Major changes in thought on the nature of the sexual act began in the latter part of the 19th century, gathered steam in the early part of this century, and achieved a significant breakthrough in 1930 with the breakdown of the unified tradition of Christian religious-moral teaching on the nature of the sexual act.
By the late 1940s American married couples were contracepting in growing numbers. By the 1960s the children of these contracepting couples became the leaders of the sexual revolution, rejecting the need for marriage as the context for the sexual act a rejection logically based on their own experiences. By the 1970s the next generation, had enshrined a "woman's right to choose" abortion, thus making it legally possible to be rid of the natural fruit of the sexual act. A generation later, in the 1990s, we have seen the rise of the homosexual-rights movement.
All of these gradual "Slouchings towards Gomorrah" are the natural by-product of the severing of the sexual act from the prime end of that act, and from its fundamental natural function: the begetting of the child. That severance changes the focus of the-sexual act and in doing so changes the adults who so act, both in their own psychological dispositions and in their interpersonal relations. From being ultimately "other focused," sexual mores become "self focused"; from extroversion, sexual affairs move toward introversion; from hetero-focused they become auto-focused.
If one severs the possibility of reproduction from the nature of the sexual act, then it will be difficult to deny the "right" to engage in legally sanctioned sexual activities to be characterized those (homosexuals and others) whose sexual act always precludes the begetting of a child. If homosexuals further argue that they are deprived of an equal right to the pursuit of pleasure which they say they cannot derive from heterosexual acts-their argument takes on still more force. Consequently many churches and government bodies have begun to conclude that homosexuals have a "right" to sanctioned unions: to same-sex "marriages." Under the changed sexual mores that now dominate our culture, it is difficult to deny the persuasiveness of their argument.
The new sexual inversion
Contraception has radically changed the social function of the sexual act; that much, no one will deny. And this change in the social function has changed the way we think about our sexuality, thus in turn changing the whole of society. The social data on the heterosexual culture are now massively disturbing.
The fundamental contention of this essay is that American heterosexuals are now showing the symptoms of a disorder which is related to, and even more dangerous than, the inner psychological structure of the homosexual orientation.
A widely used psychoanalytic description of homosexuality as a psychological phenomenon states:
Homosexuality is regarded as one of the systems developed by individuals to organize experiences and expressions of conflicting and painful feeling, and the system serves as a containment of deeper anxieties, and offers for the individual a modus vivendi. The system is not just an object choice, but a longstanding way of relating, is part of a person's character development and far more complex than the notion of it being part of object choice. It is important to distinguish homosexual identity and homosexual behavior. The presence of homosexuality, if conflictual or repressed, could give rise to symptoms such as anxiety, social inhibitions, or to sexual dysfunction such as impotence or frigidity.
This definition could be recast to describe the majority of married couples in the United States today, as well as a huge proportion of unmarried heterosexual individuals. Thus:
Contraception may be regarded as one of the systems developed by individuals to organize experiences and expressions of conflicting feelings and desires. The [contraceptive] system serves as a containment of deeper anxieties, and offers for the individual a modus vivendi. The system is not an object choice, [the choice of the one to be loved] but is a long standing way of relating, and is part of a person's character development. It is important to distinguish between heterosexual identity and this form of heterosexual behavior. The presence of heterosexuality, if conflicted or repressed, as is the case with habitual contraception, could give rise to symptoms such as anxiety, marital inhibitions, sexual dysfunction, divorce, rejection of children, and abortion.
In the psychological conflict experienced by homosexuals, the threat to the integrity of the self stems from the demands of intimacy with a member of the opposite sex. In the conflict caused by contraception the threat to the self stems from the intimate attention demanded by a child.
Ismond Rosen, a leading British therapist specializing in sexual dysfunctions and deviancies, and the editor of The Oxford Book of Sexual Deviations, states:
According to my observation the homosexual lifestyle is learned, and if this becomes incorporated as part of the individual's sense of identity or self, the chances 6f that person changing to a heterosexual orientation become much more remote, due to the unconscious resistance aroused by the threat of an actual loss of identity or sense of self.
These insights on the development of the homosexual orientation can also be transposed to the contraceptive orientation and be reconstructed thus:
The contraceptive life-style is learned (there is now a massive educational and medical infrastructure devoted to that end), and when it becomes incorporated as part of the individual's sense of sexual identity and habitual practice the chances of that person changing to a "giving of self" become much more remote, due to the anxiety aroused by the threat or fear of a loss of self in the sacrifice involved in bringing a child into existence.
Early views on contraception
The thesis of this essay is not new. It is anchored not in any religious doctrine but rather in a natural-law understanding of the power of the sexual act. For countless generations, wise men have recognized the ability of sexual attitudes and activities to orient or disorient not only the individual, but the whole of society. The present disorientation and dysfunction of our society, and of the individuals who people it, was predicted by many people who anticipated the widespread acceptance of contraception. The accuracy of their predictions give their underlying insights a serious claim to validity.
We can find many similar messages, coming from many different quarters. For example:
The abandonment of the reproductive function is the common feature of all perversions. We actually describe a sexual activity as perverse if it has given up the aim of reproduction and pursues the attainment of pleasure as an aim independent of it. So, as you will see, the breach and turning point in the development of sexual life lies in becoming subordinate to the purpose of reproduction. Everything that happens before this turn of events and equally everything that disregards it and that aims solely at obtaining pleasure is given the uncomplimentary name of "perverse" and as such is proscribed.
Artificial methods [of contraception] are like putting a premium on vice. They make men and women reckless .... Nature is relentless and will have full revenge for any such violation of her laws. Moral results can only be produced by moral restraints. All other restraints defeat the very purpose for which they are intended. If artificial methods become the order of the day, nothing but moral degradation can be the result. A society that has already become enervated through a variety of causes will still become further enervated by the adoption of artificial [birth control] methods .... As it is, man has sufficiently degraded women for his lust, and artificial methods, no matter how well-meaning the advocates may be, will still further degrade her.
We cannot say, as a society, that we were not warned. Nevertheless, the practice of contraception has spreaddramatically during the latter part of the 20th century. From being rare, it has become widespread in fact habitual.
And sterilization has become an increasingly popular form of birth control, especially for parents who have already had one or more children (see chart #3).
If we assume that there is only one partner sterilized in each marriage (an assumption which may be open to question, but still helps to put the data in perspective), a picture emerges.
The sex-education lobby which embraces most of our country's large non-profit foundations, their educational and social science counterparts in the universities, and their allies in the medical and nursing professions has put enormous resources behind the effort to change the way young people think about the nature of the sexual act. They have made massive inroads into the ordinary culture.
Given the prevalence of contraception and the easy availability of abortion, one might expect that the proportion of out-of-wedlock births to young American women would have declined during the past generation. In fact the truth is quite the opposite. Among American women under the age of 20 who gave birth each year, the proportion who were married when the child was born has dropped steadily, from nearly 90 percent in 1950 to under 30 percent in 1990. There is no reason to expect any change in this trend.
The rejection ratio
The most fundamental change in society resulting from this radical change in our approach to the sexual act has been the emergence of the United States as a culture of rejection: an increasingly hostile place for children to live. The trend toward out-of-wedlock births, aggravated by the divorces which leave children without a married mother and father living at home, has resulted in a steady increase in the number of children living in broken homes.
The effects of these changes are incontrovertibly negative. Living in a broken home increases the child's risk of
As broken homes. become more numerous especially in certain communities such as the inner-city neighborhoods the results are still more devastating.. Sociologist Charles Murray has determined that when the proportion of broken homes in a local population reaches the level of about 30 percent, that community itself becomes a source of additional risks, rather than of support, for the child and the family. Many urban neighborhoods passed that statistical level long ago; now the entire nation has readied the same dangerous statistical point (see chart #7).
Among America's working-class families, the trends are ominous. But among those living at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, the stable family household has virtually disappeared. Corresponding to this disappearance is a growing trend toward child abuse (see chart #8).
Federal government statistics confirm that the incidence of child abuse is closely related to the family's economic situation. But it would be a mistake to classify child abuse simply as a problem that afflicts impoverished families. There is an equally strong correlation between the incidence of abuse and the parents' marital status (see chart #9).
A British study casts still more light on the connection between family structure and child abuse, showing that fatal abuse of children is comparatively rare in households where the child's natural parents still live together, but progressively more likely in households where the mother has remarried, the mother lives alone, the parents have never married, the child lives with a single father, and most dangerous of all the mother lives with another man who is neither her husband nor the child's natural father (see chart #10).
The contraception-abortion link
The ultimate rejection of children, of course, is abortion. "It is apparent that nothing short of contraceptives can put an end to the horrors of abortion and infanticide," said Margaret Sanger, voicing a line which has been echoed and is still echoed by many others. But the increasing popularity and availability of contraceptives has not cut down the number of abortions, and most abortions today take place outside marriage-that is, among those who most radically claim the right to the inverted sexual act (see chart #11).
