Square Zero

Open Embarrassment

Posted by Eric (April 28, 2006 at 4:49 pm)

Book cover detail, invertedToday I was told that Sam and Bethany Torode have issed an “Open Letter about Open Embrace,” more or less recanting the opposition to contraception that they articulated in their influential 2002 book, Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception. My first reaction on hearing this report was incredulity; I didn’t believe it until I had verified it. Turns out it’s true.

This is disappointing news on many levels. The Torodes write:

[O]ur personal experience in the past five years has shown that we had a lot to learn about NFP, and that there is a dark side we weren’t aware of. . . . [S]trict NFP reaches a point where it is more harmful for a marriage than good.

They say that NFP treats both men and women unfairly:

[W]anting to make love to your spouse often is a good thing, but NFP often lays an unfair burden of guilt on men for feeling this. . . . [I]t’s a theological attack on women to always require that abstinence during the time of the wife’s peak sexual desire (ovulation) for the entire duration of her fertile life, except for the handful of times when she conceives.

As someone who contracepted in his marriage for five years (not to mention many years before marriage), and whose marriage was saved by embracing the practice of NFP, I have a hard time making sense of Torode’s comments about the effect of NFP on men. I have never felt as if NFP made me feel guilty for desiring my wife; on the contrary, it was the practice of contraception that tainted my marriage with a deep, unrecognized guilt for how often my sexual desire was selfish.

Yes, NFP Is Difficult

I will admit that the effort to internalize the true meaning of the marital embrace as an expression of love and sexual desire as the desire for communion has indeed caused me to reflect carefully on that desire and to recognize, at times, that it is not entirely unselfish. But I think that’s a good thing (which, moreover, is something distinct from the practice of NFP, per se, anyway). The battle for chastity is long and arduous; I appreciate that seeking to live in accord with the Catholic understanding of chastity requires that I revisit these issues and find room for improvement—that is to say, the need for more grace and more dependence on God’s mercy.

I can also understand their frustration over the prospect of “squandering,” so to speak, the wife’s heightened sexual desire during fertile period of her monthly cycle for years and years. It does seem unfair, at times, that we must forgo marital relations so often at the time when they would be most fulfilling—and I mean for both, since nothing so heightens a good man’s enjoyment of sex than for his wife to be enjoying it as fully as she can.

First, we need to bring a little realism into the stark picture the Torodes paint. This young and apparently quite fertile couple can be forgiven for not realizing that the “handful of times” a woman conceives might involve months and months of trying to conceive during the fertile period, especially as the woman’s fertility descreases. If they stick with it (and their “Open Letter” leaves room to believe they’re still trying), they might find the burden grow lighter over time.

But the Torodes are missing something more significant here. They are right that “our deepest desires are true and good,” but it does not follow from that that those desires must always be satisfied. The whole ethos of NFP is that we are forgoing something good for something even better—the good of the sexual embrace for the greater good of caring for our present children, for example.

Moreover, in transcending our sexual desires—as true and good as they might be—we take on in our own flesh the suffering of a world which has lost any sense of sexual restraint. The heroic effort at self control called for by NFP—I won’t pretend it’s easy; and I’m sorry the Torodes got the idea it would be—makes possible a sort of sacrifice on behalf of out entire sexually indulgent culture.

And for those of us who take on this sacrifice, it’s demands implant a desire for nothing less than the resurrection. The months and cumulative years of abstinence during the period of the woman’s greatest sexual desire can only be endured by remembering that this life is not the end; that there is a greater life being prepared for us in the New Jerusalem. We must remember that “this life was given to you for repentance” (St. Isaac of Syria)—we must see the practice of NFP as an ongoing act of penitence.

Pitting the East against the West

What’s particularly troubling to me as a Byzantine Catholic is that they credit their change of heart in large part to their conversion to Orthodoxy:

For starters, we joined the Greek Orthodox Church and are now in closer agreement with what some Orthodox have written on this topic. . . . The book we recently edited, Aflame: Ancient Wisdom on Marriage, reflects this, especially in that we have no quotes on sex from Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great—three major fathers of the Western church, in whose writings you are hard-pressed to find anything positive about sex.

Does it really need to be pointed out that one could quite easily list three Fathers of the Eastern Church in whose writings one is hard-pressed to find anything positive about sex? And that all three of these Fathers are venerated in both the East and the West, especially St. Gregory?

It’s embarrassing. I’m embarrassed for the Torodes that they’ve had to stoop to this sort biased attack on the Western Church by way of justifying their recantation—caricaturing the theology of the West while quietly ignoring shortcomings in the theology of the East. They later credit Augustine (and Calvin) with having tainted their view of the self as “totally depraved or fundamentally evil.”

