Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Evangelicals and the Contraceptive Mentality

In teaching the Marriage course last semester at Tyndale I encountered no opposition of any kind to the fact that I assigned as my main text John Paul II's Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. The students liked it and no one from the administration or other faculty expressed any concern. Now, I'm well aware of the fact that my fortunate situation is not replicated on all Evangelical campuses. I was talking to a friend at another Evangelical liberal arts college who has witnessed significant anti-Catholicism, including prejudice against Natural Family Planning and the TOB (Theology of the Body).

The TOB in an Evangelical Context
There are two reasons why someone might be concerned about someone teaching TOB in an Evangelical context. One arises from anti-Catholic sentiment and the other from a liberal accommodation to the sexual revolution. I submit that the former is not so much of a concern in most Evangelical liberal arts colleges; there might well be opposition to hiring a Roman Catholic professor, but not to reading Catholic books. This is especially true in philosophy and moral theology, where the major theological differences between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are not so prominent.

On the other hand, the real likelihood of opposition to the TOB comes from Evangelicals who have embraced aspects of the sexual revolution, second wave feminism and relatively liberal views of Scripture. The problem with John Paul II, in their view, is not that he is Roman Catholic, but rather that he is conservative. If a Protestant advocated the views on sexual morality taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he would be rejected just as quickly as the Pope.

Embracing the Contraceptive Mentality
Are Evangelicals embracing the contraceptive mentality? I consider the contraceptive mentality (which I will define in a moment) to be the heart of the anti-Christian sexual revolution that has spread over the Western world during the past century and especially since the 1960s. The contraceptive mentality is a view of human sexuality that is uniquely modern and which views the meaning of sexual activity as having nothing essential to do with procreation. The separation of sexual activity from procreation means the separation of sex from children and, ultimately, from marriage. When sexual activity is detached from reproduction, women are objectifyed as sex objects by which the lusts of men can be satisfied.

The Pill plays a big role in this objectifying because it makes women available every day of the month and the monthly cycle that differentiates women from men becomes irrelevant to woman's sexual identity. Natural Family Planning works around the monthly cycle and makes family planning a joint project in which a woman's body is respected rather than medicated and mutilated.

The sexual revolution makes pleasure (in the sense of the physical and psychological sense of well-being that is derived from sexual intercourse) central to the meaning of sex. In the traditional view of marriage, pleasure is a by product of sexual activity but not its meaning. Procreation is the meaning and sex is designed to conceive children and also to bind the husband and wife together is a mutual relationship of love, which creates the ideal environment for the nurture, care, education and raising of children.

When pleasure becomes the main meaning of sex, the marriage becomes a matter of what each person gets out of it. It is a contract for the mutual use of each other's bodies for pleasure and when the pleasure ceases the relationship loses its purpose. It is the genius of John Paul II's TOB to join together the two purposes of sexuality, procreation and mutuality, into one thing. The problem with Evangelicals today is not just that they have accepted contraception; the greater problem is that in doing so they have allowed the use of artificial contraception to alter their understanding of the meaning of human sexuality.

The contraceptive mentality makes the woman continuously available for sex and removes the need for periodic continence. It thus has a negative and a positive effect. Negatively, it removes the necessity for husbands and wives to develop the virtue of self-control, which is a fruit of the Spirit. Positively, it puts the focus on pleasure as the heart of the sexual relationship instead of procreation. Thus, contraception trains us to think of sex as a "need" and as something good "in itself" (i.e. detached from its procreative purpose). The result is that sex becomes a "power," that is, a good structure of creation that bursts its boundaries and becomes an idol by assuming too much importance in and of itself.

The TOB does not have a negative view of sexual activity; on the contrary, it views the sexual relationship between husband and wife as having dignity and purity when it serves its natural end - the conception of children and the binding together of husband and wife as the foundation of the home in which those children can be nurtured with the love that parents naturally lavish on their own offspring.

The TOB does not say that sex has no purpose other than conceiving children - as if a couple with four children should only have had intercourse a handful of times in 20 years. But the TOB wisely teaches that sex for pleasure's sake reduces sex to a trivial recreation and deprives it of its power, its beauty and its seriousness.

The contraceptive mentality is not simply a natural law debate about the morality of a single act of intercourse; it is a vision of human sexuality which is shallow and depersonalizing. The implications of the contraceptive mentality are seen in the fact that when it has a chance to develop and become dominant in a society that society loses its ability to understand why homosexual "marriage" is not "just as good" as heterosexual marriage.

