Thinking some more about contraception

I’ve been thinking more about Elizabeth Anscombe‘s 1972 Contraception and Chastity, as I urged (and urge) you all to do if you consider yourselves faithful Christians who are willing to be inconvenienced by the requirements of your faith.I might as well publish this now as no matter how long I wait, my thoughts are unlikely to be settled.

Where I’ve arrived so far is that contraception is a morally fraught decision. It ought not to be a default assumption for Christians. It’s not simply a “no-brainer” technological blessing. Oh, yeah: intentionally “child-free marriage” is a sham.

(Okay, right out of the gate, let me say that there may be very rare circumstances when a couple may legitimately, if regretfully, seek childlessness, such as (at least) post-marriage discovery of a horrible genetic mismatch or disease transmission risk. But generally I’ll go with “sham.”)

The rest of this reflects some of the thinking that has brought me here and why I’ve not made it any further yet.

    1. Might Intention Matter?
    2. Seed and Soil, Semen and Ovum
    3. Life is hectic, and technology’s a blessing
    4. Demographics of the Contraceptive Mentality
    5. How hard must we “intend” children?
    6. Rome versus Orthodoxy (with a tu quoque to boot)

Might Intention Matter?

First (and this may well come from my own cognitive dissonance), I think it may be helpful to distinguish use of contraception for purpose of delaying first pregnancy for newlyweds (e.g., college students), or spacing children, from using it for permanent avoidance of parenthood.

Few Roman Catholic treatments of the topic seem to deal with that, and I think that in the modern context of same-sex marriage becoming plausible, it may be important to distinguish those who, perhaps in venial weakness, cannot eagerly welcome a child every 12-15 months from those (gay or straight) who merely like the government benefit package for “marriage” but in no way intend to honor its historic childbearing and child-rearing telos want nothing to do with children. I along with Anscombe view most dimly marriages of couples where the wife is of child-bearing age, but who intend nevertheless to avoid children completely. I view with much tolerance those who intend to have children – but not quite yet, or not another so soon, and who would never abort if providence overruled their best-laid plans.

Would it surprise you to know that the description I just gave once fit me? This really is a hard topic to write about objectively.

In other words, I think that at least at level of the individual couple (if I may be pardoned that paradoxical phrase), it’s possible to make judicious use of contraception without developing a contraceptive mentality. Whether that changes the judicious use from vice to virtue remains an open question for me.

Of course, allowing contraceptive use with intent only to delay or space children opens a door for misrepresentation of intentions for hypocrites. Their condemnation is just.

Seed and Soil, Semen and Ovum

Second, our knowledge of reproduction has changed since the earliest days of the Christian prohibition on contraception. This is no news to Anscombe; I learned (or re-learned?) it from her.

The early view, more or less, was that man bore seed and woman was like soil. Anything that intentionally put the seed somewhere other than the soil (and that’s what most contraception did back then) was tantamount to murder.

I am very well aware of the tendency to explain away Tradition with an airy or erudite “we know better now.” But because we do not have a categorical divine commandment against contraception, because it is a moral teaching based on reasoning from what really is revealed divine law, it seems to me that such questions are legitimate. We risk relativism by engaging in it, but risk anachronism and bad hermeneutics if we ignore context.

The change in our knowledge of how reproduction works undermines the historic view insofar as (which may not be far at all) the historic view was tinged with thoughts that the sin of Onan was, ahem!,  putting his seed on the wrong kind of ground. (The early view, translated into modern knowledge, is directly supportive of opposition to “contraceptives” that prevent implantation, and of labeling them abortifacient, however differently modern medicine may view the beginning of “pregnancy” as an ethically significant milestone.)

Life is Hectic and Technology is a Blessing

Third, not only has the technology of contraception changed (discussed in my original foray into this topic), but our lives have changed, as have our expectations for what we are owed by God/technology/life/the Cosmos.

