Sunday, January 27, 2008

Contraception and Intimacy

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.


Katie W. said...

Another good post 2square (no real names this time!). A few thoughts:

1. Our smallgroup is going through this book called Sex God by Rob Bell. Its really good and it focuses on how sexuality is about much more than intercourse but is about connection. There's has a chapter called "Angels and Animals" where so many folks approach sex in an "animal" way (think Vegas or Daytona Beach where is just satisfying "natural" urges.) But I suppose putting too much weight on intercourse as procreative (i.e. mating) is an "animal" approach as well. Of course the other side of the coin is that so many Christians get caught in the "angel" paradigm where they are afraid of the pleasure and connection of sexuality. Anyway, read the book, its good.

2. I'm fascinated by the Orthodox (in my case)/Catholic belief about the perpetual virginity of Mary. More fascinating I guess is the seemingly Protestant view that its just preposterous to think of Mary and Joseph having a celibate marriage relationship (okay, I know this is a can of worms and we could all do convincing exegesis on various gospel passages...). Anyway, one conclusion could be that we've so sexualized our culture that we lose a sense of the sacred. The Great Lenten Fast in many traditions involves abstaining from not only meats and dairy (etc.) but from sex. Subduing the passions. Not because they're inherently bad, but because there's something more than just functionality intrinsic in human sexuality.
A splice from one of my favorite podcasts
"St. Ephraim begins the second half of his great prayer 'Give rather a spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.'...
And chastity, rather than being limited to some quaint notion of sexual purity (true enough), is the virtue of wholeness in Christ which enables us to fight the passions fervently."

I feel like I didn't say that well, but I wanted to throw in some Orthodox theology with all the Western stuff. :-)

Kerry - A Ten O'Clock Scholar said...

I really respect you for tackling such a hairy issue - and for being open with your thoughts.

Other commentors will have much more eloquent comments than mine, but I'll make a brief one anyway...

I do believe there are situations where contraception may be called for; however, for the most part I think Christians are too quick to judge their common situations as being worthy of such a dire decision.

You mentioned a few reasons one might conisder using contraception: fear of having children too close together, the cost of children, physical need and life of the mother. Of these, I think only "Life of the mother" is worthy of a Christian's consideration of contraception (other than NFP). (Not that I think that is the only extreme situation where contraception might be used, but the only one of the reasons you listed.)

The other reasons seem to lack trust in God's ability to supply all one's needs - financial, mental, physical, and emotional.

Now, if you have a physical issue and cannot use NFP, there may be other issues you need to consider: taking a class to make sure you fully understand it, checking with your doctor to make sure there are no underlying issues...and if all that still leaves you unable to use NFP, then using contraception is reasonable.

I find it sad that Christians have so easily bought into the culture's take on contraception - maybe not quite in the same callous manner, thankfully. Of course, I find it saddest of all that our own church was one of the catalysts of this change. :)

Bravo to you, again, for putting yourself out there!

wheelsonthebus said...

Again, remember this comes from my secular-Jewish POV. When you have children, you have a responsibility to give them the best home you can. If you have a good relationship with your spouse, that means you should work to preserve that. I would hate to think of a God who did not want you to keep your marriage healthy by 1) expressing yourselves intimately 2) not having more children until you are ready.

Finding this discussion fascinating, perhaps because it is so foreign to my culture.


Kerry - A Ten O'Clock Scholar said...

Can I make two comments? :)

If we want to give our children the best, how much more does our Perfect Father in Heaven want to give us the best? (Matthew 7:9-11)

So, the question becomes, are we willing to trust God's gifts as being better and more perfect than what *we* in our human frailty can come up with?

How do we distinguish between what *we* want and what *God* wants - by turning to Holy Scripture and prayer. We can compare what we think we understand God to say in prayer to the Word (does it conflict with specific or implied instruction?) and seek confirmation (with your spouse - are they getting the same thing in prayer...and with other believers -comparing "notes", if you will.)

When I search the scripture, I see children referred to as blessings - always blessings. So, in general, if I am taking God at his word, I can assume that children are a blessing - for my marriage, for my finances, for my own spiritual and emotional growth. (do they not make you grow in patience? :) )

I'm on the other end of the spectrum on this issue, I'd love to have more children, but have not in the past 6 years. As hard as it is, I am (slowly) learning to trust that this is God's best for me, my husband and my family. At the very least, it has been God's best for us these past 6 years. Who knows what the future will hold!

Anonymous said...

