A Touch of Experience: Where Are You?

“In the light of the experience of many couples and of the data, . . . theological reflection is . . . called to study further the difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle: it is a difference which is much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one which involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and human sexuality” (St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 32).

As I was preparing to marry at forty, with a short but chaste courtship, my father defined a husband as a servant of his wife and family. In an address to male students by Bishop Karol Wojtyla, later to become Pope St. John Paul II; he explained that when Christ instructed the apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28: 19): “This means, ‘Go and teach,’ which in turn means that we must take responsibility for the Gospel as Truth! In contemporary terms it means that, in accordance with our specific characteristics as men, we must take responsibility for the Gospel as Weltanschauung and idea.”1 In other words, Karol Wojtyla is telling us that fathers are called to teach their children about God.2

Thus there is a vocation to which men are called and which defines the man’s identity more than “sex” which, as a term, whether applied to an action, to a man or to a woman, has a tendency to be disembodied and does not do justice to either human identity or spousal love. What is to be explored, then, is the relational implications of being created in the image and likeness of the Blessed Trinity, the Relational Being, at once a wholly personal and completely communal divine mystery: of three persons in one God; and, by implication, each man and each woman is called to a wholly personal identity of being-in-relationship. When, therefore, a man and a woman sin, there is a tendency to experience sin as “anti-relational” and, therefore, as dividing us from God and each other.3

Contraception and abortion as the denial of “relationship”

“And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” (Gn 2:8–9).

And indeed this question, “Where are you?” could be said to have reverberated from the dialogue between the snake and the woman; for, in the course of the whole dialogue, the man is completely silent and so God says to him, specifically, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife . . .” (Gn 2: 17). In other words, because there was no dialogue about what God had actually said to them and, in effect, the man left the woman to hold the conversation with the snake on her own, the man listened “to the voice” of his wife but not to the situation she was in and the need for his help to establish the truth of what was going on.

In the testimony of a woman who has written about her own experience in the contemporary context, we can hear more than an echo of this ancient situation when, having agreed to have an intrauterine device (IUD) implanted, she went from being happy to experiencing

“excrutiating side effects that led to significant and prolonged bleeding. She expressed anger not only at her physician but also towards her partner for what she perceived as being left alone with not only the physical side effects but also the perceived burden of being held solely responsible for her body’s reproductive capacity.”4

Indeed, is the language of “reproduction” significant too? That instead of the whole understanding of the reciprocal gift of self in which marriage is a totality, opening the spouses to the possibility of an act of God bringing about their child — there is a disembodiedly painful reference to “being held solely responsible for her body’s reproductive capacity.” It is almost as if, in a way, the very denial of relationship entails an almost total depersonalization of the communication between the man and the woman which, in its own way, expresses the interpersonal pain of what she is experiencing in her tragic situation.

Let us note, too, what has been said elsewhere about the nature of hormonal contraceptives when, that is, they are not being used to treat a medical condition: “It is difficult to understand how use of these agents, which treat no pathology and cure no disease, can be justified by those who follow the Hippocratic maxim, ‘Above all, do no harm.’”5

Rediscovering the value of evidence

But let us also note, however, that there is a whole new growth of understanding about the value of a woman understanding herself and, in the context of marriage, a self-understanding that contributes to the dialogue of marriage.6 As regards marriage, realistically, it may be that there is a transition to a method of Natural Family Planning and that problems arise; but, if they do, the very transition may already indicate a graced step in the right direction and a willingness to consider advice in front of the difficulties that they are encountering.7

Even when a medical intervention is necessary to help, it may be that there are alternatives8 that the medical profession is not sufficiently aware of.9 More specifically, if the presence of ovulation is a general indication of a woman’s health,10 how important it is that this is not masked by hormonal contraception — not to mention its wider responsibility for diminishing the fertility of fish in the oceans.11

Unfortunately, in the reality of the times in which we live, there is a particular situation in which the person who comes to the doctor is in fact in a situation of exploitation and, indirectly or directly, there may be an appeal for help and at the very least a reason to pray that the encounter with the medical profession is truly helpful. In other words, a woman or a girl may be coming to the medical profession because of being a victim of sex-trafficking; and, therefore, there is an immense requirement of being able to read the signs, being prayerful, well-disposed and prudent in knowing how to really be of help to this person.12

