Regarding Contraception: A Response to Sherif Girgis

I suppose I will continue writing, for an audience of a few, responses to articles read by many, if for no other reason than as a way to think out loud about my own convictions on these issues. Sherif Girgis recently wrote a strong defense of the Catholic teaching on contraception, namely, that the use of contraception works against the purpose of sexual union and is, therefore, unethical.

My thinking as a Protestant is somewhat different on this issue. On the one hand, I affirm the Catholic moral teaching in its desire to maintain a close link between marriage, sex, and procreation. I agree that much of our sexual dysfunction as a society is owing to a severing of those things from one another. I believe every marriage should be open to the gift of children, that children are not a burden to dread but a blessing to receive, and that an over-reliance on contraception is likely indicative of a selfish mindset that desires all the pleasures of sex with none of the God-ordained responsibility.

I also agree with Girgis that married couples have the freedom to choose to manage childbearing through decisions they make with regard to sex. The one area where we differ on this question is that Girgis argues that natural family planning is the only legitimate way to do so, whereas I would see some forms of contraception (i.e., true contraceptive methods, not abortafacients masquerading as contraceptives) as genuinely ethical options within a broader marriage that is open to children.

Here are the two main areas where I see problems with Girgis’s argument:

1. It has a major internal inconsistency.

Girgis argues that a couple cannot simultaneously pursue comprehensive sexual union while sterilizing their sexual act, because procreation, which is achieved by biological coordination, is the goal toward which comprehensive union is oriented. Sterilization makes the sexual act less than comprehensive in nature and makes sex primarily about pleasure and bodily union, which could be achieved in a homosexual union as well as a heterosexual one.

However, this argument stands in tension with Girgis’s approval of natural family planning. While he draws a clear distinction between corrupting an act (e.g., sterilizing a sexual act) and simply avoiding one (e.g., refraining from sex on fertile days), his analysis at this point overlooks the broader consideration of the orientation of the whole marriage. What I mean is this: if, as Girgis argues, sterilizing an individual sex act thwarts the purpose of sex, wouldn’t it also be the case that sterilizing a marriage (even if only temporarily) through natural family planning likewise thwarts the purpose of marriage? Girgis is caught in the unusual position of affirming that every sex act must be (in principle) oriented toward procreation, but there are at least some times in a marriage when a marriage as a whole need not be. Why it is the case that sterilizing a sex act thwarts its purpose in an unethical way, whereas sterilizing a marriage by avoiding sex intentionally during fertile times does not thwart the purpose of marriage, is beyond my ability to comprehend.

The second problem gets more to the root issue of our differences:

2. It relies on natural theology instead of Scripture.

Here is the major distinction between a Protestant and Catholic approach to ethics. Catholic moral philosophy leans heavily on natural theology, or an attempt to interpret what one observes in the order of creation as a demonstration of the Creator’s design and thus a guide to what kinds of behavior are to be considered ethical. Protestants, who typically regard the effects of sin as more radical than do Catholics, are more suspicious of human ability to draw accurate ethical conclusions on the basis of reason alone. Therefore, we argue that reason must operate in conscious dependence on revelation. Natural theology must be interpreted through the lens of Scripture.

And what we find when we turn to Scripture is that yes, indeed, procreation is one major purpose of sex (Gen. 1:26-28). But it is not the only purpose. In fact, Scripture celebrates the sexual union of husband and wife in various contexts without making any reference to procreation (Proverbs 5:15-23; Song of Solomon; 1 Corinthians 7). It furthermore identifies why, exactly, a sexual union that does not involve procreation must still be heterosexual and covenantal in order to be ethical: because it represents the covenantal union between two parties who are different from, yet complementary to, one another, namely, Christ and the church (Eph. 5:22-33). This is why infertile heterosexual couples can still marry legitimately, and why, even apart from the issue of procreation, homosexuality represents a sexual perversion.

Therefore, I conclude that, within a marriage that is open to children, couples are free to use contraceptive methods to manage the timing and number of children they might choose to conceive according to their own consciences. Their sexual union may still serve a unitive and pleasurable purpose that will aid them in the fight against temptation, as commanded by Scripture.

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5 thoughts on “Regarding Contraception: A Response to Sherif Girgis

  1. As one of your audience of a few, I appreciate your continued posts.

    My question is, what is the biblical evidence that sex that attempts to avoid the possibility of children is permissable? You have provided examples where other aspects of sex are celebrated without mention of children, but that doesn’t actually support active attempts at separating procreation from those other aspects?

    In other words, what is the Biblical evidence for even natural family planning?

    The only verse I can think of off-hand is John 1:13 that implies that husbands have a say in when children are born, but that does not actually prove that it is ok.

    Thoughts?

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    • I think it’s more of an inference than an explicit biblical teaching. If sex has various purposes in Scripture, it seems illegitimate to me to say that one purpose matters more than all the others and must be present every time, or else it is unethical. I’m also about to write a response to the comment below that should intersect with this one a bit, so see that as well.

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  2. Regarding the scripture references that don’t refer to procreation: they don’t need to, because sex makes babies, full stop. In the pre-contraception world, sex was presumptively procreative. That reality has not changed, but the mindset has. Sex is now presumptively sterile in people’s minds, thanks to contraception. The question you raise about those verses can only come about if sex is viewed as presumptively sterile.

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    • Thanks for your comment. I have several words of response:

      (1) There really was no “pre-contraception” world. There have been numerous contraceptive methods throughout human history. Modern contraception is certainly more effective and more convenient, and I do agree that its effectiveness and convenience has led to a largely sterilized understanding of sex in our age. That is indeed tragic. But it’s not quite accurate to speak of a “pre-contraception world.” We actually have an example of contraception in the book of Genesis with Onan. Granted, that didn’t end well for Onan, but the point of the story doesn’t seem to be that contraception per se is wrong, but rather Onan’s avoidance of his responsibility as a brother to raise up offspring for Er. Within the context of Genesis, the centrality of the “seed” of Judah in the unfolding story helps explain why there is such a focus on offspring in that account. The Messiah was destined to come from that line.

      (2) It is important to note that the Bible nowhere condemns sex that cannot, by definition, lead to conception. Here I am thinking of sex after menopause, or sex when a woman is already pregnant. Sex during times of breast-feeding is virtually in the same category. The book of Leviticus does condemn sex during menstruation, but the purpose there seems to be the mixing of blood (a sign of death) with semen (a sign of life), as an abomination to the Lord. The prohibition fits the larger Old Testament prohibitions on respecting blood by not eating it. All of that is to say, there are some categories for sterilized sex that the Bible could have but does not condemn, implying that the other legitimate purposes of sex can be fulfilled even if sterilization is a factor.

      (3) My point in referencing Proverbs 5, Song of Solomon, and 1 Corinthians 7 is not to say that child-bearing is necessarily excluded from these texts, but rather that they speak of other legitimate purposes for it, and it is not the procreative aspect in these contexts that legitimizes the sexual union. The possibility of procreation is not required to legitimize every sexual act. Were that the case, we would have to tell post-menopausal and other infertile couples that their sexual acts are unethical.

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      • I concede your point about “pre-contraception era.” I should have been more clear: pre-modern contraceptives era. We are going to continue to disagree, and I believe it stems from what Catholics call “the contraceptive mentality.” I wrote a post on my blog today that was stimulated by your post here. If you wouldn’t mind taking a loot at it, I’d appreciate it.

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