marriage and family: April 2007 Archives

I hang out with a lot of different folks via the internet. I have the opportunity to 'hear' many different points of view and communicate with persons from many different cultures, backgrounds, and walks of life. It can get rather interesting and at times, the discussions can get heated. Some topics, in some groups, are guaranteed to set off flames, sometimes to the point that group moderators have banned the topic. For example, one midwife group I am on has banned the topics of infant circumcision, vaccination, and abortion as being just too controversial. Other groups have other 'don't go there' topics.

I have found that in my little corner of the blogosphere, family planning issues tend to bring out the trolls in spades. (side note - does anyone know why a large quantity of something is 'in spades'?). Whether discussing infertility, undesired fertility, chastity or its opposite, the topic seems to pull them in. And I guess that this is because sexuality is so big a part of who we are as created beings. My study of Theology of the Body has only reinforced to me that while biology may not always be destiny, we also can't ignore that we are incarnate beings - not ethereal spirits. We are created in the image and likeness of God, and we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I have noticed that, among those who profess Christianity, the attitudes towards family planning and married sexuality tend to fall into one of 3 groups. The first is what I call providentialist, and what many other Christian groups call Quiverfull (QF for short).

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. Psalm 127

The basic rationale in this group is that God opens the womb and that God shuts the womb, and that any method of family planning in marriage, including total or periodic abstinence, is immoral. (I don't know where they stand on marital relations during lactational amenorrhea or after menopause.) Many will also tell you that the main point of marital relations is procreation. "To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature." Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children 2:10:95:3 (A.D. 191). To call this attitude providentialist is to allude to the idea that God will provide. I worry though, that this attitude comes awfully close to the sin of presumption - to say to God that "I will do as I choose and you have to take care of the consequences". How does one balance trust and faith with sense and reason?

I have known of a few QF families that are quite happy - and I have heard hair-raising stories of abuse and serious post-partum depression. Many live in poverty, but some are quite wealthy. I don't buy into the stereotypes, but I do worry about whether the voice that they are hearing is truly of God or if it is something else.

Then there is that large group, (possibly even the majority of those who call themselves Christian) who believe in birth control. That is, they believe that it is responsible stewardship to use whatever means are available to them to exert control over their reproduction. To this end they will use chemical contraception such as hormonal manipulation to decrease fertility. Or they will use barriers between husband and wife. Or possibly they might choose to use chemicals to kill the sperm, or devices to prevent the implantation of the fertilized egg. And when they are through with childbearing, many will choose to destroy part of their reproductive system to bring their chances of an unplanned pregnancy down to almost zero. They point out rightfully that the Bible does not specifically prohibit contraception (other than possibly, withdrawal - "the sin of Onan". The prohibitions that are part of historical Christianity are subject to the interpretation of Scripture.

This group also points out, rightfully, that the purpose of the sexual act within marriage is twofold - the procreation of offspring and also to bind husband and wife together. They see their judicious use of birth control methods to be loving and responsible, and often (but not always) have disdain for large families. While I can see their logic and their loving consideration, I also think that this attitude of distrust can come perilously close to the sin of despair. It puts the individual, or the couple, in the position of saying NO to God in a very important part of married life, the procreation of children. There is also an element of hubris that says I will be able to have children when I please and not when I don't please.

All Christian groups up until close to 100 years ago opposed contraception as well as opposing abortion. Many may not know that contraception by various means as well as abortion has a record dating back to antiquity. St. John Chrysostom found it needful to homilize against both contraception and abortion:

"Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit, where there are medicines of sterility [oral contraceptives], where there is murder before birth? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well…Indeed, it is something worse than murder, and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you condemn the gift of God and fight with his [natural] laws?…Yet such turpitude…the matter still seems indifferent to many men—even to many men having wives. In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife. Against her are these innumerable tricks." John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 24 (A.D. 391).

and he was speaking more than 1500 years ago!

