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Why Do Catholics Genuflect?


The difference between “I want to have sex with you” and “I want to have a baby with you” is profound. “I want to have sex with you” is on a par with “I want to have dinner with you” or “I want to play tennis with you.” No big deal.

Why don’t Catholics use artificial contraception?

Until the Anglican Lambeth Conference of 1930, all Christian traditions shared the Catholic conviction that contracepted intercourse was “immoral.” Today, contraception is usually welcomed by most non-Catholics (as well as many Catholics unmindful of the Church’s teaching) as a right of Christian liberty or a matter or personal conscience.

Sex is not a peripheral issue. Christ teaches through his Church that all acts of marital intercourse should be open to the transmission of new life—that is, the couple should never take any positive action to disconnect their covenantal love from its life-giving potential. Couples need not have as many children as possible and should weigh their ability to nurture and educate their children.

Further, sexual intercourse in marriage is not just about making babies. Marital intercourse is laden with two meanings, inextricably woven together: life and love, babies and bonding, procreation and interpersonal intimacy. Any attempt to rip apart these meanings is to do violence to what God has joined together in the act of sexual intercourse. We believe in neither loveless life or lifeless love.

To figure out what a book is about, it sometimes it helps to look at the first chapter and the last. Scripture begins with the “wedding” of Adam and Eve and the command to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (see Gn 2:18-25). It ends with the “wedding supper of the Lamb,” that is, the marriage of Christ and his Church (see Rv 19:9). Salvation history can thus be understood as God wooing a beloved in order to “marry” us so that we might share his most intimate and abundant life for all eternity.

Marriage and sexual intercourse are supposed to make this mystery visible and concrete for us. Scripture paints marriage as a sacramental sign of Christ’s love for his Church. We are called to reveal the relationship Christ has with His Church. So in the covenant of marriage the parties share not merely their goods but their very selves. We don’t reserve any part of ourselves from the other.

Contraception, however, contradicts this total self-giving. It says: “I give you all of myself except my fertility.” As philosopher and moral theologian, Janet Smith, has put it, it’s like saying: “You know I want to make love to you but you are having a bad hair day and I’m having difficulty looking at you. Would you mind putting this bag over your head? I love you but I don’t want to deal with a very important part of you today.”

The difference between “I want to have sex with you” and “I want to have a baby with you” is profound. “I want to have sex with you” is on a par with “I want to have dinner with you” or “I want to play tennis with you.” No big deal.

“I want to have a baby with you” means “I want to be with you from now till forever. I want to bring another one of you into the world, an immortal soul that resembles you. I want all of you, and I want to give you all of me.”

In 1968, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on marital intercourse in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. What we now call the sexual revolution had just begun. The pill was widely available. Pop music and films were beginning to push the limits of decency. The Pope warned that the widespread use of contraceptives would “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.”

I remember 1968. Four years before, the Beatles had innocently sung, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” A year before, the Rolling Stones had sung, “Let’s spend the night together.” But Ed Sullivan and mainstream morality still had enough leverage to force them to sing, “Let’s spend some time together.”

By 1981, mainstream culture had become so desensitized to casual sex that a wholesome Olivia Newton John could sing “Let’s Get Physical.” By 1987 all restraints were off, and George Michael sang “I Want Your Sex”. By 1994, Nine Inch Nails’ refrains were spouting the worst of four-letter obscenities.

Paul VI also warned that widespread acceptance of contraception would place “a dangerous weapon in the hands of those public authorities.” Today some Third World countries perform involuntary sterilizations. China has forced abortion for those who exceed their one child policy, while France and Germany have established incentives for people to have more children because they are dangerously under-populated.

You need not be a Catholic to look upon the enormous rise in divorce, abortion, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and sexually transmitted disease and recognize that Pope Paul VI foresaw our future more than thirty years ago. What did he know that others didn’t?

He knew enough to ask: “What is the purpose of sexual expression?” On the basis of Scripture and Sacred Tradition we know that procreation and intimacy between husband and wife are the inextricable ends of the marital act.

Sometimes people say, “Come on, isn’t sex really for pleasure?” Sex is certainly pleasurable, but pleasure isn’t the purpose of sex anymore than pleasure is the purpose of eating or sleeping.

God often attaches pleasure to activities he knows are vital for our flourishing, such as eating, sleeping, and exercising. But while pleasure accompanies these activities, they are not the purpose of these activities—that is, their natural end. For instance, if a person eats merely for pleasure, he is ignoring the purpose of eating, which is nutrition. He may become obese or anorexic or bulimic. We call these illnesses eating “disorders” because they frustrate eating from achieving its natural end.

Paul VI knew that modern culture was ignoring the purpose, the natural end, of sex and that this would lead to chaos and disorder. The recent rise in sexual addiction and deviancy demonstrates what happens when sex is disconnected from its fundamental meaning. As Freud said: “It is a characteristic common to all the perversions that in them reproduction as an aim is put aside.”

A world that prates on endlessly about sex, even as it seeks more intense orgasms and more frequent sexual encounters, needs to invite God into the bedroom if it wants to find satisfying, maximum, or even apocalyptic sex. The ancient rabbis used to say that acts of conception should involve three participants: husband, wife and Holy Spirit. No ménage a trois is as intense as that in which the Holy Spirit is invited as the third Party to animate our lovemaking. Sex is not merely good; it’s sacred, because it’s life-giving!