I admire you for tackling this subject.
As the 8th of 9 children, I am personally thankful that contraception was not available to my mother, as she has bluntly said she would have used it (and of course I would not be here today).
I inwardly laugh when people say they cannot AFFORD to have more children, financially or emotionally, etc. What about " I can do all things thru Christ who strengthens me..." It's amazing what you can do when you MUST do it. What they are really saying is they don't want to, they fear it would be difficult, they CHOOSE not to, etc.; so perhaps that is a pro choice response in that sense?
I strongly agree that intercourse is a huge bond in the marriage relationship, and to me it feels wrong to try to lock God out of the act he invented. However, to get your partner's agreement in that matter is the hard part, and really important! So as a fertile person I have 4 children and have spent many many years on hormonal contraception. I really wish I had 10 children and no contraception but I promised not to ask for more after number 4, and have stuck to my promise.
In a way I have thought it would have been better to have the children and then have surgery, but that seems so drastic I could never bring myself to do such a thing.
Menopause brings it's fertility relief, but then a new can of worms...viagra and the other "helpful" drugs. Where will it end?

melissa said...

What flavor of Protestant are you?

Jennifer F. said...

One advance warning before I comment: I only have a sec to write so should probably wait until I have more time to compose a proper response, but I'll just throw this out off the top of my head:

- Re: the Joseph/Mary celibacy thing, I always wondered about that too. One thing I read recently that sounded interesting was that it may have been known by her family early on that she was destined to have a very special purpose for God, and she may have been married to an older widower (who may have already had children from a previous marriage) more as a means for long-term protection than as a true marriage (evidently that was occasionally done in those times). Disclaimer: I can't remember where I read that and don't know if there's any validity to it, but I often think of that when that issue comes up.

- I think that contraception is a big part of the reason why we're in the mess that we're in with our sex-saturated culture, so it's kind of ironic to use it as a means to deal with it. :) I understand what you're getting at and really do sympathize, but I think that's something to consider.

- For a while I followed the blog of a devout Christian (Protestant) whose husband was struggling with sex/pornpgraphy addiction. They took contraception and the "contraceptive mentality" for granted, and as an outside observer it struck me that it seemed that trying to get him to confine his lust to his wife was like trying to tell an alcoholic to stop their addiction by sticking to beer.

Again, since the idea of mentally severing the sexual act from its amazing, sacred life-giving potential is the very thing that fuels strip clubs, the porn industry, etc. it seems like it might not be the ideal way to combat the lust-drenched messages of our culture. The Catholic view is that one should never use another person as a means for personal pleasure; that while its great and recommended to enjoy the pleasure of the act, that should not be its sole purpose. It's a sort of built-in safeguard against indulging in lust, and a total re-thinking of the approach to sex. I think its important to keep that in mind when considering the Catholic views on sex: it's a total re-thinking of the way our society approaches intimacy between two people, not a message of "go ahead and keep doing what you were doing, just don't use contraception."

- I think that the main topic here, the cross that we Catholics carry in the name of abstaining if we're in a place of seeing a new baby as a really bad thing, is why you often hear Catholic converts talk about how everything changes once you accept this teaching. I'm always rambling about that on my blog. :) My marriage, my relationship to God, my faith, my prayer life -- my entire life -- has changed (for the better) in a huge, fundamental way since following the Catholic beliefs about sex and contraception. At first I didn't understand why (I didn't expect it to be all that big of a deal), but your post helps me realize just how much we had to change our lives to live this way. We had to come together as husband and wife to bear our crosses, to pray much more, to rely on God MUCH more, and to take a big step back from our crazy culture.

Anyway, I elaborated more on the Catholic contraception stuff in this post if you have any interest.

Again, sorry for this quick, unedited comment! I'm so scatter-brained, I was just afraid I'd forget to circle back if I didn't do it now. :)

Rachel said...

hi everyone!
ok, so i've backed out of the conversation mostly to get back into other areas of my life. but i couldn't stay away for long!

a few thoughts:

katie: Sex God sounds very interesting!

i have to admit that i'm feeling a bit defensive at the repeated idea that the cause of all sexual sins in our culture is the wide use of contraception. are we saying that all sexual sin begain with the start of contraception? hasn't all kinds of sin been with us from the beginning??

our use of barrier method birth control has not led to sexual sin in our marriage. I'm totally fine if people want to adopt all the Catholic teaching on sex and birth control. i'm even fine if they want to tell me all the benefits of those beliefs. There's good stuff in there, to be sure, and i've appreciated the challenge to my assumptions. But I'm not fine with the apparent conclusion some are making here that contraception is the root to sexual sin.

also, i've got to touch on the idea that Mary stayed a virgin her whole life. it seems that we must take as truth lots of extraBiblical teaching to get to that belief. are we forgetting that Jesus had brothers?? and more importantly, it seems that we're afraid to "dirty" Mary with sex. which of course sex (in the marriage relationship) is not. what a beautiful thought that after all that Mary went through to bare the Son of God... after all that, and after healing of course, she could then fall into the marriage bed with the one she loved and finally receive from him and give to him fully. now, i'm aware that i'm using my extraBiblical imagination here. no one on earth really knows the reality of Mary's sexual life post Jesus' birth. but i just have to ask: are we afraid of imagining Mary having a really good O??

