Friday, June 4, 2010

"The Christian Case against Contraception" by Bryan C. Hodge: A Review

The Christian Case against Contraception: Making the Case from Historical, Biblical, Systematic, and Practical Theology and Ethics (Wipf and Stock, 2010) is a defense of the anti-contraception position of the historic Church against the overturning of that position during the past 100 years.

Most people have no idea what a recent innovation is the view that contraception is morally acceptable. The whole contraceptive mentality, in which procreation is divided from sex, is as old as the Fall, but Christians accepting this mentality is a recent thing. The idea that sex can be used for pleasure with no expectation of children coming from it is the basis for promiscuity, pre-marital sex, open marriage, homosexuality and many other perversions. The whole assumption that we can and should control fertility as human beings leads to infanticide and abortion, which become necessary when contraception fails (as all contraceptive methods often do). That this mentality exists among the pagans is nothing new, but for Christians to accept it is scandalous and novel.

Bryan C. Hodge has written a straight-forward book which will introduce the modern Christian to the way that traditional Christians from the Fathers to the early 20th century reasoned about contraception. They were pretty much unanimously opposed to it as a form of murder and a form of idolatry. For Hodge, God gives children and every conception is God's will. Since God decides how many children a couple will have, our responsibility is simply to obey the command to be fruitful and multiply.

The interesting thing about Hodge is that he is not a Roman Catholic. As a conservative Presbyterian, he is sympathetic to the Quiverfull Movement, which views children as a blessing from the Lord and rejects all forms of birth control. Hodge even rejects the position of the modern Roman Catholic Church that natural family planning is morally acceptable as long as it is not used to avoid having children altogether. NFP basically involves a woman observing signs of her own fertility and the couple avoiding intercourse during fertile parts of the month. To do this, says Hodge, is as bad as using contraception.

Hodge accuses those who advocate for contraception of having a naturalistic concept of procreation. He argues that, since a new human being with a soul is created each time an egg is fertilized, God is involved in that process and it cannot be reduced to a physical process alone. He argues for a supernatural view of the whole conception event and he contends that the Bible clearly teaches that God can and does both open and close the womb according to His sovereign will. He views the human attempt to utilize contraception as rooted in a naturalistic view of conception in which it is within the power and authority of humans to cause or prevent.

In a short review it is impossible to do justice to the complexity of the arguments of a nearly 300 page book. However, I want to consider one of his most significant points. He argues that we, as humans, do not have the right to allow or prohibit a person from coming into existence and that to do so is to commit something much to like murder for comfort: not by killing an existing person, but by preventing that person from coming into existence. His argument is that it is God's prerogative to give life and to take it away. We want to argue this at the other end of life against euthanasia, so why is it different at the beginning? Is giving and taking life not God's prerogative?

The modern idea that we have total control over our own bodies and can do whatever we want with them is in conflict with the idea that we belong to God and He is sovereign. Reproductive rights don't stop with contraception; they logically extend to abortion as well and it is only a matter of time before they extend further to infanticide. On what grounds can we, as Christians, challenge the idea of our having control over our own bodies when we approve of contraception? Is the number of children we have not up to God? Is God not in control? Can we not trust Him as people have for millennia?

In modern medical ethics, the idea of patient autonomy is practically the only moral principle left in operation and it is a slender reed. Without a belief in God and Divine commandments that we must obey, such as "Do not commit murder," our medical ethics slides into anti-human, ultilitarianism that permits horrors like cloning individuals for body parts and creating children with three biological parents and so on.

Clearly, Christians have to invoke the sovereignty of God at some point. Bryan Hodge says it begins with marriage and the sexual embrace, which must always be open to children. On this point, he and John Paul II are in agreement. Openness to God's creative act through us is fundamental to Christian morality and to any kind of humanism that respects the dignity of the person created in God's image.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David said...

I know that it's only a brief review of a longer book, but I have a few problems with some of Hodge's conclusions regarding contraception, even though I fully agree that contraceptive mentality is antithetical to a Christian mentality.
Mainly my problem is with his conclusions regarding NFP (which I don't practice anyway, as my wife and I are unaccountably childless). If I have read you right his objection to NFP is primarily that it is God alone who gives and takes life, and for a human to attempt to plan such an event as the creation of another human is effectively a form of blasphemy. I understand the logic there, I just profoundly disagree with his conclusions. It is a good idea run amok. You could argue that because it is God who fundamentally promotes the growth of vegetation, it is offensive to His dignity for us to plan, say, a garden. Crucially, though, for Hodge it is the creation of a soul at conception which constitutes the prime objection to NFP, something which would never be a problem in gardening or farming. In NFP, then, the human presumption is that a couple take the position of actively arranging things so as to decide when (and if) God can make another human soul.
Firstly, I'm not at all sure that I know what such a nebulous idea as God making souls necessarily means, even from my own point of view. What is a soul? Is it something God creates/bestows at conception? If so, is it ontologically grounded in God from the beginning, or - to follow Zizioulas - is it something which only takes ontological shape within the being of God in Christ?
Secondly, the offence of humans in this regard seems a little misplaced since it would suggest an utterly abject and passive relation to the creation of a human being in the form of offspring, as though the parents were mere genetic ciphers. This position strikes me as illogical, unbiblical, un-Trinitarianly relational, and deeply offensive in itself (if this is what his thought is tending towards). It could almost be used as an argument to suggest that the withholding of sex for whatever reason in either the man or the woman is itself an act of heinous murder, because it limits God's creative possibilities in soul-making! Likewise, giving in to sexual desire might itself be construed as an attempt to force God's hand in soul-making, and be equally blasphemous. Both positions, while possibly caricatures of straw men, strike me as a little crazy. If Christians are to fight against a contraceptive mentality it cannot be in this vein of thinking.

Craig Carter said...

You wrote:

"If I have read you right his objection to NFP is primarily that it is God alone who gives and takes life, and for a human to attempt to plan such an event as the creation of another human is effectively a form of blasphemy. I understand the logic there, I just profoundly disagree with his conclusions."

Yes, of course you disagree and so do I, but the tricky part is to specify what is wrong with his reasoning without giving aid and comfort to the contraceptive mentality.

What is missing in Hodge is a natural law analysis of the act of marriage such as Karol Wjotyla gives in "Love and Responsibility." Hodge, as a Reformed theologian mistakenly (in my view) dismisses natural law as a wandering away from Biblical authority.

In NFP, the morality of the act is determined by the couple respecting the natural goal of the act by not artificially interfering with that goal with artificial contraception. The openness to new life is thus embodied in that refusal to use contraception. (This recognizes the right of God to give or withhold children and the necessity of sexual relations being open to procreation.)

For Hodge, the openness to new life is strictly an attitude, so any recourse to the cycle represents an evil will (in a Kantian sense). The problem here, I think, is that, deprived of a Thomistic natural law analysis, Hodge unconsciously falls back on a Kantian ethic of duty and this leads to his rejection of NFP.

You are right to point out that to take his attitudinal openness to the extreme would be to strive to achieve conception in every single act of intercourse as much as possible and this elevates the primary end of sexuality to the sole end.

On a lighter note, I think reading Hodge would be good for conservative Catholics because it would let them feel like the "liberals" just for once!