Thoughts on Barriers

I’m back with another entry about human sexuality, morality, birth control (including barrier methods and sterilization) and NFP.  For those of you who would rather not engage in this kind of conversation, here is a picture of Gariníon.  See you next time!

In one of the comments on my entry, NFP: Licit or Illicit? My new friend (and mother of 5) mentioned that she did not understand the difference between NFP and barrier methods of contraception.  I welcomed the comment as an opportunity to talk a bit more about that.   While WoolandChocolate does not share my Catholic faith, I will share with her my Catholic answer because that is the answer I have and I believe that it is Truth.  (I will also mention that this is not the first time that I have seen  WoolandChocolate ask questions or engage in conversations with Catholics in a truly respectful manner, seeking to understand us, not to condemn us.  She is such a breath of fresh air!  She is also a lovely homeschooling mom and knitter.  I do hope you’ll go visit her at her blog.)

As WoolandChocolate reminded us in her comment, most of us know that hormonal contraceptives work in 3 ways: 1) they prevent ovulation sometimes (lower dose progestin-only pills do this less than their combined, higher dose counterparts), 2) they change the cervical mucus which prevents, to some degree, the sperm from penetrating through the cervix and 3) they alter the uterine lining, making it inhospitable for a newly conceived child.  This in turn causes a very early abortion by not allowing the baby to implant properly.  This is obviously a crime against life, which begins at conception, and it explains why the Church stands strongly against such methods.  However, it does not answer questions about barrier methods and sterilization, which Catholics also oppose.

Humanae Vitae 14 says this:

Unlawful Birth Control Methods

14. Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. (14) Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary. (15)

Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means. (16)

Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these. Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good,” it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (18)—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.

The opposition to all types of ABC is rooted in the Natural Law.  Here is a definition and explanation taken from the Catholic Encyclopedia found at New Advent.  The entire article is very informative and thorough and I recommend reading it.  CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Natural Law

“… the natural law is the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.

According to St. Thomas, the natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law” (I-II.94). The eternal law is God’s wisdom, inasmuch as it is the directive norm of all movement and action. When God willed to give existence to creatures, He willed to ordain and direct them to an end…

…  The rule, then, which God has prescribed for our conduct, is found in our nature itself. Those actions which conform with its tendencies, lead to our destined end, and are thereby constituted right and morally good; those at variance with our nature are wrong and immoral.

The norm, however, of conduct is not some particular element or aspect of our nature. The standard is our whole human nature with its manifold relationships, considered as a creature destined to a special end. Actions are wrong if, though subserving the satisfaction of some particular need or tendency, they are at the same time incompatible with that rational harmonious subordination of the lower to the higher which reason should maintain among our conflicting tendencies and desires (see GOOD). For example, to nourish our bodies is right; but to indulge our appetite for food to the detriment of our corporal or spiritual life is wrong. Self-preservation is right, but to refuse to expose our life when the well-being of society requires it, is wrong. It is wrong to drink to intoxication, for, besides being injurious to health, such indulgence deprives one of the use of reason, which is intended by God to be the guide and dictator of conduct. Theft is wrong, because it subverts the basis of social life; and man’s nature requires for its proper development that he live in a state of society. There is, then, a double reason for calling this law of conduct natural: first, because it is set up concretely in our very nature itself, and second, because it is manifested to us by the purely natural medium of reason. In both respects it is distinguished from the Divine positive law, which contains precepts not arising from the nature of things as God has constituted them by the creative act, but from the arbitrary will of God. This law we learn not through the unaided operation of reason, but through the light of supernatural revelation.”

Sometimes in an effort to explain this, ABC is compared to bingeing and purging.  I think it is a good comparison that most of us can get our heads around.  The purpose of eating is to nourish the body, but it also brings pleasure and has a social element to it, all of which is good in its proper order.  Without getting into the idea of mental illness and culpability, I think most of us can see that excessive eating followed by purging in order to gain the pleasure that comes from eating but to avoid the consequences (weight gain, disease, and/or indigestion) is an abuse of the gift of food and eating.  Avoiding the consequences that we wish to avoid is properly done by self-discipline in eating.  Avoiding pregnancy is properly done through self-discipline in the marital relationship.

In Genesis 38 we read of Onan who didn’t want to “give his [dead] brother sons” but who did want the pleasure of sex with Tamar, his brother’s widow.  He enjoyed the pleasure of sex, but decided to deliberately frustrate the generative function by practicing coitus interruptus ~ withdrawal.  He “spilled his seed on the ground” which was an offense against God and the Natural Law.  And God killed him for it.  It is sometimes said that God killed Onan for refusing to give his brother sons, but that simply does not make sense.  God had already given the Israelites the consequence for such a thing.  It was public humiliation, not death.

