This post corresponds to endnote 25 in Chapter 8 of Beautiful Union. It's not intended as a standalone article so much as a further exploration of some broader ideas developed in the book.
Should Christians use contraception? In Beautiful Union, I argue that children are central to God’s vision for sex and marriage. I argue that it is not only the unitive dimension of sex, but the procreative as well, that is iconic of greater realities we were made for with God: such as being born from above with new life from the Spirit, and the abundant fruitfulness of God’s kingdom that proceeds from union with Christ. If children are so central to marriage, is it okay to intentionally prevent them from coming into existence?
I want to promote healthy curiosity and charitable dialogue around questions of sexuality like these. So I’ve invited Christopher West, a leading theologian on questions of the body and sexuality, to respond to my piece. I will first present a typical Protestant line of thinking; Christopher will respond with a Roman Catholic perspective. My hope is to help us all think intentionally through the issues involved and to open up space for constructive conversation.
Protestants typically allow for some forms of contraception, under certain circumstances. I resonate with the way the respected Reformed theologian John Frame puts it:
“It seems to me that birth control is permissible in many situations, but it bears a high burden of proof. It can be a responsible choice, but is probably overused.”
With Frame, I would suggest it can be a legitimate option for Christians to use but we should avoid being too cavalier in how we approach it and should also be aware of unhealthy motives and methods. Let’s start with an argument “for” contraception, then move to an argument “against” it, before landing with how I currently see it.
When God says “be fruitful and multiply,” it is in a context of blessing: “God blessed them and said…” (Genesis 1:28) Through most of human history, that blessing was more than just an emotional sentiment (you’re such a blessing!) but a tangible blessing in some very practical ways. Children were your labor force (helping you work the land), your 401K retirement plan (caring for you in old age), and a social safety net (extended families supported each other when tragedy struck). The more blessing the better.
Today, large families aren’t what they once were. Times have changed. Modern industrial societies have replaced ancient agricultural ones. Ma & Pa ain’t farming anymore. Historically, less than 1% of the world’s population lived in cities. Today, 80% of Americans live in cities and by 2050 an estimated 2/3rds of the world’s population will be urban. This is an epic shift with some significant implications for one’s family size.
It’s hard to raise fifteen kids in New York City.
Children are still a blessing, but there’s a legitimate question of how much blessing you can handle. Genesis 1:28 also tells us to “subdue” the earth and “rule” the creatures, but this does not necessarily mean you should seek to acquire as much land and livestock as you possibly can. Supporting a large family is much harder in our modern world.
This raises a contextual question: Can Christians use contraception to reasonably steward the size of their families? Could contraception be a tool God has providentially allowed at this time in history for responsible use?
By considering it a “tool,” every technology has both responsible and irresponsible uses. You can use your hammer to build a home or beat up your neighbor. Nuclear energy can power a city or blow up the world.
With contraception, irresponsible uses would include things like: singles using condoms to hook-up or play the field, or unmarried couples using birth control to postpone or avoid commitment. Such practices are all confronted by the broader vision of sexual ethics I’ve explored in Beautiful Union.
Responsible use, however, could involve a married couple reasonably stewarding the size of their family in the modern world. The blessing of fruitful multiplication doesn’t mean every couple is required to necessarily have as many kids as possible. To draw an analogy: when God says to “subdue” the earth (a command that runs parallel to “be fruitful” in Genesis 1:28), there’s wisdom to not taking on more land than you can reasonably manage. Perhaps there’s a similar wisdom to not producing more children today than you can reasonably raise and care for well.
Additionally, when God says to “fill the earth,” some would say we’ve actually done a pretty good job on that front. (8 billion strong and counting–check!) Some people raise an ethical concern with overpopulation, related to stewarding our collective burden on the earth’s limited resources. However, it’s worth recognizing that under-population raises its own host of problems: when a society fails to reproduce at minimum replacement levels for its population, all sorts of economic and social problems arise.
Regardless, the main question here is this: can families participate in God’s blessing of fruitful multiplication while stewarding the size of their family in ways that make sense in our modern world?
Now let’s consider an argument “against” contraception. A major problem is that it changes the nature of the sexual act itself. It severs the unitive and procreative dimensions of sex, which are organically connected in the natural act. Union is divided from multiplication. The uniting of bodies is no longer oriented toward the generation of life. Making love is separated from making babies. While that separation may seem natural to us today, this is a sign of how deep the “contraceptive mindset” has set in.
