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No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Embracing the Cross of Abstinence

We've been discussing the Torodes' Open Letter over at the Delphi Natural Family Planning board. Most reactions have been very negative, as one might expect on a forum devoted to NFP use, and I've learned quite a bit from commentors who are personally familiar with Orthodoxy or with the theologians the Torodes cite. I recommend this thread to all interested in the situation. Despite having made a number of comments on the letter there, I'm going to try doing a closer analysis here. In this post, I will focus on the Torodes' comments about abstinence in NFP use. In the next post, I will address their defense of contracepted intercourse, by which I mean any sexual act which is actively and deliberately rendered sterile. I may or may not comment on the strange "anti-Western" bias in their letter. (I am, after all, aware that I still haven't finished my "ghosts" series, and it's been some time since I've posted a slow cooker recipe.)

First of all, let me say that the Torodes are right that Open Embrace was too idealistic. They wrote the book before ever having had to use NFP to avoid conception: in fact, they conceived on their honeymoon. Thus, as they now admit, not having used NFP, they had unrealistic ideas about the amount of abstinence required to use NFP properly. They were also unaware of the ways the method could strain a marriage. Though they presented arguments for NFP beautifully, I don't think they were able to sympathize with the situation of those who find NFP difficult. And it seems that they themselves were unprepared for the rough times of NFP. They write:

Though Open Embrace said that it only involves a short period of abstinence, we didn’t know that during breastfeeding cycles it often involves month-long periods of abstinence and dehabilitating stress. During such times (as well as during menopause and stressful life seasons), strict NFP reaches a point where it is more harmful for a marriage than good.

What they don't seem to realize about the above quote is that it is still making theological assumptions. Namely, it assumes that the use of barrier methods or non-intercourse sexual practices are less harmful to a marriage than long periods of abstinence. There's a problem with this logic, given that they are addressing the letter to people who view contracepted intercourse as inherently wrong: since sin is always harmful to a relationship, their idea that barrier methods are better for a marriage than abstinence only follows if you have already proven that using such methods is not sinful. If contracepted intercourse is sinful (as Catholic theology says), then it will always harm a marriage seriously, even if the harmful effects are not always visible. But they haven't first proven that such methods are not sinful. Rather, they are arguing backwards, and saying that they must be permissable because pure abstinence is too harmful. This doesn't work, though: as Christians, we do not determine what is moral based on what is easiest for people to do or what seems less stressful. If that's how Christians thought, we'd have no history of martyrdom, no religious vocations, and, I suspect, a lot less chastity overall.

The problem the Torodes faced is that NFP does require sacrifice, and they may not have realized that when they jumped into the Theology of the Body feet first. NFP requires the users to say: "God, I will put my honoring you above everything else, including something which seems like it would be good for my marriage." Of course, the Torodes may feel that if it turns out to be true that God is not dishonored by contracepted intercourse, then the sacrifice of NFP is all for naught. Some people might still argue against them, on the grounds that such sacrifice, such asceticism, is good even when it is not necessary. Though I don't have room to consider this angle thoroughly, I think it's a point which needs to be made.

In any event, the Torodes try to prove the moral acceptability of contracepted intercourse in one paragraph, some of which I will analyze in my next post. However, the first part of this crucial paragraph is a criticism of abstinence on the grounds that it denies the gift of self encouraged by the Theology of the Body. As such, it's worth examining here:

We still believe in the "language of the body"--which informs our rejection of some aspects of NFP. How is it that spouses are saying "yes" to the gift of each other when they end up abstaining for much of their married lives (from the aforementioned breastfeeding cycles, pregnancy exhaustion, or energy being diverted into raising kids)?

First of all, it is unfair to lump the last two points into a criticism of NFP. The reality is that spouses don't get to have sex all the time no matter what method of family planning they use. During and after pregnancy, women may be forced to abstain for health reasons unrelated to family planning method. Even childless couples may get exhausted from the pressures of work, volunteering, or health problems. Furthermore, mismatches in libido are fairly common in marriage and may result in a lot of apparent "no's" to the gift of the body. Saying "yes" to the gift itself is not, then, a matter of having as much marital intercourse as is humanly possible. It is also an attitude of the heart. It is a way of approaching the body; a way of reading marital intercourse in connection with its broader purpose in uniting a couple. A couple whose sexual life were ended due to health problems would not be saying "no" to the gift of self. Nor does a couple who must abstain even for a few months -whether on account of health problems, difficult cycles, or even Eastern Orthodox fasting regulations- say "no" at that time. Rather, they say (or should say): "Not now."

