Protestants and contraception

Last semester, a young man from the Catholic Campus ministry at ULL came to my office wanting to know what Methodists throught about contraception. He was writing a paper for a class on the subject of contraception and one of his campus ministers suggested that he come talk with me for an alternative view.

I explained to him basically that The Book of Discipline, in the Social Principles, contains official guidelines for social issues, but that (unlike the doctrinal and legal parts of the Discipline) they lack the force of Church Law. In any case, the Social principles don't really have much to say about birth control - except that we do not accept abortion as a means of birth control. So I did my best to offer a vague, situational, and "it's complicated" response to his question.

This is an issue of some interest to me because I feel it is likely that (as on the issue of divorce) Protestants in the West have by-and-large put the broader Christian ethical teachings on the back burner in favor of our own cultural assumptions (the Lambeth Conference famously flip-flopped on this issue after just a few decades).

As I began to read about this here and there, I learned that most of the anti-contraception laws that were struck down in the 50s and 60s had been put in place by the efforts of Protestant and Evangelical Church leaders in the 19th century. I began to wonder 'why are the Roman Catholics the only major US Christian group that holds this view today?'

One Sunday School teacher at the Methodist Church I attended in Dallas used this issue in passing to explain the four-fold way of theology (Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience), saying "For example, the Roman Catholic position on contraception is simply not reasonable" without offering much further explanation, since it was (I suppose) self-evidently the case in her view.

I remember immediately wondering how well aquainted with Roman Catholic positions, or with ecumenical Tradition this person was. In my experience most Methodists are not very well aquainted with either (one reason the four-fold way of theology doesn't usually work for us - another is a tendency to assert that something does or does not "contradict reason" without doing the harder work of step by step logical analysis to back up that assertion).

From my barely cursory familiarity with Roman teachings on the body and sexuality, my impression was that they were generally much more thought out, deeply rooted, and internally coherent and intrinsically beautiful than Protestant teachings on sex which rarely go beyond "before you do it, first get in a Biblical marriage covenant." The Book of Discipline seems to stammer even in saying that much, though the Bible and the early Fathers do not.

I've been saying for years (and I said this to that young man who showed up in my office) that I need to just sit down and read Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical that really articulated all this. I hear that John Paul II's Man and Woman he created them: A theology of the Body is also very good.

I know lots of Protestants are beginning to take interest in the theology of sex and reproduction, and Roman Catholic sources are usually more advanced intellectual touchstones for this (the rapidly rising profile of Homosexuality in our pop-culture in recent years is perhaps forcing us to think these things through more than we are accustomed to). I got to thinking about all this recently because I ran across this article at Duke Divinity School's website about Protestants who are taking interest in Roman Catholic teachings on 'natural family planning.' Now I'm not saying that I am endorsing a Roman position on contraception. At present I am not. But I am asking the question.

What about you guys? Have you given much theological attention to sex and contraception? Have you read Humanae Vitae? Do you feel threatened by the suggestion that the Roman Catholic Church might be right about some of this stuff? Are the historic Protestant Churches (Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, etc.) prepared to have a serious biblical and theological discussion on these issues even if it means taking positions that are at odds with our culture?

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Blogger Andrew C. Thompson said...

Great post, Daniel. My own views on contraception have undergone quite a shift in the past couple of years. A good part of that has come from being at Duke, where I've been influenced by everybody from Augustine to Amy Laura Hall on the subject.

My wife and I are thoroughly pro-life, and the very fear expressed in the article you cite - that the pill can amount to an early stage abortion - radically changed my view on the propriety of its use by Christians. (In that sense, the pill is much more problematic than condom use.) Dr. Hall's point that children should be viewed as gifts from God (which they are!) ought to make us rethink the utilitarian approach that we tend to have regarding all forms of birth control. It has, at least, done that for me.

7:55 PM, October 16, 2008  
Blogger lehall said...

I am a United Methodist married to a Roman Catholic. So this is a conversation that continues in our house and beyond. On the one hand the RCC has a well developed theology of the body. On the other hand I find some of the basic documents have a limited and sometimes unhelpful view of sex in marriage. I would like to see someone (and I think other Christian communities are good candidates for the job) work out at theology of sexual relationships that are open to conception even if not every sexual encounter is. Lauren Winner nods toward such a position (as do others) but I haven't come across a full development.
Such a position should, in my view, take seriously the claim that children are gifts and sex is inextricably linked to procreation. It should also account for the welfare of children already in a family and the callings of one or both parents to service outside the family.
Thanks for bringing up the conversation.

1:17 PM, October 17, 2008  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

thanks guys for the comments - keep them coming!

In my conversation with the student, I tried to balance the truth that children are gifts from God, and such gifts should not be viewed as inconveniences or punishments (as seems often the case in our culture), with the reality that in some places & situations more children really can put such a burden on families that none of the children end up being properly cared for and - in such cases as these - birth control seems to be the better choice. I can't judge when a family is in such a situation - though I suspect that families (in our society) can support more children than they might suppose (and we might become better people if we did).

I also wanted to emphasize that people should not have sexual relations unless they are also willing to have and care for children - sexual responsibility (not to mention reverence for such a sacred gift) seems to have taken a back-seat to our "right" to gratify our every urge and turn sex into a form of entertainment. I honestly believe that this more than anything else is at the root of much of our (protestant) negative "gut-reaction" to the RCC's positions.

10:10 AM, October 21, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope you have had a chance to expore John Paul's Theology of the Body. It is a beautiful body of work and well worth the effort. I suggest you start with Theology of the Body for Beginners by Christopher West or Theology of the Body Explained, also by Christopher West. Another good place to start is Men and Women are from Eden, by Mary Healy.

JPII presents a view of sexuality that is based on what it means to be human, on God's plan for marriage and on what it means to love in the image of God. It has been life changing for me.

11:09 AM, May 01, 2009  
Blogger kg said...

What about the thought that birth control may actually be a gift from God for long married families?

2:50 PM, November 23, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...


Thanks for the comment. Obviously that is a position that has been taken by many thoughtful Christians - espeically in my own Communion (The United Methodist Church). I think a good argument can be made in favor of it along these lines: we need to be good stewards of what resources we have as they are limited; and we need to be sure that we can provide for our children's needs (not necessarily buying every toy that society says they need, but meeting their real needs). It may be that this can best be done if most families on the earth restrict themselves to around 3 children. Thus there is an argument for birth control in there.

I would still want to examine some of the assumptions built into this argument - for example why birth control, rather than say better self-control (which, unlike the pill, is called "a fruit of the Spirit" in the Bible) is the best (most ideal) way to approach this restriction. I think we as a culture are just bad at self-control; maybe this is true for the whole human race. So maybe birth control is a good compromise while we fail to live up to the ideal...

3:10 PM, November 23, 2009  
Blogger Tim H. said...


work out at theology of sexual relationships that are open to conception????

What????? Are you kidding???

One does not "Work out a theology" to fit their own moral code! One works out a theology to ascertain the will of God!

Good Lord, man!

10:19 AM, September 24, 2010  

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