In searching the web for Christian opinions on contraception in marriage, I came across some posts on the topic by a Catholic blogger, posts which have achieved a degree of infamy among her antagonists and yielded a bumper crop of comments.
Dawn Eden is a recent convert to Catholicism, and she is an enthusiastic evangelist for the "Theology of the Body," a sort of rationale for the Roman church's rules on sexuality developed by the late Pope John Paul II and popularized in America by Christopher West. On her blog, she upholds the Vatican's ruling to prohibit the use of artificial means of avoiding conception, while permitting the use of thermometers, charts, and mucus monitoring to avoid conception.
She's not a theological authoriy, but her views are worthy of attention here because of her role as an apologist and popularizer of Catholic sexual morality, through her blog and a book called The Thrill of the Chaste, which is about her conversion from sexual promiscuity to Christian chastity.
It is interesting that, as many cradle Catholics have left the church over rules on sexuality that they consider too narrow, and others remain in the church but ignore those rules, those very rules and principles have been a major source of attraction to Rome for some converts. Eden seems to fall into that latter category, as do many of her commenters.
In one notable blog post, she uses a strange and arresting analogy to communicate the idea, central to Roman teaching on sexuality, that artificial means of birth control fundamentally change the nature of the sex act:
. . . suppose you could French kiss your beloved boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse without exchanging spit?
No, seriously. Suppose exchanging spit greatly increased one's fertility at certain times of the month and was hence something to be avoided at all costs by those wishing to be childless.
You could take a pill that would dry up your saliva glands and prevent your own mouth from absorbing your partner's saliva.
To preserve that nice gushy feeling, you could swish some prefabricated spit substitute, just like the real thing, between your teeth before locking lips. But neither you nor your partner would be capable of transmitting any of your own natural wetness to the other.
Physically, it would feel just like a real French kiss. But would it be one?
Is a kiss still a kiss when it's only sensation, with no substance shared? Is it still a soul kiss when you're purposefully withholding part of yourself — something that's always been an essential element of a smooch?
I wonder . . .
In a follow-up post, she explains what she was trying to get at:
I wrote an allegory about kissing, insinuating that true sexual freedom is accepting sex in all its meanings — pleasure, emotional union, and the possibility of procreation. To be truly sex-positive, one must be life-positive. Anything else stunts one emotionally and physically.
In the comments to the first post, it becomes clear that, for Eden and others, those three meanings aren't independent variables. Emotional union isn't possible unless procreation is.
You will find it worthwhile to read the entire conversation, but I'm going to quote rather a lot of comments here, as they illuminate the attitude of devout Catholics, following official church teaching, on the topic of contraception.
I say it's still a kiss. It is also a deception: your bodies have been altered, and you are trying to pretend they haven't been. Thus, each member of this hypothetical couple would be lying to the other, as well as being complicit in the other's lie.
Dawn Eden, responding to an objection to her comment that seems to make "contracepted sex" and love mutually exclusive:
I don't believe our choices disable us from being capable of love. I do believe that our choices can put us in situations where, by closing ourselves off physically, we close ourselves off emotionally as well.
Dawn Eden, in response to a married commenter who speaks positively of sterilization:
Vasectomy brings in a different kind of barrier, Ledasmom — a barrier of refusal to accept the possibility of life. One doesn't love a man completely if one hotly desires to damage his properly functioning body by making him sterile.
Also, it's perfectly obvious that the amount of love is less in contracepting marriages. Maybe not zero (I should certainly hope not!), but definitely lower. As evidenced by the higher rate of divorce.
Non-contracepting couples love all of each other. Contracepting couples say to each other, 'I love this part of you (your body) but not this part (your reproductive capability and life-giving purpose).' Thus the contracepting couple lies in their wedding vows, partially, because your wedding vow is 'I take you to be my spouse,' not 'I take part of you, but not this part.' A contracepted marriage is a cafeteria marriage. The love is limited and the woman isn't valued for her lifegiving capabilities and femininity.
Further in the conversation, Cynthia Wood responds to Biddy's suggestion that vanity and ambition are what motivates the desire for no more children:
I don't want another pregnancy because it means 5-6 months of pubic symphis dysfunction, up to two years of hip pain, a new crop of moles (this is not vanity, at least two have been pre-cancerous), a high risk of life-threatening hemorrhage (not fun, even when you don't die), and a few other un-fun things.
It's pretty strange to me that someone would think it more loving, and better for the marriage to be celibate until menopause than to use contraception and maintain a loving physical relationship. I should reject my husband's body out of fear when it's not necessary?
Dawn Eden has a quick rejoinder:
Sorry about your illness, Cynthia, but natural family planning is a highly effective method of avoiding pregnancy that has no side effects.
Even if you wish to "play it safe" and use the most effective method known to you, which is oral contraception, you're giving up something valuable in terms of emotional intimacy. What you're giving up is much more than if you simply refrained from having sex, because you're physically withholding your fertility within the context of the sexual act. That will affect you emotionally and spiritually. I'm sorry if this offends you, but this is what I believe, not just for you personally, but for everyone who uses contraception.
