October 24, 2012 by Gerald Hiestand
John Paul II on Birth Control: When Mastering Our World Compromises our Capacity to Master Ourselves
I’ve found myself enormously helped by John Paull II’s Theology of the Body. And I think I’m correct in stating that all of the SAET Fellows felt a similar appreciation for the Pope’s book this past symposium. His notion of sex as the “gift of self” is paradigm shaping. Further, John Paul II ably shows that sex, marriage, and children are held together by a natural and theological unity. Our society’s attempt to separate sex from marriage, and then marriage from children, has resulted in not only the breakdown of the family, but has fractured our entire culture. So there is much in John Paul II’s work that a conservative Protestant can celebrate. But like many other Protestants (and Catholics!), I’ve always been unconvinced by the Catholic distinction between artificial and natural methods of birth control. However my reading of John Paul II has introduced me to a line of reasoning that I had not before considered. But first, an overview of the Catholic position and the typical objection to it…
The Catholic position acknowledges that sex within marriage has a purpose beyond procreation, and that it is legitimate to “space,” or even cease, to have children depending on a appraisal of one’s personal obligation to God, spouse, family, and culture (in that order). In other words, the Catholic church doesn’t insist that every act of sex within marriage be an intentional attempt to conceive a child, nor does it try to dictate how many children a family should have; from a Catholic perspective, there are legitimate reasons why a family might stop at two or three children. What’s more, Natural Family Planning (NFP) is 99% effective when used properly. Given the effectiveness of NFP, and the fact that not every act of sex within marriage need be an attempt at procreation, one reasonably wonders why it matter which method of birth control is used. What’s the problem with using artificial means of birth control to “space” children?
Key to the Catholic response is that martial sex should always be “open to life.” Presumably, the logic here is that artificial methods of birth control are less open to life than NPF. But statistically, this isn’t obviously the case. Both NFP and artificial means of conception are equally effective when used consistently. In what sense then, is it “open to life” to have sexual relations at a time of the month when it is virtually certain that the wife is infertile? Using NFP, it is quite possible that a couple could permanently eliminate children from marriage all together, while another couple might use artificial means of birth control to space their seven children. Which couple is more truly “open to life”? Enter John Paul II.
In his discussion on birth control, John Paul II embraces, but then goes beyond the “open to life” argument. He observes that humanity is endowed with the twin capacity to master nature and to master himself. The capacity to exercise lordship in both domains is a necessary component of what it means to be made in the image of God. A problem arises, however, when our mastery of nature eliminates the need for us to master ourselves. Commenting on Humanae Vitae, John Paul II writes,
“The problem lies in maintaining the adequate relationship between that which is defined as “domination….of the forces of nature” and “self-mastery”, which is indispensable for the human person. Contemporary man shows the tendency of transferring the methods proper to the first sphere to those of the second…. this threatens the human person for who the method of “self-mastery” is and remains specific. It — that is self-mastery — corresponds in fact to the fundamental constitution of the person: it is a perfectly “natural” method. The transposition of “artificial means” by contrast, breaks the constitutive dimensions of the person…” (TOB, 123:1)
In other words, artificial methods of birth-control (i.e., “dominion of the forces of nature”) compromise “self-mastery”. Unlike artificial methods of birth control, NFP requires 7-9 day period of abstinence each month. This calls for a measure of self-control within the marital relationship that artificial methods are able to skirt around. This weakening of the need for sexual “self-mastery” compromises the spouse’s ability to give freely of him/herself since, “Man is a person precisely because he possesses himself and has dominion over himself. Indeed, inasmuch as he is master over himself he can ‘give himself to another’ ” (TOB, 123:5). From the perspective of John Paul II, artificial means of birth control do not encourage, but rather discourage, a man (or woman) from mastering himself sexually. Thus a man’s ‘gift of self’ to his spouse is less developed, and thus less prone to be freely given, but rather is more easily constrained and compromised by his lusts.
