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

Monday, May 29, 2006

For the families too

While most people are too busy with cookouts and vacation travel to give much thought to our war dead, this is a tough day for military families. As we thank God for the courage of soldiers who make the ultimate sacrifice, let us also pray for the loved ones they leave behind. We thank you for that sacrifice too.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Hope for PVSers

Amy Welborn has an interesting post up about a medication, ordinarily used as a sleeping pill, that seems to have the effect of temporarily awakening people from what is often termed "a persistent vegetative state." As her source put it:
This definitely needs to be researched and after proper vetting, put into appropriate clinical trials. It also illustrates that we really don't know what is going on inside the minds of people diagnosed as permanently unconscious. Moreover, if this is real--and it sure appears that it is--it should give us great pause before pulling the tube feeding of people diagnosed as PVS. The doctors involved also claimed that the drug could have wider application, hoping that "the drug could have uses in all kinds of brain damage, including Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's."
Quite so. Why don't we hear more about this in the MSM?

The Terri Schiavo case got huge publicity. People generally are interested in this, not just those with loved ones in such a state. But as the situation in Texas indicates, many in the medical profession and the media don't want to hear about hope for PVSers. I wonder why.

One reason might be that we're now heading down the slippery slope to eugenics. The appetite for ridding ourselves of people who contribute nothing tangible to society and who lack "quality of life" even for themselves continues to grow. The majority of Americans seem to think it's perfectly OK to starve and dehydrate people like Terri Schiavo to death. I myself was invited to do so by my first wife's attending physician fourteen years ago, when she was in a coma with a very poor prognosis. I refused, of course. But that is because I believe, after much study and challenge when younger, that what the Catholic Church teaches about human life and death is true. As societies become more secular, however, inhibitions on murder cannot but continue to fray. If you don't believe me, check out the Netherlands.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Ascension Sunday

I hope you are jarred by that title: as most of you know, the feast the Church is now celebrating is traditionally "Ascension Thursday." It ought to be. But as is also well known, in this world there is a considerable difference between "ought" and "is." In this case, the difference is ironic indeed. For that reason, most American bishops don't get it.

They have have moved celebration of this feast from Thursday to the following Sunday in order to make it easier for people to celebrate it. But why, exactly, was it harder on Thursday? Driving to church for two services during certain weeks instead of one isn't terribly hard for people who assiduously drive kids to after-school activities, and themselves on errands, all week long. I know elderly church ladies who drive around almost as much as I do, and at work I spend most of my time driving. Weightier, however, is the problem of those with employers who won't give them the time to attend church on Thursday. My employer would not have let me out for a minute of the twelve-hour day I worked last Thursday, and many other people can't get a lunch break long enough to permit church attendance at midday. But should be the Church's response to that be to accommodate it? Doing so only reinforces it, and with it the idea that secular pursuits are more important than religious observances. It's just one more cave to the culture.

It's an ironic one because if this feast reminds us of anything, it is that our true home lies not in this world. Jesus told the Apostles that if he did not leave for heaven, the Spirit could not come. We are empowered to become what we are called to be only if the Author of Life does not remain visible as one of us but only through us. But the process of becoming what we are called to be is hampered when efforts are made to let us remain more like those who are of the world. We are "in the world, not of it." Given that the American bishops exempted themselves from the severe new rules they adopted for preventing and handling sexual abuse by Church representatives, it seems they still need reminding of that.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Enron convictions

While I am no legal expert, the conviction of former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay and former CEO Jeffrey Skilling seems just to me. The Houston Chronicle, a paper I generally trust, has reported what I need to know about the case and summed up the consensus of the commentariat. But in any legal system, even one as relatively fastidious as our own, injustice will be done, and one may well argue that it's pointless to pretend that law and punishment are primarily about justice. It is philosophically absorbing to discuss the extent to which law and punishment should be about justice; but the fact is that they are often more about other things: deterrence, revenge, competing values, the predilections of the powerful, and just plain money. Indeed, many illegal practices and outrageous injustices go unpunished simply because their victims cannot afford what is called "justice." All of the above motivated the government's case against Enron's leadership, of whom the very top have now had their day of reckoning. The reassuring thing is that none of them seemed to militate against justice. Even my cynical old self can drink to that.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Catholic condom debate III

A few weeks ago, I was stunned by the almost uniformly negative comments on my defense of the rather liberal position of Cardinal Carlo Martini and Fr. Martin Rhonheimer on the question of prophylactic condom use by married couples of one whose members has AIDS. See Part I and Part II along, of course, with the comment boxes. Since I believe this matter to be very important, not just theoretically but also pastorally in regions where AIDS is pandemic, I shall here sum up the state of the question and give my duly reconsidered opinion.

I maintained that, by a principle of double effect which is typically invoked in Catholic moral theology, prophylactically condomistic intercourse cannot be said to violate the Church's teaching against contraception. Such is also Rhonheimer's main argument. My critics replied, in effect, that that is true but irrelevant. According to them, such intercourse fails to rise to the level of a conjugal act in the first place: given that semen is not actually deposited in the vagina, the act is morally no different from—or at least no better than—sodomy or mutual masturbation.

Two converging arguments have been presented for that claim. In my view, neither suffices by itself but, when taken together and with further arguments, they establish the claim in question and thus rebut my original argument. Accordingly, I find myself persuaded by the critics.

The first argument is from authority: the Magisterium of the Church has so defined 'the conjugal act' that any sexual performance counting as such an act must, inter alia, terminate in the actual deposition of semen in the vagina. See, e.g., Anthony McCarthy's comment. I must admit that I did not know that. But it is unclear, by the usual ecclesiological criteria, that such a definition counts has been infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium. Theologians do not even agree on whether the well-known stricture against intentional contraception has been so taught, even though I believe it is. Hence the rulings McCarthy cites could be treated as reflecting a theologoumenon: a matter of opinion that, as such, does not permit settling the question by appeal to authority alone.

The second argument, expressed with considerable force by Hugh Henry, is that failure to deposit semen in the vagina deprives intercourse of its unitive significance. Now I had already conceded that condomistic intercourse, for whatever reason, is sub-optimal. But Henry and the critics make a stronger claim than that: such intercourse is no more unitive than oral or anal intercourse (and arguably is even less so, given the measure that is taken). Yet the question is why that should render the act intrinsically evil as distinct from merely sub-optimal. Given the traditional teaching of the Church, I can find only one plausible answer to that question: regardless of subjective experience or intent, such an act is per se inapt for procreation, i.e. the sort of act that is unfit for procreation. In such acts, the man withholds the gift of his fertility from the woman and thus withholds what the Church takes to be essential to the act's unitive significance. That is the nub of the issue; but it is not even addressed by considering the unitive in abstraction from the procreative significance of the conjugal act.

