For the first post and excellent conversation on this topic click here. Thanks to all who contributed their voices. I hope to hear more from you as I continue to wrestle with this issue. Again, this is a pretty frank post, and this one may even be more information that some of you want to know about my married life. Feel free to skip it and wait for the next post on another topic.
I should start this post by clarifying a few things. I am sorry if I implied that the Catholic teaching is to have as many babies as one can. In my understanding, and as my Catholic readers confirmed, the whole idea is to make sure that the link between sex and procreation is preserved, to realize that being open to sex means being open to creating new life. In light of that, one is to use NFP responsibly, to abstain during fertile times when opposed to creating new life.
I am incredibly thankful for the consistency of the Catholic Church on this teaching and the ways in which in counters many of the problems in our society in which sex is treated so casually. And as I said in my first post, I agree with much of it on a philosophical level. Now it's time to get down to the practical level.
Rachel made an excellent observation regarding the difference between the Catholic view of sex and the Protestant view. (And Literacy-Chic was right that it is sort of silly to talk about a "Protestant view" of anything considering the divisions in Protestantism.) I do think there is a fundamental difference here, though I can only speak from my very Protestant perspective. In the Protestant church, many of the books, seminars, and teachings on sex deal with three issues, which Rachel labeled well as procreation, protection, and pleasure. I think that the idea of protection of the marriage relationship takes precedence in my tradition, and as my husband and I have wrestled with the issue of contraception, this is where the battle has been fought.
After Calvin was born, we knew we wanted to have another child pretty quickly, so we were basically "open to life," though we did abstain at first whenever I was pretty sure I was fertile. When Hobbes was born nineteen months later, however, both of us were ready to wait awhile for number three. As I have struggled with depression and the transition to motherhood, waiting seemed like the best choice. With my level of fertility and the wacky signs my body was giving me, that meant abstaining nearly consistently for several months, until Hobbes was nearly a year old.
Almost seven months with very little sexual intimacy took a huge toll on our marriage. We had had a very healthy marriage built on a solid friendship up until this point. But things changed. My husband was grumpy, I felt guilty about not being able to meet his needs, we both had to deal with the reality of a sex-saturated culture, and we felt pretty sure that we were not called to celibacy for a reason. Though we had come into childbearing pretty sure of our commitment not to use contraception, our marriage was suffering. In the midst of taking caring of two small ones while my husband worked full time and went to grad school full time, we made the decision to begin using non-hormonal contraception as an attempt to regain some intimacy.
From friends that I have talked to, and from the comments on my last post, I think our struggles were not unusual. We live in a culture where temptation to sexual infidelity is around every corner. Men find it much more difficult than they used to to remain faithful to their wives, even just in their thought lives. I think this is where the Protestant take on sexual intimacy as a form of protection for marriage comes in. Most Protestants would say they are "open to life" in the sense that they understand that God created sex for procreation and that they see the bearing of children as one of the reasons for marriage. We Protestants also like our Pauline theology, and his teachings on sex and marriage imply that marriage is a means of avoiding sexual temptation. But what if one is not able to fulfill sexual needs in a marriage because of fear of having children too close together? Or of having more children than one can afford in a day when children are not a financial asset but add financial strain? Or of endangering the health of the mother? Then it seems that some form of contraception could be good.
If the Protestant view of sex promotes intimacy as a way of countering the sexual temptations prevalent in our society, the Catholic view rightly promotes the importance of seeing sex as a sacred and mysterious act which does produce life. And I don't mean to imply that these teaching are exclusive to Christian thought or that Protestants do not value life or Catholics do not value intimacy. I do think that these views of sex are very important checks to a culture that has decided that sex is a casual, unimportant act that can be entered into without thought of consequences.
And so it comes down to the practical level. We live in a sex-saturated culture which makes it very difficult for married men and women to remain faithful to their spouses and for unmarried men and women who wish to remain celibate to do so. We also live in an age where having more children brings more financial and emotional stress to a marriage and where women do not have the support in raising their children that they once did. Though the Catholic teaching does not mean that one must have as many children as possible, following it as a very fertile couple does mean that we would likely have one or more children that we hadn't expected and that we may not be ready for. While I think that all children are a gift, I also realize that raising them well requires a strong marriage with a healthy level of intimacy.
I find myself in the middle again, hoping to hear from you. I realize that I am thinking and writing from a specifically Protestant Christian, pro-life culture, and that I haven't even explored a non-Christian view of sex. Nor have I explored this issue of sex for pleasure, though I am assuming that sex is always for that! What do you think about these three reasons for sex: procreation, protection of the marriage, and pleasure? In your culture, which reason do you think has been elevated and is that a good or bad thing? How has that played out on a practical level in your life? Do you have a completely different view of the subject?
I enjoyed our first discussion and look forward to more honest, humble, and insightful comments this time around, understanding that we all come from very different perspectives and experiences when it comes to this topic. Thanks for listening.