Contraception

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I've had very few discussions with anyone I know about contraception. I've had some in-depth discussions with some people, but most people I know don't seem to want to raise the issue, and I don't generally bring it up. I know that a number of people in our congregation don't think contraception is a good thing. I'm not sure if they believe it to be morally wrong, but I get the impression that they think it's not a good idea. There are others in the congregation who have little problem with it (for a married couple anyway). We do have a number of large families in the congregation (quite a few with more than six kids, one about to give birth to a ninth, and one who had twelve). I'm not sure the number of children tracks with views on contraception, since most of these families place a high priority on children anyway and see families that our culture sees as large as a good thing and worth pursuing. That's consistent with thinking it's ok to use contraceptives. I do have a feeling more of the larger families are more conservative on the contraception issue, and I've heard a few people making comments here and there that seem to suggest such a view. I've been wanting to record my comments on such matters for a long time, and I'm finally getting around to it now.

First I want to say that I don't like the term 'birth control'. That sounds more like abortion to me. Abortion is preventing birth of someone already there and approaching birth. Contraceptives are intended to prevent pregnancy entirely. When people say they don't think abortion should be used as a form of birth control, they don't think about their words very hard. Abortion is birth control, plan and simple. What they mean is that they don't think abortion should be used because they failed to use contraceptives when they should have. In other words, it's not a fallback method for those irresponsible enough to conceive when they could have avoided it. That's what they mean. Abortion is birth control, no matter how you slice it. Technically, contraceptives are too but they are by being conception control, which is much more precise and therefore, I think, a better term. So I'll call them contraceptives, even if it means awkward formulations.

I don't think the standard argument against contraception should carry much moral weight. The way I've usually heard it is that you're not trusting God for when he'll give you children if you use any contraceptive method. Some people apply this inconsistently when they use what's called natural family planning. This is the official Roman Catholic position. The idea there is to try to prevent conception by having sex only during infertile times. The intent is the same as using what such people call artificial contraceptives. The idea is to do something that will make conception much less likely. The difference seems to me to be a lot like the difference between deceiving something through saying something false and deceiving someone through saying something extremely misleading but literally true. Either is an attempt to deceive, and how it's done seems irrelevant. I've discussed this more in depth for those who aren't convinced by this little summary of my position. If it's not trusting God enough for your children to use a condom or some hormone-altering method to try to prevent conception, then it's not trusting God enough for your children to use natural family planning methods to achieve the same goal. The thing that wouldn't be trusting God enough is the attempt to put off or avoid having children, not the method of doing so.

So that leaves two options. Either trying to prevent conception is always wrong, or it's sometimes ok. The trusting God argument seems to me to fall short of establishing that it's always wrong. The same sort of reasoning lies behind the refusal of medical treatment among the practioners of Christian Science (i.e. the followers of Mary Baker Glover Patterson Eddy, who have nothing to do with either science or Christianity). They say that you shouldn't use medications, because you're not trusting God with your health. Most Christians have no trouble saying that God gave us the chemical components of medicines and the ability to figure out what they do, and thus medical science itself comes from God. That's a good thing, and we should take advantage of it. I don't know how such a response doesn't also work against those who disagree with contraception.

Another argument is that we should only use methods God gave us and not concoct our own. This is really the Amish reason for avoiding technology. If you take it seriously, you have to avoid a lot more than they do, or else you can't really use it as an argument here, because any argument that allows medicine or computers on the grounds that God gave us the ability to develop such technology for our benefit could also apply to contraception. (Those opposed to cloning in principle for the same kind of reason need to think carefully about how this sort of issue will affect whether cloning could possibly ever be ok or even a good idea, but that's just a teaser for another potential post I might write at some point. The argument against cloning that I hear most, that it's playing God, seems to rule out a lot more than just cloning.)

The only other argument I can think of for why contraception would be wrong in principle is that there's something special about reproduction that isn't true of other medical advances that we might avail ourselves of. Some people think this is true because of God's command to be fruitful and multiply and repeated statements that God opens and closes the womb and has complete control over human life from the very beginning. I don't deny any of that, and I think the very argument assumes God's control, which means he can override any of this stuff if he really wants a conception to occur, but that doesn't necessarily make contraception ok.

Still, I don't see how this is restricted to reproduction. If you're going to say this here you have to say it about other things. It seems pretty clear from the scriptures that God says the same sorts of thing about who is in control of governments and about whether someone's plan to go to a certain city tomorrow will actually happen. Yet in those cases it doesn't serve as an argument not to step in and do something that affects such situations. My not knowing that I will go to a certain city tomorrow means I should be careful in acknowledging that my plans may not bear out, but it doesn't mean not to seek to go there. My knowledge that God had placed Bill Clinton in power didn't give me any grounds against voting against him in 1996 or against speaking against his positions that I disagreed with, just as those who oppose Bush this election have no obligation to endorse him merely because God placed him in his position through his sovereign control over the electorate, constitutional authority over various electoral processes, the arguments in the various court cases in the recount process, and the ultimate thought processes of the members of the Supreme Court. Those who thought something immoral had taken place in that process had every right to express that, and those who like me believe that it went as constitutionally required have no right to say that such discussions shouldn't take place merely on the grounds that Bush came out winning.

