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Footnote on Humanae Vitae, Roman Catholic Teaching On Contraception

Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical on contraception, promotes a rule of life that, in some parts of the Catholic world at least, is probably more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Why should that be?

The answer perhaps lies in the fact that the argument concentrates on method rather than motivation.

Briefly stated, we are exhorted not to use artificial means of contraception, but allowed to use natural means. By artificial methods we are meant to understand those that employ any preventative item (condom, pill) that would not normally be present in natural, untrammelled intercourse. On the other hand, avoidance of intercourse during a woman's fertile period each month is perfectly acceptable since it employs no such artificial methods. Thus method is the key; motivation does not come into it except in so far as one's motivation in employing natural means of contraception is reckoned to be leaving the door open to God to bring about conception if He wants to, whereas the use of artificial means denotes a motivation that overtly attempts to thwart God by interfering in the natural, untrammelled process of intercourse.

Of course, such an argument quite fails to take account of the fact that the motivation underlying any contraceptive approach is exactly the same in kind, only varying in degree. Monitoring your period of fertility is done so as to avoid pregnancy where possible, in exactly the same way that using a condom or the pill is done so as to avoid pregnancy where possible. Only the method employed is different in each case.

There is, moreover, a further problem with the Catholic approach: it is extraordinarily demeaning to God. We may well ask whether Almighty God, who made the universe and all that therein is, can be so easily frustrated in His will to create the human beings of His choice. Wouldn't it be the simplest possible thing for such a God to cause the woman to forget to take her pill, or the man to be so carried away by passion as to delay too long in putting on his condom? Nothing could be easier. The likelihood that God would be any more frustrated by a human artefact than by the need to manipulate a woman's menstrual cycle seems to me to be absolutely zero.

In sum, therefore, the reasoning contained in Humanae Vitae substitutes method for motivation as its focus, and trivialises the power of Almighty God, giving the teaching a cramped, pedantic feel where it should be wide and glorious. For Jesus teaches that we are the sons and daughters of God, and sons and daughters become partners, not slaves. Creating children is perhaps the most wonderful and creative opportunity of that partnership, and it would be odd indeed if God did not allow us a full share in making the decision on when and how often to create them.

© Hugh de Saram 2014;