In the case of an abortion

“It’s not that . . . [Cherri] wanted an abortion. It’s that her circumstances felt like too much to take on her own. And abortion seemed like the only option.”13

If we consider the nature of contraception and abortion as a negation, then, as a denial of being-in-relationship, whether in marriage or between a man and a woman more generally, then it follows that contraception and abortion are not just about an anti-life mentality as if that simply means a repudiation of the possibility of a child, or the death of an actual child. Rather, it is about an anti-life mentality that goes more deeply into the repudiation of a child and opens, as it were, upon the repudiation of a relationship to a child and, indeed, of all relationships, including the relationship between the man and the woman and the couple and God.

Abortion, in that it is the destruction of a human life, who is a son or a daughter, a grandchild, or a nephew, is again about implicitly denying a relationship to the child that exists and the person with whom the child came to exist; and, indeed, the relationship between all the implied relatives of the child that existed; it is true, too, that it may be more the mentality of “using” abortion instrumentally, by those who do not want a child or responsibility for a child, than necessarily that this is what the woman wants. But there is, also, as in the case of Cherri, the question of the horizon of hope: that God exists to help.

Thus there is an inner core, an emptying of the heart, as it were, in contraception and abortion itself, which hardens against the possibility of being-in-relationship. Therefore, there is a kind of severing of society at work in these acts which, as they increase, spread wider and wider like the cracking of ice or glass. Instead of a whole person, a whole marriage, a wholesome society, we end with many fractured voices and lives and the increasing epidemic of loneliness which has begun to exist, more and more, in our midst.

Indeed, maybe this outward, human loneliness is a kind of interior expression of our inability to relate to God and to each other; and, therefore, there is a kind of existential hopelessness which is expressed in all the temptations to suicide, to assisted suicide and to contraception and abortion’s ravaging of our society. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, the more there is an eclipse of God who is “relationship” the more there is an eclipse of all human relationships: “once God is forgotten, the creature is lost sight of as well” (Gaudium et Spes, 36).

Does “not being pregnant” define a man?

“It seems certain . . . that for the near future, state advocacy for contraception and contraception mandates will rely most strenuously on the claimed self-evident argument that contraception levels the playing field for women by empowering them, like men, to have sex without pregnancy, and to be unencumbered employees.”14

Although, then, this excerpt is clearly from the American context of this discussion,15 yet the anthropological view that it entails is that of a relationless encounter, “empowering” women to be “like men, to have sex without pregnancy, and to be unemcumbered employees.” In other words, the denial of relationship is attributed to men as some kind of “property” of being a man: that he has “sex without pregnancy” and is an “unencumbered” employee.

But “sex without pregnancy” is not a property of being a man; for sex itself is not a disembodied reality. It is an interpersonal reality: a mutual and reciprocal self-giving; and, therefore, the very nature of reciprocal self-giving entails, as it were, its value to be recognized in the choice of one man and one woman in marriage, if not the sacrament of matrimony. Thus the ultimate definition of sexual equality is actually expressed in a marriage where each is equally given to the other and neither of them withhold any aspect of themselves from the other.16

The man, then, is no more capable of “sex without pregnancy” than his wife can be pregnant from their mutual love without his being her husband and the father of her child. Similarly, he is no more an “unencumbered” employee than he is a husband and father whose work is not a function of his relationship to his family. For a man “to have sex without pregnancy” is as unnaturally “relation-less” for him as it is natural for both the husband and the wife become parents through each other.

Clearly, however, men and women can deny the relational expression of their identity as men and women; but, just as denying the personal nature of reciprocal self-giving does not “abstract” a man from the reality of what he is doing, neither does it empower a woman to imagine that she can have “sex without pregnancy” and be an “unencumbered” employee. In other words, the truth of our human identities persist even when we so-called self-identify ourselves in terms of a false anthropology; and, in view of the persistence of our identity, it is possible that the truth of it will call us back to it.

It may be possible, then, that the epidemic rise in loneliness has arisen out of a denial of parenthood, and all the relationships that that implies, and that this is one of the ways that our nature is rebelling against our “relationlessness”: a culture in which people have destroyed the very fabric of social relationships through both contraception and abortion.

Hope and forgiveness: forgiveness and hope

In another context, that of New Zealand, there is now paid leave after a miscarriage.17 Indeed, anecdotally, after a married couple of my acquaintance lost two children to early miscarriages, the wife’s approaching death caused her husband to fear the possibility of loneliness;18 and, therefore, even in our daily contact with people we can touch the suffering that permeates our times.

Ultimately, then, there are many inconsistencies, both in a person’s own philosophy and, at the same time, throughout society; and therefore, we urgently need to promulgate the whole truth of the human person and to touch, where possible, the conscience that calls for the “fullness of life and love” and the forgiveness of Christ — whether this is a turn for the first time or the nth time to the sacraments of the Catholic Church. Thus, what sin divides and repudiates, the forgiveness of God restores and re-establishes: the true relational nature of the human person, whether man or woman, single or married, in the fellowship of forgiveness and its unfolding, unfailing gift of salvation in relationship to Christ and His Church.

In the end, then, the difference “both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle” (Familiaris Consortio, 32), is about the person’s vocation to be-in-relationship: contraception is, essentially, expressing an anti-relationship mentality which implodes the relational tendency of the person; whereas the right use of “recourse to the rhythm of the cycle” is intra and interpersonal, helping to fulfill the person’s tendency to relationship.

  1. The Way to Christ: Spiritual Exercises, English translation (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), p. 53.
  2. The Way to Christ, pp. 53–56.
  3. My own call from Christ out of sin can be found in various books: The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends; The Prayerful Kiss (I); Honest Rust and Gold (II); and the soon to be published Within Reach of You: A Book of Prose and Prayers (III), all of which are published by En Route Books and Media.
  4. Quoted from Emily Martin, The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction, rev. ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001) by Suzanne Nortier Hollman, “Of Science and Surveillance: An Object Relations View of Affectively Based Side Effects in Hormonal Contraceptive Use,” p. 243 of Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later: Embracing God’s Vision for Marriage, Love, and Life, ed. Theresa Notare (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2019).
  5. William V. Williams, “Medical Consequences of Hormonal Contraception,” p. 233 of Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later.
  6. Cf. Mary Shivanandan, Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, Ltd, 1999, p. 244: “couples who use NFP for any length of time . . . claim improvement in their interpersonal communication as well as greater satisfaction in marriage as a result of using the method”; and, therefore, see “10 ways fertility awareness improves your love life” by Gerard Migeon: naturalwomanhood.org/10-ways-fertility-awareness-improves-your-love-life/.
  7. Cf. For example, an article that offers “some considerations that could hopefully help many men and couples maintain a healthy relationship while continuing to practice NFP”: “Men and NFP: When the challenges of periodic abstinence feel unbearable” by Gerard Migeon: naturalwomanhood.org/struggling-with-nfp-when-men-resent-abstinence/.
  8. Cf. Kathleen M. Raviele, “Natural Family Planning and Ethical Women’s Health Care,” chapter 10 of Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later.
  9. Cf. Marguerite R. Duane and Erin Adams, “The State of Fertility Awareness Based Method Education for Medical Professionals,” p. 203 of Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later.
  10. Cf. Marguerite R. Duane and Erin Adams, “The State of Fertility Awareness Based Method Education for Medical Professionals,” in Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later, p. 206: ovulation is monitored “since the presence of ovulation is a sign of good health” (and see footnote 40: Pilar Vigil et al, The Linacre Quarterly, no. 4 2012).
  11. Cf. Teresa Stanton Collectt, “Against Ideological Colonization: The Teaching of Humanae Vitae and a Humanely Adequate Global Ethic,” pp. 264–265 of Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later; and cf. Francis Etheredge, “The Whale in the Bath,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review, November 25, 2019. www.hprweb.com/2019/11/the-whale-in-the-bath/.
  12. Mary Rose Somarriba, “Coercion and Birth Control in Sex Trafficking,” November 1 2021. naturalwomanhood.org/coercion-and-birth-control-in-sex-trafficking.
  13.  “76% would prefer to be parents”: contact@humancoalition.org, September 16 2021.
  14. Helen M. Alvaré, “Contraception: US Law and Messaging,” p. 289 of Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later.
  15. Cf. also, in the American context, Theresa Notare, “Signs of Hope: Diocesan Natural Family Planning Ministry in the United States,” Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later.
  16. Cf. John S. Grabowski, “Signs of Hope and Healing in Theology: A Tale of Two Statements,” chapter 19, p. 361 of Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later.
  17. Natasha Frost, “New Zealand Approves Paid Leave After Miscarriage,” www.nytimes.com/2021/03/25/world/asia/new-zealand-miscarriage-paid-leave.html Why, however, would there be a recognition of the reality of an interpersonal grief if there were no “suffered loss” in the passing of a blob of cells from the woman’s body? Similarly, why is the suffering of infertility so profound if it is not an expression of that desire for a child — to express love in the transmission of life?

