In a conclave of atheists, agnostics, and secular progressives, a seminar to discuss the human sexual drive would certainly speak about the most anatomically obvious purpose– continuation of our species. Instinctive mutual attraction and mating between gender opposites (with or without a formal ceremony) seems directed to that purpose. Defying easy definition, the word ‘love’ might be applied to the strongest physical, emotional, or intellectual attraction, but another synonym, if they could find one, would be preferred. Without a relationship with another human being, the human sexual drive creates an inner tension which seeks some sort of release. Our discussants would likely accept as completely normal human behaviour any sort of sublimation as long as neither or none of the participants are coerced and no others’ rights are infringed in the process. Virtually all nuances of sexual activity would be acceptable to the group in the spirit of “no harm, no foul” and they certainly would not obsess about same-sex marriage. A discussion of Natural Law would be avoided because of the possible connection to any Legislator.
Continuation of Homo sapiens aside, and regardless of how sexual tension might be released, any measures which prevent unwanted pregnancy as long as they are not physically harmful to the potential parents would likely be sanctioned by this group. As their intellectual inferiors, we who believe in God would be best served to opt out of such discussion groups since we since we cannot convince the intelligentsia about our primitive views.
Sadly, if we were to hold a seminar to discuss the purpose of sexual intimacy, we are far from united in our own beliefs. Indeed, we are probably less so than atheists. For some of us are firmly convinced that sexual intercourse is permitted only to a couple of opposite gender who are legally married by exchanging vows to each other and to God until separated by death. Others would be in agreement if the reference to death could be eliminated. Still others, some of them bishops, would be inclusive of couples of the same gender who are in a monogamous, loving relationship. Polygamy would be cited as biblical by a few congregations, but bestiality would be viewed by almost all as deviancy. A sizable group would consider masturbation completely normal human behavior and not at all sinful, while others have confessed it to a priest many times.
These varied opinions among us believers beg a burning question, “Is our God understanding and tolerant of our diverse approaches to the sexual drive He gave us or does He expect us to rise above the pursuit of orgasmic pleasure and use our sexuality as part of a loving relationship with Him?”
If we can explain why He, who needs nothing, made us in the first place, perhaps we can begin to answer that question. In reviewing the doctrines of some of planet earth’s different religions to explain our existence, there is a common thread. According to the Catholic Church’s 1885 catechism, “God made me (us) to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in heaven.” The 1994 revision is more detailed: “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for: ‘The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists, it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his Creator.’ ”
Reformation catechisms employ the following language: “God created us male and female in his own image to know him, love him, live with him, and glorify him” and further, “We are created to be loving companions of others so that something of God’s goodness may be reflected in our lives”.
Muslims explain man’s existence this way: “And I did not create the jiin (genies or spirits) and humans except they should worship me.” [Quran 51: 56]. Thus, according to Islam, the essential purpose for which humankind was created is the worship of God.
Jews would summarize their teaching on the subject as follows: “The purpose of human existence is to achieve closeness to God. This is attained via living in accordance with the 613 commandments because each mitzvah (commandment), in its own unique way, contains the means for man to forge a relationship with God”
Thus, some sort of subordinate relationship with the Creator is the unifying theme behind the major religions of the world as to why we are here. We are created for God.
Furthermore, he must have intended that each of us exist, not as some toys to amuse him, but because we creatures are the focus of his all-loving nature. Not apparently wanting to force that love on us, his most complex living forms on this planet, he allows us to tilt in his direction or away from it; for separated from even the highest animals is the vastly greater degree of freedom of choice possessed by Homo sapiens. We can choose to seek him and return that love or not. For those of us who are interested in a relationship with the Creator, we are likely to desire that for our children, who are presumably just as intended and precious to him as we. If the Good Lord intends that they be born too, sexual intercourse becomes far more than the mutual affection and pleasure experienced by a married couple. Moreover, the release of sexual tension by any means available conflicts rather perilously with God’s grand design.
The Creator’s purpose can be found in the first chapter of Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you.…” and in Psalm 139: “…you knit me in my mother’s womb.” Given these messages from the Almighty, and that fact that what is released in semen contains 20 to 150 million spermatozoa per milliliter, the marriage act becomes a component of an intimate and truly holy encounter with the Creator and His greatest gift– human life. From the perspective of the Catholic Church, artificial means taken to interfere with that gift is like saying to God, “No thanks; return to Sender.” “We are interested only in our pleasure as a couple this time. We, not You, will make the decisions about any Jeremiahs, Beethovens, or Einsteins coming into existence.”
