Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Answering Robert W. Jenson on contraception

Robert W. Jenson (pictured right), a prominent Lutheran theologian, understandably has questions about Catholic teaching concerning contraception. I say "understandably," because the Catholic rationale for the Church's teaching on contraception is so widely unknown, often even by Catholics. At the end of an article entitled "Reading the Body" (The New Atlantis, No. 9, Summer 2005, pp. 73-82), analyzing John Paul II's Theology of the Body, Jenson raises an interesting, if common, question concerning the controversial Catholic prohibition of contraception. In doing so, he draws an inference that seems to have all the prima facie plausibility of a cogent syllogism, but which thoroughly misses the point of Catholic teaching and also illustrates why that teaching is generally not well taught. He writes:
We perhaps cannot conclude without some mention of John Paul's discussion of licit and illicit prevention of conception. And here I must register a query. John Paul of course continues the established Catholic condemnation of contraception by technical means, and he devotes several of these catecheses to it. But it seems to me that his particular argument, and that of Humanae Vitae which he expounds, has an unexpected consequence. He explicitly declares limiting intercourse to the woman's infertile period licit, if done for responsible reasons. And he devotes several catecheses to the character of responsible choice, which he allows can include the decision to prevent conception even over a long period. What then of the pill? Which works precisely by extending an infertile period? And does not interfere with the "the nuptial act?" It will not at this point do to say that it frustrates the end of procreation, since that has already been allowed if done for responsible reasons.

Invention of the pill has indeed unleashed disaster: the "sexual revolution" and the European peoples' demographic suicide. But from the argument of Humanae Vitae and here of John Paul, it seems to follow that it is licit as a means to carry out responsible decision.
To sum up Jenson's question: If the Catholic Church allows avoiding conception for responsible reasons by sexual abstinence during periods of fertility, why shouldn't it also allow for avoiding conception for responsible reasons by use of birth control pills, which would achieve the same end while allowing one to exercise conjugal relations even during fertile periods? This is one of the most common queries raised by Protestants trying to understand Catholic teaching, as well as one of the most common excuses raised by Catholics who make use of birth control pills. As I say, it has considerable prima facie plausibility, because it fails to fathom the deeper substance of Catholic teaching. It deserves a clear answer.

First, it's important to state that the answer has nothing to do with the question of whether the means of avoiding pregnancy are artificial or natural. It's true that artificial contraceptives have various known and unknown side-effects, of which some of the known are clearly detrimental and even harmful. For example, it's well-established that birth control pills (1) increase irritability, (2) increase propensity to depression, (3) cause weight gain, and (4) reduce libido. Furthermore, birth control pills work in three different ways: (a) by preventing ovulation, or, if that doesn't work, (b) changing the viscosity of the fallopian mucus so as to prevent the sperm from getting to the egg, or, if that doesn't work, (c) preventing nidation -- i.e., the implanting of the fertilized ovum in the mother's uterine wall. This means that birth control pills may function as an abortifacient (inducing abortion), which alone is grounds for dismissing them as immortal.

It's also true that Catholics promote the use of natural means for avoiding pregnancy for those with morally acceptable reasons for doing so -- called Natural Family Planning (NFP) -- which involve various well-documented and highly accurate natural means, of which there are several medically proven methods (e.g., the Sympto-Thermal Method promoted by the Couple to Couple League and One More Soul; the Billings Ovulation Method; the Ovulation Method promoted by Family of the Americas; the use of the Ovu-Tech Fertility Detector, and so on) -- none of which should be confused with the inaccurate and ineffective so-called Rhythm Method. These methods, when followed conscientiously, boast a 99% accuracy, which not even the birth control pill can match, and has no undesirable side-effects. It's a wonder that our New Age-saturated culture, which is so concerned about natural foods, natural herbs, and natural remedies, still insists on its artificial, chemical contraceptives, when, according to R.E.J. Ryder's article, "Natural Family Planning: Effective Birth Control Supported by the Catholic Church" (British Medical Journal, Vol. 307, No. 723 [Sept. 18, 1993], pp. 723-726), thousands of poor, uneducated women in Calcutta have successfully learned to make effective use of NFP. And who do you expect was teaching NFP in Calcutta? Mother Teresa, of course! Ryder reports that most of those whom she taught were Muslims and Hindus. NFP is described as having a virtual zero (.004%) pregnancy rate among those employing it to avoid pregnancy.