    While there are many real answers to infertility, it is necessary to hear, too, the suffering of it: “Marriage is meant to create a space for others, specifically for a child, and the emptiness of that space can threaten to define or destroy the marriage itself.”[18. Elizabeth R. Kirk, “Humanae vitae and The Cross of Infertility,” p. 322 of Humanae Vitae, 50 Years Later.

  18. He now comes to dinner with us and, spontaneously, one of my sons asked what he would like on a birthday card. Thus my son and indeed other children have responded well to the opportunity to do something in view of this man’s now lonely experience of being a widower and having a birthday.
Francis Etheredge About Francis Etheredge

Mr. Francis Etheredge is married with eight children, plus three in heaven. He is the author of Scripture: A Unique Word and a trilogy, From Truth and Truth (Cambridge Scholars Publishing); The Human Person: A Bioethical Word (En Route Books & Media, 2017), with forewords from eight writers; The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends (2018); and Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, with contributions from ten other authors, as well as The Prayerful Kiss (2019); Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration (2020); Honest Rust and Gold: A Second Collection of Prose and Poetry (2020),
Within Reach of You: A Book of Prose and Prayers (2021), and The ABCQ of Conceiving Conception (2021).

Francis is currently a freelance writer and speaker and his “posts” on LinkedIn can be viewed here. A radio interview can be heard here.

He has earned a BA Div (Hons), MA in Catholic Theology, PGC in Biblical Studies, PGC in Higher Education, and an MA in Marriage and Family (Distinction). He is a collaborator of the Dignitas Personae Institute for Nascent Human Life.

Comments

  1. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    When I wrote this article, I was very struck by these findings; I hope others see these short paragraphs too! God bless, Francis.

    Rediscovering the value of evidence
    But let us also note, however, that there is a whole new growth of understanding about the value of a woman understanding herself and, in the context of marriage, a self-understanding that contributes to the dialogue of marriage.6 As regards marriage, realistically, it may be that there is a transition to a method of Natural Family Planning and that problems arise; but, if they do, the very transition may already indicate a graced step in the right direction and a willingness to consider advice in front of the difficulties that they are encountering.7

    Even when a medical intervention is necessary to help, it may be that there are alternatives8 that the medical profession is not sufficiently aware of.9 More specifically, if the presence of ovulation is a general indication of a woman’s health,10 how important it is that this is not masked by hormonal contraception — not to mention its wider responsibility for diminishing the fertility of fish in the oceans.11

    Unfortunately, in the reality of the times in which we live, there is a particular situation in which the person who comes to the doctor is in fact in a situation of exploitation and, indirectly or directly, there may be an appeal for help and at the very least a reason to pray that the encounter with the medical profession is truly helpful. In other words, a woman or a girl may be coming to the medical profession because of being a victim of sex-trafficking; and, therefore, there is an immense requirement of being able to read the signs, being prayerful, well-disposed and prudent in knowing how to really be of help to this person.12

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