As a convert to the Catholic faith, one of the hurdles I’ve had to deal with, at least intellectually, is the Church’s position on contraception. As one who was born in the 1950’s and came of age in the 60’s, I always thought the birth control pill was one of the great inventions of the 20th century. From my point of view, it took away one of the two big perceived risks of sex outside marriage. That the Catholic church was opposed to it was, I felt at the time, just another symptom of how out of touch Catholic leadership was with the realities of modern life. As a quasi-radical free spirit in the 70’s, I was far more concerned with the economics of excessive population growth than I was with the dogmatic pronouncements of a bunch of celibate old men in Rome.
Over the years I’ve had to re-visit this opinion, having come to realize that there is so much I don’t understand about our faith that I should probably shut up about subjects on which I’m essentially ignorant. I suffer from the sin of pride, but at least have come to understand that having an opinion on a subject is not nearly as important as being informed thereon. So I tend to keep more opinions to myself than I used to. Still, at mass on Sunday mornings, I wonder how many women between the ages of 15 and 40 receiving the eucharist do so in a state of mortal sin. And how many more might attend mass and receive communion were it not for the fact that they are on oral contraceptives and thus feel unwelcome, or unworthy of receiving the sacrament.
As it turns out, there is some biology at work in all of this. An article in Scientific American from 2008 explains some of the perils that arise in the collision of oral contraceptives and marriage. In basic terms, the hormones in birth control pills change a woman’s perception of the marriageability of a man based upon his MHC profile; if you want to understand what that means, you’re going to have to read the article. The corollary for men has to do with perceptions of a woman’s overall attractiveness according to where she is in her menstrual cycle. And while the latter is completely natural, the former is synthetic, and the risks it poses far greater. After all, if a couple has been dating for six months, the man has likely been around the woman during every phase of her cycle. The risks of the former, however, can go unrecognized for years, as the following true story illustrates.
One of my wife’s friends growing up was in a live-in relationship with her boyfriend for, literally, 15 years. Then, in rapid succession, they got married, had a child, and got divorced. This amazing sequence, I think, demonstrates the power of the MHC profile thing. Before she was ready to commit to having children with him and on the pill, she found him attractive and desirable. When they decided to have a child, she went off the pill, and soon he wasn’t nearly as attractive or desirable. In fact, her perception of him changed so much that they ended the relationship, making an unintended victim of their daughter, who would grow up in a single parent home.
So, are we to think that the Church’s position on oral contraceptives is based upon some science that Catholic thinkers were aware of centuries before modern science proved them right? No. Are we to think that a number of the Church’s teachings with which we disagree or fail to understand could possibly have some merit? Yes. Is there a lesson in all of this for couples considering marriage? I think so. If the woman has been on birth control pills since before they met, it would probably be a good idea for her to go off the pill for several months before stepping up to the marriage altar. Doing so might be inconvenient, or messy, or a drag, but it might also save both the woman and the man years of unhappiness and disappointment.