Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Human Life

Papal Encyclicals are traditionally named after their first few words, rather than given a title. (This must give the popes good cause to seriously consider a good strong opening rather something something along the lines of "It has often been observed..." or "In my last encyclical I discussed...")

Pope Paul VI's encyclical issued forty years ago today began: Humanae vitae tradendae munus gravissimum, ex quo coniuges liberam et consciam Deo Creatori tribuunt operam, magnis semper ipsos affecit gaudiis, quae tamen aliquando non paucae difficultates et angustiae sunt secutae.

Roughly speaking: Human life, the passing on of which is one of the gravest responsibilities from which spouses freely and knowingly take on the work of God the Creator, the which always gives them great joy, but also not a few difficulties and a shortage of security.

Given that the Church is often accused of ignoring science and the wonders of human advancement, and that the Church's opposition to birth control is one of the most frequently cited examples of this, it is ironic that the Church's stance on sex and birth control is essentially a restatement of indisputable biological fact: Sex exists, at a biological level, for the creation of children. That's why we have "reproductive organs". Certainly, sex (now that it exists) fills several other purposes as well, but its primary purpose is indisputably reproduction.

The question that faced and continues to face humanity is what to do about this in the face of modern technology which allows us to strip that reproductive function (with degrees of success depending upon the method) out of the sexual act. Starting at the turn of the last century, and with gathering speed with each passing decade, the wider society embraced artificial birth control and the split between sex and human reproduction that this new technology allowed.

The results of this split are still being sorted out, and I suspect that it will be near the end of the new century before we begin to see with any clarity what a society in which sex is only optionally tied to reproduction looks like. With typical progressive zeal, few in the secular realm seemed to imagine at the time (from what I can tell) that anything but good could come from giving people the ability to regulate their fertility with relative certainty through cheap and widely available technology. Surely, people would live just as they had before, but with the ability to make sure they had children only when they were ready to lovingly care for them. How could this be anything but a blessing?

Lots of people with a supposedly rational and naturalistic view of the universe apparently imagined that changing a fundamental element of human physiology (which from a strictly naturalistic point of view must clearly be one of the biggest shapers of human society and culture) would leave existing social structures intact while allowing people to be just a bit more free and joyful in their sexuality. It did not prove to be so. People may not consciously think, "I will get married and be faithful to my spouse because having sex with lots of partners before and outside of marriage might result in having children who would not be raised in a stable family environment." And yet, at a naturalistic level, one of the primary reasons for marriage itself and for chastity before and faithfulness during it is that a stable family environment is required in order to raise the children which naturally result from sex. (Picture, if you can, that there was something we were capable of doing as humans that was as pleasurable and produced as a strong a sense of union as sex -- and yet which never resulted in any consequences other than physical pleasure and emotional closeness. Would society have organized itself in such a way as to require that one shared this act only within monogamous relationships?)

Paul VI, on the other hand, courageously and contrary to the advice of many who had their fingers upon the pulse of the world, reaffirmed in Humanae Vitae that human life is, as God's creation, meant to work a certain way. That sex results in new life is not some accident or medical deficiency to be "cured" by new medical technology, but rather the way in which humans were meant to cooperate in God's creative work. The reproductive potential of intercourse is inherent and essential to it, and to actively remove that potential changes the act in a fundamental way.

The Catholic teaching which he reaffirmed is not, as some critics claim, that women are baby-making machines or that it is immoral to have sex if you can't get pregnant at the present moment. Rather, the Church's acceptance of NFP but rejection of birth control and sterilization amounts to saying: Remain human. Play by the rules we were given. Our bodies are meant to work the way they work. And if you want to avoid having children, you will have to at the very least have less sex.

This is not necessarily easily lived out, even for those of us who accept it, since we cannot help but imbibe the modern ethos in which the sex life has nothing to do with creating human life. Yet this difficulty that we experience is essentially that of living as humans are -- rather than becoming one of that artificially created new race of the optionally fertile. And since we choose to continue living a human life, rather than a sex life, we know roughly what our social institutions and familial relations will continue to look like. We will continue to live as humans have always lived.

How exactly those who have chosen to live a sex life instead of a human life shall eventually sort out their society remains to be seen.


John Farrell said...

Well said. I have often wondered, though, why Paul VI could not have put it so well himself. There is a sense, as Jody Bottum points out today on the First Things blog, in which HV was badly structured and handled. I think that the Pope was content to, in a sense, send a memo when he should have come out on the steps of St. Peter's, sat down in front of the cameras etc and said, 'look, here's the deal...'

Rick Lugari said...


Kyle R. Cupp said...

Kudos for taking a biological and physiological approach to the problem. A major challenge Catholics will face in the coming years (beyond fidelity to the Church) is proving, clearly and step-by-step, how the embracing of artificial birth control lead to a unraveling of social structures and moral norms. It is often pointed out that the acceptance of birth control has resulted in an increase in socially harmful practices, such as divorce. Could be, but as a correlation isn’t tantamount to causation, the connection between the two will need to be thoroughly revealed by using scientific arguments.

Literacy-chic said...

Very nice indeed. I especially like this:

Rather, the Church's acceptance of NFP but rejection of birth control and sterilization amounts to saying: Remain human. Play by the rules we were given. Our bodies are meant to work the way they work. And if you want to avoid having children, you will have to at the very least have less sex.

Anonymous said...

I have never understood how it is that to consciously use Natural Family Planning is different from using forms of birth control that do not potentially involve abortifacient realities.