While Luke Gormally insists that his position is no different from Henry's, he does have what seems to me a stronger argument for their common conclusion. The argument takes shape most clearly in the following passage from Gormally's paper, which is linked in Parts I and II:

The “one body” unity of baptized spouses actualized in intercourse is not an extrinsic symbol of the Church’s unity in the body of Christ.30 It is what St. Paul calls a mysterion of that unity, a sacramental realization of a kind of unity which shares in the unity of Christ and the Church, and in doing so reflects the nature of that unity. Now the unityof Christ and the Church is created by the self-giving love of Christ, centrally through his passion, death, and resurrection and through our participation in his victory over sin and death principally by our partaking of the risenbody of Christ in the Eucharist. Marriage distinctively shares in the unity of the body of Christ as husband and wife enact in their lives both the self-giving of Christ and the receptivity of the Church. And the action which both signifies and realizes this unity is marital intercourse. But in order for it to do so, there clearly must be both a giving by the husband of his substance to his wife and a receiving of it by the wife. When this giving and receiving are fruitful in the birth of children, we have the reality that is called the “domestic church.” (Emphasis added by me.)
That is quite an elegant distillation, for the purpose at hand, of Pope John Paul the Great's "theology of the body," which is not merely a set of opinions but an authentic development of the Church's teaching on human sexuality. If sound, Gormally's argument would also show why condomistic intercourse necessarily lacks unitive significance, and as such is intrinsically evil. But as I've implied, the critical premise needed to show as much is that condomistic intercourse lacks procreative significance. Nothing about seminal fluid merely as such seems to me so morally significant that failure to leave it in the vagina, after ejaculating it within the vagina, renders the sexual performance no different from sodomy or masturbation and thus intrinsically evil. What makes the depositing of seminal fluid morally significant is that it leaves semen in the woman's body, which is procreatively significant. That is primarily what makes it unitively significant, and that is why Gormally also claims that condomistic intercourse is "per se inapt for procreation." But does his argument establish that claim?

Not, I think, by itself. My claim was that such intercourse, unlike sexual performances ending in orgasm but not involving male ejaculation within the vagina, is only per accidens inapt for procreation. An argument for that claim, which I only adumbrated, would be this: (a) unlike those other sorts of act, the couple must modify the act itself (with a condom) if the possibility of procreation is to be suppressed; and (b) in fact, and again unlike those other sorts of act, the possibility of procreation cannot be fully suppressed by condom use; for one or another reason, condoms don't always contracept. I don't think Gormally succeeds in rebutting that argument. What he does accomplish is to explain why sexual performances which are indisputably and necessarily inapt for procreation, such as the husband ejaculating into an orifice other than the vagina, fail to rise to the level of conjugal acts. It thus explains the constant and irreformable teaching of the Church that such acts are intrinsically evil; it also helps to explain why intentional contraception is intrinsically evil even when it doesn't work. But for the reasons I've given, it does not show that an act of vaginal intercourse in which a device is used to prevent semen's being retained in the vagina is per se inapt for procreation even when the couple have no contraceptive intent.

Even so, it's not clear that Gormally needs to show that. Instead of claiming that condomistic intercourse is per se inapt for procreation, he could simply say that, regardless of a given couple's further intention-with-which, the procreative and unitive significance of the act itself are both so truncated that it doesn't count as a conjugal act regardless of the couple's further intent. And that is the line of argument he pursues in effect.

He claims, on the grounds quoted above, that for a truly conjugal act there must "clearly" be a giving and receiving of semen, such that the semen is actually deposited in the vagina. (To be fair, he also makes the argument from authority; but I'm not concerned with that at the moment.) Now by itself, that seems little better than a petitio principii. All that the preceding argument establishes is that the general pattern of a couple's sexual life must include such deposition as a normal feature. It does not establish that each and every completed sexual performance by the couple must conform to that pattern, if and when those that don't are prophylactic and are only contraceptive as an unintended side effect. Yet Gormally's case can be strengthened by two other considerations.

First, if a married person has AIDS and doesn't want to transmit it to their spouse, they aren't going to want to transmit it to any child they might conceive. But when a woman catches AIDS and becomes pregnant, she often does transmit AIDS to her child. Hence it is psychologically almost impossible to use condoms in the case at hand merely prophylactically. Contraception in this case is extremely attractive for basically the same reason prophylaxis is.

Second, the Vatican and many others are surely right to argue that giving the green light to condoms for "pastoral" reasons in AIDS-ravaged areas is only going to encourage the illusion of "safe" sex. Sex with condoms is certainly "safer" with condoms than without them; but there are no guarantees, and condoms also encourage the counterproductive illusion of complete safety in the sort of person who would have caught AIDS by means of (hetero- or homosexual) adultery. Hence, in the long run condoms aren't even a practical solution to the problem at hand. Better medicines and contraceptives over the last half-century, after all, have not meaningfuly reduced the incidence of lethal, sexually transmitted diseases. Only the type of killer has changed: syphilis doesn't kill many people anymore, but AIDS does. As long as there's promiscuity, chances are it'll always be something.

That of course does not hold of every couple in the situation under consideration. Some are very good Christians who understand what marriage is and are merely caught in a tragic situation. But there is always the safest alternative of all: abstinence. By using condoms, even such a couple as that are putting themselves in the position of taking a significant, non-obligatory risk with one party's health in order to meet their (usually the husband's) needs. What that says to me, and not only to me, is that "use" is winning out over "love." There are other ways of expressing deep love; so why, in such a situation as this, is a truncated version of conjugal intercourse so important? Simple: incontinence. That is less an expression of love than a satisfaction of lust.

Such considerations do not demonstrate, apodictically, that condomistic intercourse is not conjugal intercourse. They do, however, show that condomistic intercourse in the sort of case under consideration tends toward the same results as acts that the Church has always and clearly taught are intrinsically evil. Thus, such considerations provide evidence that Gormally's key premise is correct. And I can find no other difficulty with his argument. In conjunction with the argument from authority, that result leaves Catholics no justifiable alternative to concluding that condomistic intercourse is intrinsically evil and thus "grave matter" for sin regardless of further intent. I don't like having to admit that, but the facts on the ground as well as the past teaching of the Church are on the critics' side.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Benedict bites a big bullet

Reacting to the results of an investigation of many sex-abuse allegations, reopened in 2004 at his behest as head of the CDF, the Pope has severely restricted the activities of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder and head of the Legionaries of Christ and its lay arm, Regnum Christi. This is good news. It means that Benedict is not the sort to be cowed by a dilemma.

