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Most Protestant Christians do not give much attention to the theological and moral dimensions of contraception. In his essay, Branson Parler argues that Wendell Berry’s general critique of the modern mythos helps us to hear Roman Catholic teaching on contraception as resistance to one specific practice entailed by that mythos. Insofar as Protestants recognize that there are theological problems with the modern mythos, then they ought also to reconsider their ethical stance (or lack thereof) on contraception. Mr. Parler is Professor of Theological Studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’, which underscores human care for creation, has drawn comparisons to the Kentucky agrarian Wendell Berry, whose penchant for cultural insight that cuts across typical conservative-liberal lines is well known.1 Less recognized is the link between Berry’s thought and the theological vision put forth in Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, on the regulation of birth. The point of connection between both encyclicals and Berry’s thought is a deep critique of the mythos of modernity.2 In particular, Berry and Humanae Vitae are allies against two key facets of the modern mythos: a biologically reductionistic view of human persons and a Baconian view of nature as a problem to be mastered.3 These aspects of the modern mythos are bound up with modern technologies of contraception. As Allen Verhey puts it, “views of begetting along with views of nature and human nature always come with metaphysical baggage, are always accompanied by myth.”4 The metaphysics and mythos undergirding the modern ethos of contraception, however, are often not overtly held beliefs but deeply embedded in the modern social imaginary.5 Berry and Humanae Vitae (and its extension in the John Paul II’s theology of the body) are helpful precisely because they illuminate what is often covert and simply taken for granted in contemporary thought and behavior.6 As such, they help Christians of all traditions reevaluate whether our behavior and beliefs regarding contraception are rooted in the modern mythos or in Scripture and sound moral theology. Berry and Humanae Vitae also mutually illuminate one another: the specific ethos and practice of contraception addressed by Humanae Vitae is intelligible only within the context of the larger mythos of modernity, which Berry has consistently criticized over the span of several decades. Berry’s work thus helps Protestant Christians see that, far from being an isolated question of bioethics, the teaching of Paul VI and John Paul II on contraception is a fundamental question put to the modern mythos.

For Protestants, this line of thinking raises an important question: to what extent is our abandonment of the historic Christian teaching on contraception intertwined with an unthinking acceptance of the modern mythos and social imaginary?7 As Dennis Hollinger notes, what is significant about Protestant acceptance of contraception over the course of the last century is not simply that the change happened, but that “there was so little theological reflection in the process.”8 Protestants should therefore listen carefully to both Berry and Humanae Vitae in order to be sure that they have developed a biblically astute and theologically reflective position on contraception.

In order to do this careful listening, I will first summarize how Berry attacks three interconnected myths of modernity: individualism, Baconian mastery over nature, and biological reductionism.9 I will then show how these broad principles get worked out when Berry addresses the specific topics of marriage, sexuality, and fertility. After examining Berry’s thought, I will highlight the way in which both Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and John Paul II’s theology of the body counter the same modern myths as Berry. The thought of Berry and the theology of Humanae Vitae help Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians alike see how our use of contraception (or not) is deeply intertwined with our anthropology, politics, economics, ecology, and even theology proper.

Wendell Berry and the Modern Mythos

Berry’s wide-ranging thought consistently targets a central tenet of the modern mythos: individualism. In his essay “Rugged Individualism,” Berry compares the individualism of the political right and left. On the political right, Berry notes the tendency to place a premium on the right of the individual (including the “individual” called the corporation) to do what they want with their property. This kind of individualism often ignores the common good, so that individuals and corporations not only abuse their property, but abuse things that belong to no one: the atmosphere, water cycle, ecosystems, and the possibility of life. Individualism is no less rampant, however, on the political left, where it takes the form of exercising absolute property rights over one’s body. This leads to the ethic of sexual liberation, so that “the owners of bodies may, by right, use them as they please, as if there were no God, no legitimate government, no community, no neighbors, and no posterity.”10

What drives individualism of the right and left alike, according to Berry, is the notion that the individual is autonomous. Conservative individualism focuses solely on individual ethics, so that sexual lust is bad, but the lust for political power becomes a virtue. Greed, on a corporate level, is good. When conservatives treat “the environment” as something that can be owned in an absolute way, their left-leaning critics are outraged. Liberal individualists, however, see the privately-owned body the same way: the “owners” have absolute rights to do what they please. Thus, conservative and liberal individualists become mirror images of one another: conservatives tend to treat the earth the way liberals tend to treat the body. In the end, these two forms of abuse coinhere rather than contradict.

