Thursday, February 9, 2012

Contraception: an extreme analogy

I'd like to begin this brief post today with a look at what, exactly the Church teaches about procreation, natural means of birth regulation, and the evils of artificial contraception:
2368 A particular aspect of this responsibility concerns the regulation of procreation. For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality:

When it is a question of harmonizing married love with the responsible transmission of life, the morality of the behavior does not depend on sincere intention and evaluation of motives alone; but it must be determined by objective criteria, criteria drawn from the nature of the person and his acts, criteria that respect the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love; this is possible only if the virtue of married chastity is practiced with sincerity of heart.156

2369 "By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its orientation toward man's exalted vocation to parenthood."157

2370 Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality.158 These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, "every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" is intrinsically evil:159

Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality. . . . The difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle . . . involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.160

There has been some talk in the comment box to yesterday's post about how the Church's teaching seems, to some, to ignore the importance of the unitive aspect of human sexuality. But if you read the above passages carefully, you will learn something, something I would like to illustrate by the following, rather extreme, hypothetical example:

Suppose a young married man and woman are discussing their intimate life, and the man admits to his wife, "I do love our life of intimacy, but there is one thing I really, really hate about you. I've never told you, because I thought I could get over it, but--I hate your hands. They are big and awkward for a woman, and you have knobby knuckles. Unless you agree to cut off your hands, I don't want to engage in marital activity with you any more. But our intimacy is important, so I'm sure you'll see how necessary this is."

The wife nods (remember, this is an extreme analogy) and says, "As long as we're being honest, I have to admit that there's something I hate about you, too. Your nose is too big. It gets in the way when I'm trying to kiss you; oh, and your ears are really ugly, too. But our intimacy is, as you said, important--and we need that unitive aspect of marriage, right? So I'll continue marital activity as long as you cut off your nose and ears."

Sounds terrible, right?

But that is what the couple is doing when they say to each other, in the "language" of contraceptive sex: "I love you totally, completely, absolutely and I want to give myself as a total gift to you and accept yourself as a total gift to me. Oh, except for our fertility. I hate yours and want it controlled or neutralized, and I won't participate in this act of love unless you agree; I also hate mine and want it controlled or destroyed, and I won't let you love me unless you agree."

And by controlling or destroying their fertility, the couple is turning what should be the unitive aspect of marriage into a complete and utter lie. They are no longer fully united; they are holding back something so integral, so essential, so important to the marriage act that they are rendering it something ugly and untrue instead of something positive and life-giving.

So why does NFP, or other natural means of fertility regulation, not do the same? The Catechism has the answer, above: "Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality.158 These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom." In other words, these methods don't speak the language of hate and rejection that contraception does (or that, in my extreme example, the cutting off of various body parts does). They foster respect for the mystery of life-giving love; they help the couple to continue to see God as the one ultimately in charge of their fertility; they help the couple strengthen their unity both when they abstain together and when they engage in sex together.

Those who say that their embrace of contraception is not speaking the language of hate and rejection might consider whether they see no difference between two people trying to lose weight: the one exercises, abstains from fattening foods, and seeks to eat what is necessary without overindulging; the other practices bulimia, eating without regard to health or temperance and then forcing himself or herself to throw up in order to avoid the natural effects of food. On the surface, the bulimic might seem to love food more than the dieter does, because he or she is not restricting his/her appetite in any way, but passionately embracing the offerings of the table. But it is not a true love of food to abuse it and vomit it purposefully to avoid calories; and it is not a true love of one's spouse or the marriage act to abuse them via contraception, either.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for this! I love your analogies!


Siarlys Jenkins said...

2368 and 2369 sound very good -- particularly if filtered through Mark Shea as expounded upon by Tumarion.

2369, the second half loses me. The analogy which illustrates it is no doubt sincerely meant, but I can't really follow it. Many aspects of my life would be impossible without my hands. Without my fertility, all my other life functions would be entirely intact. But I admit, my nose and hers both get in the way of even a simple embrace or a kiss. Still, I think we are both going to keep them.

Turmarion said...

FWIW, Douthat seems to interpret Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict in the same way that I did. Referring to it here, Douthat says, more clearly, emphasis added, "There are Catholics who respect the general point of the teaching while questioning its application to every individual case. (My sense, elaborated here, is that the current pope has some sympathy for this perspective.)"

I really don't want to beat a dead horse here, since there's no possible way we can do length, subtlety, and nuance in comboxes. I tried that here at Reditus and here at Renegade Trads, for anyone who wants to wade through it all. I wasn't too satisfied that A Sinner, my principle interlocutor, and I weren't talking past each other.