It’s also embarrassing to imagine the Torodes, authors of a book against contraception, finding NFP too difficult and resorting to barrier methods and what they call “sensual massage”—a euphemism that I will not embarrass my readers by unpacking. Of course, they do not say that they are doing these things themselves; we can hope they are not. (And they continue to reject hormonal contraceptives like the Pill because of their dangerous side-effects and abortifacient potential.)
Most strangely, they attempt to make contraception square with the “language of the body,” about which they ought to know something, Sam Torode having authored four volumes on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body:

We also see honest congruity with the language of the body by saying “no” to conception with our bodies (via barrier methods or sensual massage) when our minds and hearts are also saying “no” to conception. We don’t believe this angers God, nor that it leads to the slippery slope of relativism or divorce. We strongly disagree with the Catholic Church that this is a mortal sin.

It’s troubling, frankly, to see an argument like this coming from somebody who once recognized the incongruity of attempting to express the total gift of self through an act the fundamental character of which has been fundamentally altered such that it cannot accomplish all that it might. Something has been taken away from the marital embrace when it is deliberately sterilized, conditions have been imposed upon it—how can it express unconditional love?

Given that the Torodes make it a point to explicitly express their disagreement with the Catholic Church on contraception, I have to wonder if they aren’t being influenced—at least as to the anti-Western element of their Open Letter— by the difficulty Sam Torode has had getting the last two volumes on the theology of the body published; he says on his Amazon blog that “many Catholic bookstores refuse to carry this series because they object to the nude scultpures on the covers.”

I can understand why that would be frustrating, even infuriating, and why Torode might be all too ready to see the ghost of Manicheeism in the Catholic Church. Frankly, I was surprised by those book covers when I first saw them because I know all too well that this ghost haunts us still.

What about John Paul II?

Finally, I feel a sense of betrayal. This particular couple found NFP too difficult and because they once went so far as to write a book promoting NFP, they are now giving credence to the view that those who promote NFP are unrealistic and naive. What was naive, I would suggest, even irresponsible, was their writing a book in the first place on something which they hadn’t got enough experience to really speak about.

John Paul II by Sam TorodeIt remains to be seen what damage the Torodes recantation will do, and whether they may not in the future change their minds again. If nothing else, it seems to me that Sam Torode has lost all credibility as a commentator on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which was inspired by the desire to offer an anthropological foundation for Humanae Vitae.

The Torodes do not mention John Paul II in their “Open Letter.” Sam Torode is—or at least was—a great fan of John Paul II. He once painted a beautiful portrait of the Pope, and a couple of years ago my wife and I gave a signed, limited edition print of it to my parents for Christmas a couple years ago, adding a personal dimension to my sorrow over this matter.

I have to believe that there is a personal interest in this on the part of John Paul II himself. I am sure that he is praying now for the Torodes to repent of this. We must join him.

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15 Responses to “Open Embarrassment”

  1. Renee says:

    You should take a look at Amy Welborn’s blog entry that brought all this up. Some VERY interesting comments, although there were 180 of them last I looked. I plan on going back and copying a few of them because they are so well written.

    Seems to me this discussion needs to take place in all corners of the church. Based on our conversation with a certain seminarian yesterday, there is alot of confusion, misinformation, and maybe even deception going on in the church. Lot’s of “making it up as we go along” type thinking. Yikes!!

    Comment posted April 29th, 2006 at 9:08 am
  2. Eric says:

    Thanks for poingint out the Wellborn discussion. Didn’t come up in my searches on Google and Technorati, or even at Catholic Blogs. I think I’ll blog more about this thing later—there’s more to say.

    Comment posted April 29th, 2006 at 11:32 am
  3. Square Zero » Blog Archive » The Orthodox & Contraception says:

    […] Fortunately, there are smart guys like Karl Schudt out there to help me along. Karl has just followed through on his promise to post a critique of the Meyendorff book cited by Sam and Bethany Torode in their letter explaining why they no longer oppose contraception (which I have addressed in several recent posts). […]

    Comment posted May 11th, 2006 at 1:11 am
  4. Tim C says:

    Brothers and sisters, respectfully, I think you all are totally missing the point:

    • Drink and eat a lot with family and friends (Deuteronomy 14.22-27; Ecclesiastes 9.7 ).
    • Include strangers, people below your socio-economic status, and characters of ill-repute in these parties–if you notice they aren’t being treated in a really welcoming manner, you may need to invite fewer of your friends in order to produce the right environment (Deuteronomy 16.10-15; Luke 14.12-14 ; Luke 15.1, 2).
    • Have frequent sex with your spouse (Ecclesiastes 9.9; First Corinthians 7.2-5).
    • Enjoy your work (Ecclesiastes 9.10).
    • Work hard (Ecclesiastes 11.6).
    • Worship God in public with other people (Psalm 100, ad infinitum).
    • Sing really violent songs as prayers (The Psalms).
    • Loan money without expecting payment in return (Luke 6.35).
    • Pursue profit in business–otherwise you are never going to be able to afford to be open handed (Luke 19.20-26; Ephesians 4.28).
    • Enjoy the luxuries you have (Ecclesiastes 9.8).
    • If it is an especially holy day, and you hear the Law of God and are feeling especially convicted for your many sins,make sure you don’t weep but rather go party and share food and fellowship with others (Nehemiah 8).
    • Gently restore people you catch in wrongdoing and don’t demand payback when you are the victim (Galatians 6.1, 2).
    • Teach your children to be spiritual (Deuteronomy 6.1-9).
    • Don’t care if anyone else judges you or your children as unspiritual; care what God thinks ( Romans 2.28, 29).