The result of this individualism is a perverted notion of freedom and the loss of real community. For Berry, this rugged individualism “sets us ‘free’ from responsibility and thus the possibility of meaning.”11 Liberalism and individualism focus on being free from, so much so that they can never tell us what we are free for. We underscore our rights and not responsibilities.

The antidote for rugged individualism is Berry’s maxim that “health is membership.” This statement has several levels. The first is that the community, not the individual, is the “smallest unit of health,”12 so that to talk about the health of an isolated individual is impossible. As Berry points out, “the body alone is not, properly speaking, a body. Divided from its sources of air, food, drink, clothing, shelter, and companionship, a body is, properly speaking, a cadaver.”13 Health is membership because we are permeable and participatory beings from the beginning. For Berry, we do not need to cast about for philosophical rationale that would compel us to find common ground with others; we literally share common ground with others, prior to any justification that may occur for that fact.14

This notion of membership stands against a second aspect of the modern mythos: the desire to master nature. Berry exposes two radically different mindsets, what he terms the “rational mind” and the “sympathetic mind,” and criticizes the former in favor of the latter. The rational mind is objective, approaching all things through the lens of efficiency. It views human problems as primarily material problems to which it must find material solutions. As Verhey summarizes, “In the myth of the Baconian project, nature is the enemy. Nature may be – and must be – mastered. It may be – and must be – altered. In this myth technology becomes the faithful savior.”15 So what the rational mind cannot stand and cannot acknowledge is any notion of human limits, especially the idea that there are some limits to our relationship with nature, including our very selves, that should not be transgressed. Instead, the only truth it perceives is a kind of empirical, scientific truth, and anything reeking of loyalty or affection must be summarily dismissed. It is “the official mind of science, industry, and government.”16 In the rational mind, knowledge is about control and mastery, and mastery, in turn, is about turning a profit and the willingness to exact monetary gain from the loss of topsoil, of community health, and of whole communities. Berry acknowledges that knowledge per se is not the problem; scientists in laboratories do not of themselves cause soil degradation, ozone depletion, or the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Rather, it is when knowledge is “corporatized, commercialized, and applied” that it gets out of control.17 The rational mind functions from a utopia, the “no place” of global capitalism that is willing to destroy land on which it does not live and that sees all places and people as interchangeable cogs in a machine. The world is a factory and life is a commodity.18 The rational mind tries to measure all things, experiment with all things, know all things, and control all things.

The antidote to the rational mind is the sympathetic mind, a mind that embraces the limits, ignorance, and thereby truth of our human nature. Against the modern superstition that matter is all that matters and that the solution to our ills is found in the manipulation of matter, Berry calls us to embrace the way of ignorance.19 There is a kind of knowledge that seems right unto the rational mind, but its end is death, in part because the way of ignorance, of recognizing limits, has reasons that reason cannot know. The sympathetic mind draws on tradition, experience, conscience, religion, traditional cultural forms of knowledge, and affection for particular places and people because of their irreducibility and irreplaceability.20 According to Berry, the common denominator of these forms of knowledge is their recognition of mystery and human limits.21 In contrast, the rational, corporate mind is arrogantly ignorant, lacking the humility that might enable it to correct itself midstream.

What lies at the root of the modern mythos, beneath and behind the individualism and the mastery and commodification of nature? According to Berry, the great divorce that undergirds the modern mythos is the split between body and soul.22 Berry points out that the formula for a human being in Genesis 2:7 is not body + soul = human. Rather, the formula is this: the dust of the earth plus the breath of God creates a living soul (to use the language of the King James Version). For Berry, we are constantly tempted to exchange the unity of being a living soul for the dualism of spiritualism and materialism. Although some Christians have tended toward a Platonism that devalues the body, the modern Baconian project has embraced a hard Cartesian dualism, where mind rules matter with an iron fist. In other words, the human being is a battle site between necessity (the body) and freedom (the mind/soul). As Verhey puts it, “the nature we are is the nature we suffer from.”23 Who will deliver us from this wretched body of death? The man of science and technology—for a price, of course. Modern man has gained a material and disenchanted world and yet lost his soul, our sense that, as living souls, we stand in communion with God and with members of the “holy community” of creation.24

For Berry, the split between body and soul thus undergirds a host of other splits and dualisms: religion and nature, religion and economy, worship and work, and art and work. These dualisms cannot be resisted by a Christianity that has been colonized by the modern mythos, for that form of Christianity often functions as the religion of the state and economic status quo. This form of Christianity, having abandoned the call to membership in the great “feast and festival of Creation,” must focus on the enterprise of saving the soul (not body) as an eternal piece of private property.25 The body and the earth are left behind, and the soul enjoys disembodied bliss forever.