Jennifer F. said...

are we saying that all sexual sin begain with the start of contraception?

Definitely not. I'm not sure if you were referring to my comment, but I was addressing was 2square referred to as our "sex-saturated culture". I think that anyone would agree that our culture has become hypersexualized, that sexual images are put in our faces at least a few times every day, thus putting pressure on marriages. I was referring to contraception as a key factor in that particular problem.

So, no, contraception is certainly not the root of sexual sin. Our fallen natures are. But Catholics do believe that to sterilize the sexual act is a sin. Not everyone will agree with that, of course, but it is what we believe. As a convert, when I read up on the reasoning behind that belief, I found it very compelling.

As for the idea of Mary's virginity, it dates back to the very earliest Christians. There are some interesting explanations for the the reference to Jesus' brothers, but I won't sidetrack the conversation with that. :)

Literacy-chic said...

First of all, no church believes in protecting the marriage like Catholicism, since it and the Orthodox churches are the only ones who do not permit divorce. But believing that sex-on-demand for your husband is the issue that's going to make or break the relationship is definitely not the way that Catholicism teaches about maintaining functional relationships. Perhaps the best way to think of Catholicism & NFP is that it creates an acknowledgment of God in the sexual relationship. After all, any contraception can fail. Might we be better able to accept the gift of a child if we acknowledge going into the sexual act or sexual relationship that there is a slight (even if it's extremely slight) chance that the act/relationship will result in the creation of a new life? It's a healthy mental attitude, whatever you choose to do with the religious aspect.

I do believe the case for NFP strengthening a relationship is overstated. As others have implied, I don't think a healthy couple automatically objectifies the partner if contraception is used. There's something to be said for Jen's idea of the influence of a "contraceptive culture" which is not the same as condemning every individual couple for objectification of the other spouse. A good, healthy marriage can still be a good, healthy marriage with contraception. I know--I haven't always been Catholic, and I used to be a real advocate for methods of contraception that were not available in this country, but were widespread in Europe and Canada. I'm not going to say that accepting Church teaching hasn't changed the way we view sex, or what we deem appropriate sexual behavior, but I will say that it hasn't totally revolutionized our relationship, opening communication, increasing my husband's respect for my body, etc., the way the NFP teachers say it will--because those things were present already. Not all couples are so fortunate.

Men have no greater access to sex now than they have throughout history. What you are feeding off of is the cultural attitude towards sex, infidelity, etc. Basically, men have fewer cultural and moral prohibitions (as do women) to prevent them from giving into lust. I can't speak for anyone else's husband, but my husband realizes this, and I think if the husband and wife are on the same page in terms of their moral views of sexuality, the temptation to infidelity will not be a natural byproduct of NFP. But I'm not the kind of person who believes that poor, weak mean need to have their sexual urges satisfied so that the dears don't accidently have affairs.

I was moving toward NFP even before becoming Catholic. I believe in doing as little as possible to distort the body's functions; I rarely take medicines, try to eat organic foods, etc. (I have a real granola streak, but most people wouldn't guess it!) I think it is useful for women to understand their fertility the way NFP leads them to understand it, and frankly, I think girls should be taught how to chart is high school. The difference was, when I was originally investigating natural methods, I figured I would use barrier methods in fertile times.

And as for those fertile times... If your husbands are on board with the use of natural methods, as so many Catholic blogging husbands and Catholic bloggers' husbands are, they will not mind the periods of abstinence. I'm not sure what others think of when they see the big, bad word, "ABSTINENCE," but we're talking about a period of 7-10 days a cycle, depending on the "rules" used to estimate fertility. Men can wait--their sex drive is constant. One of the issues I have with NFP is that it's not so much the man who can't handle a brief hiatus--he knows what's waiting for him at the end of the yellow brick road. On the other hand, women who experience something like a "sex drive" (and arguably most if not all women do) feel most amorous around the time when the egg is released. So it's not the husbands who need the extra concern...

I do not think that all couples are suited for NFP. But I do believe that for Catholics at least, there are good reasons (spiritual fruits, you might say) for wrestling with the issue.

Incidently, I would agree that "putting too much weight on intercourse as procreative (i.e. mating) is an 'animal' approach as well" as Kate W. commented. But abstaining during fertile times is not something that animals are capable of, and requires an act of will and an acknowledgment that actions have consequences. And it is the divorce of sexuality from any consequences, the removal of any sense of responsibility attached to the sexual act, that I believe poses a danger to society, the family, and respect for human life.

Literacy-chic said...

P.S.--Bernini thought that St. Theresa had a "really good O"... So I'm not sure why perpetual virginity excludes a mystical/sexual experience! ;) Besides, do we really want to think about Mary and Joseph like that?--I mean, doesn't it seem a little off to anyone? Like thinking about one's own parents having sex?

