02 February 2009

Answering Other People’s Mail

It's been a while since I've put together a sustained piece, and a recent series of moral theology classes have coincided with a long exchange in First Things over the issue of contraception, so I figgered this was as good a time as any to dive in.

If you're not familiar with Mary Eberstadt's essay in the July issue, The Vindication of Humanae Vitae, I would suggest printing it out and making your way through it. Those of you not in the habit of reading while obeying certain biological imperatives to eliminate digestive waste can consider this a personal invitation to start.

What caught my attention about this exchange was a paragraph from letter that showed up in the January issue. It raises a very reasonable question that I've encountered before. The question centers around the situation in which a couple wishes to remain faithful to the Church's teaching, and so chooses to avoid pregnancy by abstaining from sex during the wife's fertile period (the method used in NFP). The Church permits this for "grave reasons".

People of good will might then ask what exactly the difference is between artificially regulating births and using so-called "natural" methods to achieve the same end—avoiding pregnancy. The author of the letter asks,

It would seem logical that couples having intercourse [only] in the wife's infertile period are intending to prevent conception—otherwise what could be their motive? "Family planning" and "spacing of children," if legitimate ends, require careful calculations of the female menstrual cycle and avoidance of marital relations at certain times. Though the end does not justify the means, the distinction between "natural" and "artificial" contraception loses force in actual practice.

In essence, the question is: what the heck is the difference, you Jesuitical hairsplitter? Only having sex during a wife's infertile period seems just as susceptible to the objection that a couple is refusing to be "open to life".

And of course, that possibility has to be granted. A married couple abstaining from sex for the sole purpose of avoiding children fails to preserve the connection between the unitive and procreative dimensions of married sex, and commits an error similar to a couple using contraception.

So what is the solution? The letter goes on,

The Catechism of the Catholic Church seems to send a mixed message: "Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life," and "every action which . . . proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil." Is the solution that Catholic couples may have marital intercourse only during the fertile period?

Well what have we here? A warmed-over medieval physicalism? "No kids? Then NO SEX FOR YOU!" Obviously this solution goes too far—the Church holds up marital intercourse as a legitimate good even between spouses who, in the unfolding of nature, cannot have children.

In her reply, Eberstadt is right to draw attention to the word "impossible" in the Catechism: no one using NFP wishes to render procreation impossible, whereas that is the express intention of anyone using chemical means to alter the woman's biology in such a way as to prevent even the possibility of conception (i.e. ovulation) from arising.

Our solution must lie elsewhere. I suggest that a look at Karol Wojtyla's examination of these questions in Love and Responsibility may be of assistance.

Wojtyla points out that placing contraception and NFP side-by-side as competing "methods", each of which has its relative advantages and disadvantages, is misleading from the start. If we are looking for the difference between these two using a framework of manipulation as our springboard, there will always be the possibility for an equivalence between the two. Wojtyla recasts the discussion in a wholly different context: the personalistic norm.

The personalistic norm is the demand that persons are the only creatures created for their own sake, and therefore are never to be used as a means. This is the content of Jesus' commands to "love your neighbor as yourself" and to "love one another as I have loved you". This norm is to be observed in all human relationships, but most especially between those who make the commitment to love another person in the context of marriage.

This norm excludes from marriage the mutual use for sexual pleasure, and Wojtyla points out that any decision on the part of a couple to have sex despite a refusal to have any children whatsoever would reduce the marriage covenant to a selfish arrangement for mutual sexual enjoyment (p. 239).

Acceptance of the possibility of procreation in the marital relationship safeguards love and is an indispensable condition of a truly personal union. The union of persons in love does not necessarily have to be realized by way of sexual relations. But when it does take this form the personalistic value of the sexual relationship cannot be assured without willingness for parenthood (p. 230).

OK, so we can rule that out. What about couples that are open to procreation in the future?