Berry on Marriage, Sexuality, and Fertility

Berry’s criticism of the pillars of the modern mythos sets the stage for his more specific work on marriage, sexuality, and fertility. Berry has recently questioned whether modern society is the “proper context for evaluating marriage.”26 In other words, he questions our ability even to address the nature of marriage, sexuality and fertility, for those matters cannot be extrapolated from the broader social, political, and economic matrix in which we conceive of them. If that matrix has fundamental flaws and root errors, as Berry contends it does, then we cannot merely address marriage and fertility as stand-alone, isolated issues. It is instructive, therefore, to see how Berry connects the issues of sexuality to questions of economy and ecology, for he rightly perceives that the bonds between these issues cannot be undone.

Berry’s essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” articulates how the loss of community and the rise of the individual affect our notions of sexuality and marriage. Berry notes that modern liberalism is marked by two spaces: the private space of the individual and the public space under the domain of the state. The problem, according to Berry, is that sex does not fit easily into either of these categories. It cannot merely be an individual’s or couple’s “private business,” and yet there are not political solutions to most issues of human sexuality. Unfortunately, modern liberalism is missing something in its conceptual toolkit: the commonwealth, a community of common interest that recognizes and lives out the reality of interdependence for the good of all. Within this kind of community, says Berry, “sex, like any other necessary, precious, and volatile power that is commonly held, is everybody’s business.”27 Sex not only joins husband and wife but also parents and children, families to the community, and the community to nature.28 For Berry, “sexual love is the heart of community life,” for it powerfully joins us with one another, with the fertile and bountiful world we inhabit, and with the particular place we inhabit. Within real community, a central virtue here is that of fidelity: fidelity to one’s spouse, one’s place, and the earth. Our ability to keep faith in one of these areas of life will affect all others.

Because of this, Berry accords a prime place to sexual love, arguing that, of all the things that industrialism has destroyed, the most precious and most damaged thing is sexual love.29 How does sexuality move from being the central force in community life to being reduced to a central commodity and product used to sell all kinds of things (including people themselves)? For Berry, the answer is simple: our view of the body.

Berry’s anthropological holism—that we are a body-soul unity—is seen in his analysis of the modern tendency to focus not on the eyes but on specifically sexual anatomy. This modern tendency is contrasted with the gaze between Portia and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. The lover’s gaze is central because the eyes are both physical and spiritual.30 In this meeting of the eyes, there is a recognition that “love is more than sex” and more than the joining of the bodies.31 It is the joining of two living souls knit together as one, just as the body and soul are knit together to form one person. Just as the body is not reducible to a merely physical entity, so neither can sexual union be reduced to a merely physical act.

Berry’s holistic view of the person can also be seen in his comments on artists’ attempt to represent sex. Here Berry argues for a kind of iconography (or sacramentality) of sexuality, that what is seen and portrayed in art—intertwined bodies—is a gesture to the invisible reality of intertwined living souls. A kind of straightforward physical depiction that fully captures what is happening in sexual union is impossible. Therefore, artists who are true to their subject matter would utilize a kind of sacred innuendo, gesturing toward what is unseen and fundamentally unseeable through what is seen.32 Berry concludes that the failure of modernity, including the failure of modern sexual ethics, is a lack of imagination, the ability to see one another with the respect and worthy of who we are as living souls.33

The unseeable reality of sexual union stands at the heart of what Berry terms an economy of gift. Sexual union is a giving of oneself, a gift beyond any contract or law, a total giving of oneself to another. Thus, the heart of community life is not something to be bought and sold but a “momentous giving.”34 This faithful and free giving of oneself to another is, says Berry, the “closest earthly realization to the image of God.”35 To engage in sexual intercourse is thus an offer to ‘come and die,’ to lose your life and yet find it, an act that only the foolish would take lightly. This fidelity to another person is an embrace of truly human freedom: not freedom from constraints, discipline, or responsibility, but a freedom that comes through “familiarity, mutual respect, mutual affection, and mutual help.”36 This is the inverse of Berry’s remarks on rugged individualism: it is only when we find ourselves enmeshed in responsibility for another that we experience the joy of real meaning.37 In other words, true freedom—sexual and economic—comes only through recognizing the proper ends of humanity and living accordingly, not by trying to manufacture our ends out of thin air.

