SMcK: I made a mistake and posted this too soon. David: Friends – it seems there was a mix up with my most recent post on gay marriage and contraception. I intended to hold that until I finished talking about the cases, and I planned to revise it from the version that was posted. I’m away on vacation and can’t respond to comments or explain what I meant to get at this week. Sorry for any confusion.
Evangelicals, Catholics, and Gay Marriage, By David W. Opderbeck. David Opderbeck is Professor of Law at Seton Hall University Law School and is a doctoral candidate in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham. He blogs at Through a Glass Darkly.
As everyone knows, the Supreme Court decided the “gay marriage” cases this week. I hope to write about some of the legal machinery in those cases over the next few weeks. In this post, however, I want to focus on what I think is a difficult, painful, and generally hidden divide between Evangelical, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Christians who believe in “traditional” marriage: the question of contraception.
Can evangelicals speak with moral authority about marriage if they permit / endorse artificial contraception for married heterosexual Christians? Is there a way past this divide between evangelicals and Catholics who want to support “traditional” marriage? Does the significance of this divide relativize any consensus on what “traditional” marriage means?
Official Roman Catholic social teaching holds that any use of artificial contraception, even for married heterosexual couples, is a grave sin, while “natural” family planning is acceptable. Of course, there are Catholic ethicists who argue that the official teaching is mitigated or not always binding for various reasons, and apparently the laity frequently ignore the teaching. The hierarchical authorities, however, have held the line, and many thoughtful Catholic ethicists elegantly defend the teaching on natural law grounds
Eastern Orthodox teaching generally permits the use of artificial birth control in marriage, but tends to view it as a sort of concession. The Orthodox Church in America’s web page on this issue, for example, states
The voluntary control of birth in marriage is only permissible, according to the essence of a spiritual life, when the birth of a child will bring danger and hardship. Those who are living the spiritual life will come to the decision not to bear children only with sorrow, and will do so before God, with prayers for guidance and mercy. It will not be a decision taken lightly or for self-indulgent reasons.
According to the common teaching in the Orthodox Church, when such a decision is taken before God, the means of its implementation are arbitrary. There are, in the Orthodox opinion, no means of controlling birth in marriage which are better or more acceptable than others. All means are equally sad and distressing for those who truly love. For the Christian marriage is the one that abounds with as many new children as possible.
Evangelical and other Protestant ethicists generally do not view non-abortive birth control within marriage as inherently improper or sinful, although most Evangelical ethicists agree that marriages usually should be oriented towards bearing and raising children (see, e.g., the discussion of this issue in Glen Stassen and David Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics). Some Evangelicals even endorse non-abortive artificial contraception as a social good. The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, for example, states that “[w]e do here wish to affirm that contraceptive methods offer legitimate and morally acceptable means to exert greater control over the number and timing of births and will enhance the overall health of women and children.”
This issue is significant for the gay marriage debate because many Catholics view gay marriage as a symptom of the breakdown of traditional families, and the use of artificial contraception as an important cause of the breakdown of traditional families. This argument was made, for example, by Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in 1972:
And if there is nothing intrinsically wrong with contraceptive intercourse, and if it could become general practice everywhere when there is intercourse but ought to be no begetting, then it’s very difficult to see the objection to this morality, for the ground of objection to fornication and adultery was that sexual intercourse is only right in the sort of set-up that typically provides children with a father and mother to care for them. If you can turn intercourse into something other than the reproductive type of act (I don’t mean of course that every act is reproductive any more than every acorn leads to an oak-tree but it’s the reproductive type of act) then why, if you can change it, should it be restricted to the married?
If contraceptive intercourse is permissible, then what objection could there be after all to mutual masturbation, or copulation in vase indebito, sodomy, buggery (I should perhaps remark that I am using a legal term here – not indulging in bad language), when normal copulation is impossible or inadvisable (or in any case, according to taste)? It can’t be the mere pattern of bodily behaviour in which the stimulation is procured that makes all the difference! But if such things are all right, it becomes perfectly impossible to see anything wrong with homosexual intercourse, for example.
A similar argument was made more recently in a blog maintained by the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
I’m not going to try to offer answers to this divide, because I’m not sure I have any. Here are some questions: