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

Friday, October 13, 2017

NFP and Authority

Melinda Selmys writing at the blog Catholic Authenticity has a post up which she says will be the first of several laying out her thoughts on NFP and the Catholic Church's moral teachings dealing with contraception, thoughts she intends to turn into a book when they are fully formed.

In this initial post, the primary problems are not, actually, with her assessment of NFP per se, but rather with how she approaches Catholic teaching. She begins with what she says she originally thought to the justification for the Church's prohibition on birth control (and allowing of NFP.)

I’ve been promising forever to write a book about NFP. It got massively derailed a couple of months back, basically because I hit major stumbling block: one of my major theses had, up to that point, been that the burdens that Catholic couples are often called upon to bear as a result of the Church’s teaching were justified by a set of larger concerns. Basically, that we were being asked to shoulder a heavy cross because of the magnitude of the issues at stake. The breakdown of the family. The increasing vilification of children as a “burden on the planet.” Widespread abortion. The reality of eugenics, which would have been a very concrete and grave issue for Paul VI and other churchmen of his generation.

The argument, as it ran in my head, was that a strong statement needed to be made because otherwise it would be impossible to take an effective stand against these other problems. Frankly, I’m pretty well able to get my head around the idea that the involuntary sterilization of the disabled, the extermination of the Downs’ community in utero, and the impoverishment and isolation of women and children as a result of “sexual liberation,” are all much greater forms of suffering than struggling with NFP. And so long as I thought these were the issues at stake, I was okay with the idea of being told that I had to take my place on the front lines, and to hold my position for as long as was humanly possible.

The author intends this as a "here was the good reason I thought the Church had before I realized the real motivation" view, but I'd argue that this is actually hugely problematic. Think about what's being suggested here, that the Church taught that using contraception was wrong in order to send a symbolic message rejecting the various evils common in the culture relating to sexuality. This, however, would be a utilitarian rationale: We need to send a strong message about sexuality, so we're going to announce that using contraception is a sin as a symbolic gesture to make a point.

Now, many people have said that the Church's teaching is in fact a powerful symbol of opposition to the culture's degraded understanding of sexuality. That may be true. But that isn't the reason for the teaching. It is, if anything, a sort of side benefit.

Keep in mind, the Church does not tell us not to use contraception as a useful discipline. It is not like the command to do some penance (such as not eating meat) on Fridays. The Church says that using contraception is intrinsically evil, an action wrong in and of itself. (Other examples of intrinsic evils include lying, torture, rape, and abortion.) If the Church said this not because it believed that using contraception was wrong but rather to make a rhetorical point, the Church would be acting falsely and viciously. Indeed, if the Church were to do this while claiming to exercise her solemn teaching office, the Church would prove herself to be something other than what the Church claims to be. The Church would be false.

I don't think that Selmys has followed this line of reasoning through to that conclusion. After all, this is the explanation for the Church's teaching which she thought was reasonable. But as she charts her disillusion it's important to see the problems with the starting point and with a vision of the leaders of the Church sitting down and saying to themselves, "Hmm. We need to make some big gesture showing how everything is wrong with the modern world's approach to sexuality. I know! Let's say that using contraception is a sin!"

Selmys continues:

So, I wanted to get historical support for this thesis and naturally my research led me to the Papal Birth Control Commission.

And that’s when the I totally lost my shit.

Because the bottom line for the guys who seemed to be responsible for the decision to promulgate the teaching as it was promulgated wasn’t any of those important issues that I mentioned above. They got a mention, sure, but there were actually reasonably good arguments put forward on the other side to suggest that the Church’s ability to effectively combat the evils described above was actually going to be compromised by an overly absolutist approach to contraception.
...
They spelled out the reason quite explicitly in their minority report:

If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 [when Casti Connubii was promulgated] and in 1951.

It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half a century the Spirit failed to protect Pius XI, Pius XII, and a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error. This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned. The fact can neither be denied nor ignored that these same acts would now be declared licit on the grounds of principles cited by the Protestants, which Popes and Bishops have either condemned, or at least not approved.

