To understand Catholic teaching on sex and the moral issues surrounding it, only one simple thing is needed: understanding the purpose of sex. The purpose of sex is two-fold: it is unitive and it is procreative, and when these two purposes are separated or denied, the sexual act is invalid in the ways that God meant it to be. This is clearly pointed out in the Catechism:
"Fecundity is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful. A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment. So the Church, which "is on the side of life" teaches that "it is necessary that each and every marriage act remain ordered per se to the procreation of life." This particular doctrine, expounded on numerous occasions by the Magisterium, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act," (CCC, 2366)
This inseparable connection between unity and procreation so simply guides us as to what is right and wrong in the realm of sex and procreation. Go ahead, apply it to any situation you can think of. Is birth control valid? No, because it removes the procreative nature of sex. Is homosexual sex valid? No, because there is no possibility for procreation (this is entirely different from being infertile). Is artificial insemination valid? No, because procreation is separated from physical union. And so on. I love this rule because it is so practical and because it is one that I can use to educate my children on God's purpose in sex.
A common fallacy that most people seem to believe, especially in secular society, is that sex is for pleasure. Wrong. Certainly pleasure is involved, but sex was not created so we could have a good time. I've heard Peter Kreeft, one of my favorite Catholic thinkers, point out that all things necessary for human survival involve pleasure. For example, eating and sleeping are certainly pleasurable, but to say that they exist for pleasure is ridiculous. Serious, unhealthy consequences result from treating food and sleep as vehicles of pleasure rather than things that sustain us , and abusing sex by treating it as simply something that makes a marriage more fun is no different. Though the unhealthy consequences of using contraception are not always as easily recognizable as an extra 50 pounds is, it is foolish to think that we can escape the consequences of cheating natural law.
I'd like to examine whether or not Catholic teaching on birth control is trustworthy. First of all, this teaching is as ancient as the early church fathers...back when if you were Christian, you were Catholic. Contraception and abortion have been around for a long, long time. In fact, until the 1930's, Catholics and Protestants alike officially taught that contraception was a grave sin. All the great Protestant theologians (including Luther, Calvin, Wesley) ardently condemned birth control. The first official break with this teaching common to Catholics and Protestants alike came at the Anglican Church's Lambeth conference of 1930, when it was declared that the Anglican church would allow birth control in special circumstances. From there, it was a downward spiral to the point where contraception amongst Christians became normal, and in fact was condoned by Protestants. This downward spiral towards rampant use of contraception was not fostered by great theological arguments supporting artificial marital relations, but was fostered by pressure from secular society. Basically, God's people caved in to the lure of small, controllable families and the freedoms that would surely ensue. I've been looking for a seemingly creditable theological position that promotes birth control and have found none.
Today, many people cannot imagine their lives without birth control, and in fact think that their lives would not work without birth control. Thus, the temptation to never consider birth control's moral validity, or to deny its sinfulness once it has been revealed for what it is, is strong. Especially to women, Catholic teaching may at first be enraging--women today do not want to be told that if they are to be Godly, they need to be 'baby machines'. However, this is not what is being said--God does not unconditionally ask us to have as many children as is biologically possible, although we should be prepared to accept that way of life. Instead, there is 'God's alternative' to artificial contraception: Natural Family Planning, referred to in the following from the Catechism as periodic continence:
CCC 2368 & 2370
"For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. Is is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood....Periodic continence, that is, methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom."
Natural Family Planning (NFP) is a scientifically based method of avoiding pregnancy in which spouses agree to abstain during a woman's fertile phase, which is surprisingly simple and effective once you learn the method, not to mention really great for marriage if you have good reason to practice it. NFP is not a loophole in moral law because it does not interfere with moral law. Abstaining from marital relations for a time cannot be sinful, unless, as the Catechism states, the desire to avoid sex and children is 'motivated by selfishness'. In my experience, the hardest part of NFP has been discerning whether or not we have a valid reason to avoid pregnancy. Most of the time, we have decided to err on the side of life, and that is why we have our beautiful son today. Our second pregnancy sadly ended in miscarriage, but we are expecting another baby in July, Lord willing.
Accepting Catholic teaching on birth control and the purpose of marriage has changed me. Although my husband and I both wanted to use NFP from the very beginning of our marriage, it has been a slow struggle for me to become fully invested in the idea of accepting children as they come, because it has meant giving up on a lot of the things I had planned would bring me joy...otherwise known as Elissa's personal salvation plan against the drudgery of life. This hardness of my heart is maddening, because as an adult Christian, I have been passionate about 'finding my life's purpose' and 'serving God' instead of being about worldly success and prosperity, and going after happiness as my life's end goal. But for me, truly, I think actual, physical meltdown of my human tendencies towards the latter began the day I said no to contraception and yes to life. As I have said before, I don't think there are many opportunities in life to go about breaking down selfishness that are as dramatic as having a child. And even outside of having children, conforming to God's standards in marriage brings us so much closer to him.
For a fabulous, engaging, and sense-making talk on contraception, please! listen to Dr. Janet Smith's talk Contraception: Why Not on One More Soul's homepage