Sex and reason

In a usenet discussion group I mentioned that Humanae Vitae is one of the reasons I became Catholic: “Why is it,” I asked myself back then, “that the only man in the world who has an idea how to make human sense of sex is an aged celibate?” One of the other participants asked for more explanation. My response:

Sex is overwhelming, intensely focused on the other person, and dissolves boundaries. It involves a sort of mutual nakedness (psychological as well as physical) and self-giving. It makes people say things like “this is bigger than both of us” and believe that what they feel trumps normal good sense.

So the question is what kind of setting would enable someone to make sense of such a thing and make it part of the pattern of a good life.

It seems that sex requires an enduring connection between the lives of the parties that once established no longer depends on changeable things like current feelings.

If sex isn’t part of an objective union of the two persons, if it’s just a “relationship” as people talk about such things today, then it’s a matter of current dispositions and feelings so there is no real self-giving. A sexual “relationship” that is simply an informal connection attempts to turn sex into an arm’s length thing. The attempt fails because arm’s length is exactly what sex is not not. Each party in such a relationship acts as if he’s giving himself, but is in fact keeping all options open. That introduces an element of radical dishonesty into something very basic. It’s corrupting.

So sex must be integrated with a permanent connection to which one could sensibly give one’s all. Also, the sexual act must itself by its nature contribute to that connection and its permanence. Sex is too vivid an experience and the impulses involved are too strong to let us interpret it into something other than what it forces itself on us as being. If it feels like an act of self-giving then it must somehow objectively be just that. Otherwise it won’t be part of a comprehensible whole.

Normal non-contracepted sex between a man and a woman is a functional union of the bodies of the two that by its nature invokes serious enduring responsibilities and points beyond immediate feelings and interests, because it is the sort of thing that produces new life. Since its nature, by the constitution of the human body, is to produce new life, it naturally calls for comprehensive mutual support that amounts to a union of lives. That call for union makes the self-giving implicit in the sexual experience reasonable and in fact obligatory.

So it seems that if you carry on your sex life in the way Paul VI and John Paul II (not to mention just about all Christians before about 1930) say you should it’ll make sense. Your understanding of your situation and your relation to your spouse will reflect what the sex act expresses. If you don’t then either you’ll be living a lie (as in the case of a non-marital “relationship”) or you’ll be trying to force an interpretation on sexual acts (e.g., contracepted acts) that doesn’t come out of the nature of the acts themselves. In both cases you’ll be trying to make your will or interpretation dominate the situation and that won’t work. Basic things like sex have their own way with us and we can’t reconstruct them at will.

[UPDATE] The other participant responds, and the conversation continues:

bardi> To me the act of sexual congress between married people
bardi> involves a great deal more than procreation.

Agreed. The issue is how much of the “great deal more” will be there if sexual congress is intentionally closed to new life. The problem with contraception etc. is that it turns sexual congress into a different sort of thing. By the intention of the parties it becomes an act that by its nature has no real consequences. Since the parties have intentionally deprived it of consequences they’re making it an act that has only the significance the couple chooses to give it. The result is that the union of the parties becomes unreal. It becomes a matter of the interpretation they decide to put on their acts, and everyone knows interpretations change. So the act can’t involve real self-giving. It feels like it does, and the parties may tell themselves it’s so, but it’s play-acting.

An analogy might help. Someone might say “joining the army isn’t just a matter of getting yourself killed. There’s a lot more to it. There’s patriotism, loyalty to comrades, devotion to duty, the feeling of being part of something bigger that has a high purpose, etc., etc., etc. And everyone knows actual fighting wrecks armies. Besides, even in wartime lots of soldiers don’t die so getting killed can’t be essential. So what I’ll do is set up something I’ll call an army that can never be sent into battle. That way I can get all the good things without the disadvantages.” It won’t work though. Eliminating the risk makes the other stuff pointless.