What of the ends, then, of sexual union—of fertility and procreation? In his essay “The Body and the Earth,” Berry notes that

there is an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the earth. Between our relation to our own sexuality and our relation to the reproductivity of the earth, for instance, the resemblance is plain and strong and apparently inescapable.38

shows how this technological intervention works itself out in a section entitled “‘Freedom’ from Fertility”:

  • The technologists and salesmen of birth control survive upon our failure to exercise any discipline over sexual energy, just as the technologists and salesmen of industrial capitalism exist because of our failure to exercise any discipline over other forms of energy.
  • Natural means of birth control are employed when people live within a clear understanding of their agricultural and ecological limits. The transgression of proper human limits when it comes to our relationship to the earth’s fertility goes hand in hand with transgressing proper limits with respect to human fertility.
  • “A technology of chemicals and devices replaces the cultural means of ceremonial forms, disciplines, and restraints.” In other words, we fertilize and sterilize our fields and bodies through technological means, reducing our bodies and creation to the status of “productive machines.”39
  • We have given way to specialists: the pharmacists and doctors will look after the fertility of the body and the agribusinessmen will look after the fertility of the earth. Berry’s analysis of this state of affairs is stark: “This is to short-circuit human culture at its source.”40
  • We permanently sterilize lands through strip mining, just as we permanently sterilize our bodies through surgical procedures.
  • Food and sex alike have been made subject to the technological determinism— the Baconian mastery over nature—that characterizes the modern world. We do not have to worry about our food, including where it comes from, what it really is, or who or what was harmed in its production. Likewise, we do not have to worry about the fertility of our bodies. However, Berry warns, “by ‘freeing’ food and sex from worry, we have also set them apart from thought, responsibility, and the issue of quality.”41 Food and sex are thus both quantified, measured, analyzed, but their real value cannot be understood through the lens of the modern mythos.
  • We thus use birth control, according to Berry, “casually, in utter cultural nakedness, unceremoniously, without sufficient understanding, and as a substitute for cultural solutions—exactly as we now employ the technology of land use.”42

For Berry, the birth control employed by modern people becomes intelligible only within a form of individualism and liberalism that erodes real community, this broader social matrix of Baconian mastery over nature, and the reduction of the person and of life to a merely biological function. These myths of modernity reinforce the capitalist commodification of all things, including life itself. Our view of nature, including human nature, is what makes birth control seems so natural to so many.43 With this sketch of Berry’s broad criticism of modernity and his specific critique of sexuality and fertility, we can now examine the language of Paul VI in Humanae Vitae and John Paul II’s theology of the body in order to hear the deep resonance between Berry and Roman Catholic teaching on contraception.

Humanae Vitae and the Modern Mythos

In Humanae Vitae, the entire discussion of contraception is framed by the broader question of mastery over nature. So the introduction notes man’s stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature to the point that he is endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of his own life—over his body, over his mind and emotions, over his social life, and even over the laws that regulate the transmission of life.44

We cannot miss or understate the importance of these lines, for they connect this one particular question of ethics with the modern mythos as a whole. As Michael Waldstein points out, critics dislike Humanae Vitae not simply because of its approach to the rapid social changes of its time or to a potential population explosion but because it “rejects loyalty to the Baconian program.”45 This rejection is reinforced by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’, which opens by decrying the way that “we have come to see ourselves as [the earth’s] lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”46 Berry, Paul VI, and Francis would all have us see that our posture toward the body and the earth are linked.

Importantly, though, Humanae Vitae does not espouse a back-to-nature romanticism but the recognition of the proper limits of human creatures.47 Against those who see contraception as a savior from the “forces of irrational nature,” Humanae Vitae reads the situation differently: humans must use technology “within the limits of the order of reality established by God.”48 Notably, Paul VI calls his hearers to a very different kind of discipline and mastery. Rather than an absolute mastery over nature, including our bodies, Paul VI underscores self-discipline in which the intellect and will enables the passions to be rightly ordered according to God’s design.49 The proper use of our intellect thus recognizes that our power over our own bodies is not absolute. Because many of our limits are due to our creaturely finitude rather than our moral fallenness, to observe those limits shows reverence for the whole human person. Furthermore, as we act in accordance with our limits, we come to know, in an embodied way and not merely an intellectual way, the truth of who we are as finite creatures of God.50 That is, our understanding and praise of God is enhanced by a social imaginary that includes the practice of being organic in the bedroom, of recognizing our call to respond to God with an affirmation of God’s deity and our creatureliness. True liberty, according to the encyclical, comes only from standing within the limits of the moral law, limits that are there to enable true human flourishing rather than suppress it.51

Notably, technology also takes a central role in the Majority Report of the Papal Commission on birth control, which advocates in favor of allowing contraception in some circumstances. The Report states, in no uncertain terms, that

in creating the world God gave man the power and the duty to form the world in spirit and freedom and, through his creative capacity, to actuate his own personal nature … The story of God and of man, therefore, should be seen as a shared work. And it should be seen that man’s tremendous progress in control of matter by technical means, and the universal and total “intercommunication” that he has achieved, correspond perfectly to the divine decrees52 (emphasis added).

As Waldstein points out, “It would be difficult to formulate a more unqualified allegiance with the Baconian program. Technical mastery over nature corresponds ‘omnino,’ perfectly, entirely, to the will of God.”53 In contrast, Humanae Vitae notes that we are not masters of the sources of life but ministers of the design established by the Creator: “Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties.”54 This refusal of technological determinism and absolute dominion over creation is anathema to modern science. It should not be surprising that, like the contrarian Berry, the Roman Catholic Church is perceived as a sign of contradiction to the spirit of the age, for technological determinism is the (often polluted) air that we breathe. To the modern mythos, the only thing worse than a Luddite—one who places priority on common good over technology—is a sexual Luddite—one who questions whether any and every form of technical mastery over our own bodies is actually good for the person and the community.55 This refusal of absolute mastery over nature is closely connected to Humanae Vitae’s refusal of biological reductionism.

The anthropology of Humanae Vitae, which rejects the hard Cartesian dualism of mind and body, is inseparable from its rejection of the Baconian view of nature. Paul VI rejects both pure materialism and a hard dualism of mind and body in favor of the Christian and Aristotelian view that our humanity affects the totality of what we are. That is, what makes us human is not mind or soul laid over top of some kind of pure animality; rather, our humanity goes all the way down and includes our bodies, our drives, and our passions. So Humanae Vitae notes that human love derives from what we are as humans, a “compound of sense and spirit.”56

John Paul II’s theology of the body builds on Humanae Vitae and, sounding like Berry, he argues that an improper body/soul or body/mind split is at the heart of how we conceive (or misconceive) culture and civilization:

One must before all look toward the human being as person … and not toward the “means” that turn him into an “object” (of manipulations) and “depersonalize” him. What is at stake here is an authentically “humanistic” meaning of the development and progress of human civilization.57

This holistic view of the human person and sexual union can be seen in four ways, all of which are inseparable from the broader critique of how modernity views nature and human nature.

First, human sexuality can never be reduced to a mere animal drive. As humans, we are characterized ultimately not by animal instinct but free will.58 Freedom and responsibility go together, which is why we are actually able to hold people responsible for their actions with respect to their sexuality. Because sexuality is more than just biology, we cannot see the potential fruitfulness of the human person as pre-moral or amoral data. It should not be construed as thoughtless and irrational ‘nature’ running its course outside the person; rather, the body’s fruitfulness is fundamental to the integrity of the person and the self.59

Second, sexual love is meant to be total—it is the joining of two persons, two lives, not merely the joining of two bodies.60 Marriage and sexual union are the giving of one’s self, not just one’s body as inert matter that the mind can deploy, manipulate, or even detach from at will. This complete gift of self is what John Paul II calls the ‘spousal meaning of the body’: “the power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and—through this gift—fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence.”61 The reciprocal giving and receiving of the self cannot be detached from the bodies that we are (not just have). Furthermore, the gift of one’s self is not a purely subjective mental or emotional giving, but is rooted in the totality of the human person, including the fruitfulness of the human body. To give myself is to give all of my body, including its potential fruitfulness. To hold back part of my body from my spouse is not a complete self-giving. This line of thinking reveals that it is a Gnosticized modernity, not the Catholic Church, that forges an unnatural split between the body and soul by speaking of the ‘self’ as a completely interiorized and de-materialized self.

