Contraception and Conversion

Sometimes a “progressive” Catholic asks me why my family and I became Catholics. As often rapidly becomes clear, the Episcopal Church we left is his ideal for the Catholic Church. We had married priests, women priests, homosexual priests, no doctrinal restrictions, evolving moral standards, and an official reason to be rude to the pope. What more could one want? How could we leave Paradise for the church of that oppressive Pole and then that oppressive German?
The regularly attending, basic-believing Catholic is usually pleased as punch to meet a convert. He rarely asks why — and, when he does, wants only the most general of answers. Becoming a Catholic for him is just an obvious thing to do, and he is glad to have you around.
The sporadically attending, selectively believing Catholic is slightly bemused, because (if I understand him right) he seems to think of the Church as a heritage and a home and doesn’t see why anyone else would be interested in it. He seems to feel as he would if you showed up to the Wisniewski family reunion or dropped into the Aquilina’s for Sunday dinner or starting putting ornaments on the Rothfus’s Christmas tree. Yet he is usually rather pleased that we did join, being a patriot.
The “progressive” is not so patriotic, if he isn’t actually a traitor. So I will often say, in as cheery, boosterish, and cheerleading a voice as I can manage, “My wife and I discovered the truth of the Church’s teaching on contraception, and after a while we just had to join the one body in the world that was telling the truth about it.”
That usually shuts down the conversation. I am now familiar with the sequence of facial expressions that begins with incredulity and then, after a period ranging from half a second to four or five, moves to either annoyance, disgust, or fear. People have, when they realized exactly what I’d just said, edged away while keeping their eyes on me as if I might hit them from behind.(I am not making that up.)
Perhaps I should not provoke the “progressive” so directly, but I speak to him that way to find out how serious he is in asking his question. In my experience, he rarely wants a real answer, and quite often just wants an excuse to berate the Church for all her alleged sins. I haven’t time for that kind of disloyalty, partly because (having heard all this as an Episcopalian) I think the arguments fairly stupid.
The Church’s teaching on contraception was not the only thing that drew us to the Church, of course, but it ranked high, not least because the teaching so thoroughly contradicted everything we had been taught that it had to be either the truth held with supernatural aid or a delusion held for any number of foolish or corrupt reasons.
Everyone I knew, well into my early thirties, assumed that sexual activity without the “risk” of children was perfectly natural and that the number and spacing of your children was something for you to decide. Even among Christians, no one would have blinked at a married couple who said that they were not going to have children, as long as they in some way (perfunctorily was okay) invoked God’s will.
When my fiancé and I went to our Episcopal church for the required premarital counseling, one of the first questions we were asked is what method of birth control we would be using. We didn’t know well anyone with more than two children, and I strain to remember anyone we knew at all with four. I remember meeting, when I was about 30, a minister with five children and feeling, even then, that I had met a mythical animal.
I first began to wonder about contraception as a pro-life activist, when I noted (after reading Joseph Sobran in the Human Life Review) its emotional association with abortion: Contraception sometimes fails, and some people find this failure to be unfair, denying them the child-free sex to which they feel entitled, and thus are inclined to abortion to correct the “injustice” of having a child they didn’t intend. They assume that if children were to be chosen and scheduled, the untimely, unchosen child could be rejected. Aborting him might be “tragic,” but it was “a tragic necessity.”
At first I thought the claim absurd, but then I heard some Evangelical Episcopalian friends — mainstream conservatives — say this very thing. They assumed that, for a married couple at least, sexual intercourse whenever desired was mandatory, but that having the baby that resulted was not. This didn’t change my mind, but it worried me. Contraception kept bad company.
A few years later, involved in the debate over homosexuality within the Episcopal Church, I was disturbed by the difference between the conservatives’ approval of non-procreative sex for married people and their loud opposition to non-procreative sex for homosexual people. They never got beyond the Bible verses against homosexuality, which seemed arbitrary without some idea what sexuality is for — and as a result, the homosexualists who did have some idea what sexuality is for seemed to have the better arguments (though they were wrong).
I began to wonder about the end for which sexuality is given us, and to see that sexual activity couldn’t be reduced to an emotional connection unrelated to the physical purposes of the organs involved. God had a reason for forbidding people to use their sexual organs with members of their own sex, but this reason implied that he intended them to be used only in certain ways even with a member of the other sex to whom they are married.
My assumptions about sexuality were further disturbed by the unanimity of the Church’s witness. Anglicans, having no Magisterium, look to the Christian tradition for guidance, and traditional Anglicans have always weighted it very heavily. And here — though “traditionalist” Anglicans were almost always in favor of contraception, and even used their opposition as an argument against Catholicism — was a teaching about as universal as could be asked for.
These hints led me to read up on a subject to which I would have given no attention at all before. Gradually I, and my wife too (and on her own), began to understand and then to accept, and finally to appropriate for ourselves, the Church’s teaching, which just a few years before had seemed to us utterly bizarre.
When we took it up as a practice, it changed our marriage as the articles had promised. Obedience led to the gift of our two youngest children, born after we accepted the teaching but before we became Catholics, and that addition radically changed our lives for the better. We couldn’t imagine life without them, not just for themselves but for the kind of family their addition created.
We naturally noticed, as we grew closer to the Church, that only she proclaimed this truth that, to us, was increasingly self-evident and objectively life-changing. And she did so with a complex and extensive and subtle understanding of man, sexuality, and society, also found in its fullness nowhere else.
To us, the Church’s insight and her courage in proclaiming it to a society that thought the whole idea daft was a sign — one of many, but one of the very biggest — that we were not yet where we ought to be. Gratitude for the life the Church had brought us, even when we remained outside her borders, drew us in.

David Mills is the former editor of Touchstone magazine and is now writing a book on Mary. He and his family were received into the Church in 2001. For a short popular explanation of the argument for the Church’s teaching, he recommends Julie Loesch Wiley’s The Delightful Secrets of Sex; for a description of the relation of contraception and abortion, he recommends Patrick Henry Reardon’s The Roots of Roe v. Wade.


  • David Mills

    David Mills is executive editor of First Things and author of Discovering Mary.

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