With all the obsessing over condoms and "safe-sex", the media drumbeat over global population control, the relentless magazine-TV-movie drooling over the sexual option smorgasbord—Desperate Housewives, Cosmo's latest sexual positions, Maxim's 'Hometown Hotties', not to mention instant-access internet porn—people plugged into the mass culture have heard few discordant notes about the sexual revolution, except maybe one—that "the Pope" is against it.
And, especially maddening to the sexual-commercial complex, "the Pope" is even—for some bizarre reason—unaccountably opposed to what even most churches agree is the best thing since One-a-Day vitamins: contraception.
Secular journalists seem to want us to assume that a comprehensive critique of the agenda and the paraphernalia of the sexual revolution is an idiosyncrasy of "the Pope" alone. They're unaware that such opposition is only the latest expression of the continuous Judeo-Christian concern for sexual integrity going back to the early Church and the New Testament, going back in fact to Genesis.
Neither do these journalists bother to understand and explain, even superficially, the rationale for the traditional Christian teaching against contraception. The implication is that there are no reasons for the historic Christian position: nothing worth examining, nothing even worth refuting. Those believers who do accept the traditional teaching, mostly Catholics, and a minority of them at that, accept it on faith alone—the poor unthinking sheep—and that's that.
It's assumed that a critique of the sexual revolution is an idiosyncrasy of 'the Pope' alone.
Yet the sexual revolution—the disjointing and dismembering of human sexuality into a heap of fragments to be rearranged again in any shape at will—rests upon certain underlying assumptions about the nature and ends of sexuality. It rests upon contraceptive paraphernalia as its necessary technology. I'm not a professional philosopher, but I can see the urgency of examining the assumptions before taking a stance with regard to the technique.
The Nature of Sexuality
Sexually, we resemble baboons. But even to say that seems like a dig, a put-down.
We know that human sexuality is something like other mammalian sexuality, and at the same time something more. For us, as for apes, mating fulfills a drive and satisfies an itch. Like other primates, we reproduce sexually. Again like other primates, we use sexual gestures to express affinity or belonging on some level; our mating patterns order our herd, our group, our community.
But there is still something more. The sacramental view of matrimony was never based on studies of baboon communities or squints at barnyard sex. Christians believe that, first, since we were made in the image and likeness of God, our design is both revelatory and providential. Second, the "honor of the marriage bed" is rooted in the scriptural view of marital union as showing forth, mysteriously, the love-union of Christ and the church.
Honoring the Design
If human sexuality has no designer, then vain is an appeal to honor the design. Furthermore, if there is a design, and the design is already perfectly reflected in our instincts, drives, and appetites, then "honoring the design" should need no appeal at all: it should happen automatically.
When Christ, during his ministry here on earth, was asked (in Matthew 19) about the propriety of certain sexual customs, his method was to refer his questioners back to Genesis, He used the argument from design: that the Creator had made the human race male and female, that he had designed them to hold fast together, becoming one flesh.
So the design of male and female is a sign of different-gender alliance and fidelity (Gen. 3:18-24) as well as God's way of making his human creatures fruitful (Gen. 1:28.) This is the way it was in Eden (literally, "Delight").
The question Jesus was asked had to do with divorce. His answer made clear that in the beginning (Genesis), in the time of delight (Eden), man and woman were one: there was no divorce. He notes that divorce came in later because of people's hardness of heart—in other words, because of sin. But rather than accommodating that hardness of heart, he challenges his listeners with a hard saying ("Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another, is guilty of adultery")—a hard saying that paradoxically upholds once again the norm of Eden, the full-orbed sexuality of delight.
The design of male and female is a sign of different-gender alliance and fidelity...
What does this discussion of divorce have to do with contraception? The underlying question in both instances is whether we are justified in breaking this full-orbed sexuality apart.
May we break apart, rearrange, a man and a woman? May we break apart fruitfulness and delight? Are we free (because we are able to do so) to split sex up into its various "animal" and "angel" components—fondness here, fertility there; here the itch, there the issue; affection, desire, covenant, and conception considered separately and experienced separately—rearranging the pieces to suit whatever project we have in mind?
