The Delightful Secrets of Sex
Juli Loesch Wiley on Fertility & Contraception
With all the incessant media drooling over the sexual options smorgasbord, with the Gay Summer of 2003 still flickering blue on our TV screens, and with even the Girl Scouts and the YWCA endorsing “safe-sex” training for young girls, people plugged into the mass culture have heard few discordant notes about the sexual revolution—and some have heard, perhaps, only one. Namely, that “the pope” is against it. To whom is sometimes added “the Christian right.” And, especially maddening to the Socially Responsible, “the pope” is even for some reason bizarrely, unaccountably opposed to what even most churches agree is the best thing since One-A-Day vitamins: contraception.
Secular journalists seem to assume that a comprehensive critique of the agenda and the paraphernalia of the sexual revolution is an idiosyncrasy of “the pope” alone. They are unaware that such opposition is only the latest expression of the continuous Judeo-Christian concern for sexual integrity going back to the New Testament and the church fathers, going back in fact to Genesis.
Who bothers to explain, even superficially, the rationale for the (until this century) universal Christian teaching against contraception? The implication is that there are no reasons for the historic Christian position: nothing worth examining, nothing even worth refuting. The believers who do accept the traditional teaching—mostly Catholics, and a minority of them at that—accept it on “blind faith,” and that’s that.
Yet the sexual revolution—the disjointing and dismembering of human sexuality into a heap of fragments to be rearranged into any shape at will—rests upon certain underlying assumptions about the nature and ends of sexuality. It relies upon contraceptive paraphernalia as its necessary technology. I am no professional philosopher, but I can see the urgency of examining the assumptions before taking any stance at all with regard to the technique.
Sexually, we resemble baboons. This is, and to a certain extent ought to be, true. But saying it seems like a dig, a put-down.
We know that human sexuality is something like other mammalian sexuality, and at the same time something more. For us, as for apes, mating fulfills an appetitive drive and satisfies an itch. Like other primates, we reproduce sexually. Again like other primates, we use sexual gestures to express affinity or “matedness” or belonging on some level: Our mating patterns order our herd, our group, our community.
But there is still something more than affinity, progeny, and itch. The sacramental view of sexuality was never based on studies of baboon communities or squints at barnyard sex. Christians believe that, first, since we were made in the image and likeness of God, our design is both revelatory and providential. Second, the “honor of the marriage bed” is rooted in the scriptural view of the marital union as showing forth, mysteriously, the love-union of Christ and the Church.
If human sexuality had no designer, then vain is an appeal to honor the design. Furthermore, if there is a design, and the design is already perfectly reflected in our instincts, drives, and appetites, then “honoring the design” should need no special appeal at all: We should expect it to happen automatically.
When Christ, during his ministry here on earth, was asked (in Matthew 19) about the propriety of certain sexual customs, his method was to refer his questioners back to Genesis. He used the argument from design: that the Creator had made the human race male and female, that he had designed them to hold fast together, becoming one flesh. So the design of male and female is a sign of different-sex alliance and fidelity (Gen. 2:18–24) as well as God’s way of making his human creatures fruitful (Gen. 1:28). This is the way it was to be in Eden (literally, “Delight”).
The question Jesus was asked had to do with divorce. His answer made clear that in the beginning (Genesis), in the time of delight (Eden), man and woman were one: There was no divorce. He notes that divorce came in later because of people’s hardness of heart—in other words, because they sinned. But rather than accommodating that hardness of heart, he challenges his listeners with a hard saying—“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another, is guilty of adultery”—a hard saying that paradoxically upholds once again the norm of Eden, the full-orbed sexuality of delight.
What does this discussion of divorce have to do with contraception? The underlying question in both cases is whether we are justified in breaking this full-orbed sexuality apart.
May we break apart, rearrange, a man and a woman? May we break apart fruitfulness and delight? Are we free, because we are able to do so, to split sex up into its various “animal” and “angel” components: fondness here, fertility there; here the itch, there the issue; affection and desire and covenant and conception considered separately and experienced separately—rearranging the pieces to suit whatever project we have in mind?