Once prohibiting any form of contraception, the truth has apparently changed for Protestant Christian denominations. The vast majority are largely now acquiescent, tolerant, or even encouraging of the practice. A summary of some official stances follows.
Anglican (and Episcopal) Church
Despite denouncing the practice in 1908, the Church of England was the first to sanction artificial contraception at the 1930 Lambeth Conference with these words, “’Where there is a clearly felt, moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, complete abstinence is the primary and obvious method, but if there was morally sound reasoning for avoiding abstinence that the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of Christian principles.” (Questions: Are early withdrawal, the use of a condom, oral contraceptives, “morning after pills”, or the placement of intra-uterine devices done in the ‘light of Christian principles’? And what exactly are the ‘morally sound’ reasons for avoiding abstinence?)
The Southern Baptist Convention holds and teaches that the use of birth control, as a means of regulating the number or to space out the ages of children is a moral decision that is left up to each couple provided that the method used does nothing more than prevent conception. (Question: Is the Baptist couple certain that God would agree with their moral decision?)
United Methodist Church
Methodists, the second largest Protestant denomination, hold that every couple, not only has the right, but has the responsibility to control conception according to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Their ‘Resolution on Responsible Parenthood’ requires that the community and parents make all possible efforts to ensure that every child is born, not only healthy, but into an environment in which a person’s full potential may be realized. Accordingly, Methodists support public funding for family planning services. (Question: How do the parents know what is the environment leading to the achievement of full potential and is this full potential in the world or as a disciple of God?)
The Presbyterian Church
The largest denomination of Presbyterians (Presbyterian Church USA) fully promotes access to contraceptive options for all married couples. Indeed, the church has been an advocate for laws requiring insurance companies to cover the costs of birth control. The denomination holds that contraceptive services are part of basic health care and have an unfavorable view of unintended pregnancies because of the higher rates of infant mortality and maternal morbidity, and threats to the economic viability of families. The second largest denomination (Presbyterian Church in America) is pro-life, but has no official position on contraception.
Nevertheless, many Presbyterians have been urging Congress and the president to include comprehensive family planning in any proposal for national health care. (Question: Is an ‘unintended pregnancy’ any less a child of God and would the ‘contraceptive services’ the Church would allow include hormones which may function in part by preventing implantation of a fertilized ovum? And for the Presbyterian Church in America: Is ‘no official position’ a lukewarm acceptance?)
The Lutheran Church
In 1954, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America stated that “to enable them to more thankfully receive God’s blessing and reward, a married couple should plan and govern their sexual relations so that any child born to their union will be desired both for itself and in relation to the time of its birth.” (Question: How would a homosexual clergyman or woman pastor of the ELCA advise a same-gender couple regarding the planning and governance of their sexual relations to ‘enable them to more thankfully receive God’s blessing and reward’?)
Non-Christian religious groups now also support artificial contraception although the language of advocacy may differ.
Jewish Law has traditionally opposed birth control or abortion when practiced for purely selfish reasons. The first mitzvah found in the Torah is to “be fertile and increase”–that a home without children is a home without blessing. However, Judaism also believes that as long as a couple is planning to have children, the spacing of births by contraception does not violate Jewish law. However, some methods to prevent conception are not permitted because of the injunction against “the destruction of seed.” (Gn 38:8-9). Thus, the use of condoms is prohibited, while Orthodox rabbis have no objection to the use of the “pill”. Nevertheless, Judaism, especially in light of the Holocaust, has generally encouraged having many children. The minimum number of children one must have to fulfill the mitzvah “to be fertile and increase” is disputed among rabbi scholars. Some say that one must have at least two children; some at least one of each gender.
With respect to the more liberal Reform Judaism: Again, birth control or abortion is opposed if done for selfish motives, but not if pregnancy is a health hazard to the mother or child, or when previous children have been defective or born into extreme poverty, where living conditions are inadequate or a threat to the welfare of existing children in the family. Indeed the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform) has declared that birth control is a necessity under such conditions. Liberal Judaism has no problem with condom use.
(Question: Did the Jews expunge God’s command to increase and multiply and subdue the earth [Gn 1:28; Gn 9: 7] and demur on His promise to “make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky [Gn 22: 17]?
The Qur’an contains no directives regarding contraception, although Muslim scholars have declared the practice permissible under certain conditions: 1) both husband and wife consent; 2) permanent sterility does not result unless it is done as a medical necessity; 3) the body is not harmed; 4) the quality, health, and sustenance of the family is aided. (Question: Who decides questions about the quality and health of family life?)
