It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.
–Ecclesiastes 7:18 (NIV)–
That is what happens to those who pluck and eat fruits at the wrong time and in the wrong way. Oh, the fruit is good, but they loath it ever after.
–C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew–
Have you ever experienced an “aha” moment when a light bulb seemed to go on inside your head and previously unintelligible information suddenly made perfect sense? Well, just that sort of thing happened to me many years ago when, for the first time, I read the following passage from Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis:
You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us? [Mere Christianity, Book III, Chapter 5]
Reading these words was, quite frankly, more like an electric shock than abrupt illumination. It had never before occurred to me that the human sexual drive might somehow be instructively compared to the human appetite for food. The more I ponder this, however, the more convinced I am that Professor Lewis was definitely on to something. Bear with me while I explain.
Common-sense human biology tells us that the primary purpose of eating is nutrition. This is obvious from the anatomy and physiology of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines, but it is equally plain all the way down to the molecular level, as evidenced by the Krebs Cycle (by which cells transform nutrients into essential energy). It is clear that the number one reason for eating is nutrition.
Nutrition is a necessary requirement for human existence. Thus God, Who is infinitely wise, made the activity of eating an enjoyable experience. Few joys in life are greater than chowing down when we are really hungry.
Yet, despite the delights of fine dining, it is apparent that nutrition remains the primary purpose of eating, and not joy. Why? The answer is simple. If we are looking for enjoyment, there are countless ways of experiencing it. We might, for example, play tennis, ride a bike, read a book, or hear an opera. If, however, we are in search of nutrition, there is, in point of fact, only one way in which this is naturally achieved, and that is, of course, through eating. When all is said and done, nutrition is still the primary purpose of eating. Enjoyment, even in the case of the most delectable cuisine, is only a secondary effect.
Note that I am avoiding the use of the word “pleasure” in favor of “joy” and “enjoyment.” Pleasure is an emotional response to something that feels good. True joy, however, as I believe Aristotle would argue, has to do with being good.
I was recently invited to dinner at the home of long-time friends. My hostess proudly served me a bowl of her homemade mushroom soup. I happen to detest mushroom soup, but I ate it with as much apparent relish as I could muster. When asked if I liked the pièce de résistance, I truthfully responded, “I have never tasted better!” My hostess beamed! Thus, while my consumption of the mushroom soup was by no means a pleasurable experience, it was, to be sure, a happy and joyful one. I sacrificed my own personal food preferences for what I knew to be the good thing to do, and in this I found true joy. The relish of that joy lingers to this day, long after the unpleasant taste sensations have faded into oblivion. My friend’s mushroom soup was more than nutritious. It was “good for me” on another level.
Since nutrition, rather than enjoyment, is the primary purpose of food, does this mean that, in the interests of nutrition, we can readily dispense with joy in the experience of eating? Of course not! If we fail to find enjoyment in our food, it means that our food is bad, our chef is bad, or our health is bad. To put it another way, if Grandma substituted vitamin pills and food supplements in place of her traditional Thanksgiving dinner, we would think her mad. When it comes to eating, enjoyment and nutrition ought to go hand in hand. Yet, as I have said, nutrition remains the primary purpose of eating.
What happens when we deliberately exclude nutrition from the experience of eating? The result, of course, is junk food, and, as we have come to understand all too well, a steady diet of junk food takes its toll on the human body. Empty calories, high sodium, and trans fats have led to a whole host of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer. More and more we are realizing that foods which tantalize our taste buds but have little or no nutritional value are a recipe for a bitter brew.
Believe it or not, what I have just said with regard to eating has its direct parallel in the realm of sexual activity. Please observe.
I think it is entirely reasonable to conclude that the primary purpose of human sexual activity is procreation—in other words, children. The anatomy and physiology of the human sexual organs make this abundantly clear. The same is true right down to the cellular level with respect to the gametes. Why else would sperm and ovum each have only half the genetic complementarity if they were not designed for reproduction? The primary purpose of sex is procreation.
Procreation is clearly necessary for the survival of our species. That is why an all-wise and all-knowing God also intended sexual activity to be both a means to joy and an expression of love. The love and joy of a happily married couple’s sexual intimacy can hardly be overstated.
Yet even though love and joy are inherent dimensions of the conjugal act, it is obvious that the primary purpose of sex is procreation. Why? Again, the answer is clear. A husband and wife can express their mutual love and joy in countless ways. They can, for instance, exchange gifts, go on a date, cooperate in achieving a mutual goal, or even sit quietly and comfortably in each other’s presence. If, however, they wish to have children, there is but one way by which this is naturally accomplished, and that is through sexual intercourse. I repeat: the primary purpose of sex is procreation. Love and joy, even in the case of the most happily married man and woman, are but secondary (though beautiful) effects.