To me, the plan to 'avoid' having children, using any method, shows that a person or a couple is not, according to Humanae Vitae, "cooperating with God's plan".

And, although I agree that many evils have resulted from the ready access to birth control methods; I also see much good, particularly for the lives of women.

Oh well. We all don't agree, and that is okay. Thank you for the forum in which to discuss these matters!

Darwin said...

I don't mean this in a rude or mean way, but begin thus because sometimes humor is the clearest way to make a point:

If you're convinced that NFP and artificial birth control are identical because they both allow one to avoid having children -- try it for a year.

Clearly, there must be some significant difference, or there wouldn't be so many Catholics who are upset that the Church tells them not to use birth control -- and that if they need to space births more widely they may use NFP.

NFP is really just a slightly modified version of the very oldest form of avoiding pregnancy: not having sex. I don't think that anyone would say that a married couple is refusing to "cooperate with God's plan" if the husband and wife (because they have grave financial, health or person reasons for believing they must not have children for a few years) lived a totally celibate lifestyle together. The Church most certainly does not say that married couples are morally required to have a child every year or two -- merely that sex and reproduction are tightly linked and must not be intentionally decoupled.

NFP (when used to avoid pregnancy) involves not having sex somewhere between half and a third of the time -- during those times during which the woman is fertile. Most couples have sex less than half the time anyway, but the trick in this case is that the woman often naturally feels the most inclined to have sex during her fertile period. And humans being what they are, we naturally desire the forbidden fruit all the more. So most of the time, avoiding sex throughout the fertile periods involves some very conscious sacrifice. While it is, unquestionably, much easier on the couple than being completely celibate, be assured that one remains very, very clear on the inextricable linkage of sex and reproduction.

Myron said...

Wow. Lots to talk about. Before I start, perhaps a statement of position is in order.

I am completely behind the idea that sex, absent a for all intents and purposes perfect method of contraception, should not be viewed as separate from reproduction. Human life is valuable enough that any chance of pregnancy ought to be taken seriously, no matter how slight the chance, and to do otherwise is irresponsible to the point of near-criminality (if someone was to suggest jailing people who got "accidentally" pregnant and aborted more than once, I think I'd support it).

On the other hand, the reality is that contraceptive technology is here to stay, and while it will cause a radical rethinking of social institutions, it will not lead to total social collapse, and eventually society will adjust. I am not sure whether we have perfect contraception (or so near to perfect as to be indistinguishable - something where the total lifetime chances of accidental conception are one in a million even if you have sex every day for 50 years) yet, but if not it will come. The question posed in this post will then be legitimately rephrased as:

Since there is something we are capable of doing as humans that is as pleasurable and produces as strong a sense of union as sex -- and yet which never results in any reproductive consequences, should society organize itself in such a way as to require that one shares this act only within monogamous relationships?

And the answer will be clear.

How people will live in this society does remain to be seen. I expect there will be a difference between sex for pleasure and sex for reproduction, and I expect they will not both be called "sex", but something to distinguish one from the other. As I've said in response to other posts, I do not think we are to this point with contraceptive technology yet (at least not the widely known and cheaply available varieties such as the pill), although many people wish we were.

As moral people (Catholics or non-Catholics) we have a choice about how we can face this issue. The Catholic stance appears to be to attempt to preserve the way of life that existed before the advent of this new technology, and write off the rest of society. This strikes me as similar to the approach of the Amish. While they have strong communities which could be a model for our anonymous urban jungle to learn from, the influence of this group on wider society is not large (despite the fact that they likely have a high birth rate).

So I have to ask, as Catholics, is this the fate you want for the moral principles you believe should be an example for all of humanity? To be increasingly marginalized? To have significant portions of your own church split off and dissent with the stance you have taken?

I think a different approach may be worthwhile.
1. Value human life. This means supporting strong censure of those who use ineffective contraception and "accidentally" get pregnant, and then are not willing to take responsibility for the life they knew could result.
2. Accept contraception. This means not categorizing it as inhuman. It means accepting that new roles are now morally possible (or more accurately will soon become possible), and working with wider non-Catholic society to define what those roles should be. Personally, I think it is very important for people who think carefully about moral questions to take an active role in shaping our changing society, rather than withdrawing from it. The loss of thoughtful Catholics (and those of other religions) from this dialog would be a blow to the morals of our society just as big as contraception itself, except this one you can control.

Striking the balance between these two requirements is difficult, because they seem contradictory. You are right to point out that contraception has changed the morality of sexual acts, and with it the basis for institutions such as marriage and a stable family structure. But if the factors which have caused those changes are not going away, then we need to find ways to restructure our society to account for them.

One thing that makes this difficult is the blurring of sex for recreation and sex for procreation. Sex for procreation should have the same supporting social structures and norms that it has always had. Sex for recreation should have something different, and not be associated with those structures at all. What we have right now is sex for recreation and/or procreation, where both partners may not be in agreement about what kind of a relationship they are in, and the line can fluctuate over time. This cannot continue, and must be opposed, but not by saying all sex must be recognized as being linked to procreation, because that position is untenable over the long term (although morally correct until truly effective contraception becomes cheaply available).

This is all very complicated, but what I'm basically saying is that while the Catholic church has taken the morally correct position for now, you should also be preparing for the future. The restructuring of our society is underway, and I believe you ought to participate rather than withdraw, because there will come a time when the position you are taking now makes no sense. And also because the moral contribution you can make is important, and I would not want to see it lost.