In other words: if we admitted that we were wrong it would make us look bad, it would make the Protestants look good, and it would undermine our authority.

That was the bottom line. Not abortion. Not the casual and irresponsible use of women for men’s sexual gratification outside of marriage. Not eugenics. But the authority of men who do not ever have to bear the brunt of the teaching.

What we have here, I would argue, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Church's function is in transmitting Christian doctrine. Selmys finds it shocking that those on the papal commission who wrote the minority report said the Church could not declare the use of contraception moral when the Church had previously taught it to be immoral. However, contrary to what many outside (and some inside) the Church seem to believe, the Church does not decide matters of doctrine. Rather, the Church was founded by Christ in order to preserve and pass on His teachings through all history. To aid in this, Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would protect the Church from teaching error.

If the Church at one time taught that using contraception was immoral, and then later taught that it was moral, the Church would be directly contradicting itself. This is not like some human institution changing its policy on an issue. It's not a matter of those "in power" not wanting to end up with egg on their face and admit they were wrong. Given the Church's self understanding, if the Church were to directly contradict its past teaching, the Church would basically render itself void. Those tasked with the Church's teaching authority thus understand that part of the work that they are called to do in preserving and transmitting Christ's teaching to the world is, when examining some question, to determine whether the proposed teaching would contradict past teaching in some way or whether it would simply serve as a clearer application of what has always been taught.

When the papal commission on contraception examined the topic, both the majority (pro contraception) and minority (anti contraception) group realized this. The majority tried to argue that modern means of contraception and a modern understanding of sexuality and fertility in the context of a married couple's overall lifetime, was such that the Church could approve the use of contraception without contradicting past teaching. The minority argued that this was not the case. Paul VI evidently sided with the minority.

So when the minority argued that to approve contraception would contradict past teaching, it was not engaging in some sort of face-saving operation. It was doing what Christ commissioned the Church to do: preserving his teachings unchanged.

If we assert, as Selmys suggests, that "the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 [when Casti Connubii was promulgated] and in 1951" we're basically asserting that the Catholic Church is not what it says it is, that it does not authentically transmit the true doctrines of Christ when it teaches on matters of faith and morals. Because, again, according to the Church's self understanding, it is not at liberty to simply make doctrines up. The Church is not a debating society in which people examine the available evidence, decide what is probably true, and promulgate that as a doctrine. The Church has the authority only to preserve and explicate the truth which was given to it by Christ.

This question of how the Church arrives upon an understanding of doctrine relates to another issue which upsets Selmys:
More distressingly, many of the proponents of the traditional teaching, at one time or another, openly admitted that the natural law arguments they were using didn’t actually hold up to rational scrutiny. And we have records of private correspondence showing that they were more than willing to engage in a certain amount of Machiavellian political maneuvering in order to get their agenda pushed through.

For me, this was extremely distressing.
One of the things that attracted me to the Catholic faith in the first place, and that solidified my Catholic identity in the period immediately after my conversion, was the constant claim of Catholic apologists that the faith was fundamentally rational. That if you were only willing to honestly follow the argument with good will, you would arrive at the conclusions put forward by the Church. The realization that the teaching on contraception had been promulgated and promoted by people who knew that the argumentation did not actually hold water meant that on a fundamental level this teaching did not result from a commitment to following an argument in good faith.

Now, supposedly that was okay because the Holy Spirit could guide the leaders of the Church to infallibly promulgate true conclusions out of faulty argumentation. Right out of the gate, that’s a bit of a swallow for me because it seems to undermine the claim that faith is reconcilable with reason. Reason will always reject a conclusion once the premises are found to be false. It may return to that conclusion later, should other evidence be found to substantiate it, but to simply barrel on through on the assumption that better proofs are sure to show up eventually is just a blatant exercise in the kind of irrational faith that atheists rightly complain about.

But again, the function of the Church is not to think its way to some exciting new doctrines based on really good arguments. The Church does not invent doctrines at all, its job is merely to preserve and clarify them. This can at times mean that the Church will find itself in the position of defending true doctrines with bad arguments. The Holy Spirit does not protect the Church from making bad arguments, just from teaching false doctrine. And because the Church is not the inventor of doctrine, the truth of the doctrine itself is not dependent of the ability of the Church to explain why a particular doctrine is true.

