The Price of Virtue

By Philip F. Lawler

We begin with a quiz for our readers. Please identify the authors of the following quotations:

It is futile to hope that the use of contraceptives will be restricted to the mere regulation of progeny. There is hope for a decent life only so long as the sexual act is definitely related to the conception of precious life. This rules out perverted sexuality and to a lesser degree promiscuity. Divorce of the sexual act from its natural consequences must lead to a hideous promiscuity and to condoning if not endorsing natural vice.

The author is:

(a) St. Augustine of Hippo
(b) C. S. Lewis
(c) Pope Paul VI
(d) Mohandas Gandhi

Moreover, it is a characteristic common to all the perversions that in them reproduction is put aside as an aim. This is actually the criterion by which we judge whether a sexual activity is perverse--if it departs from reproduction as its aim and pursues the attainment of gratification independently. You will understand therefore that the gulf and turning point in the development of sexual life lies at the point of its subordination to the purposes of reproduction.

The author is:

(a) Girolamo Savonarola
(b) Sigmund Freud
(c) Pope Pius XII
(d) Joseph Smith

The correct answers are (d) and (b) respectively. These sworn foes of contraception were motivated not by Catholic social teaching or even by more general Christian principles, but by a simple, secular understanding of human nature. The triumph of the contraceptive mentality in the late 20th century has been so complete that we tend to forget how recently the world's educated people, regardless of their religious backgrounds, were united in the recognition that the use of artificial birth control is a perversion, which leads ineluctably to disastrous social consequences.

Today there is a broad popular agreement in America that something is seriously wrong with our society in general, and with the structures of contemporary family life in particular. But there is no corresponding agreement as to the source of these difficulties. In such cases, it can often be instructive to try to step outside the confines of one's own culture, and see one's society as it might be seen through the eyes of someone from another society or another era. Today, if we move our historical frame of reference back by only a few decades (let alone a few centuries) it is difficult to avoid grappling with the old moral consensus--upheld even into the 1930s by every major Christian denomination--that contraception is intrinsically wrong.

Since the implosion of that moral consensus, the Catholic Church has remained the single conspicuous institutional opponent of artificial contraception. It is not surprising, therefore, that the most convincing arguments in favor of traditional sexual morality--in favor of what would once have been universally recognized as the virtue of chastity--have been framed in terms of Catholic moral teachings. While these arguments have enormous value, it is also possible to construct an argument against contraception without invoking Catholic or even Christian moral principles, simply by examining the evidence offered by the social sciences. This essay is an effort to outline that argument, by analyzing some of the social trends that have become visible in the United States since the introduction of the birth-control pill--the event that presaged the widespread acceptance (and practice) of contraception.

Forms of perversion

Both Gandhi and Freud predict that when individuals fail to appreciate the natural connection between conjugal acts and reproduction, they will be unable to develop a healthy sex life, and prey to various forms of perversion. Although the Census Bureau does not keep statistics on perversion, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming enough to confirm that prediction.

Homosexuality--once "the love that dare not speak its name"--is rapidly attaining social respectability. While gay-rights activists battle for legal protection of their unions, entertainers offer friendly portrayals of homosexual couples and teachers urge young children to consider homosexuality as one among many equally valid "lifestyle choices."

The gradual acceptance of the gay subculture has opened the door to more exotic realms of bisexuality, bestiality, and other forms of depravity. The works of Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer who lovingly chronicled the sado-masochistic world in which he lived and died, have been exhibited in major urban museums.

Pornography is a flourishing industry; indeed it is the fastest-growing sector in the world's fastest-growing marketplace: the Internet. While dedicated "adult bookstores" specialize in hard-core pornography, the situation comedies offered every night by the major television networks offer an unvarying menu of sexual titillation and double entendre--all of it calculated to reinforce the notion that sex is a recreational activity.


By severing the link between conjugal relations and reproduction, contraception strikes a direct blow against marriage, the institution in which that intimate relationship is exalted. Gandhi predicted that the use of birth control would lead to an epidemic of promiscuity, and he would not have been surprised that the "sexual revolution" followed soon after the introduction of the birth-control pill.

Again, precise statistics are not available; but can anyone doubt that both fornication and adultery are more commonplace today than they were fifty years ago?