Rachel said...

a few thoughts:

2square/jen f (and everyone else who has mentioned this)... i too abhor all of the yucky sexual images staring at us every day... the objectification of both women and men through the soft and hard porn, etc. but i have to admit that i don't think there is necessarily more sexual sin now then there was in the past. i think it's more obvious, more "in your face," but honestly, i don't think that's necessarily worse than the covert/subtle ways it was in the past. one ex.: i once read a book on First Ladies. The last First Lady it talked about was around early 1900's (forgive me, i don't remember the details: i read it in Much of the discussion in the book was about their marriages and almost ALL of the presidents slept in a different room than their wives AND almost ALL of them had regular extra-marital affairs. so when the fall out happened with Clinton and everyone couldn't BELIEVE all that was happening with a president of the US, i was thinking, "hello people! get a clue: it's been happening all along!" i don't seek to legitimize or make light of clinton's or anyone else's sexual sin, but he was by FAR not the first. so again, i don't feel comfortable saying our sexual sin in our culture is worse than it used to be. i simply think things like sex'l abuse, rape, casual sex, etc. are talked about more.

also, another reason i don't feel comfortable blaming our sex'l sin as a culture on our contraception-using-tendencies is b/c i look at other cultures who look down upon contraception and they have pervasive sin as well. i look at places like India and many countries in Africa where brothels are as commonplace as cars... sexual sin, objectification of women, even exploitation of young girls are commonplace. yet they look down upon contraception- demonstrated in the AIDS epidemic rages in these places.

literacy chic: i take great issue with your statement that "no church protects marriage like Catholicism." it strikes a personal chord with me b/c i have personal experience of watching the Catholic church pull out a little loop-hole called "marriage annulment"
wherein it is legal to divorce and/or remarry as long as a marriage is officially "annulled..." a convenient way to say the marriage never happened, therefore the divorce never happened. so, on the surface, there's much support of marriage, but underneath, there are ways around the rules to experience the divorce someone wants.

however, admittedly, perhaps you could quote a statistic of divorces happening more in protestant than catholic churches. we certainly have our share of sex'l sin. but the catholic church has its share as well. one look back at all the Priests in the news a few years ago illustrates one example of pervasive sexual sin on your side of the coin too. i don't mention that tender point to get argumentive, but hopefully to say, come on, let's not start a "who has better marriages" or "less sin" conversation, the blood is on all of our hands.

btw, i totally agree that it would be helpful for women to learn how to chart early on to learn about their cycles. i'm a big fan of FAM. it's taught me SO much about my body and helped me appreciate the Lord and how He makes it all work.

another thing: i want to clarify that our view of sex as partly helpful for protection (against lusts) purposes does not mean that my husband and i are off to hook to control any sex'l sin temptations we may face individually. we still have to take up our challenges mostly with the Lord's help, not each other's. But I have seen great blessing in being able to love and meet each other's sex'l and emot'l needs... we see that it has set up a warm and caring environment for us to go to each other and the Lord for our needs and not outside. i hope that makes sense. i fear i made it sound like i'm responsible for keeping my husband from sinning and that's not what i meant, although i can see how it might have sounded like that.

and i'll touch on Mary's "perpetual celibacy" thing again... l. chic, i honestly don't mind thinking of mary having a big O... i just think, "good for her!" just like i want for myself and my other married friends. and the older and more mature i've gotten, the more okay i've become with thinking of my own parents having sex. it's part of life and it's a wonderful thing. i love thinking and hoping that everyone i love would experience that someday.

on a lighter note, in light of our discussion here, the other night i was checking my fluid and trying to discern if i was fertile, and my husband asked me, "what's your Catholic answer?" we both cracked up. it's been helpful for us to talk about all of this together and thought you'd enjoy our little laugh as well. no contraception is certainly more enjoyable for all! (and we'll see what happens in 10mths! ;) )

Rachel said...

alright TwoSquare, my friend. haven't heard from you in a while! what's going on in that thoughtful head of yours?!

Literacy-chic said...

To clarify:

I am not talking about "sexual sin"--now, in the past, in the future. That's not my little corner of the conversation, and I wouldn't even phrase it that way.

