Sunday, April 28, 2013

Aquinas, NFP, and Modern Day Jansenism

*The Following is a lengthy examination of some very flawed views concerning human sexuality, marriage, and the marital embrace.  Due to the highly sensitive nature of the subject, read discretion is advised.*

When discussing the "Theology of the Body" with supporters of Christopher West, they will quickly pull out the Jansenist card, and declare anyone they disagree with part of this heretical group in the past, using it as a tactic to render their criticism illegitimate.  The overwhelming majority of the time, they are dead wrong.  Yet sometimes they are right, in that the occasional critic of their worldview harbors views that are indistinguishable from a Jansenist.

It is my assertion that Dr. Jay Boyd comes far too close for comfort to this description.  Her views on the marital embrace, natural family planning (NFP), and various other subjects more often than not line up with what the Jansenists taught.  One can establish this by examining her writings on her weblog

I would like to begin where this problem is at its most troubling:  her views on the marital embrace.  In short, unless you are actively thinking about procreation every second of the way during sex, you have sinned, at least venially.  Sound like a caricature?  Let's take a look.

We’ve been raised to believe that “sex is good”, and that there is no reason not to enjoy the pleasure of sex... But what St. Thomas is saying is that there may be some sin involved in the marital act, so we need to examine whether there is something so good in marriage itself that it overcomes the sin of the marital act.
Is this really what Aquinas is saying?  Is he stating that the marital act is sinful, so we need to find something that makes it okay?  Aquinas is dealing with the marital embrace (and marriage by extension) from an act of nature.  We know this is certain because Aquinas counters the objections with:

Wherever there is indulgence, there must needs be some reason for excuse. Now marriage is allowed in the state of infirmity "by indulgence" (1 Corinthians 7:6). Therefore it needs to be excused by certain goods.

 Further, the intercourse of fornication and that of marriage are of the same species as regards the species of nature. But the intercourse of fornication is wrong in itself. Therefore, in order that the marriage intercourse be not wrong, something must be added to it to make it right, and draw it to another moral species.
From a biological standpoint, this is absolutely true.  Biologically speaking, there's nothing different in sex between those who are married, and those who aren't married.  Sex occurs in the animal kingdom, and it is just precisely that and nothing more.  Aquinas (and Christianity as a whole) reject this concept of sexuality (one which pagans loved to promote) when he points out that:

Now there is a loss of reason incidental to the union of man and woman, both because the reason is carried away entirely on account of the vehemence of the pleasure, so that it is unable to understand anything at the same time, as the Philosopher says (Ethic. vii, 11); and again because of the tribulation of the flesh which such persons have to suffer from solicitude for temporal things (1 Corinthians 7:28). Consequently the choice of this union cannot be made ordinate except by certain compensations whereby that same union is righted. and these are the goods which excuse marriage and make it right.

According to Aquinas, there are certain things about the marriage and the embrace which, strictly speaking, by themselves make no sense whatsoever.  From a biological standpoint, it is an established fact that the sexual drive is incredibly powerful, and, left unchecked, clouds reason.  We also teach that seeking the temporal too much can lead away from God.  Yet marriage is also something holy and instituted by God, and this includes the marital embrace, which occurred in heaven before the fall according to St. Augustine.  So how can marriage be holy with these unholy things present?

This is why marriage is a sacrament.  It makes something holy by transforming it.  Furthermore, to the degree that we participate willingly in this or any sacrament, our natures are changed.  In short, sex doesn't remain inherently sinful in marriage (whether on the mortal or venial level) because there is a distinct change in the point of the marital act.  It is no longer just something of the natural order.  Aquinas lists the "goods" of marriage as faith, offspring, and sacrament.  By offspring he does not mean just the begetting but also the raising of children, and by sacrament he does not mean just the sacrament of marriage, but the sign of marriage as institution built upon the model of Christ and the Church.  That final part is incredibly important!

So now we need to return to the original query, do these things make marriage (and the marital embrace) "excusable"?  Do they change us?  We need to read all of Article 4, and I submit that Dr. Boyd's reasoning is that of the objectors:

  • The marriage act cannot be excused from sin because where there is sin, there is evil.
  • Wherever there is immoderate pleasure there is vice
  • since there is still an aspect of shame involved in this vale of tears, and since shame only comes from sin, it is still sinful
Aquinas counters:

In one way by goodness of virtue, and thus an act derives its goodness from those things which place it in the mean. This is what "faith" and "offspring" do in the marriage act, as stated above.
There is something about the marital act being performed within marriage that makes it good.  Since humans are hardwired to procreate, marriage channels this desire into erecting an institution where children can be raised properly.  The pleasure from the act itself is a sign of the pleasure between spouses which is supposed to always exist.