I point this out for a reason. I think the analogy Erin gives is an epic fail both because it is, as she admits, extreme, but more importantly because I don't buy the viewpoint of the Theology of the Body to begin with. That's a separate issue, btw, from whether or not one accepts Humanae Vitae; even if one considers it to be infallible (and that's a whole other can of worms), one can't argue that Pope John Paul II's interpretation of it is so.

One thing that A Sinner (who is a traditionalist who fully accepts the teaching on contraception) and I did agree on in the Reditus thread is that the Theology of the Body (TOB) is itself, even if well-intended, an epic fail. Money quote from A Sinner, at the referenced Reditus thread, emphasis added:

The “best” alternative to come along after such natural law arguments, then, is TOTB’s “symbolic” framework based on the claim that the body has a “language” that is innate and on “significance” of it all which, as Arturo says, is rather unconvincing and requires a lot of mental gymnastics. If even spoken or signed language is ultimately “arbitrary”…why is only one type of sex as “expressive” correct? In fact, conceding to the modern sentimentalist notion that sex is essentially “expressive” seems dangerous to me (because admitting “expression” is a valid justification for sex seems to open the door for all sorts of expressions).

I’m not saying that there isn’t, on some level, a basic human psychological understanding of significance in sex that there isn’t in other acts. TOTB does have some human insights (which are rather intuitive to me anyway) like that an anonymous hook-up is “a lie” inasmuch as it is “saying” something like “I love you forever” (and is enjoyable for that very reason) but then really isn’t. But, still, while claims about “innate signifigance” may have a big grain of psychological truth like that at their core…they really become very shaky when you try to make specific “syntactical” rules out of them or base morality on participation in some sort of universal participation in “symbolic discourse.” In the end, who’s to say what external actions have to “mean”? Well, JPII tried, and it wasn’t terribly satisfactory.

That's a pretty good summation of how I view it; and therefore I reject the entire premise on which the analogy is based.

OK, one more post, because of length (anther reason that combox philosophy and theology is problematic!).

Turmarion said...

OK, to finish.

If you want to slog through the given threads, it all comes down to "moral object".

I had always assumed "open to life" meant "conception can occur", which is why the statements that intercourse of an infertile couple or elderly couple is valid because they're still "open to life" never made sense to me. Some among those who uphold the Church's teaching have argued that God could cause a miracle here, but I've always seen that as fatuous--you don't base moral theology on the possibility of miracles.

After these discussions, I learned that "open to life" didn't mean what I think it meant, as IƱigo Montoya might have said. It means that the act is the kind of act (i.e., non-contraceptive sex) that could bring about conception, even if, as a matter of fact, it cannot. To put it another way, the "moral object" of the act must be ordered towards conception, whether or not conception is even possible. It is this concept that, frankly, I find incoherent.

The idea, which is clearly expressed by almost all pre-modern Church teaching, numerous Fathers, etc., is that the only time sex is permissible is if there is a specific intent to conceive a child. Any other motivation is sinful. This, obviously, would make NFP invalid. Whatever one thinks of such a view, it is at least logically consistent.

On the other hand, the modern view, no matter how I look at it or how hard I try to understand it is just totally incoherent to me. "Moral object", IMO, is not distinguishable from "means" or from "end", depeinding on the context. I don't see how it is intelligibly a "third font" of morality. The only way this works is if you argue that contraception is intrinsically evil--which the Church does. However, most things that are considered intrinsically evil are pretty much self-evident: murder, theft, slander. It doesn't seem to me that the intrinsic evil of contraception is self-evident; and it doesn't seem self-evident to the Church, either, or it wouldn't go to such lengths to defend it, even to the extent of using contradictory arguments.

Of course, one could say that it doesn't need to be self-evident and I don't need to understand it--it's just up to me to obey, since the Church says so. My problem there is that the Church said that lots of things were intrinsically evil--usury and religious freedom, for example--on which it has changed its mind. The Syllabus of Errors may not have been promulgated infallibly, but I have no doubt that Pius IX thought the contents were infallible. In any case, the Church has actually embraced many of the ideas therein condemned.

I'm not interested in a detailed defense of my views from this point. As I said, I've done it before, and it just doesn't work in this context. I do think that the issues at hand are rather complex and that there are valid arguments to be made against the current understanding of Church teaching. And I'd also point out that I don't reject the Church's underlying viewpoint here--just the application.

Anonymous said...


It is unfortunate that many people aren't offered this complete picture of what it means to contracept before doing something permanent. It is such a fundamental rejection, such a statement about what limits we're willing to place on our marriages, the risks we're willing to take for simple convenience, and the inability to totally accept that God is invested in us at the physical level.

