The basis for ethics is the nature of the human being. When we know clearly and accurately what a human being is, then, we know what he should do. The ought, therefore, is based on the what. Action follows upon being.
More specifically, in relation to human beings, ethics is grounded in anthropology.
Pope Paul VI reiterated this moral maxim in Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) when he pointed out that no ethical problem can be properly solved where there is an insufficient understanding of the human being. Consequently, he underscored the critical importance of what he referred to as “A Total Vision of Man.”
Paul VI elaborated on this notion of “a total vision of man” as follows:
“In considering the problem of birth regulation, as in the case of every other problem regarding human life, one must look beyond partial perspectives — whether biological or psychological, demographic or sociological — and make one’s consideration in the light of an integral vision of man and of his vocation, not only his natural and earthly vocation, but also his supernatural and eternal one.”
This “total” or “integral” vision served as the principal inspiration for John Paul II’s theology of the body. Like Paul VI, John Paul also understood that a solid and realistic anthropology is needed in order to deal properly with moral issues. John Paul greatly amplified this “total vision” and used it to reinforce the teaching of Humanae Vitae and to clarify Church teaching on marriage, celibacy and other issues related to human sexuality.
With Humanae Vitae in mind, John Paul states, “We are children of an age in which, owing to the development of various disciplines, this total vision of man may easily be rejected and replaced by multiple partial conceptions. … Cultural trends then take their place.”
Among these cultural trends are those that view man from the partial perspectives of being economical, a pleasure or status seeker, a being that is purely biological or purely psychological, or one whose choices are determined by genetic or sociological factors. John Paul wants man to decide “his own actions in the light of the complete truth about himself.”
True freedom comes only with a true understanding of who one is.
It is a truism that we are not born whole, nor do we personify this “total vision” naturally and without effort. What is needed to cross the bridge from an incomplete person to one who is more complete is the practice of virtue. It is virtue, not feeling or choice or the mere passing of time, that perfects the human person.
The arguments that favor contraception are invariably grounded in partial views of the human person. They do not make reference to virtue, such as integrity, chastity, fidelity, hope and justice. Rather, they look to the proper employment of chemical or mechanical means.
In this regard, being “responsible” refers to the successful use of an artificial agent, a skill rather than a virtue. Perhaps the most popular argument for certain forms of contraception is that they will prevent the transmission of disease.
A few years ago, in the interest of publicizing National Condom Week in England, a “safe sex” poster depicted Pope John Paul II wearing a hardhat. The accompanying message read: “Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Always Wear a Condom.”
Britain’s advertising watchdog, The Advertising Standards Authority, condemned the poster after receiving 1,187 complaints from the British Safety Council. The Council spokesperson, nonetheless, defended the ad, stating: “We chose this particular image to emphasize the fact that the Catholic stance on contraception is incompatible with the concept of safe sex.”
Here the Church is criticized for something for which she should be praised, namely, for not reducing human sexuality to a partial perspective and one, in fact, that does not require moral virtue. The Church, of course, understands the importance of hygiene, but she does not agree that sexual intimacy is morally justified on that basis alone.
Sexuality has far wider implications than being “safe” (a misleading euphemism since contraception is not entirely reliable, nor does it immunize human emotions against personal harm).
The word “chastity” in Russian refers to “the wisdom of wholeness.” John Paul speaks at length, in his theology of the body, about “purity of the heart.” He cites St. Paul, who urges “that you abstain from unchastity; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathens who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5).
John Paul states that “purity” [as a] virtue is the capacity of controlling one’s body in holiness and honor. Together with the gift of piety as the fruit of the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in the temple of the body, purity brings about in the body such fullness of dignity in interpersonal relations that God himself is thereby glorified. Purity is the glory of the human body before God.”
Personal wholeness requires the cultivation and enactment of virtue. Marriage, as well as celibacy, requires virtue. Contraception is opposed to virtue because it reduces human beings to less than their fullness.
Husband and wife present themselves to each other as total gifts. They become, through their conjugal intimacy, truly two-in-one-flesh, as is stated in Genesis. Contraception represents compromised intimacy, something withheld and something negated.
Virtue is difficult; contraception is easy. Aldous Huxley, in his dystopian nightmare, Brave New World, had his characters abandon the struggle to attain virtue in exchange for a chemical called soma. “You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle,” wrote Huxley. “Christianity without tears — that’s what soma is.”
The tragedy of the drugged citizens of Brave New World is that none of them was an authentic person making virtuous decisions on the basis of his total reality as a human being. They took the easy way that led to nowhere. (Consider the imperfect anagram for “nowhere” — Erewhon, the title of Samuel Butler’s dystopian nightmare.)
Contraception presupposes fear: fear of pregnancy, fear of transmitting a disease, fear of intimacy. Virtue presupposes love, for virtue is nothing more than a conduit through which love is expressed.
Contraception is inevitably sourced in something negative, as its prefix “contra” makes abundantly clear. Virtue is rooted in love’s positive response to the good of another. Contraception presupposes a fragmented person. Virtue expresses personal wholeness. Contraception abides in fear.
Love, as Scripture tells us, drives out fear.
The fears that contraception presupposes are all avoided through virtuous expressions of love, such as chastity, fidelity, integrity, humility and hope. Contraception cannot be a substitute for virtue any more than a fragmented person can be the moral equivalent of a whole person.
Virtue is difficult. For this reason, people from time immemorial have devised ingenious rationalizations to justify placing convenience ahead of it. But virtue is no more difficult than achieving personal authenticity. To refuse the former is to avoid the latter.
Virtue, difficult as it may be, is a very small price to pay for effective expressions of love (especially within marriage) and the maturing of one’s personal identity (especially as husband or wife, father or mother).
Donald DeMarco is an adjunct professor
at Holy Apostles College and Seminary
in Cromwell, Connecticut.