Using “withdrawal” is very like using a barrier because it prevents [most of] the sperm from reaching the ovum.  Sterilization does the same.  Deuteronomy 23 (1 or 2) speaks of male sterilization and condemns it (of course this logically applies to female sterilization):

No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.

New International Version (©1984)

It all comes down to the meaning and purpose of sex in God’s design.  Through Scripture and what God has revealed about Himself and creation, we can get a pretty good idea of God’s purposes.  I mentioned the unitive and procreative purposes of human sexuality in that previous post.  Professor Janet Smith calls it “Babies and Bonding.”  We all recognize the biological truth that sex is the normal way that humans reproduce.  That’s how God designed it.  Perhaps the unitive aspect is a little “less obvious” given our current culture, but I don’t think that the reality of it is completely hidden.  How often do we hear that sex is “okay” as long as you “really love” the other person?  Why is that?  Because it is a special, unitive action, of course, and also because we know that sex is meant to express something.

What is it meant to express?  In answer to that  I would like to present to you the idea put forth and well defended by John F. Kippley in his amazing and highly recommended book, Sex And The Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality:

“… the sex act is meant by God to be a symbolic way in which a couple are called to renew, at least implicitly, their marriage covenant. In this bodily union, they are called to affirm anew their original promises of married love, to take each other for better or for worse, to be as one until death.”

“What Does the Catholic Church REALLY Teach about Birth Control?”  (pamphlet ©1981) by John F. Kippley

So, sex is meant for babies, bonding and covenant renewal.  As always, God is very “economical” and He designs creation and the Natural Law with multiple purposes and meaning all rolled into one thing.

These three requirements or norms for the sexual relationship of marriage, the unitive, the procreative and the covenant renewal aspects explain the whole of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.  To make sex legitimate and moral, these three criteria must be met. Artificial birth control, including withdrawal, barrier methods and elective surgical  sterilizations, are contrary to all of these purposes of the marital act.  (Tubal ligations and vasectomies are always elective.  They are a method of birth control and do not treat disease.  They are quite different from hysterectomies [removal of the uterus] and radical orchidectomies [removal of both testicles] which are done to treat disease and incur no moral liability even though they cause infertility.)

The most obvious way ABC of any type is contrary to the moral law is that it deliberately frustrates the natural, generative function of sex.  The words “deliberately” and “frustrates” are very important because they distinguish NFP from ABC.

When we do something to prevent pregnancy (take a pill, place a barrier), we err, but we can “not do” something (marital intimacy) without guilt.  The way God set things up, not having sex during the [actual] fertile time will result in not getting pregnant and having sex during the fertile time can result in pregnancy.  God did not create human women like female rabbits.  Female rabbits only ovulate after intercourse, so they are never really infertile.  Women (and most other mammals) have definable phases in their cycles and ovulation is detectable and we can choose to have recourse to the infertile periods in order to space pregnancies.  If we do so, we do not deliberately frustrate God’s design, we work with it.

When we introduce barriers and use them against our fertility, we are overstepping our bounds and working against God’s design by deliberately frustrating the natural course of action.  We are kicking God out of the time that He set aside for his own creative action if He wills it.  Through abstinence, we do not alter that time or kick God out ~ we basically kick ourselves out.  We may not “meet” Him there, but we are not “uninviting” him either.  So, as I said, abstaining from sex, by mutual agreement, is not sinful.  Spacing pregnancies is not sinful.  Overriding God’s design is the problem.  Deliberately taking apart what God has joined together (sex and fertility) is the problem.

In addition to frustrating the generative function of marital intimacy, these barrier methods, also violate the other purposes of sex.  Even just the name, “Barrier Method” says a lot!  Putting a barrier between yourself and your beloved is not truly unitive.  It also does not truly renew that commitment to complete and total self-giving love pledged in marriage.  It pretty much says, “I take you for better, but not for the ‘worse’ of pregnancy.  I give you “most” of me (or I’ll receive “most of you”) but not all.”  Introducing a barrier changes what this language of love actually says.  By deliberately frustrating the way God designed us we say to him, “Your design is faulty and I must “fix” it in order to gain the pleasure I seek.”

