Rev. William Messenger
(This article appeared in the National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1981, titled "Science Challenges Humanae Vitae". An editor's note acknowledged the help of Dr. Brian Henderson with the medical aspects of this article)
Since Humanae Vitae, contraception has consumed much attention in the church-- official condemnation, theological disagreement and practical pastoral concern. But no formulation or conclusion can claim to have captured the truth for all time, nor can the pursuit of such truth be halted.
For the teaching authority of the church to be truly authentic, it cannot restrict itself to the purely theological. People do not live in theological towers, and the practicality of their lives as well as the testimony of modern science must be given due attention. Although there was a nod to these dimensions, Paul VI whitewashed the work of the special papal study commission and ignored science, leaving himself only a questionable theology.
Medical science has raised new and significant questions which cannot be resolved by the narrow theology of Humanae Vitae. These must be considered and a new theology developed which addresses them.
Two significant medical studies released in February 1977 and discussed in detail in Nutrition and Human Reproduction (ed. W. Henry Mosley) raise serious questions regarding the church's teaching on contraception.
The first study is "Nutrition, Fatness and Fertility: The Effect of Food Intake on Reproductive Ability." The second study is "The Impact of Prolonged Breast-Feeding on Birth Intervals and on Postpartum Amenorrhea."
I would like to begin by examining two presuppositions which will be operative throughout the discussion. It would seem these presuppositions should be obvious. However, the more I read of church and papal pronouncements, the more I am convinced they are not obvious.
The first presupposition is that procreation is not the sole purpose of sexual intercourse. This is based on a number of facts. First, in the majority of the instances a couple either does or even can engage in sexual intercourse, the act is naturally sterile. There would exist a serious doubt that the purpose were procreation if even a substantial minority of times the act were sterile.
Second, although sexual intercourse is a means of accomplishing procreation, it is not the only means. Rightly or wrongly, there are others, e.g. artificial insemination and, most recently, the test tube. Third, procreation is not the principal reason for engaging in sexual intercourse. If it were, it would a frustrated purpose, as it is normally a sterile act. It would be hit and miss and would reduce intercourse from a truly human act guided by reason to a purely animal act not even successfully guided by instinct.
There are at least two other legitimate reasons for engaging in sexual intercourse. The first is love. This love is expressive--the couple desires to make known in an intimate way the intensity of the bond which already exists. It is also causative--the couple wishes through this intimate act to deepen the already existent bond of unity. The other reason a couple may desire to engage in sexual intercourse is simply for sex play.
The second presupposition is that sexuality and marriage are not coextensive. This is based on what is perceived to be the purpose of marriage. That purpose is to express the fullness of human life and love. Ultimately, this is accomplished through generation. Here a distinction must be drawn between generation and procreation. Although both are processes of becoming, and are related, generation is much wider in its scope.
Many things are generated, e.g. events, activities and responses; but only offspring are procreated. Even saying a couple ultimately accomplishes the purpose of marriage through generation, a caution must be inserted. For ultimate is not synonymous with only. There are many ways a couple throughout their lives together can express the purpose of marriage.
Finally, a marriage initiated or continued after the occurrence of menopause can still express the fullness of human life and love. The couple's total giving of self to each other is a witness of the generation of community.
Given these two presuppositions, let us take a look at the medical information. To begin with, we notice a substantial increase in reproductive ability years (that time between menarche and menopause). Two contributing factors to this increase are better nutrition and a higher standard of living.
The first question arises from the relationship between "procreation available time" and the reality of current reproductive ability years. "Procreation available time" describes that period in a woman's life when she is actually capable of conceiving. It can probably be most easily understood in the following way: we take the number of reproductive ability years and subtract the length of time a woman is pregnant for each child and the time breast-feeding the children who survive birth. The resultant figure represents "procreation available time." This "available time" has increased significantly during the past 80 years. On average, we can compute the following: in 1900 a woman had 24 fertile years. Subtracting time for pregnancies and breast-feeding, she would have nine-plus "procreation available years." Today a woman has 38 fertile years. Subtracting time for pregnancies and breast-feeding, she has 30 plus "procreation available years."
Several factors contribute to this increase. First, the additional 14 fertile years. Second, a decline in the infant mortality rate. In 1900, if a woman bore 10 children, five might survive. Today, if a woman bears 10 children, they are all likely to live. So she does not bear as many children, therefore experiencing less pregnancy time. Third, there is an infertile period following birth which is affected by breast-feeding. Prolonged breast- feeding as was the practice in 1900, lengthened to some extent the infertile period. Today, breast-feeding is not as prolonged and so the infertile period is shorter.
The impact of this increase in "procreation available time" will be overpopulation. Overpopulation is no longer a theory, and church officials can no longer remain blind to it-- a tendency so adequately demonstrated by the insensitive comments of the pope on his recent trip through the Philippines.
Another question raised by medical science concerns the years following menopause. During this time, sexual intercourse is naturally sterile. But the extent of this, too, is a more recent phenomenon. In 1900, the average age at death was 49 (only a couple of years beyond menopause). The average age at death has increase to 73 today, rendering 24 "new" sterile years.
Can the church really hold that the unitive and procreative ends of sexual intercourse are equal, when all the evidence indicates to the contrary? Perhaps we need to consider reestablishing a hierarchy of ends, this time placing the unitive end of sexual intercourse ahead of the procreative end.
I believe the principle of the fundamental option provides a direction for building a new theology which does not ignore science. Previously, the principle of the fundamental option has been used to describe a person's basic decision for or against God. It allows a person to measure the morality of a particular action within the framework of that basic decision rather than in isolation from life's circumstances. Does a particular action negate my basic decision for God? The fundamental option is a choice not as to specifics, but to the totality of existence. As such, it is operative and determinative throughout a lifetime. I would like to posit that we make certain decisions in life of such magnitude that they possess their own fundamental option. Marriage, precisely because of the way it alters an individual's lifestyle, is one such example.