If Evangelicals do not recover the traditional understanding of marriage as an inter-generational institution that revolves around the raising and educating of the children by parents (and grandparents), then we will lose our ability to resist the sexual revolution and all its poison fruit (divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality, promiscuity, etc.)

I do not see how we can balance forever between the traditional and the revolutionary views accepting part of both and yet ever so slowly drifting toward the modern view. Evangelicals must reject the contraceptive mentality if they wish to build strong families and resist of acids of modernity that threaten to dissolve all human relationships into contracts that create shallow relationships and temporary "family structures" instead of the natural family built on a covenant between husband and wife, a covenant that is enacted and re-enacted in every act of marriage.


Josh said...

"[T]he TOB wisely teaches that sex for pleasure's sake reduces sex to a trivial recreation and deprives it of its power, its beauty and its seriousness."

Isn't "Natural Family Planning" a form of birth control? Doesn't it seek to prevent procreation so that sex can be practiced "for pleasure's sake"? Why would this approach, which seeks to evade what Roman Catholicism formally argues is the primary purpose of sex, be any more acceptable than other forms of birth control? Whether natural or artificial, birth control is employed with the goal of enjoying God's gift of sex without procreating.

Should every sex act have as its goal procreation? When two persons practicing "Natural Family Planning" have intercourse, should they feel guilty that they are intentionally having sex at a time when it is unlikely to produce a child but still likely to be fun? (Can sex ever be fun, or must it always be about "seriousness"?) What about senior heterosexuals--should they cease from having sex for pleasure since they are past child-bearing age (meaning their reason for having sex is something other than procreation)? At what point should sterile men and barren women stop having sex?

Everyone knows that procreation is one of the purposes of heterosexual sex. Why must it be the primary purpose of sex in all times and places? In 1 Corinthians Paul seems to see marriage as little more than an orderly way for a man and a woman to satisfy their burning sexual desires. The emphasis on procreation in the creation story of Genesis is obviously essential (so much so that it doesn't even mention NFP). But why is this emphasis essential in a world that is now very populated? Surely plenty of people will still have babies even if procreation is not emphasized over pleasure. Did God not make sex both procreative and pleasurable? Who are we to emphasize one over the other?

As for same-gender sex (which I do not affirm), might we not at least admit that it has the benefit of never resulting in an unwanted pregnancy and abortion?

Finally, do popes have much experience with sex?

Craig Carter said...

There is a great deal of difference between natural and artificial sex and this is the key distinction. To use technology to sterilize the sex act is act against its natural meaning whereas for husbands and wives to engage in intercourse during the non-fertile days of the month is to act in accordance with the way our bodies are designed in practicing responsible parenthood.

A good question to ask is why we want no restrictions and no limits on sexual activity. Why must it be available every day of the month instead of just 2/3 of the time? Are we animals who can't help ourselves? To never discipline our desires is to lose the ability to give ourselves in a personal way, as opposed to simply obeying instinct. It all sounds so innocent, but Scripture tells us that lust is deadly and must be controlled.

In the recourse to the cycle there is an awareness that every act of intercourse might lead to a child. (This awareness is hidden when artificial contraception is used.) But this awareness is part of the actual nature of sexuality and this is exactly what is denied in a hedonistic society like our's where sex is rendered trivial and considered to be merely a form of recreation. Children make sex a grown up activity; it is not for people who are not serious about their commitment to each other. Every act of intercourse means: "I love you and am committed to staying with you to raise any child that may result from this act." That is what it means, whether we acknowledge that fact consciously or not. And this is why sex outside of marriage is a lie.

The TOB calls us to stop living a lie and to live in the truth.

There are too many questions there to answer in a comment. But let me take one. You ask why procreation is so urgent in a world that is so highly populated. But in the Western world where the culture of death (abortion, contraception, euthanasia, etc.) is so advanced, the fact is that we do not even have enough babies to maintain the population at a stable rate. We are declining demographically in every European country and in Canada, though not yet in the US, which is hovering right on the replacement rate. (And world population is set to decline starting around 2050, which will lead to serious and possibly irreversible economic problems.)

We need to ask why this is. Why do the richest countries in the history of the world not bother to reproduce themselves? Hedonism and materialism lead people to be selfish and to focus on themselves rather than on children. The command in Genesis has never been revoked. Is this refusal to be fruitful not a clear result of sin? Is this not pathological? We need to ask to what degree the contraceptive mentality contributes to this problem.