Let’s start with a relatively non-threatening analogy. We would be healthier and less prone to obesity and untold other problems if everyone ate non-GMO, organic foods, freshly and intelligently prepared. (I’ll grant you that “science” tells us GMOs are fine, much as it told us that smoking was fine. Accept my anti-GMO premise if only arguendo; I won’t argue it further.) But who’s got time for organic gardening (or money for farmer’s markets or CSAs) and slow food on top of everything else?!

Now let’s extend that.

Assuming Anscombe is right (i.e., that the Roman Catholic Church’s position is the correct application of Tradition, despite changes in our knowledge of reproduction, despite how modern contraception works without depositing “seed” in the wrong place,  and no matter what the intention); and assuming therefore that the moral course to follow if you’re convicted of “not quite yet, or not another so soon” is to limit intercourse to infertile periods; isn’t it nevertheless a pretty venial sin to not want to jam calendar-watching, temperature-taking and all the other intentionality of NFP into an already-busy life? A morning birth control pill (“One less thing to worry about!”) is just the child-spacing or -delaying analogue to “fast food,” right?

I suspect the answer to that penultimate question is “yes.” Who has time for a birth control method that requires a home study course to get started?

But I also appreciate that we make time for things we find enjoyable or truly believe are important. Let’s go back directly to food (and to NFP by analogy):

MS. TIPPETT: Do you have compassion for those of us who want to cook more, but have jobs and children and life feels hard enough as it is and food is one thing that you can buy in packages and bring home? [laughter]

MR. BARBER: Yeah. You know, you’re not making me compassionate…

MS. TIPPETT: Maybe not. You don’t have much compassion. [laughter]

MR. BARBER: You know why? Because then you’d have to say — if I said to you that 25 years ago, you know, with all the time spent on TV, we’re going to spend another four hours a day on average on the Internet, and you would say, “Wow, I can’t believe we’d fine four hours in the day.” And I’d say, not only people are going to find four hours, but 95 percent penetration of Internet use for 4.5 hours a day or whatever it’s up to today average, you would say that’s absolutely crazy. Nobody will spend that time, nobody has that time in the day. Well, we figured out how to do it. So the question comes down to priorities. To what extent is cooking and eating and all the rest of the things that are attached to that, to what extent does that become a priority? And if it is a priority, you make the time.

It goes hand in hand with the amount of money you spend because what we’re talking about — and I don’t want to skirt around it; I think it’s a big issue. It’s more expensive. There’s no question about it. You’re paying the real cost of growing food. Locally, it’s usually more expensive. So the question is, again back to the Internet example or cell phone use, 25 years ago, if I said there’d be 95 percent penetration in cable television, you all would have said, “That’s nuts. We have free television. Who is going to be able to find $125 a month extra?” You all would have agreed with Krista, right? I would have said, not only that, you’re going to find another $125 for cell phone use in disposable income. Everyone would say, “Oh, $250 extra? Nobody has that money.” Well, of course, we found it because we found it indispensable without those things. So can we excite this issue around food and pleasure to the extent that people feel the same way about dinner?

(Dan Barber, Driven by Flavor, an Episode of On Being with Krista Tippett)

And I’m also aware of the irony of that convenience, and how awkwardly it fits other social trends:

I like natural lifestyle choices. Unprocessed food keeps the flora and nutrients balanced in your body, natural deodorant steers clear of aluminum toxicity. Glass instead of plastic, essential oils instead of medicine, and grass-fed beef instead of cows that have been pumped with synthetic hormones. The additives that go into processed foods and mainstream brand toiletries can include carcinogens and other toxins that lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, and cancer.

The trade-off is … well, inconvenience and cost. I pay more for hormone-free meat, as well as other organic products. I have damp underarms because, well, there is no such thing as “natural” anti-perspirant. The best we can hope for is no funk.

And every morning, I take my daily dose of synthetic ethinyl estradiol, also known as the birth control pill, a class one carcinogen.

Wait. What?

This sounds absurd. Yet, it is possibly the most common paradox I have seen. Eat the meat of a cow that has consumed synthetic hormones? No! Take them yourself via a highly concentrated white pill? Yes, please, but I can only wash them down with organic juice. Chemical free.

