16 February 2012

Why are we not having these discussions instead?

In the current American debate over the (im)morality of contraception availability, we have been subjected to what I have come to see as an entirely inane debate (featuring Mr EJ Dionne and Rep Darrell Issa’s crowd) over rights and freedoms, on both sides of the fence. The ‘liberal’ side believes that contraception should be as widely available as possible in order to accommodate freedom over the body. The ‘conservative’ side believes that institutions shouldn’t be obliged to provide a service that violates the freedom of conscience of those in charge of the institution. The problem is not that both sides are wrong, but rather that both sides are not even asking good or decent questions, since each side in insisting on freedoms which have no content tend to sideswipe the entire ethical debate. Thankfully, quite a few other people in the public eye are making good arguments and asking the pertinent questions. On the ‘liberal’ side, here is Garry Wills:

The opposition to contraception has, as I said, no scriptural basis. Pope Pius XI once said that it did, citing in his encyclical Casti Connubii (1930) the condemnation of Onan for “spilling his seed” rather than impregnating a woman (Genesis 38.9). But later popes had to back off from this claim, since everyone agrees now that Onan’s sin was not carrying out his duty to give his brother an heir (Deuteronomy 25.5-6). Then the “natural law” was fallen back on, saying that the natural purpose of sex is procreation, and any use of it for other purposes is “unnatural.” But a primary natural purpose does not of necessity exclude ancillary advantages. The purpose of eating is to sustain life, but that does not make all eating that is not necessary to subsistence “unnatural.” One can eat, beyond the bare minimum to exist, to express fellowship, as one can have sex, beyond the begetting of a child with each act, to express love.


There was broad disagreement with Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical on the matter. Pope Paul VI set up a study group of loyal and devout Catholics, lay and clerical, to make recommendations. The group overwhelmingly voted to change the teaching of Pius XI. But cardinals in the Roman Curia convinced Paul that any change would suggest that the church’s teachings are not eternal (though Casti Connubii had not been declared infallible, by the papacy’s own standards).

When Paul reaffirmed the ban on birth control in Humanae Vitae (1968) there was massive rejection of it. Some left the church. Some just ignored it. Paradoxically, the document formed to convey the idea that papal teaching is inerrant just convinced most people that it can be loony. The priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley said that Humanae Vitae did more damage to the papacy than any of the so-called “liberal” movements in Catholicism. When Pius IX condemned democracy and modern science in his Syllabus of Errors (1864), the Catholic historian Lord Acton said that Catholics were too sensible to go crazy every time a pope does. The reaction to Humanae Vitae proves that.

And then, on the ‘conservative’ side, we have Patrick Deneen:

The Church’s argument – made at a time when it was believed by many that the Church had no choice but to update itself to be relevant to changing times – was articulated forcefully by Pope Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” and is addressed not only to Catholics, but to “all men of good will.” As nicely summarized recently by Brendan Patrick Dougherty and Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry, Humanae Vitae articulated four discrete areas of social and political concern that they believed would become manifest with the widespread use of birth control:

1. General lowering of moral standards

2. A rise in infidelity, and illegitimacy

3. The reduction of women to objects used to satisfy men

4. Government coercion in reproductive matters

The first three – unarguably evident in our time – concern the social implications of transforming sexuality from its intimate and natural link to reproduction to a “recreational,” hedonic activity. The Church understood that the cumulative decisions of individuals – not intended to “harm” anyone – would nevertheless lead to manifest and extensive social ills. Liberalism begins and ends with the view that individual choice is paramount, and social costs can and should be redressed by government alone, leaving as much latitude possible to individual satisfaction of desire; Catholicism (echoing Aristotle) holds that society is an intricately woven fabric in which autonomous actions aimed at the satisfaction of individual desire will often prove destructive of that fabric. The Church holds this to be the case in all realms of human activitiy – sexual as well as economic, a point that is too often missed by American Catholics who allow their partisan identities to define their understanding of their faith (are those who oppose abortion and pornography any less “Social Justice Catholics”?). Liberalism holds that the State must be indifferent to the personal choices of individuals; Catholicism holds certain choices not only to be inherently wrong (even if they do not result in the immediate and evident harm of others), but, over time and cumulatively, socially destructive.

