We had a grandpa-like priest at seminary that would hang around and encourage us young bucks in our priestly formation. Once, when I was working on my thesis about the Goods of Marriage, I asked Msgr. Leone, “When you were growing up and someone mentioned the sexual act, what came to your mind?” With no hesitation he said, “Procreation.”
Seventy years ago I don’t doubt that was the common response to a straightforward question on sexuality. After all, procreation is the natural end to the sexual act. However, I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find one in a hundred people today who would honestly say that procreation is the first thought that comes to mind when someone mentions sex.
This probably comes as no surprise. Today, most people would more likely think of pleasure, not procreation, when the sexual act is mentioned. In fact, today procreation is often seen as a negative side effect of sex and even as something that went wrong. The recognition of this reality can tell us something about where sexuality went off the rails in our modern world.
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Prior to the 1960s, procreation may not have always been welcome, but it was very much understood as the natural purpose of the sexual act. The shift came during this decade when forms of artificial birth control, particularly the birth control pill, became readily available to the general public. Since then, contraception, which literally means against conception, has been the common mentality toward the sexual act.
Seeing the threat such a negative influence would have on the world, the teaching authority of the Catholic Church took action. In the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI wrote:
This particular doctrine [that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life], often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, 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. (12)
The Church upholds that the sexual act is naturally intended for both the pleasure of spouses and the procreation of children. At the same time, she publically condemns a contraceptive mentality, which sees the two as divided (see HV 14).
Today, the problems regarding sexuality in our world are numerous and overwhelming. From fornication to homosexuality to abortion, the world is confused about the true meaning of the sexual act. Such disordered actions are destroying the framework of the family and causing population replacement rates to plummet.
Much good effort in recent decades has gone into promoting abstinence until marriage, to showing the natural ordering of heterosexuality, and to upholding the dignity of human life from the moment of conception. But these efforts will ultimately fall short unless we address the underling issue of contraception.
Prior to the cultural acceptance of artificial birth control, unmarried people more widely abstained from sexual intercourse out of the fear of getting pregnant. Homosexuality was obviously viewed as contrary to the natural law because it was not ordered toward generation. And abortion wasn’t seen as an answer to something that went wrong in the sexual act.
Contraception is the cause of all our problems regarding sexuality. When either the unitive or procreative aspects of the sexual act are intentionally missing, sexuality becomes disordered. Thus, it loses the moral compass of right reason to help it reach its end goal of human flourishing. Today, because of a prevailing contraceptive mentality, society is experiencing an endless host of sexual sins.
Pope Paul VI, now a canonized saint, predicted the demise of sexual morality if the use of artificial birth control was permitted (see HV 17). Sadly, his predictions have come true. Since society’s acceptance and promotion of contraceptive sexuality in the 1960s, divorce rates have skyrocketed, promiscuity is unleashed, and overall sexual confusion is dominant.
If we really want to save sexuality from total destruction, we have to redevelop a proception mentality. Conception is the natural end to the sexual act. Even though this is not accomplished in every instance of copulation, the openness to conception still allows married couples to experience the freedom of following God’s given design. For sexuality to reach its full potential, both the unitive and procreative significances need to remain intact.
The first step to rebuilding a culture of proception is to uphold the Church teaching that any action surrounding the conjugal act that renders procreation impossible is intrinsically evil (CCC 2370). When this is combined with full knowledge and complete consent it is also a mortal sin—which, unrepented, leads one to the eternal death of hell (CCC 1856-1861).
The positive side of proception is that this is what mankind was made for. God’s first commandment to our first parents was, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Openness to conception in the marital act not only makes man fully human, it also makes them Godlike. Immediately preceding this command from God was His declaration, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Openness to new life in the sexual act draws the married couple into a deeper experience of the Trinity, who is always generative.
From this divine foundation, sexuality can be built into the beautiful edifice it was intended to be: a family. However, any foundation that intentionally separates the unitive and procreative dimensions of the sexual act is not only building on sand, but quicksand! Contraception is corrupting sexuality.
Married love and the sexual act demand responsibility. If that is missing, love becomes lust. Every moral action comes with a consequence. In this sense, there is no free love, only responsible love. The contraceptive mentality seeks to remove personal responsibility from the sexual act and lower it to sex without consequences. In turn, sexuality loses its true dignity and leads persons into a selfish spiral.
Often when this teaching of the Church is presented, people respond with, “I’ve never heard this before.” Though this is unfortunate, it is also true. After the release of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, large numbers of clergymen, leaders in Catholic education, scholars, and theologians openly dissented from this teaching of the Church. And to this day, outspoken preaching and teaching on this subject is marginalized, if not criticized.
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I speak candidly on this issue not to shame anyone but, rather, to free us. Jesus said, “the truth with make you free” (John 8:31). It is only when our lives correspond with created realities that we find authentic freedom. The Catholic Church is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). As a mother, she guides not by force but by love—to help her children become fully who the Father created them to be. Such human freedom can only be achieved if we follow the natural laws laid down by God, our Creator.
The Church also understands that raising children in our modern world is challenging. So, in the very same encyclical, she teaches that for well-grounded reasons in spacing the birth of children, married couples can take advantage of the natural cycles and engage in intercourse only during infertile times, “which does not in the least offend the principles…just explained” (HV 16). This understanding has developed into what is known today as Natural Family Planning.
Restoring our perspective of the sexual act to intrinsically involve procreation may not directly stop sexual abuses. But one thing is for certain; continuing the way we are with a contraceptive mentality will only destroy more families. Hope lies in Jesus Christ, who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). In following the teachings of the Catholic Church, we follow Him.
Confronting the sinful fruits of fornication, homosexuality, abortion, and the like, is a good thing; better still is addressing their common root. Contraception is the cause of all our problems regarding sexuality. By exposing the lie behind the contraceptive mentality, we diffuse all other sinful fallouts.
The guiding light of the natural law reveals to us that the sexual act is both unitive and procreative. These significances are like the rails of life that keep sexuality on track. If either one is missing, sexuality becomes disordered and society suffers. On the flip side, when both are maintained, the sexual act gives life to the world.
Thank God for the wisdom of the Catholic Church, who is always concerned with human flourishing. She continues to teach that sexuality, and the sexual act in particular, is intended to help us reach our full Godlike potential. “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And true sexual love is always open to the generation of new life.