Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Fr. Meyendorff and Contraception

Sam and Bethany Torode, the couple who made a bit of news a few years back by supporting the Catholic position on contraception while they were protestants, have, as you may have heard, joined the Orthodox Church and repudiated their former position. They have given an explanation of sorts here ( On that page, they claim:

For starters, we joined the Greek Orthodox Church and are now in agreement with what some Orthodox have written on this topic (see The Sacrament of Love by Paul Evdokimov and Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective by John Meyendorff).

The Meyendorff book is an excellent book, well worth reading, but not for the section on Humanae Vitae, which has some real problems. Fr. Meyendorff himself adopts the typical caricature of St. Augustine and places the blame for distorted Western Christian thinking on him, arguing that Augustine believed “Marriage, therefore, was itself sinful in as much as it presupposed sex, and could be justified only ‘through childbirth.’ Consequently, if childbirth is artificially prevented, sexual intercourse--even in lawful marriage--is fundamentally sinful.” (60) This is not quite true. Marriage was not sinful, and neither was sexual intercourse. In fact, Augustine takes pains to defend marriage from those who would call it sinful. It was lust, the disordered appetites that so often accompany sexual intercourse, that was sinful. I will write more on that in the future. For now I wish to focus on Fr. Meyendorff’s reaction to Humanae Vitae.

Fr. Meyendorff says about Humanae Vitae that it “should not be dismissed simply because it is papal,” which line, coming from an Orthodox theologian, always makes me chuckle. Meyendorff argues that, although procreation is a duty which man has, it is not a strict duty because of the necessity to raise children well. One has a responsibility for the physical well-being of one’s potential children. This is true. Meyendorff then brings up the topic of birth-control, and says the following:

Total continence is one radical way of birth control. But is it compatible with true married life? And is not continence itself a form of limiting the God-bestowed power of giving and perpetuating life? However, both the New Testament and Church tradition consider continence as an acceptable form of family planning. Recent Roman Catholic teaching also recommends periodic continence, but forbids the ‘artificial’ means, such as the ‘pill.’ But is there a real difference between the means called ‘artificial’ and those considered ‘natural’? Is continence really ‘natural’? Is not any medical control of human functions ‘artificial’? Should it, therefore, be condemned as sinful? and finally, a serious theological question: is anything ‘natural’ necessarily ‘good’? For even St. Paul saw that continence can lead to ‘burning.’ Is not science able to render childbirth more humane, by controlling it, just as it controls food, habitat and health? (62)

Let’s take these points, one by one. First, is continence compatible with true married life? Of course it is. Continence is not always chosen, but is sometimes thrust upon one. What do we do if our spouse becomes incapable or undesirous of sexual intimacy? Do we cheat? Divorce? Of course not. Continence must be compatible with true married life, because the Church doesn’t dissolve marriages based on a lack of sex. In fact, many saints of the early Church decided to live in perpetual continence, while married. Men who were ordained in the early years of the Church lived in continence afterward, even if they were married. So, continence is compatible with married life.

Is continence a form of limiting the God-bestowed power of giving life? Of course. But the problem with contraception isn’t that it limits the power of giving life, since it is not an absolute duty that one must give life. Rather the problem is with the form, the way in which one limits the power of giving life.

Fr. Meyendorff than asks whether or not there is a real difference between the ‘natural’ and the ‘artificial,’ asking whether all artificial activities are sinful. Wouldn’t an aspirin be an unnatural response to a headache? Here I think there is a confusion over the words ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’, a confusion that is very common, but one which shouldn’t have escaped so great a scholar as Fr. Meyendorff. What the Catholic Church means by ‘natural’ is not what most people mean. Most people think that organic foods or forests are natural, and chemicals and industries are not. That’s a view of nature that I think ultimately derives from ancient nature worship, although perhaps it comes to us through Rousseau, that anything non-human or non-civilized is natural, and anything human and civilized is unnatural. It’s most certainly not the way the Church uses the term. Look at the Summa Theologiae, I-II.92.2:

Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to Divine providence in the mostexcellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident bothfor itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it hasa natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal lawin the rational creature is called the natural law. Hence the Psalmist after saying (Psalm 4:6): "Offer up the sacrifice of justice," as though someone asked what the works ofjustice are, adds: "Many say, Who showeth us good things?" in answer to which question he says: "The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us": thus implying that the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It
is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature's participation of the eternal law.

