The question was recently posed to me, “How does one explain the Catholic take on marriage and contraception to someone with no religious framework?” Initially, I was stumped. Sure, you could talk about natural law, but that is not a terribly accessible approach; nor is it brief enough for a casual conversation. So, where does one begin?
Begin with consent. Consent is, technically speaking, what makes a marriage. The free consent of a bride and a groom creates the union. Without their “I do”s, there is no bond. This isn’t just a religious fact; it is the reality recognized by civil law as well. It is why “shotgun weddings” are invalid, and why, at Catholic weddings, the priest doesn’t ask, “Who gives this woman?”—she gives herself.
This is also why civil courts grant annulments. Most people hear ‘annulment’ and immediately think of the Catholic Church. However, the state grants annulments every day. An annulment is simply an official declaration that what appeared to be a marriage was not, in fact, a true marriage (hence its proper term, ‘a declaration of nullity’). What might cause a seemingly normal exchange of consent to be invalid? A host of problems, really, but they all constitute one critical flaw—defect in consent. (By way of example, a man who leaves his wife in Russia, comes to America, ‘falls in love,’ and attempts to marry a new woman, cannot give consent because he already gave it to his actual wife.)
Moreover, the greatest and fullest expression of consent between man and woman is sex. When given freely with pure intentions it is the most complete giving of oneself to another person. This is a fundamental reason why the Church and Judaism have always held that sex is reserved exclusively to marriage. Only within the union of marriage does the sexual expression of consent make sense. Additionally, one can see this idea present in the somewhat archaic language of consummating a marriage. Intercourse is, likewise, often referred to as ‘the marital act.’
Now, how does this have anything to do with contracepting? Well, to contracept is really to do two things. First, intercourse; there’s no contracepting apart from sex. Second, there is the actual act that is against conception, which, of course, could take any number of forms (pill, IUD, condom, etc.).
Here, though, exists an important distinction. What makes an action contraceptive per se is the intent of the person. Whether or not the action is an effective means of contracepting is irrelevant. Also, ingesting “birth control” pills is done for reasons other than contracepting. It is, essentially, the intent of the person that determines the nature of an act as contraceptive or not.
This is vital to note, because it points to the very problem with contracepting —contracepting changes consent. In point of fact, contracepting can be defined as the diminishing of consent in the sexual act so as to deny one’s fertility to the other. And this diminution of consent fundamentally alters the marital act so that it is no longer befitting the dignity and character of marriage. In other words, when consent is deliberately compromised, so is the marriage covenant.
This is particularly grave in sacramental marriages, for this deliberate violation constitutes sacrilege. Still, even in regular, civil marriages, contracepting constitutes a violation of the original consent that formed the union. In other words, contracepting violates the marital contract.
Of course, some might object saying, “Well, my wife and I both agree to contracept.” That is of no consequence to the violation. That both parties choose to dishonor an agreement does not change the fact that the agreement is violated; it merely means that, rather than one, two parties are now culpable. Further, to exchange vows with the intention of contracepting is to agree to pretend to be married. So, do not pretend that contraception is a strictly religious issue. Nobody can contracept and still honor their marriage, for it is the nature of contraception that it debases the marriage and, by extension, the spouses.
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