I am currently finishing my tour of Blessed John Paul II's trilogy on the Theology of the Body (an aesthetic presentation - The Jeweler's Shop, a philosophical treatise - Love and Responsibility, and his systematic theological presenation, The Theology of the Body). It will take a while to finish, as I am slowly relishing the book by reading it aloud to my sweetheart instead of zipping through it in one sitting, yet for this post I will take the lead from this blog's patron figurehead, Chesterton, and like most authors write about something that I know nothing about, an unmarried continent man in the middle of reading the classic work on the subject.
What struck me as I was contemplating the subject is that the body is indeed an ethical and philosophical "problem". Humanity's discomfort with the body has been expressed in a huge variety of extremes in its relationship to it, ranging from stark body- and world-denying ascetism (some Buddhist monastic rules forbid monks to even come within a certain distance of women, for example, like the "six-inch" rule preached though not always practiced by some fundamentalist Protestant sects, and Buddhist asceticism is mild compared to many forms of Hindu practice) to unrestrained libertinism. The discomfort with the body is not restricted to religious considerations; the ancient Greeks often despised the body for philosophical reasons, either regarding it as a prison of the soul (as with Plato) or as a dangerous threat to man's tranquility (as with the Epicureans, especially Lucretius). Nor was Victorian prudery particularly religious, and today's modern excesses in favor of promiscuity and unbridled lust are not religious either, though they also demonstrate a discomfort and self-consciousness with the body expressed in an obsession with sexuality (fifty minutes inside a college literature class will reveal this one quickly) and a frenetic search for an always evasive sexual panacea for all man's unease and disquiet.
It seems that mankind's reaction to the sexual problem can be divided into four basic attitudes we tend to fall back on. One of them, which I will summarize last, is expressed by the theology of the body, the body viewed in the light of its nuptial meaning made even more clear to us by Divine Revelation; two of them are nothing short of despicable, and one of them has a veneer of piety and widespread adherence among modern Catholics, but is ultimately no less wicked than the others.
First there are the libertines, who view sex only as a dirty pleasure which everyone does, and which nobody should stop themselves from doing. This is the legacy of the "sexual revolution", and it is a despicable cheapening of such a wondrous mystery as erotic love. As this is only a blog post, this attitude does not deserve the space and time for further consideration.
Secondly, there are the Puritans, both religious and non-religious. The Puritans are the Manichaeans and Zoroastrians who regarded the body as the creation of an evil deity, the Gnostics who regarded it as a fall from true spirituality, the Docetists who could not conceive of an Incarnate God, the historical Puritans who made it a crime (in Hartford, Conn.) for a man to kiss his wife in public on Sunday lest the Lord’s Day be profaned by public lasciviousness, and also unfortunately the attitude taken by many monastic and patristic spiritual writers who were tainted with a sort of angelism – regarding perfection as incompatible with the married state, or (with St. Gregory of Nyssa) believing sexual differentiation to be a second-best state, one God created in foresight of the Fall though He would have really rather made us propagate mentally, like angels. This is an equally despicable view, to which I will give no further consideration. Unfortunately, it still pervades some aspects of our culture - in many places one cannot purchase alcohol on Sundays.
Third, there are the traditionalist Catholics and Russian Orthodox, who reverse this, and while the Protestants abstain from defiling the Sabbath with carnal pleasures, traditional Catholics and Orthodox honor the Lord’s Day with great celebration, both by feasting and by going hard at work in propagating their kind. And yet such married couples will still practice periodic abstinence as a form of ascesis - in Russia for example it is traditionally forbidden to make love during Lent. This is no less wrongheaded than the previous form of Puritanism, and in the end just as wicked an attitude, but for a slightly different reason. We as Catholics do not abstain from the world because it is evil, but rather because it is good - but we give up the lesser good of innocent pleasures for the greater good of our soul, which is a personal good (we ourselves are ends rather than means, and therefore making our own substance or being good is more important than pursuing pleasures which are only means for other ends). The fact that marriage is a joyful state does not justify reducing it to only an innocent pleasure like food and drink, and what distinguishes it is even more fundamental than its sacramental character – it is the interpersonal character of love, the mutual and total self-giving (and, therefore, the dying to self) involved that makes one’s love for one’s wife different than his love for a cold beer, and consequently why one cannot fast from one’s wife the same way one fasts from a cold beer, as if your wife was just another licit pleasure object. This is especially problematic when such "ascesis" introduces an element of hypocrisy. When NFP is used for contraceptive purposes, the husband fasts from the pleasure-object he is married to only when and precisely in view of when making love to her would be fruitful, all the time vaunting his “asceticism” and congratulating himself for achieving the same end as a mortal sin, the only difference being that he does so without taking a pill so "unnaturally" manufactured in a factory. When the intention is contraceptive (and the method, according to its proponents, 99% effective), one is only deluding himself or engaging in the most meaningless sophistry by pretending to still be "open to life". This is a contraception more pernicious, more double-tongued, more two-sidedly and blatantly wicked than any medical technique that at least has the honesty to admit that it is not in fact open to life, and while the full force of the Church's critique of contraceptives for their objectification of one's sexual partner remain in place, taking a pill is not quite so bad as reducing one's partner to the axiological status of a cold beer.