A generation ago, 25 percent of American males and 45 percent of females were virgins when they reached the age of 19; today those figures have dropped below 20 percent for both sexes, while 44 percent of all women report having intercourse before they reach the age of 17, and 20 percent of all 19-year-olds report having had more than 10 sexual partners.

A generation ago, 43 percent of all white American women were virgins at the time of their marriage; today that figure is 14 percent. Two out of three couples live together for a period of time before marrying.

The American military establishment today has become thoroughly preoccupied by an internal debate on the proper handling of officers who engage in adulterous affairs--a debate which has been needlessly attenuated by the fact that the Commander in Chief seems unwilling and/or unable to say forthrightly that adultery in itself is wrong. According to a 1994 poll by the National Opinion Research Center, slightly over one-third of all married Americans (33.5 percent) have committed adultery; a May 1997 poll by the New York Times found that close to two-thirds (61 percent) believe adultery should not be subject to legal sanctions.

Five of the ten most common diseases in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control, are sexually transmitted diseases other than AIDS. (The cost of treating these diseases is approximately $10 billion each year.) Every year, more than 12 million Americans are newly infected with a venereal disease; 25 percent of these victims are teenagers, and several of the diseases are currently considered incurable.

Irresponsible acts

At first glance it would seem that an increase in the use of contraceptives should lead to a decrease in the number of unintended pregnancies. That argument, which has always been a favorite among the proponents of classroom sex education, is enjoying a resurgence today among the intellectual elite of the pro-abortion movement, who are engaged in an interesting attempt to lay the blame for all unintended pregnancies at the doorstep of the Catholic Church. But this argument assumes that contraceptives are always effective, and ignores the possibility that reliance on artificial forms of birth control might have a negative effect upon the individual's willingness to take responsibility for his actions.

One out of every four pregnancies among American women now ends in abortion. Of the 1.4 million abortions each year, nearly 82 percent are procured by unmarried women.

One out of every three children born in America is born out of wedlock. The rate of illegitimate birth has been skyrocketing during the past decade, with the most spectacular growth occurring among women in the higher levels of economic and educational status. In a word, illegitimacy is becoming socially acceptable.

In Washington, DC, more than half of all pregnancies end in abortion, and more than half of all births occur out of wedlock. Thus in the nation's capital, at conception a child faces less than a 25 percent chance of being born to married parents.

Arguably the most shocking stories that have hit the newspaper headlines in the past few years have involved teenagers who have quietly killed their own unwanted children. As this essay is written, pundits are desperately trying to come to terms with the story of a girl who gave birth to a child during her senior prom, discarded the newborn baby, and returned to the dance floor.

Again, in theory, couples using contraceptives as a method of "family planning" should consider two different factors: their own ability to raise and educate children, and the ability of those children to sustain their parents when the latter reach old age. Again, no such "planning" can be perceived in the actual demographic patterns of the post-contraceptive generation.

The steady decline in the number of children within American families has dragged down the rate of population growth, so that in the foreseeable future the country could see a net decline in the native population--a trend which has already emerged in several countries of Western Europe. The state of Israel looms as the leading example of the political consequences of shrinking family size; there, a decline in fertility--softened only by continuing emigration--has made it difficult to recruit enough soldiers to maintain the national defense. As Gandhi put it, "Birth control by contraceptives is racial suicide."

Even if the current rate of native population growth--excluding the effects of immigration--holds steady at around 0.5 percent (as opposed to 1.4 percent in 1960), the younger members of the population will be severely burdened by the costs of caring for the elderly. The nation's Social Security system is already effectively bankrupt; by sometime early in the next century, the anticipated revenues from taxes on workers will fall far short of the costs of supporting older citizens.

Breakdown in marriage

In the 1950s divorce was a rare occurrence; in the course of a given year roughly one out of every 36 marriages was ended by divorce. By 1995, that figure was less than one of out eight, and falling. After climbing steadily for forty years, the number of divorces is holding steady at slightly more than number of marriages.

The social stigma which once attached to divorce has long since disappeared; although the Republican Party is often advertised as the party of "family values," three of the last four men nominated for the Republican presidential nomination have been divorced. In Massachusetts, the lieutenant governor recently announced that since "we should celebrate strong families," the state would honor divorced fathers who made timely child-support payments!