Think about other moral doctrines.  It is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that marriage can only exist between one man and one woman.  Polygamy is wrong.  Marrying someone of your own sex is wrong.  Are the arguments for these doctrines good and convincing?  Some people may believe that they are, some may believe they are not.  We do believe that these moral laws are available to human reason.  It is possible for someone, using natural reason, to come to an understanding of how marriage should properly be between only two people and only people of the opposite sex.  However, the fact that these truths are available to human reason does not necessarily mean that the path will be obvious to all people at all time.  And while the Church is promised the ability to preserve these true teachings, it is by no means assured that the very human people who are serving as the shepherds of God's flock at any given time will successfully identify and deploy the arguments which will be convincing to the great mass of people at any given time.

Is the faith fundamentally rational?  Yes, it is.  It is, first of all, not contrary to reason.  We do not assert mutually contradictory things as true.  The Church will not tell you to believe X and Not-X simultaneously.  (Indeed, it is precisely to avoid this sort of contradiction that the Church looks carefully to avoid contradicting itself, as the minority report did in the preparation of Humanae Vitae.)  However, the fact that the faith is rational does not necessarily mean that each and every person, with that person's biases and experiences, will find the necessary arguments to prove to himself the doctrines of the faith from first principles. 

I want to write a couple posts in collaboration with MrsDarwin addressing some of the actual points about NFP which were brought up in this post and others by Selmys and some of her circle.  However, with this post in particular, it seems to me that the biggest issue is not in fact NFP or contraception, but the very question of the Church's doctrinal authority. 

27 comments:

CMinor said...

Well, this is an excellent start. I haven’t read Melinda’s blog in quite a while, though she’s an interesting writer; she seemed to be looking for bones of contention more than a genuinely reasoned approach. It looks like she’s managed to create some in this case. (Hello? What of Humana Vitae?) In her defense, I think she’s gotten a lot of abuse over nomenclature from the truth-without-love end of the Catholic spectrum, but she always seemed highly rational and I’d hoped she could keep that in perspective. Anyhow, I’ll keep an eye out for the rest of the series!

Thomas Dunbar said...

When Mark Noll argues (in 'Is the Reformation Over') that the primary disagreement between Protestant and Catholic is with regard to the nature of the Church, I'm inclined to then ask: and what is fundamental to that disagreement? And for me, the main thing is what you discuss well in this posting: The Church passes on, and perhaps clarifies, but does not create doctrine. While ya'll will be addressing NFP etc specifically, I'm hoping for continued interaction with this general principle of the development of doctrine. Timely.

entirelyuseless said...

"Those tasked with the Church's teaching authority thus understand that part of the work that they are called to do in preserving and transmitting Christ's teaching to the world is, when examining some question, to determine whether the proposed teaching would contradict past teaching in some way or whether it would simply serve as a clearer application of what has always been taught."

The question is why this would be necessary. If the Church is guaranteed not to teach things that are false, whether or not they have good reasons for their teaching, then they do not need to examine whether a teaching would contradict past doctrine: they will be prevented from contradicting past doctrine even if they do not think about it, just as supposedly they were prevented from promulgating a false doctrine in the first place. We will know that the final doctrine is true for the same reason we know the original doctrine is true, namely because the Church cannot teach a false doctrine.

In other words, if there is a need to examine past doctrine to prevent ourselves from contradicting it, this directly proves it is possible for us to contradict past doctrine.

Paul said...

Mathew 4:7

Darwin said...

entirelyuseless,

"In other words, if there is a need to examine past doctrine to prevent ourselves from contradicting it, this directly proves it is possible for us to contradict past doctrine."

I think the answer here is that while the Church is protected by the work of the Holy Spirit, this is not something which simply happens by magic without the cooperation of human actors. Those with teaching authority in the Church has a solemn duty to carry out their duties in keeping with the truths of the Church. People don't just do whatever they want to do and expect the Holy Spirit to make it all work out via magic. They work to fulfill the Church's purpose, understanding that there are constraints under which they must work, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help them in turning that work to the good.

