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Friday, October 21, 2011

Human Sexuality, Part 1

After Lukas was born, Beth and I decided not to have more children, so I looked into having my surgery.  Our health insurance was through Beth's public school, but our network was Loyola Health, as in Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order of the Roman Catholic Church.  I should note that we received exceptional care from Loyola during those years.  But, as a Catholic institution, they would not perform the procedure I desired.  After making a number of embarrassing, even humiliating, phone calls, I learned that our insurance would cover the procedure, but I would have to go to an abortion clinic way out in Downer's Grove (Chicago suburb).  It was indeed a Downer.

My experience reminded me that the use of contraception marks a radical departure from Christian theological and moral teaching and practice in the West, which still finds a home in Roman Catholicism (at least the teaching does, the practice not so much, at least in this country).  The purpose of sexual activity, in the traditional view, is procreation.  Any pleasure derived from the experience is collateral or incidental.  In this view, pleasure is never the end purpose of sexuality, nor is intimacy or union.  Indeed some Christians have argued at times that sexual activity between heterosexual couples beyond child bearing age is immoral.
As recently as the 1940s, Virginia Mennonite Conference and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario issues strong statements against "artificial" means of avoiding conception. (http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/contents/B541ME.html)

Mennonites and most other non-Catholics have done an about face on the issue of contraception, and abandoned the be fruitful and multiply ethic that understood procreation and sexuality to be inseparable.  Even the vast majority of sexually active Catholics in the U.S. use contraception, contra to Catholic teaching. We spend a great deal of energy as Mennonites debating abortion and homosexuality, but we have failed to deal completely with the acceptance of contraception among us.  No congregation of which I know is disciplining heterosexual, married couples of child bearing age that choose not to have children.  It is not a controversial issue.

Some Christians believe this dramatic change in sexual ethics among non-Catholic Christians is a mistake, and want to reverse it.  I am not among them.  We live in a time and place when be fruitful and multiply isn't the most responsible ethic.  Like most Mennonites, I believe the use of birth control is a responsible Christian ethical practice.  But this dramatic shift left us with a problem.  Our answers to young people's questions about why it is not appropriate for them to have sex before marriage have gotten a little shaky.

Under the procreation sexual ethic, answers to these questions were clear and coherent.  God created sexuality for the purpose of having children.  We believe children are best off if they are raised in families with married parents.  Sex outside marriage does not serve these purposes, and so is against God's law.  Contraception separated sex from procreation.  If the church believes that sex is acceptable for reasons other than procreation (pleasure, intimacy, union), then on what basis do we tell our young adult children to wait until marriage (especially as they wisely marry later and later in life)?  What do we tell homosexual couples who want the same intimacy as heterosexual Christians?  I want my children to wait for sexual intimacy until they are married.  But I also want to give them the best answers the church has to these questions, and in this regard, we are failing.

We do have answers to these questions, and some times they are pretty good.  But they aren't so clear or coherent as the days when sex was all about procreation.  The Bible is often used, but if you are trying to put together a biblical sexual ethic purely by looking at the array of passages dealing with sex, you may more likely end up with "Big Love," the TV show about a polygamist family in Utah, than "Ozzie and Harriet."  We need an ethic that is biblical, yes, but that is also theologically coherent, and respectful of the long history of Christian thought.

I am disturbed by the sexual practices among young adults which surveys describe.  Hook up sex, friends with benefits, as well as monogamous relationships outside of marriage are ways young people find to deal with sexual passion before their delayed marriages.  I think this is wrong, and I think life is much more than sexual fulfillment and pleasure.  I also think the church can do a better job articulating a sexual ethic that is strong, coherent, and clear, and that also points with hope to God.  Maybe if we spent more energy on the why of sexual activity rather than the who, we might make some progress.


thelyniezian said...

I think a right view of sexuality really does need to be sought by Christans, it's true. I can see nothing Biblically wrong with many forms of birth control- I can understand the argument that having many children is a blessing, but the population burden on the earth does seem to call this into question, as to its limits.

Trouble is, you are talking of getting an abortion merely as a means of birth control? This is worrying. Unless you can be certain that human life does not exist from the moment of conception- and I maintain you cannot- that seems to be the needless destruction of a human life, and is very serious indeed. Preventing that conception from occurring in the first place, is another matter.

Anonymous said...

I used to think that contraception was a matter of Christian liberty. However, in viewing the total moral breakdown of our society in the last 50+ years, I am changing my mind.
Anthony Comstock was a Christian in the late 1800's - early 1900's that pushed legislation against contraceptives. He believed that birth control, abortion, and pornography were all tied together and that if 1 is legalized, the other 2 will naturally follow. It would seem he had foresight beyond his years, as history has proven that to be true over and over again.
Another interesting item about the birth control movement is that it cannot be separated from eugenics, segregation, racial purification and abortion; because the leaders that preached these ideals in the early 20th century never separated them! These preachers of birth control, eugenics, etc. included Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, Margaret Sanger, Adolph Hitler, Thomas Malthus, among others. They believed that all the different methods mentioned above were means to the same end - purging the world of inferior races and overpopulation.
All of a sudden to be put in company with men and women and issues like that, makes birth control seem like a very suspect idea indeed...
R. Hess