Another analogy: a group of friends might enjoy having each other over for dinner. For them it’s not just a matter of physical nourishment. There’s also the pleasure of seeing each other, the companionship, the mutual generosity, the interest of new dishes, etc., etc., etc. There’s the problem though that if you eat too much you can’t eat any more and besides you get overweight. So one of them might suggest having a bottle of Ipecac around so after eating everyone could take some and go off and vomit. After that they could eat some more or maybe go off to another dinner.

It seems to me that would be a bad idea. Even though physical nourishment isn’t the only thing going on at a meal it’s a necessary part of what a meal is. Take it away and you get something quite different that won’t have the same significance.

bardi> And that extra can be impacted negatively. Even more in this
bardi> day and age more than previous times when the economy was
bardi> geared toward a single parent household. Not just financially,
bardi> but emotionally. Large families may have their strong points,
bardi> but they can also cause a great deal of stress.

Today as always there are a variety of ways to live, some which better fulfill human nature than others. We should all choose the better and avoid the worse. One issue you raise is the legitimate use of natural family planning—refraining from sexual intercourse during fertile periods. It seems to me a couple isn’t obligated to have sexual intercourse on any particular day or have as many children as possible. On the other hand, if they intend to have no children or treat children as lifestyle accessories it’s not much of a marriage. I don’t have a grand theory just now as to where to draw the line.

Some more:

bardi> I would have to disagree. The union of the parties remains
bardi> quite a tangible expression of their love for each
bardi> other.

The situations are quite different though. A non-contracepted act of normal sexual intercourse creates a profound objective union between the two parties, because it gives the couple’s bodies a functional unity of a kind that is basic to the existence of the human species. It’s an essentially serious act, not at all the sort of thing one can shrug off or reinterpret into something different from what it is.

A contracepted act doesn’t create that kind of objective unity. You say it is nonetheless a tangible expression of love. To my mind though sex doesn’t seem like a social observance, a greeting card or whatever, to which we can give the meaning our sentiments suggest. What it naturally expresses—unity and mutual self-giving—is intertwined with its natural function. Sex is not something we control. It goes its own way in accordance with what it is and creates a situation to which our feelings adjust.

I suspect that we will continue to disagree on all this at least for now. The issues are too basic for a few arguments to bring anybody around. To me though it seems that you’re not treating sex unequivocally as a basic constitutive principle of human life. You’re treating it as something we can control and mold as we wish. You want to get the benefits of sex while controlling its consequences, even though the benefits depend on the seriousness of the consequences and therefore of the act itself.

bardi> To carry this argument to its conclusion would mean to suggest
bardi> that sterile couples were imperfect in their relationship to
bardi> each other. And contrary to popular mythology, sterile couples
bardi> are actually more likely to remain married.

I’m not familiar with the popular mythology. It does seem to me though that a contracepted act and an act that will in fact be sterile because of age, time of month or some physical disability are different. In the former case the sterility is part of what the parties are choosing to do and so if (as in this case) the intentional sterility is radically at odds with the natural function of the act it changes the act’s nature altogether. In the latter case the sterility is accidental and so seems much less intrinsic to what the parties are doing.

All of which may seem like a fine distinction. Still, lines must be drawn and this line seems to me one that becomes more persuasive with familiarity. Part of the idea is that you can’t willfully interfere with something as basic as sex to defeat its natural function for the convenience of the parties without radically changing its role in human life. The fact that sometimes its natural functioning fails doesn’t have at all the same effect.

bardi> There is a difference between being a volunteer in an army and
bardi> being drafted into the same army. Draftees are just as likely
bardi> to be killed as volunteers,but they have been given no choice.

Agreed. Consent is essential to the validity of a marriage. Without that requirement it becomes much less likely that the goods of marriage will be achieved.

bardi> It would seem to me that your [dinner party] analogy actually
bardi> supports the converse argument. One cannot use ipecac to create
bardi> further children.

Don’t understand your remark, but if the analogy isn’t helpful to you there’s no need to pursue it. The thought was that Ipecac is like contraception, something one uses to deprive acts that support various personal and social goods (as sexual intercourse supports marital unity and eating supports conviviality) of essential natural consequences that sometimes become inconvenient.

bardi> Sexual congress,imho,is not an obligation. Rather,it is a gift
bardi> of the Spirit. And to say that people must not accept that gift
bardi> because they do not have the financial resources for an endless
bardi> supply of children, is to me somewhat abrupt.

