Because I think controversial topics are often the things most worth talking about, I offer this reflection. It should come as no surprise that reading G. K. Chesterton has sparked what follows. In one of his essays contained in The Well and the Shallows (Ignatius 2006), Chesterton puts forth three reasons why he “despises” birth-control. His first reason takes issue with the term itself.
I despise Birth-Control first because it is a weak and wobbly and cowardly word. It is also an entirely meaningless word; and is used so as to curry favour even with those who would at first recoil from its real meaning. The proceeding these quack doctors recommend does not control any birth. It only makes sure that there shall never be any birth to control.
Chesterton believes “Birth-Prevention” would be the far more honest term to use. Of course, he is right. And here we come to one of the objections to the Catholic Church’s position on birth-control in particular and contraception in general. Why is it that the Church allows for the prevention of birth via approved means, commonly known as “natural family planning”, while condemning the exact same result (birth prevention) through other means, such as the pill? On the surface this is a perfectly legitimate question and one that should be dealt with squarely. However, I am afraid that in the end this question is guilty of a blurring of distinctions between the two methods in question. As the dictum goes: distinctions! distinctions! distinctions! We must mind our distinctions!
The Catholic Church is not against the prevention of birth per se. There may be very legitimate reasons why a couple may put off having a child. These reasons are primarily between that couple and God (and possibly a spiritual director), and as such the Church cannot (and does not) make a blanket judgment in these matters. We are only to be “open to life”, but this does not entail that every sexual act is to produce a child. It is well known that the Church distinguishes between the two aspects of sexual intercourse: the unitive between husband and wife, and the life giving which produces a child. These two aspects are to always be respected, but the former may be present without the latter, assuming a legitimate reason ascertained (hopefully) through serious prayer and competent spiritual direction.
So again the question remains: why is one method of birth prevention permitted and the other is not? To put the matter simply, the answer lies in the fact that one method is in accordance with nature (i.e. the natural law) while the other is not. One method requires communication and respect between partners, the other does not. Preventing birth through natural means requires the couple to practice the virtue of temperance and restraint during the fertile periods, which requires the aforementioned communication and respect between the husband and wife. Preventing birth through unnatural means (i.e. the pill) requires no such virtue. In fact, evidence is mounting that birth control has lead to the practice of vice. A husband may look upon his wife as a sexual object who can satisfy his animal-like urges upon command. Restraint is not necessary. A young man may now have sex with a young lady and no longer fear the consequence of a child. The result is that sex is no longer sacred. It is free in the commercial sense of the word, and being free, it is cheap.
The preceding may be unconvincing to many, but, in my experience, most have not even begun to engage the arguments put forth by the Church. At any rate, the necessary distinctions are drawn and must be dealt with squarely, as the Catholic must squarely deal with the question first proposed. For a Christian – Catholic, Protestant or otherwise – the reasoning of the Catholic Church must be taken very seriously. Christians are a people of life, and as such we must be continually open to life. But if we find it necessary to delay the birth of a child, God has given us natural means to do so. What grounds do we have to reject these means in favor of other means that so easily lead to vice?
Chesterton’s second problem with birth-control is that it is a cowardly, dishonest, and ineffective form of Eugenics; and we must remember that birth control came out of the eugenics movement. His thoughts on this matter are worth quoting in full.
Second, I despise Birth-Control because it is a weak and wobbly and cowardly thing. It is not even a step along the muddy road they call Eugenics; it is a flat refusal to take the first and most obvious step along the road of Eugenics. Once grant that their philosophy is right, and their course of action is obvious; and they dare not take it; they dare not even declare it. If there is no authority in things which Christendom has called moral, because their origins were mystical, then they are clearly free to ignore all difference between animals and men; and treat men as we treat animals. They need not palter with the stale and timid compromise and convention called Birth-Control. Nobody applies it to the cat. The obvious course for Eugenics is to act toward babies as they act toward kittens. Let all the babies be born; and then let us drown those we do not like. I cannot see any objection to it; except the moral or mystical sort of objection that we advance against Birth-Prevention. And that would be real and even reasonable Eugenics; for we could then select the best, or at least the healthiest, and sacrifice what are called the unfit. By the weak compromise of Birth-Prevention, we are very probably sacrificing the fit and only producing the unfit. The births we prevent may be the births of the best and most beautiful children; those we allow, the weakest or worst. Indeed, it is probable; for the habit discourages the early parentage of young and vigorous people; and lets them put off the experience to later years, mostly from mercenary motives. Until I see a real pioneer and progressive leader coming out with a good, bold, scientific programme for drowning babies, I will not join the movement.
This brings us to Chesterton’s third problem with birth-control: those mercenary motives. The reasons for putting off children are usually selfish in nature: we want to have enough money to travel; we want our freedom to enjoy each other; we want to finish college, etc. It is with these reasons that Chesterton says his “contempt boils over into bad behaviour”.
What makes me want to walk over such people like doormats is that they use the word “free”. By every act of that sort they chain themselves to the most servile and mechanical system yet tolerated by men…
Now a child is the very sign and sacrament of personal freedom. He is a fresh free will added to the wills of the world; he is something that his parents have freely chosen to produce and which they freely agree to protect. They can feel that any amusement he gives (which is often considerable) really comes from him and from them, and from nobody else. He has been born without the intervention of any master or lord. He is a creation and a contribution; he is their own creative contribution to creation. He is also a much more beautiful, wonderful, amusing and astonishing thing than any of the stale stories or jingling jazz tunes turned out by the machines. When men no longer feel that he is so, they have lost the appreciation of primary things, and therfore all sense of proportion about the world. People who prefer the mechanical pleasures, to such a miracle, are jaded and enslaved. They are preferring the very dregs of life to the first fountains of life.
It is for these reasons, among others, that I, along with Chesterton, think the Catholic Church is wholly correct in her stance toward the modern notion of birth-control. Others are free to disagree, but one should not do so based on contemporary trends of public opinion. If you are following the sheep, you ought to discern who is your shepherd. And certainly one should not disagree and dissent for selfish motives. If one wishes to contend with the Church’s notion of the beauty of life and the sexual act, he or she should do so reasonably while engaging the arguments put forth by the Church.