Similarly, the fact that God is sovereign over reproductive matters doesn't provide a reason not to investigate whether his sovereign will might include our taking certain actions. We should have good reasons for those actions, which I'll get to in a bit, but if we have good reasons to do things then the fact that he is in control does not undermine such reasons in principle.

Now the one other element of this argument had to do with a command to be fruitful and multiply. I think being fruitful and multiplying is a good thing to do. I think it's a command worth obeying, for those who can. Those who have infertility problems need not avoid trying, though in some cases God has made it physically impossible or nearly so. I don't see that as reason not to pray or not to seek other methods that will perhaps increase the chances of conceiving, and the command can partially be fulfilled through adoption anyway. My main argument here, though, is that being fruitful and multiplying may be perfectly consistent with some contraception at some times. A particularly fertile couple who intend to have many children might realize that spacing their children out more than 10 months is a good thing for simple health reasons. They might then use some contaceptive methods in the intervening times. A temporarily financially-challenged couple might wait until they're a little better off financially to be able to care a little better for their children when they have them. I think this can be an excuse for some people just to avoid responsibility, which isn't exactly a virtuous attitude, but I know a number of people who if they just wait another year or two will be in a much better position to raise children. I'm not sure why that might be immoral.

So those are my arguments why contraception isn't necessarily wrong. I do want to give some reasons I don't like most contraception as it's used. Since I believe sex to be a unitive relation between people that existentially commits each to the other until one of them dies, I don't consider pre-marital sex to be a good thing. I therefore don't like the idea of contraception to allow people to have sex with anyone they feel like having sex with. Even within marriage, though, I have some worries, mostly due to motivation and somewhat due to effects, with one more serious moral issue. I already explained the motivation issues above, and I don't have a good sense how far-ranging, how common, and how severe these might be from person to person. I don't have a lot more to say on this unless I want to write a few more paragraphs, so I'll leave it at that.

The effects issue is important, and a lot of people aren't really aware of these issues. I don't see any effects issues with barrier methods of contraception unless they cause rashes or something, but hormonal contraceptive methods, which include the pill and the patch, can have severely negative effects. They're personality-altering through affecting emotional range and sometimes leading to roller coaster experiences, sometimes leading to severe depression. If you're putting that much hormone-altering stuff into your body, what do you expect? They also can lead to severe weight gain, though this varies from person to person. That doesn't help someone's emotional state either.

As for intrusive devices and such, I wonder if that's any different. Do we even know all the effects of altering someone's cycle in such ways? That's what I worry about. My basic concerns with most of these methods have nothing to do with a moral argument against preventing conception. It's more like my concerns with playing around with the DNA of things we eat. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, no more than playing around with DNA through selective breeding. It's just a faster method. [I should note that my earlier cryptic reference to cloning refers to a similar view. In principle there shouldn't be anything wrong with it once you realize what's really going on. However, we know little about it and its long-term effects, but we do know enough bad things about the proposed methods that it probably shouldn't be done with humans for a long time. I really do intend to save that issue for another post, though, so I'll stop.]

The thing I don't like is that we don't know all the effects of it, and we do know some bad effects of it. That gives some presumption against using such methods, particularly if pursuing health and well-being are important considerations for the moral life (and I think they are).

There's one effect of barrier methods that I don't like. If something is coming between two people having sex, particularly something that affects sensation as condoms do, it not only has some effect on the extent or quality of pleasure but also has some effect on the sense of joining involved in this unifying act. I think one of the primary purposes of sexual connection is to bring two people together in a way that is at the very least symbolic of a deeper unity between two people who are one flesh. Barrier methods reduce the subjective feel of unity that sexual contact can bring when a man's most sensitive organ is immersed within a woman to make intimate contact with her most sensitive organ. There's something incredibly powerful just about the imagery of that, never mind whatever kind of effect it can have on them. Barrier methods reduce that, I think. That doesn't count as an argument against using them, but it does give reason to want to reduce it or avoid it unless there's a really good reason.

Finally, there's one moral concern I have with oral contraceptives and other similar hormonal methods. Not everyone believes a human embryo before implantation has rights or should be a moral concern, but those who do (and most pro-life people, though not all, do) should worry about hormonal contraception, which is designed to prevent conception but isn't limited to that in its effect. Sometimes it fails in its intention of preventing conception, and a sperm and egg will combine. These particular hormonal combinations the way they're administered can prevent implantation at that point. In other words, they have the risk of functioning not just as a contraceptive but as an abortifacient. Most people who take them don't know this. It's not the same morally speaking as taking an abortifacient pill for the purpose of preventing implantation of an already fertilized egg, but it can have that result, and that's something many pro-life people don't want to risk. That's a reason many pro-life people shouldn't be too thrilled about that kind of contraception. [Update: Apparently this isn't so clear. Check Imago Dei's post on it for more. Thanks to Bonnie for pointing this out.]