The picture is complicated by the fact that men and women have become hardened in their responses, in their feelings, in what seems natural to them, because of sin. We’re not in the Garden anymore. Our hearts are hard. So, for instance, rape seems natural, even urgent, to some poor sinners. To others, natural is the pleasure of seduction. For some men, mating with a man seems natural. Still others seek sexual gratification with children. Or animals. Or, lower still, with plastic sex toys and video images.
And many—especially in our day—think it a problem and a vexation that natural sex should so easily produce offspring. It seems to them normal that sex should be usually—almost invariably—infertile. The fruitfulness of the sexual embrace distresses them. I could almost say it affronts them. The connection between sexual fulfillment and fertility strikes them as a defect of design.
Fruitfulness is undeniably a component of real sex. Bible and biology, Genesis and genetics, every source of knowledge, natural and supernatural, is there to tell us so. It is not a defect: It is part of the design. The question, then, is what do we do about it? Do we learn to live with our created sexual design, learn about it “on our knees” as learning something holy? Or do we reject our sexual nature as it is, and invent something else?
Contraception means the rejection of real sex: It is an insistence that we can break sexuality into pieces, select the bits we like, and put the rest in the wastebasket.
It takes patience and humility to live with a husband or wife whose sexuality is whole, entire, and unbroken. It means one’s great bodily powers and heart-energies are at the service of somebody else—at the service of another sex, and another generation—and not of oneself. This laying out of sexuality at the service of another—seeing genital activity itself not as self-fulfillment but as self-donation—is at the heart of Christian sacramental reflection.
Now consider this: If the husband or the wife says, “I love you, dearie, but you’ve got one God-given, healthy, holistic power that gives me a pain: fertility. So bag it. Fix it. Suppress it. And then I’ll sleep with you”—that is not exactly the acceptance of a whole person by a whole person. It is altering the person (suppressing natural fertility) as a condition for marital union.
Thus, contraception does not just offend the procreative power; it offends the unitive power, too. It involves a maiming of bodily wholeness—cutting sex down to size—which ultimately means cutting your spouse down to size.
Both reason and revelation tell us that a great purpose of the sexual bonding of a man and a woman—and therefore of marriage—is the begetting and raising of children. But there are some who say that if a husband and wife are, on the whole, accepting of children, there’s no reason for this “holistic acceptance” to be expressed in every act of marital union. In other words, openness to life inheres in the relationship as a whole, and not necessarily in individual sexual acts.
Just a moment now. Suddenly we have a “relationship” that is somehow independent of its “acts.” Try this statement instead, which substitutes “fidelity” for “fertility”: “Marital fidelity inheres in the relationship and not necessarily in individual sexual acts.” (Oops! That comes a little too close to what the mass culture is already beginning to say: “Flexible Fidelity: the Next Big Thing.”) Let’s try one more: “Your Savings and Loan believes that business ethics inheres in the relationship and not necessarily in individual financial transactions.” Now we’re cooking!
A relationship is not separable from its “acts.” The acts are the ingredients of the relationship. If your recipe for brownies is 99 percent wholesome except for a tablespoon from the cat’s litter box, haven’t you subtly altered the character of brownies per se?
But don’t we have a dilemma here? On the one hand, the marriage relationship is ordered to self-donation: holy oneness with one’s spouse, and the procreation and education of children. But there are occasions—particularly in times of sickness, poverty, and hardship—when the arrival of more children would seriously compromise the family’s ability to care for the children they have already been given and make oneness far more difficult, if not (apparently) impossible.
In these cases—when the mother’s health is at serious risk, or the family’s finances are close to calamitous, or the caregiving needs of the existing children are already nearly overwhelming—wouldn’t contraception actually serve the ends of marriage by making it more likely that the children already born will also be decently cared for, given the parents’ limited resources of time, energy, and money?
I am convinced that the answer is no. Even in these cases, contraception would not serve. There is something literally disordered about contraception: It entails actively rejecting and extirpating part of our created design. We are not allowed, and should not want, to bring disorder into our lives, especially our married lives.
In these cases, natural family planning (NFP) could very well be the answer to prayer. For the same reason, it should be clear why natural family planning is morally acceptable: It means knowing, respecting, and acting in harmony with our created design.