I think this highlights a few of the points at which, as an Anglican, I feel obliged to point out some broad areas of moral ambiguity regarding contraception. I have stated before that I dislike the rigid and reductive way in which Catholic theology traditionally expounds ‘natural law’, and feel that it would be a stronger argument to make if certain elements of the natural law were kept deliberately numinous in application (making Catholic doctrine more Chestertonian in its orthodoxy, as it were) in order to ride to the rescue of a virtue ethic which better aligns good means with all possible good ends. This is certainly true of sex, as Dr Wills rightly notes. In order to forge the strong link which one presumes (in good faith) that the Catholic Church wants to forge between the phenomena of sex on the one hand, and love and procreation on the other, through the institution of marriage, it seems to me that one must place an equal emphasis on both love and procreation as ‘good ends’ of sex, not incompatible with one another. Otherwise, one sets Catholic doctrine on a very dangerous Kantian-Hegelian-Marxian path toward reductionism and brute materialism in the same way its clergy accuse liberation theologians with doing in the realm of economics. Though I am fully aware that the comparison Dr Wills makes between eating and sex is profoundly limited and problematic, it bears pointing out that in Church doctrine, the physical act of eating and drinking has been sacramentalised and made the means of communion with God through the Holy Eucharist in light of the conviction that man cannot live on bread alone. Likewise, as sex truly is much more sacred act than eating for its close connexion with human dignity, Church doctrine should reflect the idea that the physical acts of sex-conception-childbirth (though good things in their own right) are insufficient without the spiritual gifts of passion and exclusive erotic love between two lovers which become the seed of parental love for their offspring. This point I do readily concede to Dr Wills.

At the same time, Dr Deneen brings up the very real concerns of a large and increasing number of people, particularly among people in the working class, whose opportunities to lead a dignified existence have been eroding for decades under the sustained assault of economic neoliberalism and the dearth of physical attachment (to place or to another human being) that economic neoliberalism demands, concerning the perceived indifference of the government to their plight (despite appearances of state power and presence growing ever-more pervasive). Promoting healthy relationships, let alone healthy families, cannot be done simply by throwing condoms around, and the first ones to be fully cognisant of this point should be the liberals themselves, particularly the ones purporting to act in the interests of working-class women. By refusing to make the distinction between a healthy, stable relationship and a purely hedonistic affair, there should be some realisation that the technocratic apparatus is contributing to the social sins (NOT purely individual sins, as some disgustingly chauvinistic secular ‘conservatives’ in the vein of Charles Murray might have it) of single-parent homes, of mothers working two full-time jobs to take care of children who are left unsupervised, of increasing divorce and suicide rates among an increasingly jobless working class.

These are tough questions of collective responsibility and proper social action; I do not expect either Dr Wills or Dr Deneen to come up with all the answers right away, or even twenty years from now. To me, contraception is not a fully black-and-white issue, even coming from a standpoint which is Anglican, orthodox and generally concerned with social and collective (as well as individual) well-being. Yes, the Malthusian and Spencerite leanings of contraception’s greatest historical (and some modern) proponents are not only creepy and factually wrong, but downright immoral. Yes, most arguments in favour of contraception are individualistic in ways I do not like. Yes, there are good moral hazard arguments to be made regarding contraceptives and sexual health. But that does not mean that some of the premises do not have some worth, or that all arguments coming from the other side of the debate are valid straight-out-of-the-box, as it were. We orthodox-leaning Episcopalians and Catholics should not let our distaste for the individualistic, therapeutic, self-serving and (ironically) male-centric predilections of modern culture push us into a bizarre kind of Feuerbachian functionalist materialism which sees human sexuality only in terms of its procreative capacity, and reduces women to mere incubators (and men to mere fertilisers, as it were).

As Dr Pia de Solenni pithily put it: ‘Something’s wrong when women’s issues and women’s health are reduced to making sure that women don’t get pregnant’. Or do, as the case may be. But this issue is connected to far too many others near and dear to the cause of social justice to be such an open-and-shut case as either side wants it to be, and we should be having those discussions as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment