Catholics believe that sexuality has a fundamental purpose, decreed by God: the unity of spouses and procreation. Many Christians — who are fully willing to abide by what the Bible teaches — do not understand why the Bible teaches what it does about sex, even if they accept that it teaches certain things that have been normative in Christian cultures, to more-or-less degrees. They have no idea why certain things are prohibited, and other things required.
Moreover, many do not even understand at its basic level the distinctive Catholic teachings on sex, such as the prohibition of contraception.
Likewise, secularists and atheists and agnostics who ultimately don’t care what the Bible teaches (because they deny that it is revelation and believe various myths about its nature and origins) want to hear non-biblical, non-religious, secular and purely logical rationales for why we believe certain sexual activities are wrong. This is my task as an apologist.
God’s design is the best design
The Catholic Church teaches that it is a grave sin to deliberately separate sexuality from procreation, because the latter is an essential purpose.
God created sex for this purpose and also, of course, for pleasure and unity, within its proper sphere (marriage between a man and a woman). He created it for the deep fulfillment of human beings. Whatever is prohibited by God is meant to foster this fulfillment, not to make people miserable or “incomplete,” etc. We believe people are the happiest when they follow the design God has for sexuality, and that families and society prosper and flourish as a result (and indeed, this is able to be demonstrated sociologically). To the extent they do not follow God’s plan, the opposite will be the case.
Catholic sexuality is not anti-woman, anti-pleasure, anti-homosexual (persons), anti-natural desire. That’s how it’s too often construed, because its nature or rationale isn’t properly comprehended. God isn’t against sex. He invented it. He described our relationship to Him as like a marriage.
In minimally graphic language, the Catholic view is that complete sexual fulfillment must occur in the act of love with one’s spouse of the opposite sex — the person to whom one is committed for life — and that the couple must be open to life and possible conception. Sexual acts engaged in apart from this circumstance are wrong and sinful.
Contraception, or deliberately thwarting a possible conception and engaging in sexuality under those circumstances, is wrong because it has an essentially “contralife will”: it insists on separating what ought not be separated (sexuality from possible conception, or being “open” to conception).
The Church teaches that a couple can space births and decide to postpone children or have no more children for appropriately serious reasons including health, emotional factors and finances. This is what Natural Family Planning is about. The difference is that the practicing Catholic abstains from sexuality during the woman’s fertile periods, if they have legitimate reasons not to conceive a child.
Nor does the Church teach that every couple must have a dozen children. It acknowledges that a couple can plan sensibly regarding the number of children and when to have them. But it does insist on sufficiently serious reasons for the decision.
Catholic teaching and natural law
Blessed Pope Paul VI, in his landmark 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, predicted several dire consequences for society and individuals should contraception be widely practiced. They have all come true. Ideas and behaviors indeed have consequences. He could see the bad things on the horizon because he understood why contraception was wrong in the first place, and hence, would produce terrible fruits. Now we are living with those.
I’d like to suggest one way that we can defend this viewpoint from natural law, in an entirely non-religious, non-biblical way, is by reference to other natural functions. My favorite example of this is taste buds and nutrition, in conjunction with eating. The “normal” understanding is that food should be enjoyed for its taste and also utilized for nutritional and health purposes. Both are, or should be present. We prove that this is what we believe, without thinking much about it, by our reactions to those who violate it.
So, for example, if a person completely separated the pleasure of taste from eating and insisted on eating bark, insects and rotten food (that still held nutritional value), we would consider that exceedingly strange and odd. Why? Well, it’s because we believe food ought to be enjoyed while nourishing us. Taste buds have no relation to nutrition whatsoever. They are purely for sensory pleasure, and everyone believes that pleasure shouldn’t be separated from the nutritional aspect of food.
On the other extreme (with analogy to contraception), we have junk food. We think a person who exclusively eats Twinkies, chocolate-covered cherries and cotton candy is quite bizarre and not even remotely responsible about his or her diet. And that is because we know food must have nutritional value, which is, in fact, its fundamental purpose, beyond merely enjoying its taste. Both must be together.
As analogies go, this teaching does not mean a married couple cannot engage in sexual activities when conception is not possible (such as the infertile periods for a woman or after her menopause). What is prohibited is a deliberate thwarting of a possible conception during fertile periods.
Many have never heard this reasoning and rationale, and this often leads, sadly, to highly caricatured, stereotypical perceptions of Catholic teaching, including silly allusions to repressed nuns and dictatorial priests (and by extension, God Himself).
Satan’s lies! God and His Church want us to be happy and fulfilled, which is precisely why God designed things the way they are.
Dave Armstrong is a full-time Catholic apologist. He lives in Allen Park, grew up in Detroit, and has attended St. Joseph Church near downtown since 1991. He’s been happily married to his wife Judy since 1984, and they have three sons and a daughter. Dave has written 49 books on apologetics, including six for Sophia Institute Press, with several bestsellers in the field. He blogs daily at the Patheos supersite (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/). Information for purchase of his books is available there.