Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Contraception and Vocations

Pope Benedict said something in Salt and Light, before he became pope. That vocation crises come in pairs. When marriage is in crisis so is religious life. You cannot have one healthy unless both are healthy. The two are interconnected in so many ways it seems right.

You look at artificial contraception. You think it will effect marriage and it has. But why should it effect vocations? What are the 3 vows of religious life? Celibacy, poverty, and obedience. Artificial contraception undermines all three. Why do couples use artificial contraception? They give 3 basic reasons. First of all, it interferes with the enjoyment of their sex life. Essentially arguing that chastity is too burdensome. That sexual pleasure is an end in itself rather than one aspect of the marriage vocation which has far greater blessings than some moments of physical pleasure. The truth is that sexual pleasure is not something that you ever get when you pursue it for its own sake. With pornography, with premarital sex, and with contraception the research shows that those who indulge in these things do not have more satisfying sex lives. It is an illusion. The devil is the father of lies. The lies he tells us about sexual pleasure are some of the hardest to disbelieve. Even people who obey often do it with resentment because they think they are missing out. What we miss out on is a distorted sexuality that brings more pain than pleasure. It looks great from the outside but it isn't so.

The second reason couples give for using artificial contraception is because children are too expensive. Now the first point is that natural contraception is permitted and does work. But the second point is that we are called to extreme generosity when deciding whether or not to make room for one more child in our family. We might have things we want to spend out money on that need to be surrendered. There is also to matter of just trusting God to give you your daily bread. These are hard things to do but we need to do them if we are to be free of the hold money has on us.

The third reason couples give is they don't want the pope to tell them what to do in their bedroom. But it really boils down to not wanting God to tell them what to do. If you give yourself a pass on artificial contraception what are you going to say when you kids want to give themselves a pass on premarital sex or pornography? We know artificial contraception is immoral exactly the same way we know anything about faith or morals. It comes from Jesus as preserved by sacred tradition and taught by His church. As soon as we reject one piece of that revelation we undermine it all. We essentially say we are not going to completely surrender to the lordship of Jesus. It is a huge statement about the inadequacy of the Catholic faith. This is why it is called a mortal sin. It means your Catholic faith is a lie. You just don't believe it is true.

Anyway, this is getting long and I have not gotten to the point yet. The point is that the 3 main objections to contraception directly correspond to the 3 main vows of religious life. Celibacy is just a more radical living out of the notion that sexual pleasure is not an end in itself. Because it is not the end it can be sacrificed for something greater. Poverty is just a more radical living out of our reliance on God as our provider and our willingness to focus on things more valuable than material possessions. Obedience is just a more radical living out of the trust in God and His church to guide your thinking and decision making. So in artificial contraception we see a direct attack on all 3 vows the religious life proposes to young people.

So what happens when a young person lives in a faith community where the vast majority have embraced artificial contraception and thereby implicitly rejected chastity, generosity, and orthodoxy? How can they be encouraged to pursue a religious vocation? Even if that community routinely recites a prayer for vocations they are not likely to be inspired. If they make that choice it will be in spite of that community rather than because of it. Most of the time they don't make that choice.


  1. I love how you looked at contracepted marriage as a distortion of religious vows; I've never though of it that way. But I'd take it a step backward, ever before birth, when looking at the marriage/vocation relationship:

    Contracepted marriages not only deter those discerning religious life, they prevent possible religious from being born in the first place.

    It's no secret that a major cause of dwindling vocations is the spiraling birth rate in many developed countries.

  2. You are right to a point. Fewer births mean fewer vocations but it should also mean less priests required to serve a smaller population. The interesting thing is that the relationship is not linear. On average a 2 child family does not produce one fourth as many vocations as an 8 child family. There are many reasons for that but one important one is that often the parents in the 8 child family have modeled chastity, generosity, and orthodoxy.

  3. Interesting, indeed--that makes sense.