While I'm on the subject of abstinence, let me address this point:

Yes, we are marred by sin, but God has given us new hearts with his image strongly growing in them -- which means our deepest desires are true and good (see Waking the Dead by John Eldredge). One example: wanting to make love to your spouse often is a good thing, but NFP often lays an unfair burden of guilt on men for feeling this.

To me, the guilt described here indicates a fundamental problem of the heart, not a problem of NFP. The Torodes are absolutely right in saying that such desires are good. God intends for men to desire their wives. (For that matter, God intends for wives to desire their husbands.) There is no need for an NFP-using husband to feel guilty about his desire for his wife, just as (thanks to my husband for the analogy!) there is no need for someone who is fasting to feel guilty about being hungry. Hunger is natural, and choosing not to eat does not equate to saying "it's bad to want food." I don't deny that that may be the motive in some people's fasting, but it is the wrong motive. Likewise, NFP is not about abstaining because desire is bad. It is about saying:"This desire I have is good, and it would be good to act on it, but at this point in time, the resulting conception would not be prudent. We will honor God by waiting to act on this desire."

I am not sure exactly what is meant by "guilt" but I speculate that it indicates a line of thought like this: "NFP is a wonderful God-given method of family planning. I shouldn't be frustrated with it. I shouldn't desire my wife so much, because this is what God intends. My desire must run counter to God's will." If this was the line of thought, then it seems to me that there are two errors. First, such a line of thought ignores the fact that it is, as indicated above, possible to give up a good thing which one desires while saying: "I desire this because it is good. It is natural for me to keep desiring it, but I will order that desire by choosing not to fulfill it at this point for X reason." If the Torodes assumed that because NFP was "designed by God," it would never mean desiring not to abstain, they were wrong. They may be right to say that they had a serious misunderstanding about the goodness of human desires. Still, what was needed was a change in thinking about NFP, not a rejection of NFP.

The other thing they may not be taking into account is Original Sin. By this, I DON'T mean that it is sinful or fallen for a man to desire his wife while they are forced to abstain because of long post-partum cycles. Rather, I mean that the very situation such a couple is in -that of needing to delay conception, the failure of breastfeeding itself to provide adequate infertility, confusing signs of returning fertility- was itself a result of the Fall. I honestly can't imagine quite how reproduction and sexuality would have been integrated in a prelapsarian world, but I am certain that couples would not have had these problems in such an ideal world. Unfortunately for all of us, we don't live in an ideal world. Many of the frustrations of married life are the result of fallenness, which is not to say that they are always the result of personal sin.

Perhaps the Torodes had difficulty in determining the difference between the two categories of personal sin and the general fallenness of the world. Perhaps they encountered the fallenness in the very make-up of the world through the frustations of prolonged abstinence and misread that fallenness-induced-frustration as personal sin. Later, when they realized their mistake in calling good desire sin, they may have decided that they should satisfy their God-given desires and avoid their frustrations by abandoning periodic abstinence. In order to do so, they had to justify acceptance of contracepted intercourse, since they apparently aren't interested in taking a Full Quiver or Providentialist position. In my next post, I'll look at how they attempted to do that.


Blogger Kevin Jones said...

Do the Torodes have an opinion on St. Paul's advice(command?) that husband and wife take a break from marital relations?

I've been pondering how full-blown pro-natalism can distort Christian marriage and the eschatological significance(pardon the jargon) of celibacy. St. Robert Bellarmine specifically recommends that a husband and wife who can't support more children separate, even to the point of entering a monastery or a convent. Augustine thought that if everybody became good monks and nuns instead of having children, it would actually hasten the end of the world. Grist for the mill.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Teresa H.T. said...

Do the Torodes have an opinion on St. Paul's advice(command?) that husband and wife take a break from marital relations?

Yes, actually, they do. In their letter, they say:

We still love the agrarian concept of "giving the land a rest" as applied to a woman’s body; cyclical periods of realistic abstinence are great for deepening communication and creating a honeymoon effect. But it’s a theological attack on women to always require that abstinence during the time of the wife’s peak sexual desire (ovulation) for the entire duration of her fertile life, except for the handful of times when she conceives.

So they still believe in the usefulness of times of abstinence; they just don't believe in combining such abstinence for ascetic purposes with the use of NFP.

I actually think the relationship between NFP use and Christian discipleship is very complicated. I'd like to say more about it sometime, but I don't know when that will be.

12:10 PM  

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