Andy said...

Again, you ask some poignant questions. I'll try to give you some short answers, but your best option is to study the subject directly from good solid resources, and there's plenty out there.

First, "is NFP a form of birth control?" Yes, it is, but all means of birth regulation are not the same. NFP is not contraception because it does not interfere with, alter, or violate our reproductive systems, it maintains our dignity as human persons, and it preserves the unitive and procreative aspects of marital love. The point is that while it is a form of birth control, it is fundamentally different than contraception.

Here's an anology: two men both need $1000 for their businesses. One man goes to the bank, fills out the proper paperwork, provides background information, and gets a $1000 loan. The other man robs the bank to get $1000. So while both men had the same END in mind, the MEANS by which they achieved that end were completely different. And in fact NFP involves actually choosing NOT to do something--choosing not to have marital relations during the fertile time.

"Doesn't it (NFP) seek to prevent procreation so that sex can be practiced "for pleasure's sake?" I assume you mean exclusively for pleasure's sake, and the answer is, it can, if practiced with a "contraceptive" mentality. But that is not exactly what the Catholic Church teaches. We are allowed to use NFP for serious/just reasons AFTER prayerfully discerning God's plan for our marriage. How many children are we called to have in a marriage, and when should we have them? That can only be determined through prayerful discernment. So in this case, it is actually the ends that are different (sex solely for pleasure vs. achieving God's plan for our marriage) but the means (using NFP) are the same. So BOTH ends and means are very important. One way attempts to keep God's plan for our marriage in the picture, the other tries to shut it out.

"Should every sex act have as its goal procreation?...should they feel guilty?" The short answer is, NO! That's the reason God made women to be fertile only a short period of time during their cycle. The unitive--the joining and pleasure between husband and wife--is a GOOD thing, and it's just as important as the procreative part of the marital embrace. But it has to be grounded in the proper context, and the marital embrace has to be open to God's plan for our marriage, and it has to be open to life. Bottom line is that NFP provides a means to achieve that, and contraception does not.

While your question about the pope is a bit of an affront, I believe I can answer that as well. Of course the answer you're looking for is, no, most popes do not have firsthand experience with sex. Does that mean they are not "experts?" To be an authority on a particular subject, must one always have firsthand experience? Would you trust your wife with a male OBGYN? They have no personal experience with being a woman. Does a person have to experience drugs to know they're harmful? Or through careful study, and in the case of some individuals through divine inspiration, can a person become an expert on a particular subject? I believe the answer to that question is yes they can. (And I'm using the term "divine inspiration" loosely because I don't know the correct canonical term here.)

The fact is that Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body, and Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae, explain love, marriage and sexuality in groundbreaking ways. And I believe they were "divinely inspired" when they wrote them. They are, in fact, experts without "experience."

Since this post is already long, I'll stop there. But my suggestion is find some good sources of what the Catholic Church actually teaches about marriage and sexuality, and you'll find all the answers you need.

Good luck and God bless!

Josh said...

Craig and Andy:

Thanks for taking the time to respond at length to my comment. You have answered some of my questions, and I agree with some of your answers. My main hope in asking my various questions was to get at some of the reasons the vast majority of people (evangelicals and others) do not accept Roman Catholicism's official teaching on sex. This teaching raises many questions.

Andy, your comment suggests part of the difference in views on this subject between Catholics and Protestants is epistemological. If I had a Roman Catholic epistemology, then I would be more likely to accept the teaching in question. As it is, it seems to me that the biblical support for rejecting all artificial birth control is sketchy, and that this rejection leans heavily on natural theology (which we Protestants do not emphasize, in part because of our emphasis on creation's fallenness--meaning that things "as they are" are not "as they ought to be," and basing theology on what appears to be natural is questionable).

David said...

When morality is understood primarily in terms of the intention rather than in terms of the act then contraception and NFP are almost indistinguishable.
For Roman Catholic moral theology however, echoing St Thomas, the focus is primarily on the act.
So, when we look at the act and not the intention what do we see? We see that the difference between having contraceptive sex and using NFP is the difference between having contraceptive sex and not having sex at all. To say these are the same is to say that drinking diet coke is the same thing as not drinking at all. But of course they're not simply different acts but utterly alien to each other. It's bizarre!
Focussing wholly on intentions and not acts is a big problem in current ethical reasoning in my opinion.

Craig Carter said...