The dilemma for the Pope is that the situation has forced him to choose between his hatred of all the sex-abuse filth in the Church and his love for vibrant, orthodox "ecclesial movements" that produce priests. Leave Maciel alone for the latter's sake, and the papacy ends up doing nothing about what at least appears to be an egregious instance of filth at a high level. Punish Maciel, and the papacy might demoralize a loyal movement that has aided the Church greatly in recent decades. But in the end, the cumulative allegations seem to have borne enough credibility to make some sort of meaningful action imperative. And so it has come about.

Here we have one of the most important signs that Benedict puts principle over politics, even Church politics, when the two conflict. Given the ever-louder chorus for him to approve condom use for married couples in which one party is infected with AIDS, he will need all the courage that such integrity can provide.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The courage to face a blessing

With her usual colloquial profundity, the Anchoress has passed and meditated on the following, said to have been prayed by his mentor over a man I admire, the late spiritual writer and lover of the mentally handicapped, the Rev. Henri Nouwen:

May all your expectations be frustrated.
May all your plans be thwarted.
May all your desires be withered into nothingness.
That you may experience the powerlessness and the poverty of a child and sing and dance in the love of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

Oooooohkaaaaay....Anybody out there have the courage to accept a blessing like that—never mind the courage to utter it?

Still, it is Christianity. It is what happened to Jesus' closest companions, the Apostles, when he was crucified. After a few days he rose from the dead (!) and appeared to them several times; when he finally left for heaven, he filled them with the joy, courage, and power of the Holy Spirit to carry on the mission.

While my resumé is more impressive then theirs, my life has not been nearly so impressive. Yet in my own small way, I too have experienced what the blessing means. Five years ago, all my expectations had been frustrated and my plans thwarted. My desires had been withered into nothingness. I was so depressed that I had to have months of radical, multi-pronged therapy. Soon after emerging from that pit, I found myself homeless, facing other struggles too. I experienced the powerlessness and poverty of a child; I was empty and could not even ask the Lord to fill me; I asked only that he do with me what he willed, trusting implicitly that it would be for the best. Psalm 23 was my daily refrain. And that is when the glimmers of light started coming. I have begun to experience, when I least expect to, occasional moments of what C.S. Lewis called "joy." (Those of you who have read Surprised by Joy will know precisely what I mean.) Only this past week have I realized that I haven't felt any such thing since I was a boy.

It's not that I've become a howling success—at least not of the sort sought by the Prayer of Jabez. Many of my expectations continue to be frustrated; many of my plans are still thwarted; many of my desires still wither. But I have finally been learning detachment—slowly, to be sure, indeed too slowly; but learning all the same. I am slowly coming to accept that my expectations, plans, and desires are important not in themselves but rather as raw material to offer God for my own and others' spiritual good. Often they are crushed for the purpose, like grain to make bread and grapes to make wine. The Eucharist thus means more to me now than it ever did, which is why I dislike being unable to make Mass every day. Offering things to God for our own and others' spiritual good is the core of the essentially religious idea of sacrifice, i.e., making sacred. Setting aside for God's work that which is precious is, in fact, the source of our true life.

Jesus Christ, God the Son and the Son of God, gave us our only hope by becoming God's sacrifice on our behalf. We move toward fulfillment of that hope to the extent we emulate him by will of his Father and the power of his Holy Spirit. The sacrifice of our very selves entails letting go and letting God, as he did on the Cross; in the process, much is apparently destroyed. But only to be transformed—like him in his resurrection.

With us sinners, though, it's often one step forward and more than one back. That is why I don't recommend praying that blessing over just anybody. Their response might cause them to sin by inflicting on you a bit of non-redemptive suffering. Just try to pray it sincerely on your own account. I continue needing a lot of courage just to do that much.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Jaroslav Pelikan, R.I.P.

One of America's greatest scholars of Christian history and thought died last Saturday, May 13, at 82. His five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine provided the template for my study of that topic while in college and graduate school. And that series was only a small part of his opus. Directly or indirectly, he has affected countless souls, doubtless almost entirely for the good.

I am told that his humility matched his erudition. May his prayers as a member of the Church Triumphant aid us in our quest for Christian unity.

For bio, bibliography, and roundup of obits, go here.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Catholic condom debate II

As I had expected, my post of last Friday: "Why the condom debate is big for the Church" elicited more comments than any other since I started this blog a year ago. What surprised me, however, is that most commenters opposed my position favoring, in certain cases, the use of condoms by married couples one of whom is infected with AIDS. That also happens to be the position of Cardinal Carlo Martini, Fr. Martin Rhonheimer, and a fair number of Catholic theologians generally accounted faithful to the Magisterium. (I say "faithful to the Magisterium" because I find no good reason to admit to the conversation those theologians who reject what has indisputably been the teaching of the Church about birth control. As far as I know, that happens to be the majority of the guild.) Nonetheless, I did find two opposition arguments, at least as posted, plausible and worthy of the most careful consideration. And I want it known up front that I am prepared to be corrected on this matter by the Magisterium of the Church should the Pope, as widely anticipated, rule publicly on it.

To aid our focus, I shall sum up the debate and deal with a few preliminaries.

The most common argument against prophylactic condom use that I had hitherto encountered is that such use renders the conjugal act contraceptive and thus intrinsically evil by Church teaching. My main response has been to point out that contraception in such a case is neither a means to prophylaxis nor need be intended as an additional end; therefore, by the principle of double effect, prophylactic condom use as such cannot be condemned as intentionally contraceptive, any more than use of an anovulant pill for purely therapeutic reasons can be so condemned. While several people disagreed, I found little argumentative substance in their comments. It seemed to me that they were begging the question by simply reiterating the opposite conclusion. But that is by no means the end of the debate.

I was also privileged to get comments from the moral theologians Hugh Henry (HH) and Luke Gormally (LG), both of whom have published carefully argued papers opposing all condomistic intercourse regardless of motive or intent. They summed up their theses in the combox; you can find the full texts of their papers here and here. Also, the blog American Papist has been following the Catholic condom debate very closely and provides a wealth of useful information. Since this is but a blog post, I cannot here present a full-scale scholarly analysis of their papers. But I don't think that such would be necessary for grasping the central point in the debate.

HH''s claim is that condomistic intercourse is not "unitive" in the sense specified and required by the teaching of the Church. More sloganistically: "safe sex" is not "real sex." Gormally's claim is that any sexual encounter is which the male semen is ejaculated into a vessel other than the vagina—even if that vessel is a latex bag, stretched over the penis, that happens to be in the vagina at the time of ejaculation—is morally of the same sort as masturbation, sodomy, or any other sexual act that Church teaching traditionally condemns as per se inapt for procreation. More sloganistically: "safe sex" is morally no better than "solitary vice." Those are interrelated but slightly different claims, each of which act as premises in, respectively, HH's and LG's arguments that condomistic intercourse is intrinsically evil. I shall consider each claim, both separately and as interrelated.