Again, I am purposely using the words “love” and “joy” rather than “pleasure.” Although conjugal intimacy might not always be appealing, it ought always to be an expression of love and joy for both husband and wife–just as food, although not always pleasant tasting, ought always to be an occasion of joy. I can, for example, imagine that a wife, on occasion, might very well feel like avoiding the amorous embrace of her husband. Yet if she consents to his advances, she does so out of love for a man in whose tender heart she has often taken refuge. She may have at that moment little or no enthusiasm for his conjugal intimacy, but, on some level at least, she is joyful in his love. Here, then, there is sacrifice rather than pleasure, and in the sacrifice there is joy.
Since procreation, rather than love and joy, is the fundamental purpose of sex, does this mean that, for the sake of procreation, the conjugal act may, on occasion, exclude love and joy? Certainly not! If a husband and wife find no joy and self-giving love in their sexual union, something is definitely wrong. As far as the conjugal act is concerned, an openness to the transmission of life must always be joined to spousal love and intimacy. Sex involves both babies and the bonding of husband and wife. The conjugal act must be both procreative and unitive. Nevertheless, the primary purpose of sexual intercourse is procreation.
What happens when, through contraception, for example, procreation (and hence total spousal self-giving) is intentionally excluded from the sexual act? The result is what I would call “junk sex.” Alas! Just as junk food is not without negative consequences, so, too, junk sex exacts a heavy price on the couple involved and on society as a whole. Contraception has led to exponential increases in sexually transmitted diseases and even certain forms of cancer. In addition, the pill is known to cause strokes in otherwise healthy women. Far more devastating, however, is the unhealthy social fallout. Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae predicted that the acceptance of contraception would mean rampant marital infidelity (along with divorce), the abuse of women, the lowering of societal moral standards (e.g. more pornography), and mandated governmental sterilization. The Pontiff was sadly correct in all this. Yet contraception has given rise to other evils as well. Lower standards of sexual morality have led to millions of unwanted pregnancies, which, in turn, have sparked the demand for legalized abortion, thus paving the way for the acceptance of euthanasia. Contraception and abortion have also contributed to a vast decline in birthrates in most Western countries, bringing populations well below replacement levels. (No wonder Pope John Paul II so consistently decried “the culture of death.”) Widespread use of the pill has prompted many government officials to include contraception in the category of “women’s healthcare.” Thus religiously minded employers are now being required to go against their consciences in order to provide contraception and abortifacients in their health insurance plans. This is an obvious violation of religious liberty. Most surprising of all, the birth control pill ultimately lies behind the clamor for “same-sex marriage.” As Mary Eberstadt has shrewdly asked in her book Adam and Eve after the Pill, if, through contraception, a married heterosexual couple can have sex which is as exclusive of new life as homosexual acts, then why can’t a homosexual pair be given the same legal status as a married heterosexual couple? It is becoming abundantly clear that once procreation is removed from the sexual equation, there is no telling what the consequences will be. Why not legalized incest, bestiality, or even pedophilia? God forbid! More and more we are coming to realize that sexual intercourse that deliberately excludes the possibility of offspring is a Pandora’s Box containing countless evils.
So what’s with my comparison of junk food and junk sex? Am I arguing that taking the pill and eating a potato chip are morally equivalent actions? Am I suggesting that condoms are on a par with cotton candy? Of course not! Nor do I wish to single out anyone for judgment. We all are guilty of wanting pleasure without responsibility. Every sin (not just gluttony or lust) is, after all, an illegitimate shortcut. I am not one to throw stones. It is not my intention to point an accusatory finger at anyone. I am simply saying, along with C.S. Lewis, that an examination of the human appetite for food shows us just how disordered our sexual appetites have really become. If depriving food of nutritional value has led to serious health consequences, then divorcing sex from procreation will have far more devastating fallout both for our health and our society. As the old margarine commercial once put it, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” As the marriage rite declares, “What God has joined, man must not divide.” Sex and procreation, like food and nutrition, must always go together.
 There are, I realize, women who are on the birth control pill for health reasons, e.g. to regulate menstrual cycles or to prevent the growth of precancerous tumors. Here, however, the intention is not contraception, and the Church finds no sin in this. The same holds true for those women who, through no fault of their own, are incapable of conception. The intention is what matters.
 In his book America’s Real War, Rabbi Daniel Lapin blames the birth control pill for prolonged adolescence among men. He has, for this very reason, branded the pill as one of the worst inventions of all time.
 As if all these woes weren’t enough, the birth control pill has even been implicated in causing damage to the environment. In 2005, for example, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that estrogens and other steroid hormones in sewage water are having a negative impact on the reproduction of trout and other fish species.