A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

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

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Today's Guest: "An Open Letter"

Welcome to Part III of my series on "An Open Letter About Open Embrace" recently published on the web by Sam and Bethany Torode, authors of the book Open Embrace. I am your host, Teresa/Spacemouse/Selkie, and in today's episode, we'll be considering the Torodes' change of stance with regard to the use of barrier methods and non-intercourse sexual actions.

First, let's look at what the Torodes said about this subject in their book, written in 2001. They don't talk about barrier methods in detail, but they first define contraception this way:

". . . by "contraception" we mean any process, devisce, or action whose purpose is to prevent the meeting of sperm and egg when a couple engages in intercourse" (8).

This clearly includes "sensual massage" and barrier methods. Regarding the morality of these actions, they wrote:

"We aren't concerned here with the question of whether contraception, as defined above, is intrinsically evil or sinful. We should say that it's not ideal. Rather than pointing fingers, we want to point to a better way."

I think this second statement is important to highlight, because many people have been talking about the Torodes' new stance as if it were a complete about-face; as if they had once condemned all contracepted intercourse as intrinsically sinful. In fact, as the quotation above illustrates, they weren't willing to go that far in Open Embrace.

However, in their book they did clearly endorse not only the language of the Theology of the Body, but the language which appeared in Humanae Vitae about the inseperability of the unitive and procreative aspects of sexuality:

". . .while sex is not solely for conception, it is not our place to deliberately separate sex from its procreative aspect" (30).

I single this line out because this, prior to the Theology of the Body, this was the major philosophical undergirding of the Catholic rejection of contracepted intercourse. It is still an extremely important concept in Catholic sexual ethics. The Torodes themselves once held this belief, as Open Embrace shows. But their "Open Letter" doesn't address it at all. Apparently, they no longer believe this, but they don't explicitly state that they have rejected it, nor do they give grounds for why.

I understand that the text I'm analyzing so obsessively was just a short letter announcing their change of mind. It was not intended to comprehensively explain why the authors no longer believed X, Y, and Z. But this is important stuff we're dealing with here, and it surprises me that the Torodes don't really address the unitive-procreative connection. After all, in Open Embrace, they wrote:

"As married persons, our part is to remain open to children, by becoming one flesh and refusing to compromise that union. This is not to say that every time a couple makes love, they should be trying to conceive. . . . But every time husband and wife come together, they ought to do so in earnest, in an open embrace, witholding nothing from each other- including their fertility." (24-25)

This is where the title of the book came up, so it seems it must have been central to their understanding of marital sexuality in 2001. What do they say about this in their 2006 letter? Not much. This is their new position:

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)? We also see honest congruity with the language of the body by saying "no" to conception with our bodies (via barrier methods or sensual massage) when our minds and hearts are also saying "no" to conception. We don’t believe this angers God, nor that it leads to the slippery slope of relativism or divorce. We strongly disagree with the Catholic Church that this is a mortal sin.

There's nothing in the above paragraph about the need not to withold anything in the marital embrace. They have rejected the idea of an embrace needing to be "open," but without explicitly saying it. Given that Open Embrace was the title of their book, this omission seems odd.

I am probably reading things into the text that aren't there, but to me, their logic seems to go like this (apologies to readers who have already seen the following outlines in one of my posts at the NFP forum!):

1) It is permissable for a couple to decide not to conceive a child, to say "no" to conception. This is consistent with their earlier stance; it was what set them apart from Providentialist or Full Quiver thinkers.

2) The actions of the body should match the intentions of one's mind. This, again, is consistent with Open Embrace. They draw this claim from the Theology of the Body, which talks about the importance of what are actions speak.

3) When a couple decides not to conceive -when the couple says "no" to conception- the action of their body should match their words. Thus, at this time it is permissable to use actions which say no to conception, such as barrier methods or non-intercourse sexual actions.

The problem is that though the Torodes claim they are still influenced by the idea of the language of the body, they are missing the point. As the first half of the above paragraph highlighted in red indicates, they have rejected a key part of the Theology of the Body, which is that it is not permissable to withold part of one's self in the sexual action. Though it is permissable to say "I don't think we should have a child now" it is not permissable to say: "I want to be one with all of you except your fertility." As the Torodes themselves once said:

"To our minds, anything less than a true one-flesh union fails to represent the completely self-giving love of Christ for the Church. This is why we believe that when a husband and wife have serious reasons to avoid pregnancy, it's better to abstain for a time than to diminish the meaning and mystery of sex" (25).

In a previous entry, I discussed the problem with their reasoning that a couple says "no" much of their life. Here, I simply want to repeat that saying "yes" to the gift of one's spouse does not mean having as much marital intercourse as is possible. To imply that is to twist the language of the body completely. What the Theology of the Body says about NFP and contraception is actually this:

I) The act of marital intercourse always constitutes an invitation to conceive a child. That meaning is inherently written into the body, and is not affected by a couple's conscious motives in seeking marital intercourse.

II) It is permissable to choose not to invite conception, to choose not to say yes to a child. The language of your body may reflect that decision not to invite a child by abstaining from issuing the invitation at a time when it is likely to be fulfilled. There is, further, nothing wrong with monitoring a woman's natural cycle to know when such an invitation would be likely to be fulfilled. But even when a couple does this -even when a couple uses NFP to try to avoid conception- their marital intercourse at infertile times still inherently says "yes" to the possibility of a child.

III) It is not permissable for the language of the body to be conflicted, by saying both "yes" to a child (through having intercourse) and "no" at the same time, through rendering the act sterile.
Thus, it is never permissable to use barriers or non-intercourse sexual actions which render conception impossible. Such usage of contracepted intercourse constitutes an inherent contradiction in the very language of the body.

My point is that the Theology of the Body is not simply about whether your desire to have or not to have a child is matched by the sexual action being either open or closed to conception. This is what the Torodes seem to be saying, but they ignore or reject the fact that, according to the Theology of the Body, contracepted intercourse involves an inherent contradiction in what one's body is saying. It is not just a matter of body and mind being in agreement, but in the language of the body itself needing to be consistent.

I suspect that the Torodes may have rejected point #I above, the idea that the sexual act inherently constitutes an invitation to conception. This claim is a sticking-point for many who disagree with the Catholic perspective on family planning. However, if that's the case, it would have been nice if they had clarified it, as this is a central part of the language of the body. Clearly, they now reject point III, too, in that they no longer see barriers as constituting a contradiction in the body's language- or if so, they no longer see that contradiction as morally problematic.

That's about all we have time for today. Tune in next time, when I attempt to finish up this series with a brief look at the invocation of Eastern and Western tradition on the subject of contraception. And then, I promise, I'll post that long-awaited entry on ghosts!


Anonymous Mary said...

Your blog entries have been interesting and I've also looked at the thread you highlighted. For the record, I'm a fallen away Catholic who thinks the Church's teaching on contraception is just plain wrong, not to mention inconsistent and somewhat self-contradictory. But I'm drawn to these discussions periodically to see if I've missed something.

My guess is that the Torodes did not have a deep theological commitment to begin with. When faced with the realities of NFP use, they were also confronted with its problems and inconsistencies, and they had no faith-based tradition to convince themselves that NFP was "right", despite their personal issues.

No doubt it's disappointing to NFP users that one of their own has publically defected, but I'm sure a similar scenario plays out in many other homes. Even Catholic ones, given that such a low % of Catholics use NFP- 2% or 3% or something like that?

10:03 PM  

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