Hindus believe in karma, the law of cause and effect. Karma results in thoughts, words, and actions which determine the destiny of the immortal soul. After death all souls will evolve through many cycles of rebirth until all karmas have been resolved and moksha, a state of relative perfection and freedom from reincarnation, is attained. In recent years, the Hindu concept of dharma, the right way of living, has expanded to include the idea that personal choices affect the common good. Large families may be important, but producing more children than a couple or the environment can support is not for the “good of the world” but a harmful form of greed that violates ahimsa (to do no injury) which defiles the harmony of the universe. (Question: Is the harmony of the universe defiled if a Hindu couple have an unintended pregnancy?)
Fertility is favored over birth control in traditional Buddhist teaching because Nirvana is only possible for a soul after it has existed in a human being. Birth control necessarily places a limit on the number of human souls hoping to reach Nirvana. However, if a couple believe that having additional children would be too burdensome on them or on the environment, they would find support for appropriate family planning in a Buddist teaching known as The Middle Way which reasons that good governments should provide contraceptive services for those who want them. (Question: Would a devout Buddhist approve of the contraceptive services of Planned Parenthood?)
Chinese Religions (Taoism, Confucianism)
Evidence of family planning and use of contraceptives goes back thousands of years in China. Chinese religions emphasize the importance of directing an individual’s life to peace and harmony — the ultimate goal of all human life. Perfection in these qualities leads to immortality in some interpretations of these philosophies. Family planning was never the choice of the couple; rather, one’s social obligation was to have more or fewer children as demanded by the common good. Too many or too few children can upset the peace and harmony in society. The People’s Republic of China endorses many components of these ancient beliefs and in the present age population control has become an integral part of government dictates. The official family planning policy restricts urban couples to only one child. Rural couples may have a second child if their first was a girl. Although gender-directed abortion and infanticide are illegal, both still occur and, according to one report, by 2020 men will outnumber women by 30 million perhaps resulting in societal unrest and emigration. (Question: Does death of the unborn or newly born females seem like a recipe for a peaceful, harmonious China for the future?)
Roman Catholic Church
According to Catholic doctrine, it is impossible for God who is love (1 Jn 4:16) to do other than that which is loving and spiritually pure. In keeping with his nature, he equipped all of the earth’s inhabitants with reproductive organs. To deny their obvious purpose is to deny natural law. It is further taught in the Catholic Church that a man and a woman are made in the very image of God and have equal dignity, each in a different way. Ideally, the courtship should be far enough advanced that each has recognized their love in the context of their personal and mutual relationship to God. When that happens, they gather their families and friends together and ask him to make their union truly loving, grace-giving, and holy in the sacrament of matrimony. If God is involved it cannot be otherwise. As his special creatures, it follows that their sexual intimacy would also be an extension of his divine love. Because of Catholic marriage commitment, sexuality is transformed into something which is not merely biologically ordered and pleasurable, but involves the couple’s innermost dignity as human persons and children of God. Since all Christians are called to be open to God’s will (Mt. 6:10), the physical union of married Christian couples allows them to participate in his generosity, creative energy, and holy plans for them as husband and wife. Therefore their union must be accepting of the possibility of God’s greatest gift–the transmission of human life. No wonder the Church views marriage as holy and permanent!
However, the sanctity of sex is nullified by artificial contraception because its intrinsic, procreative nature and openness to God’s will are deliberately thwarted. Such defiance, however gently rationalized, is considered immoral because the conjugal act was designed by God to be symbolic of a total, mutual self-giving of one partner to the other. It cannot be total when they contracept, because the couple holds back the gift of their fertility.
In his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI expressed concerns about the fallout of widespread artificial contraception. It seems his fears are eerily coming to pass.
1. There would be an increase in conjugal infidelity and a general lowering of standards of morality. The young especially would be tempted.
Quoting various sources, Tara Parker-Hope wrote that the data reveal that approximately 10 percent of married people admit to having had sex outside their marriage yearly and that in the course of their marriage 30% of men over 60 and 15% of women have been unfaithful. Perhaps playing a role in rising infidelity, especially in younger couples, is the ubiquitous access to pornography on the Internet which has been shown to affect sexual attitudes and perceptions of “normal” behavior. Moreover, there have been dramatic changes in how men and women relate to each other. More couples are living as if they were married and having children if they are so predisposed, but without the certificate and without the censure of society. Indeed, babies born to sports and entertainment celebrities are today most often celebrated in the mass media. For those who do marry, 40-50% now divorce.