As Paul cites above: Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’”

Does that mean that the Holy Spirit is not capable of preserving the Church from error even in the face of some malicious actor who decides to abuse his position within the church to attempt to teach authoritatively something which is directly contrary to previously taught doctrine? No. But that doesn't mean that humans have no part to play and I sure would not want to be the person presuming on God in that fashion.

Paul said...

The other thing to Consider here EntirelyUseless (following on Darwin's comment) is by what means would the Holy Spirit prevent a pontiff from proclaiming error? Once a Pontiff decided on a course of action to proclaim an error what would the Holy Spirit do to protect the Church? ...
...
There are poorly documented rumors of cases but they do cover the basic possibilities. The first is that the Pope may have a sudden and complete change of heart and mind and not do it. (we do not actually know that this did not happen with Humanae Vitae.. I rather think it may have). The second is a case rumor I have read that some Pope did insist on expressing a point where he was in error but the actual writers (scribes) of the document worded the actual statement so that it could be left open to the correct interpretation and that is what the Pope signed (and what matters). The third, and there are several rumor of this happening is that the Pope and sometimes other's in the circle suddenly die (which could be coincidence since especially before modern times suddenly dying inexplicably was not rare). So.. even if I trust in the Holy Spirit to protect correct teaching, it would be extremely foolish of a Pope to deliberately choose to challenge the Holy Spirit.

eulogos said...

I argued this point in her comment thread, if less thoroughly and well. There was no cogent response.

Anthony S. Layne said...

Unless it's possible to show that Bl. Paul VI was incapable of making up his own mind on the matter, then the crux is not the reasons the minority sided with the traditional teaching but the reasons Paul VI chose, laid out in Humanae Vitae. In other words, Ms. Selmys is simply abandoning one straw man in favor of another.

Banshee said...

That is the most ridiculous article I've read in a while.

You know, it is amazing the stuff that people will do to themselves if they are deceived into thinking it's their own idea, but which they would fight if it were being explicitly imposed on them by some evil dictator or political opponent.

Imagine the headlines and signs:

REPUBLICANS HATE LIBERAL BABIES

MY FERTILITY! MY KIDS!

Banshee said...

ARTIFICIAL SEX HURTS WOMEN!

KEEP YOUR IUDs OFF MY OVARIES!

Man, this is too easy.

Thomas Dunbar said...

https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2017/10/pope-francis-on-the-development-of-doctrine

Bishop Laura said...

This post has two problems. The first is misunderstanding Mrs Selmys’ initial argument/anecdote. She is not accusing the church of lying by proposing something they don’t believe for another purpose. Rather she is saying she used to minimize the grave sacrifices and dangers of NFP for herself and other women because it was said to be connected to these other pressing life issues. The second is that she is absolutely right that the church has changed non infallible teaching many times for instance pro to anti slavery and domestic violence/female subordination and now death penalty. And the overwhelming scientific and theological and lived experience of the Commission’s evidence said to change this too and they didn’t out of embarrassment. She had tremendous courage to listen to the many women and men badly harmed by the illlogicsl distinction of methods and does not deserve to be attacked in this way.

Anonymous said...

The argument over Humanae Vitae is really a proxy for the discussion of the weight of tradition and the power of central authority in the Church post Vatican II. That's why so many batchelor priests care about it.

The key question is whether a moral doctrine that has been held by the Church for centuries, but cannot be defended by reason based on our current understanding of the natural world, is a true moral doctrine.

If so, then Faith is contradicted by reason (or man is too depraved to reason properly, another heretical proposition). If not, then the Church has been teaching error for centuries. This is a true dilemma.


St. John XXIII did not want to answer the question, so he created the commission. Paul VI didn't want to answer the question either—HV adopts the position of neither the majority nor minority, but tries to split the difference. He made a decision, but, looking at contemporary sources, it was not meant to be an infallible or even a final one. Paul VI believed, with space age optimism, that advances in natural methods would make the question moot.