And then, there is the third group - possibly the smallest minority among married Christians in the present time. Those who believe that it is occasionally moral and ethical to exert some control or judgement over their use of their fertility, but who also decline to use methods that either temporarily or permanently destroy fertility or block its transmission. They learn to identify the fertile days of the cycle, and make choices about intimacy based on this knowledge. This group can often end up trying to explain themselves to both the QF types and the "birth control is just responsible stewardship" types. To one, they are explaining that abstinence is not the same as contraception - to the other they are explaining that just because they are using periodic (or total) abstinence for avoiding or delaying pregnancy, they are not contracepting. It is a tough place to be in. But NFP is not just "Catholic birth control". It respects the way God created the body by not destroying fertility, and it respects the unitive aspect of marital love by not putting a physical or chemical barrier between the spouses. And its very difficulty is such that I think it is difficult to use for frivolous reasons. Contraception has become so easy that it becomes possible to think of pregnancy as the exception, rather than the rule, when considering the consequences of sexual relations!

A friend of mine pointed out to me recently that there is a chronological connection between the rise of bottle-feeding and the pressures to approve contraception. Breastfeeding, especially unrestricted and long-continued, provides quite a substantial spacing between pregnancies. God's design is not that a woman should have and raise a baby every year! The way the body is designed, the hormone level associated with frequent suckling and good milk flow inhibits ovulation. If the infant is suddenly weaned, or never suckles, the body thinks that the baby has died - and therefore will restart the ovulatory cycle in an effort to replace that lost infant. Generally fertility does not return until about 6 months postpartum in a fully breastfeeding mother, but some will be later and others earlier.

Widespread bottle-feeding became generally safe and commonly practiced in the 1910s in the USA, despite advice such as this. This booklet on birth control was published in 1921. In her part of the debate quoted in ths booklet, Margaret Sanger refers to women having a child every year - this is to my mind clearly a consequence of widespread bottle feeding. I could be wrong. My friends who midwife in the Amish, Mennonite, or other "plain" communities tell me that the moms who bottle feed generally do have their babies much closer together then those who breastfeed. These communities generally do not approve of any method of child spacing.

In any event, what does God truly desire from us regarding our families? In Casti connubii, Pope Pius XI clarified the position of the Catholic Church on marriage and family planning.
From Wikipedia:

Prior to this encyclical, it was believed by some Catholics that the only licit reason for sexual intercourse was an attempt to create children (Yalom 297-8, 307). At the time, there was no official church position on any non-procreative purposes of intercourse. Casti Connubii does repeat several times that the conjugal act is intrinsically tied with procreation:

" . . . any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin."

However, Casti Connubii also acknowledges the unitive aspect of intercourse as licit:

"Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved."

The 'natural reasons of time or of certain defects' are universally accepted as meaning menopause and infertility. This paragraph thus means menopausal and infertile couples may morally engage in intercourse, even though there is no possibility of children resulting from the act.

The 'natural reasons of time' is also held to mean the infertile portion of a woman's menstrual cycle. Though this interpretation has generated some controversy in the Catholic Church, it was supported by two 1951 speeches by Pope Pius XII (English translation entitled Moral Questions Affecting Married Life) and by the release of Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI in 1968 - nearly forty years after Casti Connubii. The use of natural family planning – that is, limiting sexual relations to the infertile phase of a woman's menstrual cycle – is considered moral by Catholic theologians where sufficient reason exists to avoid or postpone pregnancy.

Sufficient reason. Grave cause. Serious circumstances. There are many of these. Responsibility to the children one already has, the health of the mother, temporary or permanent hardships - it is not possible to give a complete list. Here is where the rule of an informed conscience is paramount. But it is also possible to be selfish here - and also to have a misunderstanding of what one's responsibilities and limits truly are. I only wish, at this point in my life, that I had been a little more generous. I wish that I had listened to those of my children who begged me for a baby brother - while I was still young enough to have tried again. And maybe that regret is one of the prime reasons I have come to the point where I am now. And again, maybe it is just that I have been trying to let God work on my life more and more.

totb and breastfeeding

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the marriage and family category from April 2007.

marriage and family: March 2007 is the previous archive.

marriage and family: June 2007 is the next archive.

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