Recently, the Pontifical Academy for Life released a document under the English title Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition, Practical Challenges.i The 530-page volume collects the Proceedings of a 2021 interdisciplinary study seminar held in Rome. The authors of TEL intend to open—or, in the case of contraception, re-open—a dialogue between different opinions on controversial life issues.
TEL contributors delineate their contraception proposal in paragraph 172. To paraphrase: the Church recognizes that couples are being morally responsible and open to life when, faced with family planning complexities, they choose a natural system to avoid a pregnancy. Similarly, TEL urges the Magisterium to approve a couple’s contraceptive choice to do the same. As long as the latter remain generically open to life, their choice of contraception to prevent pregnancy in difficult circumstances should also count as responsible parenthood. If the couple avoid a contraceptive means that’s abortifacient, they would remain as “far from ‘the contraceptive mentality’” and antinatalism—“rightly criticized by Humanae vitae and Familiaris consortio”—as the NFP couple.
This essay follows TEL’s advice to open up a space for dialogue over the contraception issue. Toward that end, it brings a novelist, medical scientists, and an evolutionary anthropologist into dialogue with TEL’s contraception proposal.
In her futurist, dystopian novel, The Children of Men,ii authoress P. D. James might just give the authors of TEL’s contraception proposal due pause. She’s “chillingly convincing” in her thesis that if the temporary infertility we choose through contraception would ever evolve into a permanent, universal infertility, the world that would open up before us would look just like ours, only even more sexually crass, even more morally jaded, even more inhospitable to human life.
With her story set in Britain in 2021 AD (substitute any future date you wish), James unfurls a panoramic view of a world depressed by childlessness. She systematically demonstrates the connection between temporary sterility-now-turned-permanent and every other kind of social evil, including the denigration of human life, the suppression of the essential meanings of marital sexual love, and the disintegration of marriage and the family. In effect, James is saying: ‘once life in its transmission is not respected or can no longer be honored, every other stage of life is threatened and every other purpose of human sexual expression is polluted.’
Oxford historian Dr. Theodore Faron, the main fictional character of The Children of Men, offers his opinion about the origin of the disease of universal infertility. Reflecting over the past 25 years, Faron enters the following into his diary:
Much of this I can trace to the early 1990s: the search for alternative medicine, the perfumed oils, the massage, the stroking and anointing, the crystal-holding, the non-penetrative sex. Pornography and sexual violence on film, on television, in books, in life, had increased and become more explicit but less and less in the West we made love and bred children. It seemed at the time a welcome development in a world grossly polluted by over-population. As a historian I see it as the beginning of the end.iii
James’s shots across the bow are reminiscent of the predictive warnings in Lewis’s Abolition of Man and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. They cry out for the reader’s attention—and that of TEL authors. Through the thoughts of her main character, James implies our 21st century progressive view of contraception not only manages to suppress or deny the beauty of procreation but in the process of sex becoming lifeless, it also becomes loveless and even pleasureless.
In the face of the permanent separation of procreation from sex, Theo Faron writes in his diary:
Sex can still be a mutual comfort; it is seldom a mutual ecstasy. The government-sponsored porn shops, the increasingly explicit literature, all the devices to stimulate desire—none has worked. Men and women still marry, although less frequently, with less ceremony and often with the same sex. . . . Sex totally divorced from procreation has become almost meaninglessly acrobatic.”iv
Through all of this, the implications of James’s underlying hypothesis shouts out at the reader—and TEL contributors. Do we, as a society want to continue to think the choice to be infertile through birth control is a benign state, a neutral choice, even an enlightened choice? Or are we going to wake up and take a more critical look at what originally was hailed, among other things, as a panacea for our marital and overpopulation problems?
James hastens to demonstrate a society with zero population growth is a society that inevitably becomes top-heavy with the aged. From a utilitarian stance, the British elderly of 2021 represent a drain on resources, both societal and familial, as they prove to make little contribution by way of productive output.
James argues the solution to this contraception-induced difficulty was termed “The Quietus,” the systematic murder of the old, the sick, and the senile. Today people are routinely dismissed if they view euthanasia as a sequel to contraception. But James capitalizes on that connection. Another character in her book describes the Quietus and the attempts by government officials to make this option of suicide appear to be a freely-willed, pleasant choice on the part of the elderly. Commenting to Theo, this character recollects:
You’ve heard of the Quietus, I suppose, the mass suicide of the old? . . . . I remembered one picture, I think the only one ever shown on the television: white-clad, elderly beings wheeled or helped in to the low barge-like ship, the high reedy singing voices, the boat slowly pulling away into twilight, a seductively peaceful scene. Cunningly shot and lit.v
Remorselessly methodical, P.D. James holds a very powerful mirror up to every wrinkle and wart of our contraceptive society. She captures for us, in almost sickening detail, what we could very well look like 20 to 30 years hence—or perhaps what we already look like.
And the only hope for that future world is surely also one of the greatest hopes of the world today: the birth of a baby, the fruit of a loving act of sex open to life. In a scene reminiscent of the nativity of Christ, the author of The Children of Men pictures government officials and common persons coming to look at, and pay homage to, what turned out to be the savior of the universe of 2021. Only the birth of a baby, James seems to be saying, could reverse Theodore Faron’s prediction that birth control or elective infertility was, indeed, the beginning of the end.
