In 1963, the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control was established to study the possibility of an alteration in the Church's teachings on contraception. By the time its work was done, 68 of the 72 members had drafted a report supporting an alteration in the Church's teachings. This report, titled "Responsible Parenthood," concluded that contraception could not be considered intrinsically evil, and that it was incoherent to accept the legitimacy of the rhythm method while excluding artificial contraception. This majority report in no way meant to strip away the connection between sexuality and procreation, but merely made the argument that within a productive and fertile life it should be perfectly acceptable to use artificial means to control the rate of birth, to space births out, and to ensure better provisions for offspring.
However, in writing Humanae Vitae, the Pope rejected the majority consensus of his Pontifical Commission, instead opting to enshrine the minority opinion - signed by only 4 of the commission's members - in his encyclical. While reaffirming the common and traditional natural law arguments against birth control, the primary concern of this minority report seems to be less theological or philosophical in nature and more a worry about the Church saving face - that is, the worry that the Pontiff may have to admit that his predecessors were in error. In the report, which is far more lengthy and pedantic than the majority report, the basic form of argument is that since the Church has consistently rejected the use of contraception as evil, the use of contraception must be evil; and, interestingly, the Church has consistently rejected the use of contraception as evil because the use of contraception is evil.
The circularity of this argument cannot be denied; however, I am less concerned about the circular rationale of the minority report as I am in a very interesting point made by the majority report:
" The tradition has always rejected seeking this separation with a contraceptive intention for motives spoiled by egoism and hedonism, and such seeking can never be admitted. The true opposition is not to be sought between some material conformity to the physiological processes of nature and some artificial intervention. For it is natural to man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given by physical nature. The opposition is really to be sought between one way of acting which is contraceptive and opposed to a prudent and generous fruitfulness, and another way which is, in an ordered relationship to responsible fruitfulness and which has a concern for education and all the essential, human and Christian values."
The report calls into question the definition of "natural" used by the opponents of contraception. After all, the argument from natural law indicates that man's artificial control of his reproductive faculties is intrinsically evil, in the sense of being intrinsically unnatural. Yet this argument is found nowhere else in the tradition, and in no other situation is the artificial intervention of the works of the human intellect into natural or physiological processes considered intrinsically evil. Man can take medicine which halts or hampers his natural bodily processes, he can turn aside great rivers, manipulate genetic structures, govern the breeding of other animals, use artificial insemination to breed those animals, cross-breed them, dig up minerals from the bowels of the earth, purposely alter his own bodily chemistry for various therapeutic and non-therapeutic effects, so forth and so on - and in these cases, it is strictly the intentionality, not the means, of the act that governs the morality of the act. However, in the case of artificial contraception, it is argued that simply the artificiality of the act - that is, the means itself, understood as an intentional and artificial control over the reproductive organs - is evil, regardless of intention. A couple who has licit reasons for avoiding pregnancy under Church rules, and whose intentions are in line with these rules, would fall into a state of mortal sin or not depending upon whether they have sex with artificial contraception or using natural family planning - even if their intention is identical, namely, to have sexual relations without intending to procreate.
The majority opinion reveals the absurdity of this position, and questions why rhythm should be allowed but artificial contraception condemned. Nature should include the works of the human mind, and God's command to go forth and multiply is understood within the grand context of man using his intellect to become a master of nature - both his environment and himself. The report is firm in its reaffirmation of the intrinsic connection between sexuality and reproduction, but it shifts the moral gravity of contraception away from the intrinsic means of contraception to the intentionality of contraception. Clearly, the majority report would have us realize, it is possible for a couple to exercise a fruitful sexuality - that is, a sexuality that yields children - even if not every sexual act is itself fruitful. A couple who uses contraception to regulate rather than complete nullify this connection is indeed acting well within the boundaries of natural law under this view, and the commission still coherently rejects the use of contraception solely for the purposes of having a fruitless, hedonistic sexual life.
The Catholic Church needs to reevaluate (or rather, pay attention to the already extant reevaluation) its stance on birth control, leaving completely aside the rather pathetic concern that it may have to admit it was mistaken. However, interestingly enough, the majority report shows that it would be entirely plausible to alter the teaching and remain firmly within the tradition, since it is the tradition itself that recognizes the dignity of man and the natural goodness of his intellect's power to understand and manipulate himself and the world around him. It would be unnecessary to reject the Church's teaching that marriage, sexuality, and procreation all have an indelible link; one would merely have to affirm that the exercise of that sexuality, like the exercise of any other natural function, can rightfully be responsibly controlled by the art and knowledge of the human mind.