There is so much disinformation about the provisions made for individual circumstances - it's rather astounding just how conspicuous Evil is in these matters. You've clarified it beautifully.

freddy said...

Our Bishops have an almost unprecedented opportunity to reach out to and teach Catholics on this issue. We need teaching both on the wonderful mystery and on the practical aspects. It's great to see Catholics reaching out to each other here, but it would be awesome to see the bishops follow up!

Anonymous said...

My response may seem snappy, but I have to wonder just how 'natural' is considering abstinence beforehand in the realm of ingesting hormones (which in inordinate amounts are NOT 'natural' but the mechanism of their action is 'natural'). Justification of use of unplanned sex within a marriage, for the glory of God in His design seems irresponsible. As alternative, to consider 'methods' such as pre-planning in NFP as sacrificial abstinence, seems a lesser degree of hypocrisy.

With that off my chest; it's difficult to consider 'sex' as a bargaining tool, as a separate entity when it is a part of ones life, and not 'just for procreation'. So to speak, engaging in sexual activity is a natural behavior, and quite necessary for the next generation, AND as well is of primary consideration for mature and responsible adults when discerning the Will of God, but considering one's behaviors as either hate-filled or vengeful is irrelevant to natural functions.

Describing bulimia and gluttony in the realm of learned behavior to the necessity of nourishment and NOT dietary weight loss methods seems more an analogy to this sexual business in marriage.

People are individuals with their own understanding of life and trying to promulgate the only use of NFP as an acceptable substitute to that of any other method is a futile attempt at trying to get all married couples accept that is the only way our Good Lord intends for us to behave... it's as if there's a movement afoot to ensure all humans should all be on that same page of deciding how to express their sexuality and procreative duties.

NFP is taught as a method. By the time, my first was born and weaned, I pretty well knew how my body worked and saying to dear spouse, 'remember sweetie, we decided such and such about God's gifts, and if we do such and such it's very likely our next child will be here within 9 months' as a form of abstinence is ABSTINENCE whether it's called NFP or some other sanctioned activity, and it may or may not be a sacrifice! But in any case, my situation may not be relevant since as a practicing Catholic I married a Buddhist, and .... subsequently have returned to a more practical, and pragmatic Catholicsm.


Red Cardigan said...

Turmarion, I have read those bits of the interview with then-Cardinal Ratzinger, and I have three things to say:

1. Even in that interview, the then-Cardinal was not saying "Hey, bc is fine for some people." He is most definitely NOT saying that.

2. The question about reproaching people with several children for not having a positive attitude about having more is NOT clearly about bc use! In fact, I think that this question is nothing more than what some anti-NFP types say: "You can use NFP with a contraceptive mentality, and deciding after five or six or seven children that you're 'done' is a SIN!" It seems to me that then-Cdl. Ratzinger is rejecting that absolutist view of what constitutes "grave" or "just" reasons to use NFP, saying, in effect, that these matters are best addressed with one's own pastors and spiritual guides.

3. Even *if* then-Cdl. Ratzinger is expressing sympathy for those who are sinning by using artificial birth control, he doesn't say it's not a sin--and more importantly, as Pope Benedict XVI, he's not ever said that he wants to "change" Church teaching that artificial birth control is intrinsically evil--that is, that no circumstance at all can ever make its use by a married couple a good. Quite frankly, he can't. No pope can declare an intrinsic evil a "good." No pope has the power to overrule natural law.

This is basic theology, Turmarion. Whether you like it or not, every single use of artificial birth control to thwart the possibility of pregnancy is a grave sin.

Red Cardigan said...

Oh, and usury is still intrinsically evil. The religious freedom question is out of my league, but frankly I don't see any body of condemnation from the early Church Fathers against it as I do against contraception, either.

Brian Killian said...


Do you also find it incoherent that in order to express or symbolize loving concern for your neighbor who is hungry, the 'stuff' you give him to eat must be a nutritive kind of thing? And that you can't express the same loving concern by deliberately changing bread into cake?

Even if your neighbor doesn't eat the bread, it still expressed or symbolized your concern for him.

But the same can't be said of giving him cake.

Red Cardigan said...

To all: because of the importance of this topic, I've been allowing untagged anonymous comments (that is, comments to which no nickname at all is attached) for the present. That will end at 7:00 p.m. CST today; if you post an anonymous comment without a nickname after that time I will not approve it.

Anonymous said...

Yes Brian...but there also might be times when I show my love with cake as well. That I must not need always59 show it with bread. For example I can take my children to ice cream, just for fun, because I love them and fun is good.