St. John Paul II worked with the commission, largely agreed with the minority, wanted no more discussion on the issue, and was Pope for 27 years. Benedict XVI didn't really put a high priority on the issue.

And here we are.

Here in the 2010s, with the invention of smartphones and low cost fertility monitors and test strips, Paul VI's space age optimism was not unfounded. Yet, even with these advances, not all couples find avoiding contraception to be beneficial to their marriage. Furthermore, some do have medical issues that make detecting fertility difficult that have not been resolved.

Much of the debate is stuck in the 1960s, framing the issue as the "bad old Church" pushing the ineffective rhythm method to "pray, pay, and obey" Catholics who dare not question, because they hate pleasure and don't care about love. On the other hand, those who support HV often have a nostalgic, overly rosy view of pre-V2 Catholic culture. So even in Catholic culture, the debate really isn't about contraception, but is a proxy for something else.

IMHO, this issue will not be resolved until everyone who had a stake in what happened in 1968 are all long dead.

Anonymous said...

As for Selmys, she is a convert who, like many converts, got caught up in the Culture War. She seems to have mistaken what Culture Warriors want out of their soldiers for her duties as a Catholic, become disillusioned, and is considering defecting to the other side.

Darwin said...

Bishop Laura,

The first is misunderstanding Mrs Selmys’ initial argument/anecdote. She is not accusing the church of lying by proposing something they don’t believe for another purpose. Rather she is saying she used to minimize the grave sacrifices and dangers of NFP for herself and other women because it was said to be connected to these other pressing life issues.

All I can really do here is try to read fairly what Selmys wrote. She says: "The argument, as it ran in my head, was that a strong statement needed to be made because otherwise it would be impossible to take an effective stand against these other problems. Frankly, I’m pretty well able to get my head around the idea that the involuntary sterilization of the disabled, the extermination of the Downs’ community in utero, and the impoverishment and isolation of women and children as a result of “sexual liberation,” are all much greater forms of suffering than struggling with NFP."

As I said in my own post, I think that this would actually be a really bad reason on which to base a doctrine. We should only say that using contraception is wrong because we think that contraception is wrong in and of itself, not because we think it makes some sort of a statement.

The second is that she is absolutely right that the church has changed non infallible teaching many times for instance pro to anti slavery and domestic violence/female subordination and now death penalty. And the overwhelming scientific and theological and lived experience of the Commission’s evidence said to change this too and they didn’t out of embarrassment.

It's simplistic to the point of error to say that the Church reversed doctrine on the issues that you list. However, you're right that this is the kind of argument that people would need to have. Arguing "abiding by the Church's teaching on contraception is hard, therefore the teaching must not be true" is simply not how we go about arguing about objective moral truth. Either using contraception is wrong, or it isn't. But the fact that it's hard does not change the issue.

At root, the argument has to deal with two issues:

1) Do we believe that the Church can reverse itself on a matter of moral doctrine (first teaching solemnly that something is wrong, later teaching solemnly that it is not) and still represent the source of Christ's teaching which the Church claims to be? (my answer here would be no, and I'd argue that the examples you point to are not in fact reversals when rightly examined)

2) How solemn is the Church's teaching on contraception? Is it a theory which could be withdrawn (such as the theological theory of Limbo) or is it in fact a solemn teaching to which the Church is committed as a part of the ordinary magisterium? (my answer here would be that it is in fact a solemn teaching which cannot be reversed)

She had tremendous courage to listen to the many women and men badly harmed by the illlogicsl distinction of methods and does not deserve to be attacked in this way.

I'm sorry you feel that I have been attacking Selmys in a way in which she does not deserve. My intention is certainly not to attack her as a person, but rather to disagree with the ideas which she has put forward in a way that allows for further discussion of the important issues at stake. That is exactly what I would hope people who disagree with me will do in return.

Darwin said...

Anonymous,

You highlight the following section of your comment, and it does indeed strike me as a key section:

The key question is whether a moral doctrine that has been held by the Church for centuries, but cannot be defended by reason based on our current understanding of the natural world, is a true moral doctrine.