In the sacrament of marriage, a couple enters a union which will reflect in a special way the presence of Christ in the church and in the world. This is what a sacrament is--the presence of Christ. Each is distinct from the others because of the special way it reflects and expresses Christ's presence. In marriage, this expression can be called the fullness of human life and love. It reflects the intimate and unbreakable union of Christ with his church--a union which is generative, but not procreative. This union causes new life in that it generates community.
For marriage, the fundamental option is operative in a special way through the sexual relationship of the husband and wife. We are not here restricting the sexual relationship to genital activity. It extends far beyond to embrace their total relationship. But in sexual intercourse, the husband and wife possess the opportunity of a unique giving of themselves each to the other. The question is: does a particular instance of sexual intercourse negate my basic decision in marriage, namely, to express the fullness of human life and love?
The role of sexuality in marriage emerges as a means for building and eventually expressing the fundamental option. And this, it seems, is the role of sexuality over and above procreation or mutual love, which are themselves means of expressing the fundamental option. But for this to be the case, control of sexual intercourse must lie with the couple. This means more than the free decision to engage in sexual intercourse.
The question is raised: is sexual intercourse in and of itself so filled with meaning and purpose that the psychology of the couple can neither add nor subtract nor determine? The answer is no. The fact that a child results from a given marital act does not mean the husband and wife have grown to the point that they should generate. It may simply be a biological process which denies the deeper meaning of procreation--that of generation.
Even the act of sexual intercourse may not be an expression or development of the fundamental option. It may be a passionate decision in which, for many reasons, the freedom of the will has been diminished. Because the act takes place between a validly married couple does not mean they, by virtue of their marriage, have surrendered control of the act or the right to invest it with meaning. The appearance of a child too early in a marriage may frustrate the development of the fundamental option. And if the husband and wife have not yet reached a stage of real surrender to each other and loss of self within each other, the child's development may be significantly curbed.
Granted, this is a lifelong process. But a significant stage of development in the relationship of the husband and wife is necessary if the child is not to be seen as a threat or an imposition.
All of these are only possibilities. But they are mentioned to demonstrate that sexual intercourse is not as laden with the absolutism it has often been assigned in the past. They are also mentioned to demonstrate that it is not sexual intercourse which comprises the decision of the couple, but the fundamental option. As important as sexual intercourse is, it is only a part of the marriage covenant, and it is constantly deepening and increasing. It finds ever new means of expression which will be more numerous and more full of meaning dependent on the couple's use of sexuality, particularly, sexual intercourse.
In turning our attention to contraception, Monsignor James O'Reilly's definition of the contraceptive act is helpful: "The contraceptive act is a double-barreled act in which two choices are coupled together. One is the free decision on the part of the husband and wife to engage in sexual relations. The other is the decision to make the relationship certainly sterile by a directly willed positive act."
Two clarifications are needed in using O'Reilly's definition. The words "relations" and "relationship" refer only to the individual and isolated act of sexual intercourse. Unfortunately, they (especially relationship) carry overtones of the entire marital relationship. A second clarification is that while the act of sexual intercourse may be biologically sterile, it is not, by that fact, devoid of meaning. And this remains true whatever the cause of sterility.
Because the couple has decided to enter a union which will reflect the fullness of human life and love as we have discussed it, contraception will be seen to be morally good or morally bad and therefore sinful or not, only insofar as it expresses and builds or denies and restricts the fundamental option.
A couple that enters marriage with the intention of never procreating violates the fundamental option at its base by never accepting it, and so does not enter a valid union. The couple that enters marriage and truly commits itself to the fundamental option, finds that it has at its disposal all the elements which help to bring the fundamental option to full maturity.
This includes all the sexual dimensions of their life together. Since sexuality is being used to build an entire relationship, each individual act must be seen in the context of their entire life together and how it builds the fundamental option. This is especially true in regard to sexual intercourse, for we have already discussed its intimate significance for the relationship of the husband and wife.
What now of contraception, which deliberately sterilizes sexual intercourse? Contraception and procreation can be posited side by side and the same things said of the two.
Contraception, in and of itself, does not violate the fundamental option of marriage. That is to say, every act of contraception does not of itself prevent the couple from expressing the creative freedom which builds their fundamental option. It may be that a couple, to fulfill and bring to maturity their basic commitment in marriage, must practice contraception in a given instance or for a given time. On the other hand, contraception, in and of itself, does not build the fundamental option. A couple can practice contraception for selfish reasons, or even indiscriminately. And in so doing the partners are not giving sufficient attention to the basic commitment of their life together, for they are not placing their actions within the focus of their basic decision.
Procreation, in and of itself, does not build the fundamental option. That is, being open to the possibility of procreation does not mean the couple is yielding to the creative freedom which expresses their fundamental option. Indiscriminate procreation does not evidence sufficient attention to the way a couple's use of sexuality helps to mold their life together.
On the other hand, procreation, in and of itself, does not violate the fundamental option. Procreation, stemming as it does from the most intimate of contacts between a husband and wife, may be the ultimate expression of their life together. In such a case, procreation certainly achieves its deepest meaning--that of truly being generative, which is the culmination of the marriage commitment.
From all this it can be concluded that the contraceptive act is neutral. It receives any and all of its meaning only through its use by each particular couple and in each particular instance.
In the end, the couple must live out their own moral commitment--no one else can do it for them, not even the church. Also, they have to answer for their own decisions. This approach is an attempt to focus the basic issues which must be faced in marriage, and offer the couple a means of determining their moral activity in the light of their decision to live and witness to the presence of Christ.
(Rev. William Messenger is a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles)