Sex in the City of God

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ

Where should a young couple wanting to know, practically and theologically, what the Catholic Church has to say about natural family planning go these days? Well among other places they could go to a Protestant couple. In particular, they could look for Sam and Bethany Torode.

One morning in my freshman biology class, the professor was scheduled to talk about something or other regarding the human reproductive system. His usually dull monotone was gone; he was animated, even making cracks about his large numbers of siblings. (If you're Catholic, you've probably heard them: "What do you call a family that uses natural family planning? Parents.") His parents, you see, were very Catholic, he told us. They used the "rhythm method."

That class was at the Catholic University of America, which happens to be the only school chartered by the U.S. Catholic bishops. For many of the students in that lecture hall, that morning could have been their one and only shot at hearing a good word or two about natural family planning (NFP) — or at least to hear it outright and not needlessly bashed. But in a scene that often plays itself out inside Catholic school classrooms, even in marriage-preparation classes, legitimate reasons for not using birth control were taken about as seriously as they might be on a late-night comedy show. Increasingly, Catholic couples looking to receive easily accessible Catholic instruction on birth control find themselves out of luck.

So where should a young couple wanting to know, practically and theologically, what the Catholic Church has to say about natural family planning go these days?

To a Protestant couple.

In particular, they should look for Sam and Bethany Torode.

The Torodes are the authors of a new book, Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception.

The Torodes take the Word literally when it comes to the meaning of marriage: Remember, for instance, this: "God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it" (Genesis 1:27-28). And this: "He answered and said, 'Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate'" (Matthew 19: 4-6).

Artificial contraception, the Torodes say, puts up a barrier that doesn't belong in a Christian marriage.

The Torodes write that "Respect for the one-flesh mystery of marriage gives us serious qualms about the use of contraception. To invoke St. Paul's analogy, would Christ ever withhold any part of himself from the Church, or sterilize his love?" As they understand it, "anything less than a true one-flesh union fails to represent the completely self-giving love of Christ for the Church. This is why we believe that when a husband and wife have serious reasons to avoid pregnancy, it's better to abstain for a time than to diminish the meaning and mystery of sex."

The premise of their book, that artificial contraception has no place in a Christian marriage, is an admittedly Catholic one. (And one that is not particularly popular in some Catholic circles, never mind Protestant ones.) What they refer to as "evangelical sex guides" heartily embrace the contraceptive culture. It doesn't fly with the Torodes. And they have some words of caution for fellow pro-life evangelicals, most of whom routinely use contraception, many, they say, without giving it much thought. Like the current pope has written extensively, the Torodes believe that contraception is not consistent with a "culture of life." But they believe that most pro-lifers haven't even thought through it. Both the Bible and Catholic thinkers, the Torodes contend, have much to teach couples about married life and, well, life — whether they're Catholic or not.

Giving up contraception goes against everything our culture tells us about sex and marriage, and sometimes Christians have a hard time thinking outside of the surrounding culture's assumptions. As G. K. Chesterton once quipped, "I suppose that even Jonah, once he was swallowed, could not see the whale."

Evangelicals are known for engaging the culture. Contemporary Christian music, for example, often mimics the sound of "secular" music while adding Christian lyrics, as though the music conveys no message of its own. Problems arise when we begin engaging the culture and end up marrying it.

Our culture tells us that sex is really about pleasure, not spousal unity and procreation. Thus, in order to stay culturally relevant, many Christians stress that it was God who designed sex to yield pleasure. From this legitimate starting point, however, some Christians end up elevating pleasure above the procreative and unitive aspects of sex. In so doing, they unconsciously buy into our culture's hedonistic pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself. That sounds strong, but check out the shelves of most Protestant bookstores-you'll find books on sexual technique that rival the pages of Cosmopolitan.

The Torodes' take is not necessarily a growing trend in evangelical circles, but it's a voice loud enough to get the attention of the country's largest evangelical publication, Christianity Today. And it's not the first time that they have published an anti-contraception point of view. Editor David Neff says that it's "a persistent minority view and one that has a strong internal coherence. It is a viewpoint that I believe needs to be represented from time to time in CT just to keep people aware that this is a plausible option."

Furthermore, Neff points out, it is a viewpoint that many young Christians who have chosen contraception do not want to hear. Of course, it's also one not a lot of Catholics want to hear, either.

But it's one that many couples who have tried it back religiously. And not just for religious reasons. This book, while coming from an unabashedly Christian couple, is written with tenderness and sound reasoning, and will appeal to any couple interested in learning more about why NFP is a valid alternative. The Torodes argue that not putting up barriers in a marriage is at the very essence of the marital union, allowing for the oneness that all married couples seek. Couples in recent years who have "gone natural" speak of its myriad pluses-more intimacy (think about it, the husband has to know his wife's cycles), no pills to screw up her cycle, to mention just a few.

Sam and Bethany quote a marriage counselor, Gregory Popcak, who thinks NPF can be a marriage saver. He's not the only one, either. Popcak says,

It has been my experience that couples who use NFP are actually challenged to work harder on having good marriages. They are challenged to communicate better, to overcome their personal weaknesses more willingly and generously, and they are forced to nurture their friendship more because they can't just "throw sex" at their problems. By way of example, I have witnessed hundreds of non-NFP couples who couldn't communicate their way out of a paper bag, who had lost common interests over the years, who did not really like each other and were often outright abusive in their treatment of one another, but then were completely surprised when their partner wanted a divorce. "I thought everything was great! After all, we had sex almost every day!"

The book is about much more than the contraception question though. Bethany makes a beautiful argument in favor of stay-at-home motherhood, and other choices the Torodes believe are keys to successful matrimony.

The Torodes' arguments are not going to be embraced by all their readers, but they do invite everyone into their home to share what they've learned. They write in a touching, faith-filled, loving way about the essence of marriage. It's a slim volume that's a perfect engagement gift, regardless of religion. (If you were in that Catholic U. class that morning, though, especially if you're Catholic.)

Sam and Bethany (26 and 21), by the way, are proud parents of son Gideon and have another blessing on the way.

*************

The following interview with the Torodes was conducted for National Review and titled "A Protestant Couple Rejects Birth Control". It was published August 9, 2002.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is it that first attracted you to Natural Family Planning (NFP) and why have you made spreading the word about it a mission of yours?

Bethany Torode: As I read the testimonies of couples who practice NFP, all sorts of pieces came together in my mind. It seemed to be such an obvious key to marital success. Together, you're learning about the beautiful inner workings of each other's bodies. This brings a closeness, a lack of embarrassment, and a good view of sexuality to the couples who work together at it. I was also very attracted by the fact that NFP doesn't involve bringing awkward devices, like condoms, or emotionally and physically manipulative chemicals, like the Pill, into the most sacred part of married life.

Everything in life has an ebb and flow, and NFP seems to be the only "method" that acknowledges the existence of those rhythms in sex. The Bible — and the Byrds — allude to it: "There is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing." NFP involves informed periodic seasons of abstinence at different times in married life. If the time is not right for a baby, you don't compromise the wholeness of lovemaking. I also appreciated how NFP doesn't espouse a belief that sex is only for babies, or that everyone is required to have as many — or more — kids as is physically possible.

The clincher for me was hearing of all the couples who testify to a monthly "honeymoon effect" after a time of abstaining. Sex is like chocolate — if you eat it all the time, it loses its flavor. But Americans have virtually no concept of the beauty and rewards of self-discipline, in the areas of food or sex.

Sam Torode: As to what made it a mission of ours — that started when we began researching the Pill. We learned that the Pill is designed to work in three ways, the last of which is to thin the uterine lining so that a newly conceived embryo can't implant. In other words, the Pill is known to cause early abortions.

Because so many young Christians use the Pill, including friends of ours, we wanted to make this information more widely known. We wanted to counteract, in some small way, the influence of Evangelicals like Tim and Beverly LaHaye, who recommend the Pill for newlyweds in their best-selling book on sex.

So we wrote an article about it and submitted it to a Christian magazine, but it was rejected. The editor told us that the publisher's policy was, "you can't speak ill of the Pill." At that point, we felt like we had been silenced. But rather than give up, we decided to write a whole book on contraception and NFP, and we were determined to get it published one way or another.