In another way, by goodness of the "sacrament," in which way an act is said to be not only good, but also holy, and the marriage act derives this goodness from the indissolubility of the union, in respect of which it signifies the union of Christ with the Church. Thus it is clear that the aforesaid goods sufficiently excuse the marriage act.

Far from being sinful, Aquinas states that the marital act is to be holy.  Why?  In the marital act, there is a gift of self, where one seeks the good of another above their own needs.  In this act of self-denial, new life is born.  There's no way this can be said about the marital embrace unless it is empowered by the grace afforded to married couples.

I think Dr. Boyd would agree with most of this, but we had to restate it, because here is where Dr. Boyd goes off the rails:

If the act of fornication is always evil, doesn’t that mean that the sex act in and of itself is not truly a “gift from God”, that is, not an objective “good”? If the sex act outside of marriage is evil, then how can the sex act itself be good? Can it be morally neutral? (I don’t know the answer to that last question.)
This answer can be given pretty easily.   The marital act was a gift from God that man has perverted for his own ends.  Christ's Incarnation and Cross, along with his bestowing upon marriage the level of sacrament have the potential to transform these things, so that one can once again use them for their original purpose.  Good things can be used for evil purposes all the time.  The Israelites turned the statue of the snake, which was meant to heal, into an idol.  We call these things a sacrilege, and that is precisely what pre-marital sex is, a sacrilege.  Contraception is a sacrilige.

Now that this is established (that sex can be misused), how is it properly used according to Aquinas?

Consequently there are only two ways in which married persons can come together without any sin at all, namely in order to have offspring, and in order to pay the debt. otherwise it is always at least a venial sin.
What does one mean by "pay the debt?"  This is one of those old terms that sends fans of Christopher West into a blind rage.  Yet when we say marriage debt, we simply mean this.  Spouses have the right to intimacy with their spouses, and such should never be turned down unless there is a really good reason.  This is seperate from the procreative purpose of sex.  What is the point of it?  Pius XI explains this in Casti Conubii:

For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence  (CC 59)
One "renders the debt" because to engage in the marital embrace is a way of fostering a closeness with their spouse that is incapable of being formed with another.  Through the gift of self and the seeking the good of your spouse, mutual love is built up, and this form of self-donation also makes us less and less attached to sin.  So if one is engaging in the marital act for these purposes, there is absolutely no sin involved.  On the contrary, couples are using the marital embrace properly.

What's the point of all this?  In Article 6, Aquinas asks whether or not seeking the marital embrace for pleasure only is sinful.  He concludes that it is sinful, but mostly venially sinful.  Why is "pleasure only" so important?  Because to seek simply your own gratification is something entirely contrary to the institution of marriage.  It also treats the marriage debt as simply the gratification of your desires, rather than a tool couples were given for mutual aid, culminating mutual love, and lessening the effect concupiscence has. In essence, it treats married sex as little better than a natural institution.  To treat a holy thing as little better than a natural occurence is sinful.

Now according to Dr. Boyd, those who engage in NFP do treat this as a merely natural institution, and hence engage in sin.  This is impossible because of the fact that the Church has stated NFP is lawful, and the church cannot declare sin lawful.  Those who are using NFP properly are not sinning, because they are not seeking simply their own pleasure.  Through the knowledge of fertility cycles, they are either using them to maximize the chance of pregnancy, or in light of serious circumstances, engaging in continence during times of fertility on a temporary basis.  They may still engage in the marital embrace during these times of infertility for a few reasons.  First, conception can still occur, as our knowledge of fertility cycles are far from infallible, and even if they were, God has a sense of humor.  (Ask Sarah or the Blessed Virgin if they saw the possibility of a child in the womb.)  Second, they are not doing anything to deliberately deprive the marital embrace of its natural creative power.  Finally, they are still engaging in the marital embrace through "rending the debt" for mutual aid, culmination of mutual love, and lessening our attachment to sin, and according to Aquinas, this isn't sinful.

Now does this mean that everyone does this perfectly?  Or that we even use the gifts God gives us perfectly?  No.  We can also state with a probablistic certainty that somewhere a Catholic couple is using NFP improperly, and hence sinning.  Yet according to the Servant of God John Hardon (one of the best catechists of the twentieth century, so good he wrote one of the standard catechisms of orthodoxy still in use today), who states the following in his book Moral Theology:

Husband and wife are allowed everything that is necessary or useful or pleasing regarding intercourse, even for experiencing fully the pleasure attached to it, and then neither party can sin in looking at, touching or acting in any other way towards his own or his spouse's body. Therefore no restriction is placed on them in showing to each other mutual love, so that they cannot sin either by look or touch or any other manifestation of love, no matter how long they continue, so long as they do not neglect other duties of greater moment. They may also speak and think about and desire those things between themselves, with only the common sense proviso of not involving a third party in this communication.