I should say something about permanent sterilization. I know someone right know who is going to pursue something like that due to having a third unexpected pregnancy when the first two had many problems, including a couple potentially life-threatening issues. To prevent conception in this kind of situation seems to me to be a good idea and a good use of the abilities God has provided us with. I have a hard time thinking permanent sterilization is the best option if it's not that kind of situation. I know people who have done it, and I don't think they deserve a lot of blame. I just don't know if you can really know that it would be that bad idea ever to have any more kids unless you know there are serious health risks. Others may have a different attitude toward it, but I guess this parallels my conviction that a later you may have a very different attitude toward it than you do right now, which should be an effective argument against tattoos as well (not that most people wanting tattoos think about this). Any permanent effect is something to be very cautious about, and it applies especially when it involves altering one's very body.

All in all, my basic point is that I don't see any absolute argument against contraception, particularly if people are excited to have children if it turns out they do conceive but doing what's in their power to try to achieve better circumstances before they have them. At the same time, I worry about some of the common contraception methods we have developed. Some of them have more serious moral concerns if the pro-life position about embryos is correct. Some have less serious (but more convincing for pro-choice people) concerns having to do with health or reduced unitive elements. I haven't said what I would recommend to anyone as a result. I think different people might agree with pretty much everything I said and still have different views on what the best response might be.

31 Comments

I have been described as "one of those guys who takes 'be fruitful and multiply' seriously".

I do believe that we ought to be fruitful and multiply, and that raising godly seed is an excellent way to advance God's kingdom.

I believe that one's motives are terribly important here. The people I know who only have and want a couple of kids, usually express selfish motives for that decision. You know, kids are just an awful lot of trouble. That sort of thing.

I liken the thoughtful use of contraceptives to cultivating a garden. Sometimes you prune things back - not because you want to limit God's blessings, but in order to protect the health and fruitfulness of the garden.

Our second son was born via C-section, and at the doctor's advice, our third son was too. Having two C-sections pretty much means all subsequent deliveries have to be C-sections. And there is a real physical danger to having those births closer than about 2 years apart. And of course I don't know that we would be able mentally to handle children spaced much closer than ours are (about 21 months).

I think there's a big difference between that, and selfish motives that lead couples to have only one or two kids, spaced fairly far apart. It's a whole different mentality - are kids something for the parents' enjoyment, who fit in our lives and our schedules, or are they truly little images of God, His workmanship, and actual persons?

Kids are a blessing from the Lord. That doesn't mean, you know, _pretend_ that they really are blessings when we all know they are "mixed blessings" at best. The context of Ps 127 indicates that giving you a lot of kids is one of the ways God blesses you, just like He might give you lots of money, or successful crops, or whatever.

If you have that sort of an attitude towards children, I think the question of birth control will resolve itself. And if not, the issue is not contraception, but an unbiblical view of families.

(I don't think anything I wrote implied anything negative about people who have problems bearing children, but if it sounds like that, please know that I don't think that way.)

Robert, I think pretty much everything you said is consistent with what I said. One thing caught my attention, and it reminded me of something else I should have said. You talked about selfish reasons to avoid having children. I think it's just as easy to have selfish reasons for having children. I worked for a professor for about three years with his 450-person ethics course, and he usually considers a number of issues related to sex, reproduction, and parenting as part of the course. One thing he likes to do from time to time is ask how many students want to have children. Then he spends a bit of time drawing out of them how many children they want to have, how far apart, and why. By the time he's done, he's shown them that their motivations for having children are mostly selfish and are thus not good reasons for having children at all. He concluded that these people (and it probably includes most Americans) shouldn't have kids. I wonder if you should conclude that or perhaps that they should just think more carefully about their motives and then reconstruct reasons for having children that are a good deal better. These are college students, after all, and the part of the brain having to do with moral decision-making isn't fully grown until something like age 22.

I agree. Planning and discipline are both things that are praiseworthy in the New Testament. Paul liked them a lot. Use of contraception just plays into that with having children. As you can see I don't have a problem with it.

The selfishness of having kids is true. Sometimes its worse than others. I recall a talk show where teenage girls were having children so they could experience the unconditional love of a baby. Someone in the audience made the good point that they should just get a dog. That baby will be in the terrible twos before you know it and you won't be seeing that love then.

Personally I think selfish motives would disqualify 99% of the population from doing anything. We are in a fallen world after all, perhaps people don't get what that means...

Actually Parableman, speaking as a Catholic and as a wife of 25 years, the teaching of the Catholic Church is that sexuality is an entire package... a complete gift of God that inclues the unitive, pleasurable and procreative aspects. Therefore one honors God by accepting the entire package. That is why NFP is licit for Catholics, because it is not attempting to enjoy the pleasurable and unitive parts while deliberately thwarting the procreative. In fact, NFP requires abstinence!

