While I have come around to think that Christians ought not use contraception to prevent conception, I remain dissatisfied with most of the arguments on offer for this position. On the evangelical side, concerns about contraception begin and end at the question of whether it is an abortificient. Catholics sound those worries as well, but often add to them concerns about dividing the unitive and procreative dimensions of marriage.
None of those stances are necessarily wrong in themselves, it seems to me, except in what they omit. After all, the standard “evangelical” intuition that preventing is not killing is an important one to preserve. There is something distinct happening when we contracept than when we abort, and collapsing both into a generalized contradiction of a good of life obscures that distinction. The so-called “Catholic” position is better, in that it turns our attention to the way contraception enacts (or fails to) marital chastity. That is, it helps us consider whether in dividing what God has joined together, we undermine the quality of both. But even here, I remain dissatisfied with most presentations of this case.
My worry is that even Catholic of contraception tend to obscure the time at the heart of our creaturely life, and the centrality of that sense of time to our flourishing as humans. In this way, such critiques (ironically) end up having something of an abstract, ethereal quality: they get lost in questions of the goods of marriage and of life, of intentions and purposes, and of distinctions between avoidance and prevention. That is understandable: nothing is easier than divorcing moral reasoning from its theological and anthropological roots.
But that is a temptation to be resisted. And on matters of contraception perhaps most of all. Here’s a sketch of how incorporating time into our account of contraception’s wrongness might go.
Start with this: procreation binds the creature to time. In creating the world, God not only establishes its form, but gives it duration—a duration that, in the simultaneity of His eternal beatitude, God Himself does not enjoy as the creature does. Being a creature requires more—but not less—than having a life which is inextricable from time. Procreation is our Yes to creation: it is (one) creaturely answer to the manifold fruitfulness of God’s own beatitude, which is written in and through His created order, and in that way is quite literally pro-creation. In saying this Yes, though, we say Yes to time. The palpable growth and development of children makes us acutely conscious of the passing days, as parents will attest. And while children take time from parents, they also give time to our species. Procreation is a mark that God is not done with the world yet, that we sinful, fallen creatures have yet more days to walk into.
But the Lord wants us, as creatures, to undertake that Yes in the fullness of responsibility. In answering Yes to creation, we do so within limits. After all, the time of our fertility is not boundless and unending—either every month, or over the course of a life. Had God wanted us only to pursue intercourse only for procreation, he would have doubtlessly inscribed fertility as a permanent feature into our flesh. He didn’t take that step, but He did order our fertility in such a way that to responsibly enact it we must become acutely sensitive to the rhythms and movements of our organic life. Responsibility in the realm of procreative life requires embracing to the farthest limit—but no farther—the embodied, temporal reality of our creaturely lives.
In other words, ordering our fertility and our intimacy without contracepting means we live within time—but are not Lords and Masters of it. It is commonly proposed that contraception aids and enhances marital intimacy, by allowing sex within otherwise fertile seasons. But such intimacy also liberates our sexual desires from the strictures which our bodies are held, strictures which animate us to build anticipation for seasons of non-fertility if we are indeed seeking to avoid conception. Moreover, the deferral and delay that this requires re-introduces a tension and frustration into a relationship that for any married couple can only evoke memories of their youthful eagerness for the hastening of their wedding day. Such a dynamic makes the marital act genuinely cyclical in its structure: it clearly recapitulates the original moment of consummation, only with the deepened happiness of years together.
To contracept is to step outside this order, to try to enjoy the goods creation offers on our own terms and within our own time. Our sense of time can only wither in such a context, and our anticipation and memory erode alongside it. Rather than living within the good time of God’s creation, we live instead within the desiccated time of our own Lordship and Mastery. This is the real crisis of contraception; in trying to become something more than creatures, we cease to be that which we are.