I recognize—as the Church recognizes—that at some point natural family planning becomes legitimate.

Still more:

bardi> hmm..there are species which engage in courtship rituals. There
bardi> are even more species which engage in family raising. But so
bardi> far the human species is the only one which gets emotional
bardi> satisfaction fron the act of sexual congress. With a
bardi> provisio…assuming there is an emotional bond to begin with.

The issue between us, I think, is whether that emotional bond is independent of the physical function of sex.

bardi> There is a difference between being a volunteer in an army and
bardi> being drafted into the same army. Draftees are just as likely
bardi> to be killed as volunteers,but they have been given no choice.
>> Agreed. Consent is essential to the validity of a marriage.
>> Without that requirement it becomes much less likely that the goods
>> of marriage will be achieved.
bardi> my point had to do with parenthood..not the marriage itself.

My point then would be whether marriage remains the same sort of thing once it’s thought legitimate for the parties to choose or not at will whether it will include children.

To my mind the decision that a marriage will not include children deprives it of any reality that goes beyond the (inevitably fluctuating) desires and interests of the parties. The self-giving implicit in sexual congress that is the soul of marriage thereby becomes impossible. How could one give oneself to something that is dependent on one’s own will? How could it be right to give oneself to the mere will and interest of another equal adult? To make the self-giving possible and legitimate marriage must be something more extensive. Openness to new life supplies the missing factor and integrates marriage even physically with the whole of human life throughout time.

bardi> It is the means that HV was arrived at more than any
bardi> conclusionsthat I disagree with.

For me the means are an argument in favor. It seems to me that the tyranny of experts is a big problem today. Not only do they tell us what to do but they say we can’t even criticize them or talk back because that would just show ignorance on our part. We’re not smart enough to have an opinion. Since there are experts on everything we all as a practical matter get treated as knowing nothing.

Paul VI rejected what all the experts said and followed tradition. Tradition is the possession of a whole people rather than a few experts. It summarizes the perceptions and experience of a lot more people and a lot more sorts of people than formal expertise ever could. The idea that formal academic expertise with its highly dubious claims of neutrality and reliability should be our guide to how we should live and what we should believe on fundamental issues is outrageous. In 1968 Paul VI took an almost solitary stand against that idea. The whole world owes him a debt of gratitude for that.

Yet more:

trifold> I see two possibilities: If God opposes contraception, God
trifold> wants us to have as many children as possible; or God wants
trifold> us to not have sex as often as we want to, even within a
trifold> committed, monogamous, even “sanctified” relationship (why
trifold> God gave us a sex drive, you will have to explain).

Those are indeed the possibilities.

It seems to me that we think things (like one’s wife or the sex act) are real and important if we have to respect them, and we have to respect them if we can’t act however we want to around them without consequences. So I don’t see anything odd in having to refrain from sex during fertile periods if for some reason having a child would be a bad idea. It’s part of what gives substance to taking one’s wife and one’s physical relationship to her seriously.

And still yet more:

jb> All birth control is artificial including “abstinence”. Periodic
jb> abseinence is designed to allow us to have sex without
jb> consequences.

Natural family planning is in some sense artificial, since it involves decisions based on knowledge of the workings of the body. However, the effect of the “artifice” is simply a decision not to engage in sexual intercourse on certain occasions. That looks much less like something that changes the nature and implications of the sexual act than say oral contraception or use of a condum. In the case of NFP each act of sexual intercourse is just what it would have been without NFP. The same isn’t true in the other case.

And more still yet:

jb> I must quibble with you claim that birth control other than NFP
jb> changes the nature of the act. I think any form of birth control
jb> changes the act if we include factors such as relief from the
jb> worry of producing a child and the intrusion of the birth control
jb> procedure into the act.