For the same reasons, many infertility treatments are also considered illicit, because they separate the procreative from the pleasurable and unitive.

the teaching of the Catholic Church is that sexuality is an entire package... a complete gift of God that inclues the unitive, pleasurable and procreative aspects

I'm well aware of that. I've read Pope Paul VI's statement on sexuality, which is quite excellent. My own view is also that sexuality includes the entire package you list, but what I've argued is that those purposes for sex don't leave us with an absolute prohibition against contraception.

My problem with abstinence for the purposes of avoiding conception is that it violates a biblical command! I Corinthians 7 discusses this explicitly and says that abstinence within marriage is only ever ok if it's for prayer (and for short periods, but that's not relevant here). Avoiding conception is not the same thing as devoting oneself to God for prayer. That leaves me with two possible positions. I could be opposed to all contraception, including NFP. On the other hand, I could think that the same motivation that justifies NFP (leaving aside the direct biblical prohibition of it) also justifies other forms of contraception. It's the second option that seems best to me, since I'm not convinced of the arguments against ever seeking to have an impact on when your next child will be conceived (as apparently you aren't either).

I happened to read a short passage in Paul Tournier today on this area, so it's fresh in my mind also. While he certainly did not argue for a direct prohibition of contraception, he used the classical position (which you oddly did not mention at all in the main text) that the main purpose of sex is procreation. He did menion NFP, which was a fairly new idea at the time, but didn't seem to draw much distinction between it and other methods, especially since it does seem to violate the language of Paul in I Cor about not abstaining except for the purpose of prayer.

I have to say I'm not really pleased with the line of approach you have taken (either contraception is ok or it isn't). This seems to get away from what I think are the more fundamental and important questions--the purpose of sex (as I already mentioned), why Christians should (or should not) have children, the purpose of marriage, the witnes to our contemporary culture, the prevalent ideas of liberalism regarding control over our bodies, etc.

As usual, I recommend taking a look at Hauerwas on these things, especially _A Community of Character_. Also perhaps relevant would be his material on the contigency of things like ethics in his recent book on Bonhoeffer.

The reason I didn't address the traditional view is because not even Catholics believe it anymore, not since Pope Paul VI at least. I have trouble believing that very many people still believe that the main purpose of sex is procreation given that the main purpose of marriage isn't procreation but unity in diversity to reflect the Godhead. If anything is the main purpose of sex, it's the unitive purpose.

I did address the purposes of sex, why Christians should or shouldn't have children, and the purpose of marriage. I just didn't focus on them because I wasn't presenting a biblical theology of sex and procreation. I was responding to some arguments against contraception and giving some reasons that the failure of those arguments doesn't mean contraception is always or even usually a good thing. That's why I was willing to refer to them a little here and there and address them directly only if people raised them in comments, as it turns out they now have been.

Jeremy, thank you for addressing this very relevant topic. I agree with pretty much everything you said, esp. that the purpose of sex is marital unity. I see procreation as being within that unity, not a separate element. But that doesn't mean I oppose contraception.

As Robert said, having additional children may affect one's ability to care for the children one already has, or affect parental & familial survival in general. There are more factors involved than just prevention of pregnancy itself: medical issues with previous children, handiness of family and friends to help, breastfeeding vs. bottlefeeding, "high-need"-ness of babies (how much they cry, how much or little they sleep), whether older children are sent away to school or home-schooled, etc. These are health (and moral) issues as much as strictly medical concerns are.

Check Conscience Clauses dated September 17 at Imago Dei for discussion as to whether oral contraceptives are truly abortifacient.

BTW, I hope my comment didn't come accross harshly. It's difficult sometime to figure out how to write straightforwardly and kindly at the same time on the internet.

When you say no one believes in the view anymore that sex is primarily for procreation, are you saying that the lack of public support for that position affects its validity, or even whether you can consider it as an option for the purpose of argument?

Anyhow, my argument here is that the whole question CANNOT be dealt with outside of a larger anthropology. I think it is still fairly common, as far as I can tell, for people in non-western societies to view procreation as the main purpose of marraige.

No, I'm a professional philosopher. I'm used to back-and-forth discussions like this.

I meant that I don't think a large group exists to take that position, and I was aiming my discussion at the main body of readers who might find this post. It's a position in what philosophers call logical space and is thus an option for discussion. I just didn't expect to find very many people who hold it and limited my discussion to address things I expected to be more likely to come up. As it turns out, this came up anyway.

My own view is also that sexuality includes the entire package you list, but what I've argued is that those purposes for sex don't leave us with an absolute prohibition against contraception.

Well, to the Catholic Church it does, and prior to 1930 all other denominations taught the same.

My problem with abstinence for the purposes of avoiding conception is that it violates a biblical command! I Corinthians 7 discusses this explicitly and says that abstinence within marriage is only ever ok if it's for prayer (and for short periods, but that's not relevant here).

It's very relevant! NFP is only supposed to be used for grave/serious reasons that couples have prayed over and discerned from month to month. 1 Corinthians is one of the basis for this.

