A few weeks ago two ROVER editors were presented with a textbook case for evangelization. “Convince me that I’m wrong!” a young man engaged to be married quite literally cried to us, on the topic of contraception. He requested evidence that Catholic arguments for Natural Family Planning (NFP) as the only moral means of birth control did not simply commit a gigantic naturalistic fallacy, in which “natural” is equated with “good,” and “is” becomes “ought.”

Long story short, our efforts fell short. I was stuck after illuminating the four “f”’s necessary for true love (fullness, fruitfulness, faithfulness, freedom), and my companion, after explaining the importance of how one understands the sexual act itself.

Providentially, our male friends came to the rescue. One offered something along the lines of, “If you want to do it—possibly the most important act of your life—and not actually DO it, then go ahead and contracept!” then continued with more solemnity to discuss the contrast between trying to understand one’s body and trying to control it. The other submitted an extensive speech on the principles of New Natural Law.

He delineated arguments concerning the ethical distinction between contraception and Natural Family Planning, the method by which a couple may for good reason delay having a child by monitoring the woman’s natural symptoms. In a nutshell, contraception is an inherently immoral (because anti-marital, anti-unitive, and anti-bodily-integrity) means to a possibly good end. Contraception, unlike NFP, obstructs marital union and contaminates an act of self-gift.

John Paul II’s Theology of the Body provides another useful framework for discussing the distinction between contraception and NFP.  He describes sex as a kind of body language, sacramentally expressing and embodying the message, “I give myself to you completely.” Speaking that language while in fact withholding a deep part of yourself – your fertility­ – is to speak a lie with the body.

John Paul also wrote in Familiaris Consortio that “the difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle . . . is much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one that involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and human sexuality.”

These “irreconcilable concepts,” which it may suit certain Viewpoint authors to ponder, turn on an “incarnate,” as opposed to a “dis-incarnate,” perspective of love. The incarnate version favored here recognizes both the bodily and the spiritual goods involved in love.

Our friend also discussed what the “human experience” shows: divorce among NFP-users is something like less than two percent, while widespread contraception sparked the revolution that made divorce rates increase 500 percent. When a man knows his wife’s situation as intimately as is required by NFP, he explained, communication is vastly enhanced.

In the wake of Sebelius’ shocker, it behooves a watchdog to collect such statistical ammunition against her vision of the “common good.”

Practicing self-control with NFP, as our chum explained, makes it easier for a couple to practice fidelity of the heart and mind and body when not around each other. When sex is never the mere illusion of a union, and isn’t always available, it becomes harder to objectify.

In a 1994 talk called “Contraception: Why Not?” Janet Smith, professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, enumerated a few other contraceptive consequences.

Has it made for fewer unwanted pregnancies, as promised? “The statistics on this are wild,” Smith said.  “In 1960, some 6 percent of white babies were born out of wedlock. Six percent. In 1992, 22 percent of white babies were born out of wedlock. Almost a fourfold increase, and it’s rapidly rising.” By 2006 the numbers had risen to 32 percent.

Smith recommended a book by Dr. Ellen Grant called THE BITTER PILL describing the horrors of early birth control experiments. She pointed to the lingering side effects of oral contraceptives, including “blood clots, high blood pressure, heart disease, greater increase of some kinds of cancer, infertility…increased irritability, increased propensity to depression, weight gain, a reduced libido…” The list goes on.
“We live in a culture in which condoms can be handed out in schools and Bibles can’t,” Smith said. “And I think that tells you everything you need to know about our society.”

Pope Paul VI foresaw these ills in Section 17 of Humanae Vitae. He listed a general lowering of moral standards in society, an increased disregard for the physical and emotional well-being of females, and the coercive use of family planning programs by governments among the future effects of artificial means. The realization of his predictions, however, provide no gleeful “gotcha” moment.

The consequences of contraceptives are there for any rational inquirer to observe.  In a FIRST THINGS article, Sherif Girgis co-author with Robert George of “What is Marriage?” in the HARVARD JOURNAL OF LAW AND PUBLIC POLICY, another worthwhile read defining the goods of marriage, writes, “[B]y the Church’s own lights, the Catholic view of contraception is no more specifically Catholic than the Catholic view of theft. Vatican II did not deny Caesar’s basic capacity for moral reasoning.”

While accepting Church teaching on faith and submitting to the authority of the magisterium is certainly nothing to be degraded, as foreign as such an idea is today, efforts to understand and proclaim the good news in secular terms are vital.

The work of organizations like the Ethics and Public Policy Center, established in 1976 to further the bond between the Judeo-Christian tradition and the making of domestic and foreign policy, typifies Pope Benedict’s injunction to respond with “an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity.” For seniors still discerning next year’s plans, this and similar think tanks deserve consideration.

That the healthcare mandate in general violates religious freedom and in particular attacks Catholic teaching is beyond question. This injustice alone is not enough to change the public tide: the legal history of the United States provides examples in which religious freedom took second place to the well-being of some segment of society (consider cults, polygamy, ganja).

If, as Catholics believe, the present case is a different one, we have an urgent obligation to articulate why. Tradition (in the legal world, precedent) and inductive reasoning are particularly influential in federal decision-making. To the extent that we can resurrect the principles of faith and religious freedom upon which this country was founded, we ought to. To the extent that we can understand and explain the logic and the biological science supporting the culture of life, we should do so. For the remaining miles, we have but to pray for the grace to live a loving witness to the truth.

Contact Katie, a PLS and Arabic major adept at evading the whomping willow, at kpetrik@nd.edu.