This is an often difficult and confusing moral question. The church teaches that the sexual act is expressed in accord with the intention of our Creator when it is open to the transmission of life between a man and woman united in marriage. Therefore, using chemical or physical “barriers” to interrupt one of the intended purposes of human sexuality, that of the transmission of human life (the other being the expression of love through physical unity between spouses), we change the meaning of the act of sexual intercourse, whether we know it or not.
When we use our powers and appetites as God has intended them for our lives, we grow in virtue. When we do not, we fall into sin and more likely to vice. This does not mean that sexual intercourse will always create life, but that the couple is open to that possibility.
This teaching is closed together with the larger cultural focus on one’s freedom to express oneself sexually however we might choose to enjoy it. But we see where that has led us. Many people thought that St. Pope Paul VI would reverse the church’s teaching which banned the moral use of contraception, but in 1968 in Humanae Vitae, he not only held the church’s consistent teaching, he made a powerful prediction that if men and women separated the two goods of human sexuality, the transmission of life and the expression of intimate love, there would be terrible results for the family and the culture. He noted that the objectification of women, an increase of marital infidelity, and a breakdown of family life would result. Sadly, he was so correct.
The church’s teaching does not mean that couples must have as many children as is possible, but in fact can choose, by natural means, to postpone sexual activity to times in the woman’s natural fertility cycle when conception is less likely to occur. But as countercultural as the church’s prohibition of artificial contraception is, it is a powerful witness to the goods of marriage which our world sometimes misses: children are a good for marriage, for their brothers and sisters, and a good in and of themselves. Raising children is an act of love and self-giving for parents.
In a culture fixated on material wealth and prosperity, children are all there is that parents will create which they will see in heaven. Spouses who practice the natural family planning referred to above, become more aware of the natural cycle of fertility as a part of God’s plan for women, and a reverence for the obvious difference between men and women, who are as the psalmist says, “beautifully, wonderfully made.” It is not simply “the woman’s responsibility” but becomes more positively understood by her husband as well. This “challenge” brings a couple together in a way which the dependence on artificial contraception cannot.
Father Peter Harman is rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome. A native of Quincy, he is a former rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield and is a moral theologian.