The Catholic Church and Birth Control

This extended word game from Bishop Robert Barron
gives a perfect example of where moral law departs from reality. And let me start by stating that so called moral law uses the pre-scientific method of argument without fact finding that led to absurdities like the doctrine that the earth had to be at the center of the universe and had to be a perfect sphere, immobile and that the sun, moon, stars and planets circling around (with the planets and traveling on curiosities known as epicycles as well).

Other curiosities were the four elements, that women have fewer teeth than men and so on.

In this rant, Bishop Barron talks about sex and make his first error by his approach. Instead of starting like an anthropologist or biologist and learning about how people have sex (how often, what do they do and how does it differ at different stages) he simple creates a structure for sex: that is has both a unitive and a procreative dimension. He does not even examine the physical dimensions (which include how the body responds at different ages) nor does he examine the emotional aspects. So to couples consisting of a post-menopausal woman and an older man, Bishop Barron has nothing to say. There is no procreative dimension anymore.

Bishop Barron knows nothing about sex that is of any use to a married couple. He attended a private Catholic prep school, entered the seminary during his college years and has lived the rest of his life (he will be 60 in November) as a priest – supposedly celibate. So unlike married couples or even dating teens, he knows nothing of sex except whatever furtive activity he may have engaged in (though satisfying a prurient interest, it would be helpful to level with us). Needless to say, he knows nothing at all about sustaining a marital relationship. My wife and I are in our 43rd year. What can he say to us?

His is a well informed rant in terms of Catholic doctrine, but to that end, he simple repeats the unfounded notions propagated by centuries of other well educated men who knew little to nothing about sex or marriage. A good example is when he quotes from Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae about how the moral order will collapse if artificial birth control is allowed. He blithely assumes we all would agree that over the last 50 years that there has been a rise in infidelity in marriage and even manages to talk about Harvey Weinstein. All the while his biggest concern is over the definition of what sex is. So our redefining it (giving meaning to pleasure over procreation) is a vexation and leads to a series of moral offenses.

Of course the world before birth control was not at all the pious one imagined by our arrogant Bishop. The world of the upper classes throughout European history is of well to do men having mistresses and affairs, sometimes with women of their own class, and other times with lower class young women who worked as maids etc. By the 19th century, cities had many places where sex was procured, whether brothels, or in theaters where dancing girls would be plied with flowers and gifts and often succumb to the “charm” of their pursuer. A well known example is that of Standford White who pursued “actress” Evelyn Nesbitt. Nesbitt was a performer but was only 17 when she took up with White who raped her and then became her lover.


Stanford White: 




More about working girls comes from the British Library: From the little information we have, we know that most women who earned their living from selling sex were working class, the majority taking up with men from their own socio-economic background before going out on the streets. The more fortunate, usually in the West End and the prosperous suburbs, worked as prostitutes for a few years, while saving up to get married. One woman said as much: ‘she had got tired of service (being servants), wanted to see life and be independent; & so she had become a prostitute … (the following is a quote from one working girl) She … enjoyed it very much, thought it might raise her (status) & perhaps be profitable’. After three years, she had saved up enough to become the landlady of a coffee-house.

And in the US, the situation for women was similar. Women who did not want to stay at home or marry could work in the few jobs available, if they did not want mill work or being a house maid, they might take up with a man and have multiple lovers or even paid lovers. For some, they spent a grueling time in the brothels that thrived as an open secret. One such woman was Josephine Marcus, Wyatt Earp’s common law wife with whom he lived for 48 years from 1881 until his death.

The notion of what God’s Law means is a curious one – especially curious is that in a select few cases we cannot avoid its consequences. Generally, do much to avoid the consequences of nature from putting a roof over our heads to using electric light. On this cold morning, I have seeds sitting damp but warm in a covered seed starter. But putting on a condom is somehow verboten.

If we look at sex, instead of determining its purpose from a word game, let’s look at sex as existing on a continuum of human interactions that include the simple encounters of young people (teens and young adults) on a beach, or of a women selecting a dress that accentuates her figure for a special event; other activities would include a couple sitting on a porch holding hands, then we move on to all manner of touching between persons. Without going into the messy details, sexual touching can occur anywhere along a continuum. And if at some point a couple really does want a child, then that happen too. By the way, when couples really are trying for a child, the sex can become rote and sometimes couples must resort to artificial means to conceive. By the way, we also have the instances where men want to be with men and so on. Is there really a problem?

The following are a few additional comments about just a few of the things that the church gets wrong about the issue of sex:

Lets consider that priests are sexually active – by most accounts more than half are. As far as self control is concerned, it is as successful as abstinence for dating couples (which is to say that it does not work). work. See #1 from Humanae Viae below. The notion of complete mastery of sexual desire is baseless.

Then we have the notion (possible to be held only by a class of men who have never been in a long relationship) that artificial birth control would lead couple into sex without restraint. Actually long marriages take a lot more give and take than Bishop Barron imagines. Sexual attraction can be trumped by familiarity and for couples with children, the demands of child raising take away much of the freedom to enjoy time together. (Think of changing a baby’s diaper on a beach or in an airport if you don’t know what child raising is like.)

I am especially curious about the condemnation of sterilization. Vasectomies and tubal ligations are common enough and easy to perform in the world of modern medicine. It is only when a thinker imposes upon sex an obligation that pregnancy must always be possible for sex to fit into God’s plan. Since Bishop Barron has never been with a girlfriend or wife and had the discussion about her period being late – he knows nothing at all about how scared the couple is, or about the relief that comes when a few days late, the woman says its ok now. Keeping oneself open to sex is marital Russian Roulette.

By the way, the words of Jesus as best we can guess are contained in simple moral tales that emphasize love, compassion and endless mercy. I like that Jesus. I wonder what he would say to Bishop Barron if he heard this nonsense. He would likely give him a parable about a monk fasting in a monastery a long time ago. This story was told by a religious teacher in a Catholic High School a long time ago. Someone asked about the importance of fasting. The teacher went on to tell of a monk who put an apple on his table during lent as a reminder about what he was giving up (he gave up all delights and at the time the apple would have been a special treat). At some point along the line, he was overcome with temptation, but rather than eating the apple, he had his way with a nun.

Three paragraphs from Humanae Vitae

(1) The right and lawful ordering of birth demands, first of all, that spouses fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life and that they acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions. For if with the aid of reason and of free will they are to control their natural drives, there can be no doubt at all of the need for self-denial. Only then will the expression of love, essential to married life, conform to right order.

(2) Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

(3) Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.