Cooperating with the Creator: Birth Control and the Church

If you had collared me before I was Catholic and asked my opinion of Rome’s teaching on artificial contraception, I would have said something like this:

“I understand and applaud the Magisterium’s opposition to abortion, since abortion kills people. But I’m not comfortable with the Church’s stodgy stand on artificial contraception based on Her opposition to ‘interference with nature.’ After all, we interfere with nature all the time when we dye our hair, pierce our ears, and use sun blockers to avoid the natural process of suntan and skin cancer. So it seems to me that the real question is not ‘Shall we interfere?’ but, ‘At what level are we comfortable interfering?'”

This seemed to me a deft deflection of the Church’s “intrusive” teaching—until I started thinking about the challenge of biotechnology and genetic engineering. I began to recognize that my use of the word “interference” was a lousy blanket term for describing every sort of technological fiddling with nature and (as is especially the case with molecular biology) with persons. Both a gunshot and a penicillin shot “interfere” with human biology. However, such interference springs from markedly different intentions and has markedly different results. Of course, other interference, like piercing ears or dyeing hair, is largely morally neutral. That’s why indiscriminately labeling everything from vaccination to fetal harvesting as “interference” and then appealing to “comfort levels” to determine what shall and shall not be done is—I came to realize—hopelessly inadequate.

The question of how to care for and love human life at its most basic level isn’t a matter of obeying the whims of human comfort, but of obeying the will of the Creator of human life. The more I pondered the momentous dangers posed to the dignity of the human person by biotechnology, the more perilous and premature my ephemeral “comfort” dodge appeared. It became obvious to me that matters pertaining to the most fundamental truths of human existence could not be left merely to one’s sense of comfort, but could only be decided on a much more solid basis: “What is good, and what is evil?”

I began to wonder, “According to revelation, just what is God up to in creating a human being?”

Looking at Scripture, we find that the primary image revealed is of God molding man from the dust of the earth and breathing life into his nostrils. Thus, as Christianity has always taught, a human being is revealed from the very beginning to be (1) a creation of the Love who is God, and (2) a mysterious and fruitful union of spirit (symbolized by breath) and nature (symbolized by dust).

The word “union” is crucial here. The temptation of our culture is always to try to separate and exalt either the spiritual or the physical aspect of the human person. Thus to the gnostic, New Age, “spiritual” type, human beings are all soul, and the body is just a disposable Tupperware container for this “essence.” Yet this is to ignore the fact that we experience and know everything (including God) in a bodily way. We eat, weep, breathe, laugh, pray, sleep, and fight with our bodies. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in a marriage. Try telling the bride and groom on their wedding night that the “highest” form of love is purely “spiritual” in the sense of disembodiment. And, of course, the seal on the goodness of our physical humanity is the Resurrection of Christ Himself, whose body is not disposed of but transfigured and glorified.

On the other hand, those who exalt the physical side of the human person at the expense of the spiritual are also missing something vital. Human beings are more than unusually clever pieces of meat. Contra Carl Sagan, they’re more than just “star stuff.” They are somehow more than the sum of their material parts. As St. Thomas tells us, the soul is the form of the body, the animating principle made directly by God.

At this point certain Christians may object, “But doesn’t Scripture divide us into body, soul, and spirit? And isn’t the spirit what matters to God?” Well, yes and no. For the purpose of making rational, descriptive distinctions within the human person, the three are indeed distinguished (1 Thes 4:23). But Scripture also makes clear that to really divide these aspects of the human being from one another is not the intention of God. Why? Because the technical term for the division of body and soul is not “purity” but “death” (yielding a corpse and a ghost). And as the whole New Testament bears witness, it’s precisely this terrible division of body and soul that the risen incarnate Lord came to heal.

By biblical lights, human beings are best described as ensouled bodies or embodied souls. Accordingly, the creation of human life is best described as the raising of nature to personhood by the creative act of the Love who is God. In this, there’s a sort of shadow of the Incarnation of Love Himself. For just as the Incarnation proceeds—as the Athanasian creed states—”not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by the taking up of the manhood into God,” so in the creation of every human life, subhuman nature (“dust” in Old Testament—speak) is “taken up” to participate in personhood.

The key idea here is the old Thomist maxim, “Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.” Thus in the creation of every person, atoms are raised to participate in molecular existence, yet remain atoms. Molecules are raised to participate in organic chemistry, yet remain molecules. Organic chemicals are raised to participate in biological processes, yet remain organic chemicals. And so on as single-celled life is raised to participate in multi-cellular life, and multi-cellular life is raised to participate in the life of a human being. Grace does not spiritualize nature into the ether, but rather perfects and elevates nature while leaving it fully natural. We are dust. Yet this dust is—not merely contains—a person.

