According to Catholic teaching, each and every distinct human person is a something wholly and entirely new in the cosmos. Obviously, in the world as we know it, this isn’t an assertion about our bodies. Babies derive nutrients from their mothers to grow and develop in the womb, and later, while nursing. Throughout life, we eat to replace dying bits and pieces of our bodies and to build new tissue out of the pre-existing stuff of this world.
Rather, we’re concerned here with the spiritual element of the person, which distinguishes us from other things in the material world, and which isn’t borrowed from any pre-existing thing or recycled from any other energy in the cosmos. This spiritual core of our being—what, we traditionally call the “soul”—comes into being as a simple addition to the sum total of all existing things. Each time a new human being appears, in other words, the cosmos has more being in it than it had before and, for that reason, is forever changed.
This isn’t the case with the beasts or any of the other objects, structures, and organisms in the world, which, as merely material beings, follow the cycle of conversion between states of energy within the closed cosmic system. According to the Genesis narrative, God creates the cosmos itself (Genesis 1:1), and then shapes it in various ways to produce the variety of things we find in it, until he turns to his “mighty act” (“na‘ăśeh” [ נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה]) which, as I explained in my first installment, is humanity, made in his own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). Only then (v. 27) do we again encounter the word bara’ ( בָּרָא), which denotes, in this context, God’s free and spontaneous choice to create something new.
Vegetation appears when God commands the earth to “grow green with grass” (Genesis 1:11–12), and fish when God commands, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living things” (Genesis 1:20–21), and again, when God says, “Let there emerge from the earth,” the beasts (Genesis 1:24–250. Humanity, however, is the product of a unique act of being-making, whereby God does more than just tease out the potentialities latent in what he’s already produced, but instead, produces something that before didn’t exist at all.
So, if this true, as the Church professes, then the conjugal life suddenly appears as a truly momentous vocation and responsibility. In and through that life, a man and a woman are, by God’s own design, called upon to serve his creative will by actively supplying in the substance of their own mutual self-gift, the context within which God will exercise his choice to produce new being in the cosmos and expand the horizons of love.
Once we begin to see the conjugal life in this way, we see immediately that the responsibility involved in it precludes a frivolous and reckless engagement in sexual pleasure as a form of entertainment or recreation, because, at the very least, the context within which a new human being is created by God can’t be subject to capricious change. Human beings exist in time and don’t just appear fully-formed as adults. We grow and learn and develop. So, doing the thing that forms the context within which God creates new human life can never be “responsible” unless it’s accompanied by a mutual commitment to remain together, to welcome any such new human beings, and to provide for them, love them, and nurture them to adulthood within the arena of love out of which they were born in the first place. That mutual commitment is what we call “marriage.”
There’s more, however. This perspective on the human person and the conjugal life brings to light what it really means for a person—or, in particular, for a believer—to use contraception, and it isn’t a pretty picture. If each new human person is given into the cosmos by God, and we know that the conjugal act undertaken on our part forms the context within which God may do that of his own initiative, then the use of contraception is necessarily a grave sin.
Why? Because, if I believe in God, contraception appears as a value to me—that is, it appears to me as something I wish to embrace as a good—when I wish to engage in the conjugal act, knowing that in and through this act, God may, at his sole discretion, wish to create a new human person, and I don’t trust his judgment in the matter. I don’t trust that what God will do will be the best thing, or that it’ll be good at all. I perceive a new human being as an evil to be avoided, and I perceive God as one who might impose that evil. I see God as a threat, or at least as a capricious actor who can’t be trusted to do what’s best for his creatures. From this point of view, my own good and what God wants from me and for me bear no direct relationship with each other.
In short, If I believe in God, what I have to think about him and his will for our lives in order to see contraception as a good thing, is something other than what God reveals about himself through Scripture and Tradition. Believing that there’s a God who causes being while I still value contraception requires me to adopt a pagan view of God and in doing so, to deny the unique and per se worth and innate goodness of the human person.
This is why Paul VI held that a contraceptive culture would descend into bestiality. It would supplant true love and commitment between spouses who understand that their relationship is so important it deserves to be a means by which the cosmos itself is forever changed, with consumers of sexual satisfaction, spiritual vampires who satisfy their own hunger at the cost the Other. This would mean a rise in promiscuity, pornography, sexual deviancy, and divorce. Paul VI also understood that contraception would encourage abortion, because, from the contraceptive perspective, human life isn’t seen as an unqualified good and a gift given lovingly from the hand of a God who can always be trusted to bless us. Rather, human life is seen as a conditional good, which can be accepted or rejected based on the concrete circumstances of our lives, and what we judge by our own authority to be good or bad for us. The Other, once again, is referenced to the Self, not the Self to the Other.
Fifty years down the road there’s no rational assessment to be made of Paul VI’s prophesy about a society in which contraception was accepted as something good, but to say that he was right. What’s more, I would stress again that this issue is so central to the way we think about God and human beings that it reaches to the heart of Christian dogma. For this reason, Catholic teaching on this subject simply can’t be changed, so don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
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