Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. A Catholic convert by way of G.K. Chesterton and the Catholic Worker movement, Rick has studied theology at Evangelical institutions as well as Franciscan University of Steubenville. He currently serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College, Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing at God-Haunted Lunatic.
Megan, one of my former students in our nursing program, was in my office for a chat. We covered a bunch of things – how her classes are going, what clinical rotation she’s in – and somehow we landed on contraception.
“You never did explain to us what you believe about birth control,” she said. “Why not now?”
She was referring to an oblique reference I’d made the year before to Catholic teaching on marital openness to life – probably in the course of telling her and the other students in our clinical group about my wife and I having “only” seven kids and how we’d hoped for more.
“Well, do you have some time?” I asked her. “Do you want me to spell it out for you now?”
“Sure,” she said, and she settled in.
I’ve had conversations like this before. The majority of my students are evangelical Protestants, and they typically have no familiarity with the moral dimensions of the birth control question. Sometimes they’ll have some knowledge of the abortifacient action of chemical contraception, but they generally view the marital use of birth control as a given – even as a good.
Consequently, that’s where I like to jump in.
“When you think about birth control,” I asked Megan, “or when your engaged friends going through prenuptial counseling think about it, I imagine the primary consideration is the variety of options – how they work, their respective pluses and minuses.” She nodded – I wasn’t surprised. Among evangelicals, at least in my experience, there’s never any question of “if” a married couple will use birth control, but only a question of what kind.
I continued. “What if I were to tell you that until the early 20th century – less than a hundred years ago – all Christian denominations considered birth control something contrary to Scripture and God’s design for marriage?”
Megan’s eyes got a little bigger. It’s true, and it’s always a shocker for my evangelical students. Prior to the Anglican Church’s decision in 1930 to allow for the limited marital use of birth control for legitimate purposes, every branch of the Body of Christ considered it immoral and forbidden.
How come? Because you don’t need a pope or an ecumenical council to tell you what the Bible clearly teaches, to wit: Babies are always a blessing, sex is for making babies, and marriage is the only arena in which sex (and having babies) should be taking place. Sure, there’s another dimension of marital intimacy that is directed to mutuality and pleasure, but God designed the unitive significance of sex to coincide with its reproductive potentiality (HV 12). To purposely frustrate either purpose of the conjugal act, unitive or procreative, is to take something meant for our good and twist it according to our own designs – something that only leads to disastrous results time and time again (cf. HV 17).
Heck, you don’t even need the Bible to teach you this – which is the whole point of Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. The logic of the dual meaning of sex, unitive and procreative, is written right into our anatomy and physiology. That’s something my nursing students get right away, especially after they’ve completed their maternity rotation. And since virtually all of them are Christians, they also get the idea that sex without contraception is a much more complete form of mutual self-giving than sex that excludes the fertility of either spouse.
There’s yet another advantage to talking to nursing students about this stuff. “Consider the full range of medical interventions you’re learning about,” I said to Megan. “Can you think of anything besides birth control that’s purposely designed to suppress or block a healthy body system?”
Again, eyes wider, and eyebrows raised.
Here again, I wasn’t surprised – it’s literally an eye-opener. Contraception in its many forms – chemical, mechanical, and surgical – is the only realm of medical intervention that’s intended to undo health rather than restore or preserve it. We could include abortion here, both chemical and surgical, because it’s really only birth control by other means – an idea undergirded by the fact that so many elective abortions are performed following the failure of some other form of contraception. Moreover, virtually all chemical forms of birth control have abortifacient properties.
Drawing on my knowledge of Megan’s deep Christian commitment, I pressed my case. “We know what the Bible says about how God designed us and our reproductive systems,” I said. “Doesn’t it seem logical that when a couple conceives a child despite using birth control, then something actually went right rather than wrong?” When a husband and wife have marital relations and are open to life, then God has a say in what happens as a result. Sometimes, not always, the mutual self-giving inherent in the marital act becomes incarnate in another human being. That is, a married couple makes love, and they end up also making a baby when God so wills.
“Artificial birth control, no matter what kind, is really our attempt to block that divine prerogative,” I said to Megan. “As believers, why would we want to do that?”
Megan was silent for a bit, and then she asked. “Do all Catholics get this teaching?” I assured her they did – although they don’t all follow it. Nevertheless, it is a core element of all Catholic prenuptial counseling, along with basic introductory information about natural family planning. “That’s when married couples, for serious reasons – whether financial, health, or the like – hope for a greater space between pregnancies,” I said. “In such cases, they attend to the cyclical rhythms of the woman’s fertility and choose to have intimacy only when conception is least likely to happen.”
Natural family planning is very effective when practiced correctly, but it remains open to the possibility of conception. That is, even when the couple have decided that it’s best to wait to have another child, if they choose to have marital relations, they accept the premise that God might overrule their human wisdom and bless them with another baby anyway. If that happens, then the couple can be confident that God will also bless them with what they need to flourish as a family.
More silence – Megan was stunned. “Why don’t we ever hear about this?” It’s the question that always crops up in these conversations eventually, and I never know exactly how to answer it. Like I said, prohibitions against birth control have been a didactic element of biblical Christianity stretching all the way back to the first century, without interruption, until relatively recently. It’s indisputable, and you’d think somebody would be relating that fact to young Christian men and, especially, women when they get to college. As Megan commented as a follow-up to her question, “I feel gypped!”
I shrugged. “Well, you’re hearing about it now at least.” We live in a world beset by sexual confusion, and all Christians need to be knowledgeable regarding the Church’s tradition of biblical teaching in this area. That’s why I always keep a Humanae Vitae stockpile in my office. I grabbed a few copies and put them in her hand. “When you get a chance, read through this document – and feel free to pass along the extra copies to your friends.”
She smiled and agreed. My prayer is that Megan and her friends will read Pope Paul VI’s brilliant encyclical and embrace the truth about human sexuality that he articulates so well. But even if they don’t, they’ll at least have a basis for deliberating contraception’s pros and cons going forward. That way, they’ll be able to make informed decisions, and that’s a big part of why they came to college in the first place.