NFP involves knowing the bodily signs of fertility and infertility and then acting accordingly: choosing intercourse during fertile times if the conception of a child could be accepted, or abstaining at those times if there are grave reasons to avoid pregnancy. In both cases, the spouses are acting with, and not against, the natural powers and potentialities inscribed by divine wisdom in their own bodies.
That is why it is inaccurate to call NFP a “method of contraception.” Contraception is a key part of the larger modern project of splitting sexuality into its components and then exploiting those components separately. It calls for nothing by way of virtue. It requires only drugs, devices, or surgery. It is the ultimate technical fix.
NFP expresses a much more ancient and holistic view: that sexual powers require harmonious cooperation, patience, gentleness, self-control—in fact, all the fruits of the Holy Spirit. NFP presupposes husbands and wives who have placed their sexual lives humbly in each other’s hands; who can, by mutual consent, lovingly abstain for a little while, and lovingly come together again (1 Cor. 7:4–5); who know there is a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing (Eccl. 3:5).
St. Paul said something about human sexual love that was never said about any animal’s sex life: that for us—for human persons and particularly for baptized persons—sexual union is a mysterium tremendum. It is the prime image of the union of Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:32). To be sure, St. Paul does not say that this imaging is a property of sexual relations considered in isolation, but of marriage as a whole. Nevertheless, we’re not talking here about the love of parent and child, of brothers and sisters, of workmates or the monastery or the parish, but precisely the union exclusively proper to married persons. The sacred sign of this is sexual intercourse.
It seems to me that the goal of Christ’s work is the creation of a new human race, one that lives the way God originally wanted the human race to live. This is a call backward to Genesis, to original design, to what one might call Alpha Humanity. But it is also a call forward to something new, to life fulfilled in Christ: Omega Humanity.
If the sexual act signifies this, if eternal salvation has a nuptial meaning (the Spirit and the Bride say, “Come”), then its structure is not to be tampered with, any more than one would tamper with the matter of the Eucharist or the name of the Trinity. This means that wholeness is not just desirable, not just an ideal, but is obligatory for purposes of signifying what God wants to signify; in other words, for sacramental reasons. This is why honest virginity and honest married love both honor the sacramentality of sex: virginity, by keeping sex wholly reserved; and marriage, by keeping sex whole whenever it is expressed.
This doesn’t mean that a baby must be desired whenever intercourse is chosen (although it is a beautiful thing for husband and wife to come together knowing that conception is possible; they are then true wonder-workers in each other’s eyes!). But it means, at least, that the natural pattern of fertility and infertility is recognized as providential. We cooperate with it. We respect it. We don’t restructure it.
Those who never really fast, never really feast. The seasons of nature alternate cold and warm, dry and wet, the hard-shelled seed buried in darkness and the spring and sap of the new green shoot. In the same way, the church calendar is spangled with its purple and rose, its white, green, and gold, keeping its octaves, counting its days, fasting without bitterness and feasting without shame.
I speak here of sexual abstinence: the virginity of the unmarried, the continence of the celibate, and the periodic abstinence of NFP couples; and also of those many occasions when husband and wife are unable to come together because of illness, weariness, or separation. These are our fasts. Yet the meaning of abstinence is never found in itself, but in rhythms larger than ourselves, larger than our whole lifetimes. The meaning of the fast is found in the Feast.
Truly, if this life were all there is, there would be no reason not to squander our sexual energy ad libitum, de-coupled as to partner, disoriented as to sex and gender, Dionysian as to its final end: Remember that in Euripides’ play The Bacchae it ends in death.
But if this life points mysteriously to a life to come, we must honor the “secret meaning” of our sexuality as a Sign of sacred fertile union. To deliberately splinter the parts of the Sign—to break away from the sacredness, to split off the fertility, or to disrupt the spouses’ one-flesh unity—would be like hacking up a painted highway marker into a heap of unrelated syllables. But to restore the Sign of whole sexual love—man and woman, lifelong and exclusive, faithful and fruitful—means to read the Sign rightly and to reach the destination to which it points: the Marriage of the Lamb, the feast that has no end.
A version of this article appeared in Re:generation in 1995.
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“The Delightful Secrets of Sex” first appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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