Avoiding conception is not the same thing as devoting oneself to God for prayer.

Unless of course one is prayerful about the reasons for abstaining throughout the entire period of abstention.

That leaves me with two possible positions. I could be opposed to all contraception, including NFP. On the other hand, I could think that the same motivation that justifies NFP (leaving aside the direct biblical prohibition of it) also justifies other forms of contraception.

There is no biblical prohibition for prayerful abstinance. There is biblical prohibition against contra (against) conception and contraceptive acts. Onan comes to mind.

It's the second option that seems best to me, since I'm not convinced of the arguments against ever seeking to have an impact on when your next child will be conceived (as apparently you aren't either).

Correct, because that is not a Catholic perspective either.

The reason I didn't address the traditional view is because not even Catholics believe it anymore, not since Pope Paul VI at least.

Wow, what an incorrect broad brush comment!!! You might want to do a web search on the vibrant teaching or the current pope know as The Theology of the Body!

Onan violated the command for the next brother to provide an heir for his dead brother. The passage gives no indication whatsoever that sexual acts without the intention to reproduce are wrong. In the cultural context and the context of the Torah, it was his obligation to his brother that was condemned.

As for this theology of the body, I'm familiar enough with it to know that it's not the traditional Augustinian view that sex is purely for procreation with any other purpose seen as immoral. I'm not sure what you're talking about, but I know that view hasn't been officially supported at least since Paul VI. If you disagree, I want to see evidence. John Paul II's current work on the theology of the body does not count as such evidence and in fact goes the other direction, continuing the sort of thing Paul VI was talking about. Paul may be right that many people in non-western countries have such a jaundiced view of sex, and some Catholics at the popular level may think such things, but it's not officially endorsed by Roman Catholicism.

Here is an article that gives a good, correct, explanation of the Onan story.


As for this theology of the body, I'm familiar enough with it to know that it's not the traditional Augustinian view that sex is purely for procreation with any other purpose seen as immoral.

Ah... my misunderstanding. That is true the church does not teach that. However, it didn't teach that in 1968 via Paul VI and Humanae Vitae either and that's what threw me.

My point about Paul VI was that he did not teach the idea that sex is purely about procreation. That's why I said hardly anyone has believed it at least since him. I don't know about before that. I know he didn't, because I've used it in ethics courses, because he actually gives philosophical arguments.

With Onan, the argument (in the piece you linked) against what I was saying is that the death penalty wasn't given in the later law for refusing to fulfill a Levirate function. I'm not sure why that later law should be the basis of what God would do much earlier.

I think the most that can be claimed is that his willingness to have Tamar based on a Levirate custom (which wasn't a law yet) but unwillingness to provide the heir required by that custom amounts to using her for his own sexual desires without understanding the point of that custom or of the multiple purposes of sexual union. I think it might be fair to derive a principle the wrongness of persistent and systematic avoidance of children out of the selfish desire not to have responsibilities. I don't think it's fair to the text to derive an absolute prohibition of occasional or temporary contraception simply because of this passage's condemnation of Onan's ongoing and permanent desire never to have the responsibility that comes with the command to be fruitful and multiply and with his particular responsibility to provide his brother an heir.

"I'm not sure why that later law should be the basis of what God would do much earlier."

Because God doesn't change.

Nonetheless, all of Christendom including the protestant Reformers took the Onan story the way I present it to you. All denominations banned contraception until the Anglicans gave in in 1930 for the life of the mother... and how the dominos have fallen since then.

BTW, not using contraception doesn't mean not being responsible. HOwever there are licit ways to do that just as the only licit way to do that is abstinence.

Because God doesn't change.

If God's unchanging nature is the basis for everything in the law being morally required before the law was given, then it's also the basis of its being morally required now after it has been fulfilled. If you follow all the sacrificial requirements, then perhaps I'll accept this argument. More specifically, if you think Abraham made exactly the sacrificial requirements and had a tent with exactly the dimensions of the later tabernacle with an ark for God to dwell in, then I might accept this argument. I don't think you really believe that everything in the later law applied to the patriarchal period.

I've already argued that abstinence is not a licit way to be responsible (except by people who aren't married, of course). Nothing you said before addressed that argument. Abstaining because of prayer in a way that just coincides with every fertile time suggests to me that the reason isn't prayer but avoiding conception. Thus I still think there is a biblical prohibition for abstinence for any purpose (within marriage) other than to devote oneself to prayer. If the purpose is not to have children, I don't see how that counts as the same purpose as devoting oneself to prayer. If the purposes are both in mind, then one of them is ok and the other wrong.

"I do have a feeling more of the larger families are more conservative on the contraception issue, and I've heard a few people making comments here and there that seem to suggest such a view."

That is simply a perception and one of the most presumptuous kind, I think. People do often think that way about someone who has a large family and have no compunctions about continuing to think it and to say the most intrusive and annoying things.

Contraception is one of those things that is basically personal business. There ought to be information on it, and then leave it to people to decide.

Unfortunately, the reality is that there is so much propagandistic blather that it automatically becomes controversy in the Church.