It should be clear that this notion of the communion of persons through reciprocal self-giving does not mesh well with modern individualism. Humanae Vitae notes that “the family is the primary unit in the state.”62 This notion is incomprehensible to most in our time, because our political and economic way life has made us dependent on the market and the state, but certainly not (or so we think) on the actual people who make up our household. Within the family and the household, there is no ‘state of nature,’ no war of all against all, and no need for the liberal state to save us from each other. Rather, there are bonds of covenantal care and affection that precede the individual and are more essential than the state. This vision of human communion is fecund and fruitful, for in mutual self-giving there arises a third person, the child, reminding us that we are from love and for love.

Third, the holistic view of the person is seen in the Catholic awareness of the natural rhythms of the human body. The Catholic opposition to contraception is not a romantic and unthinking ignorance about the nature of the body. Rather, it reads the rhythm of fruitfulness and infertility as a sign of God’s intentions for the integral link between the unitive and procreative ends of sexual union. But this rhythm also shows that the end goal is not to “breed like rabbits,” as Pope Francis recently noted.63 We are free to apply our reason and will to knowing and understanding the biological rhythms of the body; we are not free, however, to interpret those rhythms as raw data of irrational nature. So Humanae Vitae encourages the notion that “medical science should by the study of natural rhythms succeed in determining a sufficiently secure basis for the chaste limitation of offspring.”64 But the use of science is clearly restrained by the human goods inherent in recognizing the limits of science. The rampant and often thoughtless use of chemicals to prevent or enhance fertility often takes less knowledge and certainly less wisdom than the prevention or enhancement of fertility by other cultural means, including the cultivation of personal self-discipline and chastity within Christian marriage.

On the use of natural rhythms, however, John Paul II has a word of caution. The term “natural” in natural family planning is not meant to invoke a merely mechanistic “application of biological laws.”65 If approached this way, it can easily become one more reductionistic way of viewing the person and sexual union. Rather, as each spouse grows in continence and chastity, their love becomes purified. And it is this concern for continence that connects to a fourth aspect of a holistic view of the human person: the value of self-denial and self-discipline. In contrast to a Baconian view, Catholic sexual ethics do not see “irrational” nature as the root problem; instead, the root problem is sin. As Paul VI notes, self-discipline, “far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character.”66 Self-control, continence, and chastity are virtues that affect far more than the marriage bed. The goal of self-discipline is to be able to give oneself freely and entirely to one’s spouse, and this is not merely expressed in sexual union but in a whole host of ways in which one’s affections are directed so that the spousal meaning of the body—the self-giving and communion of persons—is manifested in one’s entire relation to one’s spouse, not merely sexual union.


Modern technologies of contraception cannot be separated from the mythos that gave rise to them, including the biological reductionism and the Baconian project to master nature. This reductionism and mastery are implicit in the social imaginary surrounding the modern practice of contraception. Wendell Berry illuminates and stands against this mythos, as does the Roman Catholic teaching on contraception, expressed succinctly and clearly in Humanae Vitae and elaborated in John Paul II’s theology of the body. Christians who wish to avoid the theological pitfalls inherent in biological reductionism and the attempt to master nature must therefore ask difficult questions regarding their views on and practice of contraception. What does the practice of contraception say about the body, the human person, marriage, and ultimately, the One who created both the body and the earth? Both Berry and Humanae Vitae alert us to the need to pay attention not only to what we confess with our mouths but to our embodied answer to life’s deepest questions, including the question of whether the one-flesh union of husband and wife will be open and hospitable to the hypostatization of their love in the one flesh of the child. If Protestants and Catholics alike wish to put forth an alternative mythos to modernity, we will have credibility and consistency only when we are willing to embrace an alternative ethos, an ethos that may well include being organic in the bedroom.

Cite this article
Branson Parler, “Organic in the Bedroom: The Fertile Vision of Wendell Berry and Humanae Vitae”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:1 , 17-30