Nevertheless, as I've said, none of these matters concerning the question of whether the means of avoiding pregnancy are artificial or natural gets at the real matter at issue in Catholic teaching. What, then, is the matter at issue at this point.

First, the Catholic Church has always based its teachings on natural law. Natural law teaches us to treat things according to their proper natures. We don't give a dog gasoline to drink, any more than we pump water into our gas tanks at the filling station. We learn how to take proper care of our cars and dogs by treating them according to their natures. If we want things to prosper, we treat things according to their proper natures. Now what are the purpose and meaning and nature of sexual intercourse? Professor Janet Smith (pictured right), in a well-known talk she gave at the Pontifical College Josephinum, in Columbus, Ohio, May, 1994 (entitled "Contraception: Why Not?"), offers a convenient and simplified summary of Catholic teaching on this point. She says:
What are the purpose and meaning and nature of sexual intercourse? It seems to me to be quite clear. It's for two things. It's for babies and it's for bonding. And that's what happens when you have sexual intercourse -- you have babies and you bond. My view is, if you don't want to have babies and you don't want to bond, then you shouldn't be having sexual intercourse. My view is that the babies and bonding that comes with sexual intercourse belong only within marriage.... We have a whole culture that says that having sex, and having babies and making bonds, are two different things; absolutely two different things. Today one can say, "I want to have lunch with you, I want to play tennis with you, I want to go to the movies with you, and I want to have sex with you." No big deal. It's the contraceptive that allows us to do this. Again, if a woman finds herself pregnant, she's shocked. If two individuals find themselves attached to each other, they're shocked. We all know all these really wonderful women who seem to be attached to these terrible men. "How does this happen?" She can't let him go. She's engaging in sex with him -- that's bonding.

So, our society has this view that these three things -- sex, babies, and bonding, are separate and the Church says, "No, they're together." Now some people want to say, "Well, no, no, no. You've left something out here. Clearly, sex is for pleasure. And those who are having sex, they're doing what sex is for; they're having pleasure." And I'll say, "No, no, no. You've missed the point." There are lots of things that have pleasure attached to them. Pleasure is not the purpose; pleasure is the motive; pleasure is the consequence; but it's not the purpose. As a matter of fact, God attached pleasure to the things that he really wants us to do, that are necessary for our survival and for our happiness. So, it's pleasurable to eat and it's pleasurable to drink and it's pleasurable to sleep and it's pleasurable to exercise, and it's pleasurable to have sexual intercourse. It's pleasurable. That's not the purpose. That's not the reason we eat though some of us do. That's not the reason we sleep though some of us do. That's not the real purpose for these acts. They're restorative in many ways. They're necessary for our survival. So, God attached pleasure to everything he wanted us to do for, not our salvation, so much, as just our well-being. But we have to do it at the right time, and the right place, and in the right manner, with the right person, etc., etc. -- in the right way. Sure, eating is pleasurable, but there are limits to what you should be eating. Sexual intercourse is pleasurable, but there are limits to what you should be doing, and you have to seek that pleasure in accord with the nature and reality of what you're dealing with.
But Jensen's question is this: What different is there in principle between (1) avoiding conception by abstaining from sexual intercourse during fertile periods and (2) contracepting while having sexual intercourse during fertile periods as well? The first step toward understanding the Catholic answer to this question is well-illustrated by the answer Janet Smith gives to this kind of question, the kind that Jenson asks:
The first thing I want to say to such couples, such people, is, "Well, if contraception and Natural Family Planning are the same, why not just use Natural Family Planning?" And you know what they say, "But that would be completely different. I'd have to change everything." I say, "Wait a second. You just told me there's no difference and now you tell me it'd be completely different." But, of course, what they mean is no moral difference, but they recognize that there'd be an enormous lifestyle difference. I say, "But wait a second. If there's an enormous lifestyle difference, then that may be a hint that there's some kind of a moral difference as well." At first, I try to point out to them this simple principle in ethics that the ends do not justify the means. Stated another way: "You must have good means to good ends. Not only your goal must be good, but also the way you get there must be good." So consider a couple who doesn't want a child for probably a very good reason. A couple who is contracepting. Another couple using Natural Family Planning. Consider two men, or individuals, who both want to support their family. One robs a bank and one gets a job. They're both doing the same thing -- they're both supporting their family, but they've chosen very different means.
Let us grant that NFP may entail significant lifestyle changes, and that ends don't justify immoral means. That still leaves the question: What, apart from the problems with abortifacient contraceptives mentioned above, is wrong with using contraceptives that allow one to have conjugal relations during fertile periods without fear of conceiving a child? How is that different, in principle, from NFP methods that require one simply to abstain during fertile periods? In three ways: (1) it locks God out of His creative act, (2) it typically denatures and degrades our understanding of fertility, and (3) it ironically has an undermining effect on the proper unitive effect of sexual intercourse.