Isn’t Scripture silent on artificial contraception?

While Scripture does not explicitly address the issue of artificial contraception, it forcefully challenges many of the negative attitudes towards children expressed in influential strains of our popular culture. This “contraceptive mentality” includes a bias against conception; a closed rather than open attitude towards the bearing of children; a subtle resentment of large families as alien, even as a threat, to our culture; and the belief that conception is a purely biological phenomenon. The language of Scripture surrounding conception, pregnancy and large families differs from contemporary Western attitudes as much as life differs from death.

Film critics tell us that a character’s first mention or entrance usually reveals something important. So too in Scripture. At the birth of the first child, Eve tells us where babies come from: “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord” (Gn 4:1).

When the angel of the Lord counsels Hagar, Abraham’s exiled servant-wife, he says on God’s behalf, “I will so greatly multiply your descendants that they cannot be numbered for multitude” (Gn 16:10). The promise to Abraham is similar: “I will multiply you exceedingly” (Gn 17:2).

While we don’t deny secondary causal forces, ultimately it is God who controls conception and birth.[i] Who works through the womb? It’s an open and shut case: the Lord. “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Lo, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord… Lo, sons are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb, a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who his quiver full of them!” (Ps 128:3-4; 127:3-5).

So often people say, “We only want two children,” or worse, “We don’t intend to have children.” But if God offered us the blessing of financial prosperity or good health, would we say, “Great, but don’t overdo it”?

Onan was commanded to have sexual intercourse with his dead brother’s widow in order to raise up children in his name. Technically, this is called a “levirate marriage,” from the Latin, levir, meaning “brother-in-law.” It was a common cultural practice in the ancient Middle East and a legal obligation in ancient Israel because it guaranteed social stability for the widow and insured descendants to perpetuate the family line.

Onan, knowing the offspring would not be his, engaged in sexual intercourse but withdrew at the point of ejaculation and spilled his seed on the ground. What he did was displeasing to the Lord, who then took his life as a punishment for his sin (see Gn 38:8-10).

Throughout the centuries, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant teachers commonly used this verse to condemn various forms of contraception and masturbation. Martin Luther, for instance, commented: “We call it unchastity, yes, a Sodomite sin. For Onan … lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed.”

Over the last two generations many scholars have argued that Onan displeased God not because he contracepted but because he disobeyed the law to raise up children in his dead brother’s name. Fair enough. This is certainly the fundamental disobedience.

However, the punishment for refusing to raise up a child for one’s deceased brother was public humiliation, not death (Dt 25:5-10). Why then was Onan put to death? Because he not only refused to raise up children in his brother’s name, but also deceived the community by engaging in a disordered form of sexual intercourse through practicing coitus interruptus and spilling his seed.

Compare the biblical rhetoric on children and fruitful intercourse with that of current Western culture, and gauge how far we have come in discounting God’s involvement in conception, discrediting children as an unalloyed blessing from God and disconnecting sexual intercourse from its natural end of producing children.

Parents of large families are regularly treated to rude remarks such as, “Don’t you know when to stop?” Rather than a celebration of large families, there is a suspicion of too many children. Many think of children the way the rabbi in the musical Fiddler on the Roof thought of the Russian Czar when he prayed: “God bless and keep the Czar—far away from us!”

Some say, “I got pregnant by accident.” Now you can fall down an elevator shaft, get hit by lightning, or swallow a tooth by accident, but you don’t get pregnant by accident! Getting pregnant means something went right with sexual intercourse, not that something went wrong. But for many, getting pregnant means something went wrong. I’m reminded of the Alaskan tour guide who, when the sun finally came out after long days of gray, said: “We have some cloud failure.”

Consider the vocabulary describing contraceptives. We have the “barrier” methods, which metaphorically communicate that “I need to put something between you and me before we make love. I want to make sure our love doesn’t create life. We need to wall off that possibility.”

The language of  “barriers,” “barricades,” and “shields,” is about war and self-protection rather than love and self-giving. “Spermicides” may not lead to homicide, but they certainly destroy. Even as clinical a term as “the pill” implies that pregnancy is an illness to be inoculated against.

Further, “the pill” works by destroying female fertility and deceiving a woman’s body into thinking it is already pregnant so that she stops ovulating. If that doesn’t work, then it stops implantation of the conceived child. In other words, when it fails in its task of deception, it kills the victim. Rather than regarding fertility as God’s endowment of our creation as embodied souls, the vocabulary of contraception teaches that the fertility is a defect to be eliminated.

While Scripture may not address the issue of contraceptive intercourse directly, its portrayal of children and pregnancy argues weightily against artificial conception control. Besides, this interpretation of the Bible was an unchallenged part of Christian Tradition until the twentieth century.

[i]See Gn 21:1-2; 22:17; 29:31—30:24; Nm 11:12; Dt 28:4,11; Ru 4:13; 1 Sm 1:6, 19; 2:20-21; Ps 100:3; 139; Hos 9:11; Ez 16; Lk 1:24, 25, 58; Heb 6:14.

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