In the Introduction to Pope John Paul II's Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, I came across a passage that helped me understand why John Paul II's teaching on contraception makes sense to me: I have read a lot of Wendell Berry. Berry is well-known for his attacks on some fundamental tenets of modern thought and life, including the great divorce between body and soul/mind. This divorce sees "nature" (including the body) as something to be controlled and mastered to whatever ends we want. One of the root causes of much of our woes--environmental, economic, social, and cultural--comes from splitting the self into mere nature (the body) and freedom (the mind/soul). Part of the solution, Berry argues, is a more holistic view of the self: the self as body-soul unity. A human being is not two different things (body and soul) smashed together in one person, but one thing: a body/soul unity (which, by the way, means that Berry is much closer to the anthropology of Aristotle and Aquinas than of most moderns).
Here are some insightful excerpts from Michael Waldstein's Introduction to John Paul II's Man and Woman (which illustrate, I might add, the deep connections between Berry's work and Roman Catholic sexual ethics):
"This agreement [on the central, dividing issue] between the two sides, those who opt for contraception and those who reject it, is striking. There is agreement that the Baconian project of technological mastery over nature lies at the heart of the issue of contraception. The manner in which the Catholic advocates of contraception see the nature of sexuality seems to be formed precisely by the way of seeing nature that emerge from the scientific-technological project..."
Waldstein goes on to quote James Gaffney, who expresses his opposition to the Catholic teaching on contraception this way:
"It is certainly true that for a great many people who take morality very seriously the mere description of a bit of human behavior as, say, 'sexual intercourse with the use of a condom' is not morally significant; the statement, of itself, communicates nothing to elicit moral blame, moral praise, or even moral interest...It is alternately funny and sad that an official doctrine of the Catholic church holds that anything identifiable as 'contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile' can be denounced as 'intrinsically evil' and 'gravely disordered' behavior without knowing anything at all about the motives or results of these practices in individual case."
Waldstein's commentary on this is helpful:
"This text expresses the main issue particularly well in the dismissive formulation, 'the mere description of a bit of human behavior as, says, 'sexual intercourse with the use of a condom...communicates nothing to elicit moral blame, moral praise, or even moral interest.' Sex appears in this statement, and particularly in its dismissive tone, as it does in Kant, namely, as a process that runs its course outside the realm of the person and of meaning. It is only when further motives of the person and results considered by the person enter that the biological process takes on moral interest. The point of the view of the author of this attack on John Paul II is hardly surprising. It is the default point of view of any person raised as a child and high school student in the twentieth century. No special effort is needed to breathe in the air of Cartesian dualism...
"In contrast to the dominant mentality, John Paul II sustains Humanae Vitae to proclaim the good news--and it is indeed good news--that the human person 'also is a body'--not merely "has" a body, but is a body...The meaning of the human body as experienced in sexual intercourse is deeply personal. The body, endowed with its own rich intrinsic meaning, speaks the language of self-gift and fruitfulness, whether the person intends it or not, because the person "is a body." The body is not outside the person. Self-gift and fruitfulness are rooted in the very nature of the body, and therefore in the very nature of the person, because the person 'is a body.'"
Waldstein then goes on to quote John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor, where we see further critique of the body-mind or nature-freedom split that is so engrained in modern thought and ethics:
"A freedom which claims to be absolute ends up treating the human body as a raw datum, devoid of any meaning and moral values until freedom has shaped it in accordance with its design. Consequently, human nature and the body appear as presuppositions or preambles, materially necessary for freedom to make its choice, yet extrinsic to the person, the subject and the human act. Their functions would not be able to constitute reference points for moral decisions, because the finalities of these inclinations would be merely physical goods, called by some 'pre-moral.' To refer to them, in order to find in them rational indications with regard to the order of morality, would be to expose oneself to the accusation of physicalism or biologism.
In this way of thinking, the tension between freedom and a nature conceived of in a reductive way is resolved by a division within man himself.
This moral theory does not correspond to the truth about man and his freedom. It contradicts the Church's teaching on the unity of the human person, whose rational soul is per se et essentialiter [through itself and essentially] the form of his body. The spiritual and immortal soul is the principle of unity of the human being, whereby it exists as a whole--corpore et anima unus--as a person. These definitions not only point out that the body, which has been promised the resurrection, will also share in glory. They also remind us that reason and free will are linked with all the bodily and sense faculties. The person, including the body, is completely entrusted to himself, and it is in the unity of body and soul that the person is the subject of his own moral acts. The person, by the light of reason and the support of virtue, discovers in the body the anticipatory signs, the expression and the promise of the gift of self."
Waldstein summarizes and concludes this way:
"The purpose of the theology of the body is to defend the body against its alienation from the person in Cartesian rationalism. Put positively, the purpose is to show the divine plan for human spousal love, to show the goodness and beauty of the whole sexual sphere against its cheapening in the 'objective, scientific' way of looking at nature. God's plan and its renewal by Christ, the redeemer, is imprinted deeply within the bodily nature of the person as a pre-given language of self-giving and fruitfulness. For the person to live sexuality in an authentic manner is to speak spousal love in conformity with this truth of the language of the body."