Abstinence during the period of fertility is not asceticism, but if carried out in a planned and systematic manner for contraceptive purposes, it is simply a shirking of the conjugal duty. Of course, there is no duty to make love every night, or even to abstain on particular occasions if one does not wish to procreate that night for whatever reason (bad finances that might suggest waiting a month, or lack of sleep, or whatever). Sex is by nature spontaneous, as is deciding not to have sex on a particular occasion. What is a violation of one's responsibility as a married couple is the systematic and planned method of contraception, as for example when NFP is routinely taught to engaged or dating couples with the presumption that it will be used as "Catholic birth control" rather than an unfortunate concession to grave or serious circumstances, the only circumstances to which Humanae Vitae gave its blessing.
Lest I simply be dismissed as disagreeing with the Church's official teaching on this matter, I will support my claim with a passage from Blessed John Paul II's Love and Responsibility, p. 242:
We cannot therefore speak of continence as a virtue where the spouses take advantage of the periods of biological infertility exclusively for the purpose of avoiding parenthood altogether, and have intercourse only in those periods. To apply the 'natural method' in this way would be contrary to nature - both the objective order of nature and the essential character of love are hostile to such a policy.
The objection of course is often made that NFP is "natural" whereas medical contraceptives are "unnatural". This is one of the more comical retentions from outdated science and metaphysics. Contraceptives are not created ex nihilo in a laboratory - there is no distinction between "substantial" and "accidental" change apart from grammar, and they are just as "natural" as penicillin or baked bread. The nature of the human body is to react to contraceptives the way it does, just as its nature is to react to penicillin the way it does, and to react to cyanide the way it does. There is no telos in the realm of metaphysics. There is a telos regarding biological purpose, but here one can easily see that contraceptive NFP is fundamentally unnatural - because of the procreative rather than contraceptive biological purpose of sexuality. Females are most affectionate during that period (a fact confirmed by scientific research into hormone levels, as if any male in a relationship needed a scientific study to confirm the obvious), and as nature and biology and ordained and disposed intercourse to the period of fertility (biologically that’s why we want to do it then), going through elaborate processes to find that period and avoid intercourse can only be called unnatural. And if marriage truly is as liberating to our sexuality as the theology of the body proponents claim and as the dignity of the sacraments demands, then let us all get married and procreate with reckless abandon.
One finds it not surprising that the traditional Catholic theology of marriage, the one which originally encouraged us to use the calendar as birth control, never spoke of marriage as a good in its own right, but always reduced the sacrament to utilitarian purposes or as a concession to sin. Instead of recognizing that sexuality is in fact love, the only human form of love ennobled by being given the dignity of a sacrament, older theological manuals speak of it as a "remedy for concupiscence", as if marriage were nothing but legalized lust. It is only a "remedy" for concupiscence in the same way that food is a remedy for hunger, not in the way that medicine is a remedy for sickness or that amputation is a remedy for a diseased leg. As Paul Evdokimov states in his wonderful little book The Sacrament of Love, the end of marriage is not procreation or whatever biological function it may have; the end of marriage is nothing other than the spouses themselves, given to us for our own good and not some evolutionary biological purpose. It is true that that biological purpose is present, but that is only relevant on the biological order, something we far transcend. If marriage were simply a means for biological reproduction, then manipulating this biology would not be a sin (though one would be hard-pressed to explain the moral difference between using the calendar as birth control and using a pill). But that is not the purpose of marriage; the purpose of marriage is to give oneself completely in love.
It is not necessary for me to try to summarize hundreds of pages of the theology of the body at the end of this post. Marriage is nothing short of the sacrament of love, a foretaste of heaven and a consummation of man's nature in the full expression of the nuptial meaning of his body. Both the religious life and marriage offer a foretaste of Heaven – the one through the total devotion to God and the transcendence of sexuality that we shall all experience after the Parousia, the other through tasting the joys of Heaven and the total love for each other in the sexuality which shall be consummated and completed as well as transcended when the perfect union between a man and woman shall become the perfect union of the Body of Christ, reflected in the icon of a marriage, reflected in many mirrors. Both states of life require dying to oneself and growth in holiness.
Evdokimov, Paul. The Sacrament of Love.
John Paul II, Love and Responsibility.
John Paul II, The Theology of the Body.