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Sex and the Marriage Covenant - Review by Thomas Storck

Sex and the Marriage Covenant
Homiletic and Pastoral Review, November 2006
Reviewed by Thomas Storck

John Kippley, founder and for many years head of the Couple to Couple League, the organization that has done more to promote natural family planning (NFP) than any other in the whole world, has produced a new and expanded edition of a book, which under various titles, dates back to 1970. Kippley has brought together under one cover a vast amount of information on the moral aspects of marital sexuality, especially contraception and NFP. Just for that reason alone the book is worthwhile, and constitutes a kind of introduction to the moral theology of many aspects of marriage.

To understand the approach of this book it is helpful to understand something of its genesis, as Kippley himself relates it. In the 1960s, even after Humanae Vitae was issued in 1968, very few theologians were writing in support of the Church's traditional doctrine that contraceptive use is an evil. Yet the activity of those who dissented and sought to undermine the teaching of the Church was constant and influential. At the same time, many people were claiming that the usual natural law arguments made against contraception by Catholic writers, namely that contraceptive use violates the integrity of an obviously natural process, were outdated and unpersuasive. Thus Kippley set out to justify the Church's teaching using another line of argumentation, which the author expresses in this way: "Sexual intercourse is intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant." From this basic thesis he deduces an entire ethic regarding not only contraception but pretty much all sexual morality. However, he does not necessarily reject other lines of argument, and in fact at times he feels it necessary to make use of natural law argumentation to deal with certain specific points, e.g., the immorality of homosexual acts.

Kippley discusses all the important facets of the contraception question, including what is conscience, pastoral considerations for presenting ordinary Catholics with the immorality of artificial contraception, a discussion of the history of the Church's statements on contraception along with excerpts from Catholic documents as well as some from Protestant churches, a critique of the chief arguments that have been made on behalf of the licitness of contraceptive use, and whether the Church's teaching on the immorality of contraception is infallible. He devotes a chapter to a discussion and critique of other kinds of argument against contraceptive use, including the traditional one based on natural law and Germain Grisez's theory of the "contra-life will," which "notes that contraception involves a decision against one of creation's most basic human goods-human life itself."

Kippley is well aware of the difficulty of presenting the teaching of the Church to the average Catholic in North America or western Europe. He correctly blames the lack of recognition of the immorality of artificial birth control on the underlying rejection of the Church's teaching authority. "The present crisis is due principally to an authority crisis unprecedented in recent centuries." The widespread toleration of dissent within the Church is hardly calculated to bring the laity to a docile acceptance of moral teachings of the Church that many find difficult. So Kippley recommends a reform of Catholic life, especially of Catholic education and Catholic marriage preparation, with a focus on transmitting the authentic teaching of the Magisterium.

One interesting fact which Kippley notes is that his approach to the morality of contraceptive use, and to the entire question of sexual morality, has important parallels with the late Pope John Paul's theology of the body, an approach to sexuality which drew less from natural law theory and more from biblical and personalistic sources.

Kippley offers opinions on several controverted questions in the moral theology of marriage. On the question of whether repentant sterilized married couples should be required to seek reversal of the mutilating surgery, where that is possible, he answers in the affirmative, and I would agree with him. I am less certain of his judgment that if for some reason a couple is unable to reverse their sterilization they are required to abstain during the wife's fertile time each cycle-perhaps a solution might be to impose such a penance for a limited time, such as a year.

As I mentioned above, when Kippley first worked out his thesis in the 1960s the natural law arguments against contraception were widely derided.

Although even before my entrance into the Church I considered those arguments entirely persuasive and still do, it may be that many people today will be convinced by the more poetical approach, grounded upon sexual love within marriage, which Kippley takes. It is certainly the case that the development of other kinds of argumentation, in addition to natural law, will be helpful in showing the manifold ways in which contraception exhibits itself as an evil.

Sex and the Marriage Covenant is worthwhile both as an introduction to the whole subject of marital morality and a compendium of theological information on NFP. The fact that the great majority of Catholic married couples use contraception cannot but be a cancer gnawing away at the heart of the Body of Christ. And so the wealth of information and the fullness of discussion which this book contains will be helpful for priests, catechists, Catholic physicians and anyone else who must deal with Catholic couples who fail to embrace the Church's sexual morality.

I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank John Kippley, along with his wife Sheila, for their long labors on behalf of NFP. A year before my wife and I were received into the Church we learned NFP from the Couple to Couple League, and had we not known of this method and its reliability, I am not sure that I would have had the courage to enter the Church. So for the inestimable blessing of being a member of the true Church, I have the Kippleys in part to thank.