The recent storm against GMOs are enough to make me think that if birth control didn’t fall within the boundaries of “women’s reproductive rights,” it would have gotten banned long ago.

(Chrissy Wing) I don’t intend that as a throw-away line, but that we are dosing up women with carcinogens to keep them constantly available to a husband (let alone for random men met at bars) seems worth remembering and putting in the balance, though as a prudential concern rather than as a moral mandate. That we turn a blind eye to the risks of “reproductive health” is another whole story in itself.

I have no immediate plans, but am aware that it could be profitable to consider the role of consumer capitalism not only in making lives hectic, but in promoting infertility. For now, a few teaser links: Arthur Rosman at Ethika Politika and especially Jeremy Beers article at Anamnesis Journal.

Demographics of The Contraceptive Mentality

Patrick J. Buchanan wrote a book The Death of the West. The Book description:

The West is dying. Collapsing birth rates in Europe and the U. S., coupled with population explosions in Africa, Asia and Latin America are set to cause cataclysmic shifts in world power, as unchecked immigration swamps and polarizes every Western society and nation.

The Death of the West details how a civilization, culture, and moral order are passing away and foresees a new world order that has terrifying implications for our freedom, our faith, and the preeminence of American democracy.

If you dismiss it just because Buchanan is very conservative and somewhat controversial, I’d suggest you do some research and write a rebuttal on how demographic collapse is swell and how we’ll assimilate millions of immigrants just as we’ve done before.

My point: The contraceptive mentality, when it takes hold, is demographically deadly. It worries me to no end that Christendom, and even most vocal self-identified Christians, are part of that demographic decline, while Muslims in Europe and America are bucking the trend. This doesn’t bode well for even a vaguely Christian majority continuing. I can only hope that Fareed Zachariah is right about the roots of “Islamic” terrorism.

And it heartens me that many Orthodox and orthodox Catholics are bucking the trend aggressively.  That some Evangelicals also have a Quiverfull is not much consolation, but doing right may bring them around to believing right, too. We humans are funny that way.

I am not ready to conceded that this is a utilitarian argument for opposition to contraception or the contraceptive mentality. I take it as nearly axiomatic that demographic collapse is a moral as well as a practical problem.

How hard must we “intend” children?

I opened with a blunt assessment of intentional childlessness, as distinct from unchosen barrenness. A related question (or so it seems to me) is how licit is assisted reproduction by technical means in the latter case?

I am not going to enter this topic deeply, at least yet, for several reasons. First, I’m less familiar with “the best” that has been thought and written on it. Second, it is no something with which I have personal experience. Third, it’s something with which some people fairly close to me do have personal experience, and they’ve made choices with which I’m uncomfortable. If I’m going to say anything that casts into some question the legitimacy of their choices (or their resultant children), I want to be sure I’ve thought it through better.

For now, I’ll say that assisted reproduction is also a morally fraught decision. It ought not to be a default assumption for Christians. It, too, is not simply a “no-brainer” technological blessing. If the telos of marriage is children through the marital act, conceiving children by other means, even within marriage, raises serious questions.

Rome versus Orthodoxy (with a tu quoque to boot)

So where is Orthodoxy on Contraception?

A particular type of Roman Catholic anti-Orthodoxy screed is that only Catholicism maintains the historic Christian Tradition against contraception. Here’s a leading example, and I’ll give the author his props for much investigation.

I have a tu quoque on that, but let me try to deal with the allegation first.

First, the Orthodox Crowning Service unmistakably rules out intentionally childless marriage. Fertility is one of the main purposes of marriage, as we pray and sing for the couple’s fertility “again and again.” Later this month, I’ll be listening closely to see how post-Vatican II Catholic wedding rites stack up to that. Wanna make a bet? It sure doesn’t read as “procreatively” as does the Orthodox rite.

