Contraception Is So Gay
December 12, 2007 § 13 Comments
The Vademicum for Confessors defines contraception this way:
The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable.
As with pretty much any string of letters that says anything interesting, there are multiple possible interpretations of this definition, at least in principle.
In what follows, the context is an understanding of contraception as intrinsically immoral. That is, contraception as an intrinsically immoral act must be immoral as a chosen behavior independent of intentions (other than the intention in the “chosen” part of “chosen behavior”: that is, the behavior must be freely chosen); and also independent of consequences or circumstances. This context is set by the moral theology of the papal encyclical Veritatis Splendour, which says of itself that it is the first Magisterial document in the history of the Church to explicate in detail what it means for an act to be intrinsically immoral.
One possible interpretation is that contraception is an act utterly distinct from a sexual act. (I’m not entirely convinced that this is even coherent, but it is one line that gets taken). The idea here seems to be that contraception is something utterly distinct, and intrinsically immoral as a distinct act, but with no connection to the sex act itself: the contracepted sex act itself is not immoral.
Another interpretation is that contraception is a sex act: a sex act which the person has deliberately modified in a way which renders it pleasurable to the person but infertile.
It won’t surprise anyone who has followed recent discussions that I think the latter understanding is the right one. Undoubtedly that is in part because that understanding lines up best with my moral intuitions. The Church after all tells us that as something falling under the natural law sexual morality is accessible, at least in principle, to our reason. But it also makes the rest of Catholic teaching on sexual morality coherent rather than ad hoc. Immoral sexual acts in general then become of a piece: sodomy is wrong because it is a modified/unnatural sexual act; masturbation is wrong because it is a modified/unnatural sexual act; contraception is wrong because it is a modified/unnatural sexual act; intercourse with a transgendered person is wrong because it is a modified/unnatural sexual act; bestiality is wrong because it is a modified/unnatural sexual act; etc. etc.
There are other consequences of this view that make it more coherent than alternative views, in my understanding.
In some circles it is controversial whether a rape victim is doing wrong in attempting to get the rapist to use a condom, for example. But on this understanding that isn’t an issue: a rape victim is not choosing a sexual act at all, so it isn’t possible for the rape victim to choose a disordered sexual act. She is just defending herself, if only partially, from an attack and violation.
The contrary view also makes a hash out of the use of hormonal medicines for non-contraceptive purposes by women who are not sexually active. Indeed, the use of any medicine which might impair fertility as a side-effect would be immoral, even when used by a celibate priest, because contraception is intrinsically immoral: immoral as a chosen behavior independent of the reason why that behavior is chosen.
So while it is always possible to interpret documents and statements in more than one way, I think the latter understanding – of contraception as a disordered sexual act rather than as an utterly distinct act standing on its own – is more orthodox, more rationally coherent, and more consistent with moral theology as taught by the Magisterium.