Lopez: Have you gotten grief from Protestant friends for this book? For the very Catholic view of contraception you espouse? For criticism of the likes of the LaHayes — likening their books to Dr. Ruth!

Bethany: Not really. Friends are generally open, and even when they disagree they do so in a relaxed way. If the book ever became a noticeable seller, I suspect we might be criticized by some more public authors and Protestant leaders. A little while ago, we were guests on a radio show along with a Christian who's both a doctor and an author, who represented the opposite and predominant view. Since then we've read that he is planning on publishing a book on contraception in 2004. So we'll see if that contains any criticism, veiled or unveiled.

I think our book is more intriguing or bizarre than anything else. People wonder why in the world two twentysomething Protestants would even think twice about "the Catholic position." What we want them to realize is that it's the Christian position, is something that all Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox can and should agree on.

Sam: I'd like to see some negative reviews, actually, because that would show that people who disagree with us are actually reading the book. It would be nice to spark some debate with the folks we take issue with, like the LaHayes. We respect the people whose writings we criticize, and we want them to consider our arguments.

Lopez: Have you managed to sell freedom from artificial birth control to any — especially pro-life — friends?

Bethany: Yes, at least four of my good girlfriends that I can think of off the top of my head. I always get a little nervous when a friend says to me, "You've convinced me! Now help me get started." We're just the vessels for passing on what we've learned from others, and we're still learning ourselves. I don't want us to be put on a pedestal or viewed through rose-colored glasses. NFP is hard work, especially at first — harder than remembering to swallow a pill everyday. But it's infinitely more rewarding, and I know that if people stick with it they will be more satisfied and full.

Sam: We discovered that some of our married friends — both Catholics and Protestants — had already decided against contraception. Since writing the book, we've received letters from other couples who are in agreement. So we really aren't that unusual. It's surprising that no one wrote a book like ours sooner. We hope more books and articles will follow, by other Christians who have wrestled with these issues.

Lopez: I'm sure in the course of your book work you've encountered those polls and articles about Catholics not using NFP, some Catholic parishes not even teaching it seriously anymore. Have you met Catholics finding your book as a resource they had yet to encounter?

Sam: There are very few Christian couples of any stripe who don't use contraception. Catholics who follow their Church's teaching can't look down on Protestants for accepting contraception, when there are actually about as many Protestants as Catholics out there who don't use contraception. But, though the counterculture is small, it's vibrant and growing.

Bethany: We have heard from at least one woman who said something to the effect of "Thank you for explaining my Church's teaching to me — now I have the means to follow it, and I can explain why I believe what I do." We've also heard from a lot of Catholics who are already following the Church's teaching, and they are really excited about our book because it's not an antagonistic or off-putting introduction to what they believe, and they can give it to all their friends as food for thought.

Lopez: What would you say to a married couple who may say to you, after reading your book, "NFP is all fine and good for you, but you wanted a baby right away. We want to wait. We don't even have the money or house to support kids yet. We want to be sure we won't have kids for awhile."

Sam: It's a decision between them and God. The most we could ask is that they reach a conclusion based on prayer, Scripture reading, and sound reason.

As a general rule, I hold by what my parents taught me: that if you're not ready to have a baby, you're not ready to get married. That said, there can be exceptions where a couple has reasons to postpone a child after getting married. In that case, NFP is the best way to go. Most people don't realize that there are two sides to the NFP coin — it is highly effective both for avoiding and achieving pregnancy, because it is based on detailed self-knowledge of fertility.

If they plan on using contraception, I would hope that they seriously consider the facts about the Pill, as well as the effects that all forms of contraception can have on a marriage. I would also hope that they read testimonies from couples who have given up contraception and now practice NFP.

Lopez: How old is Gideon now?

Bethany: He's nearing a year. He has six teeth, an infatuation with wheels, and a tendency to bounce to music with pulsing bass lines. He's a blast to have around.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Kathryn Jean Lopez. "Sex in the City of God." National Review (August, 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Review. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.

THE AUTHOR

Kathryn Jean Lopez is associate editor at the National Review.

Copyright 2002 National Review


Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter

 

 

Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.