This is no small thing. It impacts not only the procreative dimension, but the unitive as well. Arguably, what makes two bodies able to become actually one–not just metaphorically one–is their coordination toward the reproduction of a new body, the movement of lives towards the generation of life. This is what makes “one flesh” a biological reality.
Contraception interrupts the full consummation of “one flesh” union. A condom dams up the “river of life,” preventing its life-giving waters from reaching the opposite shore. With a diaphragm, a barrier is placed at the most intimate point of contact, preventing a full reception of the gift within the generative holy space of the womb. Birth control intentionally denies a fruitfulness that points forward to the future hope of the kingdom, in the eschatological abundance of the new creation. (For the biblical background to the imagery in this paragraph, see particularly Chapters 5 and 13 – 15 of Beautiful Union).
As such, contraceptive sex is unable to bear witness to the work of the Spirit. Moreso, as I argue in Beautiful Union, procreation is an iconic window into not only the work of the Spirit but also the person of the Spirit (see Chapters 3 and 12). With contraception, the lover and beloved refuse to welcome the love who proceeds from their union, intentionally shutting the door on the fruit of their love. Such sex is thus, we might say, non-trinitarian.
We could sum all this up by saying contraceptive sex is non-pneumatological (a fancy word for the things of the Spirit). It is unable to bear witness to the work of the Spirit in creation and redemption, and–most mysteriously perhaps–to the person of the Spirit in the eternal communion of the triune God.
The main concern here is this: contraception interrupts the icon.
Why then might contraception still be permissible? The Christian Medical Fellowship provides a helpful summary:
“It is in the very nature of creation that a woman is fertile for only a few days in every cycle; yet nobody would suggest that a husband and wife should make love only on these days, or else deny by their actions the inherent procreative nature of sex. And if, in order to space their children, they are careful to avoid making love during the fertile days, they do not dishonour that inherent nature. Indeed, they honour it. And if such collaboration with the natural rhythms of nature in order to avoid producing a child is acceptable, then the intention to avoid conception is accepted. Harnessing this intention to ethically acceptable forms of contraception would also seem to be accepted in principle.”
That’s a big quote; let’s unpack it. First, nobody says a husband and wife should only make love on fertile days. Even Christian positions which prohibit contraception generally allow for Natural Family Planning (NFP) or the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM), where couples avoid having sex on fertile days. This “collaboration with the natural rhythms of nature,” as the quote puts it, does not dishonor but rather honors the inherent nature of sex.
Second, this means “the intention to avoid conception” is accepted in principle. The goal of such methods is sex without pregnancy. Once that intention is established, it seems inconsequential whether one uses natural means or modern technology to reach that end—unless the real underlying issue is with technology. Once you decide to go to the store, you can take a horse & buggy (if you’re Amish) or drive a car. Both are heading to the same destination, one’s just willing to use modern technology to get there. This would suggest contraception is acceptable if one accepts natural family planning and certain forms of technology are permissible in this context.
That said, methods matter. Some popular forms of birth control are actually abortive, not contraceptive. (That’s why the quote above refers to “ethically acceptable forms of contraception.”) Contraception means, literally, “preventing conception”: keeping the sperm from fertilizing the egg. Yet IUDs, the morning after pill, some hormonal technologies. and arguably some forms of the Pill, can work after conception has already taken place, preventing an already-fertilized egg from successfully implanting in the womb. In the words of the Christian Medical Fellowship, this is “nothing less than an early abortion.”
Married couples using birth control should ensure their method is truly contraceptive, not abortifacient. There are resources out there to help you discern between options. Life begins at conception, and should be treated as sacred.
Motives matter, too. Acceptable motives could involve the size of your family (how many children you can reasonably raise), or the timing of your children (spacing your children while caring for a terminally ill parent or supporting your spouse through a Masters degree), or health reasons (such as medical concerns where pregnancy would endanger the life of the wife).
Bad motives, however, could involve seeking to facilitate sex outside of marriage, or materialistic reasons within marriage (such as racking up a few more Hawaii vacations and fancy dinners out before the kids come along). I confess: some of my motives when I was younger were of this materialistic nature.
Full transparency: I have a vasectomy and three children. I am not arguing for large families here but rather for the legitimacy of stewarding the size of one’s family, in ways that will be unique to each couple’s personal circumstances and life stories. I do want to wrestle with the implications if the family is an icon of the Trinity, and honestly, I’m still in process on this and want to offer these reflections for others who are processing on this journey too.
