Now that almost everyone accepts the use of contraception, the continued opposition of traditional Christians can seem stubborn. And since many debates around the issue take place in a highly theological language that appears abstruse to many modern people, the whole affair often seems simply backwards. That is why I want to explain in this article how contraception impoverishes one’s life and contributes to the ongoing meaning crisis. I will do so without relying on overly theological or moralizing language and without repeating facts that you’ve probably already heard about the harmful health effects of certain contraceptives. There are already plenty of people doing that elsewhere. Here, in the spirit of this blog, I will rather attempt to speak symbolically. The crux of it is that contraception not only disconnects spouses from each other at the biological and psychological levels, it also disconnects them from higher-level narrative, social, and cosmic patterns. As shocking as this may sound to our contraceptive culture, I will explain that the ultimate purpose of marriage and sexuality is not pleasure, nor union, nor even procreation, but active participation in God’s creation and redemption of the world.
Traditional Christian churches, such as the Catholic Church, endorse something called natural family planning (NFP), as opposed to contraception. It’s useful to take NFP as a contrast to shine light on contraception. NFP is about using various biological measurements (temperature, viscosity, etc.) to identify the fertile and infertile periods of the wife. These measurements act as indicators for the couple to either come together or not. No contraceptive method such as pills, condoms, or withdrawal is allowed. It’s either full intercourse, or abstinence.
The idea is that sexuality has two immediate purposes, namely procreating and uniting the spouses. Fertile periods lean more on the purpose of procreation, while infertile periods lean more towards the purpose of union, but both always intermesh and support one another. So, rather than suppressing one of those purposes like contraception does, NFP collaborates with them. At any moment that a couple wishes to unite in the conjugal act, they have to fully accept the current mix of purposes that such union carries, or else they can abstain. They can never separate the physical fact of sexual union from its purposes.
When strictly followed, NFP is about as effective as other methods1 at regulating pregnancy, but it makes an enormous symbolic difference at the narrative, social and cosmic levels. Even if your mind may know, in the abstract, that sexual union during an infertile period will most likely not result in pregnancy, your body and whole being are still very aware of the possibility that remains. Even in infertile periods, sexual union thus retains its depth, seriousness, and even scariness. This allows your built-in biology to experience in an embodied way the several layers of significance of the event.
For one thing, engaging in intercourse this way means that the spouses are making a very serious commitment to one another. Their bodies become symbols they use to tell each other some of the deepest things people can communicate.2 The wife especially is telling her husband that she’s willing to carry the possible child for nine months, give birth through great pain, and then devote a lot of time over the course of several years to raise the child. She is also telling her husband that she trusts him to stay and help her raise the child. She trusts that he is a valuable partner who can not only handle himself but also take care of a mother and a child. And conversely, the husband is promising to, indeed, live up to the expectations of his wife. Should a child result from the union, he promises he will stay and sacrifice himself for the good of his wife and child. He is telling his wife that she is a valuable partner and that he trusts her to bring life into the world.
Contrast that with the use of contraception. While sexual union under those circumstances can still be a show of reciprocal affection between the spouses, it never reaches as high as the union of the spouses who, free from contraceptives, are, in their very flesh, committing themselves to one another and their potential offspring.
In the worst case of a casual hook-up relying on contraception, the sexual union becomes confusing and potentially dangerous, because the participants’ biology simply does not know how to interpret the situation. What does it mean to a man that a woman gives herself to him while she’s taking a pill? Does there remain a trace of the deep and biologically grounded sign of approval that such a gift is supposed to display?
And conversely, what happens to a woman who gives herself to a man wearing a condom? Does there remain any trace of the commitment and responsibility that such an act is supposed to promise, biologically speaking? Human beings did not evolve for such scenarios. We’re messing with very fundamental features of human beings here, and messing with features that carry deep risks. As we’ll see in the following sections, there are more layers to sexuality than modern people may realize at first.
Certain events in our lives are symbols that allow us to jump up one level of being. Those are events that are not only significant at the level of our immediate psychology, but also at the level of our stories. The first day at a new job, the day of our wedding, the day of an accident, etc. Those kinds of events mark important points in our stories, and those stories in turn shape our daily lives. Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Pageau often speak about this.3 We need an aim to perceive anything at all. There are simply too many details in the world and we need to constrain that multiplicity down to something manageable in order to actually see. Our purposes—the goals of our stories—serve as such constraints on the multiplicity standing before our eyes.