A booklet distributed by the National Abortion Rights Action League (before its name was changed to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) shows how family-planning advocates have changed their perspective on the relation between contraception and abortion since the days of Margaret Sanger:
Of course contraceptives should be more widely available and promoted; however, in the present state of contraceptive technology, and given the continuing possibility of human error in the use of even the best methods, abortion is needed as a backstop; its use is not preferable to contraception, but once a pregnancy occurs, it is the only means of birth prevention.
Abortion now occupies just one more place on a continuum of approaches, all of them aimed at preventing birth. The ultimate goal of the family-planning effort-to be achieved by whatever means are necessary-is to separate the act of sexual intercourse from the prospect of producing children.
Once we as a society eliminated the prospect of begetting a child from the popular understanding of the sexual act, we altered our notion of the role that sex plays within marriage. That alteration led naturally to another, and the work was accomplished in the 1960s by the children of the first "altered" marriages: the breakdown in the assumption that sexual activity should be confined to marriage. And then, having disposed first of the prospect that sexual activity might involve reproduction, and then of the assumption that sexual activity was a prerogative of marriage, our society next perceived a need to eliminate one more obstacle by arranging for the legal disposal of a child who might be inconveniently conceived, inside or outside a marriage. This was the work of the 1970s. Finally, having eliminated both the prospect of reproduction and the need for a marital commitment from the popular understanding of sexuality, our society has begun to perceive homosexual acts as just another set of variations on the new, self-absorbed version of sexual activity.
Notice, by the way, that all of the social and psychological disorders described above-the broken homes, the child abuse, and so forth are present within the "heterosexual culture." While it is true that the "gay"subculture shows even higher levels of dysfunction on comparable issues, the culture of sexual inversion is not confined to homosexuality. Among heterosexuals, too, the transformation of sexual activity into a self-absorbed process sustained by no commitment to children or to a spouse has produced disastrous social and psychological results.
In a traditional society adults take on social burdens and accept the blows of life, thereby protecting their children so that they may grow up in secure and undisturbed surroundings. Today it is the children of our nation who bear the burden all too often, by living in the insecurity of a broken home while parents seek their own ends. In fact, the psychological burdens on the rising generation can often be traced precisely to their parents' unwillingness and/or inability to make the lifelong marital commitment which was once a precondition for sanctioned sexual activity.
Children the rising generation, the next iteration of the nation are the chief reason for the family. But if consideration for children does not even enter into the thinking of the adult couple, the situation is irremediably changed, "People do not live together merely to be together. They live together to do something together," wrote Ortega y Gasset. He continued: "No social group will long survive its chief reason for being." Northern America and Western Europe, with their negative population growth rates, will soon be forced to come to terms with the observations of Ortega y Gasset and of Roosevelt. Can a culture that does not reproduce, and does not protect children, still survive?
Defining deviancy down
One of the public functions of religion is to shore up society's adherence to the natural moral law. When the institution of religion caves in on a moral issue, the other institutions (family, education, government, and the marketplace) cannot be expected to maintain the societal defenses. When the institutions of religion "define deviancy down" (to borrow the memorable phrase of Daniel Patrick Moynihan), other institutions are likely to follow. And that is what has happened on the issue of contraception.
The family-planning movement, the vehicle for the advancement of contraception, had its mots not only outside of Christianity, but among groups that were quite actively hostile to Christianity The attack on the traditional moral principles upheld by the Judeo-Christian tradition was already well advanced early in this century. By the same time, the birth-control movement had recognized the need to achieve some sort of religious sanction-and had even acquired a primary target for its lobbying efforts. In 1919 the Anglican divine C. K. Millard wrote in The Modern Churchman:
Although many Malthusians; are rationalists, they are well aware that without some religious sanction their policy could never emerge from the dim underworld of unmentioned and unrespected things and could never be advocated openly in the light of day. To this end birth control is camouflaged by pseudo-poetic and pseudo-religious phraseology, and the Anglican Church is asked to alter her teaching. Birth controllers realise that it is useless to ask this of the Catholic Church but as regards the Church of England, which makes no claim to infallibility, the case is different, and discussion is possible.