First, however, I want to answer one of LG's criticisms that I find simply off the mark. Addressing me, he wrote:

I'm amazed at you coming out in support of Martini, who recommends condomistic copulation as "the lesser evil". Since the Church has never allowed that one may recommend the choice of any morally evil course of action, are we to assume that he is in the proportionalist business of calculating 'pre-moral' evils? On that approach to moral choice see Veritatis Splendor.
I believe LG is miscontruing Martini here, at least as I construe and agree with Martini. The Church has always and irreformably taught that "evil may never be done so that good might come of it" or a greater evil avoided; that principle was explicitly reiterated by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae (§14) and by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor (§78-§83), to which latter LG alludes. Yet 'evil' here does not mean merely 'that which is undesirable'. E.g. the principles of just war, as propounded by the Church, acknowledge that all sorts of "evils" foreseebly come about by waging war, even when the war is just; 'evils' in such a case means 'undesirable things', not primarily 'immoral actions' (though we can be sure that some such actions will be also done as part of a just war). When the Church teaches that evil may never be done so that good might come or greater evil avoided, she means by 'evil' 'that which is intrinsically evil', i.e., action of a kind that is always and necessarily immoral, irrespective of motive, further intention-with-which, circumstance, or outcome. Now proportionalism, which was condemned by John Paul II, denies that there are any acts of that sort; the baptized grandchild of utilitarianism, it is a kind of heresy. But Cardinal Martini, I submit, knows that perfectly well and doesn't deny it. So when he characterizes condomistic intercourse as in some cases a justified 'lesser of evils', I take it he means 'lesser evil' in the sense of 'less undesirable thing' and not 'an intrinsic evil less evil than some other undesirable thing'. Accordingly, LG's criticism on this score seems irrelevant to me. Even if I'm wrong and he's right about what Martini meant, LG is wrong about what I mean. I do not believe that intrinsic evil may be done so that good may come of it or greater evil avoided. So, granted that condomistic intercourse is at the very least sub-optimal and thus not as desirable as sexual intercourse can be, the sole question is whether condomistic intercourse is intrinsically evil, not merely "sub-optimal." I don't think it unduly charitable to say that, if Martini thought the answer were yes, he would not have defended "safe sex" in the circumstances he described.

With that misunderstanding out of the way, what about the central claims of HH and LG?

Having read HH's stuff, I am not clear about how to construe his claim both fairly and as a distinctive claim. He insists that condomistic intercourse doesn't meet the definition of conjugal intercourse traditional in Church moral teaching because it doesn't entail actually depositing semen into the vagina. And that is because, on HH's showing, it lacks the unitive significance of conjugal intercourse, inasmuch as—putting in the terms introduced by John Paul II's magnificent "theology of the body"—the husband is not making a complete "gift" of himself to his wife. But there's more than one way to construe that claim.

It doesn't seem plausible, at least to me, to claim that the mere touching of vagina and/or cervix by semen is always necessary to make conjugal intercourse unitively significant. Aside from how it causes certain feelings or might lead to conception, I don't find the mere touching to be morally significant in the slightest. So I don't think it would be fair to hold HH to the claim that the mere touching is morally significant as a necessary condition of unitive significance. It can more plausibly be said, however, that irrespective of its contraceptive effect, condomistic intercourse is experientially sub-optimal. Men often hate it because they cannot feel their partner nearly as well as in regular intercourse. I've heard a few women say that they dislike it because they don't get that warm feeling caused when their partner ejaculates directly onto the surface of the vagina and/or cervix. But even here, I don't think it can be plausibly argued that such experiential deficits are morally significant in such a way as to render condomistic intercourse intrinsically evil. The lack of physical contact between semen and vagina makes the experience of sex sub-optimal, at least typically; but much in life is sub-optimal as a result of legitimate choices we make. I find nothing so far in HH's case to tell us why the choice of "safe sex" is intrinsically evil as distinct from merely sub-optimal.

The mere fact that trapping semen in a bag doesn't meet the theologically standard "definition" of the conjugal act doesn't tell us why that which is lacking is also necessary for moral liceity. Where the real gravamen of the issue lies, it seems to me, is in the matter of fertility. Thus if "safe" conjugal sex isn't real sex, that can only be because the husband is withholding the gift of his fertility from his wife by trapping his semen in a bag. I'm not sure that's where HH wants to make a stand, but it's the only construal of the "gift" language that I find both pertinent and powerful enough to support the claim that trapping semen in a bag is intrinsically evil. And such is why, to my mind, LG's approach is far more plausible.

LG argues that, by trapping the semen rather than depositing it directly into the vagina, condomistic intercourse is morally indistinguishable from acts that are per se inapt for procreation—such as fellatio, buggery, or masturbation. That is supposed to hold regardless of the couple's further intention-with-which they do the trapping, such as that of life-saving prophylaxis. LG's is a better argument than HH's because it bypasses any problematic appeal to unitive significance. The argument is that we can and must assimilate condomistic intercourse, regardless of intent, to a kind of sexual activity that has always and irreformably been condemned by the Church. And that also serves as the argument that commenters other than HH and LG failed to provide.

Even so, the difficulty with the argument is precisely that it seeks to settle by definition the question what intentions are being embodied in the sort of case under consideration—that of the married couple having vaginal intercourse with a condom purely for the sake of prophylaxis. LG says: "Condomistic copulation in the vagina is no more vaginal intercourse (as you seem to think) than sodomy is. Vaginal intercourse requires an ejaculate into the vagina not into a latex rubber sheath." Thus a man's ejaculating semen while his penis is in his partner's vagina is not vaginal intercourse at all if the semen does not actually touch and remain in the vagina. Well, that seems to me an attempt to settle by stipulative definition a question that calls for actual argument.

What is (or would be) morally significant about a given act of sexual intercourse's not being "vaginal intercourse" is that it's not the sort that, in and of itself, is apt for procreation. Such acts are indeed intrinsically evil when performed voluntarily. But it's a bit of a stretch to say that a man's ejaculating semen while his penis is in the vagina counts as "vaginal" intercourse only if the semen actually lands in the vagina. The penis is doing its thing in the vagina, is it not? Why is that not "vaginal" intercourse? Well, the point of the stretch—even granted arguendo that we make it—is to tell us what is it about failing to be vaginal intercourse that, according to Church teaching, is morally unacceptable. And what we're being told is that non-vaginal intercourse it's not apt by nature (per se) for procreation. But ejaculating inside the vagina is the sort of act that is apt by nature for procreation; that's why couples contracepting with condoms worry about the condoms breaking! What the couple using condoms for contraception are doing is turning an act that is per se apt for procreation into one that per accidens inapt for procreation. They are not engaged in a sterile sort of act; they are intentionally, and illicitly, trying to interrupt what might otherwise be the generative process initiated by the sort of act they're engaged in. Such contraception is just as evil, if not more so, than acts that are per se inapt for generation: one is actually taking steps to render sterile an act that might otherwise produce a child. But it is not quite the same sort of act as ones that are per se inapt for procreation.