There is a force to John Paul II’s line of reasoning. As any married man (or woman) knows, marriage does not mean an end to the need for self-control in the sexual realm (despite what many unmarried Christian young men naively hope). A man who can’t master his sexual passions before he is married will not easily master his sexual passions after he is married. No living human being — a wife not least — is able to satiate the lusts of a carnal man. NFP (it is reasonably argued) encourages the spousal relationship to grow up and mature into a sexual adulthood, whereas artificial methods of birth-control may indeed contribute to a perpetual sexual adolescence.
Whatever one might think about this issue, it is certainly true that growth in self-mastery maximizes a spouse’s capacity to make sexual relations truly a personal “gift of self to the other” rather than simply a means of satiating one’s own carnal desires. To the extent that NFP encourages self-mastery, and artificial conception discourages it, there is a need be thoughtful about this issue — especially in a culture that has virtually denied the need for self-mastery as it relates to sexual desire.
I’m not prepared to be dogmatic about this issue, but the Pope has given me something to think about.
August 16, 2012 by Jason Hood
Thanks to Alan Jacobs for pointing to this interesting piece from the Guardian, which argues that marriage and children help us oppose the culture that manufactures and traffics “exercises in the disposability of humans.” @ayjay highlights the conclusion of the piece:
Consumerism now wants you to be single, so it sells this as sexy. The irony is that it’s now more radical to attempt to be in a long-term relationship and a long-term job, to plan for the future, maybe even to attempt to have children, than it is to be single. Coupledom, and long-term connections with others in a community, now seem the only radical alternative to the forces that will reduce us to isolated, alienated nomads, seeking ever more temporary ‘quick fix’ connections with bodies who carry within them their own built-in perceived obsolescence.
The solution: Get radical, get hitched, demand commitment from partners and employers. Say no to the seductions of the disposable singles market.
April 11, 2012 by Jason Hood
Adoniram Judson had three wives, all incredible women. The first (Ann, also called Nancy) was strong-willed and fiery yet compassionate and godly; the second (Sarah) beautiful and strong enough to engage in frontier mission work on her own after her first husband died; the third (Emily) was homely but good-humored and blessed with strong literary talents. Nancy and Sarah died on mission; all three aided his mission work greatly; and all were loved and celebrated by their husband.
When Adoniram proposed to Emily, he sent her a letter along with a watch. The watch was first given to Nancy when she left Asia for a furlough in the US, and after her death he had given the watch to Sarah (at that time married to another missionary in Burma) as he divested himself of Nancy’s worldly possessions. The letter reads as follows:
January 20, 1846
I hand you, dearest one, a charmed watch. It always comes back to me, and brings its bearer with it. I gave it to Ann when a hemisphere divided us, and it brought her safely and surely to my arms. I gave it to Sarah during her husband’s lifetime (not then aware of the secret), and the charm, though slow in its operation, was true at last.
Were it not for the sweet sympathies you have kindly extended to me, and the blessed understanding that “love has taught me to guess at,” I should not venture to pray you to accept my present with such a note. Should you cease to “guess” and toss back the article, saying, “Your watch has lots its charm; it comes back to you, but brings not its wearer with it“– O first dash it to pieces, that it may be an emblem of what will remain of the heart of
March 19, 2012 by Gerald Hiestand
Speaking stereotypically (and in keeping with the typological aspects of our biological constitution), men view love chiefly through the lens of respect and trust, and women view love chiefly through the lens of sacrifice and security. Thus a husband feels loved when he is respected and followed; a wife feels loved when she is prioritized and protected. This relational dynamic holds true for sex as well. Men tend to approach sex as a means of meeting their deep emotional need to feel respected and trusted. Women tend to approach sex as a way of meeting their deep emotional need to feel prioritized and protected. And indeed there are few things like sex that can simultaneously meet these deep emotional needs. In a healthy sexual relationships a man offers himself—his very life (i.e., his seed)—to his wife, and she joyfully receives him by surrendering herself to him, by opening to him and allowing him to come over her and into her. The wife’s free and joyful surrender affirms her husband’s desire to feel “lordly” and sovereign. The surrendering of the most secret part of her body, and the opening of herself to receive him, communicates to her husband that she trusts him, respects him, and is yielded to him.
