Karl Keating recently wrote about an all-but-forgotten work of apologetics called Some Thoughts on Catholic Apologetics, by E. I. Watkin. Skimming through Mr. Keating’s explanation of the book’s relevance for modern apologetics, I was struck by how much of the sentiment mirrored my own. As Mr. Keating notes,
“To Watkin, dry, abstract approaches used during the Victorian era no longer were serviceable. They not only weren’t winning hearts—they weren’t even winning minds. The world had changed too much for the old methods to persuade a wide enough swath of people.” Further on he continues, “Watkin thought the Catholic argument was put poorly in his own time. ‘Any candid man must admit that the writings of unbelievers often possess an earnestness, a depth, a reality which is lacking in very many Catholic writings and sermons.’”
I can’t help but feel as Mr. Watkin and Mr. Keating do when I read modern Catholic apologetics on the Church’s proscription of contraceptives. This is an incredibly difficult teaching, one that touches a primordial nerve. And yet, what seems to be the overwhelming approach to defending this teaching looks very much like this post from Jenny Uebbing. I single out Ms. Uebbing only because hers is the most recent article I’ve read on the subject lately. You can see this same defense, presented in various lengths and degrees of complexity, here, here, and here. And these are simply the top returns from a quick Google search.
There is no doubt that the cultural shift in attitudes about sexuality in general, and contraceptives in particular, make defending Church teaching feel like an exercise in futility. I commend Ms. Uebbing and every other person that has the fortitude to tackle this subject. But there is a stark reality that should be recognized: the current form of Catholic defense used against contraception is winning scorn, not minds. This, this, and this do not the exception make.
It is well and good to defend Church teaching, but I think it is increasingly apparent that defenses like Ms. Uebbing’s are either rallying the troops or turning people’s stomachs. Why is there such a growing extreme of difference in response to the contraception ban? You could argue that the cultural heart has grown quite hard, and you’d be correct—in part. I’d argue that, as Mr. Watkin said, the Catholic argument against contraception is being put poorly in our time. There is nothing we can do to soften a hard heart, but we can make sure that our defense of Catholic teaching is not also acting as a barrier to conversion.
Because hers is fresh in my mind, I’m using Ms. Uebbing’s article to examine the deficiencies in how we currently approach anti-contraceptive apologetics. The first deficiency is a matter of logic and factual accuracy. The second is a matter of tone.
Ms. Uebbing begins by addressing the misperceived reasoning for the Church’s contraception ban. She leads off with “The Pope is attempting to raise a standing army of believers.” While this statement is rightly being rejected as a motive for the contraception ban, it also insinuates the rejection of the statement itself. Nah, the Church isn’t trying to take over the world! Don’t worry! There is ample evidence, however, that make the insinuation appear to be a lie.
The Church (not the Pope himself) clearly identifies the earthly body of Christ as the Church Militant. The title sounds much scarier than it really is. We are not called to be a group of war-mongering Templar-ninja-assassins for Christ. But we are obliged by the virtue of our baptism to stand together as Christ’s body, ready to share and defend the faith.
It is also explicitly stated that parents have a particular duty toward raising their children in the faith. A few of these statements are found in the Catechism (2221 and 1652-1653), Arcanum 12, and Casti Conubii 12-13. All of these descend from St. Augustine’s On the Good of Marriage.
This is admittedly a small point to address, but when someone starts to find what looks like factual contradictions, the credibility of the entire argument begins to weaken.
Of greater significance to the credibility of anti-contraceptive apologetics is how defenders wield Humanae Vitae. Ms. Uebbing wrote:
“…Bl. Pope Paul VI warned about 3 very specific things which would result from the introduction of widespread contraception…Every single thing the Church warned about has happened.”
This is in reference to paragraph 17. Humanae Vitae has 31 paragraphs, but in my experience, paragraph 17 is the only one that anti-contraception apologetics make use of.
Citing paragraph 17 as Ms. Uebbing does (and most others do), it sounds like contraception is being blamed for causing our modern moral decline. The problem with how paragraph 17 is currently emphasized is that it doesn’t appear to acknowledge, or take seriously, the long and uninterrupted history of contraceptive use.
