Sex and the Marriage Covenant - Review by Thomas Scheck
Sex and the Marriage Covenant
Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Fall 2006
Reviewed by Thomas P. Scheck, Ave Maria University
John Kippley has been courageously defending traditional Christian sexual ethics in a Roman Catholic context since 1963. In this second edition of his book, Kippley argues that since self-giving is the essence of marital love, contraception contradicts the very essence of the marriage covenant. What too many people are unaware of is the reality set forth in the opening statement of the book: "Up until 1930, Christian churches had been unanimous in teaching that it was immoral to use unnatural methods of birth control" (vii). The Church of England was the first to break with traditional teaching, and was followed by all Protestant denominations. The Catholic Church has never caved in to this departure from traditional sexual morality. After the Anglican innovation, Pope Pius XI reaffirmed the previously universal teaching against contraception in his encyclical Casti Connubii (1930). Paul VI did the same in Humanae Vitae (1968), and John Paul II in his persistent teaching. These popes were simply affirming what all Christian churches had previously believed and defended up to 1930: namely, that it goes against natural law to use contraceptive drugs, procedures and behaviors.
The present book is divided into five parts. In Part One: The Covenant Proposal, the author discusses the theological meaning of covenant and its implications for human sexuality. Here Kippley articulates and explains his thesis, that God intends sexual intercourse to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant. From this it follows that the marriage covenant provides the criterion to evaluate the morality of every sexual act. Kippley's theological contribution here is creative, but not innovative; he is thought provoking, but not abrupt. However, in my view, Kippley seriously understates his own qualifications and stature as a Catholic theologian. No one who reads Kippley's critique of the weak and intellectually bankrupt arguments used by dissenting theologians to defend contraception will gain any respect for their learning, in spite of their doctoral degrees. It is simply impossible for a reader of this book to conclude that Kippley is less academically qualified than revisionist scholars, still living in 1968, who want us to believe that the Popes of the Catholic Church have been theological dilettantes. Part Two: Conscience deals with fundamental aspects of forming a correct conscience and the question of infallibility. Part Three: Pastoral Considerations covers Natural Family Planning, practical pastoral policies, hard cases, and sterilization. Part Four: The Context of the Controversy discusses the history of birth control controversies in the 20th century and a critique of the arguments for contraception. Finally, Part Five: The Historical-Traditional Teaching lays out the biblical foundations and ecclesiastical documentation for Catholic sexual ethics. In brief, there is very little in this book that is not intensely relevant to anyone interested in marriage, sexuality and family issues.
My favorite anecdote in the book occurred in Kippley's discussion of Genesis 38.10 and the account of Onan. The scriptural text says that Onan practiced withdrawal, spilling his seed on the ground, in order to prevent pregnancy from occurring. The Bible then states: "What he did was evil in the sight of the Lord, and [the Lord] slew him" (Gn 38.10). Until very recently in the history of biblical exegesis, an anti-contraceptive interpretation of this passage was universal. Both Catholic exegetes as well as the Protestant reformers, Luther and Calvin made this very clear. Luther went so far as to say that Onanism (contraceptive behavior) was "worse than Sodomy." But in recent times, a "Levirate-only" interpretation of this passage has emerged, i.e. the view that Onan's only sin was his failure to comply with his duty to raise up offspring for his deceased brother. Kippley endeavored to determine when the change in interpretation occurred. He reports that he consulted by phone a modern Scripture scholar and asked him when the anti-contraceptive interpretation was dropped from the discussion of Onan. The nameless scholar did not answer the question, but simply pontificated: "We just don't do it that way anymore." Kippley comments: "It would be hard to imagine a reply that gave more evidence that the Levirate-only interpretation is without merit, an interpretation of expediency" (p. 331).
To conclude this brief review, I will say that this book is exceptionally clearly written and easy to read. It is filled with information and documentation. This book should be required reading for Catholic (and Protestant) couples preparing for marriage. Indeed, I wish I had read this book fifteen years ago in my own pre-marital preparation.
The back cover of Kippley's book carries an endorsement by William E. May, one of the Catholic Church's leading moral theologians, who calls it a "must read for anyone concerned with marriage, sexuality and the family." It is also worth noting that Scott Hahn reports that his reading of the first edition of this book played a big role in his conversion to the Catholic position on the issue of contraception. That in itself is a significant legacy for Kippley's book and a strong recommendation.