These teachings are historic Christian teachings.  They not only go back to the beginning, but they have also been held to be true by all Christians until 1930.  Luther and Calvin and Wesley all rejected birth control (types of condoms did exist even back in their day and long before!)

Charles D Provan wrote a book entitled, “The Bible and Birth Control”.  It is a very good read and I recommend it.  You can get an audio version it for free as MP3 downloads at The Bible and Birth Control with Free Information.  (scroll about ¼ of the way down or so.) Charles Provan writes in his book, “…we have found not one orthodox theologian to defend Birth Control before the 1900’s NOT ONE! On the other hand, we have found that many highly regarded Protestant theologians were enthusiastically opposed to it, all the way back to the very beginning of the Reformation …those in favor of Birth Control will find no one in the orthodox Protestant camp for the first four centuries to ally themselves with.” (Provan, p. 63)  He goes on to show biblical teaching about birth control and quotes many important figures in Protestant history.  Here are some quotes that can be found in this outstanding book:

Martin Luther:

“[T]he exceedingly foul deed of Onan, the basest of wretches . . . is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he 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. Accordingly, it was a most disgraceful crime. . . . Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed an evil deed. Therefore, God punished him.”

Luther also compared contraception to sodomy (probably because both are sterile.)

John Calvin:

“Besides, he [Onan] not only defrauded his brother of the right due him, but also preferred his semen to putrify the ground, rather than beget a son in his brother’s name.

Verse 10: The Jews quite immodestly gabble concerning this thing. It will suffice for me briefly to have touched upon this as much as modesty in speaking permits. The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall to the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before he is born–the hoped for offspring.

This impiety is especially condemned, now by the Spirit through Moses’ mouth, that Onan, as it were, by a violent abortion, no less cruelly than filthily cast upon the ground the offspring of his brother, torn from the maternal womb. Besides, in this way he tried, as far as he was able, to wipe out a part of the human race. If any woman ejects a foetus from her womb by drugs, it is reckoned a crime incapable of expiation and deservedly Onan incurred upon himself the same kind of punishment, infecting the earth with his semen, in order that Tamar might not conceive a future human being as an inhabitant of the earth.”

(commentary on Genesis 38:8-10)

Calvin also called birth control the “murder of future persons.”

John Wesley:

“Those sins that dishonor the body are very displeasing to God, and the evidence of vile affections. Observe, the thing which he [Onan] did displeased the Lord—and it is to be feared; thousands, especially of single persons, by this very thing, still displease the Lord, and destroy their own souls.”

The prohibition on contraception was held across Christendom until 1930 when the Anglican Church’s Lambeth Conference decided to allow it in extreme or serious circumstances.  This was by no means a unanimous decision.  There were Anglican bishops who dissented from it, calling it an opening of Pandora’s Box.  Keep in mind that while the earliest form of NFP was available, the only other means of birth regulation (apart from complete and total abstinence) was condoms… a barrier method.

In response to this departure from Christian teaching, Pope Pius XI issued Castii Connubii, “On Christian Marriage.” Pius XI, Casti Connubii (31/12/1930)

Castii Connubii, December 31, 1930

“Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin. ” (paragraph 56)

The Catholic Church continues to hold up the ancient teaching against all forms of contraception ~ a teaching that goes back to the very beginning ~ and She always will.


About becomewhatyouare

Catholic, Middle-Aged, Knitting-Addicted, Wife, Homeschooler, Mom of 6, Mom-in-Law to 1, Mother of 11 little saints, Grandma to 1, Godmother to 12, Foster Mom to 5, Army mom, Happily living in Texas!
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4 Responses to Thoughts on Barriers

  1. Angela M. says:

    I think my son’s fiancee is hesitating to commit to becoming Catholic once and for all because she doesn’t want to have more than 3 kids (they have no children presently.) I feel like a hypocrite talking to her about this because by the time I finally understood this difficult teaching we had long since “crushed” our chances of having more children and to be honest, I was hardly a stellar parent to the two children I did have and didn’t want to damage any more lives. I guess I have to trust Jesus more.

    • You should not feel like a hypocrite for things you didn’t know.

      Yes, trust Jesus more (don’t we all have to?) and don’t forget how His Mother watches over you and yours!

  2. Angela M. says:

    Thanks, Pearl!

  3. Michelle says:

    Very concise explanation! Well done as usual! WoolandChocolate is a wonderful person and you are right she asks some excellent questions on our beliefs as Catholics, and does so with the utmost respect. Sometimes I wish we could all sit over a cup of coffee one afternoon and really share.

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