I read a dangerously written opinion article in the Salem Statesman Journal today. Peter C. Boulay, a former religious brother, speaks with a forked tongue on the Church's stance on contraception.
Most of my readers know that the Catholic Church bans any form of artificial contraceptive behaviour. It always has. Boulay misstates historical fact when he claims that the Church "laid down a tough, absolute law in the [Pope Paul VI's] 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae." The belief was nothing new; what Humanae Vitae did was to solidify it as official dogma. The reason was that 38 years previously the rest of Christianity started to disagree with a ban on contraceptives with the 1930 Anglican Lambeth Conference, as I've written about before.
The concept of shoring up the doctrinal walls against an onrush of questioning is also nothing new. For example, every last item in the Apostles' Creed was laid out in its detail exactly because some heretic tried to change the understanding of an article of faith. The most frequently assaulted beliefs were the ones expounded on, such as the person of Jesus. The Creed defends his consubstantiality with the Father, his miraculous conception, the virgin birth, his passion, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, and his promise to return. Yet the Holy Spirit gets only one item merely stating belief in his existence. Why? Because nobody questioned the beliefs around the Holy Spirit. The Son, by contrast, was such a sign of contradiction in all he did that many doubters were spawned, and thus the deeply held faith of the Church was laid out on paper, when it had been held in hearts long before the questioning began.
In case you're wondering, I learned that concept at Aldersgate College, my Protestant alma mater.
Boulay goes on to accuse Pope Paul VI of a flawed logical conclusion when he affirmed that natural methods of spacing children are acceptable, by referring to the "hapless rhythm method of birth control." The flaw in Paul VI's logic, Boulay says, is that periodic abstinence "could be approved because it retained an intrinsic link to procreation — when, in fact, both partners were seeking to avoid procreation."
But Paul VI was seeking to condemn the desire to divorce the unitive aspect from the procreative aspect of sex, not the desire to postpone pregnancy. He was trying to reinforce the understanding of sexuality as a total gift of self, in a world where it was fast becoming an incomplete offering.
The demand for the Church to approve condom use in Africa has never been higher. The almighty rubber is expected to stem the tide of AIDS, once those abstinent old white men in Rome change a few rules.
Nine years ago I toured Ireland with three friends (one of whom became my wife), speaking in schools promoting chastity. We discovered there that some young boys say they won't use a condom because the Church says it's a sin, yet they don't hesitate to sleep around (also a sin, if memory serves). I found myself not believing their stated reason. They don't want to use condoms because they're selfish. Not that using a condom in illicit sex would be selfless, as it adds another sin and further scars your soul. Adherence to Church teaching isn't like eating at Bonanza's buffet. You don't get to pick and choose what you want.
Yet Boulay's key error hinges on exactly that concept:
Yet Humanae Vitae is not, in its reasoning, as absolute as one might think.
Paul wrote: “A right conscience is the true interpreter ... of the objective moral order which was established by God.”
Thus he left a sort of conscientious-objector status for Catholics who could not believe in the evil of contraception. That was a hole through which marched 97 percent of American Catholic women, according to the government’s 2002 National Survey of Family Growth. Some stayed in the church. Some left. Some were happy. Some were not. All had departed from orthodoxy.
A right conscience is hard to come by. I can't just say, "It feels right for me, so it must be right." I have a responsibility to form my conscience properly.
Compare conscience to driving. As a driver, I can't say, "I feel that, for me, it's acceptable to turn into oncoming traffic. Or go through a red light. Or park in the middle of the freeway." If I drive by the rules, I will never get a ticket and, to the extent within my control, I will never have an accident. A police officer pulling me over when I speed is not out to condemn me; he is out to remind me that my behaviour is dangerous, even if I don't think it is. So it is with the Church admonishing those who fail to see the danger in the contraceptive mentality: she is begging you to turn from your sin and come back to intimacy with your Creator.
One last point: we were created in the image of God. That statement rebounds upon itself. We were created in the image of the Creator. We are an image, a reflection, of the one who caused us to exist. Thus we ourselves, as creations of the Creator, have within us a creative aspect. That is the core of our sexuality, and that is what connects us as sexual beings to the very person of God. This doesn't mean that God is sexual; it means that sexuality is the primary human form of the creative power of God.
When we kink the hose of our sexuality, we are not living up to the image we were created in. God didn't suppress his creative power when he performed the act of Creation - that would be a contradiction of his very essence. In fact, Scripture tells us that God used "periodic abstinence" himself - for on the seventh day he rested, and did no acts of creation.
In stating that Catholics who use natural methods of spacing their children are being contraceptive, Boulay is simaltaneously accusing God of being contraceptive when He rested on that first sabbath. There is a world of difference between doing something, and not doing something.