As I mentioned earlier, in the interest of healthy curiosity and charitable dialogue, I want to open up space for Christopher West, a theologian I esteem and respect, to provide a different perspective.
Response from Christopher West
I can tell Josh has wrestled with the contraception question. So have I. It’s what caused me to leave the Catholic Church in the 1980s. And, as I continued to wrestle with it, it’s what brought me back in the 1990s.
As more and more people like me search for the source of today’s societal chaos and gender confusion, they’re rediscovering the “sexual math” that all Christian churches understood until rather recently: when we fail to reverence the fact that genitals are meant to generate, society itself de-generates.
Few realize today that until 1930 all Christian leaders condemned contraception. That year the Anglican bishops were the first to succumb to external pressures and reluctantly change their position. In the years that followed, denomination after denomination shifted from condemnation of contraception to reluctant acceptance to advocation. With the dawn of the Pill in the 1960s, global pressure was now being put on the Catholic Church to follow suit.
Pope Paul VI shocked the world in 1968 when he issued Of Human Life, reaffirming traditional Christian teaching against contraception, including the Pill. He was scorned globally, but he understood well that a contracepting world would become a world of rampant immorality; a world where women and childbearing are degraded; a world in which governments trample on the rights of the family; and a world in which human beings believe they can manipulate their bodies at will. Welcome to the new world “order”.
In responding to Josh, I’d first like to point out that the terms “birth control” and “contraception” are not simply interchangeable. As Josh demonstrates, abstaining from intercourse during the fertile time of a woman’s cycle is a method of “controlling births.” However, it is not a contraceptive method of controlling births. Contraception is the choice by any means both to activate one’s generative powers and to thwart them at the same time. That, as Josh rightly demonstrates, alters the sacred iconography of the act. Couples who abstain from intercourse to “control births” never tamper with the sexual act.
Josh is, of course, right that there can be morally good reasons for limiting family size. But that’s not the actual question at hand when looking at “the ethics of contraception.” The actual question is whether there is ever any justification for altering the sacred iconography of the sexual act. If there is not, one cannot appeal to the end (limiting family size) to justify the means (rendering sex sterile). If contraception is, in fact, an evil, then we may never do evil that good may result, as Scripture makes clear (see Rom 3:8).
Take two people who have good reasons for wanting to lose weight. One reasonably disciplines himself when it comes to eating; the other continues to eat whenever he wants, but intentionally vomits to avoid the results. These are two morally different means to the same end. And it’s an apt analogy, as contraception is a sort of sexual bulimia, while abstaining from fertile acts of intercourse involves the appropriate discipline of one’s sexual appetite.
When Josh considers contraception a morally neutral “tool” (like a hammer), he is placing its moral evaluation on the end for which one is using it without addressing the means to that end. Contraception, he argues, is morally acceptable if the end of avoiding a child is morally acceptable. But contraception is immoral, he argues, when it is used for a morally bad end, like fornication, adultery, or unjustly avoiding children in marriage. By framing it this way, however, he has skirted the actual moral question raised by contraception: is it ever justifiable to render our genitals unable to generate?
Josh and I would certainly agree that medical technology is good when it serves to make our bodies work the way they’re meant to work. For example, if medical technology can give sight to a blind man, that’s a wonderful use of it. But it would be a terrible abuse of medical technology to intentionally blind someone. Is it any less an abuse of medical technology to intentionally sterilize someone? If someone is fertile, that means his or her body is healthy; it’s functioning exactly the way God made it to function. Contraceptive technology is designed specifically to act against our healthy functioning.
Josh’s analogy with a hammer doesn’t work for this reason: hammers are designed for pounding nails, a morally neutral activity. Condoms are designed for one end: to render the sexual act sterile. As I will demonstrate more below, this is not a morally neutral activity. If one is looking for a true analogy between different moral evaluations in the use of a hammer and the use of a condom, you would have to come up with a morally good use for a condom. I suppose one could stretch a condom and use it as a tourniquet to save someone from bleeding to death. That would be putting this “tool” to a morally good use. But we know that that is not the reason condoms exist. Condoms exist to enable people to engage in the sexual act while defrauding it of its procreative potential. Is it ever good for a married couple to do this?
