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Back in town

I’m back from a couple of weeks away, and mostly recovered from a mild but annoying virus, so I’ll be posting once again. To get things started, here are some comments I posted on Dawn Eden’s weblog on why I think there’s a problem with contraception.

As I see it now (my view hasn’t always been the same), contraception changes the nature of sex quite fundamentally by turning it into a free-floating means of pleasure and expression rather than something with definite functions and implications that can be relied on because they are obviously basic to human life and so trump subjective feelings. If sex is free-floating, so each of us must define its meaning for himself, then it’s hard to see how it can ground an enduring connection you can build on. People feel it must matter, but what it means remains unclear and in any event is always subject to reinterpretation and change. Nonetheless, sex continues to play a fundamental role in human relations and psychology, and it creates dependences and vulnerabilities that no longer have any definite status. It seems that such a state of affairs will mean—has meant—a bunch of bad things that range from distrust and instability to manipulation and abuse. Why is that a step forward?

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Contraceptives are untraditional, and for that reason alone, the practice is suspect. The Church has objected to contraception for hundreds of years. There are no doubt complex theological reasons to justify the position, and there might even be clever counterarguments. But we do not live in a world ruled by logic, which requires too many unproven assumptions (premises) in too many cases.

Rejection of contraception works. If for example the Judeo-Christian West had developed effective contraception a thousand years earlier, there might be no more West. The evidence for this is all around us: the Third World outnumbers the Western World and is rapidly extending the disparity.

Sure large families can be a consequence of no contraception, but large families are not a certain consequence as certain as the destruction of the West if we continue contraception. Married people can abstain and perhaps engage in mutual masturbation, if that is acceptable to the Church. I don’t see how temporary mutual masturbation or infertile marriages calls into question the Church’s condemnation of homosexuality or extramarital sex, if God and tradition set the rules instead of clever logical arguments.

Why did God denounce homosexuality and adultery? God only knows, but He did. Every logical argument against the Church’s position must fail because they will all contain unproven assumptions.

I think it’s a mistake to think of Catholic opposition to contraception and some other sexual practices as a special Catholic thing that can’t be explained but just has to be swallowed. The Catholic teaching is similar to the historical teaching of other Christian groups (the Anglicans were the first Christian group to approve contraception, and that was in 1930). Also, there’s much more overlap between Catholic teaching and the views of other major world cultures and religions than between those views and the current official view that makes sex simply a matter of individual desire and consent to be managed therapeutically and technocratically.

That’s a sort of general external reason for thinking that the Catholic view isn’t just based on arbitrary dogma or impenetrable divine revelation but on an understanding of the patterns and realities of human life that anyone might come up with after enough experience and thought. I tried to present more particularized arguments in the entry and in the comment I link on another blog. There are lots of other comments in the same discussion on the other blog, and some of them might be more comprehensible than my way of putting things.

One problem with all this is that sex is too much a part of what we are to make it easy to stand back and get a clear understanding of what it is and how it works in human life. If it comes into focus in a Catholic sense then some things seem obvious that otherwise seem baffling. It seems to me what keeps it from coming into focus is mostly the modern Cartesian outlook that deprives the body and material reality generally of intrinsic meaning and consequently treats such things as raw material to be used for whatever purposes we have.

Regarding the particular practice Mr. Henri mentions (MM) it’s got the same basic problem as contracepted or homosexual intercourse. It intentionally deprives sex of the intrinsic weight and seriousness that are needed if its reality is to come up to the directed intensity of our experience of it and it is reliably to play the role in human life that its importance demands. All of which might seem like gibberish if you don’t already see the point. People seem to find the current Pope’s work on the theology of the body (or popularizations thereof) helpful in understanding what’s at issue. I haven’t read it so I can’t coment. I think there ore other recommendations for helpful readings etc. in the comments on the other blog.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Lutheran church historian Aaron Wolf, over at Chronicles, had an interesting piece a year and a half ago on Protestants and contraception, http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/Chronicles/June2003/0603Wolf.html here.

I don’t readily see the logical distinction between sex by infertile married people and mutual masturbation by fertile married people. One could propose the difference is the spouses in the former case have no choice while in the latter case the spouses have a choice. Is there a theological argument supporting the former case?

My second point is we must look to the Pope, the Majesterium, and the Bible. I doubt anyone will be able to prove the holiest action through logical argument. For example, let’s propose the production of offspring is the holiest reason for marriage. (This seems to be a premise often expressed or implied.) Let’s further propose (reasonably) in vivo fertilization by a physician will become by far the most reliable and safest way of producing offspring. It follows that in vivo fertilization will be the holiest way of producing offspring. It follows that sexual intercourse will be no less sinful than the act of Onan.

Mr. Henri’s second point displays what I think is the fundamental issue: are human acts to be understood from a purely technological perspective, so that the only issue is how a particular goal can be achieved most effectively? In Social identities or social physics? I suggest that it’s a lot easier to make sense of sex and human life generally if you drop the purely technological perspective and look at what sort of thing an act is and its role in human life.

I apply that approach in Gays and merry oldsters, a discussion of marriage between persons who are in fact infertile (the comments all became anonymous when I converted Turnabout to Drupal, which may make the discussion a bit harder to follow). Basically, the thought is that men and women are men and women because their bodies are designed in their natural healthy functioning to make babies when they come together in sexual intercourse. That feature is essential to the role of sexual intercourse in human life, and so to what sexual intercourse is for us. The thought is that a physical defect like infertility isn’t enough to change the identity of the parties or their act. Normal sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is still an act of a kind that makes babies even though in fact it won’t because of an accidental feature of the parties (infertility). The same can’t be said of MM. (For more discussion see Sex and reason.)

Note that there’s nothing specifically theological about the arguments. I don’t think there’s much in Catholic morality that depends on particular revelation. (That’s a Protestant complaint about Catholicism, by the way). I do think the arguments depend somewhat on general moral and social tradition. What is essential to the identity of an agent or his acts probably can’t be determined by pure formal logic but requires social experience — what seems essential again and again to people in a variety of societies and situations (by that standard masculinity and feminity would be examples of essential qualities of human beings). But then I think tradition is necessary to the exercise of any kind of reason.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.