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

Monday, April 24, 2006

Rethinking Open Embrace

In 2001, Sam and Bethany Torode published a little paperback book called Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception. The book was, in a tiny way, revolutionary. It did actually change some people's theology with regard to the use of contraception. What concerns me more in this entry, though, is that the book gave Natural Family Planning (NFP) believers a resource which was non-sectarian. Before Open Embrace, there were (there still are) a number of anti-birth control books by conservative Protestant Christians, but most of them support a Full Quiver approach (what Catholics call "Providentialist"). Though people often confuse NFP use with Providentialism, the two are quite distinct, and adherents of one view generally don't endorse the other. In Be Fruitful and Multiply, for example, Nancy Campbell agreed that NFP was not as bad as other forms of birth control, but she still considered it unnatural and not what God intended. Other books by Protestants which did endorse Natural Family Planning (such as Debra Evans' Christian Woman's Guide To Sexuality) often did so outside of the broader theological context generally used by NFP advocates.

With the advent of Open Embrace, all that changed. There was now a book which argued for NFP use within the context of John Paul II's Theology of the Body. Catholics gave this book to their Protestant friends in order to explain some Catholic teachings on sexual ethics. The book was ideal for this purpose because, unlike most Catholic works on the subject, it was written to an audience that did not accept the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. For Catholic defenders of NFP, "because the Church said so" could always be the fallback answer to questions like "how do we know contraception is immoral?" and "how do we know that NFP use isn't the same as artificial methods of contraception?" In Open Embrace, by contrast, the Torodes had to begin by explaining their use of tradition to an audience not necessary accustomed to seeing Patristics used that way. It was the perfect book to recommend as a primer on the Theology of the Body and Natural Family Planning for non-Catholic readers.

Now we're in for another sea change or miniature revolution, because the Torodes have effectively disowned much of the content of the book. In an earlier "Open Letter about Open Embrace" they asked readers to take it with "a grain of salt" on account of their idealism and legalism. Their website currently contains a longer explanation as to why they no longer hold the views they held when they wrote Open Embrace. They now recommend Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) rather than NFP- which means, essentially, that they advocate the use of barrier methods of contraception or the substitution of non-intercourse sexual practices during the fertile period, rather than complete abstinence, and they clearly reject the Catholic teaching on the immorality of both of these actions.

Fans of Open Embrace are going to have to make some decisions about how or whether to use the book in light of the Torodes' change of heart. There are a number of questions I think their "Open Letter" raises. One is about integrity: is it honest to continue passing this book out if one knows that the authors no longer stand by what they wrote? In some ways, this does seem dishonest: it reminds me of Anglicans who cite John Henry Newman's "three branch" view of the Church to explain the status of the Anglican Communion as equal to the Orthodox and Catholic Communions without adding that Newman later rejected that view. Certainly, it seems to me that Open Embrace fans, if they continue to recommend the book, must advise their recommendees of the Torode's change of heart. (In the same way, I think it should be admitted that they are no longer a "Protestant couple" because they entered the Orthodox Church shortly after writing the book.)

There are additional problems which may arise now in regard to using or recommending Open Embrace. If one uses the book as supporting evidence to argue that NFP isn't only used by Catholics, one may expect knowledgeable opponents of NFP to respond with "Ah, but the Torodes changed their minds once they actually tried the method." It may be worth asking: is it better to simply set the book aside? More importantly, I think we should ask: are there fundamental flaws in the Torodes' thinking about sexuality which resulted in their abandonment of the NFP-only stance? If that is the case, it would be better not to recommend the book simply because readers convinced by it might, like the Torodes, abandon the position when the road got a little rockier than expected.

In a later post, I intend to examine the Torode's "Open Letter on Open Embrace" and offer some criticism of the letter, as well as some of my own suggestions on how to respond to the situation, but for now I simply invite readers to read the letter for themselves. How would you respond?


Anonymous Becky said...

I think we should abandon use of Open Embrace. Yes, it is a nice little book, but this creates definite problems.

On a related note, I wonder if this is related to their use of NFP as taught by CCL. That is, it often seems to me that NFP as taught (currently) by the CCL does not adequately handle irregular times in the woman's cycle. I'm hoping this is improved in their new material. Learning the OM or Fertility Care is much more useful during breastfeeding, IMO.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Teresa H.T. said...

On a related note, I wonder if this is related to their use of NFP as taught by CCL

I wondered this too. I wondered if they got the help/instruction they needed for dealing with breastfeeding problems. I also wondered if part of the problem was that CCL DOES (in my opinion) sometimes come off sounding unnecessarily anti-sex or rather anti-pleasure. I could give examples, but that's a post for another day.

5:09 PM  
Anonymous Jessica said...

I think it's a combination of learning through CCL, converting to Orthodoxy, and having a pre-conceived idealistic picture of what using NFP is supposed to be like.

7:23 PM  

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