As an academic theologian, I’ve found that most Protestant theologians and ethicists are well aware of the fact that questions regarding contraception and artificial reproductive technologies (ART) are extremely important. However, when I ask my students, many of whom have been raised in Christian homes and churches, whether they’ve ever heard these matters discussed as moral issues, I get mostly blank stares. So my concern is that there’s a disconnect between people like me, who serve the church by reading and studying and teaching this material for a living, and most people in the pew. So, if nothing else, hopefully this piece puts contraception and ART on your radar as key moral and theological issues. You’ll probably think most of this sounds crazy and have a ton of questions (I know I did when I first started investigating this). To that end, here are a few reasons why Protestants should embrace the core teaching of Humanae Vitae (henceforth HV), which I am convinced represents sound biblical reasoning on this matter.
1. Sex and procreation are linked from the beginning.
What’s the point and purpose of sex? Throughout Christian history, one essential element has been procreation. To be clear, that doesn’t mean the only purpose of sexual union is procreation. After all, sexual union is a marital act, an act which promises and gives one self fully to one’s spouse. As such, it unifies two people who give themselves completely to one another. The text of Genesis makes this very clear. The first command/blessing given to the husband and wife is “Be fruitful and multiply.” Children are not just a nice add-on to the meaning of sex and marriage, but are at the heart of what marriage and sex are all about.
In our world, however, we’ve successfully de-linked sex and procreation. Through contraception and sterilization, we’ve successfully rendered sex mostly inhospitable to new life, although we also have abortion as a backup plan. On the flip side, we can produce new life outside of the marital act (the fertility “industry,” aptly so-called), and never stop to consider the emotional, psychological, or theological dimensions of producing children with three parents or question whether we should unite ourselves with anonymous sperm donors or surrogates. We have successfully torn asunder what God intended to be together.
2. Scripture sees children as a good thing.
From Genesis 1 on, Scripture sees children as a good thing. Some might argue that this is merely the result of an ancient emphasis on the centrality of family, patriarchal passing-on of one’s name, the shame associated with barrenness, or the necessity of children in more agricultural societies. I would grant that those elements may play a role. However, Scripture repeatedly sees children as a blessing woven into the very fabric of our lives. Husband and wife play a role participating the mystery of life, and we are not the masters of our own destinies or bodies. Rather, as relational selves, we’re called to be open to one another and open to new life that comes as a result of our love.
3. Humanae Vitae recognizes there are limits to our use of medicine and technology.
The Pill ushered in what Bernard Asbell has called The Age of BioIntervention. In other words, it’s the first medicine to be developed not to heal something that’s sick, but to alter a biological process that’s healthy. In short, this view of medicine and the world doesn’t just look at sickness as something to be cured, it looks at human limits, being human, as something to be cured. In other words, there’s a direct connection from the view that I can alter my healthy reproductive organs to the view that I can make other significant alterations to my body and reproductive organs, including hormone treatments and surgical procedures. Protestants who affirm the former without affirming the latter are simply inconsistent.
4. Humanae Vitae shows solidarity with celibate gay Christians.
How so? I believe that Scripture’s view of sex and marriage are for a man and woman, in large part because of how central procreation is to both sex and marriage. If I am going to have the nerve to say that gay Christians should not engage in same-sex sexual activity, then I better be willing to embrace the same consistent ethic in my own life. I have been thoroughly convicted by the life of discipleship and suffering that I see Christians like Wesley Hill, Ed Shaw, and Greg Coles, who have been publicly vulnerable about what it means to be gay and Christian. If I can, in some small way, learn what it means to grow through suffering (whether that’s through more children than I might want or times of abstinence within my own marriage), then that is a good thing.
5. Humanae Vitae embraces hospitality.
Hospitality is a key Christian virtue. By affirming the good of procreation, HV shows that even the most intimate of spaces—the marriage bed—is still a place to be open to the ultimate stranger in the form of a baby. When we only had 1 or 2 kids, my wife Sarah and I tried to exercise hospitality by having college students live with us. With 5 kids now, we don’t have as much extra space for others, but I’d like to think that there’s just a natural extension there. Our conviction about hospitality and openness to children went together; they’re not mutually exclusive. Perhaps this is why I find that families with more children can often be as hospitable (if not more so) than families with few.
6. Humanae Vitae cultivates discipline that produces spiritual fruit in our lives.
Humans are holistic creatures, so developing a virtue in one area will inevitably affect our whole lives. HV speaks of the self-denial needed to practice natural family planning, with some periods of abstinence and other periods devoted to welcoming children. It turns out, self-denial is a very helpful virtue when trying to navigate marriage well. As noted above, when we practice hospitality in the marriage bed, we in turn become more hospitable people overall. When we persevere in the midst of difficulty (whether in welcoming children or in periodic abstinence), we grow. By taking responsibility for our actions in sexual union, we become more responsible for our children, instilling in them the fruits of loving, self-sacrificial action.
7. Sexual union actually means something. This is last, because I think this is at the core of why so many reject Humanae Vitae. In this modern mindset, our bodies are mere “nature.” Matter in motion. There’s no meaning inherent in reality; it only has what meaning we give to it. This is a key tenet of the sexual revolution. By definition, sex means nothing. If it means something to you, great. But there’s no universal meaning to sex, which means if you’re into lifelong monogamy, okay, and if you’re into hooking up via Tinder, okay. Just don’t try to say that there’s a meaning to it.
In contrast, Humanae Vitae follows Scripture in upholding the view that sex really means something because our bodies really mean something. There’s no such thing, especially when it comes to human beings, as mere “matter in motion.” Matter matters. So Humanae Vitae highlights that sexual union means something because it involves human beings. As Christopher West puts it, our “body language” in sexual union says something. In giving our bodies, we give our whole selves; it’s not merely a biological act. In sexual union, we promise faithfulness; sex is a kind of constant renewal of wedding vows. Sexual union is also free; it recognizes the dignity of the other person, which cannot be coerced. Finally, sexual union is fruitful; it points beyond itself to the possibility of new life as a result of this act.
So here’s the question: can we change the “body language” of sex and still have it be a truthful act, so to speak? Does adulterous, unfaithful sex speak the truth of what sex and marriage are about? Does assault, sexual activity without consent, speak the truth of what sex and marriage are about? And I know this sounds TOTALLY out of line to good modern Christians, but can we intentionally block the fruitfulness of sex and still speak, with our bodies, the truth of what sex and marriage are about? Or think of it this way: in the recent movie The Greatest Showman, two lovebirds croon to each other: “Just give me all of you.” If you withhold part of you, part of your body (that part which leads to fertility), are you really giving all of you to your spouse? Do we really want all of each other?
I know you’re probably thinking: that sounds like trouble. It sounds like kids, maybe…no DEFINITELY more kids than I want. It sounds like a world I can’t control. It sounds like suffering.
So now you’re starting to understand. Fully embracing your spouse might mean embracing the cross.
I know this post leaves A TON of questions still unanswered. If you have one, leave it below. I’d love to think through this with you. If you’re curious about Natural Family Planning, here’s a place to start: https://ccli.org/what-is-nfp/.