If a single date could be identified as marking the historical break from the Christian consensus on traditional, natural-law principles of sexual morality if one desired to highlight the West's very first official step down the slippery slope then August 15,1930 must be chosen as that unhappy date. That was the day when the Lambeth Conference of the Church of England, by a vote of 193 to 67, approved a resolution which read in part:
Where there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipleship and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception-control for motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience." [emphasis added]
With that vote, the traditional moral unity of Christendom on this issue was broken.
In the preceding years at the Lambeth Conferences of 1908,1914, and 1920 Anglican Church leaders had felt the pressure for a change in traditional moral teaching. But they had responded to that pressure by reiterating their traditional stand.
We utter an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers physical, moral, and religious thereby incurred, and against the evils with which the extension of such use threatens the race. In opposition to the teaching which in the name of science and religion encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself, we steadfastly uphold what must always be regarded as the governing consideration of Christian marriage. One is the primary purpose for which marriage exists namely, the continuation of the race through the gift and heritage of children; the other is the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control.
Similar debates were under way in many other religious denominations. Orthodox Jews held to the traditional moral norm, but Reformed Jews had already broken from the old consensus. The Central Conference of American Rabbis had taken a stand in favor of contraception in 1929.
The United States' Federal Council of Churches (which today is known as the National Council of Churches) had apparently been waiting for some other group to take the lead in "modernizing" the Christian stand on birth control. In March 1931, that group followed the Lambeth Conference and endorsed "the careful and restrained use of contraceptives by married people," while at the same time still conceding that "serious evils, such as extramarital sex relations, may be increased by general knowledge of contraceptives."
However, the statements released in the aftermath of the Lambeth statement by leadership groups in other Christian churches, and even by the secular media, vividly illustrate how differently the churches viewed the sexual act in those days. Quick on the heels of the statements from the Anglican Church and the Federal Council of Churches, there followed radically different statements from:
Dr. Walter Maier of Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary:
Birth Control, as popularly understood today and involving the use of contraceptives, is one of the most repugnant of modern aberrations, representing a 20th century renewal of pagan bankruptcy."
Bishop Warren Chandler of the Methodist Episcopal Church South:
The whole disgusting [birth control] movement rests on the assumption of man's sameness with the brutes .... Its [the Federal Council of Churches] deliverance on the matter of birth control has no authorization from any churches representing it, and what it has said I regard as most unfortunate, not to use any stronger words. It certainly does not represent the Methodist Church, and I doubt if it represents any other Protestant Church in what it has said on this subject.
The Presbyterian (April 2,1931):
Its [Federal Council of Churches] recent pronouncement on birth control should be enough reason, if there were no other, to withdraw from support of that body, which declares that it speaks for the Presbyterian and other Protestant churches in ex cathedra pronouncements.
The Southern Baptist Convention:
The SBC hereby expresses its disapproval of the ... bill, now pending before Congress of the United States, the purpose of which is to make possible and provide for the dissemination of information concerning contraceptives and birth control; whatever the intent and motive of such proposal we cannot but believe that such legislation would be vicious in character and would prove seriously detrimental to the morals of our nation.
Even secular journalists were shocked by the new teachings emanating from some church organs. The Washington Post reacted to the statement from the Federal Council of Churches with a heated editorial, arguing:
Carried to its logical conclusion, the committee's report, if carried into effect, would sound the death knell of marriage as a holy institution by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality. The suggestion that the use of legalized contraceptives would be "careful and restrained" is preposterous.
Two days later, reluctant to let the matter he, the Post added another helping of editorial scorn:
It is the misfortune of the churches that they are too often misused by visionaries for the promotion of .reforms" in fields foreign to religion. The departures from Christian teachings are astounding in many cases, leaving the beholder aghast at the unwillingness of some churches to teach "Christ and Him crucified." If the churches are to become organizations for political and scientific propaganda, they should be honest and reject the Bible, scoff at Christ as an obsolete and unscientific teacher, and strike out boldly as champions of politics and science as modem substitutes for the old-time religion.
To no one's surprise, the Catholic Church remains firm in her condemnation of contraception. Several weeks after the revolutionary statement from the Lambeth Conference, Pope Pius XI explained in Casti Connubi:
In order that she [the Catholic Church] may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, she raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.
While the doctrinal position of the Catholic Church remains clear, and has been frequently reiterated from Rome, the response of most Catholics in the United States has been muted at best; the actual practice of Catholic couples is similar to that of most other Americans. The most comprehensive study on the birth-control habits of Americans was the 1988 National Survey of Family Growth, which also gathered data on the religious affiliation of the respondents. In 1988,72 percent of all married Catholic women of childbearing age used artificial contraception. Of these, 55 percent said they relied on the birth-control pill, 22 percent on tubal ligation, 12 percent on vasectomy, and 11 percent on other methods.
Consequences of contraception
The change in the attitudes toward contraception involved a change in man's understandings of his relationships to God, to the opposite sex, and to himself.
As far as reason can know, God's highest creative act is the creation of man. In the sexual act the Creator makes man his "co-creator," as man and God join in bringing another human being into existence, to live for all eternity. In the Orthodox Jewish tradition the sexual act is compellingly described as comparable with entering the Holy of Holies in the Temple-meeting God where he is most especially present.
For the resolutely contracepting married person who goes to worship God on the Sabbath, an inherent contradiction has crept into his stance before God. In effect he says: "I worship you as my Creator, but I refuse to join with you as co-creator in conjointly exercising our highest acts . . . in bringing into being that next human creature you want to endow with existence for an eternity." The contradiction is profound, as are the consequences.
The practice of contraception looses man from his ontological and psychological moorings. The sexual act, as long as it is open to life, has the effect of keeping man, at a minimum, oriented toward "the other." Without that minimum restraint, man tends to transform the act into a totally self-absorbed one. The most pleasurable of acts is transformed from being other-centered to being self-centered. The rearrangement of psychological approaches, attitudes, and dispositions, quickly produces a changed relationship with the spouse, with members of the opposite sex, and with children. The results-so clear in the data-include divorce, out-of-wedlock births, abortions, and abused or abandoned children.
The policy debate
The future of society depends on the emergence of competent young adults. This emergence depends in turn on the efforts of loving parents. Loving parents are those who have generous hearts: a disposition to give of themselves. Contraception inverts the natural tendencies of parents, and hardens their hearts. This psychological inversion has inevitable effects on the children, who are likely to develop the same warped approach to sexuality, and convey the same attitudes to the next generation.
The current public debate on homosexuality is only the latest stage in an old conflict, which pits a Gnostic view of man against the natural-law view, in which the meaning of human life and human action is centered on the Creator. The struggle to control society's understanding of the meaning and purpose of the sexual act is at the core of this old conflict-one of the oldest and most far reaching clashes inhuman history.
At the same time, this profound dispute can be expressed in fairly simple terms. If heterosexual people cannot take on the responsibilities implied by heterosexuality, how can they ask the homosexually inclined person to take on the burden of his struggle for chastity? If heterosexuals distort the relationship between man and woman at its most intimate level, through their decision to avoid begetting new life, how can they reasonably ask those who are oriented differently to resist their own particular temptation to distort their own lives?
In fact, the mainstream of "heterosexual America" today is now perilously close, in its attitudes and its orientations, to matching the symptoms that lie at the very heart of the homosexual affective disorder: the inversion into the self. The United States has created a culture of rejection, which is incapable of providing the antidote to the homosexual culture. Heterosexuals cannot affirm the sexual humanity of husband and wife while denying its fruit. The child-fearing, child-rejecting heterosexual community cannot affirm the homosexual in his more complex cry for acceptance and love. Heterosexuals who insist on arrested sexual development for themselves cannot help but condone the same behavior when it is exhibited among homosexuals
The massive social and psychological disorder we see all around us is not the making of the "gay community." Our current problems including even the gay-rights" movement itself arose as a result of disorders that first became prevalent among heterosexuals. If we want to take the mote out of our "gay" brothers' eyes maybe we should first remove the beam from our own. If we are to develop the attitude of love and affection that is central to helping members of the "gay culture" overcome their inversion, then we Americans must first recover our understanding of the relationship between love, sexuality, and permanent commitment to spouse and children. We must first acknowledge the children each of us has been called to "co-create" and to love, and we must show our love both for those children who are already in this world and for those who may yet come to be. Otherwise, if the two inversions heterosexual and homosexual continue to compound each other, the future is bleak indeed especially bleak for children, and for the society those children will be capable of building.
Fagan, Patrick F. "A 'Culture'of Inverted Sexuallty." Catholic World Report (November, 1998).
Reprinted with permission of Catholic World Report an international news monthly.
Patrick F. Fagan is the William H. G. FitzGerald Senior Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. A version of this essay was originally presented at a seminar sponsored by the American Public Philosophy Institute; the proceedings of that seminar are forthcoming in a two-volume set, with the first volume to appear in January 1999 from Spence Publishing in Dallas, Texas.
Copyright © 2000 Catholic World Report