Now in the sort of case under consideration, the couple having condomistic intercourse have no contraceptive intent, even granted that their use of a condom has a contraceptive effect. So, once one grants that the contraceptive effect doesn't render their intercourse per se inapt for generation, there is no longer any reason to hold that it fails to be a morally licit conjugal act. Therefore, LG's argument does not succeed.

Perhaps I haven't done full justice to either HH or LG. In fact, I'm sure I haven't. This post should be considered a mere adumbration of what ought to be a longer, more scholarly critique in the journals, the sort of thing HH and LG have done the work to provide themselves. But I hope I've said enough to indicate the direction I would take.

The strongest argument against prophylactic condom use, it seems to me, is that it's psychologically next to impossible for a fertile couple to use condoms for that purpose without also intending to contracept. Who, after all, would want to pass AIDS on to a conceived child? That alone might cause the Pope to tell Catholics that abstinence, at least for fertile couples, is the only morally safe choice. But again, more work needs to be done in order to determine what, if anything, would be intrinsically evil about any and all use of condoms. So far, I just don't see it.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Why marriage is so tough in heaven

A young couple were driving down the road one day, happily, deliriously in love and due to be married the next day. Suddenly, a large truck swerved from the oncoming lanes into their car! BOOM! And they both died.

At the Pearly Gates, the young couple confronted St. Peter. "Sir, you have to help us! We were to be married tomorrow. Is there any way we can be married in Heaven?"

"Hmmm," replied St. Peter, "I don't recall there ever being a marriage in Heaven. Well, let's take it up with God and see what he says."

So they approached God with their plea. God sat for a moment, pondering the request. Then he looked down and said, "Come back in five years and ask me again."

Five years later, the couple approached God again, even more in love than ever and pleading that he allow their marriage. God paused for quite a while, musing over their request. Then he spoke, "Come back in five years and ask me again."

And once again, five years later, the couple was again in the presence of God, more in love than ever and begging God's permission for the third time to marry. This time God smiled broadly and thundered, "Yes my children, you may marry!"

Well, the wedding went off beautifully, the reception was huge, everyone thought the bride was simply breathtaking and the groom was soooo handsome, and everyone was happy! Until...

Two years later, the couple was back before God, and things were not looking so good. The couple had come to the realization almost immediately that although marriages were made in heaven, they didn't last very long there! And, in spite of their struggles to come to terms with the situation, they had decided there simply was no alternative but to get a divorce.

Black clouds fractured by lightening rolled across the sky, and the ground shook with explosive thunder. God glared down at the tiny couple before him, his face becoming dark and angry, and he roared, "Divorce?! Impossible!!! It took us TEN years just to find a priest in Heaven! Do you have any idea how long it will take to find a LAWYER?!!"

(Hat tip to Blogwatch.)

The DaVinci Code was right....for the wrong reasons

Go here for the best set of DVC FAQs I've seen yet.

One of the best reverts

Catholics should by all means read this interview with art historian Elizabeth Lev. Many fascinating observations, including the following tidbit:
St. Peter's is the site of my reversion I'd have to say. I grew up Catholic but I left the church with such a door-slamming, bridge-burning attitude that if you'd have told me that when I was 25 that one day all I would ever want to do is go into St. Peter's and talk about God, I would have slapped you silly probably. So I think that the moment for me, like many, many other people, was when I went to St. Peter's during the year 2000, except during the year 2000 I was going for work.
Hat tip to Amy Welborn.

That's how it is for a lot of reverts: they encounter in their real lives an almost overwhelming reason to reconsider their adolescent rejection of their cradle Catholicism. That's how it was for me as a Columbia undergraduate. I was most disenchanted with Catholicism until I was exposed, willy-nilly, to all the major alternatives. Then it didn't seem bad at all. I became an orthodox Catholic for want of a plausible and attractive alternative.

That was when I became almost anathema to the so-called Catholics who dominated the Catholic campus ministry. Not that I got "slapped" by any of them; no, that would have made my decision even firmer. It would have been interesting, though, to have "slapped silly" by Elizabeth Lev! Apparently she's one feisty gal. Just the sort we need more of in Catholic academia.

The spiritual state of academia

Well put by Ann Coulter:

The only violence on college campuses these days occurs when people like David Horowitz, Michelle Malkin and me show up to give a speech in defense of America. Then we need bomb-sniffing dogs and a lecture hall lined with armed police. But a Talibanist goes about his day at Yale unmolested.

I love Ann. She gives new meaning to "tough, smart, and sexy."

The needed sea change in sexual politics

Stephen Baskerville, who holds a PhD from the London School of Economics, teaches political science at Howard University,a nd is President of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, has posted a much-needed article at the Free Congress Foundation's site explaining why "the next conservatism" must tackle the Left's program of destruction of the American family. The Left's old program of socialism, understood as the near-complete de-privatization of the economic sphere, has been largely discredited. But the de-privatization of the family proceeds apace; thus in Hillary Clinton's words, "there is no such thing as other people's children." The result has been divorce becoming a virtual norm, the breakdown of parental discipline, and the demonization of men by the family-law system.

As Baskerville and many others have pointed out, the main tactic for promoting the de-privatization of the family has been brilliant: hammering on the theme of "protecting" women and children from men, who are officially presumed to be brutishly domineering and, after the breakup of a marriage, louts who will support their kids only if the alternative is jail. I have personally experienced that, and I know many other men who have as well. Every day in this country, restraining orders are used to expel men by force from their homes and families without any evidence—and often without even any allegation—of physical violence having been presented; and many unnecessarily broken families are poor precisely because maintaining two households is much more expensive than maintaining one. Current family law in most states makes it advantageous for wives and mothers to ditch their husbands in such a manner, which is mainly why women initiate divorce at least twice as often as men.

But by and large, conservatives have not awakened to what's been going on. Their approach to no-fault divorce is that it's not as bad as the alternatives. Their approach to child support is: "You play, you pay." Their approach to domestic violence is "brutes deserve to be treated like brutes." All that plays right into the hands of liberal and radical feminists who want to radically remake the very idea of family and are well on the way to doing it. Conservatives need to stop jerking their knees and start engaging their brains.

Anybody know of evidence that it's starting to happen?