Given that, the question, “What is God up to in creating human beings?” can be answered this way: He is raising nature to human personhood with the ultimate aim (in Christ) of raising human persons toward supernatural union with Himself and with other glorified creatures. We are intended to participate—neither as mere animals nor as mere “spiritual” wraiths but as fully human beings—in the dynamic life of the Blessed Trinity, wherein the love between the Father and the Son eternally bears fruit in the Person of the Holy Spirit. In short, we are made for love and fruitfulness. That is the scriptural witness. And by a strange coincidence, it’s also the teaching of the Magisterium.

The process of raising creation to personhood happens not by the waving of magic wands, according to Scripture, but through created agents (particularly human beings) so that all creation may be completed and healed. That’s the meaning of all that business in Paul’s epistles about being “co-laborers with Christ.” Thus, our actions assume a lawful place in the creative will of God if, in whatever great or small way, they cooperate in this creative process of love and fruitfulness according to God’s order.

We see this creative cooperation with God’s love and fruitfulness aimed at completion in many ways. For example, as an Evangelical I was taught to recognize it when natural human life is raised to union with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Here, I understood clearly, is grace raising nature par excellence. But I came to see that the same principle holds in all areas of human life as well.

For example: We fall in love, but instead of simply scarfing up sex and moving on to greener pastures in unreflective bovine detachment, we raise sexuality to a higher level by willingly binding ourselves in committed, covenantal love with wife or husband. In so doing, we cooperate with grace in completing ourselves and our spouse according to God’s word that says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Likewise, the completion of this union of love typically results in our cooperation with God’s ordained method for raising created sub-personal nature (sperm and egg) to personhood (at conception). After this, we assist in the sustenance, nurturing, beautifying, and fulfillment of human nature. This is the reason we “interfere” with human life by giving Junior food, lullabies, education, and a warm bed instead of leaving him to the elements.

Moreover, the fruitfulness that issues in completion extends even further. Our love of fruitfulness is also why we dye hair, pierce ears, put on makeup, do scientific research, sculpt works of art, and compose poetry. It is why we assist in the perfection of non-human nature by “tending the Garden” as our First Parents were commissioned to do. It is why we trim the hedges, breed hardier dogs, plant petunias, design comfortable furniture, and create the wheel. All these and a billion others are acts of cooperative completion through which God makes us loving and fruitful stewards of the earth, including that bit of earth called our neighbor.

The second way we help grace perfect nature is by cooperating with God in healing the effects of the Fall of both humans and superhuman created spirits. This is why we put surgeons’ scalpels and milk of magnesia into human bodies, practice prudence by putting on sunblock, and take antibiotics. It is also why we take dogs to the vet, pick up litter, clean Lake Erie, send aid to Katrina victims, protest genocide in Darfur, repent our sins, forgive our enemies, pray “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” and write peevish letters to our senator about the deficit.

Roughly speaking, then, our role as human beings is—in big and small ways—to be about the business of perfecting, nurturing, and enhancing by grace a creation intended for beatitude. Such “interference” on our part isn’t interference at all, but the right and proper cooperative office of human beings as children of God and high priests and stewards of creation. “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed… in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:19-21).

So the scriptural witness is this: Whatever helps nature (especially human nature) achieve the end for which it is created (namely bounty, beauty, love, and beatitude) and cooperates with God by raising nature to personhood and union with Him (prudently and within the natural bounds of God’s twin purposes of love and fruitfulness) is the very definition of “good.”

Conversely, a strong working definition of sin is this: The heart of sin is to treat persons like things and things like persons. To act thus is to run the film of creation backwards, to wrench the universe hard astern. We treat persons like things through sins like pride, lust, slavery, and murder; we treat things like persons through sins like idolatry, greed, gluttony, and avarice.

Such things truly are interference. For their purpose, in one way or another, is to thwart and defeat God’s will for love and fruitfulness while attempting to wring the juice out of creation and consume it for our own pleasure and power. Such an action constitutes a fundamentally selfish refusal to cooperate with God and a determination to exploit or destroy His creation if it bars our will to pleasure and power. Such a choice is, by its very nature, a denial of love and fruitfulness.