Violating the Icon
Throughout his book, Josh rightly recognizes that a biblical vision of sexual ethics is based on upholding the theological symbolism or sacred iconography of the sexual act. “That’s my favorite idea in this book,” he says, “that sexual love, through both its unitive and procreative dimensions, gives us a window, in some mysterious way, into the inner life of God” (p. 170). This is one of the clearest and most concise statements on the sacred iconography of human sexuality I’ve ever read.
Josh applies his logic consistently when he asserts that porn and adultery are immoral because they violate the icon by severing sex from its unitive dimension. He also bravely asserts that contraception “interrupts the icon” inasmuch as it “severs sex from the procreative dimension.” But he also says, “I’m not saying contraception is always off limits” (p. 121).
Wait a minute. Would Josh say the same thing about porn and adultery? Is it ever, for any reason (even once), morally acceptable to violate the unitive dimension of the sexual act with porn or adultery? I’m sure Josh would give a firm “no” to that question. Why, then, would it ever be acceptable, for any reason (even once), to violate the procreative dimension of the sexual act?
A contracepted act of intercourse is still prophetic and theological, but, upon closer examination, we can recognize that it renders the couple (in that act) false prophets, and it renders the theology of their bodies (in that act) blasphemous. By rendering their union sterile, they are refusing to live in the image of the Trinitarian God in which they are made: they are proclaiming with the language of their bodies that God is not Father, that he is not eternally generating the Son, and that the Holy Spirit is not the Lord and giver of life.
When Josh employs that theological word for the Holy Spirit and says that contracepted sex is non-pneumatological, he’s on to it! However, may I point out that contracepted sex is not merely non-pneumatological? It’s anti-pneumatological. It’s a direct act against the Holy Spirit, an act intended specifically to thwart the Lord and giver of life. When we violate the symbolic order in this way, in what order are we now participating? The diabolic order. Symballein means to unite; diaballein means to rupture. Are we not rupturing what God has united when we use contraception?
Josh is so clear on the work of the evil one in every other instance: “Extramarital sex images the Enemy” (p. 122); “Don’t desecrate the icon” (p. 161). But he doesn’t carry his own logic through when it comes to contraception, or, he makes exceptions. The burden of proof is on Josh for explaining why it would ever be morally acceptable to paint (or “write” as they say in the Christian East) a blasphemous icon.
Honoring the Icon
What then, could a couple do to “steward the size of their family” without painting a blasphemous icon? I’m sure you’re doing it right now. They could abstain from sex. There’s nothing wrong with abstaining from sex when a couple has a good reason to do so. In fact, on many occasions throughout married life, one or both of the spouses may desire to “paint the icon,” but love demands they refrain from doing so – when one or the other is sick, after childbirth, in times of separation, in public places, etc. In fact, if one cannot abstain from sex in these situations, that spouse’s love is radically called into question. Is it any different when a couple has a good reason to avoid a pregnancy?
When couples are properly trained in modern methods of Natural Family Planning (NFP) – not to be confused with the older, less effective “rhythm method” – studies show that couples can determine times of fertility and infertility with 98-99% effectiveness. Armed with this knowledge, couples can respectfully refrain from “painting the icon” during the fertile time, and, if they so choose, they can “paint the icon” during the infertile time without desecrating it.
As the Christian Medical Fellowship statement Josh quotes already established, there would be no violation if couples limited their intercourse to the naturally infertile periods. But a couple can no more “harness” their good intention (or end) to avoid conception to the bad means of contraception than a person can “harness” his good intention (or end) to lose weight to the bad means of intentionally vomiting after each meal. Couples who use NFP never “eat” and then “vomit up” their fertility (that is, they never both activate and, at the same time, thwart their generative power). Rather, like the person who refrains from eating at certain times to lose weight, they accept the God-given order of things and discipline themselves to live within it.
The difference here is not between older and newer technologies – like an Amish buggy versus a car as the means for getting to the store. By framing it this way, my brother Josh is, once again, failing to distinguish between the means and the end. Taking a buggy or taking a car are both morally acceptable means for achieving the end of getting to the store. There are also morally unacceptable means for achieving that end, like stealing someone else’s buggy or car.
It is clear that couples who use contraception and couples who use NFP have the same end: to avoid a pregnancy. But they are employing very different means to achieve that end. People often object, “O, come on! What is the big difference between sterilizing the act yourself and just waiting till it’s naturally infertile?” To which I respond, “O, come on! What’s the big difference between killing Grandma and just waiting till she dies naturally?”