It totally eclipses the really important issues of how we view and treat children and how we view and treat women.

And no, I do not consider covering the topic as confronting those issues.

Presumption is usually no friend of truth.

If God's unchanging nature is the basis for everything in the law being morally required before the law was given, then it's also the basis of its being morally required now after it has been fulfilled.

What I believe is that God is good and just and that he wouldn't kill a man (Onan) for breaking the Leverite Law when the punishment for that was simply to have your sandal pulled off and being spit at. It is simply illogical and infact historically the idea tht Onan was slayed for anything other than a contraceptive act is a modern interpretation not the historical one held by all of Christendom including the Reformers.

I've already argued that abstinence is not a licit way to be responsible (except by people who aren't married, of course). Nothing you said before addressed that argument.

I believe I addressed it in my first posting. This is the reasoning behind the licitness of periodic abstinence. A husband and wife abstaining does have to be "for reasons of prayer." It has to be for a grave or serious reason one that is prayerfully discerned and examined continuously


Thus I still think there is a biblical prohibition for abstinence for any purpose (within marriage) other than to devote oneself to prayer.

There's not. I think you might enjoy JPII's Theology of the Body where explains all of this in depth.

Ilona, read what I said again. I wasn't talking about people as a whole. I said I have noticed that people among my congregation disagree with each other on the issue of contraception. I've noticed that a number of those in my congregation with larger families do oppose contraception. I said I have heard enough comments from people in my congregation that my conclusion is not just a presumption. It's based on evidence. The people in my congregation who have larger families do seem to me to tend in that direction. I never claimed anything stronger than the the larger families in my congregation tend in that direction. I never said big families oppose contraception or that small families approve of it.

I guess Jeremy got to your comment first Ilona. I would add that he was refering to people in our congregation that we look to for wisdom and advice on this and other issues. We've also had discussions with them (at least I have) about the kind of attitude that you mention. And I've had to deal with some of what you mention my self even though we're only on our third kid.

Elena, I'm also not very sure of any argument that imports our fallen sense of moral values into what we should expect of God. I also don't see how this is a response to how the context frames the event.

This is the reasoning behind the licitness of periodic abstinence. A husband and wife abstaining does have to be "for reasons of prayer." It has to be for a grave or serious reason one that is prayerfully discerned and examined continuously

But Paul explicitly says that it's only for the purpose of prayer. That's why I don't see how avoiding conception can be a legitimate reason for abstinence. 'Only' does not mean that this is the primary reason and there are others.

I think we're just going to differ on how weighty the history of interpretation is going to be. I can't see how the mere fact that all of the history of interpretation going one way should outweigh a careful look at the text itself. When someone insists on an interpretation no one has ever come up with before, that's a red flag, but that doesn't mean it's wrong if the text itself supports it, and the text itself gives strong considerations against the traditional interpretation.

I'd be very surprised if the history of interpretation doesn't include anyone saying that what Onan did wrong was persistently persistently and systematically avoid what is both his responsibility as a Levirate husband together with his persistent and systematic avoidance of the general mandate to be fruitful and multiply. If both are involved, then it says nothing about what the case is when just one is involved and it's not persistent and systematic. That's why I just can't see in the text any clear statement that any one instance of avoiding conception is necessarily wrong in itself. The text just doesn't seem to me to be saying any such thing.

But Paul explicitly says that it's only for the purpose of prayer. That's why I don't see how avoiding conception can be a legitimate reason for abstinence. 'Only' does not mean that this is the primary reason and there are others.

And what do you think the purpose of the prayer is exactly Jeremy? What do you supposed couples abstaining during that time could possibly be praying about?

I think what the Catholic Church is saying is that during the time of abstinance the couple should be praying for a number of things. Strength and wisdom in family life is one. That they can discern whether their reasons for not being open to a new life are God's will or not. That if there are reasons why they cannot be open, that God can give them the reasons and the resources to see through it.

think we're just going to differ on how weighty the history of interpretation is going to be. I can't see how the mere fact that all of the history of interpretation going one way should outweigh a careful look at the text itself.

Well, I guess that depends on whether or not one feels that they are a superior scripture scholar to ALL of the scholars, theologians and doctors of the church prior to 1930 who thought otherwise.

It doesn't say what they're praying about, but it does say they're abstaining for the purpose of prayer and not praying for the purpose of abstaining. Presumably it has something to do with Paul's statement that caring for the needs of one's spouse distracts from some other ways of caring for the more general pursuit of the kingdom of God (though it's clear from elsewhere that caring for the needs of one's spouse are of paramount value themselves). If I had to guess what the prayer is about, I would guess that it has to do with deepening one's relationship with God as an individual and not as a member of a married couple and with considering one's role in the body of Christ as a whole and not just as a husband or wife. That's just a guess. What is clear is that this is a concession of Paul to those who saw a need for abstention for the purpose of prayer. It's not a command, and I get the sense that he would prefer that they not even do this at all. Given other things he says, it's clear that sex is not a distraction from spiritual things, as the Corinthians he was conceding to seem to have thought by their need to abstain from sex to have a deeper sense of their commitment to God.