In reiterating the Catholic position, I was responding in part to the subtle sneering at Catholicism that I've been picking up, and as far as that goes, EVERYONE knows SOMEONE'S story of how the Catholic Church has gone wrong, but that's not really what's on the line, here. By implication, in previous statements, the Catholic Church doesn't see the need to protect spouses from sexual temptation as Paul recommended, which is why it teaches all that stuff about celibacy. 'Cause who can be celibate in today's culture? Admit it, it's a poor argument. Regardless of what individual priests have done, the Catholic Church, which is an entity made up of fallible humans and yet guided (we believe) by the Holy Spirit, does teach about the sanctity of marriage, and that neither marriage nor divorce should be taken lightly. Other denominations may teach this, too, but Catholic teaching does not permit "irreconcilable differences" as an "out," for example. I know about annulment, and it has not always been "used" (if that's the right word, which I doubt) appropriately, according to actual Church doctrine. But it is exercised rarely--though less rarely now than in the past, owing to a better understanding of preexisting issues that might make the possibility of a functional marriage negligible. The priest scandals, besides being unfortunate and every Catholic detractor's standby objection, are not relevant to this discussion, and are the result of the sins of the individual priests, not a fault of the Church as a whole. I could say more, but like I said, it's not even remotely relevant and only indicates when someone really has prejudice against Catholicism and typically an axe to grind.

It reaches a bit towards real religious offense to discuss Mary in such slangy terms. And what I was referring to was not the idea of the orgasm (which could possibly have been achieved through a spiritual ecstasy when Jesus was conceived, but I'm no theologian), but imagining Mary & Joseph in the throes of passion, etc. etc. I reiterate--it's like imagining your parents having sex, except that all of us know with certainty that our parents *did* have sex, and with Mary and Joseph it is at least a mystery and a matter of faith, whatever you choose to believe about it. For Catholics it is beyond imagining your parents, but I was using an analogy I hoped everyone could comprehend despite their denominational biases. Hoping for sex & orgasm for everyone you love is very generous and enlightened by today's standards, but I think it says more about us to think that sex and orgasm are an essential part of being human than it does to believe that celibacy is a possible path (not the only one!!) to holiness.

I definitely don't want to imply (and I didn't think I had) that Protestants or Catholics had better/worse marriages, but I do think that, independent of what Protestant denominations may do, the teachings of the Catholic Church provide a support system for marriage, and there are programs in place for enriching marriage in a spiritual sense, helping troubled marriage--there's a lot out there to help spouses fulfill their marriage vocation. To say that Protestant views of sex/contraception protect the marriage by allowing unfettered satisfaction of sexual urges is to present a very limited view of what makes a marriage works while undermining the way Catholicism works in support of the married couple. But I'm not the one who started the Catholic/Protestant discussion, I just felt the need to answer these little (and big) swipes.

Now how about the on-topic things I said about contraception? Can we find some common ground there, or is the view I represent too alien? In particular, I assert that it is important to acknowledge that sex has possible consequences (pregnancy among others) and that we (broadly) need to learn to be responsible for the consequences of our sexual actions. Also, that "hubby can't handle the temptation because we're bombarded with sex in this culture" is a weak argument for contraception!! It doesn't leave much room for self-control or faithfulness, and assumes that sex has greater importance in the marriage than perhaps it should (and I'm not saying it's not important!). After all, if your husband were impotent or the wife was paralyzed or became psychologically repelled by sex because of some traumatic even, would that be grounds for divorce or an opportunity to provide support and develop spiritual connections and gifts?

Literacy-chic said...

This should be "owing to a better understanding of preexisting issues that might make the possibility of a functional sacramental marriage negligible"--it is usually phrased as "impediments" to a sacramental marriage.

Rachel said...

this is clearly getting ugly (i've added my share of the ugliness i fear) so i'm thinking i need to pull out before i start repeating/clarifying/arguing myself to death.

except to say 1 quick thing: that i think, lit chic, you quote the law bks when you say "irreconcilable differences..." i've never heard that associated with the protestant church- at least none i've had close relationship with. i know my church exercises church discipline when nonbiblical reasons for divorced are used.

next topic! ;)

TwoSquareMeals said...

Wow! Go away for a few days and your posts run away without you! I'm hoping we can temper things a bit here before we start the next 30 Years War!

Katie, the book sounds fascinating. I'll read it.

On the perpetual virginity of Mary. I think both sides make an argument out of silence here. I respect the Catholic tendency to treat Mary in a special way, understanding that she is not God but that she did carry God in her womb. Pretty amazing, that incarnation! I also don't think she had to remain a virgin because of that. Rach, because it is you, I can tolerate the talk of the Mary and "the big O," but I do know you...others might get offended.

Just to interject some levity here, I had a housemate who used to say it's okay to call Mary "ever virgin" so long as you call Joseph "Saint Joseph the Ever Frustrated."

I still need to read through the other comments and get back to you.

TwoSquareMeals said...

Emily, I'm glad we haven't scared you away!

Kerry, I agree that we use contraception too easily in this culture and that FAM/NFP is the best option. I don't think that most Christians who do use contraception would say that children aren't a blessing to be welcomed. The reality is that in our culture, at this time, they also can be a financial burden. I'm not saying that is a reason to not welcome children, just that it is a reason to be cautious about having them, especially if financial struggles are already a part of your marriage. (Lest you think I am a monster, all of our children so far were conceived and born when we were very poor.)