Red Cardigan said...

Brian's analogy works better if we think of him handing a rock to a starving person and saying, "Hey, just *pretend* it's bread!" Because contraceptive sex is fake love.

Anonymous said...

Weird I'm not sure why those numbers are in my comment....I want to stress, I am fully obedient to the church. However, Brian hits a bit at part of my problem. That sex becomes so utilitarian under the churches arguments. That there is never room in a marriage for sex to simply be about the two people having it. Not whether or not a child will be, can be, can't be, should be or shouldn't be conceived. And no matter how one looks at it, NFP or no NFP. It's always about a potential child. I get that it can be, for the most part is, but why always? That is what I do not get.
in all honest and humility....

Brian Killian said...

I wasn't so much trying to give a perfect analogy of contraception but to question Tumarion's claim that there was something incoherent about the need for sex to be a procreative kind of thing, even though a person may not be intending the natural biological end of procreation.

I think it makes more sense in a symbolic or expressive context. Let's say the starving man couldn't digest food anymore, does this affect the symbolic or expressive nature of the act of giving him something to eat?

In order to express charity towards his starving neighbor, the 'matter' of the act had to be of a certain kind. It wouldn't have worked if had been cake and not bread. There's nothing arbitrary about this relationship between the intention to show charity towards a hungry man, and the kind of thing bread is.

Or take the sacraments, the matter of the sacraments can not be tampered with, they are not arbitrary. Is Tumarion a sacramental nominalist like he appears to be a moral nominalist? All love is liturgy, and you can not change the matter of lovemaking anymore than you can change the matter of the eucharistic bread.

Red Cardigan said...

Mel, a way to look at it is this: love is by its nature, fruitful. It is also, mystically, Trinitarian: that is, that the greatest thing the love of two people can produce is not a thing but a person, another unique human individual who is the walking symbol of his or her parents' pure expression of love for each other.

Contraceptive sex shuts off even the *possibility* of conception in a way that NFP does not--not that NFP doesn't "work" to avoid conception, but that NFP doesn't *attack* the ability of one spouse or the other to give generous and fruitful love.

Turmarion said...

Brian, I am not a nominalist of any kind, and I fully believe in the Church's sacramental theology.

Let's say the starving man couldn't digest food anymore, does this affect the symbolic or expressive nature of the act of giving him something to eat?

Actually, it's more like saying, "Despite the fact that he can't digest food, it's intrinsically evil and mortally sinful if I don't give him food, even though he needs an IV!

And what's wrong with cake? :)

Like I said, this isn't the time or place to hash it out. I'll close with this from poster sortacatholic over on the Reditus thread I linked to earlier, emphasis added:

Many rabbis will note that today’s animal husbandry produces pork that is most often free of trichinosis. Shrink-wrapped pork chops at the supermarket are almost always safe to eat. Despite this, Rabbis will only say that the LORD has commanded them not to eat pork. There is no other reason for the prohibition other than the belief that God revealed this instruction to his people at Sinai. In this way, God has set apart his nation Israel and has sanctified their lives.

Perhaps notions of covenant and personal sanctification can also apply to the Catholic question of contraception. Why are Catholics forbidden to use any form of barrier of chemical-hormonal contraception? Well, maybe it’s because the covenant that God made to ta ethne, the “Greeks”, through the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery cannot be understood without this prohibition. Maybe that is all that must be said.

I don't necessarily agree with this, but I could respect a "there is no logical answer--we just follow God's will" argument than convoluted arguments parsing incomprehensible differences.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Trying to draw an analogy between sex and nutrition is utterly incoherent.

Scott W. said...

That sex becomes so utilitarian under the churches arguments.

It makes it no more utilitarian than joining a football team makes playing football utilitarian. No one is forced to join the team, but if you do, you are there to play football. It's only hard if you want it to be.

Anonymous said...

Scott- maybe because I'm a woman I don't understand the football analogy at all. :-). However if you mean in order to be on the catholic team than sex is going to be what it is for catholics, I would agree with that.


