Q&A with Craig Carter
Editor’s note: Joseph Jalsevac, a summer intern at The Interim, spoke to Dr. Craig Carter, an ordained minister in the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches of Canada and a professor of Religious Studies at Tyndale University College in Toronto, about contraception. Carter regularly writes and lectures on Christian sexual ethics in the modern world.
The Interim: Where does your own Church stand on contraception?
Craig Carter: Our Church does not really have a position on contraception, though I would say that most Baptists in Canada would not see contraception as morally objectionable, with the exception of any method that was actually an abortifacient.
TI: Do you think that there is a trend developing in conservative Christian circles to rethink the moral validity of the pill?
CC: Yes I think that there is, although there are two tracks to it. There’s a general trend among younger people today to question the pill for health reasons, and this is something that is happening even among secular feminists as well as Christians. So it’s strictly a women’s health issue. A lot of young women in particular are not inclined favourably toward the pill to begin with. Now on the moral side there’s a much less widespread questioning of the pill, although there is, I would say, just the odd sign here or there of people who are beginning to look at it as a moral issue, unlike the past 30, 40 years in which there has been no tendency at all.”
TI: Are there any significant leaders, organizations, or denominations that are publicly starting to rethink contraception and the pill on a moral level?
CC: Albert Mohler, is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the largest Baptist seminary in the world, and one of the largest seminaries in the world. Mohler has written a number of articles on contraception, and he has spoken out against the ‘contraceptive mentality’ which he defines as ‘separating sex from procreation’. He has taken a strong stand against the pill because of its possible abortifacient effects. He has said that as long as the marriage relationship is open to children individual acts of contraception can be morally justified. But he is one person who has actually begun to move away from the idea that contraception is morally neutral, and embrace the idea that there is a moral aspect to separating the main purpose of sexuality from its secondary purposes.
TI: What is your own opinion of contraception and the pill as informed by your faith?
CC: Like most of the students I teach, I’m quite negatively inclined toward the pill. I think that it’s something that more and more people are rejecting – the whole idea of using chemicals to fool the body into thinking that it’s pregnant, for a long period of time, seems to entail health risks that are significant. As well, there is the overall cultural effect of the pill over the last 40 years, leading to such things as widespread promiscuity, the degeneration of the family, the objectification of women, sexual irresponsibility, breakdown of family, high rates of divorce, etcetera; clearly there are big moral issues tied up in the whole question. And these moral issues I think are tied up with all forms of contraception.
The idea of contraception itself is becoming morally questionable to people I think through the consequences of the ‘sexual revolution,’ or what we could even call the ‘contraceptive revolution’ – the whole idea that sex is recreational, that it’s not about children and family and marriage. The consequences of that, as they are worked out in society, with the predictions of Pope Paul VI coming true – these are causing people to look at it again and re-think what they took for granted, and I would count myself among those who are doing so. I am in the process of re-thinking contraception from a natural law perspective, and I would be at the point now of thinking that it really is inconsistent to embrace contraception, and then to not embrace the rest of the sexual revolution.
I think the one thing that has happened in the last couple of years that has really forced people to think about this issue is the legalization of so-called same-sex ‘marriage’ in Canada. The idea of same-sex ‘marriage’ seems to entail a legitimation of homosexual behaviour, and when homosexual behaviour is legitimized, it is described as being morally equivalent to heterosexual sexual behaviour that is contraceptive in nature. This presents a real problem, because in order for Christians to say homosexuality is wrong, it seems inconsistent to say contraceptive heterosexual behaviour is right. And so if you’re relying on a strictly Biblical law perspective – simply the fact that homosexual behaviour is considered to be wrong in the Bible – if that’s your only basis, then the problem that is you may very well be able to say, “Well we Christians in the Church ought not to engage in that,” but for those who don’t accept the Bible, for those who are non-Christians, there doesn’t seem any way to justifiably require them to accept the anti-homosexual perspective.
And so without a natural law approach to it, it seems as though Christian support for traditional marriage collapses. And this is what we are seeing in our society. So I’m in the process of re-thinking the basis of Christian opposition to homosexuality, and asking the question of whether, in fact, it is justifiable to expect a society that is pluralistic, that is made up of Christians and non-Christians, to accept anti-homosexuality. While in asking that question one is driven to a natural law analysis of the morality of sex, which raises the question of contraception.
TI: How important has Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body been to your understanding of contraception?
CC: Well it’s crucial to my understanding of contraception. I have developed a great appreciation for the Theology of the Body, and it’s very possible to read the Theology of the Body as a massive explanation for why Humanae Vitae (Pope Paul VI’s encyclical) is correct from a Biblical theology perspective. The Catholic Church has always based its opposition to contraception, clearly and openly, on a natural law analysis.
As the sexual revolution took off in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the western Church was divided between Protestant and Catholic thought; the Protestants had a Biblical theology/divine command approach to ethics, while the Catholic Church emphasized the natural law reasoning against contraception. Now, after Protestant opposition to contraception collapsed during the 20th century, I see the churches as having been put in a weakened position, because on the one hand we had Protestants with a Biblical emphasis on sexual morality and family issues, but then you had the natural law analysis of the Catholics. But the Catholic position didn’t seem compelling to Protestantism, hence the collapse of their opposition to contraception, and not sharing the Catholic natural position, Protestants were not able to speak strongly into the culture about the morality of sexuality.
So what Theology of the Body does is – from a Catholic perspective – it defends Humane Vitae not so much on natural law grounds, but on Biblical theological grounds, and as such it is the only major work that seeks to defend an anti-contraception position on the basis of Biblical theology, which of course is of great interest to Protestants. And I predict that Protestants, especially evangelicals, will embrace the Theology of the Body in greater and greater numbers in the years ahead.
But the interesting thing is that once I, as a Protestant, accept Theology of the Body and the validity of the conclusions regarding contraception, I come to realize that the natural law arguments are valid as well. Now not all Protestants will take this step, but those who do will come to an understanding of sexual morality that is grounded in divine revelation, and is also consistent with natural law.
If the Church can recover that kind of sexual morality, then I think the Church will be in the position to launch the second sexual revolution that John Paul longed for and sought to prepare the way for – a revolution that rejects the modern sexual revolution and returns to a natural law/Biblical approach to human sexuality and the family.