It is hard to get the focus off the idea that the anti-contraception view is an eccentric view of RC's. Until 1930 no Christian denomination or major theologian ever said that artificial contraception was good. Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Wesley - none of them were pro-contraception and the Presbyterians were as against it as the Lutherans as the Baptists. Then, the Anglicans in the 1930 Lambeth Conference were the first to dip their toes into the sexual revolution waters (and we now know how that worked out).

But the point is that this is not just a RC teaching. It is a conservative, traditional, historic Christian teaching. And it is accepted by millions of Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and Eastern Orthodox as well, though not by all of them. Protestantism has jumped on the contraception bandwagon, but this is a recent development that may still not last.

This is background to the epistemology question. Think of it this way. The Bible does not specifically prohibit a lot of things that are wrong, such as insider trading or cloning. But that does not mean there are no relevant biblical principles. The Bible does teach us what sex is for and why we are created male and female.

One last point, the TOB is almost entirely biblical exegesis. In the past, the RC Church has not done a very good job of showing the biblical reasons for what it said was wrong on a natural law basis. But JP II has remedied that.

Paul in the GNW said...

Josh, Craig and Andy,

Thanks for letting me comment. I'm a Catholic interloper here, and have been practicing NFP since my wedding 13 years ago.

All of this is of great interest to me, but I particularly wanted to comment on the issue of contraceptive mentality.

In very conservative Catholic circles there are those who will make that accusation against people using NFP. For a while I bought into it. A while back I wrote a series of blog posts on NFP and concluded with this:

Now I'm not sure that a 'contraceptive mentality' is really an issue for a couple actually practicing NFP. I think it's easy to speculate about a theoretical couple that is using NFP but is somehow sinfully rejecting God's intended gifts of a child, or another child in their family. In reality, I don't see how that is going to happen. The fact is that practicing NFP to avoid pregnancy is fairly challenging for a fertile couple. NFP promotes communication, trust and understanding between the spouses. The fact that every month the couple has to decide to have intercourse on fertile days or not I think makes it pretty hard to have a contraceptive mentality. When every conjugal act is open to life, even if the couple is somewhat closed, I think the openness of the acts will lead to openness in the couple. When the reasons for avoiding pregnancy are something short of grave necessity, I think the attitude of opposition will soon be overcome by the openness of the acts.

In my own case, my wife and I used NFP to avoid for almost 3 years. At that point, if anything we were further away from feeling ready for children than we were when we got married. Our economic circumstances were more uncertain, we were living in a smaller apartment, our bank account was smaller. Yet, we had grown together as a couple, and we had grown spiritually. We had gone through some very uncertain and difficult changes in life and learned that we probably weren't ever going to get to the point where we could be certain of providing the ideal life for children. We decided to take the plunge and trust. And it really required trust. Our combined income was less than half what it had been when we got married. We were living in a one bedroom apartment, and we had one working car. 6 weeks pregnant my wife had complications and had to take leave from work so we lost even more of our income. Yet, we didn't have any problem at that point joyfully welcoming a child into our family.

You know, it all just works out. It isn't always easy. Expect the unexpected. Trust in God, open your heart to Jesus, say a Rosary and live. Life is precious life is sweet. And Babies are the best gifts of all.

Craig Carter said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. I think a lot of people in the past found it scary to have a child, yet felt they didn't have complete control over it so they just dealt with it and found the joy that children bring.

Today, we supposedly have more technological "control" but it is still daunting to have a child. Who can know what all will come about as a result? Maybe we are not better off; maybe control is not all that it is cracked up to be. Maybe it is just a series of trade-offs. Maybe it takes faith and it always took faith and always will.

Andy said...

I admit the "practicing NFP with a contraceptive mentality" does tend to be a bit more theoretical, but I do believe it is possible. In fact, in my former life as an Air Force officer I had met two couples in particular that practiced NFP, yet told me their intent was to NEVER have children. But you're right, that's very rare. In most cases couples who can't handle the challenges of NFP, and there are some, simply quit.

Off subject, Craig, I have just recently started reading your blog, and I too appreciate the opportunity to comment. I find your writing and topics, as well as others that comment on your blog, to be very intriguing and interesting.

So much thanks!


Paul in the GNW said...


That's sad about the Air Force couples you have known. I am surprised a couple with that attitude would actually follow NFP. How sad. I'll certainly pray for them and hold out hope that there hearts will be softened.

As for the second type of case. I think you are totally correct. I think a very high percentage of couple who start NFP or receive at least some instruction do quit because it is difficult and pills are just easier.