  1. Travis Knoll, “The American Laudato Si: Wendell Berry and the Great Environmental Compromise,” Huffington Post, June 24, 2015, the-american-laudato-si_b_7631414.html; and John Murdock, “The Pope and the Plowman: The Rhetorical Rendezvous of Francis and Wendell Berry,” First Things, July 2, 2015, https://
  2. The Roman Catholic critique of modernity is thoroughly outlined in Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors.
  3. Allen Verhey, Nature and Altering It (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 16-26.
  4. Ibid., 29.
  5. Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 23-24.
  6. John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006).
  7. Bryan C. Hodge, The Christian Case Against Contraception: Making the Case from Historical, Biblical, Systematic, and Practical Theology and Ethics (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010).
  8. Dennis P. Hollinger, “The Ethics of Contraception: A Theological Assessment,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 56.4 (2013): 683-696.
  9. These facets of the modern mythos are helpfully summarized in Verhey, Nature and Alter- ing It, 13-45.
  10. Wendell Berry, “Rugged Individualism,” in The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2005), 10.
  11. Ibid., 10.
  12. Berry, “Health is Membership,” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. Norman Wirzba (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002), 148.
  13. Ibid., 149.
  14. Berry, “Men and Women in Search of Common Ground,” in Art of the Commonplace, 138.
  15. Verhey, Nature and Altering It, 25.
  16. Wendell Berry, “Two Minds,” in Citizenship Papers (Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2003), 88.
  17. Berry, “The Way of Ignorance,” in The Way of Ignorance, 61.
  18. Berry, “Two Minds,” 96.
  19. Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition (Counterpoint: Washington, D.C., 2000).
  20. Berry, “The Way of Ignorance,” 57-59.
  21. Ibid., 59.
  22. Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Eight Essays (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003), 105.
  23. Verhey, Nature and Altering It, 25, n. 27.
  24. Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” 106.
  25. Ibid., 114.
  26. “Wendell Berry, Burkean,” interview by Gracy Olmstead, The American Conservative, Feb. 17, 2015,
  27. Berry, “Sex, Economy, Community, and Freedom,” 120.
  28. Ibid., 121.
  29. Ibid., 134.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid., 135.
  32. Ibid., 168.
  33. Ibid., 173.
  34. Ibid., 138.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid., 150.
  37. Berry, “Rugged Individualism,” 10.
  38. Berry, “The Body and the Earth,” in The Art of the Commonplace, 118 (emphasis original).
  39. Ibid., 128.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibid., 129.
  42. Ibid., 130.
  43. Berry has more recently addressed the question of gay marriage in “Caught in the Middle: On Abortion and Homosexuality,” The Christian Century, Mar. 20, 2013, The one time he does reference the question of fertility, he does so unsatisfactorily, making the passing statement that if gay marriage is seen as unnatural because it is inherently sterile, then heterosexual couples who cannot conceive would have their marriage nullified as well. This does not follow, but Berry does not dwell extensively on the subject, as his focus is not on fertility but on the state’s role in marriage, which he thinks should be limited.
  44. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, Encyclical Letter on the Regulation of Birth, July 25, 1968, http://, sec. 2.
  45. Michael Waldstein, “Introduction,” in John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006), 101.
  46. Francis, Laudato Si’, Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home, May 24, 2015, http:// enciclica-laudato-si.html, sec. 2.
  47. On the myth of romanticism as a vital part of modernity rather than an opposing voice, see Verhey, Nature and Altering It, 41-45.
  48. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, sec. 16.
  49. Ibid., sec. 10.
  50. Ibid., sec. 17.
  51. Ibid., sec. 22.
  52. “Majority Papal Commission Report,” in The Catholic Case for Contraception, ed. Daniel Callahan (London: The Macmillan Company, 1969), 150.
  53. Waldstein, “Introduction,” in John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, 100.
  54. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, sec. 13.
  55. The technical mastery over the body in relation to fertility is logically and practically connected to many other questions of ethics and bioethics. See Susan Windley-Douast, Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying (Hobe Sound, FL: Lectio Publishing, 2014)
  56. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, sec. 9.
  57. John Paul II, Man and Woman, 129:2.
  58. See Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), for a thorough argument that the notion of freedom in sexual ethics is a distinctively Christian one.
  59. Waldstein, “Introduction” in John Paul II, Man and Woman, 103.
  60. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, sec. 9.
  61. John Paul II, Man and Woman, 15:1.
  62. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, sec. 23.
  63. Jasmine Garsd, “Pope Francis Says Catholics Don’t Need to Breed Like Rabbits,” The Two-Way blog, NPR, Jan. 20, 2015, way/2015/01/20/378559550/pope-francis-says-catholics-dont-need-to-breed-like-rabbits.
  64. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, sec. 24.
  65. John Paul II, Man and Woman, 129:6.
  66. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, sec. 21.

Branson Parler

Kuyper College
Branson Parler is a Professor of Theological Studies at Kuyper College.