To call something unnatural is, in Catholic theology, to call it contrary to the law of God. Things aren’t contrary to the law of God because they are unnatural, but they are determined to be unnatural because they are contrary to the law of God. Contraception is said to be contrary to the natural law, ‘contrary’ because it is against the law of God, ‘natural’ because it is able to be known, presuptively, by human reason. The key here is ‘reason’. Contraception isn’t wrong because it puts chemicals or rubber in places that are unnatural, it’s wrong because it is contrary to the dignity of the human person. An airplane is not unnatural just because it is made of aluminum and runs on kerosene. Neither is an aspirin, since both are usually used consonant with the dignity of the human person.

So, Fr. Meyendorff asks “Is not science able to render childbirth more humane, by controlling it, just as it controls food, habitat and health?” Certainly. And such interventions would not be unnatural, unless they are contrary to the dignity of the human person. He gives food as an example: one may, for good reasons, not want to take in as many calories as one has appetite for. There are various ways to go about this. One may diet, one may exercise to burn up excess calories, or one may vomit up one’s food after eating it. Only one of these is “unnatural,” and only one of them is morally wrong. The argument is that periodic continence is more like going on a diet, and using the pill or a barrier method is more like bulimia.

Now is not the time to give the positive arguments for why contraception is wrong. Sam and Bethany Torode know these, having written books about the Theology of the Body. But if they are going to use Fr. Meyendorff’s excellent but flawed book as a reason to repudiate their former beliefs, they should know the flaws in Fr. Meyendorff’s thinking.


Robert said...

Excellent, Karl.

One of the reasons Augustine is accused of thinking sex is bad is because he did say that because every actual human sexual act in marriage is tainted to a certain extent by selfishness that one does commit at least a venial sin in that act. Now, perhaps the level of selfishness is minimal in some and so the actual good of the sex act far exceeds the taintedness and renders it negligible.

Augustine was a realist. He knew we have a heck of a time rooting out selfishness in our lives, esp. in areas in that are affected by very strong appetites (sex and anger).

Selfishness is not "on/off." It is not that one is either totally selfish in one's sexual relations or totally self giving. The goal is, in cooperation with the grace of Christ, to move more and more in the direction of selflessness.

This requires first of a choice to become more selfless, second, self-mastery through mortification and third, practice in virtue (esp. the virtue of always seeing your spouse as a person and not just a collection of sexual or even partial personal values (among which Wojtyla counted masculinity and femininity).

EJS said...

Great post; I've linked to it at Square Zero. Looking forward to more on Augustine and marriage.

Ryan Platte said...

Interesting, thank you for the detailed discussion of several interesting facets of this debate.

But the end of your post begs the question, which I think cuts to the heart of the matter: is anorexia "natural" or "dignified"?

Karl said...

Dear Ryan,

Anorexia is not good, either, because it damages the human person. To starve oneself is to hurt oneself. It's not the same as fasting, either, where the abstinence of food gives discomfort to the physical in order to promote the spiritual, and which is designed for the good of the whole person. Even in fasting, the Fathers and monks of the early church often write counseling moderation, so that a spiritual practice does not become harmful.

The unstated parallel to sexual continence doesn't work, I think, since starvation kills you, but lack of sex doesn't, contrary to the opinions of teenage boys everywhere.

Bob Gardner said...

I was having this debaton on the Touchstone Website click here and an Eastern Catholic was citing Fr. Meyndorff as authority. Having not read his book I could only answer in general terms, so I provided a link to your comments here. He remains, however, unconvinced.

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