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

Monday, April 16, 2018

Moral Bandages over Moral Outrages

It is said, with truth, that the Church is not a preserve for the holy, but rather a hospital for sinners. That's good, because we're all sinners, and the Church does indeed offer us both God's law, which tells us how to live to a holy life, and the graces of the sacraments which make it possible for us to follow the path of virtue. This is important to remember in a culture which makes much of 'meritocracy'. We do not earn our own salvation through our own virtue. Grace is given to us freely and unearned. All we have to do is be willing to cooperate with it.

And yet, this hospital imagery often seems to attract those wedded to another idea, people who see the Church not as a hospital in which people are healed of their sins, but as a sort of homeopathic clinic in which people take vanishingly small doses of trendy virtue and then insist that they are healed, without believing that any real application of the Church's powers of healing is necessary.

This struck me today when I ran into a piece of the "here's what's wrong with the Church's teaching on contraception" genre. MrsDarwin and I have both written posts over the years dealing with NFP and the overly rosy way in which it is sometimes pitched as the solution to all ills: improving communication and filling your marriage with romance and divorce proofing your relationship all in one happy-happy system. This, of course, is not true. Natural Family Planning is a means of very much decreasing (or used the other way, increasing) a couple's chances of getting pregnant by timing when in the wife's cycle they have sex. It is considered a moral means of spacing or avoiding pregnancy by the Church, and like any discipline the practice of it can (undertaken in a virtuous spirit) be a way of growing in moral strength and virtue, but it's by no means magic.

But making the equal and opposite error to this magical thinking approach, there seems to be a mini-genre these days of pieces arguing that the Church's teachings on sexuality must be changed because using NFP is too hard and so people should have the option of using artificial birth control instead. Often, what these articles propose to do is apply birth control as some token cure to a relationship which sounds to have much deeper problems. This is no exception. The author describes the plight of a friend as follows:
My friend is a wonderful person, a devout Catholic, and very pro-life. She and her husband were using NFP, and had been for years. Unfortunately, over the course of her married life, my friend has suffered several traumatic miscarriages. She has struggled with severe depression and PTSD related to pregnancy loss. In addition to her miscarriages, she also has four living children who suffer from a variety of physical and emotional ailments. Her children have been in and out of specialists’ offices, therapist appointments, and hospitals. Given these circumstances, her anxiety surrounding the possibility of another pregnancy was extreme. It seemed like every time we got together, all she was able to talk about was how afraid she was of becoming pregnant. To make matters worse, her husband had minimal tolerance for the periodic abstinence required by NFP. The possibility of her becoming pregnant was actually quite high. I began to be afraid that, if she did become pregnant, she would attempt to commit suicide.

Now think for a moment about what's being said here: Her friend has suffered multiple, traumatic miscarriages and is terrified she will get pregnant, so terrified that the author fears the friend will commit suicide if she gets pregnant. And yet the friend's husband has "minimal tolerance" for the restrictions of his free access to sex whenever he wants it which might result from practicing some periodic abstinence.

If this is an accurate account of the relationship, isn't it a horrifically bad one? If the topic were anything other than sex and contraception, and you think of an area of activity where it would be considered okay for a husband to have "minimal tolerance" for something essential to prevent his wife's bodily harm or suicide? Could insisting on sex which seemed likely to lead to such grave consequences seem like anything short of abuse?

To drive her point home, the author recounts:
One weekend in early autumn, I suggested that we take a trip out to the Blue Ridge, just the two of us, to go apple picking. I hoped that an afternoon away would give her a respite from her anxiety, and a change in routine, though I also knew that it was only going to be a temporary break. As we drove away from the city, we were chatting cheerfully about recipes and movies we’d seen recently. But the time we were driving home, tired after an afternoon out, we had returned to the familiar subject.

As we neared home, she became more anxious, and she finally told me that she had decided that if she became pregnant, she was going to have an abortion. I was not shocked. I knew how much she feared another miscarriage, and I knew how wholly overwhelmed she felt. I also knew that this would be absolutely catastrophic for her. She was passionately pro-life. She was terrified of losing another child. For her to have an abortion would, I felt, simply be a step on the way to her becoming suicidal.

I told her that I thought that this was the time for her and her husband to consider using contraception. I didn’t say this lightly. I have my religious commitments. In the back of my mind, I was hoping that using contraception would be temporary, something to give her peace of mind so that she could have some time to heal before going back to following the Church’s teachings. But I knew that contraception was absolutely necessary to her, at least short term. Things could not go on the way they were heading. She needed a break from constant fear.
So the friend is driven to the point of considering abortion as her only way out if she gets pregnant, and the author thinks this would be just a stop on the way to suicide. And yet, her solution to for a friend whose husband is apparently driving her thoughts of abortion and/or suicide is not, "You should get help. He's treating you badly," but rather, "You should use artificial birth control against your moral convictions so that you can keep giving him the sex he demands."

For the Church to act this way would not be acting as a moral hospital, because to act this way is not to offer healing. This is the moral equivalent of putting a few drops of essential oils on a gaping chest wound and saying, "Be healthy!" The husband in this scenario is being treated as some impersonal force of nature, but he needs to have the full moral weight of the Church's teaching power turned on him, telling him that he is treating his wife badly and needs to do better.