Wojtyla argues that periodic continence—that is, occasionally refraining from sex during fertile periods—is the only way couples can keep their relationship in line with the personalistic norm. This is because engaging in periodic continence is only possible through the achievement of a certain level of the virtue of chastity.

The personalistic value of periodic continence as a method of regulating conception is evident not only in the fact that it preserves the 'naturalness' of intercourse, but even more in the fact that in the wills of the persons concerned it must be grounded in a sufficiently mature virtue. (p . 241)

Far from being a negative "turning away" from sex, chastity is the full "yes" to the whole person, including the body with its physical attractiveness, but not limited to it. One cannot imagine an unmarried couple accustomed to casual intercourse giving full assent to even their bodies (which include their fertility). Only a married couple can exercise the virtue of chastity in their sexual relationship, because only spouses have made a permanent, total commitment to one another in the sum of their personhood and have accepted the wholeness of that mutual gift with joy.

Wojtyla goes on to say that,

Continence, unless it is a virtue, is alien to love. The love of man and woman must ripen to the point where continence is possible, and continence must acquire a constructive significance for them, and become one of the factors which gives shape to their love. Only then is the 'natural method' congruent with the nature of the person: its secret lies in the practice of virtue—technique alone is no solution here (p. 242)

It follows, then, that taking a long view of a marriage, periodic continence can only be used to regulate conceptions and not to avoid them. That is, it is undertaken with a view in mind to subsequent pregnancies that are part and parcel of the fruitfulness of the love they share. Interestingly enough, the language Wojtyla uses implies that this is a decision that can be made only after they have already had one or more children. It is not just the good of the spouses that must be considered, but that of the "family"; due responsibility for the birth, care, and education of a child must be weighed in contemplating the possibility of "another" pregnancy. The implicit claim is that couples have no real right to be regulating births prior to their responsibility for their present child(ren).

I remember a conversation I had with a girlfriend over this issue. I thought it was perfectly reasonable for a couple to hold off having kids for a few years to work on their marriage, get their ducks in a row, etc. and found a few articles and quotes that seemed to back up my point. We went back and forth for a while over it. Yet there was one conversation I will not forget: she simply said that if a couple wasn't ready to have kids, they had no business being married. This was no idle speculation for her, either—she was third in a family of ten, and had spent a good portion of her adolescence and young adulthood helping to raise her younger brothers and sisters (an experience she valued immensely).

In the end, I have enough married friends who are struggling to have children (including one that has lost four little ones to miscarriage) that I've become acquainted with the particular form of anguish the cross of infertility can bring. I can't imagine it's any lighter than the difficulties of raising a little one or three (especially when reckoned alongside the real consolations a young family brings). That, of course, is not to mention my own situation as one who has forsaken a family for the sake of the kingdom. Thus, I have little patience for the extenuating arguments of those who have decided that kids just aren't part of the picture yet.

Of course, in addressing this issue, I've got to let go of that impatience and become, in the words of Paul VI, "an echo of the voice and love of the Redeemer." So often, I've heard defenses of the Church's teaching on contraception spiral into a shrill litmus test for orthodoxy, rather than a life-giving discipline that opens up new horizons in a marriage. Small wonder people aren't interested in hearing more about it. Though I hesitate to dive into the subject on a blog where I don't have any responsibilty to follow up with people (as opposed to the pulpit), it's important for me to have the chance to propose this teaching rather than impose it.

In the closing paragraphs of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI issued an appeal to all walks of life to step forward prophetically and proclaim the generosity of the Father in linking the gift of procreation to conjugal love. In particular, he encouraged married couples with the hope that the practice of this teaching confers on their love a higher human value; that, "thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and wife can fully develop their personalities and be enriched with spiritual values."

It should be a reason for all of us to rejoice that the Lord has entrusted to spouses the task of "making visible to all the holiness and sweetness of the law which unites the mutual love of husband and wife with their cooperation with the love of God, the author of human life."