Mary Eberstadt ("The Vindication of Humanae Vitae," August/September 2008) does an excellent job reporting the disastrous results of widespread contraception. But she doesn't answer a question that might be honestly posed by a married couple: Why shouldn't we contracept? What's the big deal about a plastic device or a small dose of steroid hormones? Probably the best answer draws on the "personalist" reading of sexuality proposed by John Paul II: Marriage involves a total gift of self, and we rightly call sex the "marital act." When a couple uses the Pill or a condom or gets sterilized, they are saying to one another in the language of the body: "In this, the most intimate act of our marriage, I am going to give myself to you, but only up to a point." Or conversely: "I want you to give yourself to me, but I don't want your fertility; we have to put a plug on it." As Janet Smith points out, the name given to certain contraceptives is revealing: They're called the barrier method. Sex at that point is no longer a total exchange of persons.
It's not surprising that the divorce rate has tracked the use of contraceptives. The Catholic Church is nearly alone in understanding that a couple who frustrates the procreative end of sex are also frustrating its unitive end. Which is perhaps why there is so much sexual boredom out there. We seldom hear couples using natural family planning complain about their sex lives. I think that this is partly because natural family planning provides an element of asceticism that keeps a couple's sex life interesting, and partly because they are respecting the mysterious procreative power of sex, not shortchanging it with chemicals or plastics.
The dissent against Humanae Vitae, as Benedict XVI has pointed out, is part of a bourgeois mentality that thinks Christianity is fine so long as it makes no demands. But it turns out that in the area of sexuality the Church is fight to raise the bar as high as it does. Nobody at this late date can argue that the spree of sterilized sex that began in the early 1960s has been a blessing to anyone.
George Sim Johnston
New York, New York
Mary Eberstadt's essay nicely collected and summarized the actual religious, moral, and social consequences of the sexual revolution that have transpired since Paul VI's 1968 encyclical. On this score, Eberstadt has done an admirable job.
In my view, however, Eberstadt gives far too much credit to Paul VI'S encyclical as a prescient predictor of all the sexual aberrations and effects that American and global societies have experienced during the past forty years. Quite apart from Humanae Vitae, the sexual revolution was well underway in the 1960s and was defining new standards of sexual morality, both inside and outside of marriage.
If one reads Humanae Vitae closely, one sees that the pope's focus was on the conjugal relationship between husband and wife. Nowhere does the encyclical speak of contraception outside of marriage. His whole natural-law thesis, such as it is, is grounded in "the moral teaching on marriage, a teaching founded on the natural law." The pope's natural-law arguments shift between St. Augustine's teaching, that intercourse by a married couple is gravely sinful unless the couple subjectively intends to procreate, and what later became known as John Paul II's theology of the body, based on a variant of anthropological phenomenalism called personalism. St. Augustine's teaching on procreation as a primary purpose of marriage reflects his attempt to use the views of Stoicism to refute Manichean teaching supporting contraceptive intercourse in marriage. The personalist argument of the pope emphasizes that for marital intercourse to be moral it must involve the total reciprocal personal gift of each partner to the other. There is no such self-giving if there is a contraceptive intent or means in performing intercourse.
Given the limited scope of the pope's stated concern in Humanae Vitae about contraception within the framework of marriage and his view that sexual relations should be limited to marital intercourse, Humanae Vitae's proscriptions and predictions cannot be logically extended to non-marital contraceptive intercourse. For instance, the arguments that total self-giving is the expression of mutual conjugal love of husband and wife and that marriage is the only appropriate milieu for raising offspring do not logically apply to extramarital contraceptive intercourse. This is not to say that fornication and adultery are condoned. They are not. Such sins are dealt with in other teachings of the Church. But extramarital contraception cannot be condemned based on the textual teaching of Humanae Vitae. Rather, the broader sexual revolution condoning intercourse and contraception inside and outside of marriage is behind the last half century's degradation of society's sexual moral standards that Eberstadt describes in her essay.
Thus, I find it difficult to attribute to Humanae Vitae the vindication that Eberstadt gives it.
Bernard J. McNamee
Mary Eberstadt makes an excellent case showing the numerous disastrous effects of widespread use of artificial contraception. She points out the vote of the Anglican bishops in 1930 "to allow married couples to use birth control in extreme cases." Note the statement specified "married couples" and "extreme cases." This was not a universal license for unrestrained use by those who are unmarried, or teenagers, and such. As moral theologians remind us, any good can be perverted, resulting in all kinds of evils. She also mentions the Protestant movement Quiverfull, which prohibits natural family planning "as the Catholic Church does not."
It would seem logical that couples having intercourse in the wife's infertile period are intending to prevent conception--otherwise what could be their motive? "Family planning" and "spacing of children," if legitimate ends, require careful calculations of the female menstrual cycle and avoidance of marital relations at certain times. Though the end does not justify the means, the distinction between "natural" and "artificial" contraception loses force in actual practice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church seems to send a mixed message: "Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life," and "every action which ... proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil." Is the solution that Catholic couples may have marital intercourse only during the fertile period?
Rev. Richard Tumilty
Grass Valley, California
After reading Mary Eberstadt's essay, I wondered how the war in Iraq, terrorism, and rock music escaped from her list of things contraception was responsible for. Perhaps had the editors allowed her a few more pages she would have touched on these areas as well. Her article seems to smack of smugness--"We were right about this and now it is quite funny and by the way would you dissenting Catholics please refrain from receiving Communion." Perhaps if Eberstadt had put the dissent into a context of human evolution and the rapid changes in society during the 1960s, including the Second Vatican Council, she might have been able to feel a little less righteous.
Dissent has been a part of the Church's history and teachings since Paul and Peter disagreed over gentile conversion in the Acts of the Apostles. Even the Canadian bishops struggled with Humanae Vitae, and they issued the Winnipeg Statement in September 1968, stating that "couples may be safely assured that whoever honestly chooses that course which seems fight to him...