If so, then Faith is contradicted by reason (or man is too depraved to reason properly, another heretical proposition). If not, then the Church has been teaching error for centuries. This is a true dilemma.


I'd say that the key phrase here is "cannot be defended by reason based on our current understanding of the natural world".

Perhaps you can explain more what exactly you mean by that.

To say that something cannot be defended by reason seems to me like a rather tall order, and particularly to assert that this is so because of what we now know about the natural world.

Moral doctrines tend to speak about the purpose of a thing or the right relationship of people. So, for instance, the Church's teaching that marriage cannot be dissolved until death is based on the idea laid out by Christ:

Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female' and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”

Now of course, we today have a much more developed scientific understanding of the biological origins of humans and of sex via evolution than was available to the the people listening to Christ or writing the Gospel account. But when the Church says that the purpose of marriage is to be a permanent bond between a man and a woman, we're saying something that is not derived from scientific understanding but from a discussion of purpose in a way that science doesn't address one way or the other.

So my question to you would be: What do you think that we have learned via modern science which makes the Church's teaching about the purpose of sexual intercourse in marriage something which cannot be defended by reason?

Anonymous said...

"Moral doctrines tend to speak about the purpose of a thing or the right relationship of people."


Going with this definition, the issue is the purpose of sex. Yes, one purpose of sex is procreation. No one will argue that. But another purpose of sex is bonding the couple. The Church has acknowledged this, but has traditionally placed it at a lesser importance.

The Church asserts that without maintaining the procreative purpose of sex, the bonding purpose of sex cannot be maintained either. Furthermore, she asserts that to attempt to have sex without the procreative purpose is greatly sinful.

Yet what psychology tells us is that sex is good for a marriage, even without procreation and even when using contraception. Lack of sex in a marriage is generally a sign of relationship problems, not a sign of holy continence. The (generally negative) effect of periodic abstinence on couples was one of the major factors in convincing the majority of the Birth Control Commission that the prohibition should be ended.

It is this assertion-that it is grave evil to separate the unitive from the procreative-that flies in the face of what we know about human relationships. Therefore, defenders of Church teaching on contraception tend to attack the science, attack the scientific community, or claim all of this is irrelevant because Church teaching cannot change. All three of these answers are deeply problematic.

This is not to say that some forms of contraception aren't deeply medically and morally problematic. Nor is it to say that couples shouldn't have large families if they feel called to so do or that the have to use contraception. Only that the Church's absolute prohibition is not supported by that which we know about the natural world.

Anonymous said...

So, for instance, the Church's teaching that marriage cannot be dissolved until death is based on the idea laid out by Christ

The Church's teaching on marriage is an interesting discussion, but a separate topic.

The key question as I see it is to what degree is the "marriage" Christ refers to the same as "marriage" today, both inside and outside the Church?

A first century concern that men should not leave their wives destitute through divorce may or may not be applicable to marriages today.

Some would say that marriage cannot change, yet the social reality is that marriage has changed quite a bit since first century Palestine, even within the Church. To what extent, if any, does this change the applicability of the words of Christ?

Darwin said...

Anonymous,

Taking your second comment first, I'd agree with you that the Church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is an interesting but separate topic, though obviously similar questions of authority and the relation between moral teaching and observations drawn from science or other sources apply, so in an effort to make sure we don't get far too widely scattered, I think you're right to want to leave it to one side.

Looking at your first comment, you say:

The Church asserts that without maintaining the procreative purpose of sex, the bonding purpose of sex cannot be maintained either. Furthermore, she asserts that to attempt to have sex without the procreative purpose is greatly sinful.

I think it's very important to be precise with words here, so let's start with the second sentence. I think we may well be in agreement here, depending on how we're using words. The Church says that to intentionally remove the procreative aspect from sex (through sterilization, contraception, etc.) is gravely sinful. That doesn't necessarily mean that the couple have to have in their minds a procreative purpose when they have sex, nor does it mean that they need to reasonably expect that that particular instance of intercourse will result in procreation. (For instance, if the couple is sixty years old they may very much not expect it to result in children.) Hopefully we have the same understanding here.