It is a commonplace to say that the family is the basic building block of society. If one-half of all those blocks are decaying, how can the entire structure possible survive? Peter Kreeft has aptly characterized divorce as the suicide of a family. Would anyone deny that something must be profoundly wrong with a society in which one-half of all citizens commit suicide?

In the case of divorce, the causal relationship between contraception and dysfunction is unusually clear. Although reliable statistics in this field are notoriously difficult to assemble, it appears that the rate of divorce among couples who do not use contraceptives has held steady at under 3 percent.

The explosion in divorce rates has sent destructive shock waves running throughout American society. "Close to half of all children in the United States will experience divorce before they reach age 18," observes Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. "Half of these are also likely to go through a second divorce."

Divorce and illegitimacy have combined to produce a steady increase in the number of children being reared by one parent--usually the mother. In urban ghettoes, Princeton's John DiIulio has pointed out, the number of children raised in the absence of any father or father-figure is now nearly 90 percent. Sociologists have amply demonstrated the devastating impact of living in such an environment; in comparison with the general population, children raised in a single-parent family are markedly more likely to become involved in crime, to drop out of high school, to become addicted to drugs, to be unemployed, to experience emotional illness, to appear on welfare rolls, to procure an abortion, and--in a frightening sign that the syndrome may be self-perpetuating--to become divorced if they are eventually married themselves.

No other demographic factor correlates with the wide range of American social pathologies nearly so closely as the marital status of a child's parents. A young black man from an urban ghetto who drops out of school at the age of 16, but who was raised by his married parents, is statistically less likely to be convicted of a serious crime than a young white man from an affluent suburb who completes his college education, but was raised by a single parent. A poor young black woman from an intact family is less likely to become pregnant out of wedlock than a wealthy young white woman from a broken home.

Alternative hypotheses?

The social sciences are not exact sciences, and we cannot demonstrate a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the acceptance of contraception and the subsequent breakdown in so many aspects of American social life. But given the preponderance of circumstantial evidence, the burden of proof should now be on those who do not accept that correlation. Is there any other single factor, or even any combination of factors, which could explain the breakdown in the family, the rise of sexual dysfunction, the intractable welfare morass, and the rising tide of violent crime?

The theories of social scientists may also be judged by their predictive value. The theories of Freud and Gandhi, expressed in the quotations that began this essay, are amply supported by the facts listed above. In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI reiterated those predictions, and added a couple of his own forecasts: that contraception would trigger an increase in domestic violence, and that governments would inaugurate coercive family-planning campaigns. Those predictions, too, have proven accurate. Indeed the prophetic section #17 of that encyclical, with its long list of the consequences that would flow from contraceptive use, merits lengthy quotation:

Upright men can even better convince themselves of the solid grounds on which the teaching of the Church in this field is based, if they care to reflect upon the consequences of methods of artificial birth control. Let them consider, first of all, how wide and easy a road would thus be opened up toward conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality. Not much experience is needed in order to know human weakness, and to understand that men--especially the young, who are so vulnerable on this point--have need of encouragement to be faithful to the moral law, so that they must not be offered some easy means of eluding its observance. It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anticonceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.

Let it be considered also that a dangerous weapon would thus be placed in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies. Who could blame a government for applying to the solution of the problems of the community those means acknowledged to be licit for married couples in the solution of a family problem? Who will stop rulers from favoring--from even imposing upon their people, if they were to judge it necessary--the method of contraception which they judge to be most efficacious? In such a way men, wishing to avoid individual, family, or social difficulties encountered in the observance of the divine law, would reach the point of placing at the mercy of public authorities the most personal and most reserved sector of conjugal intimacy.

Freud, Gandhi, and Pope Paul VI would agree that American society has failed to achieve "the successful integration of sexuality within the person." That phrase is, not coincidentally, the definition of chastity provided by the Catechism of the Catholic Church. What can a society do to promote the virtue of chastity?

Not "private" behavior

In the political climate that has given us "no-fault" divorce laws, free access to contraceptives, and unrestricted abortion on demand, liberal politicians are fond of saying that the government cannot regulate "private" behavior. But the public consequences of "private" sexual behavior now threaten to destroy American society. In the past 35 years the federal government has spent $4 trillion--that is, $4,000,000,000,000--on a variety of social programs designed to remedy ills which can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to the misuse of human sexuality. Is there any limit to the amount of funds that must be spent, and the number of misguided programs that will be launched, before political leaders finally overcome their reluctance to address the root cause of the problem? When will the American people be ready to treat the disease rather than merely the symptoms?