It doesn't depend on whether one feels anything. It depends on whether the weight of all the tools of understanding of the culture, language, and context of the Bible now is greater than the weight of understanding of the culture, language, and context of the Bible during those other times in church history. In many ways it is. This has nothing to do with any individual. We just know a lot more about these factual matters now, and I'm in agreement with the weight of scholarship here.

I don't agree with you that the weight of the entirety of the tradition takes the more extreme view anyway. Just to be clear, the view I'm endorsing doesn't take the sin of Onan to be merely avoiding the Levirate responsibility. His sin included that. It also included such a high disregard for all that sex is that he wanted to take advantage of the pleasurable component without ever fully yielding to the unitive or procreative aspects of it. In other words, it's not that these aren't important. It's not that it's wrong to ignore them persistently. The passage clearly condemns the picture of what Onan did, and in the context of the command to be fruitful and multiply it seems wrongheaded to me to say that Onan wouldn't have been doing anything wrong if he did this regularly and persistently over a long time without the Levirate issue in play at all. In that case I think it would still be wrong. What the passage doesn't seem to me to say is that just one instance of this is automatically wrong no matter the reason. In the Onan case his reasons and the fact that he did this over and over again in violation of his ultimate responsibilities is part of the narrative. To assume that the point of the narrative applies equally to something that doesn't have those features is to go beyond the text.

My husband recently put together a web page that argues that oral contraceptives do in fact act as an abortafacient. He's got some links to other people that are also quite credible. Here's his link for all that are interested.
http://joel.mawhorter.org/hormonal_birth_control.html
By the way, we don't believe that all contraception is wrong. My husband has had a vasectomy because we want to adopt all of our future children from bad situations overseas and we knew that if we filled our house with our own children that would be fewer children that we could help.

For both Jeremy and Samantha,

I do read what you have said. I don't think you particularly like what I have to say about those things, since you reiterate your personal observations on the handful of people in your experience as constituting evidence. I understand that you feel "I never claimed anything stronger than the the larger families in my congregation tend in that direction."

I am not going to lambaste you on this, but I think it ought to be understood that when such comments are inserted in commentary on the larger question they hold a psychological weight of supporting such a view.

There is a very wide range of thought on this question among those with large families, and a range of practice. If you deal with personal viewpoints as if they would represent doctrine ( I feel you are doing this) then it is going to degrade the conversation into arguments of defending the personal convictions. I do believe it gets into the meat abstaining/meat accepting *type* of dissent.

This won't really answer the question of this issue for most people since it will quickly line up into a rulebook form. When it is a personal conscience matter.

I think maybe the problem I have with your format in this is that you are used to laying out the argument- which usually works towards clarity-, but this is likely one issue that isn't as clear in your own view as you would like.

That is just a guess.

I would like to say that my personal interest in your post is that I had a large family - and experienced plenty of flack both in and outside the House of God for it. There is a punishment meted out for the unconforming such as myself.

Except from the Catholics.

Which gets me back to my contention that it is how we view children and women that is at the root of the issue. How is our religious view of family, and what constitutes blessing or curse, impacting the practical manner in which we live and treat one another? It will inform our views on contraception, among other things.

Then alot more compassion and empathy would enter the doctrinal equation.

Ilona, the context of my statement makes it clear that what I said was not presumptuous or intrusive (whether it's annoying is more a fact about how other people will take it and not about the words themselves, so I can't control that). You claimed that it was presumptuous and intrusive, and I think that's incredibly unfair and not in line with what I was up to in the post. That's why I took extreme offense at such harsh words.

The context was plain. I was saying that I don't think size of families tracks with attitudes toward contraception (which you took me to be denying), and then I pointed out that some families in our congregation that are larger are so because of their attitude toward contraception. My point was that there's no necessary theoretical connection between the two but that there's sometimes a causal connection between the two in some actual cases I know of.

I based the latter claim on evidence, on people's own words to me. The first claim was not based on evidence but on theoretical separateness of the two issues, and I explained why they're theoretically separate. That was my major claim, and taking me to have contradicted it either explicitly or psychologically is just plain ignoring what I said. The evidence I was talking about was support for the minor, second claim. It was not given in support of the denial of my major claim, as you seem to continue to want to take it even though my last comment to you denied that. That would require contradicting myself within a few sentences.

I'm not at all in disagreement with your claim about what the main issues are. That's something that's even taken up a lot of discussion, some in the post and much in the comments. I even explained in a comment why it didn't come up as much in the post. That's why I just don't understand what you're saying. That's why it doesn't seem to me that your words reflect an understanding of what I said.

As for the conscience, I think it's fairly clear from most discussions of the issue that many people think it's a moral issue. Many think contraception is immoral. If their arguments are correct, then it's immoral. They give real arguments, not just expressions of conscience, and I spent a good deal of time looking at those arguments and concluding that they shouldn't be convincing moral arguments.

