumstances. The biological aspect is not an absolute; it is a partial and relative consideration in the process of formulating the final moral judgment.
As human beings we experience our own inadequate knowledge and the selfish promptings from the effects [p.25] of original sin in us. Man realizes his need for guidance and direction. On the other hand, the teaching authority of the Church on birth control is not infallible, not a matter of faith. The condemnation of contraception belongs to the ordinary, authentic magisterium of the Church to which we owe obedience. The very fact that the Church has not spoken infallibly indicates that the present teaching is open to development.
To change the present teaching of the Church would be a case of development and not a direct contradiction. Gregory Baum has compared a development on the birth control issue with the development of the Church’s teaching on religious liberty (Contraception and Holiness, New York: Herder and Herder, 1964, pp. 311-343). The encyclicals of Pius IX and Leo XIII condemn religious liberty because of the false principles on which it is based. Pope John in Pacem in Terris and the Council Fathers of Vatican II have approved religious liberty. The Church still condemns the false basis of religious liberty proposed in the last century. However, the Church has recently become more conscious of the freedom of conscience of the individual in religious matters. The inviolability of the human person from external force and the freedom of the act of faith are the bases of the individual’s freedom in matters of religion. The teachings of Pope John and the Council Fathers are not a contradiction but a development of the earlier teaching.
Another example: the encyclical Mediator Dei (1947) teaches that, “His cruel sufferings constitute the mystery from which our salvation chiefly springs.” The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy teaches that the Paschal Mystery is the heart of the redemption. The constitution [p.26] on the liturgy reflects the theological, scriptural, and liturgical rediscovery of the resurrection in the plan of redemption. Pius XII in 1947 only reflected the thought of his own day, but there has been a growth in our understanding of the resurrection in the past two decades.
The present teaching of the Church on birth control reflects the theological consciousness of the Church at the time it was formulated. Since Casti Connubii (1930) the theology of the Church has given more attention to the love-union aspect of sexuality. The bitter controversy over the licitness of rhythm in the 1930’s shows the whole church at that time did not have an adequate understanding of the love-union aspect of sexuality as a value in itself, completely apart from the possibility of procreation. Only in the last decade have theologians talked about the principle of responsible parenthood. Pius XI probably never heard of such a principle. The present teaching of the Church reflects the connection between sexuality and procreation. The project of marriage will always be procreative. But it does not seem that the present teaching of the Church reflects the demands of responsible parenthood and the love-union aspect of sexuality.
A consideration of three ideas—sexuality, the moral judgment, and the teaching authority of the Church— have influenced me to change my thinking on the present teaching of the Church on contraception. The question completely transcends the discussion about the pill. Those who advocate the use of the pill generally argue within the framework of the same categories that theologians have used with regard to marital sexuality. Now the Church must reconsider the categories and principles [p.27] themselves. The proposal to change the present teaching of the Church on contraception is not a capitulation to situation ethics and a denial of any objectivity. Moral theology today does need a more personalist approach. But the proposal for a change is based on the need for a more exhaustive, objective consideration. I do not believe that the present teaching of the Church properly reflects all the objectivity in the complex reality of marital sexuality.
Both the thought and tone of the present essay are personal. I have not attempted to give a scientific and detailed argumentation; rather, I have tried to show why I have changed my own thinking. Pope Paul has pointed out the complexity and the gravity of the problem. The Pope concluded his statement by saying, “And therefore it seems opportune to recommend that no one, for the present, takes it on himself to make pronouncements in terms different from the prevailing norm.” The present essay is in no way a pronouncement; it is a highly personal reflection. Nor am I advocating in practice a norm “different from the prevailing norm.” My own rethinking of the subject only makes me more aware of my own limitations and less prone to make any pronouncements whatsoever.
As a confessor and guide I must continue to uphold the present teaching of the Church. In and through their marriage a Christian couple must live the gift of the Paschal Mystery. Married Christians are not second- class citizens; they are called to perfection. I stress the primacy of love in their lives. In giving marriage instructions I will spend the entire first talk on the Sermon on the Mount with its emphasis on love of others and dying to self.
[p.28] The counsellor should suggest practical ways of showing marital love; e.g., the husband comes home from work and, instead of burying himself in the paper or TV screen, takes the time to share his day with his wife. Love is the most important element in their marriage. Their sexual union must be an expression and intensification of their union of love in the service of life. Young couples should be reminded of the need for responsible parenthood. I point out that rhythm with the help of a competent doctor and the use of the thermometer is more reliable than many people believe. But it is a real sacrifice for a woman trying to take her temperature when she first awakens and the children are crying and/or fighting in their bedroom. Love becomes very practical on occasion.
However, it could be that in a particular case for a particular couple in their individual circumstances the use of contraceptives might not break their relationship with God. Theologians have always admitted that in certain circumstances there might not be subjective guilt. Chancery officials today frequently imply that suicides are not guilty of grave sin. No confessor believes that all the acts of masturbation confessed by adolescents are subjectively serious sins. A couple might come to the conclusion that in their particular circumstances contraception is needed to preserve very important values in their lives.
The ultimate judgment must always be made by the individual couple. I try to see from their whole life if they have broken their relationship with God. I apply the criteria mentioned in first part of the essay with regard to their relationships with one another, with their family, their fellow workers, their neighbours, and their [p.29] enemies. The fact they have made a real effort in the past would argue for their good faith. I encourage them to continue building up their relationship with God and each other. The decision to use contraception is difficult and risky. The danger of self-deception is ever present, but there are times when contraception might be necessary for an individual couple. I have counselled couples along these lines.
The complexity of the problem of birth control is evident. Since my consideration of the problem has completely neglected many aspects of the question, I dare not make any pronouncements. We must all admire the wisdom of the Pope in setting up a special commission to investigate the varied aspects of the teaching of the Church on marriage. But we must also recognize the complex circumstances that enter into the judgment made by an individual couple.