When trying to explain the Catholic understanding of sexuality to someone “outside”, I almost invariably find myself falling back on analogies relating to diet and gluttony. It’s a natural comparison, and while modern society has lost any sense that it’s reasonable to have any less sex if you want to have fewer children, people are able to get more righteous then ever over the point that if you want to be fit you must, must, must eat moderately and exercise more.
Indeed, diet and exercise may be the one thing relating to sexuality where modern culture understands a great deal of self denial. After all, one of the motivations for all this diet and exercise is, I think one may honestly admit, to look better while naked.
Which leaves the obvious question: Why has a Church which finds itself swimming against a quickening current in regards to its teaching on birth control nearly totally abandoned any sort of severity in regards to fasting?
Sure, we’re an “Easter people” and all that, but maybe some rigorous self denial for the sake of religion would help us with some rigorous self denial for the sake of our faith. I’ve been pretty much as bad as the next fellow on this — doing the mental calculation of whether I can make one more cup of coffee and still make the hour fast before mass or falling to the “I’ll say some extra prayers tonight as a sacrifice instead” temptation on Fridays outside of Lent when meat is all that appears on the menu. But this is, after all, part of the problem. The constant NFP lament is “Look, we played by the rules all those years before we were married. Why does there have to be frustration now too?”
If virtue is a habit, perhaps it’s time to form some more habits around denial of appetite.
If you move in conservative Catholic circles much, you have doubtless heard the phrase “contraceptive mentality”. Though used frequently and negatively, I think there is value in delving a bit more deeply into what we mean by the phrase. I was moved to write this in semi-response to an interesting post by Brett Salkeld a couple months back which sought to explore the bounds of what a “contraceptive mentality” is. Another good resource on the topic is this post at Catholic Culture on the contraceptive mentality.
While recognizing the dangers of trying to be too wide ranging in subject matter in the limited space of a blog post, my goal here is to set out answers to the following:
- What is a “contraceptive mentality”?
- How is a contraceptive mentality contrary to how humans are “meant” to function morally and sexually?
- How, if at all, does NFP (natural family planning) relate to a contraceptive mentality?
I think it’s easiest to think about the idea of a contraceptive mentality against the backdrop of how we function sexually as human creatures — a term I use advisedly in that I want to emphasize our rootedness in a certain biological reality of being primates with certain biological systems and instincts, while at the same time not ignoring our rational, emotional and moral sensibilities in the sense that “human animal” strikes me as implying.
Uncertainty and Conception
One thing that sets us apart from most other higher primates is that humans have fairly even sexual drive all of the time. Or, at least, men have sexual drive pretty much all of the time. Women seem to have more variation in their level of interest, and indeed there is a fair amount of evidence that one driving (though unconscious) element of their drive is that they are more “in the mood” during the times of the month when they are fertile than when they are not. Another thing that sets us apart from most other higher primates is that a woman’s fertility is not marked by unmistakable physical signs (change of color and swelling of the genital area, changes in smell, etc.) (Though Bonobos have often been compared to humans in regards to their relatively constant sex drive, they are like chimps in that female fertility is readily apparent through external signs.)