I then gave a number of considerations against contraception that aren't absolute moral arguments but are worth considering, some for health purposes (which I indicated might be considered a moral reason) or because they raise worries that one might consider a moral issue on other grounds (pro-life issues, for instance), depending on one's other assumptions. That's what I saw myself doing, and the fact that many people don't want to talk about the issue and consider it a private choice doesn't mean there aren't moral issues to look at, just as with abortion the fact that many consider it a private issue does not make it a non-moral issue. It's still a moral issue. I'm not a moral relativist, and I don't think private choices where moral issues arise are mere matters of conscience. That doesn't mean we should always hold others to our own conclusions on such private matters. If that's all you mean, then I agree, but it sounded as if you wanted to say it was completely illegitimate even to discuss the ethical implications of this issue, which are real issues.

Be aware that Paul did discuss the ethical implications of eating food sacrificed to idols -- he told people that the piece of wood has no power and is nothing, which is relevant to the ethical arguments against eating it, but he told people that those who are weak will have trouble with such arguments because they associate such meat with their former way of life that they have turned from and they need to love those people by not doing what would otherwise be perfectly fine when they're around out of a worry that it would lead them to do something they believe to be wrong. [That's not to say that discussing the reality of the situation is wrong, because that might help them see that there really isn't anything wrong with it to begin with.] Paul also talks about how going into the temple and engaging in worship of these idols is flirting with demons and dividing one's allegiance between God and idols. These are all ethical implications of an issue of private conscience, and they're all the sort of thing Paul was willing to discusss.

>the part of the brain having to do with moral decision-making isn't fully grown until something like age 22.

Interesting. I had never heard that before. If true then maybe the voting age should be raised, rather than lowered.

>If true then maybe the voting age should be raised, rather than lowered.

Such faculties of the brain are usually developed through use not by allowing them to go unused.

Jeremy,
We have two different styles of interaction and very different experiences of life. That does not mean we may not come to understanding. I am sorry you felt I was harsh, I may be this way because of the force of my emphasis...which I believe is necessary for the subject.

You said:"I've had very few discussions with anyone I know about contraception."
I, probably because my situation invited it, have had so many I couldn't count them. Many comments to which I felt it better to deflect rather than respond.

I don't need to tell you certain things...but will underline them for clarity. People feel very strongly on this issue in emotional ways. "Many think contraception is immoral" is recognizable to you, as a man of logic, that while true, does not mean that those "many" have it right. Or they may not always be dealt with as a whole group to derive the truth of the matter.

When you say"They give real arguments, not just expressions of conscience, ", it tells me that we do not have the same view or symantics on the word "conscience". Which -in reference to God- I place on higher priority than "real arguments". I think we mean two different things by this term.

I think we differ also in our goals. Although not our final end. We each would like to dissect the issue, but I am interested in the practical outcome. More in the weight of words and their impact... which causes me to ignore the side phrases of modifications such as "The evidence I was talking about was support for the minor, second claim. It was not given in support of the denial of my major claim".

I don't mean to pick on you, but maybe it is working out that way. It is those "minor claims" that get inserted... in much the way a political insert of a minor matter in another bill... that creates the perpetuation of attitudes and thought processes that ought to be reviewed.

====on Paul and meat
" but he told people that those who are weak will have trouble with such arguments because they associate such meat with their former way of life "
Yes, true. In the context of contraception, there is the matter of the answer of ones conscience to God. This is impacted by the teachings we receive from the Church, whichever representative we attend. The truth of the matter will depend on two things as I see it, one is the presentation of the Word of God on the matter- the Bible study; two, is the reliable presentation of the scientific facts. Still, it will be the conscience of the individual which will call contraception efforts sin or acceptable.

The sin of Onan was his disobedience to God. That can be broken down by different people different ways... but it was that attitude of disobedience to the expressed will of God. And that will be the context for what goes on in the marriage bed. God did not give a list of rules for this. We are working from principles. But I think the one rule of thumb is that God will not compromise one of His principles with another- they are in harmony.

This matter is too important in a persons real life to reduce to arguments about "some people think this or that". Perhaps that is what I am most arguing against... and perhaps that is why it seems to ignore certain parts of the arguments.
Perhaps I believe it is a matter to be dealt with more prayerfully. circumspectly.

"but it sounded as if you wanted to say it was completely illegitimate even to discuss the ethical implications of this issue, which are real issues"

I am sorry I gave this impression- it is the farthest thing from my thoughts. I believe in public discussion and debate as very useful, but I am very aware of how this is a powerfully emotional issue that creates a practical impact of deep and wide implications. I have found that, for Christians especially, it is something to approach from getting our basic attitudes, about women and childbearing and raising children, corrected within God's definition of blessing.

Because we are often touching on the very innermost parts of the psyche: whether we are acceptable to God; whether we are acting in the best interest of others, esp. children; how far to spend the resources of our lives- to what point we sacrifice.

Things like that. So carry on with the discussion... it is interesting .

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