Anonymous (mother-in-law), I wish you had had 10 kids. Think of all the babysitters! Really, though, I don't know how you would have managed it with your husband gone so much on business. I do think that you have to have your husband's agreement, no matter what method you use.

Melissa, I'm Anglican.

TwoSquareMeals said...

Jen, thanks for the not-too-rambling post. I think that when I talk about the protection aspect of sex, I don't mean that people use contraception just so the husband can confine his lust to his wife and use her for pleasure. I think most Christians have a healthy enough view of sex to know that it is about the bigger picture of intimacy, that it has the potential to produce new life, and that God gave it is a gift to help preserve a marriage. With that mindset, I think the contraception can be used in a way that doesn't cheapen the sexual act. I know you don't agree, but I just wanted to clarify.

Thanks again for keeping up with the conversation and posting. I really respect your position, your story of conversion, and how you follow the Catholic Church's teaching when it is much harder for you than many people. I hope that you don't think I am trying to lessen the sacrifices and commitments you make. I even think I mostly agree with the teachings that led you to make them. I just want to help folks see things from both sides of the Christian view.

TwoSquareMeals said...

Literacy Chic and Rachel,
Hold it, ladies! I didn't mean to make swipes at either the Catholic or Protestant viewpoints here, and I don't think either of you did, either. But it is easy to take it that way when we are trying to defend our own viewpoints.

I have a great respect for the Catholic Church and the good that it has done in our culture for preserving marriage and family life. I also know that I have never been a part of a Protestant church that "allowed" divorce for anything other than adultery or abuse. The problem comes, of course, in the fact that divorce in our culture is granted by the state, no matter what the church says about it. I am sure that Catholics and Protestants both get divorces without their priest/pastor's consent, but they probably aren't very good Catholics or Protestants.

I don't think that using contraception means that a couple leaves God out of the sexual act or that they do not think about the consequences of sex. Even when I am using contraception, I think about the fact that this is the way my children were conceived every time my husband and I are together.

LC,"But I'm not the kind of person who believes that poor, weak mean need to have their sexual urges satisfied so that the dears don't accidently have affairs." I hope that I didn't imply that I am. I hold my husband responsible for what he does with his sexual urges. But I also know that being able to foster a healthy sexual relationship with him makes it easier for him to control sinful thoughts when he is confronted with sexual images. For us, that means using contraception in post partum periods when my body signs are wacky.

TwoSquareMeals said...

On sexual sin in our culture. All you have to do is watch "Rome" on HBO to see that sexual perversion has always been around. I do think that it is just as prevelant in societies that don't use contraception. I also think that our free use of contraception without asking hard questions has not helped it at all.

TwoSquareMeals said...

Literacy Chic,

"To say that Protestant views of sex/contraception protect the marriage by allowing unfettered satisfaction of sexual urges is to present a very limited view of what makes a marriage works while undermining the way Catholicism works in support of the married couple. But I'm not the one who started the Catholic/Protestant discussion, I just felt the need to answer these little (and big) swipes."

I don't think that was what I was saying at all. I think I have clarified it in my above comments. I think that Protestants use contraception in an understanding that sexual intimacy is part of a much bigger picture of a healthy marriage. (And I will totally defend the Catholic Church's support of marriage. There are some amazing resources/retreats/conference out there that the Catholic Church does to promote healthy marriage.)

Rach and I both think that FAM and non-hormonal contraception or abstinence are the best, but no the only, way. The Protestant view being espoused here goes something like this. In some cases, where the couple is honestly not ready to have another child (hopefully for reasons other than selfishness, like health or finances) and their fertility is such that abstinence for a long time (say months to a year) is required to avoid pregnancy, contraception can be used.

Okay, I am tired and not sure how well I am reacting to these comments. Let's keep it civil, realizing that we are all on the same page as far as seeing children as blessings, wanting to offer a healthy view of sexuality within marriage to our culture, and wanting to honor God and our husbands with our bodies. This is not a "my church is better than your church" discussion but an honest look at what people of all viewpoints believe. (Hello, anyone agnostic, pro-choice, or otherwise non-affiliated with our two streams of the church still out there?)

TwoSquareMeals said...

Jen, to clarify, I don't mean that following Catholic teaching is harder for you because you are a bad person or something. Yikes! What I meant was that pregnancy is especially hard for you and so you must hear from medical folks that you should just use contraception.

Julie Pippert said...

Whew, where to begin...and in a comment (which shouldn't be 14 pages long) LOL.

Note: I think it is important to recall that not all barriers (contraception) are ingested or create an artificial state in your body that way. In fact, they all tend to function differently and to varying degrees.

I believe there is a fundamental difference in the view here that lies in how we perceive and characterize God and this world he created.

I think this is the underlying difference not just on the topic of contraception, but is also at the heart of the various Christian denominations.

