In the comment thread to a Vox Day post entitled Sabatoging Marriage, a Catholic husband came to the Dread Ilk requesting advice for handling a sex drought excused by his wife’s fear of becoming pregnant again – having gone through three C-sections, the sympathy of the female Ilk is with her, although her fear interfering with her love life with her husband is, shall we say, An Issue.
I was going to refrain from commenting at first, because as a Protestant I don’t agree with the Catholic teaching that contraception is illicit. This may well be self-serving rationalization on my part, but lacking a straightforward “Thou shalt have as many children with thy spouse as thou possibly canst” anywhere in the Bible, I’m still waiting to be convinced by a shiny argument that the Catholic position is the right one.
Like many issues on which I admire Catholic thought – author John C. Wright’s reasoning for why he joined the RCC is quite moving – I find a serious problem with both the axiom and the practice.
For instance, commenter cailcorishev was gracious enough to sum up his understanding of the Catholic allowance of NFP as a contraceptive method. The practical reasoning – that Natural Family Planning is a real sacrifice and therefore people will be less likely to abuse it than the far more convenient artificial means of contraception – is one that I will easily grant. However, I don’t consider a utilitarian argument such as this one to be authoritative – shall we ban guns, ICBMs, and tanks because it is easier to murder people with modern weapons than with knives, swords, and chariots? Obviously not. A technological advance which makes sin easier and more tempting does not automatically make that advance illicit; otherwise the Vatican would be condemning high-fructose corn syrup and instituting kosher-like laws against processed food, and following Bloomburg down the path of banning Big Gulps on the grounds that all sugary sodas constitute gluttony, since they have no nutritional value whatsoever and exist solely to serve immoderate indulgence in the pleasures of taste.
(Dang, I may well have just convinced myself that sodas are sinful. And I really like soda. Shoot. The point against junk food in general still stands though, since other forms of processed food do possess small smidges of actual nutritive value.)
The trouble I’m having is with what I perceive as the Catholic’s insistence on eating the cake and having it, too. If limiting one’s fertility is sinful, then Natural Family Planning is sinful as well. If limiting one’s fertility while still deliberately engaging in non-fertile sexual acts is not sinful – even if that non-sinful area is dramatically limited to situations like “If your wife gets pregnant again, she will die, and the baby too” – then one must make a special argument that deliberately abstaining from fertile sex and engaging as much as one sees fit in infertile sex is different than merely ensuring that all one’s sexual intercourse is infertile.
This is what Catholics try to do – and the piece that commenter Al linked is one such example. Now, I do see the difference, logically, between the PIV one has when one just so happens to be infertile, and the PIV one has when one is using artificial means to ensure that one is infertile. There is absolutely a logical difference there. The problem is, I don’t see that using artificial means, such as hormonal contraceptives, to ensure that one’s sex is infertile is morally any different than using deliberately heightened sensitivity to your own cycle in order to ensure that all the sex that you have is infertile. Ha ha ha, but no, you do not get to classify NFP “properly implemented” as “not really contraception.” Unless you’re defining “proper implementation” as “only used when a couple is trying really hard to get pregnant,” in which case the comment was totally beside the point, since the point was about using NFP as a form of contraception!
The argument appears to boil down to a desperate search for ex-post-facto reasoning why NFP is morally licit and the more reliable, non-abortifacient artificial contraceptive methods aren’t, so that Catholics have an “out” to offer to people who really do need to limit their fertility while still condemning the technological advance that’s wreaked such havoc on humanity.
Given the existence of the “out” as licit, then – which is the situation we are dealing with – what forms of contraception best meet the Biblical purposes of marriage? Well, procreation is automatically out, so our reasoning cannot be based on that, since we’re now in the realm of the morality of sex that is deliberately chosen to be non-procreative. The Catholics have already granted that it is licit for a married couple to have sexual relations when they know that no offspring will result; in fact, the piece Al linked me to, also linked above, says that it is the duty of married spouses to have sexual intercourse when one or the other lusts for it, irrespective of the fertility of the act.
St Augustine indeed didn’t write explicitly of any other motive than mere sensuality in seeking intercourse where procreation isn’t aimed at. What he says doesn’t exclude the possibility of a different motive. There’s the germ of an account of the motive called by theologians “rendering the marriage debt” in his observation that married people owe to one another a kind of mutual service. Aquinas made two contributions, the first of which concerns this point: he makes the remark that a man ought to pay the marriage debt if he can see his wife wants it without her having to ask him. And he ought to notice if she does want it. This is an apt gloss on Augustine’s “mutual service”, and it destroys the basis for the picture which some have had of intercourse not for the sake of children as necessarily a little bit sinful on one side, since one must be “demanding”, and not for any worthy motive but purely “out of desire for pleasure”. One could hardly say that being diagnosable as wanting intercourse was a sin!
This passage absolutely agrees with my own understanding of the issue: just like taking pleasure from eating is not a sin, but gluttony is a sin, the pleasures of the body are naturally good but can be elevated to an unhealthy, sinful obsession. As John C. Wright has written, even pagan stoics recognize that pleasures that slake desire are licit, but pleasures that do not satisfy and lead to ever more appetite (as in addictions) are not licit. (I await the news that the Vatican has banned Pringles.)