Looking now at the first sentence, it's not at all clear to me that the Church asserts removing the procreative from sex will necessarily remove the unitive aspect as well. I tried double checking the CCC just now and the closest I could find was in paragraph 2363 where it says: "These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple's spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family."

Apologists might often claim that removing the procreative aspect from sex diminishes the sense of union, but not only does that strike me as going beyond the Church's doctrine, it strikes me as going beyond what a doctrine could be about. A moral doctrine cannot predict what a person or couple will feel in a given situation. Moral doctrine can only tell us whether an act is good or bad.

Now, if the Church is not doctrinally asserting that couples using contraception will not feel union as a result of sex, the next section may not pertain to the discussion so much, but I'd still like to address it a bit.

Darwin said...

Yet what psychology tells us is that sex is good for a marriage, even without procreation and even when using contraception. Lack of sex in a marriage is generally a sign of relationship problems, not a sign of holy continence.
...
It is this assertion-that it is grave evil to separate the unitive from the procreative-that flies in the face of what we know about human relationships. Therefore, defenders of Church teaching on contraception tend to attack the science, attack the scientific community, or claim all of this is irrelevant because Church teaching cannot change. All three of these answers are deeply problematic.


I hope this won't get me classified as "attacking the science" but it strikes me that the first sentence is perhaps overstating what kinds of truths science per se is actually able to get at. A phrase like "good for marriage" suggests a type of moral judgement (as to what constitutes a "good" marriage, etc.) that science is not well set up to deliver.

However, what we probably could agree on is that studies by sociologists and psychologists have often found that couples who have sex more frequently tend to report greater happiness and satisfaction with their relationships than those who do it less frequently (at least up to a point, I think the studies I've seen suggest that sex more than once a week doesn't really correlate with higher levels of happiness.)

Of course, this is not necessarily causal. It's easy to think of thinks that are markers without being causes. For example, people who play golf tend to be richer, but that doesn't mean that taking up golf will make you rich. Even some things touted as causal may not be as causal as we think. For example, people often talk about people who are read aloud to when young having higher IQs than those who aren't, but is that because being read to gives you a higher IQ or because parents with high IQs tend to both have high IQ children and read more to their children?

In the case of the frequency of intercourse and marital happiness, general studies tell us that couples who choose to have sex less often are on average less happy than couples who choose to have sex more often (up until that once a week threshold at which it levels off) but that doesn't tell us whether a couple who mutually choose to abstain from sex during some periods for reasons of health or fertility is going to become less happy in their marriage in the long run than a couple who instead choose to use contraception in order to avoid such periods of abstinence.

Nor, at the deeper level, can science really tell us whether survey data on "happiness with relationship" is the right measure of a "good marriage".

NFP advocates often they their own data-driven argumentation by pointing to surveys showing that people using NFP are less likely to get divorced than the average population, but this too is rather off base, since we don't know if this is because their marriages are "stronger" or "happier" in some clear sense or simply that people sufficiently committed to Catholic teaching to use NFP rather than contraception are also people sufficiently committed to Church teachings on the indissolubility of marriage that they are more likely to stick it out.

Really, though, all these data questions are beside the point when it comes to the moral doctrine itself, which simply deals with whether or not using contraception is wrong, not whether or not it seems to help a marriage in some practical sense.

Anonymous said...

Hopefully we have the same understanding here.

I believe we do.

Apologists might often claim that removing the procreative aspect from sex diminishes the sense of union, but not only does that strike me as going beyond the Church's doctrine, it strikes me as going beyond what a doctrine could be about. A moral doctrine cannot predict what a person or couple will feel in a given situation. Moral doctrine can only tell us whether an act is good or bad.

Then perhaps I have a problem with the apologists and not the Church itself.

Even so, this would present a problem in that an act could serve to unite the couple, but be gravely sinful. That doesn't make much sense.


Nor, at the deeper level, can science really tell us whether survey data on "happiness with relationship" is the right measure of a "good marriage".

Admittedly, there are some questions that science cannot answer and there are others that we simply do not have the answers for.