I will state again that contraception should not be used to avoid the birth of all children, as that is of course one of the functions of marriage, but as has been stated to spread things out a bit. This is a very pastoral approach to the issue and shows how the Orthodox Church views sexual relationship of a married couple as beautiful and not something that is sinful or totally utilitarian. As with all things in the Orthodox Church the couple should speak with their Spiritual Father about these matters.

(Fr. Peter Preble)

Second, “speak with their Spiritual Father about these matters” does not mean “Woohoo! Child-Free Sex!!!” I came into the Church at an age and in circumstances where I didn’t have occasion to seek counsel on this topic. I don’t know what advice Spiritual Fathers are giving, but in my admittedly provincial experience of Orthodoxy (I came into a particular parish full of convert zeal and many children), a higher proportion of Orthodox families appear to eschew contraception than do Catholic families. In my small parish circle I can think of three families with 6 or more children (one of them moved east years ago) – and God forgive me if I’m “weaponizing” their families. Maybe they just love children. Maybe that love of children is the result of good Christian formation.

Third, Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas at the Greek Orthodox website:

The possible exception to the above affirmation of continuity of teaching is the view of the Orthodox Church on the issue of contraception. Because of the lack of a full understanding of the implications of the biology of reproduction, earlier writers tended to identify abortion with contraception. However, of late a new view has taken hold among Orthodox writers and thinkers on this topic, which permits the use of certain contraceptive practices within marriage for the purpose of spacing children, enhancing the expression of marital love, and protecting health.

Again, at OrthodoxWiki:

There are those who teach that non-abortifacient contraception is acceptable if it is used with the blessing of one’s spiritual father, and if it is not used simply to avoid having children for purely selfish reasons. The statement on marriage and family from the 10th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America follows along these lines, as does “The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church,” section XII. 3, which was approved by the 2000 Council of the Russian Orthodox Church.

While some local churches have issued official statements on this issue, it is not an issue that has been clearly defined by the entire Church.

Vocal opponents to the prevailing view of contraception in Orthodoxy today include [incomplete]: Bp. Hilarion of Vienna [ROC], Bp. Artemije of Kosovo [SOC], Fr. Josiah Trenham, Fr. Patrick Reardon, Fr. John Schroedel, Fr. John A. Peck and Fr. Patrick Danielson.

(Emphasis added) Not surprisingly, this line of reasoning is in line with some of what I’ve been exploring earlier in this blog entry. There are new facts to reckon with.

Not surprisingly, too, Orthodoxy’s inherent conservatism keeps it from going off dogmatically half-cocked when new developments arise. To the eventual clear definition, I hope this reflection by a layman will contribute in some measure.

If you think it’s more important for the Church to have cutting-edge opinions on every novelty, Orthodoxy’s probably not for you anyway. Public precept-for-precept, the Catholics tend to have clearer positions, earlier, because they have Popes who can unilaterally promulgate binding rulings (though in fairness they do a heck of a lot better than TV talking heads prattling in real time; they do take a while to deliberate). Practice-for-practice, though, I’m not sure Rome is even “a nose” ahead of Constantinople.

Now for the promised tu quoque:

The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.

(Catechism of the Catholic Church section 2301) Would any Roman Catholic who thinks Catholic maintenance of the categorical ban on contraception marks them as The True Church, care to defend this blatant abandonment of the Great Tradition on Christian burial (which I now find far more categorically horrifying than I find judicious use of contraception)?

  • How does lack of intent to deny the resurrection of the body allow a practice that is intrinsically and egregiously disrespectful of the the dead human body (and tacitly inculcates dualism or Manicheanism)?
  • How would you square up this focus on intention with insistence that intention doesn’t matter when it comes to contraception?

I’m pretty sure I’m not finished, totally comfortable and expecting no further questions on this. I’d not be surprised at some logical or theo-logical mistakes (though I don’t think my tu quoque is a fallacy in this setting: if one current deviation in practice from the Christian Tradition marks a less-than-fully-True Church, then Rome can’t claim True Church status). And I’d be honored if readers thoughtfully engaged me on it, though as a non-retired blogging amateur, my “conversation” may seem a bit laconic.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.