Now, in historical times when “contraception” amounted to either abstinence or abortion, Natural Family Planning is absolutely the only moral choice for the couple who must not become pregnant because of a grave situation. It’s not ideal, because “ideal” would be the husband and wife screwing like rabbits during the woman’s most fertile times, when she naturally feels the burn of lust most keenly. But abstaining from sex at the price of denying the wife her marital right is far better than killing one’s children. Now, however, modern technology has offered us reliable, non-abortifacient means of upholding the marriage duty for the husband, even in their grave necessity to avoid pregnancy! No longer must the wife endure a twice-damaged marriage, in which she must uphold her end of the bargain to slake her husband’s lust, while becoming celibate as a nun when her lust burns hottest in order to remain barren. The marriage contract, which was previously un-ideal on two counts (barrenness by necessity, and failure of the husband to provide his marital duties to his wife during her most desperate time of need, also, remember in this instance, by necessity) can now be partially repaired by rendering their sexual intercourse infertile at need.
And then the Catholic church comes along and points out that this causes some serious social problems and vastly increased temptation to sin – which it absolutely does! – and comes up with some contorted reasoning about how deliberately engaging in only infertile intercourse and deliberately not engaging in intercourse when it’s the woman’s turn to benefit from her husband’s marital duties is totally A-OK whereas using those yucky artificial contraceptives makes having sex when you otherwise would have been fertile totally a sin.
Yeah, I’m not buying that. Once, it was a necessity to endure the deaths of many children, but then antibiotics were invented, and many children lived who otherwise wouldn’t have! This also caused social upheaval, but nobody except for extreme cultists labels antibiotics as immoral because of contorted reasoning about God being in command of life and death. We buckle our seatbelts, too, and I dunno about you, but I regularly wear a helmet when I’m biking, and nobody argues that this constitutes a different kind of transportation act, even though they could. Similarly, once it was necessary for a woman to sacrifice one of the key pillars of marriage – having sex when she burns for it! – if she were in a grave situation that made pregnancy something to be avoided at all costs. That might have meant years of intermittent celibacy, not for the proper Biblical purpose of devoting that time to prayer as a form of fasting, but for the preservation of her own life due to the flaws of the cursed creation.
If a prudential means of allowing the couple to engage in sexual intercourse when they burn for it – which is explicitly stated in the Bible as the reason to get married at all! - is invented that allows couples who would have otherwise been forced to mutilate their marriage by abstaining during the woman’s ovulation, then this means should be welcomed as a way of strengthening marriages already negatively affected by the need to avoid pregnancy. The fact that these convenient means make fornication and adultery more attractive (by lessening their risks) no more justifies the invention of reasons to ban them than declaring food processing inherently immoral is justified because processed food makes gluttony easier and more tempting. It means that those technological advances are dangerous, just like the inventions of the modern world made murder on a mass scale in Communist countries possible. Guns are not immoral because murderers use them, and banning them just means that criminals will use other means at their disposal to commit murder. So it is with contraceptive methods – they indeed ought to be far more tightly regulated, as guns are, because they have proven themselves immensely dangerous. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have their moral uses, or that their existence somehow endangers the moral strength of the Biblical command to eschew extra-marital sex.
If you want to be consistent about it, you have to be consistent, not come up with a “logical reason” why it’s okay to gut the entire reason for a woman to marry as soon as there are more options than “abortion” or “celibacy”. Oh, yes, the whole raising-kids thing is important, but the sex comes first. Obviously.
I mean, I could construct an equally logical argument about how killing someone by hiring someone else to off the victim from afar with a sniper rifle is a different kind of murder than bludgeoning my victim to death personally with a big stick, but it would be totally beside the point! The question here is this: is having a sex life with your spouse when you are deliberately trying to not have children sinful, or not? If there are any circumstances in which it is licit for a husband and wife to engage in sexual relations with each other, while simultaneously having the express purpose of ensuring, either through the rhythm method or “artificial” means, that the intercourse is infertile, then I really don’t think that God Himself cares which means you are using. And if the artificial means gives you the option of upholding the purpose of marriage itself, while NFP essentially spits in the face of marriage and God’s design of women’s sexuality.
Lawyerly weaseling around the “kind” of sexual intercourse never addresses this key point: marriage exists so that you can have licit sex when you burn. This is true even if you (or your spouse) are barren. NFP refuses the wife licit sex when she burns. Therefore unless the situation is very grave indeed, all other options should be explored before a husband and wife agree that periodic celibacy is the method they will use to avoid pregnancy. If it is illicit to use contraceptives because contraception as a motive is sinful, then deliberately avoiding having sex when the wife experiences high libido due to ovulation is absolutely as sinful as the frigid wife who refuses to fulfill her marital obligation to her husband when he burns.
Artificial contraceptives’ existence just makes the sins of fornication and adultery easier. Less costly in the short-term. We’re finding out, nowadays, that women are really not all that happy about what happened in the long term, now aren’t we? And it’s not the contraceptives that women are discovering made them unhappy – it’s the way they spent their youth in actual sin, running after the idols of parties and fun, serial live-in boyfriends and independent careers. Suddenly a lot of women’s sinful hearts were unconstrained by exterior circumstances, and they reaped bitter fruit although they thought they were getting off scot free. Tool of the Devil? In a lot of circumstances, yes. But then, he’s a tricky bastard and can use just about anything to trick people into rebellion and sin – even the outward forms of morality! Blaming contraceptives as being uniquely evil certainly appears to be the classic female avoidance of responsibility, dressed up in lawyerly semantic quibbling: the serpent tempted me, and I ate, so it’s really all that darned snake’s fault!