Anonymous said...

you know what i find interesting in all these discussions is the fact that, for instance, if a catholic came here and argued that they weren't convinced that the eucharist were the real and actual body and blood of christ but was still receiving communion, oh we'd all argue with him or her and try to convince that person, etc., but in the end wish them well and tell them to not give up on their journey and hope and pray that they would eventually see the light. you could insert a variety of other catholic issues and topics here.

whereas if that same person came here and said they really don't believe the church's teaching about contraception, after arguing with them and trying to explain it to them, they'd sign off with something akin to "well, it's a grave sin and it's a grave sin, and you will be burning in hell if you continue."

the judgment on these issues of sex here and in other internet discussions that are similar are so negative, so mean, so filled with assumptions against the "accused" sinners. "are you a moron? don't you know the church's mandate on this subject? don't you KNOW that it's a mortal sin, worthy of hell?" wow, gee, i didn't know that.

and yet some of us are risking hell (in your words) because we know the truth of our situations and have struggled, wrangled, cried (sobbed), prayed, talked to priests, read books, tried different things, and still we come up with the answer that contraception may (*may*, might) be the only way to honestly live out their marriage convenant.

but by all means keep telling me i'm going to hell. (I never said that!) yeah, you did, in so many words, you can only use the word "grave" so many times before it represents final damnation.

you're not winning anyone over by reciting like a mantra "the rules! the rules! the rules! you must follow the rules or else!" this is why these discussions go nowhere and do nothing but appease and stroke the choir members.

i hope some day the church can figure out how to reach out to average joes on these teachings and deal with all the scenarios and situations that demand more answers and help than "grave sin!" and "nfp!". humanae vitae is a bit highbrow, as is tob. and chris west ain't no prophet. the church fails miserably in this department and it hasn't authorized this blog to do its job for her.

erin, never again ask people to openly admit their sins. you're trading in dangerous territory acting as unofficial advisor in these situations, as are all the other prideful sufferers here and in that other post. likewise, i'm not answering any more questions or polls. the only reason i did was to come out and let people know that there ARE good, conservative, "orthodox" (if you want to use that word) catholics who love their church, love christ, frequent the sacraments, teach the true faith to their children, all the same stuff as you, but don't agree on this one thing.

if you all want to throw me out with the bathwater, remember who's watching you do it and that you will have to answer for that as well, with your pride. you may feel called to try and save my soul by harping on and reminding me of the "truth," but you are also called to strive and struggle with me.

the prepster

Red Cardigan said...

Actually, Prepster, if I knew for a fact that someone was receiving the Eucharist while actually *convinced* that a) Jesus wasn't present and b) it was perfectly o.k. to scarf a hamburger in the parking lot during the homily before receiving, I would tell them with charity to avoid receiving until they had straightened things out--and I would be much MORE concerned than I am over contraception, because the person would be lying by saying "Amen" to something really important they did not believe--and would in addition be profaning the sacrament.

When I posed the poll, I expected some people to argue (as some have!) that contraception's just not a sin. They are dissenters from Church teaching, in other words, and don't see themselves as even remotely at risk of sinning. They are their own Magisterium, and have decided that for them it's not a sin at all. In fact, at least one person expressed surprise that anyone could think that a weekly Mass-goer who is active in the parish, but uses contraception, is actually guilty of anything. I sort of expected that.

You are in a different class because I think that you are indeed in pain over this--that much is very, very palpable. If anything, I do want to encourage you not to give up and to continue the journey; I would just encourage you not to give up on the Church, either. This isn't about mere rules, but about the way that our lives and choices form our souls, making us, in C.S. Lewis's words, either heavenly creatures or hellish ones--and our spirit of obedience is one part of this, and not an unimportant one. It is obvious that you are not in a place of peace over this as it is.

Again, I'll pray for you, and especially that somewhere out there--perhaps that Tepeyac Center I mentioned earlier--there is a better answer for you. God bless.

Scott W. said...

Scott- maybe because I'm a woman I don't understand the football analogy at all. :-). However if you mean in order to be on the catholic team than sex is going to be what it is for catholics, I would agree with that.

Marriage is ordered for procreation like a football team is ordered for winning football games. Some try to float argument that infertile couples somehow justifies same-sex marriage. It's bogus, just like saying that because a football team lost all its games, they are no longer a football team. That contraception is disordered can be show not just by Church teaching, but by logic and intuition, or at least intuition that hasn't been warped by the dictatorship of relativism.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I agree on receiving communion. I have been to mass several times, generally with an elderly friend who needed a ride, and I could easily have taken communion, because nobody was policing it, but I know what the Roman Catholic church teaches about communion, and it is their communion service, so I respect their rules.

I often visit a Lutheran church where, although I was uncertain at first, I now know for sure I am not welcome at communion. There is no hostility about it, but the sacrament is limited to COMMUNICANT MEMBERS who have made a public profession of faith. If I answered yes to all the questions in that confession, I would be lying. Thus, I do not stay for communion.

There are churches where I am welcome at communion, and that means something to me. I can take it there with the meaning "Do this in remembrance of me," no more, no less. If I babbled about my doubts that Trinity really describes the essence of what God is, that might raise problems, but perhaps not, and in any event, it hasn't been an issue.