The picture is complicated by the fact that men and women have become hardened in their responses, in their feelings, in what seems natural to them, because of sin. We're not in the Garden anymore. Our hearts are hard.
So, for instance, rape seems natural, even urgent, to some poor sinners. To others, nature is the pleasure of serial seduction. For some men, mating with a man seems natural; still other seek sexual gratification with children. Or animals. Or plastic sex toys and video images.
And many—especially in our day—think it a problem and vexation that natural sex should so easily produce offspring. It seems to them normal that sex should be usually—almost invariably—infertile. The fruitfulness of the sexual embrace distresses them: I could almost say it affronts them. The connection between sexual fulfillment and fertility strikes them as a defect of design.
The Choice: Sanctity or Sabotage
Fruitfulness is undeniably a component of real sex. Bible and biology; Genesis and genetics; every source of knowledge, natural and supernatural, is there to tell us so. It is not a defect. It is part of the design.
The question, then, is what do we do about it? Do we learn to live with our created sexual design, learn about it "on our knees" as learning something holy? Do we live it whole? Or do we reject our sexual nature as it is, and invent something else?
Contraception means the rejection of real sex; it is an insistence that we can break sexuality into pieces, select the bits we like, and put the rest in the wastebasket.
It takes patience and humility to live with a husband or wife whose sexuality is whole, entire, and unbroken. It means there is a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. It means one's great bodily powers and heart-energies are at the service of somebody else—at the service of another gender, and another generation—and not of one's self.
Fruitfulness is undeniably a component of real sex. Every source of knowledge, natural and supernatural, tells us so. It is not a defect. It is part of the design.
This laying out of sexuality at the service of another—this seeing of genital activity itself not as self-fulfillment but as self-donation—is at the heart of Christian sacramental reflection.
Now consider this: if the husband or the wife says, "I love you, dearie, but you've got one God-given, healthy, holistic power that gives me a pain: fertility. So bag it. Fix it. Suppress it. And then I'll sleep with you"—that's not exactly the acceptance of a whole person by a whole person. It's altering the person (suppressing natural fertility) as a condition for marital union.
Thus contraception doesn't just offend the "procreative" power: it offends the "unitive" power too. It involves a maiming of bodily wholeness—cutting sex down to size—which ultimately means cutting your spouse down to size.
Wholeness and Holiness
It should go without saying that marital acts that are exploitative and degrading are not rendered good just by being fertile. Fertility is not the issue: wholeness is.
Both reason and revelation tell us that a great purpose of the sexual bonding of a man and a woman—and therefore of marriage—is the begetting and raising of children. But there are some who, while in the main valuing Genesis norms and sexual wholeness, say that openness to life inheres in the relationship, not in individual sexual acts.
Just a moment now. Suddenly we have a "relationship" that is somehow independent of its "acts." Try this statement instead: "Marital fidelity inheres in the relationship and not in individual sexual acts." (Oops—that comes a little too close to what the mass culture is already saying.) Let's try once more: "Your Bank believes that business ethics inheres in the relationship and not in individual financial transactions." Now we're cooking!
A relationship is not separable from its "acts." The acts are the ingredients of the relationship. If your "fundamental bread recipe" is 99 percent wholesome but a tablespoon or two consists of something you dipped up from the cow pasture, is it not reasonable to suspect that you've subtly altered the character of the whole loaf?
But don't we have a dilemma here? On the one hand, the marriage relationship is ordered to self-donation: one-fleshness with one's spouse and the procreation and education of children. (I use the word "education" in the fullest sense: the rearing, the training, the providing—for, the "nurture and admonition" of children.) But there are occasions—particularly in times of sickness, poverty, and hardship—when the arrival of more children would seriously compromise a family's ability to care for the children they have already been given and make oneness far more difficult, if not (apparently) impossible.
Contraception means the rejection of real sex; it is an insistence that we can break sexuality into pieces...
In these cases, wouldn't contraception actually serve the ends of marriage: by making it more likely that the children already generously conceived will also be generously cared for, given the parents' limited resources of time, energy, and money?
No, even in these cases, contraception would not serve: but natural family planning might.
There is something intrinsically disordered about contraception: it entails actively rejecting and frustrating our created design. For the same reason, it should be clear why natural family planning (NFP) is morally acceptable: it means knowing, respecting, and acting in harmony with that same design.