The promotion of human virtue is, to be sure, a difficult task. But many Americans have begun to recognize the importance of that task; the fact that The Book of Virtues could find a place on the best-seller list is indication that a new moral seriousness is abroad. And yet curiously, the word "chastity" does not occur in William Bennett's book. The moral virtue most desperately needed in today's civil society is still too controversial to be mentioned.

Why is it that a society in which young students are told that they must "Just Say No" to drugs, and avoid alcohol, and shun tobacco, adults are still so reluctant to give an equally clear indication that sexual activity must be restricted to married couples? Could it be that the adults themselves have failed to develop the habits of chastity, and so they are unable to pass them along? Could it be that after years of routine contraception use, American parents do not know how to construct a logical argument against extra-marital sex?

The pleas to uphold "family values" or to safeguard the institution of marriage are obviously not enough to satisfy a curious youngster; what are family values, and what is the essence of marriage? Nor is it persuasive to suggest that teenagers should "postpone" sexual activity. Why should they? Is there some magical transformation that occurs when someone reaches the age of 21, which enables him to approach sexual involvement with the proper attitude?

The few popular programs that are designed to curb sexual activity complicate the problem by placing their emphasis on the reduction of teen births, rather than out-of-wedlock births. (These programs seem to be partially successful in meeting their own goals, and largely irrelevant in addressing the real social problems; the rate of births to teenagers has fallen slightly in America during the past five years, while the rate of out-of-wedlock births--the real source of the problem--continues to rise.) Many teenagers are admirably equipped to begin raising children. So again, why should they wait?

If the purpose of sexual activity is recreation, then why should young people be left out of the fun? If it is to form closer emotional bonds, do not teenagers need that support even more than their elders? And if they are told that sexual intercourse involves a special commitment, teenagers could again legitimately respond with a simple question: Why?

The essence of marriage

Until the advent of modern contraception, that question yielded a simple answer. What made sex unique was the prospect of procreation. Mindful of that prospect, responsible couples saw sexual intimacy as the sign of a profound commitment--not only to each other, but also to the children they might produce. In marriage a man and woman promised to love one another; in the marital act they extended that love toward a new generation. Yes, there were childless couples; but they formed the exception to the rule. In our common cultural understanding, romantic love implied the promise of marriage, and marital love implied the promise of children.

Once one link of that chain was broken--once the prospect of begetting children was reduced to the status of one more option on a long menu of "lifestyle choices"--our understanding of marriage was destined for a radical change. In his book Virtually Normal, the gay activist Andrew Sullivan pointed out one striking aspect of that change. Making his case for the legal recognition of same-sex marriages, he argues: "The heterosexuality of marriage is intrinsic only if it is understood to be intrinsically procreative; but that definition has long been abandoned by Western society."

If Sullivan's premise is correct, then his logic is inexorable. If the act of sexual intercourse is robbed of its distinctive quality--its fecundity--then there is no rational explanation for a public policy that restricts that franchise to heterosexuals. And if the act of sexual intercourse is not ordained toward the procreation of children, then the arguments against extra-marital sex are based on nothing more persuasive than social conventions.

In an intriguing sort of intellectual ju-jitsu, Andrew Sullivan uses the rhetoric of "family values" to shore up his own argument for legal recognition of same-sex unions. Since married couples are demonstrably better citizens--healthier, wealthier, and more respectful of community standards--he reasons that homosexual couples will become better citizens as soon as they attain the same legal status as their heterosexual neighbors. As things stand, he implies, the only significant difference between homosexual and heterosexual couples lies in the presence or absence of a marriage license.

If Sullivan is wrong, then what is the essence of heterosexual marriage, which homosexuals cannot ever duplicate? That difference can lie only in the link between conjugal love and reproduction--the very link that is broken by the act of contraception.

The prevailing wisdom of the 1990s supports Andrew Sullivan. But the received learning of several previous millennia points in the opposite direction. Human history yields not a single example of a society which survived the breakdown of family life. Unless someone can show evidence that contemporary American culture has advanced beyond the achievements of all previous societies--specifically in its appreciation for sex, love, marriage, and family life--it may be time for secular social scientists to revisit the problem of contraception.

Philip F. Lawler is editor of Catholic World Report.