As legal battles over federal funding of contraception continue, we also note that next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical affirming the traditional Christian teaching on birth control. As we get closer to the anniversary (in July), get ready for renewed media attention to the debate over that teaching.
One thing that will be interesting to see is that many of the arguments of critics have not changed over the last half-century plus.
Take, for example, a 1964 essay by the infamous dissenter Rosemary Ruether, “Birth Control and the Ideals of Sexuality.” One of her main points (still made by critics today) is that Natural Family Planning (NFP, which the Church endorses) and contraception (which it forbids) are actually morally equivalent, because they both permit couples to have sex without the likelihood of becoming pregnant. Therefore, if the Church allows the former it ought to allow the latter as well.
Let’s take a look at some of her arguments and see if they hold up.
The wedding analogy
I should point out that modern Natural Family Planning methods are more effective than the old “rhythm method” Ruether criticizes in her article. However, her arguments are not centered on the method’s effectiveness as much as the nature of the method—both rhythm and NFP rely on periodic abstinence during fertile periods—so they can’t be answered merely by pointing out the improvements that have been made in this area of family planning.
Ruether says that the rhythm method is not morally superior to contraception because there is no relevant difference between creating a “spatial barrier” to procreation through condoms or hormones and creating a “temporal barrier” through periodic abstinence. She writes, “Sexual acts which are calculated to function only during times of sterility are sterilizing the act just as much as any other means of rendering the act infertile.”
However, Ruether ignores the difference between acting to destroy a chance of accomplishing a goal and choosing an opportunity where the odds of accomplishing the goal are very low. Yet these are different in a morally relevant sense. My favorite analogy that demonstrates this difference is “the wedding invitation analogy” which has been used by several authors on this subject. In my book Why We’re Catholic I put it this way:
Imagine you are trying to select a wedding date and it’s right around the time your wife’s high school age cousins have a big football game. If you really want them to attend the wedding, you’ll pick the week before their game. But let’s say your budget is tight and you have no more room on your guest list. You might choose to schedule the wedding during their big game and send an invitation anyways as a sign that you still value the relationship. If they show up, it might be a bit stressful, but you’ll still be glad they came.
Now, let’s imagine you don’t want to wait a week and you absolutely don’t want the cousins to come to the wedding. In order to make sure they don’t arrive, you send them a “dis-invitation” that says, “Please don’t come to our wedding, you’re not wanted here!”
So how does this relate to NFP?
Picking the date that works best for the cousins is like being intimate on a fertile day; you’ve created optimal conditions for children to arrive. Postponing the wedding by a week is like waiting to be intimate on an infertile day. The children probably can’t arrive, but if they do that’s still great!
Sending a dis-invitation, however, is like using contraception. Just as you’d be telling your cousins, “We want this day so don’t show up and ruin it!” Using contraception sends the message to your future child (as well as God who is responsible for every blessing of pregnancy), “We want sexual pleasure at this specific time so don’t show up and ruin it!”
Contraception or contra-children?
Ruether also claims the rhythm method is wrong because it prevents a natural expression of a harmless desire. One analogy she uses is the prohibition of smiling when one is happy. Of course, there may be cases when one should not smile even if the urge is powerful, such as if one remembers a funny joke while standing in a funeral procession.
Of course, Ruether spices up the analogy to sex by claiming that in this world smiling is only appropriate when a “Grand Inquisitor” with a “lunar stopwatch” deems it to be, but this makes periodic abstinence sound like an arbitrary set of behaviors. It robs this method of its natural respect for fertility and the consequences of something as awesome as the sexual act. One particular metaphor Ruether uses gives away the whole game.
Ruether says that it would be unfair to make someone regulate passions like eating on the grounds that a ten-ton block might fall on his head. But that’s only true because there is no natural connection between eating and being crushed by a cartoonish object. Ruether claims that in her metaphor the block represents “the fear and uncertainty that accompanies the rhythm method” but it is clear the block actually represents a child, since people don’t fear the uncertainty of a method, but instead the consequences of the method’s uncertainty.
Ruether’s argument treats children as a kind of threat that will crush an unlucky couple should they come into existence. Contraception is wrong precisely because it treats children as a kind of hostile invader into the marital act and not the natural fulfillment of it that should be cherished. This does not mean every sexual act must result in conception, but only that each act should not be sterilized so that the purpose of creating children is destroyed.
By doing this, couples also experience better communication, closeness, and union in the renewal of their marital vows through sexual intercourse and so, contra Ruether, the idea of marital love is expressed not through calculated methods designed to achieve child-free orgasms, but in the full gift of mind, body, and even fertility that occurs in the sexual intercourse of couples who practice moral family planning methods.