The first evidence of contraceptive use is a set of recorded recipes for contraception and abortion from China, circa 2700s BC. The Egyptians had female contraceptive methods circa 1850s BC, and a recipe for a spermicidal plug circa 1500s BC. Both Aristotle and Plato recommended birth control measures to prevent overpopulation in the 300s BC. During the same period Dioscorides, a Greek physician, discussed the use of the chaste tree and birthwort to prevent and or terminate a pregnancy. Soranus, his contemporary, suggested the silphium plant and sneezing in a crouched position to prevent pregnancy. These and other methods of contraception are employed consistently for almost 4500 years.
Contraception doesn’t exist in a vacuum; what is the cultural backdrop of over four millennia in which birth control functions? When this question is answered, it becomes obvious that yes, everything the Church warned about has happened, but its not the first time this has happened. It is misleading to beat the drum on the consequences of widespread contraceptive use as if moral decline, devaluation of women, and state-sponsored population control are modern sicknesses. Bl. Pope Paul VI’s words are absolutely correct, but they shouldn’t be construed as the causative property of modern moral decline. Rather, the consequences he enumerates are evidence of contraception’s correlative relationship to something more fundamental. This fundamental thing is the entire reason Humanae Vitae was written, but I don’t see our current anti-contraception apologetics addressing it.
I think that this fundamental thing that has yet to be sufficiently addressed is at the heart of why people reject Church teaching and our current anti-contraception apologetics. It’s essence is captured in the impression that the “Church doesn’t want sex to be enjoyable.” The fundamental thing is this: what is human intimacy, and what is the role of sex within it? Thanks to Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, the Church has made strides in providing a clearer answer to these questions. But anti-contraception apologetics tend to focus on the second question, to such a degree that it hasn’t stopped to consider how the world answers the first question.
While the Church has maintained the context of sex within a broad spectrum of human intimacy, the cultural shift in attitudes towards sexuality has placed the burden of intimacy almost exclusively on the sexual act. Sex is intimacy for the secular world. In a sense it is becoming (if it’s not already) the defining character of a romantic relationship. I’m placing my bets that this is what drives the critique of Church teaching on contraception— it appears to sterilize the heart and soul of human love.
I think this aspect of the first discrepancy is the greatest weakness in our current anti-contraception apologetics; we are so consumed by proving our point that we aren’t acknowledging, to ourselves or anyone else, that those who disagree with the contraception ban still understand the fundamental value of love, and are genuinely trying to possess it.
Those on both sides of the contraception debate don’t see eye-to-eye on what the fundamental value of love is, but there is enough common ground to start a fruitful conversation if one were so inclined. Which brings me to the second deficiency: the tone of our anti-contraception apologetics. Ms. Uebbing’s article, while greatly restrained compared to other’s I’ve read, belies what many of us feel when the subject of contraceptives is brought up: exasperation. It is truly exhausting to continuously defend this teaching amidst the derision, name-calling, and condescension that comes with standing with the Church on this one.
But the critics are not the only ones allowing baseness to creep into their responses. I notice that we defenders are increasingly open with our exasperation, demeaning our critics in ways both great and small. We are Catholics: we are called to be merciful. Mercy gives what can’t be returned, and doesn’t return what should not be given in the first place. We preach mercy unceasingly, but when we fail to practice it, our preaching is taken to be hollow. As tempting as it is, we need to be the ones to hold our frustrations in check. Ditch the sarcasm (which admittedly is a default mode for me) and the dismissiveness, and I think we’d be able to start many more conversations about what the Church teaches.
What, then, might a better anti-contraception apologetic look like? I think any convincing argument against contraception must be able to compellingly answer the question of: what is human intimacy? The first part of Theology of the Body does an amazing job of answering this question; its application to Pre-Cana has yielded very positive results. But the teaching doesn’t seem to go beyond this narrow milieu. Every person has the capacity to understand love, and the bond it creates between two people. If we can focus all of our anti-contraception apologetics on the positive doctrine on human sexuality, then when we begin to introduce the concept of the “contraceptive mentality” it will be clearer what exactly is being broken down.
What is the positive doctrine on human sexuality and intimacy? It is this: we are created out of love, for the purpose of loving and being loved by another.