"The Revealing Church"

The claim to infallibility in the presentation of the facts of faith is the only justification of the authority of the Church, and the only claim she has on our obedience. An admittedly fallible Church cannot claim faith, but at best only its weakened and diseased form: doubt; and doubt gives no claim on obedience. A fallible Church sets up the moral right, and in certain cases the moral duty, of resistance to her commands. Like the Holy Roman Empire, her authority will be “legalized anarchy called a constitution.” Unless obedience to the Church finds its spring in faith, which has its motive in eternity, it will inevitably become merely an outward law, of the letter that killeth. And when spiritual authority becomes a kindgom of this world after that fashion, its end is near. For it is then that martyrologies grow long, and martyrs as a class are the most influential people in history.

The Protestant attempt to substitute a dualism of authority between the Person of Christ and the private “judgement” of the individual for the infallible authority, or right to present objects for faith, of the Church must inevitably share the the fate of all attempts to serve two masters. The Person and revelation of Christ reaches the individual across the centuries, not in itself, but as presented by the Church; and the authority which has the advantage of being present must ultimately dethrone its partner. There is no effectual barrier between such a position and that of Mr. Bezzant, who can say of our Lord’s teaching that he finds in it “sayings and a tone which we could wish to be absent”; that we must suppose of such passages that they were misunderstood or misreported, or “at the worst, we shall have to admit no more than that, very occasionally, our Lord may have fallen below his own highest level.” There is not much dualism of authority left there.

Where the “private judgement” constitutes the final authority on facts which are irretrievably beyond its own verification, there can be no certainty; and where there is no certainty, there is no faith and therefore no salvation.

Dom Gregory Dix

Friday, May 12, 2006

Why the condom debate is big for the Church

Last month I praised Cardinal Renato Maria Martini's flexible stance on condom use by AIDS-infected people, including the married. Martini's comments contributed to a steadily widening debate among Catholic clergy and theologians over this issue. I believe the debate is healthy. What is generally taken to be the Church's stand on condom use has provoked a great deal of resentment, scorn, and even hysteria. Drawing on the capital supplied by his scholarly gravitas, Garry Wills has even suggested that Pope Benedict is a mass murderer for upholding it. But hatred aside, it's worth restating the issue so as to clarify the state of the question. That in turn will explain its objective importance for the Church, not just its life-and-death importance for some married couples, especially in Africa.

For those with the time and training, it's best just to read the refreshingly clear exchange between Frs. Martin Rhonheimer and Benedict Guevin. (It's a PDF; if you don't have Acrobat Reader, you will be prompted to download and install it. Trust me, it's not hard.) For those without both the time and the training, here's the upshot.

The issue is whether condom use for the sake of disease prevention within marriage is an instance of contraception, which the teaching of the Church condemns as "intrinsically evil." I say "within marriage" because the Church's teaching about contraception presupposes that the sexual act in question is morally licit, at least in itself and prescinding from contraception. To my knowledge, the Church has never taught that the aim of limiting the damage potential of illicit sexual activity is intrinsically—i.e., always and necessarily—evil. Even granted that passing out condoms to the promiscuous is likely to make them more so, that's only an argument against adopting condom use, as opposed to incentives to abstinence, as a church or state policy to combat the effects of promiscuity. It does not tell us anything decisive about the case of any individuals in particular. So the sole issue is whether a married couple exercising what used to be called their "conjugal rights" may ever use, as a means of preventing transmission of a serious disease one partner is known to have, something that also has a contraceptive effect.

It is granted all around that the "subjective" intention of a couple should not and need not be contraceptive. But granted also that condoms are fairly effective contraceptives regardless, can it be said that the "objective" intention of the couple is contraceptive when they use a condom to block STD transmission? If the answer is yes, then contraception is being intended as a means to a further end, and hence even prophylactic condom use is immoral according to the irreformable teaching of the Church. But Cardinal Martini argued, and I agreed, that the answer is no. Since the contraceptive effect of the condom neither acts as nor is intended as a means to the end of prophylaxis, the principle of double effect as traditionally invoked in Catholic moral theology allows for condom use in this case.

Fr. Guerin, Luke Gormally, and others, however, disagree. They argue that since condoms are contraceptive by their nature, inasmuch as that is one of the purposes for which they are produced and which they usually attain, using a condom during vaginal intercourse can be said to embody an intention to contracept even if one doesn't make contraception one's conscious aim. My rejoinder is essentially the same as Fr. Rhonheimer's: such a stance unduly stretches the concept of intention. Just as the Church does not condemn a woman's using an anovulant pill for purely therapeutic purposes, even though one of its effects is contraceptive, so the Church should not condemn a man for using a condom to protect his wife from his AIDS, even though one of its effects is contraceptive. Abstinence of course is better as both personal and public policy. But that doesn't rule out a second line of defense, at least for the individual.

Rumors abound that the Pope is preparing to rule on this question. I state in advance my resolution to adhere, with religious submission of mind and heart, to whatever he does rule. But I rather doubt he's going to take sides in this debate. He will reiterate the Church's teaching against contraception. That will be good and necessary. He will point out that distributing condoms to all and sundry is not going to solve the problem of sexually transmitted diseases. That will also be good and necessary. He will urge abstinence on people with AIDs, which is only prudent and is certainly the better course. But I doubt he will make the position of the Guerins and Gormallys the definitive teaching of the Church. The arguments need time to grind against one another. And that too will be good for the Church, if only because it will dispel a misimpression that Catholic dissidents love to exploit.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

True confessions, and confession

I am hardly the first to observe that Americans these days love "true confessions": people publicly revealing their juicier sins. At any rate, people love it when others, or even they themselves, do it as entertainment and make no moral demands on the audience. Trash TV never seems to tank. But oddly enough, people do not at all relish confessing their wrongs in private. One of the most common reasons that lapsed or ex-Catholics give me for being so is that they abhor what is now called the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Naturally, most don't reject the idea of reconciliation itself; who would, save for those who proudly refuse to grant that they need to be reconciled with God and/or neighbor? What so many abhor is the confession bit—specifically, frank confession of their sins to another human being in private. Most people don't even like doing that with those they love, much less to a priest.

I don't think most such people refuse on principle to admit their sins. If they have insight and honesty enough to know how they've been wrong, they'll usually admit it sooner or later. Neither do most people fear that the seal of the confessional will be broken and, with it, their confidence in the Church. The problem, at least as they often put it, is that they cannot accept the idea that another sinful, fallible human being—in this case, a priest—has the right and duty to mediate God's mercy to them.

I have always found that attitude so silly as to constitute a flimsy rationalization. When spouses, friends, or co-workers forgive one another after a candid airing of grievances, they are mediating God's mercy to each other. Why, then, is it so hard to accept that from a man ordained of God?