Young people are not only being tempted, but approximately 80-90% of college-age students now engage in sexual activity of a diverse nature. Furthermore, a “hookup culture” has become part of campus life for 70-80% of the students. Hookups are generally defined as having three main features: a) various sexual acts; b) couples not in committed relationships; c) short-term interactions not signifying that a permanent commitment will begin.
2. Man would lose respect for woman and treat her as a mere object of pleasure.
The sexual objectification of women has become rampant in the U.S. and the developed world. Society is now inundated with depictions of women in commercials, prime-time television programs, movies, music lyrics and videos, magazines, advertising, sports media, video games, and internet sites. Women are now commonly shown in sexualizing and objectified manners, wearing revealing and provocative clothing and portrayed in ways that emphasize their body parts and sexual readiness or serving as decorative objects. The media often depicts a narrow and often unattainable standard of women’s physical beauty and links this standard with a woman’s worth. Moreover, research indicates that one in four women have been victims of rape or attempted rape, and more than half of college women have experienced some type of sexual victimization. It is small wonder that this has led to dangerously adverse psychological outcomes such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, increased body shame, appearance anxiety, and eating disorders for women of all social stripes.
3. It would be a dangerous weapon in the hands of public authorities with no heed for a moral life.
In an effort to control the population, China had a one-child policy for more than 30 years. Parents without siblings are now permitted to have two children in a relaxed policy, but as mentioned above, practices of forced abortions, involuntary sterilization, and infanticide still occur. Lest the reader think such policies would be unconscionable in the U.S, the state of North Carolina sterilized more than 7000 people between 1929 and 1974 for a variety of reasons such as laziness, promiscuity, epilepsy, mental illness, or mental retardation.
4. A belief would emerge in man that he had absolute dominance over human life and to genetic engineering.
The science and legal practice of in vitro fertilization has led many infertile couples to believe they may become parents of an ideal male or female child of their choice. Many are unaware that, in the process, fertilized ova with undesirable attributes including gender are discarded. Moreover, genetic testing via amniocentesis can target human embryos and fetuses with developmental abnormalities or even of the wrong gender for termination of the pregnancy.
Thus, the pope’s concerns were not unfounded given the “unnatural family planning” which has followed his encyclical on the sanctity of human life.
The rhythm method of contraception was introduced in the 1930s following the clarification of the ovulatory cycle by Knaus and Ogino in the previous decade. These gynecologists simultaneously discovered that ovulation occurs approximately 14 days before the normal menstrual period. In his book, “The Rhythm of Sterility and Fertility in Women” a Catholic physician, Dr. Leo Latz, described the method, but it may be unreliable for women with irregular periods. Evolving from this concept, natural family planning or fertility awareness programs have been developed for couples to recognize when they are most likely to conceive a child which are surprisingly as accurate and as effective as oral contraceptives, but without adverse physical or moral side effects. Accordingly, self-control is required on the part of married couples to avoid sexual intercourse during the relatively few days when ovulation is occurring. For a couple whose marital relationship to God is undeveloped, abstinence may be challenging. It is certainly possible for devout Catholic couples. Indeed, other loving interactions between them can be expressions of the virtue of chastity which can provide God’s grace to temper their bodily appetites and protect their marriage from selfishness, aggressiveness, and lust. Chastity is not simply repression of sexual desire. It can be an expression of the purity and holiness expressed by the married couple linking their sexuality to God himself who is all holiness. Chastity’s connection to the Creator elevates sex from mere animal instinct and pleasure-seeking to the ultimate gift of creation of a human soul when the couple is open to that gift as they fully and unselfishly express their mutual love.
In contrast to those who wish to avoid conception, couples who desire to conceive may also take advantage of fertility awareness for the purpose of conceiving a child. Either is in accord with natural design by God.
In the aggregate, most Christian and non-Christian religions of the world place the responsibility of when and if to have children on the married couple. They cannot know whether their choice is in keeping with the holy will of God. Indeed, in many or even most instances they do not know whether their sexual intimacy is in direct conflict with the Creator. Moreover, the means they take to prevent pregnancy may be physically or spiritually harmful to them. When it is also considered that oral contraceptives may be and intrauterine devices are abortifacients, a whole new level of immorality is introduced. To atheist and non-religious couples one might think any form of contraception is acceptable unless they believe that human life has at least the value of the lower animals many so vociferously defend. When it begins they are unable to say, regardless of their strong opinions.
The teachings of the Catholic Church regarding human sexuality neither directly endanger human life nor the relationship of the married couple to Almighty God. While they can certainly offend him in the way they relate to each other or to their children, those who desire to be holy because he is holy can get their married life off to the best start possible and keep it that way.