The author reports that she had a few moral worries about her advice to her friend, so she discussed it with two priests:
Part of me was, and is, certain that the advice I gave was good. But, I am prone to scrupulosity, and so I soon made an appointment to talk with my parish priest. He was very encouraging. He told me that things happen that are very difficult for couples. Sometimes, this really is the best advice for a given situation, even if the Church’s teaching is true. I was relieved, but my conscience was not satisfied. We had talked so long that I had run out of time, and I didn’t get to ask him to hear my confession. My conscience was still bothering me, and it sent me to confession to a different priest when I was traveling a few weeks later.

This priest had a different assessment of the situation. He told me that I had not said the right thing. He said that this was something that my friend and her husband had to work out on their own. He also told me that I could not control whether or not my friend committed suicide, and I shouldn’t try. All I could do, he said, was make sure that she committed suicide in a state of grace, without the sin of contraception on her soul.

I consider this the worst advice I have ever been given. I was shocked. I was horrified. I have been re-evaluating my relationship to the Church’s teaching on sexuality ever since.

One priest offered a way of accompaniment. He encouraged me to accompany my friend, and offered to speak to her himself. He did not reject the Church’s teaching outright, but he did advocate flexibility.

The other priest insisted on rigor, and he considered women’s lives an acceptable price to pay for this purity and rigor. All the criticisms that the Church devalues women seemed to be vindicated by his words.
Now, one should never rule out the possibility that people are deeply confused or stupid or even just plain wicked, so I can't say that it's impossible that the second priest said what the author recounts him as saying. But let's be clear, the statement that all she could do was, "was make sure that she committed suicide in a state of grace, without the sin of contraception on her soul." has to be either the author's hyperbolic misrepresentation of what the priest said, of the product of a deeply, deeply confused priest. To commit suicide is itself one of the gravest sins possible. That is why for much of the Church's history it was the practice to refuse a Christian burial to those who committed suicide. Modern practice varies from this out of respect for the possibility that a person who commits suicide may well repent and ask God's forgiveness in the moment of death. Surely God could welcome into His present event such a late repenting person.

So the idea that we are responsible for making sure that someone commits suicide in a virtuous state is a complete crock. If the priest did indeed say that, he's wrong in an incredibly disturbing way.

That said, there's a really big problem with the author's reasoning that she's defending, and it has to do with the way in which too often people do not treat all moral prohibitions as if we really mean them.

I'm reminded of an incident many years ago when a friend who was vegan was visiting. Knowing that he was vegan, we made extra efforts to make sure that no meat, fish, dairy, etc. were served. Then we were shocked to hear him relate an anecdote about eating meat recently. When we asked him about it, he said, "Well, you know. I usually don't eat meat. But if it's really inconvenient..."

But if we take any kind of moral prohibition seriously, that's not how our morals work. Something which is seriously wrong does not become okay because there's a compelling practical reason for doing it. Often we're tempted to think that way, especially with sins that seem particularly socially acceptable at the moment. But pick a sin which we rightly have a moral horror of right now, but which might have passed as darkly romantic in the past:

You come upon young Wolfgang prowling picturesquely back and forth along the battlements of a brooding Gothic castle. Wolfgang says to you, "I am so consumed with desire for Federicka that I am tempted to throw myself from these battlements and make an end of it all! But still she refuses me. I saw here in the street the other day, and I thought of seizing her and forcing myself on her. But no, that would be a sin. And so I walk the battlements and wonder if I should kill myself." Do you tell Wolfgang that he should seize Federicka and have his way with her, lest he be tempted to do some desperate outrage upon himself? Or do you take it as your job to make sure that he commits suicide while innocent of the sin of rape? NEITHER! To assault the fair Federicka would be wrong. To kill himself would be wrong. You cannot encourage either one. You cannot enjoin one to avoid the other. His claim that refraining from the one sin may force him to commit the other is a false claim. He is at moral liberty to do neither and if you are going to "accompany" him, you need to accompany him in doing neither of these terrible things.

If we can see the flaw in the moral logic of Wolfgang's Gothic struggle, we should be able to see the flaws in the quandaries trotted out here: We better approve of birth control or she'll abort. We better approve of birth control or she'll commit suicide.

Perhaps the readiness to engage in these kind of trades shows that even for a lot of Catholics who say they take the Church's teaching on contraception seriously actually think of not using artificial birth control as a sort of moral taste rather than an actual moral law. If we treat using birth control like a vegan who eats meat for convenience when traveling, we don't actually think it's a sin.

I do think that using artificial birth control is a sin, and that's precisely why we can't engage in some sort of moral barter, blessing one sin on the argument that it will make it possible to avoid another.

We are sinners, in that we have all sinned. But it is also possible for all of us, with God's help, not to sin. A husband can not pressure his wife for sex when he knows it is contrary to her physical and mental health. A wife can resist the urge to kill herself or her child, even when the world seems to be imploding around her. However fallen we are, God always will give us the strength to not sin if we ask for his grace and if we do our own part by using our active will to choose not to do what is wrong.