So how does all this affect real life? Well, if we really believe that we live in an incarnational, created universe, we know as a matter of first principles that since nature isn’t meant to be subject to the mere whim of man irrespective of God’s purpose, still less is human nature. Thus, any medical fidgeting with human life must be done (insofar as we wish to avoid evil) not on the basis of our “comfort” but on the basis of finding the way by which our science (like everything else we do) is ordered to cooperate with God’s call to raise nature to personhood according to His terms of love and fruitfulness. Such a criterion has the very practical effect of saving molecular biology from the Luddites and allowing it to pursue its promise of doing some very beautiful works of both completion (by gaining knowledge of the creation) and healing of people who suffer from various genetic lesions. As long as it does its work without causing the death or exploitation of persons, it’s in accord with the Good.

But molecular biology (galvanized by the modern spirit of “We can, therefore we will”) not only promises, it threatens. So, for instance, there’s enormous pressure to create disposable embryos artificially conceived solely for the purpose of research. In the not-so-distant future, we will learn how to initiate conception in any nucleic tissue sample handy, not just egg and sperm. Once this becomes a reality, it would enable the creation of virtually limitless numbers of test-tube embryos for research use as “fetal harvesting material.” Here the standard of “comfort” is woefully inadequate to the challenge of deciding what’s good and evil.

But revelation gives us very clear grounds to condemn and forbid this satanic parody of anti-creation. For it’s nothing other than the grave sin of reducing persons to cash-crop things in the very act of raising cellular nature to personhood via artificial conception. It would be to enact what T. S. Eliot calls the “greatest treason” by doing the right thing (raising nature to personhood) for the profoundly wrong reason of wrenching human life out of the divine context of love and fruitfulness and making a person into a consumable commodity.

A worldview rooted in the recognition of creation and incarnation can, therefore, speak with great strength. It can not only bless the right use of technology (when it’s used to cooperate with love and fruitfulness), but it can also condemn it with authority should it abusively and violently interfere with the most primal human forms of love and fruitfulness (between husband and wife, mother and child, healer and patient, powerful and powerless, Creator and creature) in order to subject the natural processes of human reproduction to our will. It can see such abuse for what it is: a twisted parody of God’s loving creative will, since the sole purpose of this interference is to discard love (by deftly cutting the embryo away from all such relationships) and twist fruitfulness into the harvesting of a ripening human life for consumption as a “tissue source.” Such a sin is to divorce nature from grace, to thwart the purposes of God in creation, to treat persons like things, and to exalt the things of power and money over persons.

So far, so good. I had been able to come up with some biblically sound “rules of thumb” for discerning how to navigate the morality of biotechnology. But in so doing I had to face the disastrous failure of my own opinions on contraception. For there’s no way to justify artificial contraception that doesn’t also justify destroying the ancient Christian sacramental linkage of sex to love and fruitfulness, which undergirds any sane ethic toward human life.

After all, if it’s wrong to interfere with nature by exalting fat research endowments and “harvest” profits over cooperation with God, how was it right to exalt my own pleasure and autonomy over it? I didn’t, of course, ask this question out of a sudden puritanical fear of sexual pleasure. Rather, I did so out of a newfound realization of sex as a sacramental participation in the creative, loving, and fruitful life of the Blessed Trinity (a notion strangely anticipated by that dusty old Humanae Vitae). With my eye on Paul’s comment that I had been “bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:1920), and my mind filled with the colossal Catholic picture of the call to love with total abandon (like Christ), I felt a growing uneasiness with the standard modern bafflegab that My Body Is My Own. For it suddenly became very difficult to see such chatter as referring to anything other than separating the human person from communion with God and neighbor. I came to the awareness that, in translation, My Body Is My Own usually meant, “There’s no difference whatsoever between how we ought to address the police and how we ought to address our lover.”

For love (like sex) is almost private, and very rightly so. Yet if we tell our lover My Body Is My Own, in the sense that we mean it in modern political discourse addressed to the state, we have shot love dead. As a barrier against abuse, rape, and unjust laws against interracial or interreligious marriages, such a slogan is perfectly valid. But when it comes to talking about love (the real self-surrendering love of both partners to each other and to God), talk of rights no longer holds absolute sway. A bond of union and a willingness to bow to the other in mutual submission and self-sacrifice must be there for love to exist in the fullest Christian sense.

