In the famous Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken,” a traveler comes to a fork in the road. He chooses a path, but knowing “how way leads on to way,” considers with some sadness the road not taken. Eros (sexual love or attraction) is also a path on man’s journey where two roads diverge.
The Spirit and the Flesh
St. Paul names these roads “Spirit” and “flesh.” Paul tells us to take the path of the Spirit, because the Spirit and the flesh are opposed to each other and the flesh keeps us from doing what we know to be good and right. Paul describes some of the attributes of these two paths. Included in the works of the flesh are “immorality, impurity, selfishness, and licentiousness.” But the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” To which road does contraception belong, the Spirit or the flesh? Does it promote self-control or aid licentiousness?
Contraception was invented for a single purpose, to maximize the possibility of indulgence while minimizing the consequences. It exists to make self-control largely irrelevant by providing a way to engage in sexual activity without any side-effects that might smack of responsibility, like pregnancy. For human beings, whose default behavior derives from the “flesh,” contraception is opposed to self-control which is also called chastity and is a fruit of the Spirit. Chastity then, is the road not taken. And it is indeed with sadness that we must view this forgotten road, so overgrown and “wanting wear.”
The Compendium of the Catechism published by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, says that two of the aids to living chastity are the practice of asceticism (self-denial and mortification) and self-knowledge. Self-denial and self-knowledge go hand in hand; there is no self-knowledge without that first step of denying the flesh. Self-denial is painful, but it is essential because only by a declaration of war does the true revelation of man’s condition begin to be apparent. Our weakness, lack of true freedom, the reality of sin welling up from our own heart, the evil things it leads us to and the rationalizations we make to convince ourselves we aren’t so bad — all of these things are brought to light. Through struggling with ourselves we learn the truth about ourselves, and in humility we see the necessity for redemption, grace, and conversion.
On the other hand, trying to escape the necessity of chastity leads to the opposite of self-knowledge, it leads to self-deception, ignorance, and delusion. Unlike the humble recognition of sin and the need for conversion that comes from the struggle for chastity, reliance on contraception leads to ignorance of our true situation. The use of contraception to run away from self-mastery inevitably leads to the loss of consciousness of sin. It leads to the profound ignorance that causes someone to say “as long as I’m basically a good person I don’t need to go to Mass.” Contraception thus becomes an emblem of a comfortable Christianity that does not require any serious challenges or changes in personal behavior. Seen in this light, contraception is a barrier to the Holy Spirit. It is contra-conversion, an evasion of the responsibilities of baptism, and the rejection of “the new man.”
The Narrow Way
Is this not the real reason Humanae Vitae is rejected? Chastity is “too hard”; it calls for a personal reformation that many are not willing to make. Men in particular do not want to come face to face with themselves; they do not want to look into that terrifying mirror which would reflect only too truthfully their souls. The only alternative to the crutch of contraception — answering the call to holiness — isn’t widely seen as pertaining to laymen. The universality of the call to holiness has not sunk in; when Paul says that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” it sounds to the laity like a piece of advice to “professionals” — to monks or nuns. However, “Galatians” is not the name of an order of monks. It was the name of a particular Church. It was composed of ordinary Christians — men and women, mothers and fathers, senators and soldiers. Paul was addressing all the baptized.
Jesus too, spoke of a road that diverged. One path is wide and leads to destruction, and many walk down that path; the other is narrow and leads to life, and few ever find it or enter it. Jesus implores us to take the narrow road which leads to life. Jesus is that road and that life. If we can bring ourselves to take the road less traveled all the way to the end, we’ll find that it made all the difference.