How many recognize the way in which contraception signals the abolition of marriage?
Last week we looked at a progression in the purposes of marriage: portal, procreation, pleasure. Then we looked at the first step when a regression occurs: Marriage – portal = procreation + pleasure. This week, more regression: The erasing of procreation.
Procreation means for life (pro + conceiving life in the womb). Contraception means against life (contra + conceiving life in the womb). Life and death are in God’s hands, so being against conceiving life should make us tremble as David did for fear of being judged for transgressing God’s law.
Onan didn’t share that fear. Jewish law held that any marital act deliberately thwarting the natural power to generate life is an offence against God’s law. Onan, according to Jewish law, married his deceased brother’s wife but didn’t want offspring. At the moment of climax with her, he withdrew his you-know-what, spilling his semen on the ground. This act of birth control through coitus interruptus cost Onan his life.
Now some might say, Well, that was the God of the Old Testament—law. We follow the God of the New Testament—love. C. S. Lewis called this “chronological snobbery.” It’s the fallacy that ideas from newer ages are superior to those from older ages. Old ideas are incorrect simply because they’re old. New ideas are correct simply because they’re new. That’s nuts. The God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New. He doesn’t change.
We do however, and this often presents problems. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis cites the cardinal problem: “For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.”
Lewis was addressing the problem of applied science (technology), originally a branch of moral philosophy. In the Western Enlightenment, technology was separated from the wisdom of earlier ages which assumed that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you automatically ought to. Enlightenment thinkers discarded this moral aspect of technologies, reducing tech to how it helps us conform nature to our wishes.
In the case of contraceptives, the first technology was rubber (1839). It was used in manufacturing condoms, IUDs, diaphragms. In 1873 Congress passed an anti-obscenity act listing contraceptives as obscene material. In 1879, Connecticut legislator P.T. Barnum sponsored a law that outlawed making or selling birth control to anyone.
Incredibly, the Anglican Church accepted contraception in 1930, breaking with church tradition throughout the ages, including all the Reformers from Luther to Calvin and beyond. In the years that followed, every major Protestant denomination shifted to accepting contraception. The moral philosophy informing technologies faded.
The technologies themselves didn’t. The Pill was introduced in 1961. By 1965, five to six million American women—one out of every four married women under forty-five—were taking the Pill. That same year, the Supreme Court decided the Connecticut statute forbidding use of contraceptives violates the right of marital privacy. Whatever married couples do in the privacy of their bedroom is their business—no one else’s.
But isn’t it God’s business as well? “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” (Lk.8:17)
My wife Kathy and I believe our marriage is God’s business. But we used contraceptives. We didn’t know any better. If you’re in the same boat, remember grace means you don’t have to get it all right. It also means when you discover you’re wrong, you return to the ancient paths. If you’re familiar with that Bible story, you know the Judeans refused to return.
So did The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Seventy-two years after the 1930 Anglican decision to allow contraception in marriage, he said “a church that accepts the legitimacy of contraception” cannot hold to “the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations.” His logic was impeccable. Marriage – portal – procreation = pleasure. Same-sex couples can use their genitals for pleasure, so the Archbishop gave his blessing to same-sex couplings. Tragically, a number of Protestant denomination have since followed suit.
But while Williams’ logic was flawless, his assumption regarding contraception was not. Two millennia of church thinking affirms the purpose of marriage as portal, procreation, pleasure. I’m hesitant to jettison it (don’t want to be a chronological snob). Yet many have, including Christians who affirm heterosexual marriage but use contraceptives. Few recognize that by using them, they reduce marriage to pleasure. It’s the abolition of marriage.
I recognize the vast majority of Americans—Catholic, Protestant, you name it—use contraceptives. I’m not try to guilt-trip anyone. I’d like to believe that had Kathy and I understood the story behind contraceptives, we’d have ceased used them, forsaking the “convenient” technologies of contraceptives for the holy pleasures of honoring God by leaving procreation in the hands of the God whose laws rule over life and death.
Next week we’ll consider whether contraceptives undermine the case against abortion.
 Christopher West, Eclipse of the Body: How We Lost The Meaning of Sex, Gender, Marriage, & Family (And How To Reclaim It), (Totus Tuus Press, 2018).