What we must not do is try to turn the Church into a fake hospital, putting a frail human bandage and a few murmured words of "accompaniment" over a wound which needs real healing.

12 comments:

Anna said...

Not the first time I have thought that, just as the pill tends to be prescribed to cover up certain health problems in lieu of curing them, it also seems to often be used to cover up some serious deficiencies in the relationship rather than leading the couple to confront and work through the underlying problem.

Agnes said...

Oh dear. It is so very troubling that (if the writer of the article quotes the priests right) that both the priests give such horrible advice, and contradict in so many ways the Church's teaching. Of course, the latter is deeply horrifying (both the moral confusion and the lack of regard for a person's life). But I have heard so many priests in the last years take a standpoint of "moral flexibility" that it's terrifying too. I actually heard a priest saying in a sermon that "God knows we aren't able to keep the Ten Commandments because of our fallen nature. In His mercy, he doesn't really expects it or minds if we don't - it's not really intended that we keep it to the last letter of it". Not that I want to speak against the approach of focusing on God's mercy, but to interpret it like this is pure heresy.
I like your analogy of the vegan friend. So accurate!

Agnes said...

Another thing (regarding the husband having "minimal tolerance" for the abstinence required in NFP): NFP requires much more from the husband than "tolerance for the abstinence" - it is supposed to be a decision of the couple together, something they practice together. Even in situations much less extreme than the one where the woman became depressed and inclined for suicide and the husband's demand was abusive, the lack of support of the husband basically makes it impossible for NFP to work - just as it is with any major decisions of a couple (parenting, family economy, whether the wife works or stays at home...). If they can't make decisions and follow them together they don't work together as a couple.

CMinor said...

If you haven’t already, you should link your response to the original. Right now it seems to be full-throated approval over there. I agree that there are some serious problems being swept under the rug through this approach and I’m stunned no one else seems to have picked up on it.

Christy from fountains of home said...

Thank you for your well-reasoned, and clear headed response. I frequently answer these arguments in my head, and become enraged at the moral qualifying. The thing that we should be recognizing is that these difficult moral teachings are really showing us a lot about how we should be living, if we live according to these big moral commands, we're going to be trying to figure our lives to be more healthy and to recognize issues that need to be dealt with in order to live morally. And yes, it's really hard to do horse after the cart so-to-speak, but that doesn't mean moral wrongs can become right.

CMinor said...

OTOH, it appears your li’l sis read them the riot act over there. I’m in awe, Darwin.

Darwin said...

Yeah, I really couldn't say it better than Rose.

(And my comments don't always reliably get through on the Sick Pilgrim crew's blogs, so it's probably better to have someone else say it.)

Banshee said...

This reminds me of my encounter, many years ago, with a woman who told me she had serious health problems, should not become pregnant because she might die, but was engaging in a sexual relationship with her boyfriend anyway.

So of course I asked her if he knew, and she said she hadn't told him. So I asked why she was telling me, whom she had met five minutes ago, but didn't trust him enough to tell him? Especially since she was already having sex with the guy?

So I said that if she didn't trust him, she should kick him out. And if having sex and getting pregnant was going to kill her, probably she should find something else to do that was healthier.

She got very upset with me. But honestly, what else do you expect a stranger to tell you?

Laura @ A Drop in the Ocean said...

THANK YOU for this. This thought process of circumstances justifying serious sin is becoming ever more popular in Catholic circles, and it is disheartening to see so many people unable to think and reason beyond it. The so-called arguments simply do not make any sense, and directly contradict Church teaching. Mercy is important and necessary, but is impossible without justice and truth.

Anonymous said...

I feel so horribly for people in these situations. Everyone treats sex like “there’s no way anyone should ever go without it!”
Honestly if I were in her shoes I wouldnt have had her courage. I would have used contraception or had myself sterilized. Husbands, even good catholic ones, still put all of the NFP burden on their wives. Fertility is always our problem. I think it’s only a matter of time before Pope Francis gives a pastoral admittance for using contraception. I think it’s wrong, but he will.

mrsdarwin said...

Anon, I reject the generalization that "Husbands, even good catholic ones, still put all of the NFP burden on their wives." That may be true for some -- if so, that's horrible, and says a lot about the quality of the marriage -- but it's neither a good nor a catholic behavior on the part of a husband. Women do bear a particular responsibility for the accurate observation of fertility signs, since only their fertility is in flux, but aside from that the responsibility should be borne as a mutual responsibility.

NFP -- by which I don't mean any particular system, but the observation of signs as an indication of fertility, and the couple's judgment about whether to have sex or not based on those sign -- is, as are all reality-based behaviors, not something that causes flaws in a relationship, but something that reveals them. "The light shines in the darkness." If NFP, and a resulting need for abstinence, reveals a selfishness in the character of the husband, it can also be an impetus to combat that selfishness. Certainly, covering up that selfishness by using contraception -- by embracing the illusion that fertility is under control, and sex is somehow "free" -- doesn't strike me as a very pastoral approach.

Kathleen said...

I like the Fredricks/Wolfgang illustration of how ends don’t justify means! I will be using that example in the future!