As a consequence, the better and clearer our stories are, the clearer we see and the better our daily lives go. For the couple practicing NFP, the powerful experience at the psychological level of the sexual union has important repercussions at this narrative level. Because sexual union without contraceptives carries with it the seriousness we discussed above, it makes you jump into a narrative. It reinforces your narrative role as a responsible and dedicated spouse and parent. It also creates a strong narrative for the couple as a whole. Sexual union for the couple practicing NFP is not just about instant pleasure, it’s about long-term commitment. It’s a symbol that makes the couple jump from their daily affairs into their life-long story.
Let me stress this, because the idea of jumping layers of being may not be obvious to people not already familiar with symbolic thinking. It’s not just that, before every sexual union, the couple has to consider the whole narrative of the family, since you cannot simply rely on contraception to avoid pregnancies. It’s also that this very narrative echoes and is reinforced during the sexual act itself. Through sexual union, the spouses participate in and invigorate their family narrative. Is the home large enough for another potential child? Plans to move? Do I trust my wife enough to raise a child with her? Am I willing to sacrifice myself to my spouse and offspring? And so on. All of those questions are in the minds of the spouses during sexual union, reinforcing their shared narrative. Accordingly, NFP really prevents couples from remaining in a contraceptive-induced unconsciousness.
This also means that serious couples practicing NFP typically don’t wait too long before getting married and embarking on a thoroughly considered narrative. If sexual union is such a serious business for a married couple, it’s of course unthinkable for an unmarried couple. This has a very powerful impact on men and women. Men have to make themselves attractive to a spouse and commit to married life with her. Indeed, without contraceptives, a woman won’t give herself to a man without being sure that this man is virtuous, dedicated, and can handle having a family. Thus, men can’t remain in their basements, as is all too common nowadays. Rather, they have to embark on a narrative and become men worth marrying, and then men worth staying married to, or it’s continued abstinence for them.
Contrast this with the modern pick-up artist phenomenon—made possible by contraceptives—where men learn the art of seduction without consequence, of pleasure without narrative. If the pill allows women to be superficial, it means that men can become attractive only superficially; become playboys, not real productive members of society. Not only does this mean that such men never develop a thorough narrative for themselves, it also muddies the waters for women who want a man they can embark on a genuine narrative with.
And thus, we see that contraceptives do not operate merely at the biological level, but at the narrative one as well. One does not simply stop such a fundamental biological process without also stopping important narrative processes, as blind as modern people may be to such narrative processes.
Another thing is that, in practice, divorce rates are lower for couples who practice NFP than for those who use contraceptive methods.4 Now, we should not confuse causation with correlation, and there is definitely disagreement in the (fairly sparse) literature on the subject, but after what we said above, I think it is fair to propose that NFP decreases divorce rates. If every episode of sexual union becomes imbued with deep psychological and narrative significance, the couple who practices NFP has bonded far more closely than the one that did not, and their narrative as a couple is far stronger. And stronger narratives survive longer.
Let me now jump to a social problem, namely the meaning crisis we are going through in the West.5 While it would be unreasonable to try to reduce the cause of our current meaning crisis to contraception alone, it has obviously had a powerful impact. Removing the immediate psychological and narrative significance of sexual union, as explained in the previous sections of this article, of course takes away a lot of meaning from one’s life.
But I think there is an even deeper and more dangerous issue here. When we use contraception, we separate pleasure from purpose, meaning from fact. We in fact separate the highest human pleasure, namely orgasm, from the highest human responsibility, namely parenthood. That’s a really dangerous game to play. Separating pleasure from responsibility is a recipe to destroy both. To put it bluntly: if even orgasmic pleasure carries no responsibility, how could any other pleasure carry any kind of responsibility?
Another way to see it is that contraception separates the physical fact of sexual union from its reproductive purpose. Note that procreation is not the sole purpose of sexual union (bonding the spouses is another, for instance, and I’ll also talk about spiritual purpose below), but the point is that contraception does separate the physical fact of sexual union from what is arguably its most obvious and naturally significant purpose, namely reproduction. Now, the problem is that everytime we do this, we undermine the relationship between fact and purpose in general. Every time we do this, we separate the world of objects from the world of value, thus becoming a little bit more dualistic and nihilistic. Indeed, if we’re willing to go against the very obvious reproductive purpose of sexual union by using contraception, how are we to ever uphold the purpose of anything?
When Jonathan Pageau and Derek Fiedler spoke about contraception, Jonathan explained it by saying that our age, in general, is contraceptive. We generally seek pleasure without participation 6. This is especially dangerous in the case of contraception, where the pleasure is extremely intense precisely because it is meant to accompany an extremely intense level of participation. Indeed, sexual union participates in the creation of life itself. That is very profound and it is why the experience is so ecstatic. But, if we use contraception to separate pleasure and participation even there, how are we to ever maintain the union of pleasure and participation? How are we not going to end up with a contraceptive culture that systematically seeks pleasure without participation?