    From Mark Horne’s blog.

    Comment posted December 5th, 2006 at 8:36 pm
  5. Eric says:

    Sorry, Tim, my brother, I don’t get it. How do you extract from these couple of quotes from the Bible that it’s okay to sterilize a woman’s body with chemicals or insert a latex barrier between husband and wife?

    Comment posted December 6th, 2006 at 1:27 pm
  6. Holly says:

    I have a soloution to the problem of abstaining so often. Have more children. : ) Do we not believe the word of God? “Children are an heritage from the Lord. They are a reward from him.” Train them right and they truly will give you rest. Live with less and you can afford them. There’s nothing better than a sunny afternoon at the swingset surrounded by happy, obedient children. Except, of course, for the activity which brought them about.

    My husband and I have a fantastic love life. We are not Catholic but we are christians. I am considering using NFP for the first time (after using nothing for the last five years {and three children}) to give us a little time after he gets home from his deployment (the last one!) to settle and get used to being a family with him again. Has anyone heard of the Duggars? Google them if you haven’t. Blessings!

    Comment posted June 8th, 2008 at 1:28 pm
  7. Sarah says:

    Thank you. Very well thought-out response. I am very sad about the Torode’s recantation, and I pray that it won’t do damage to other young, vulnerable couples. Thanks again.

    Comment posted June 26th, 2008 at 12:56 pm
  8. When Should You Have Babies? | bathgatesdotnet says:

    […] must have been embarrassing for the Torodes, and they received no small measure of vitriol from Roman Catholic apologists for their trouble. This is indicative of the passion that the topic rouses in people. After all, […]

    Comment posted April 9th, 2009 at 2:26 pm
  9. Naturallawyer says:

    I was shocked to learn (a few minutes ago) of the Torodes’ recantation. I have a copy of Open Embrace on my shelf, which I read as part of an investigation into the natural law arguments against birth control.

    I am a non-married evangelical (with an appreciation for the Catholic Church and its scholarship), and was confused by the Torodes’ comments. Your response (which I found through google) helped me to remember why I decided that birth control is contrary to the natures of our bodies. Thanks for that…

    Comment posted November 1st, 2009 at 3:11 am
  10. josquin says:

    And now the Torodes are divorced. Sad all around . . . . .

    Comment posted December 1st, 2009 at 5:12 pm
  11. Eric says:

    Josquin—Where’d you hear this? I did some searching but couldn’t find anything.

    Comment posted December 3rd, 2009 at 3:59 pm
  12. josquin says:


    Comment posted December 9th, 2009 at 5:26 pm
  13. Naturallawyer says:

    Wow, that is really sad. I just checked out Bethany’s blog; heart-breaking. While I say the following in respect and love for Ms. Patchin, her story and writings on her blog are a reminder of the difficulties that follow when one allows emotion to strongly influence one’s moral beliefs. Ms. Patchin’s statement that “I was thinking instead of feeling, and God does not reside in our heads, that’s fer damn sure” is rather scary.

    God cares about our minds. As C.S. Lewis said, “The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.” (Abolition of Man)

    Comment posted December 9th, 2009 at 7:33 pm
  14. Lydia says:

    This was most disturbing to me:

    “having a kid is a burden that doesn’t go away for 15 or 20 years. I tell myself frequently “but it’s a burden that 90% of the world seems to want more than anything” and I understand mentally why that is (I wrote a g.d. book about it), and I trust that someday I will feel those feelings again – of relating to why people would get pregnant, why they would want to make mini-me’s….” ~Bethany Torode

    Not only has she recanted, but now she sees no reason why anyone would want a child. I hope her children don’t pick up on this feeling of hers.

    Comment posted January 17th, 2010 at 4:53 pm
  15. Mary says:

    They were an idealistic young couple who found they couldn’t ‘walk the talk’. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lack or formation and no access to the sacraments might have contributed. My husband and I have been married 17 years, have 10 lovely healthy children and a fantastic intimate life. We have never used NFP or any variations of it because we have been very happy to welcome a new child to our family every 18–24 months (spaced by breastfeeding and delayed introduction to solids). It hasn’t been plain sailing, we have had our moments when we have wondered if it was all worth it – but it was and is (surprisingly). God seems to be the best family planner actually -SFP (supernatural family planning). All I can say to those who doubt it, is try it but you have to trust that God knows what is best for your family!

    Comment posted May 7th, 2013 at 6:03 am