In my view, God does not create temptation to test us and our faith. He did not put sexualized culture and contraception out there to test me. In my view, God does not ask of me to sit back and believe as he unfolds his mystery in my life. I believe God expects me to be an active partner with free will, and each aspect in the world is there as a possible tool for me to help in my quest for that "closer to thee, God" faith filled life.

I do absolutely believe in the idea that one should always keep in mind the spiritual and emotional aspects of sex, and moreover, that it always has the potential to begin new life, to which you immediately have a responsibility.

On the practical side, 2sq. I agree with you.

Look around. God does not always provide a comfortable, safe, middle-class existence. I believe there is a fractal in that chaos (which means I trust there is a purpose).


As a responsible and loving person and parent, I will make the choices I believe are best for my family.

It depends upon what you think is most important. Potential new life? Or the lives you already hold in your hands and love?

As it happens, I have no fertility at all so contraception is not an issue for us.

But I understand those who opt into it.

Intriguing series.

TwoSquareMeals said...

Julie, Thanks for reading all the way though that! And thanks as always for your very nuanced post. I do think a lot of this gets to the heart of what we think about free will and our role in living the life that God gives to us. I think this issue is one to be wrestled with, to consider all of the factors of our culture and our faith, and to make a decision after prayer. I believe strongly that the Holy Spirit will give us peace when we make the right decision. I don't think it is a one size fits all sort of thing.

On that note, I was interested to find out that the Eastern Orthodox church, while it tends to promote the use of NFP, leaves it a matter of pastoral council with each couple. (That's for you, Katie!)

Rachel said...

great job bringing some good consensus and closure, 2square!

Anonymous said...

I wanted to post on an aspect of Catholic teaching that (it seems to me) has not been touched on yet. The Catholic belief against contraception is based on several factors--of course, the most basic is that the purpose of sex is procreative and must remain true to this purpose. But there are further depths of theology here (only dimly understood by myself, but I'll give this a shot!). Pope John Paul II in particular developed his "Theology of the Body" as a way of looking at sex and intimacy--and if you want to do some reading, anything by Christopher West is a good interpretation of JPII's insights.

Okay, to my main point: in the Catholic mind, there can be no true sexual intimacy where there is contraception. Contraception makes intimacy objectively impossible. (though of course, feelings of intimacy and love occur--I'm not talking primarily about feelings here). As a creature, I am a UNITY of body and soul. Contraceptive sex would necessarily reject part of my body--the reproductive part. The feminine part. My body is important. Every part of it was given by God, for His purposes and for my spiritual good. How can I have sex with my husband while rejecting an essential element of who he is as a man? And how can I be truly intimate with him if he is rejecting a part of me? The meaning of intimacy is gone when contraception is used. There is no complete giving of oneself, if one holds back or rejects the other.

Now, I'm not saying couples who use contraception don't love each other--of course they do, and of course sex is still very beautiful and meaningful for them. But it is incomplete. The gift given and the gift received--the very nature of intimacy, the gift of one's ENTIRE self--is incomplete.

Here's an analogy I often think of: how would it feel if one's husband wanted to have sex, but wanted his wife to keep her eyes covered the whole time. Or if he didn't want to touch her hands the whole time. Wouldn't that be kind of creepy and weird? The use of contraception is as much a rejection of part of the wife's (or husband's) body as my admittedly strange analogy.

This is a hard teaching, but remember that all things are possible with God.


SF Mom of One said...

I think there are as many reasons to express sexuality as there are to eat. And I don't mean that flippantly, or to demean sex in any way. But both the need to eat and the need to copulate are wired into us. And we use them in various ways: to express joy, to get comfort, to give a gift to another person, to just feel good, for the "biological purpose" (sustain our life or sustain the species), etc.

I believe we are given the need and the capacity to use it in these interesting ways as part of the gifts of being human. As in Lent or Ramahdan, or keeping Kosher, we can choose to deny our needs, too. But honestly, to do that constantly...I think it would be the calling of a holy few.

And of course we can misuse sex or eating. BUt I would not want to say that any use outside of the biological one is misuse.

And, wrt to sexual temptation, I think there's actually a lot of barriers---sexual harrassment taboos in the workplace, for exxample--that were not there a generation ago. You can watch Rome, for one example, and you can read John Updike's Rabbit series about suburban life in the 60s for two examples of other times when sex was in the fore.

It's kind of natural.

OK, that is my Unitarian (thus individual bvut carefully considered) view on things.

TwoSquareMeals said...

Elizabeth, thanks for chiming in on something that had not been articulated yet.