In the same way, sex offers the woman a unique capacity to feel protected and loved. She is affirmed in that she finds the deepest, most vulnerable part of herself cared for and protected. A woman’s delight in sex is not chiefly to dominate or experience a sense of sovereignty, but rather to yield the control of her body—and thus herself—to another who is stronger than herself, and who uses his strength as a means of protecting her and prioritizing her happiness.
The fact that men and women tend to approach sex in this way corresponds to the deeper meaning of our gender, in as much as we were made to image Christ’s relationship with the church. Christ is the husband over the church, and he tells us that he knows we love him when we trust him and obey his commands (John 14:21, 1 John 5:3, 2 John 1:6). He calls us to surrender to him, to yield ourselves to him and to open ourselves to him, that he might come and make his home within us. When we surrender to him and open ourselves to him, we are communicating to him that we love him, and trust him, and respect him. And the Church, for her part, feels loved by Christ in that he lays down his life for her, and makes her happiness his own (Ephesians 5:25-28). She offers the whole of herself to her heavenly husband in the deepest way possible and finds her sense of peace and security in the fact that she has yielded herself to one who is greater than her and able to protect her. Thus the sense of sovereignty and security that men and women feel during sex are legitimate and appropriate aspects of sex, for both senses convey the deeper typological meaning of the sexual relationship.
However, the corresponding sense of sovereignty and security that attends the sexual relationship must not be viewed as the chief end of sex. Like our comments above regarding bodily pleasure, a sense of sovereignty and security are not the goal of sex, but the gifts of sex. When a man pursues sex fundamentally as a means of achieving a sense of sovereignty, he warps sex into something less than the gift of self to the other. Likewise, when a woman pursues sex fundamentally as a means of feeling safe and secure, she reduces sex to something less than the free gift of self to the other. Sex takes on an inward, self-absorbed turn and no longer functions as a means of self-giving, gospel reflecting love. As we’ve seen above, sex is fundamentally to be a free exchange of selves. It is to be an “others” centered affair.
Sexual Idolatry in Marriage
It is at this point that sexual idolatry can be as much a problem for married couples as it is for singles. An idol is something we worship in place of God, something we look to for a sense of ultimate meaning. To the extent that a husband needs his wife’s respect and affirmation—to the extent that his identity is tied up in her approval of his masculinity—he is unable to give freely of himself. He has made an idol of her. Christ enjoys and desires the affirmation and worship of the church, but he does not need it for his sense of self-sufficiency and worth; he finds this in his relationship with his Heavenly Father. In the same way, the husband is to give freely out of the overflow of who he already is in Christ and God.
Likewise, the wife’s “need” of her husband is to be merely a reflection of her true and real need for her heavenly husband. Just as she submits to her husband “as unto the Lord” so too she is to “need” her husband as unto the Lord. She places her trust and hope in her earthly husband as an expression of her ultimate trust and hope in her heavenly husband. If her earthly husband fails her, this is not a cause for despair, for her true hope is in Christ.
When a wife or husband demands to be affirmed (whether sexually or otherwise), they have made an idol of the other. They have ceased to view marriage as an image of a higher reality, and are instead trying to make it an end in itself. When a man becomes angry, bitter, or despairing over his wife’’s lack of sexual affirmation, this is clear indication that he is viewing her as idol to be worshiped, rather than a person to be loved. Pain and hurt are legitimate—indeed Christian—emotions. But anger, bitterness and despair reveal that we have misplaced our hope.0 Comments