Artificial vs. Natural?

Janet E. Smith
Reproduced with Permission

It is good news that Catholic textbooks and Catholic marriage preparation manuals are beginning to do more than formulaically state that the Church condemns contraception - and then state that couples are permitted to do what their consciences dictate. In doing so, these books did more to deter Catholics from following Church teaching than winning them over to Church teaching. Space is now given to explaining, rather than just reciting, the Church's teaching and the "conscience clause" has disappeared. (There is now a more honest understanding that "following one's conscience means a conscience formed by Church teaching.")

It is encouraging that some of the texts are very clear in the presentation that the all the chemical forms of contraception and the IUD work on occasion as abortifacients - that is, they sometimes work by preventing the implantation of the fertilized ovum (the new little human being). The distressing and frustrating bad news is that these texts give a false explanation of the reasons for condemning contraceptives as contraceptives. They state that the Church teaches that contraception is wrong because it is artificial. These texts also teach that natural family planning is morally acceptable because it is not artificial. But the fact is that the artificiality of contraception figures not at all in the Church's condemnation of contraception. Certainly, the Church teachings that contraceptives commonly known as "artificial birth control" are morally impermissible, but it is not because of their artificiality that they are condemned.

It is not surprising that many lay people think that such is the Church's teaching, because regrettably the teaching is presented as such in many Catholic publications written by "experts" and even receiving imprimaturs. Recently I found this teaching in two very popular textbooks and a marriage preparation text that are considered to be "conservative." Thus, laypeople who think that the Church condemns contraceptives because they are artificial are perhaps not to be blamed. Moreover, that they think this is the teaching of the Church may explain at least in part their resistance to Church teaching; they rightly reason that the Church is guilty of a terrible and manifest inconsistency. "Artificial" means "made by art". Why should the Church condemn contraception because it is artificial while approving the many "artificial" conveniences of modern society and modern medicine? Moreover, are not some of the methods of natural family planning reliant upon such artificial tools as thermometers?

That "experts" hold and propagate this view is, however, less easy to understand and perhaps not very forgivable. Many decades ago some theologians -- mostly those opposing the Church's teaching -- stated that the Church taught that contraception is wrong because it is artificial and refuted it by raising the questions about artificiality posed above. There was little excuse for representing the Church's teaching as such before and there is no excuse for it now. We have Humanae Vitae, Familiaris Consortio, the extensive deliberations of Pope John Paul II on the issue, and the new Catechism, none of which give the slightest suggestion that the Church opposes contraception because it is artificial. The books I reviewed were written very recently; one unfortunately suspects their authors of having failed to read key texts. Indeed, one is at a loss to determine what source they have for their claims.

I can give only a brief presentation of the Church's teaching here. I recommend that everyone consult Humanae Vitae, Familiaris Consortio, and the Catechism. Those who appreciate precise and profound philosophical reasoning should read Karol Wojtyla's Love and Responsibility. Cardinal Chaput's Pastoral Letter on Humanae Vitae provides a magnificently clear and accessible presentation of Church teaching, arguably the very best to date. It should be as widely distributed as possible. My explanation here will be a more technical consideration of the distinction between natural and artificial.

First, let us be clear that the Church does greatly approve of the use of artificial things though they must be subject to moral evaluation. Donum Vitae states that "[Reproductive technologies] are not to be rejected on the grounds that they are artificial. As such, they bear witness to the possibilities of the art of medicine. But they must be given a moral evaluation in reference to the dignity of the human person, who is called to realize his vocation from God to the gift of love and the gift of life." (DV, Intro, 3) Later the document states, "If technical means facilitate the conjugal act or help it to reach its natural objectives, it can be morally acceptable. If, on the other hand, the procedure were to replace the conjugal act, it is morally illicit." (DV, II, B, 6). The Church approves of what is artificial when it facilitates nature and disapproves of it when it violates nature. The distinction between facilitating nature and violating nature is key - "artificial" forms of contraception violate nature. So do some natural means that have historically been used as contraceptives, such as seaweed and natural sponges; these too fall under the condemnation of the Church.

The natural law upon which the Church much of its moral teaching has a very specific understanding of "nature" that unfortunately eludes many. The "nature" referred to in "natural law" is not biological nature but the nature of the human being; our nature as a rational, free, and relational creatures. Acts that violate the rational free, and relational nature of the human being are thereby immoral. The Holy Father's references to the dignity of the human person are the true referent for "nature" when natural law is referenced as a source of morality.

Contraception violates the dignity of the human person in several ways. It reduces the sexual act to a merely biological act on the level of animal existence. Humans freely and rightly contracept and sterilize other animals because their existence and their sexuality have a merely instrumental value. Their sexuality is ordained to the propagation of the species, and since species are ultimately ordained to the benefit of human beings, we can manipulate them to our benefit. The human sexual act is not manipulable in the same way since human life is of intrinsic value. There are strict conditions for the moral performance of the human sexual act, conditions mandated by the vulnerability of the human person and the value of human life.

The sexual relationship between spouses is one of God's great gifts to mankind. Pope John Paul II teaches that it enables human beings to overcome their existential loneliness and to overcome their selfishness by participating in a common good and a good of inestimable value- the good of bringing into existence another creature with an immortal soul.

The sexual act is morally performed only within marriage where it has the ordination both to deepening the union of the spouses and to building a family. Sexual acts that violate those ordinations or "meanings" are thereby immoral. Contraception violates both meanings of the conjugal act. The conjugal act is meant to be an act of total self-giving, which includes giving the power of becoming a parent with another. Spouses who contracept are not giving totally of themselves to one another; in violating the baby-making power of the sexual act, they confine their act to being ordained solely to mutual pleasure. They are not achieving the union proper to spouses, a union that respects the babymaking power of the sexual act as a proper fulfillment of spousal union. Contraception treats the procreative meaning of the sexual act as though it were an impediment to spousal union. Thus, contraception negates the good of the openness to a new immortal life that is inherent in the sexual act of humans and trivializes the commitment that is implied in the conjugal act.

On the other hand, couples using methods of natural family planning are respecting the nature of the conjugal act through their acts of self-denial. They do not violate the baby-making power of the sexual act. They refrain from acts of conjugal intercourse during the fertile periods because they have judged that responsible parenthood requires them to limit their family size. In these instances, their spousal union is deepened and confirmed by their abstaining from sexual pleasure. Their acts of conjugal intercourse during the infertile periods do not violate the procreative meaning because it is not present in a way to be violated.

The Church's teaching on contraception embraces the deepest of human values, both natural and supernatural. It falsifies and trivializes the Church's teaching to reduce it to a rejection of the "artificial." The Church's teaching is surely an exaltation and an exultation of the natural, properly understood, and we shortchange ourselves if we fail to realize this.