While I understand and have read some of JPII's theology of the body, I hesitate to say that this issue is an absolute. I'm not sure that you are saying this, but I don't think that using contraception is a violation of God's commands. It may not be accepting the gift of intimacy to it's fullest, but I think that if both husband and wife agree to it, it is not a denial of oneself. If I used contraception against my husband's wishes and without his knowledge, then that would be a violation of intimacy. Not sure I am making sense here. I understand the argument, and I do know that the times when my husband and I were together in the knowledge that we were giving fully in order to create life were special. I don't think that lessens the value of the times when we were using contraception or NFP to avoid creating life.

TwoSquareMeals said...

SF Mom, thanks for chiming in with another point of view and saving the Catholics and Protestants from war over here!

I think that what you are getting at with the idea that sex is given to us for a lot of different
purposes is sort of what Rachel and I have been putting forward. In the Catholic view, sexual intimacy for procreation is elevated, and in the Protestant view, sexual intimacy for the strengthening of the marriage bond is elevated. Neither is bad or even immoral in the Judeo-Christian worldview.

I like your analogy to eating. In the sacramental, communal sense of sharing a meal with fellow man, eating is a sacred act. I think sex is also a very sacred act. But I don't think that picking up a Big Mac at the drive through is very sacred. In fact, I think it is demeaning to the act of eating. In the same way, I see casual sex that is not between a husband and wife is demeaning. God created food to be enjoyed in it's right time and manner, and I think he created sex in the same way. Fast food has had a bad impact on our culture in so many ways. Casual sex has, too.

It's an interesting thing to think about. Makes me appreciate more what it means to live holistically as a Christian. We Christians are good at overemphasizing sexual sin and overlooking others. What does it mean to use the gift of food well? I've been thinking about this a lot this year, but that is for another post.

Anyway, thanks for commenting!

'Becca said...

I commented on your earlier post too. Thanks for seeking out pro-choice perspectives as well. I am a pro-choice Episcopalian, happily unmarried for almost 14 years, mother of a 3-year-old.

A synopsis of my point of view: God gave us sexuality for many purposes. Procreation is just one of them. If we choose to engage in heterosexual intercourse, we MUST consider the possibility of conception. God gave us free will and intelligent minds. Each of us must act responsibly and prayerfully in discerning the right path for ourselves and following it. Using contraception can be a responsible and moral choice, in my opinion.

Katie W. wrote:
But I suppose putting too much weight on intercourse as procreative (i.e. mating) is an "animal" approach as well.
Yes! That's been bothering me when I read anti-contraception arguments, but I hadn't ever managed to articulate it that well. Pregnancy, birth, and lactation are very "animal" activities, and I don't see why my enjoyment of those things was good but my desire for pleasure-focused sex is bad, or why people who use their sexuality for frequent reproduction but deny themselves pleasure at regular intervals are better than those who use their sexuality for frequent pleasure but deny themselves reproduction most of the time. (I mean, I have heard the anti-contraception arguments, and I do understand the point of view. I just don't believe it's correct.)

One thing I haven't seen mentioned in this discussion is the possibility of a heterosexual couple enjoying forms of pleasure other than intercourse. I know that Catholic teaching forbids it. But for those who are not Catholic, there are other options when abstaining from intercourse during fertile times, which may (depending on your individual preferences) help with the "protection" and "pleasure" aspects.

TwoSquareMeals said...


Thanks for sharing another perspective. I am glad some other folks are joining the discussion. I have to give credit to the Catholic teaching for being pretty holistic regarding the reasons for intercourse and for combating the casual way our culture approaches sex. I'm still not swayed.

But I think Christians who don't accept that teaching have to live in a pretty gray area which can lead to misunderstandings about sex. I think there are several reasons that God gave us sex, and that elevating one over the other can be dangerous. I also think that any opinions about what is and is not okay sexually must be guided by Scripture, and I do believe that the scriptural argument for sex being limited to a man and a wife in marriage is pretty sound. I don't think scripture says anything about the details of the act and whether non-intercourse forms of sexual pleasure are okay or not.

That said, our American Christian culture has taken to elevating sexual sin to a level above other sins that I think is ridiculous. In fast, CS Lewis says something about the sins of the flesh being the least problematic to deal with, since they are visible. Sins like pride and anger are much more dangerous.

Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

Two Square Meals,

I guess I do believe that using contraception goes against God's commands (I am a Catholic, so I believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church on this issue--but an argument from authority isn't very convincing to anyone, and I disagree with other devoted Christians in a spirit of charity, not of contention or malice).

Ultimately, what matters is that everything we do serves Christ and helps us know and love Him better, and love our neighbors in Him.

Scripturally, the story on Onan in the Old Testament is the only one I can think of that touches on a condemnation of contraception. More important, it seems to me, are scriptural attitudes toward childbearing and children--that these are always a blessing to thank God for. I can't "prove" to you from Scripture that contraception is wrong, but I think Scripture supports that position.

Thanks for such a frank and interesting discussion--above all, let's pray that we always want God's will for our lives more than our own will (the hardest part of being a Christian, I think--at least for me).

God bless!