In all their marital relations they should be led more by the desire of pleasing the other than by the fear of sinning. They will act in a way more pleasing to God if they anticipate the desires of their spouse, rather than await a request. At the same time, true love also avoids demanding what the other would find inconvenient.
These rights and duties remain unchanged during their whole life, even when they cannot have children. No mention of normal conjugal relations should be made in confession, otherwise the confessor may suspect that something sinful has been committed, whereas coition and all its accompaniments are not only not sinful but virtuous and sanctifying to husband and wife.
In other words, even though such is possible, one should never presume that couples are going to sin in the marital embrace, which is precisely what Dr. Boyd is doing.  Like other gifts from God in the sacraments (and the marital embrace is a renewal of that marriage), we partake in the sacraments not only as a result of our holiness but also to become holy.  The marital embrace, when used properly, helps make the spouses holy.  This aspect of the marital embrace is entirely absent from the work of Dr. Boyd.

In this, she joins others who had the best of intentions.  They were keenly aware of the damaging effects concupiscence had on Christians.  They were aware that because of our sinful inclinations, we ended up getting far less from the sacraments than we should have.  Due to our inclinations to sin and our pursuit of sensual delights, these delights were treated as sinful, and a hinderance to partaking of God's gifts.

These people were the Jansenists, and the sacrament they were particularly fearful of was reception of the Blessed Sacrament in Holy Communion.  For them, one had to be free from attachment to even venial sin before anyone could properly make use of the gifts God has given.  Replace "Holy Communion" with "the marital act" and you have the same thing.  While the marital embrace is not a sacrament (but rather a sign of that sacrament, and that which renews the sacrament within the lives of spouses), like communion, it is something meant to make one holy.  Even if a couples desire is not perfect, that does not make it sinful.  In fact, refraining from the marital embrace in complete abstinence out of fear of sin can be very damaging, as the marriage debt cannot function in such a marriage.  As a result, continence of any sort should be engaged in only through mutual consent, a lot of prayer, and hopefully direction from a spiritual director/confessor.

Another problem with the Jansenists is they frequently were prone to incredible self-righteousness.  To those like Dr. Boyd, anyone who practices in NFP (for any reason whatsoever it seems!) is choosing their own ways over God's providence.  Her defenders state that those who disagree with her will be responsible in heaven for all the babies that should have come into this world but didn't because of sinful actions.  They are engaging in something always holy, others are engaging in something always less holy.  These views always tend to be the view of those who elevate their mere opinions above that of the Magesterium.

Sadly, Dr. Boyd's deeply flawed view of the marital embrace leads to a deeply flawed view of NFP.  Since in Dr. Boyd's theology there is no room for the second goods Pius XI mentions when discussing marriage, hence in her logic NFP would indeed be sinful, or at least such an occasion of sin as to be entirely avoided.  Thankfully, she is wrong, and she still cannot cite a single moral theologian of the last 200 years who teachers what she does about the marital embrace and whether or not NFP is opposed to Catholic tradition and Catholic spirituality.

If people are abusing NFP, the course to take isn't to eliminate it entirely, but rather strengthen their formation in it.  Strengthen the way the class is taught.  Encourage priests to become more involved.  Encourage examination of conscience not from the standpoint of avoiding sin, but how to accomplish something best.  This is helped by a very good spiritual director.  Help couples better to understand "serious reasons."  As with all things, the mission of the Catholic Church is to reform and restore, to heal and not accuse, as St. Augustine would say.  Read the writings of Dr. Boyd.  See if that healing principle is present


  1. The issue isn't that people abuse NFP. The issue is that NFP is birth control, and birth control has never been a Catholic value. Still isn't.

  2. Dr. Boyd,

    With all due respect, are we back on this train again?

    I cited theologian after theologian, both before and after the council, who gave a clear distinction between the rhythm method and the sin of onanism. I was able to cite rulings from Church offices with jurisdiction on these manners going back to 1850 showing a clear distinction.

    Your answer, quite bluntly, is to just keep repeating the same talking points over and over again.

    So show me with moral theologians, before or after Vatican II, or comptent church offices that declare that there really isn't a difference between NFP and birth control. We've already established you can't cite papal teaching on this matter, as any pope who has spoken on it has explicitly made the distinction between periodic continence and artificial contraception.

    I do think it would be more interesting if you would try to show where I'm misreading Aquinas though.


At this current time due to time constraints comments are moderated. Avoid flaming, chest-thumping and stick on topic and your comments will be quickly approved. Do the opposite and they stay in never never land.