Part of it, in my experience, is that they hate confessing to a stranger or near-stranger. Sure, we can eat humble pie with those we know and love, or at least admit the need to do so even when we lack the courage. But somehow, doing it in front of somebody who seems to have nothing to gain or lose from it seems like a pointless, institutional requirement that one can do without, thank you very much. The problem here is what psychologist of religon Gordon Allport called that of "heteronomy." We don't take well to having rules set for us by people who owe us neither money nor love.

Yet if one believes that the Catholic Church is who she says she is, all such sentiments must be overcome. The sacrament is always there and eventually needful, supplying grace in the form of a personal encounter with a man acting in persona Christi and thus with Christ Himself. But many ill-catechized Catholics don't like the idea that the whole Christ is the risen Christ, the Head, plus his Mystical Body, the members of the Church. Let's just cut out the sinful middlemen and go directly to the Head. That, I believe, was the primary spiritual impetus for Protestantism nearly half a millennium ago. This is a problem of pride and catechesis, with the former needing to be discredited by the latter.

But even for many good Catholics, the sacrament seems like a sore spot. They're either too scrupulous about the state of their souls or not scrupulous enough. The whole issue is a nodal point for neuroses, even aside from moral theology. Such people are needlessly shortchanging themselves. And that is as good a proof as any that the Devil is very active in coming up with ways to stop people from frequenting this sacrament.

For sound advice on how to get the most out of confession, see the Pontificator's quote from John Henry Newman and Fr. Martin Fox's coordinate reflections at Bonfire of the Vanities. There's a lot of good literature out there on this topic, but those blog posts should be enough for the troubled to start with.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The culture wars: an asymmetry of motive

Diogenes at Off the Record makes an interesting argument: in the culture wars, the defenders of traditional values tend to have much less to gain, or hide, personally from their positions than the promoters of the Zeitgeist have from theirs.

It used to be considered a mark of scholarly disinterestedness and love of truth for an academic to advocate moral or political positions which, were they to prevail, would be much more likely to harm than favor his personal interests. It is indeed noteworthy that the academic Left's advocacy no longer fits that profile, whereas the far smaller academic Right's does fit it. Given their, um, lifestyle choices, the former are far more likely to benefit from gay marriage, abortion on demand, and other nostrums of liberalism than the latter, who in turn have benefitted far less if at all from the status quo ante and whose views certainly put them at a disadvantage in the academic world. Why is it, then, that conservative scholars are less given to attacking the motives of their opponents than are liberal scholars? Simple enough: the worldview of the latter makes Bulverizing seem natural and inevitable.

How the clock turns. When I was entering college, it was the Right that was considered anti-intellectual. Nobody says that anymore.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The war (?) on contraception

As a comment on my previous post about contraception, Fr. Philip Powell, OP drew my attention to last Sunday's lengthy New York Times Magazine article Contra-Contraception, to which I responded by promising to comment once I'd read the article. I have now read it; since it is the cover story and quite balanced by Times standards, I am happy to keep my promise herein.

It's well worth a read, which is free online if you register. Its author is Russell Shorto, the sort of person who would have been described in the not-too-distant past as a "man of letters." His best-known book is a history of Manhattan, but lately he's taken to writing shorter pieces on religion and the range of sex-related issues—i.e., abortion, contraception, artificial reproduction, and embryonic stem-cell research—so beloved of "social conservatives" such as myself. Essentially, his thesis is that "the Right" in the U.S has moved beyond mere opposition to legal abortion toward using government power as a means of reasserting traditional sexual morality. The keystone of that effort is the "abstinence movement," much beloved of President Bush, whose premise is that promoting contraception as a way to reduce abortion only encourages sexual promiscuity and thus, in the long run, more abortions. While the contraception-abortion connection is statistically murky, some evangelical Protestants are increasingly questioning the wisdom of contraception even as most Catholics reject the Church's historically consistent opposition to it. Once again, conservative Protestants are way out ahead of liberal Catholics in putting the question to the Zeitgeist.

Shorto sums up the facts pretty well, presenting both critics and defenders fairly. His one major error was to equate "natural family planning" with "the rhythm method," but he's already corrected that at his website. To me, though, the most interesting part of the article was the section on how Pope John Paul II's "theology of the body" has influenced a growing cadre of young, educated Catholics to embrace and promote the irreformable teaching of the Church about sex, marriage, and contraception. That alone is a big step past what one usually gets from liberal MSM outlets such as the Times.

Shorto chose the spokesperson for such Catholics well:

Kimberly Zenarolla, for one, is applying the theology of the body to the American political sphere. She is the director of strategic development for the National Pro-Life Action Center, a two-year-old organization with 10,000 members that lobbies on abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research and contraception. She's also a single 34-year-old who lives in Washington with, as she put it, "a group of young professionals who are living the countercultural message of chastity to its fullest expression."

Zenarolla told me she converted to Catholicism two years ago: "I tell people I became Catholic because of the church's teaching on contraception. We are opposed to sex before marriage and contraception within marriage. We believe that the sexual act is meant to be a complete giving of self. Of course its purpose is procreation, but the church also affirms the unitive aspect: it brings a couple together. By using contraception, they are not allowing the fullness of their expression of love. To frustrate the procreative potential ends up harming the relationship."
The more Kimberly Zenarollas we get, the better.

Unlike the Times' cover, I wouldn't call the trend described by Shorto as a "war" on contraception. Americans aren't about to abandon contraceptives and won't tolerate any attempt to make them illegal or even much harder to obtain than they are now. But over the last several years, we've begun seeing a natural backlash against that "sexual revolution" spawned in the 1960s and 70s by the unprecedented availability of cheap, effective contraception to the masses. I say "natural" because I don't think anybody can seriously maintain anymore that the sexual revolution has been good for America's social fabric. And so a reconsideration of contraception makes sense even apart from Catholic doctrine.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Cardinal Pell and the outrageously obvious

Last week, George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, gave a speech about the challenge of Islam to the Legatus Summit in Naples, Florida. (Legatus is a Catholic association of legal and business professionals loyal to the Vatican, but its website (www.legatus.org) is down as I write this. Maybe it's getting too many hits right now.) Having read the speech in its entirety, I can say that I find it characteristic of its giver: well-informed, balanced, clear-headed, uncompromising in principle without playing to the gallery of an admittedly sympathetic audience. It says nothing that many scholars, such as Bernard Lewis, haven't said before; and it says it in more measured tones than many which one finds online. That is why I was shocked at first when outraged critics depicted Pell, in so many words, as a bloody-minded ignoramus. Thus impugned is one who is not only a top prelate of the Catholic Church but also earned his PhD in history at Oxford. To me, all he seemed to be saying was the obvious.