NFP involves knowing the bodily signs of fertility and infertility and then acting accordingly: choosing intercourse during fertile times if the conception of a child is desired, or abstaining during those times if there are grave reasons to avoid conception. In either case, the spouses are acting with, and not against, the natural powers and potentialities inscribed by divine wisdom in their own bodies.
That's why it is inaccurate to call NFP a "method of contraception." Contraception is a key part of the larger modern project of splitting sexuality into its components and then exploiting the components separately. It calls for nothing by way of virtue. It requires only drugs, devices, and surgery. It is the ultimate technical fix.
NFP expresses a much more ancient and holistic view: that sexual powers require harmonious cooperation, patience, gentleness, self-control—in fact, all the fruits of the Holy Spirit. NFP presupposes husbands and wives who have placed their sexual lives humbly in each others' hands; who can, by mutual consent, lovingly abstain for a little while, and lovingly come together again (1 Cor. 7:4-5); who know there is a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing (Ecc. 3:5).
St. Paul said something about human sexual love that was never said about any animal's sex life: that for us—for human persons and particularly for baptized persons—sexual union is a mysterium tremendum. It is the prime image of the union of Christ and his church (Eph. 5:32).
To be sure, St. Paul does not say that this imaging is a property of sexual relations considered in isolation, but of marriage as a whole. Nevertheless, we're not talking here about the love of parent and child, or of brothers and sisters, or of the monastery or the parish, but precisely the union exclusively proper to married persons. The sacred sign of this is sexual intercourse.
It seems to me that the goal of Christ's work is the creation of a new human race, one that lives the way God originally wanted the human race to live. This is a call backward to Genesis, to original design, to what one might call Alpha Humanity. But it is also a call forward to something new, to Omega Humanity fulfilled in Christ.
If the sexual act signifies this, then its structure is not to be tampered with, any more than one would tamper with the matter of the Eucharist or the name of the Trinity. This means that wholeness is not just desirable, not just an ideal, but is obligatory for purposes of signifying what God wants to signify: in other words, for sacramental reasons.
This is why both honest virginity and honest married love both honor the sacramentality of sex: virginity by keeping sex wholly reserved; and marriage by keeping sex whole whenever it is expressed.
This doesn't mean that a baby must be desired whenever intercourse is chosen (although it is a beautiful thing for husband and wife to come together knowing that conception is possible; they are then true wonder-workers in each others' eyes!). But it means that the natural pattern of fertility/infertility is recognized as providential. We cooperate with it. We respect it. We don't restructure it.
NFP expresses a much more ancient and holistic view: that sexual powers require harmonious cooperation, patience, gentleness, self-control...
The Real Feast
It has truly been said that those who never really fast, never really feast. The seasons of nature alternate cold and warm, dry and wet, the hard-shelled seed buried in darkness and the spring and sap of the new green shoot. In the same way the church calendar is spangled with its purple and rose, its white, green, and gold, keeping its octaves, counting its days, fasting without bitterness and feasting without shame.
I speak here of sexual abstinence: the virginity of the unmarried, the continence of the celibate, and the periodic abstinence of natural family planning couples; and also of those many occasions when husband and wife are unable to come together because of illness, weariness, or separation. These are our fasts. But the meaning of abstinence is never found in itself, but in rhythms larger than ourselves, larger than our whole lifetimes. The meaning of the fast is found in the Cycle of Feasts.
Truly if this life were all there is, there would be no reason not to squander sexual energy ad libitum, de-coupled as to partner, disoriented as to gender, Dionysiac as to its final end: remember that in The Bacchae it ends in death.
But if this life points mysteriously to a life to come, we must honor the "secret meaning" of our sexuality as a sign of sacred fertile union. To deliberately splinter the parts of the sign—to break up the sacredness, to split off the fertility, or to disrupt the spouses' one-flesh unity—would be like hacking a written highway marker into a heap of unrelated syllables. But to restore the sign of whole sexual love—man and woman, lifelong, exclusive, faithful, and fruitful—means to read the sign rightly and to reach the destination to which it points: the Marriage of the Lamb, the feast that has no end.