And this is precisely what artificial contraception belies. It is fingers crossed behind the back, an escape clause from the promise of full commitment. It is autonomy (from the other), power (over our child-free future), and a demand that our right to pleasure remain unencumbered by any “extraneous” business about love and fruitfulness. Its purpose is to separate man and woman, parents and children, God’s will and our will. Its goal is to strip-mine the gold of pleasure from the sacramental union of love and fruitfulness, enthrone autonomy and pleasure as the main thing sex is about, and declare love and fruitfulness “optional” rather than that which revelation declares them to be the very heart of reality.

And quite successfully, too. For the vast majority of our culture is still quite prepared to intone—as I once did—the tired old singsong that the Church “thinks sex is dirty” and fears the very idea of sexual pleasure is too wicked for words. “That’s why the Church hates birth control,” says our culture, “It wants people to pay for a tumble under the sheets and not just get away with all that fun scot-free.” Yet, ironically, those who say this simply prove the Church’s critique of our culture. For to assert that commitment and parenthood are “payment” is to assert one’s own deeply held belief that love and fruitfulness are a ball and chain, and the real point of life is autonomy and pleasure. It is precisely this fundamental assumption (an assumption in direct antithesis to the heart of revelation) that the modern mind cannot even bring itself to question.

Yet such an assumption must be questioned sooner or later, since the whole purpose of a life absorbed in the pursuit of autonomy and pleasure is to move precisely in the direction that reality does not go. For instead of cooperating with the Creator in the perfection of nature and the raising of nature to personhood, the whole goal of artificial contraception and the autonomous, pleasure-centered mindset behind it is simply to treat nature as if it were ours (thus reducing nature’s Blessed Creator to the status of “thing-hood”) and to treat human beings like things by reducing them to a set of biological processes. And, as history bears abundant testimony, this decision to subject persons to My Pleasure and Autonomy doesn’t stop with mere contraception. It inexorably (and swiftly) leads to an abortion mentality in which the child is reduced to a thing called a fetus, and the fetus is reduced to a disposable commodity. In our country, this precipitous slide took only eight years, from Griswold to Roe.

At this point, the Zeitgeist replies, “Sot You think women should do nothing but breed, do you?” Well, no, not really. It simply doesn’t follow that because we are obliged to cooperate with God that we’re therefore obliged to have as many children as possible, regardless of the consequences. Cooperating with God means “cooperating with God,” not “bearing 26 children in a row.” It means openness to His love and fruitfulness. It means not crossing our fingers behind our backs when we say, “I give all of myself to you” (which is what the act of sex intrinsically means). It means honoring the created nature God has made, not only with respect to natural fertility, but with respect to natural infertility as well. For it’s perfectly legitimate (if one has, for instance, a limited income) to chart a woman’s natural periods of infertility and (if one wishes to avoid pregnancy) restrain one’s sexual appetite for a day or two till this God-created, God-given infertility begins.

Why is that different from artificial contraception? Because it’s cooperation, not interference. That is, it isn’t an attempt to thwart God’s creative purposes in order to wrench sexual pleasure and personal autonomy out of the sacramental context in which God created it. It is instead an attempt to say yes to God’s gift of sex and power in the context which He has given (including the natural cycles of fertility and infertility).

My mind, therefore, has changed concerning the Church’s sexual ethic. More and more, I find it as difficult to separate Her sacramental view of the universe from my so-called private life as it is to separate my “private life” from my family and my God. And as I look at the wasteland of millennial American culture, it becomes increasingly clear to me that the modern technological impulse that created the idol of “reproductive rights” has taken a profoundly disastrous turn in its unshakable faith that the fundamental human problems are technological, not moral and spiritual. To treat the enormous sacramental mystery of sexuality like a plumbing problem is preposterously simple-minded. To fail to see the immensity of sex as one of our deepest participations in the creative work of God is myopic in the extreme.

Yet the unalterable fact remains (according to revelation) that the goal of the universe is love and fruitfulness “in accordance with nature and grace” (since God is the Maker of both). It is not to skim off pleasure and autonomy and dispose of love and fruitfulness as troublesome and useless dross. We are far too important, and our life and love far too precious a sacrament, to be taken so lightly and treated so disposably. That is why my wife and I, as partners in the sacrament of marriage, have chosen to remain open to the love and fruitfulness of God here, as we have sought to do in all the other areas of our lives. That is also why I now pray that God will grant us all a deeper vision of His calling and show us again the depth of His love and fruitfulness in every aspect of our lives. May He teach us anew the dance of humility, joy, and creativity in the land of the Trinity, where all our loves reside. And may we, who have traded our dignity for pride and our joy for pleasure, return in humility, love, and fruitfulness to the steps of that Great Dance.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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