Give it some thought: If you can understand the moral difference between euthanasia and natural death, you can understand the moral difference between contraception and Natural Family Planning. It’s not that contraception is the same as murder. Rather, it’s that in both natural death and natural infertility, God remains God; while in both euthanasia and contraception, we take the powers of life into our own hands and “make ourselves like God.” That’s the logic of the original sin all over again. The moment we accept that logic, we’ve been deceived by the enemy.
Let us not be afraid to admit a million sins in this regard. Let us be afraid of only one sin: the rationalization of sin. What’s more likely – that Christians were wrong for 1,930 years on this issue, or that modern Christians have capitulated to the spirit of the age?
Today, it’s hard to imagine how shocking it was to universal Christian sensibilities in 1930 when the Anglican bishops justified contraception. By doing so, they were “attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian, mentality,” warned the celebrated poet T.S. Eliot. “The experiment will fail,” he predicted, “but we must be very patient in waiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization and save the world from suicide” (Thoughts After Lambeth, 1931).
The alarmist rhetoric of a mad man? Or the prescient prediction of the terrible tempest through which we’re now passing? Is our boat not being swamped by waves of sexual chaos and confusion? Let us cry out, as the disciples did, “Lord, save us!”
A Brief Response from Josh
I’m grateful for Christopher West’s perspective. He’s given us much to think about! My goal here is not to resolve the question or have one side “win,” as rather to cultivate a posture of healthy curiosity with exposure to some of the issues involved.
As I see it, the crux of the questions raised are: First, is it the means or the ends of contraception, as a technology, which determines its morality? We both agree on the legitimacy of married couples “controlling births,” the question is on the legitimacy of means used toward that end. Christopher raises the important question of whether it is permissible to both activate one’s generative powers in the sexual act and to thwart them at the same time (this is a “means” question). I raise the question of whether contraception is permissible toward the end of stewarding the size of one’s family, particularly amidst the historically unique complexities of our modern world (this is an “ends” question).
Second, is contraceptive sex a partial icon or an anti-icon? Christopher and I would both agree that there are a variety of forms of physical intimacy which can reinforce the unitive bond of marriage without leading to the full consummation of “one flesh” union. Not every kiss between spouses must lead to an embrace; not every snuggle in bed must lead to conjugal union. The question is whether contraceptive sex is a similar “partial” movement which does not enter the fullness of the act in its procreative potential, or an “anti” movement which distorts the inherent nature of the act in a way that renders it a counter-sign. This is theologically, to my mind, the most poignant question which most powerfully presses the point home.
These are important questions to be wrestled through in prayer. Next to our culture’s widespread embrace of contraception with no limitations whatsoever, I see Christopher and I not so much as on opposite ends of a spectrum as rather close to one another with some significant distinctions. These distinctions are important, however. Hopefully, this has sparked a constructive conversation. If you’re interested in further resources:
- For a free guide from The Christian Institute distinguishing contraceptive from abortifacient forms of birth control, see: “Contraception: A Pro-Life Guide”
- For more information on Natural Family Planning (NFP) from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, see: “What is Natural Family Planning?”
About Christopher West: Christopher West’s passion for how finite beauty points to Infinite Beauty has led to a prolific career as a theologian, author, and global lecturer devoted to helping others encounter the divine mystery as it’s revealed in and through our physical world, especially the human body. Dr. West serves as president of the Theology of the Body Institute near Philadelphia and as Professor of Theological Anthropology in its jointly sponsored master’s program with Pontifex University. His work has been featured in The New York Times, on ABC News, Fox News, MSNBC, and in countless Catholic and evangelical media outlets. His book Our Bodies Tell God’s Story explains John Paul II’s Theology of the Body specifically for an evangelical audience.
 John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life: A Theology of Lordship (New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2008), 786.
 Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “Urbanization” (2019); published online at: https://ourworldindata.org/urbanization.
 Sherif Gergis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George make this argument in, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (Encounter Books, 2012), p. 25.
 Rick Thomas, “Contraception,” Christian Medical Fellowship (2018). Karen Swallow Prior offers a helpful and personal discussion on the distinction between contraception and abortifacient in her article “The Pill: Contraceptive or Abortifacient?” The Atlantic (December 31, 2012).