James’s hypothesis ought to hold our imaginations—and those of the authors of TEL—captive. What if the infertility we freely elect through contraception would become a universal disease, an imposed curse, not something we choose, but a phenomenon we are condemned to learn to live with? Would we want the kind of world—lifeless, loveless, pleasureless—that follows from procreation permanently separated from sex on a universal scale? If not, why would we ever freely elect infertility or deliberately render our fertile acts of sex sterile, and intentionally bring the same effects into our world on the heels of that choice?
Should we not want, after all, to seriously consider taking another direction, choosing some other option that enhances our humanity precisely because it reflects God’s plan for human procreation?
Of course we should. And the hope is that the contributors to TEL would want to do the same.
First, these authors—transdisciplinary dialogue enthusiasts—should be perfectly prepped to listen to Dr. Thomas W. Hilgers at the Saint Paul VI Institute. No strangers to research themselves, they should naturally appreciate the investigative productivity of the Institute. Four decades of clinical research have guided the growth and fruition of the Institute’s goals. To develop the FertilityCare System into a versatile, effective, standardized, and value-based natural system of family planning. And to make this natural system available to couples around the globe by training national and international physicians and teachers in the science of FertilityCare. A family planning system, by the way, that works even for couples in “difficult situations”—without recourse to contraception.
Second, the professional spirit amongst TEL contributors should intellectually prepare them to adjudicate three issues. Does the panoply of Institute services afford 21st century couples a human solution to family planning? Do these services provide couples a healthy and holy means to a Christocentric marriage? Do the Institute’s protocols offer couples solutions to difficult family planning situations that simultaneously honor the full procreative and unitive truth of their marital sexual love?
Third, these philosophical specialists, given their modus operandi of dialogical research into the controversial issue of contraception, are perfectly poised to address another important matter. Does the FertilityCare System provide an antidote to the fallout from the regnant contraceptive mentality that, as P. D. James shows us, wreaks havoc on human sexual expression, marriage, and the family?
Fourth, TEL experts should be aptly primed to give due diligence to a recent critique of their contraception proposal from nine international medical clinicians.vi These physicians lodge one principal complaint. What could justify TEL’s attempt to solicit official Church approval of contraceptive family planning in the face of the following medical data?
- The best study to date, published by the New England Journal of Medicine, shows that oral contraceptives “raise the risk of breast cancer in an epidemic scale.”
- Research demonstrates the use of contraceptives raises the woman’s risk of myocardial infarction and stroke by 60 per cent.
- Widespread contraceptive use has plunged our society into a “demographic winter” and a pandemic of sexually transmitted diseases, often precursors to infertility.
- Current medical studies suggest the natural method known as symptom-thermal double-check is “five times more effective than the condom” in preventing pregnancy.
- Women would be more hesitant to use the contraceptive pill if they were fully informed about the possibility that one of its mechanisms could eliminate an early embryo by preventing its implantation.
- Women who have discovered natural methods of family planning tell their providers they “feel good as women again; they feel truly emancipated for the first time, and connected to their bodies and sexuality.”
- Women inform their healthcare providers they “no longer want a pastor who assumes that the ‘ideal’ is not for them, who approves of contraception, minimizes abortion, and considers divorce inevitable. . . . They want to fulfill the ideal that the Church has maintained for centuries.”
In sum, the clinical experience of these doctors proves that couples using natural methods can follow the Catholic Church’s directives on fertility regulation—even in difficult situations—without deviating from Humanae vitae.
An evolutionary anthropologist
Evolutionary anthropologist Lionel Tiger highlights two contemporary “mysteries” haunting the man/woman relationship.
First mystery: the inevitable change in its respective productive and reproductive roles. As men’s income and wealth decline (because women’s wealth has risen), men not only assume a proportionally smaller interest in their “mates and offspring” but simultaneously acquire a belligerent disposition toward the latter and the world in general.
Second mystery: the increase of single mothers and abortions despite the fact that an unprecedented number of “improved” contraceptives continue to flood the market.
Tiger identifies what he’s convinced is the root cause of these mysteries-turned-tragedies, these personal and sociological disorders. In terms that would directly challenge the wisdom of TEL’s moral approval of contraception, he contends:
I think the introduction of widespread contraception use in the 1960s caused this revolutionary break between men and women. It put biological disputes at the center of our national life—women’s rights, abortion, out-of-wedlock births, the turmoil among African-American men and the rise of angry white men. The pill emancipated women and placed into question existing moral and religious systems that focused on controlling sexual behavior. . . . After the pill, women could be sexually liberated and still remain in control while at the same time men had less and less control of the impact of their own sexuality. . . .
I do not think anyone is to blame here in the sense that they planned a raid on civil society and got away with it. As it happens frequently, technology (contraception, in this case) has generated an unexpected result: more abortions, more single-parent families, more men abandoning their role of being good providers and a higher divorce rate (emphasis added).vii
Evidence-based medical science and cultural analysis show contraception is a dead end. According to a famous Thomistic axiom, an idea or an action is good if it conforms to right reason. According to P.D. James, Dr. Thomas W. Hilgers, and Lionel Tiger, TEL’s contraception proposal defies reason in at least three ways.
It’s gaslighting. It attempts to convince couples the contraception-induced personal, marital and sociological degradation they see everywhere actually does not exist. Or, at least, won’t negatively impact their lives.
It’s culpably ignorant. It fails to give due shrift to what’s right under TEL’s nose. The FertilityCare system, a research-based, natural system of family planning, is nationally and internationally available to help couples avoid a pregnancy without intentionally suppressing the procreative good.
It’s pastorally imprudent. It deprives contracepting couples opportunities: to practice the logic of complete self-gift in their sexual acts, to acquire the virtue of marital chastity, and to experience the freedom of transformation in Christ.