Brett Robinson

Of the many technologies that have changed the course of culture, contraception may be the most pernicious.

In his landmark encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” St. Paul VI foresaw that the rise of artificial birth control methods would also lead to more marital infidelity, the lowering of moral standards and the objectification of persons. One does not need to look far to see that these bitter fruits have taken deep root in the culture.

Alongside the birth control technologies themselves is the contraceptive mentality that they foster. What is a contraceptive mentality? The idea that we can be free without taking risks.

In “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” one of Thomas Merton’s journal entries describes the Trappist monk’s encounter with a black widow spider:


“It is strange to be so very close to something that can kill you, and not be defended by some kind of invention. As if, wherever there was a problem in life, some machine would have to get there before you to negotiate it. As if we could not deal with the serious things of life except through the intermediary of … our inventions … the inventions which have become our world.”

These are matters of life and death. From the life-giving conception of a child to the lethal reality of a venomous spider, nature is an awing and powerful reality. Our attempts to circumvent nature or reprogram it are foolhardy and ultimately dehumanizing. In our desire for a risk-free existence, we end up sacrificing our freedom and humanity.

In the early stages of modern technology, there was a sense that anything that could be done technologically should be done. Even instruments of war that could kill millions were pursued in the name of national security. The atomic bomb was justified as a safeguard of national freedom, just as contraception is justified as a safeguard of individual freedom.

In both cases, life and the potential for new life are snuffed out in the name of security. When we limit contingency or uncertainty, we lose our ability to see God’s grace at work in our lives.

The black widow spider did not bite Thomas Merton because he spotted it just after sitting down. This was more than a stroke of luck, it was a sign of our radical vulnerability in a world of providential encounters, some that give life and some that take it away. Living in the midst of that risk is what makes us human and makes us free.

In his reflections on technology, Pope Benedict XVI said that the goal of technology should not be material security but a greater inner freedom and renunciation that leads man to himself.

What did Pope Benedict mean? That morality is our true source of security, not human invention. We are called to something higher. Our freedom is not limitless, but our limits are only bounded by caritas, seeking the good of the other in love.


Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.