I don’t see worry as part of the act. If I sign a check or get married whether I’m worried or not doesn’t change the act. It does change the act if the check is drawn on the East Bank of the Mississippi or the “wedding vows” are simply lines in a play. In the latter case acts whose essence and human significance is that they are functional have intentionally been made nonfunctional. That makes them quite other than what they were.

The claim I’m making really is that the place sex holds in human life depends on the physical function of sex, on its potential to create new life. That doesn’t mean that the physical function of sex has to be fully realized through every sexual act. Sex is too expressive to be viewed simply as a means to an end. On the other hand what it expresses is something definite and serious, a union of two persons that has an essential physical aspect. For us intentionally to change that physical aspect so that it does not serve the function that makes sex and the union it expresses serious does I think change the nature of the act.

jb> I also maintain that an act not taken is a changed act.

Quite true. There is a difference between engaging in sexual intercourse and not engaging in sexual intercourse. My point is that NFP (unlike ABC) does not change any act of sexual intercourse that actually takes place.

jb> I agree that a couple who submits to NFP experiences its
jb> complications, but just because a process is complicated and
jb> intrusive doesn’t improve the desired outcome.

I agree. Inventing complications need not make things better. Nor need complications make things worse. If I exchange wedding vows in reality it creates many more complications than if I say the words as part of a skit at a party. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad idea actually to get married.

And a string of further comments and replies:

maf1029> I’m saying that the Church sanctions marriages for sterile
maf1029> men, women with hysterectomies, and post-meopausal women,
maf1029> despite the Church’s own prescription that “marriage consists
maf1029> of a sacramental bond between a man and a woman open to the
maf1029> possibility of children.”

The man has a male human body, the woman has a female human body, they are capable in uniting in the sexual act, the natural function of which is procreation, and the parties do nothing to interfere with that function. That should make the union open to the possibility of children in the necessary sense. It’s a union of a kind that naturally leads to conception, and the fact that age or bodily defect will in fact prevent conception is an add-on that the parties might not even know about. It’s an added circumstance that doesn’t change the essential nature of what they’re doing.

In contrast, if they had been fertile and used contraception it would change their intent and thus the nature of their act. Their intent wouldn’t be to engage in sexual intercourse, and accept the natural consequences if they should came about, but to but to engage in an act they had modified to eliminate its natural function. That does seem different to me.

What I rely on is the notion that factual infertility due to age, time of month or bodily defect don’t change what the parties are doing—uniting their bodies in a way that if their bodies function properly in accordance with their nature as male and female bodies will give rise to new life—while if they use contraception they *are* changing what they are doing. Remember that what we are talking about here is the rightness or wrongness of a human act.

maf1029> A woman without a uterus can NOT have children … a
maf1029> hysterectomy is not some “unknown add-on.”

You’re right it’s not unknown. The basic question though is whether it (and the other possibilities mentioned) are “add-ons” in the sense that the act of the parties remains an act of a kind that naturally leads to conception. My answer is that they are—in the case of the missing uterus, a female body with something missing is still a female body, and a female body is designed in its natural healthy functioning to conceive and bear children.

An analogy: a car is designed so that if you turn the key in the ignition it starts. If I go to my car, stick the key in the ignition, and turn it, then it seems to me that I’ve engaged in an act of a kind that starts the car even though the car in fact doesn’t start because somebody swiped the battery. On the other hand, if I go to the car, stick the key in the ignition, cut the wires connecting the ignition lock to the starter, and then turn the key, it seems to me I *haven’t* engaged in an act of a kind that starts the car. That does not seem a crazy or arbitrary distinction to me.

The issue is what’s included in an act, and what makes an act an act of the same kind as another act. Part of where you draw the line is how you can arrive at the account that best enables you to make sense of the overall situation. My claim throughout has been that the Catholic view of sex best enables us to make sense of the role of sex in human life. If so it’s a strong reason to believe that the distinctions the Catholic view relies on are correct even though it would be possible to draw other distinctions.

jb> I still do not understand how you can make a distinction between
jb> birth control that uses time as a barrier to conception and other
jb> techniques.