I. Contraception locks out God's creative act

Beginning with the first point, that contraception says "No" to God in His creative act, we again quote Janet Smith:
Now, this is the most amazing thing when you think about it: Sperm, this little sperm, it does not have an immortal soul.... It has a short and sometimes very happy life, but it does not have an immortal soul. And the ovum, you see, it does not have an immortal soul. It can have a short and happy life, but it doesn't have an immortal soul. And when the two come together, where does that immortal soul come from? The sperm doesn't carry it. The egg doesn't carry it. Where does it come from? It comes from a new act of creation by God. In each act of conception, there needs to be a new act of creation by God. One of my priest friends says that "When a new human life is created, the whole universe is changed because something has come into existence which did not exist before and will exist forever." It's just like when God made the whole universe, He made something from nothing. And now, He's made a new soul from nothing. It didn't exist. There's not a whole group of souls out there that are sort of waiting around for a landing place. God actually performs a new act of creation. So, when male and female participate in the sexual act, they have opened up this arena which God has designed for bringing forth new human life. And when they contracept, they are slamming that door in God's face. They're saying, "We want to enjoy this pleasurable act that You gave us, but we do not want to let You perform Your creative act." Now, I'm not saying that couples who are contracepting, are conscious that this is what they're doing. But, this is what the act itself means. It's much like drinking a little bit of poison in your orange juice. You might not know it's there, but it will have its effect on you. You're not intentionally doing that, but that's what the act itself means.
As Smith notes, NFP doesn't say no to God when God says, "I want to be there at the fertile time. I made the fertile time for bringing forth new human life. If you engage in the sexual act, I want my option of making a new human life. But I gave you a half of a month, three quarters of a month, where you're infertile and if you want to pursue the bonding power of the sexual act without babies, do it then. I'm asleep. I'm out of town. I don't expect to be invited at that time. I'm not around. You can't even make me come. I won't come. I can't. I made your body in a certain way." Hence, couples who practice NFP respect the fertile period as though it were sacred ground: they don't walk there unless they're prepared to accept the consequences.

In one respect, the difference between NFP and contraception is analogous to the difference between dieting and Bulimia. Bulimics eat and then throw up. That's a bit like contraception. You want the pleasure without the consequences. But this violates the nature of the act. It's contrary to natural law. It precisely reverses the relationship between the essence of an act (like the nutritive function of eating) and its accidental properties (like the pleasure of eating). Thus contraception separates the essence of sex (procreation and bonding) from its accidental property (pleasure), so that their relationship is exactly reversed and its essence (at least the procreative element) is now widely viewed as an "accident" to be controlled and prevented.

Hence, NFP doesn't lock God out of His creative act during periods of fertility when procreation is possible.

II. Contraception denatures and degrades our understanding of fertility

A second reason is that contraception typically involves a subtle but profound disparagement of human fertility. One needs only listen to what OB/GYN physicians ask their patients to see this: "Are you taking contraceptives?" "Do you want to continue this pregnancy?" etc. Again, Janet Smith:

Now, along with our disregard for the value of human life, there is an enormous disregard for fertility. We don't have any high estimation of fertility. Contraceptives are manifestly related to a hostility to fertility. Think about the word contraception. It means "against the beginning," against the beginning of a new life, and what makes a new life possibility is fertility. So, we talk about "the pill." It's one of my favorite words -- the pill. When do you take a pill? You take a pill when you're sick. But pregnancy is not a disease and fertility is not a disease. Fertility is a healthy condition in an adult person. It's those who are infertile who need assistance in becoming fertile. They are the ones who need the medication. Fertility is a perfectly healthy condition. I would like to challenge doctors in this way, and anyone else who wants to straighten me out afterwards, you're welcome to have a shot at it. But when I think of a fifteen year old boy who goes into the doctor's office and says, "Doctor, you know, I want to get the girls. I want the girls," he says. "And the way to get the girls is to have big muscles. So, would you please give me some steroids." Any doctor worth his salt will say, "Son, get out of here. Join the wrestling team. Lift weights. Do push-ups. I'm not going to give you steroids. They're bad for you. They could ruin you. I'm not giving you steroids." But, a fifteen year old girl trots into a doctor's office and says, "Doctor, I want to have sexual intercourse with my boyfriend or boyfriends." And the doctor says, "I'll write you a prescription." It's a whole lot worse for her health psychologically and physically in the long run, to be launched on the kind of lifestyle that a contraceptive launches her on than that steroid is for the young man and I want to know what's going on here. Why has our culture told us that this makes sense? Why has our culture told us that this is a sensible thing for a doctor to do?