It is indeed no wonder that, in the same way that we use contraception to get pleasure without commitment, we also prefer to watch Netflix or play video games rather than participate in actual events. We want sterile entertainment, disconnected from real-life commitment.
Finally and most bluntly, you can also see the relationship between nihilism and contraception in their shared denial of life. We use contraception because we want to avoid bringing life into the world. This is very common in the West, where you can almost feel how uneasy people are about having any children, let alone many of them. Our entire culture is contraceptive, and undergoing a population decline. We’re full of potential but we decide not to use it. We’re not sure life is really worth the difficulties and sacrifices. This of course translates into skepticism about the value of our own individual lives. We try to avoid discomfort and to seek pleasure because we’re not sure that meaning is worth the effort. We’re not sure that life is worth the inherent suffering. We’re in a meaning crisis.
However, the dedicated Christian couple practicing NFP are the opposite of nihilistic. For such a couple, sexual union is an image of the cosmic creation and redemption of the world. In sexual union, the couple is willing to participate in the creation of life, and in vouching to sacrifice themselves for one another and their offspring, they participate in Christ’s sacrifice for the sake of the world. It’s an affirmation of life and meaning against death and nihilism. By symbolically partaking in this affirmation, every sexual union can thus become a very powerful spiritual experience for the couple.
In fact, so do the periods of abstinence that come each month if the couple do not deem themselves ready to welcome new life into the world. This opportunity for asceticism and prayer can also be very spiritually powerful. We live in a world where immediate gratification is king and where long-term purpose is hard to discern. In that context, periods of voluntary abstinence become an extremely useful practice. They help the couple focus on the spiritual and the long-term over the physical and the immediate. They remind the spouses that sexual union is not an end in itself, but a ladder up the layers of being. They remind the couple that the ultimate purpose of sexuality is not pleasure, nor union, nor even procreation, but active participation in God’s creation and redemption of the world. And somewhat paradoxically, this increased focus on God and spiritual growth can then feed back down to enrich the moments of sexual union. Indeed, spiritual growth allows the spouses to better experience the deep psychological, narrative, social, and cosmic significance of becoming one flesh.
Let me close by addressing an issue you may be wondering about now: does the symbolic power of sexual union decrease with time, as fertility goes down? Or, to take a clearer and more extreme example, what if the wife is already pregnant? Well indeed, sexual union does lose some of its meaning in those circumstances. Traditional Christian philosophers and theologians would nonetheless explain that sexual union under those circumstances remains good, in that it can still genuinely bring the couple together. There’s a big difference between making oneself infertile with a contraceptive and simply being handed infertility. In the former case, one voluntarily separates the fact of sexual union from its procreative purpose, whereas in the latter case, one was simply never handed that procreative purpose to begin with.
But I think it’s best to mention the most radical possibility at this point, namely that of spouses who live ascetically, if not become outright monastics.7 As sexual union loses some of its symbolic power with the decrease in the possibility of procreation, you’ll see holy couples that do indeed choose abstinence in order to dedicate themselves more fully to spiritual discipline. Some even physically separate and join monasteries. This was the case, for example, with Saints Peter and Fevronia of Murom, who decided in their later years to dedicate the rest of their lives to God. Such couples do not divorce and remain in fact married, but live apart, praying for one another and for the world. This probably sounds crazy to modern secular ears, but for a dedicated Christian couple who has spent a life of spiritually enriching self-sacrifice, it’s in fact a very sweet reward. Once a couple has learned to ascend the layers of being towards God, why not stay there?
- United Kingdom United Health Service. Natural family planning: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/contraception/natural-family-planning/
- For more on that topic, check out Saint John Paul the Second’s Theology of the Body, more specifically Part II, chapters 2 and 3, which are about the language of the body
- For example, see Pageau, Jonathan and Peterson, Jordan. Season 4 Episode 8: Jonathan Pageau at 1:17:45. Youtube, March 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rAqVmZwqZM
- A. Wilson, Mercedes. The Practice of Natural Family Planning Versus the Use of Artificial Birth Control: Family, Sexual and Moral Issues. http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/wils/wils_01naturalfamilyplanning1.html
- If you are not already familiar with this notion, please check out John Vervaeke’s lecture series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54l8_ewcOlY&list=PLND1JCRq8Vuh3f0P5qjrSdb5eC1ZfZwWJ
- Pageau, Jonathan and Fiedler, Derek. Symbolism & Sexuality at 1:11:20. YouTube, February 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iy8dYT61WIc
- J. Sheen, Fulton. Three to Get Married, Chapter 20. Appleton Century Crofts, New York, 1951. https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/three-to-get-married-11222