“My parents had five kids and I was always embarrassed about it. All my friends came from families with 10 to 12 kids. They were always asking me, ‘What’s wrong with your mom and dad? Don’t they like each other?’”
That comment cracked up the entire newsroom at Fox 32 News Chicago where I used to work. It came from a reporter who grew up in a staunchly Catholic, Chicago neighborhood. Like most of my colleagues, I intended on having two, maybe three kids. And like them, I thought the Catholic view of sex and contraception was ridiculous.
That was about 25 years ago.
Since then, I’ve discovered Theology of the Body (TOB) – Pope John Paul II’s biblical analysis of what it means to be human. This has radically transformed my view of the body, human sexuality – and in turn, birth control. And now, I don’t think the Catholic view is ridiculous. I think it’s biblical. And though I’m not dogmatic about it, I no longer feel comfortable with contraception.
A New Paradigm
TOB presents a very different view of the body than the one I was taught as an evangelical. I was taught the body is merely a tent for the soul. And though I believed marriage had spiritual significance, I never considered that sex might.
But John Paul taught that the body is much more than a tent. We are created in God’s image. And our body is a symbol revealing truths about God. As popular Catholic theologian, Christopher West, put it: “(T)he body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus to be a sign of it.”
“I realized the the body is not merely a ‘tent’; it is a symbol with deep, spiritual meaning. And I realized that birth control not only prevents conception. It also alters a profoundly spiritual symbol.”
When I first encountered this idea, I was skeptical. I was older than 40 at the time. And in all my years in the church, I had never heard anyone articulate this idea.
Yet when I checked with a theology professor at the Moody Bible Institute where I used to work, he said this was accepted Trinitarian theology. Similarly, when Dr. John Jefferson Davis appeared on my radio show, he affirmed this understanding, as well. Davis is a leading evangelical ethicist, so his opinion carried a lot of weight.
But Trinitarian life and love isn’t the only mystery the one-flesh union reveals. John Paul also taught that it reveals the mystery of Christ’s relationship with the church.
The idea that sexual intimacy would reflect our relationship with Christ seemed somewhat scandalous to me. Yet, that’s precisely what Ephesians 5:31-32 says: “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
TOB elevated the human body and sexuality to a whole new level for me. I realized the body is not merely a “tent”; it is a symbol with deep, spiritual meaning. And I realized that birth control not only prevents conception. It also alters a profoundly spiritual symbol.
Sex, Symbol, & Sterilization
In his 1966 article credited with shifting evangelical opinion on birth control, Dr. John Warwick Montgomery argued that Catholics view sex merely as a means of having children. But as TOB makes abundantly clear, that’s not so, though Montgomery can’t be faulted for not knowing that. His article predated TOB by 15-20 years.
Interestingly though, Montgomery’s view of marriage is actually quite similar to John Paul’s. Both see the marriage analogy in Ephesians 5 as the “focal center of scriptural teachings on marriage.” But for Montgomery, the analogy justifies contraception. For John Paul, it makes it unthinkable.
Montgomery argued that “Christ’s relation with His church is a love relation.” So if a couple is using birth control to “achieve a better human relationship,” it’s legitimate.
Montgomery also argued that God’s command in Genesis 1:28 to “subdue the earth” gives people license to control their fertility. He added it’s “bizarre” that Catholics teach that man can control plants and animals, “yet cannot without sin control his own numbers.”
However, John Paul argued that contraception profoundly distorts the marriage analogy. Christopher West explains:
“For too long, evangelicals have embraced contraception without truly thinking of its implications. We claim to be biblical. But we’re often just thinking like the world. That needs to change.”
West’s point is well-made. Clearly, Christ’s union with the church is one that’s intended to be fruitful – to make disciples. So, too, is the Trinitarian union. It is always life-giving and never sterile.
If we accept the standard evangelical interpretation, we must accept this symbolic distortion. Similarly, we must accept that the marriage analogy negates, or trumps, God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply.” We also must accept that subduing the earth can mean contracepting. This, despite the fact that God’s command to “be fruitful” directly precedes His command to “subdue the earth.”
But if we accept John Paul’s interpretation, we embrace a consistent message from Genesis to Revelation. Marriage is meant to be a joyful, fruitful expression of God’s life and love into which we, as His bride, are called to participate. There is no contradiction. There is only a powerful, compelling, and counter-cultural message of divine love.
Must Couples Have Maximum Number of Children?
Rejecting contraception does not mean couples must have as many children as possible. There are valid reasons to avoid pregnancy. And there is a way to do that without violating the spiritual significance of marital intimacy. It’s called natural family planning (NFP).
NFP works with our God-given body, rather than against it. It’s also 99-percent effective when used properly. Most importantly, it doesn’t distort the symbol of marital intimacy. It simply submits sex and fertility to the direction of a married couple.
There’s much more that could be written on this matter. I didn’t intend this series to provide the definitive answer on contraception, but simply to spur thoughtful, biblical reflection.
For too long, evangelicals have embraced contraception without truly thinking of its implications. We claim to be biblical. But we’re often just thinking like the world. That needs to change. If it means becoming more Catholic in our thinking, then so be it. Truth is, Catholics are simply adhering to a theology that’s consistent with the way Christians have thought for centuries. Perhaps it’s time we returned to that.