Suppose Mr. and Mrs. Sakanashi-Jones have sexual intercourse without using contraception at 11 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, just like clockwork. Then they continue to do the same thing except that on the nights that fall within Mrs. S-J’s fertile period they play gin rummy instead.

They haven’t changed what they do on the nights that don’t fall within the fertile period. So each act of sexual intercourse that takes place is still what (from a Catholic perspective) it should be. That would not be so if instead they had used a condom during the fertile period. In that case the acts during the fertile period would have intentionally been closed to life and thus changed into something they should not be, again from a Catholic perspective.

7 thoughts on “Sex and reason”

  1. Reuters reports that today
    Reuters reports that today (June 10), pursuant to a court ruling, they’ve begun dispensing marriage licences to homosexual couples.


  2. One notable thing in these
    One notable thing in these various court rulings in favor of homosexualist causes is the evident sense on the part of judges that there is no rational basis at all for traditional views on sex or marriage. Traditional views are simply hatred and bigotry, irrational religious dogma, or both.

    On the one hand that shows that the problems go very deep—there’s something radically defective about the accepted public standards of reason that the judges are relying on. On the other hand it raises the possibility that a rather small number of people could fundamentally change the situation simply by arguing persistently, forcefully, and publicly that the traditional views are indeed reasonable.

  3. It’s also interesting that
    It’s also interesting that the only deep thought going about the meaning and significance of sex is in the Catholic church. Which fact is one of the reasons that I become periodically frustrated with the whole banal “religion is all about ignorance and fear” attitude that one sees everywhere. By the way, what internet group was this on?

  4. That was a very interesting
    That was a very interesting discussion with the other particpants on that Usenet board. A few of my own observations, hopefully useful, follow:

    I’m afraid I do not understand why JB could not see the difference between NFP and contraception as two completely different acts. Perhaps it would help him to see that the NFP couple is not altering the sex act by refraining from having intercourse during the fertile period. The act remains the same since both procreative and unitive aspects of the act are maintained. The NFP couple, when having sex during the non-fertile period, in essence are stating that they acknowledge that the procreative aspect to sexual intercourse exists, they do not wish to separate it from the sex act, and thus to avoid pregnancy at this time, they will abstain during the fertile period. The procreative aspect is maintained even if conception is not directly sought.

    This was a common flaw in the arguments that were raised by the other participants, especially those who noted the case of sterile couples being able to marry. They seem to believe that since the procreative and the unitive cannot be separated, that implies that every act of intercourse must seek to bring about conception. Obviously God desires us to use our heads and to determine when children should be conceived. But if we share intercourse with our spouses only during the fertile times due to a desire not to bring about a new child at this particular moment of time, we can still carry out the procreative end of sex … even as we act to avoid pregnancy. If we contracept, then we are saying that sex is for unity only unless we actually want to conceive, because the use of contraceptive methods physically removes the procreative aspect from the *individual* sex act. When we abstain during the fertile periods, the sex act during the non-fertile period is not altered one bit.

    Maybe this chain of logic can help the others.

    BTW, I’m unfamiliar with Usenet groups in general, so I must ask, “What is a kill file?”

  5. I think the intellectual
    I think the intellectual stumbling block was that the anti-Humanae Vitae participants couldn’t imagine that anything could be relevant to the moral classification of an act other than its expected consequences and the subjective attitudes of the participants. From that point of view all sexual acts that are unlikely to result in conception are necessarily equivalent, and the human significance of the acts is determined wholly by how the parties choose to look at them. The idea that an act has a certain nature not wholly determined by expected consequences, and that the meaning of an act must take its nature into account as well as consequences and subjective attitudes, just seems like gibberish to them.

    The thread also included a lot of abusive comments I didn’t copy here, which show that the intellectual problem is not the only problem.

    A “kill file” is a feature of news reading software (also called “twit filter,” “score file,” etc.). It enables you to kill in advance, before reading a newsgroup, posts by particular authors, in particular threads or on particular subjects. A newsgroup like alt.religion.roman-catholic is pretty much unreadable without a kill file because of the volume of stupid or abusive postings.


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