Saturday, February 25, 2012

Nature and Contraception

In 1963, the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control was established to study the possibility of an alteration in the Church's teachings on contraception. By the time its work was done, 68 of the 72 members had drafted a report supporting an alteration in the Church's teachings. This report, titled "Responsible Parenthood," concluded that contraception could not be considered intrinsically evil, and that it was incoherent to accept the legitimacy of the rhythm method while excluding artificial contraception. This majority report in no way meant to strip away the connection between sexuality and procreation, but merely made the argument that within a productive and fertile life it should be perfectly acceptable to use artificial means to control the rate of birth, to space births out, and to ensure better provisions for offspring.

However, in writing Humanae Vitae, the Pope rejected the majority consensus of his Pontifical Commission, instead opting to enshrine the minority opinion - signed by only 4 of the commission's members - in his encyclical. While reaffirming the common and traditional natural law arguments against birth control, the primary concern of this minority report seems to be less theological or philosophical in nature and more a worry about the Church saving face - that is, the worry that the Pontiff may have to admit that his predecessors were in error. In the report, which is far more lengthy and pedantic than the majority report, the basic form of argument is that since the Church has consistently rejected the use of contraception as evil, the use of contraception must be evil; and, interestingly, the Church has consistently rejected the use of contraception as evil because the use of contraception is evil.

The circularity of this argument cannot be denied; however, I am less concerned about the circular rationale of the minority report as I am in a very interesting point made by the majority report:

" The tradition has always rejected seeking this separation with a contraceptive intention for motives spoiled by egoism and hedonism, and such seeking can never be admitted. The true opposition is not to be sought between some material conformity to the physiological processes of nature and some artificial intervention. For it is natural to man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given by physical nature. The opposition is really to be sought between one way of acting which is contraceptive and opposed to a prudent and generous fruitfulness, and another way which is, in an ordered relationship to responsible fruitfulness and which has a concern for education and all the essential, human and Christian values."

The report calls into question the definition of "natural" used by the opponents of contraception. After all, the argument from natural law indicates that man's artificial control of his reproductive faculties is intrinsically evil, in the sense of being intrinsically unnatural. Yet this argument is found nowhere else in the tradition, and in no other situation is the artificial intervention of the works of the human intellect into natural or physiological processes considered intrinsically evil. Man can take medicine which halts or hampers his natural bodily processes, he can turn aside great rivers, manipulate genetic structures, govern the breeding of other animals, use artificial insemination to breed those animals, cross-breed them, dig up minerals from the bowels of the earth, purposely alter his own bodily chemistry for various therapeutic and non-therapeutic effects, so forth and so on - and in these cases, it is strictly the intentionality, not the means, of the act that governs the morality of the act. However, in the case of artificial contraception, it is argued that simply the artificiality of the act - that is, the means itself, understood as an intentional and artificial control over the reproductive organs - is evil, regardless of intention. A couple who has licit reasons for avoiding pregnancy under Church rules, and whose intentions are in line with these rules, would fall into a state of mortal sin or not depending upon whether they have sex with artificial contraception or using natural family planning - even if their intention is identical, namely, to have sexual relations without intending to procreate.

The majority opinion reveals the absurdity of this position, and questions why rhythm should be allowed but artificial contraception condemned. Nature should include the works of the human mind, and God's command to go forth and multiply is understood within the grand context of man using his intellect to become a master of nature - both his environment and himself. The report is firm in its reaffirmation of the intrinsic connection between sexuality and reproduction, but it shifts the moral gravity of contraception away from the intrinsic means of contraception to the intentionality of contraception. Clearly, the majority report would have us realize, it is possible for a couple to exercise a fruitful sexuality - that is, a sexuality that yields children - even if not every sexual act is itself fruitful. A couple who uses contraception to regulate rather than complete nullify this connection is indeed acting well within the boundaries of natural law under this view, and the commission still coherently rejects the use of contraception solely for the purposes of having a fruitless, hedonistic sexual life.

The Catholic Church needs to reevaluate (or rather, pay attention to the already extant reevaluation) its stance on birth control, leaving completely aside the rather pathetic concern that it may have to admit it was mistaken. However, interestingly enough, the majority report shows that it would be entirely plausible to alter the teaching and remain firmly within the tradition, since it is the tradition itself that recognizes the dignity of man and the natural goodness of his intellect's power to understand and manipulate himself and the world around him. It would be unnecessary to reject the Church's teaching that marriage, sexuality, and procreation all have an indelible link; one would merely have to affirm that the exercise of that sexuality, like the exercise of any other natural function, can rightfully be responsibly controlled by the art and knowledge of the human mind.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting indeed. I often find reviewing past discussions in our Church's history to be a very rewarding experience. The reason being is that it gives me, and I'm sure many others, the chance to appreciate the richness of Catholic moral thought in it's entirety. And It is my opinion that a critical dialogue with the past is absolutely crucial if we are to face this issue again.

    So while I will repeat again that as an unmarried man I can't answer this question with any real certainty, I can speak about consulting the past in other ways. Sometime before I was born and after the Second Vatican Council, some "liberal" theologians were calling into question the necessity of dogmatic affirmations. One of these being the issue of Christ's two natures and wills. Part of this discussion was brought about because of new insights in the sciences, as well as the "introduction" of Higher criticism in the church. Now as an amateur Biblical scholar, I have some idea regarding the state of the current debate but before I go into that I would like to talk about the "opposition". Some Catholics in our church do not like the idea of Biblical scholars having the freedom to approach the Bible with the tools of historical-criticism. The reason why is because they think it objectifies the Bible and that these scholars are treating their results as if they were the only legitimate way to approach the text. Now, while I would admit that some scholars do indeed do this, the fact of the matter is that most biblical scholars, Catholics included, are faithful members of their churches. Other reasons are because of their fierce loyalty to the pronouncements of Pius X on modernism.

    So with that aside I'll try to make my point. Some theologians think that the Chalcedon definition regarding Christ two natures, is not the best way in which we can frame our language about God's presence in the person of Jesus. After all, history has shown that many Catholics do not take seriously Jesus' humanity, one only has to look at the fierce opposition to the idea that Jesus had human passions [Last Temptation] to see the truth of this. The possibility of opening up the hypostatic union to discussion has frightened many Catholics on the conservative end of the spectrum and they in turn only prove their opponent’s point by not taking seriously their concerns. They, in their efforts to secure past dogma, have attacked biblical scholars like Raymond Brown for "casting doubt" on past interpretations of the Bible by the church by situating the NT within it's first century milieu. Many of these “defenders of the tradition” actually do their dogmas less justice than does Brown, who correctly knows the limits and aims of his studies and how to properly frame the discussion. So while Jesus might not have called himself God in the earliest layer of the NT, this conclusion needn’t upset Catholics because God in the first century meant the Father, and for Jesus to make that diction is more faithful to the Trinity and hypostatic union than are some of the tradition’s past ways of approaching the issue. Also being faithful to the hypostatic union is the idea that Jesus was ignorant of certain issues, such as the date of the apocalypse and science in general. Cyril [more recently Bernard Lonergan], the arch defender of orthodoxy, correctly states that he was like us in all ways even “ignorance.” So returning back to the modern day, I would like to affirm that going back to the past can help us out with our current problems.

    Anyway sorry for getting off topic, I just wanted to affirm your point in the only way I know how, that is to say, in a way in which I can speak meaningfully about.