Cynthia Wood responds:
But if NFP is as effective as BCP, then aren't I withholding my fertility from my husband if I use it? And if it's not as effective, I don't find terror particularly effective at promoting a loving relationship. I've already commented on the poisoning aspect. The "side effects" the pill causes me are, for me, highly desireable, and I would be likely to remain on it for that reason even if I were celibate.
I'm sorry, but I have a 14-year marriage that still going strong, and I haven't noticed any negative effect from the use of contraception. For you to tell me that I'm doing my marriage harm with no knowledge of our relationship except that we use contraception seems - premature at the very least. I don't see that I should start making major unilateral alterations to a strong working marriage because somebody far, far away feels we might be doing better. Far less that we should be forced into such a position against our will.
In her rebuttal, Dawn Eden turns to the effect she claims contraception has on one's attitude toward children:
Cynthia, I'm not going to try to convince you or anyone arguing against NFP why you should use it, because you're clearly not interested. The short answer to your question about whether it withholds fertility is that it depends upon your motivation.
There's nothing wrong with a couple's wanting to space births or refrain from having additional children, and using NFP to do so. The problem with contraception is that it treats the child as a "mistake." That leads directly to the mentality that considers the unborn child an "invader" or "unwanted tenant" who must be killed.
The premise of NFP is that one must be open to the possibility of children even as one attempts to avoid having them. Beyond that, I'm not going to argue with you because, again, your mind does not appear to be open.
A few more quotes:
Dawn Eden again:
But I don't think that NFP by definition consists of withholding fertility. It in no way alters the body's natural processes. When an NFP couple has sex, they really have sex.
When a couple uses NFP, they aren't withholding their fertility in anything like the same way as they are if they contracept. Contracepting couples seek consequence-free sex, so they do not give their whole selves freely to one another. Couples using NFP abstain during the fertile period, but if that is just more than they can handle (as an above commenter suggested), they can still enter the marital embrace (with the knowledge that they may be likely to conceive). Every time they have sex, they do so with all parts of themselves. The contraceptive mentality knocks sex down to mere feelings or sensations, rather than the perfect unity that is supposed to be present on the marriage bed.
The rhetoric gets even more forceful in the comments to her followup post.
Josh asks about "the moral distinction, if any, between NFP and artificial contraception." Well, if NFP is used with a contraceptive mentality, then no, there is no moral distinction -- they are both a corruption and distortion of human sexuality. Contraception, whether physical or mental, is a barrier between a man and woman -- literally. Such a barrier obviously prevents a man and woman from becoming "one." Indeed, it prevents any real or authentic intimacy at all. Contraception presents both a wall -- of rubber, chemicals, or otherwise -- and a withholding of a part of yourself from the other.
Because of this barrier and this withholding of self, sex is no longer an act of mutual giving, that is, an act of love. Instead, it becomes an act of taking; an act of exploiting; an act of using the other as an object, as a sex toy. By this use of contraception, couples no longer see each other as a subject or even a person -- they see the other as object, a thing. Nothing much more than a flesh and blood blow-up toy or vibrator.
Saying a couple can be open to children throughout the course of their marriage without every sexual act being fertile (at least having the possibility of conception) is like saying that you can be faithful to your spouse throughout the course of your marriage without every sexual act needing to be with him or her.
I don't think Dawn Eden and her commenters mean what they say about love and contraception in a personal way, as a personal attack on the relationships of their interlocutors who admit to using contraception. They are speaking dogmatically -- that is, they are asserting that the relationships of married couples who use contraception must be defective because the dogma of the Roman Catholic church teaches that it is so.*
It is interesting that most of the commenters in that thread who defended the use of contraception mentioned being married and already having children, while I didn't notice that any of those attacking the use of contraception mentioned being a spouse or a parent.
If you're wondering why I am quoting more than commenting, at this point I'm just trying to gather all the information in one place, so that I can easily refer back to it. I am planning one or more posts that tie all this together, in the context of my own life.
UPDATE: I have converted all the quotes to blockquotes for the sake of consistency and readability. Also I corrected a term ("Roman church") that gave unintended offense. I wasn't trying to channel Ian Paisley, I promise. (But as someone pointed out, there are denominations, such as the Eastern Orthodox, regard themselves as truly catholic -- holding to "that which ought to be believed at all times in all places by all people" -- and regard the church headed by the Bishop of Rome as schismatic.)
Also, in saying that these assertions about the effect of contraception on the nature of sex are "dogmatic," I wasn't meaning to say that they were pulled out of thin air (or some place darker) by the Magisterium, or that these faithful Roman Catholics were robotically regurgitating them in the linked comments. What I meant was that when, for example, Dawn Eden says, "One doesn't love a man completely if one hotly desires to damage his properly functioning body by making him sterile," that statement isn't grounded in personal observation of my wife's heart attitude toward me. She is applying the principles that she believes are true to the specific situation -- and thus the statement is grounded in church dogma -- its profession of its understanding of God's creation, both seen and unseen, its weltanschauung -- not in personal observation and experience. That's not a bad thing, in my view.