"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, October 16, 2005

When is "the act" not an act?

In the comment box to my post The pelvicists are at it again, I was asked whether I favored something called "emergency contraception." While I reject RU-486 and similar means as abortifacient, I do think that contraception in advance of involuntary sex, when there's a danger of such intercourse, is sometimes permissible. Thus I wrote: "Contraception in such circumstances does not violate divine and natural law because rape by definition is involuntary on the victim's part and, therefore, there is no unitive dimension of sexual intercourse to be violated by contraception, as there is when the deed is consensual." I didn't think that was controversial even in the Catholic Church; it is not unheard of, for example, that nuns in violent missionary territory be pre-armed with pessaries. But apparently I have taken too much for granted.

Thus dilexitprior, a lover of the theology of the body, replied:
I'm going to have to disagree on this one. Humanae Vitae makes it clar that "there must be a rejection of all acts that attempt to impede procreation, both those chosen as means to an end and those chosen as ends. This includes acts that precede intercourse, acts that accompany intercourse, and acts that are directed to the natural consequences of intercourse. Nor is it possible to justify deliberately depriving conjugal acts of their fertility by claiming that one is choosing the lesser evil." (article 14.) This seems fairly explicit to me that under no circumstances is the use of contraception valid. This being said, under no circumstances should a woman be used as a mere means to an end (whether it be procreation or sexual gratification or any other reasoning). Abuse is NEVER justified and the Church has never taught that a woman must remain in an abusive situation. Although it takes great courage the only way a woman can see her dignity restored is to remove herself from the abusive situation.

On that view, the only permissible way to prevent conception in case of rape is removing oneself from the danger to begin with. Thus women with husbands who would force themselves on them should leave their marriages, and single women facing a similar danger as missionaries should just leave the territory. Well, I don't buy that—at least not as a general and apodictic prescription. Here's why.

In HV, Pope Paul VI spoke of "the conjugal act" as the only permissible form of sexual intercourse. Imposed on one's spouse's in face of her (or his) serious reluctance, it is not a true act of love; therefore, it lacks the "unitive" dimension that must be present if it is to be morally acceptable. The late pope also said that what's wrong with direct, voluntary interruption of the generative process—i.e., with contraception—is that it suppresses the procreative dimension in favor of the unitive. Actively and intentionally depriving the conjugal act of its intrinsic relationship to procreation, even if the act occurs when procreation is unlikely, thus damages the unitive dimension of the act. It is another way of not loving each other as God intended. But what if there is no unitive dimension to begin with? What, in other words, if "the act" a form of rape? In that case, it's not an act on the part of the raped partner at all, and so contraception on their part is not wrong for the reason HV gives. If it's wrong, that has to be for some other reason.

Yet I don't know what that reason could be, and HV doesn't give it. Damage control is not the same as wanting, selfishly, to eat one's cake and have it; the latter only is what I understand contraception in consensual, marital sex to be. It's not a form of mutual use; it's a way for women to prevent themselves from being used in a particular way against their will. While I am very critical of priests who think it's perfectly OK to let married couples ignore the teaching of HV, I don't think that the sort of case in question violates the teaching of HV and I don't know any moral theologian who would say it does. At any rate, I think the Church would look pretty silly if she ruled otherwise.
blog comments powered by Disqus