III. Contraception undermines the unitive function of sex

The third reason why the Church contemns contraception is found in John Paul II's observation that contraception violates not only the procreative meaning of the sexual act, but also the unitive meaning of the sexual act. As Smith says, "It prevents not only babies, but it also prevents bonding." John Paul II has a beautifully developed theology of the body in which he talks about the "language" of sexual intercourse as a language of "self-donation." The "grammar" of the sexual act implies "self-donation." You want to give yourself in your entirety to someone you love. Accordingly, when you withhold part of yourself, as when you withhold your fertility, you're witholding something that belongs to the grammar of the sexual act. The language of the sexual act becomes dishonest. It says more than you're intending to say. Again, Smith:
I heard someone compare contraceptives to someone who says, "You know, you're having a bad hair day. Would you mind putting a paper bag over your head? You know, I want to make love to you, but I can't stand looking at that hair. It's driving me crazy." That's what a condom is and that's what a contraceptive is. It says, "I love you but I don't want a very important part of yourself here, something that actually belongs in this act."
By contrast, NFP fosters bonding and commitment. Smith says:
Couples who've abstained before marriage, have little or no problem with Natural Family Planning.... In fact, they think that abstinence is a way of expressing love. It's not this huge deprivation. The reason that they abstained before marriage was not because they weren't attracted to each other, not because the hormones weren't raging, but because they loved each other. They said, "I'm not going to have sex with you before marriage because I love you. I don't want to hurt you. I don't want to have a stronger commitment than I've made here. I don't want to put us in danger of having a baby when we haven't really prepared for that baby. Marriage is preparation for those bonds and marriage is preparation for that baby. And I love you and I can wait. That's how much I love you." Within marriage, abstinence has that same aspect. "It's not a good idea for us to show our affection at this time. We know how to be loving to each other at this time because we've done it before." And they can do it.

Women who use Natural Family Planning have an amazing sense of self-respect and well being. They think that their fertility is revered by their husbands, and they think that they've got themselves particularly good husbands. "I've got my husband who's particularly good. He's a wonderful man. He's got high moral standards. He doesn't treat me like a sex object. I can trust him. He likes me even when we're not having sex together. He's a great guy. I got myself a good one." And males have a great reverence for their wives, for their fertility. They don't want to damage her body. They don't want her to take all these pills and use these devices. They say, "No. I love her. I wouldn't put her through those risks. And this willingness to have a baby for me, that's a wonderful thing. What a woman puts herself through! And I am going to respect that." So, there is this deep bond between the two of them.
NFP doesn't lock God out. It respects a woman's fertility. It has no bad physical or social consequences. In fact, there is reportedly almost a non-existent divorce rate among couples using NFP. In fact, as Smith points out, NFP fosters communication between spouses:
Couples will tell you, they've always told me this, you read this in all the NFP literature: Those who use Natural Family Planning communicate better with each other. I've always wondered what that meant. Does it mean that people are either having sex or talking, but not both, and because they're not having sex during the fertile time, does that mean they're talking more? But, there's something to that.... But the important thing is that they're having this conversation and it's a conversation that's focused around the most important things, which is why they're having babies and why they are not having babies. And how their life is going together and are they sharing the burdens or not.

Couples using contraception tell me they can go for a very long time without having that conversation. They can say, "We're not going to have babies for another three to five years and we'll talk about it then," and that's when they talk about it. And they go apart. They go to their jobs and come back for dinner and go to their jobs and come back for dinner. And that's about all there is.

So, I'm saying Natural Family Planning does not have bad social consequences. It's very difficult to use outside of marriage. It does not say not to God in his procreative act. It treasures a woman's fertility and it enhances, not alienates, the relationship between spouses. It is not subject to the same objections as contraception.
For further consideration:

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