That being said, I see little empirical evidence that the Church's teaching is universally true. Beneficial to some? Absolutely! But not necessarily to everyone. The numbers promoted by NFP advocates are badly cherry-picked, from a self-selected pool, and not always directly relevant to the issue.


Really, though, all these data questions are beside the point when it comes to the moral doctrine itself, which simply deals with whether or not using contraception is wrong, not whether or not it seems to help a marriage in some practical sense.

Doctrine without practicality, in my opinion, is like debating how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Perhaps it makes an interesting philosophical discussion for a debating society, but it doesn't seem to be of much use to the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

I will say this: If one can accept that contraception is bad for a marriage and greatly evil, then accepting that a Son of God was born of a virgin, was crucified, died, and was buried, and on the third day rose again, is a piece of cake.

Darwin said...

Anonymous,

Even so, this would present a problem in that an act could serve to unite the couple, but be gravely sinful. That doesn't make much sense.

Really? It seems to me that one could think of a number examples of grave sins that could make people feel unity.

- An unmarried couple commit fornication together and feel greater unity as a result. (The problem from a moral point of view: it is a false unity because they are using their bodies to profess unity when they have not in fact made marriage vows of fidelity unto death.)

- Two people who are already married meet, feel an instant connection, commit adultery together, and as a result feel even more closely united.

- Members of one group (a nation or a racial group) disparage other groups (racism or nationalism) and feel more united as a result.

- A group of people share nasty gossip about others and as a result feel more united among themselves against those others.

- A group of people commit an act of violence together and as a result feel the kind of union which "bands of brothers" so often feel.

etc., etc.

That something is a sin, even a grave one, does not mean that it will not have some good aspects or good side effects. Indeed, often the reason why we are drawn to sin is that it represents an evil mixed with some good.

That being said, I see little empirical evidence that the Church's teaching is universally true. Beneficial to some? Absolutely! But not necessarily to everyone.

Again, though, what do we mean by empirical evidence for a teaching such as the Church's on contraception? Is there empirical evidence for other doctrines: that lying is always wrong? that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist? that we owe it to God to attend mass on Sunday? that our sins are forgiven in confession?

Now, we might have feelings that relate to some of these doctrines. For instance, someone might feel a sense of God's presence when receiving the Eucharist, or feel a sense of freedom and forgiveness after going to confession. However, these things are not reliant upon those feelings. We receive God in the Eucharist whether we feel like we have or not. We are forgiven our sins in confession whether we still feel guilty afterwards or not.

This isn't unique to religious experiences either. For instance, it is true that regular exercise is healthy for my body. However, I don't necessarily feel more healthy after running a race. Indeed, I often feel terrible after running a race.

Anonymous said...

I did not make myself clear with my comment on unity.

The issue is not whether sex leads to unity, it is whether sex leads to unity of a married couple. The unity of a married couple is something that is good. Your other examples are not relevant to this point.

How could an act intended to lead to good and does lead to good be evil? If there is no harm, how can there be evil?


As for the other doctrines, lying is an interesting discussion (is it wrong to lie to someone who you know intends to do evil with the truth?), but beside the point. The other matters are all matters of faith and revelation. The Church claims the teaching on contraception is not a matter of revelation, but of the Natural Law.

How do you know it is true that exercise is good for your body? Simple: Medical experts have evidence that it is. Your feelings are not relevant. The difference between exercise being good for you and contraception being bad for a couple is not the importance of feelings but the lack of evidence for the former.

Anonymous said...

That being said, one could make an argument that contraception is bad for society because couples in a society have an obligation to do their part in outbreeding the competition. But this is not the argument that the Church is making against contraception.

Anonymous said...

The problem is the lack of evidence for the latter (the evils of contraception) not the former (the good of exercise). My mistake.

Brandon said...

As for the other doctrines, lying is an interesting discussion (is it wrong to lie to someone who you know intends to do evil with the truth?), but beside the point.

It should be pointed out that this is not true; that lying and contraception are analogous wrongs is a standard trope in Catholic moral theology.