194. How Contraception Took Me Out of the Church … and Brought Me Back

prodigal son rembrandt CROP

[NOTE: July 25 marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical on the regulation of birth, Humanae Vitae (On Human Life). In the coming months, we will share reflections by Christopher West that touch on this topic.]

I had no idea my recent blog “The Inconvenient Truth Many Pro-lifers Don’t Want to Face” would go viral. But it has.

It was based on the conviction that we will never solve the abortion problem (let alone the overall culture of death and widespread gender chaos) until we address the contraception problem. The discussion that followed made it abundantly clear that lots of sincere people have lots of sincere questions about this issue.

I’d like to share a bit of my own journey around the issue of contraception. I have wrestled with God over this one (guess who won). Perhaps hearing some of what I’ve been through and what changed my heart might shine a light on the issue for others.

Let me take you back to early 1987. I was 17 years old and had been dating my girlfriend for about five months. She called me one afternoon to tell me her parents were going out for the evening. Tonight was the night. On the way to her house, I stopped at a drug store and, for the first time in my life, bought a box of condoms.

As I placed the box on the cashier’s counter, something inside me sank. Somehow I knew I was making a concrete decision to separate myself from God. Not that I had been a saint up to that point. If I even had a relationship with God, it was only hanging on by a thread. But right then and there – in a Rite Aid on Columbia Avenue in Lancaster, Pa. – as I paid for those condoms, I knew I was severing the thread. My conscience was screaming at me: “Don’t do it!” And I shouted back: “Shut up! I’m doing it!”

Contrary to the widespread mantra that using condoms is the “responsible thing” to do – condoms facilitated a lot of irresponsible behavior in my life. My unchaste behavior caught up with me in my college years and I eventually came to agree with what the Church taught about sex – except the issue of contraception. I had given up sex before marriage, but I thought when I got married I should be able to have sex whenever I wanted (without having to worry about raising 15 kids). Besides, what was the difference between contraception and natural family planning if both are used to avoid pregnancy?

The more I grew in my faith as a Catholic, the more this issue became a real stumbling block. After all, one of the hallmarks of a Catholic is to believe and profess all that the Church believes and professes. Converts to the Church must specifically and publicly profess that they do. Cradle Catholics, on the other hand, can too easily fall into the hypocrisy of believing only what’s “comfortable.” I knew that if I didn’t come to terms with this “blasted” teaching, it would be more honest of me to be a Protestant (I was already protesting the Church’s teaching; isn’t that what makes one a “protestant”?). So I sought answers.

I talked to ill-formed priests who told me not to worry about it because the Church would one day change this outdated teaching anyway. I talked to Catholic couples I thought were committed to their faith and was told how they got permanently sterilized with their pastor’s blessing. Still unsatisfied, my search eventually led me to a book called Catholic Sexual Ethics. It was the first thing I found that both sensibly explained the Church’s teaching and helped me understand the history of the issue.

Something inside me sank. The Church had proved me wrong on so many things, I did not want to surrender my final reserve. It took some more investigation, prayer, and humility before the scales really fell off my eyes. Pride dies hard.

Looking back, I marvel at how the issue that once severed my relationship with God (and the Church) was the same issue that brought me back – the whole way back.

Embracing this teaching changed the way I see, well, everything. The Church’s teaching against contraception is where the rubber hits the road (pun intended). On this point we face a dramatic, though often undetected, clash between the forces of good and evil, between the fundamental human decision to love, or not to love, to choose life, or oppose it. Indeed, as I came to learn, the entire Christian vision of what it means to be men and women made in the image of God either stands or falls on this point … and because of that, civilization itself stands or falls on this point. 

Sound outlandish? I used to think so, too. Until I started reading up on the history of the issue and what some very prominent thinkers of the early 20th century predicted would happen if contraception became the order of the day.

I’ll share what I discovered in an upcoming blog.

Questions: What are your thoughts on my journey? Have you had a similar one? What Church teaching have you most wrestled with? Please share on Facebook and Twitter.

Image: From “Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt.

For such a time as this have we been given Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. By taking us beyond the alternatives of prudish repression and damaging indulgence, the Theology of the Body opens the path to the redemption of sexuality and the real healing of our wounds. Learn more by watching my short film, The Cry of the HeartWatch the trailer below.

Watch the Short Film