On second thought, I am not shocked. Consider how, a few months ago, a group of prog-Catholic Australian intellectuals appealed to the Vatican against Pell, arguing that his long-developed criticisms of their stance on the role of personal conscience in moral decision-making actually violate the teaching of the Church on the subject. Pell snorted that the appeal was "a bit of a hoot." I studied the matter myself and posted my conclusions at Pontifications. Pell was right and I defended him. But the present flap about his remarks on Islam reinforces my impression that he's got a habit of being so right as to strike some very raw nerves.

Pell urges all literate Westerners, especially Catholics, to read the Koran and as much of the commentary on it as they can. I agree and even did so in college, when I took a semester's course on "Islamic Religion" from a man who, as a Jesuit scholastic, had taught me history in high school. By the time I re-encountered him at Columbia, he had left the Church and converted to Islam. As the son of Lebanese-Catholic parents, he was fully trilingual in English, French, and Arabic. So I can hardly be accused of having learned nothing about Islam or having learned it from an uninformed or unsympathetic source. Yet I can find nothing in Pell's talk smacking of ignorance or prejudice. It's not prejudice: it's postjudice. There is no other form of legitimate judgment.

If you read it, you'll find much food for thought in Pell's speech even before you finish it. But I urge you to finish it and keep thinking, as he has done so deeply.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Contraception: the state of the question

Such a title might seem merely academic. Everybody knows that for the majority of married couples, including Catholic ones, contraception is not a question but an answer. But it is also an answer rejected by a norm that's been "constantly preserved and applied since the beginning" by the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. (For the provenance of the quoted phrase, go here; the authority issue is the same regardless of what else is at issue.) So if that authority is considered authoritative, in principle and in general, about things so taught, preserved, and applied, then the majority are wrong. Granted, my if-clause does not matter to non-Catholics as such. But why are the Catholics in said majority wrong as Catholics? The reasons why explain the topic's general interest too.

I have written about contraception several times before, both here and at Pontifications. Aside from the issue of the Magisterium's authority, the topic is vitally important in light of the demographic winter approaching what was once Christendom. My occasion for addressing it again now is the discussion on contraception that spread through the Catholic blogosphere late last month. The best and most extensive took place at Amy Welborn's Open Book and Matthew Lickona's Godsbody. The latter refers to the former; both threads contain excellent links and references. Beyond the sensitive, well-considered arguments in the Church's defense, what most struck me was the common theme running through the criticisms of the Church's teaching.

It boils down, really, to claiming that "Natural Family Planning" is an oxymoron. If that were true, then the Church's now allowing NFP while forbidding contraception would be conceptually incoherent. Now one must certainly concede that the current teaching of the Church is a development. It is a development for which there was ample reason; see Elizabeth Anscombe's classic essay Contraception and Chastity, which well explains that in the context of what turns out to be a generalized defense of the Church's teachings about human sexuality. But does the development negate the doctrine it developed from? In my Pontifications article I answered no and explained why. But many people clearly don't agree, and I wonder what else can be said to get the debate off the dime.

I think we need to start by distinguishing various senses of 'natural'. Most people, including many loyal Catholics, seem to be under the impression that when the Church unconditionally condemns something called contraception and conditionally endorses something called NFP, she does so partly because contraception is "artificial" and NFP is "natural." But that doesn't get the distinction quite right. In the morally significant sense, 'contraception' means the direct, voluntary interruption of the generative process before or soon after sexual intercourse. Nowadays, that usually involves some form of human artifice: e.g., sterilization, anovulant or abortifacient pills, and barrier methods. But it need not. The same effect is sometimes sought and achieved—albeit less efficiently—by any sexual encounter in which the man either does not ejaculate or does so somewhere other than in his partner's vagina. Even though no artifice is used thereby, such forms of intercourse were traditionally condemned by the Church as "unnatural." And while that term is rarely used anymore, the content of the condemnation stands: such sexual acts are not "open" to procreation, which really means that they bear no intrinsic relation to procreation.

Obversely, NFP itself is effective only when a measure of human artifice is employed to determine "safe" periods for intercourse. And NFP is something other than natural in yet another sense of 'natural'. Merely by requiring rational decision-making, cooperation, and calculation between spouses, sex with NFP is deliberative and considered, unlike "spontaneous" sex in which the couple don't consciously advert to the question of conception. NFP thus has that much in common with contraception, at least within a marriage where the couple are being honest and mutually cooperative. So if NFP is natural in a sense in which contraception is not, that's got to be in some sense of 'natural' other, and more basic, than the ones we've been considering.

That sense is the one employed by authoritative papal teaching: Casti Connubii (1930), Humanae Vitae (1968), and most clearly and recently, Pope John Paul II's "theology of the body," developed throughout his long pontificate. Periodic abstinence, of which NFP is one form, can be natural because it can accord with God's natural design for marriage, in which the unitive and procreative aspects of vaginal intercourse express and enhance each other. Contraception can never be natural in that sense because it actively separates those aspects from each other.

The standard objection to that distinction and corresponding claim is that, since the aim of NFP and contraception respectively is the same, the difference of means is not morally significant. And there are indeed cases where that objection holds. A couple who avoid conception for insufficiently serious reasons are opposing God's design for marriage regardless of which means they use. It is therefore possible for NFP to be morally wrong in a way that makes it oxymoronic in the sense of 'natural' I am now employing. But to imagine that such an objection is decisive against Church teaching is to miss the point of the teaching.

The teaching entails that contraception, by actively blocking contraception, necessarily embodies the intention to oppose God's design, whereas NFP can but need not do so. After all, the latter merely involves abstaining during the woman's God-given times of fertility and thus restricting intercourse to her God-given times of infertility. Birth control, to an extent, is built into our natures by God, and NFP merely employes our God-given reason and freedom to make conscious use of it. So birth control is not per se unnatural in any morally objectionable sense. It becomes that, and intrinsically so, only when people take active steps to block a generative process that might otherwise result from what they do. The problem is with the means, not necessarily with the end.

Knowing people as I do, I don't expect everybody to agree with what the Church teaches about that. My aim has only been to add enough clarity to blunt the objection that NFP is an oxymoron. One must admit that it can be. But unlike contraception, it needn't be.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The most effective argument against Catholicism

As I finished reading Crunchy Con Rod Dreher's post explaining why he's considering leaving the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy, it occurred to me that he's giving voice, at a fairly sophisticated level, to what a lot of thoughtful Catholics and non-Catholics also think: If the Catholic Church is who and what she says she is, then why is she so messed up? If there's no good answer to that, then maybe it's time to find another church. The question is valid. The two most common answers are these: the fact that we sinners so often fail to live up to the teaching of the Church is as much evidence for as against her teaching; and if you find a perfect church, join it and it won't be perfect anymore. Both answers are objectively true. They are also apologetically unhelpful.

In my long observation, the question reflects the most common reason why so many good, thoughtful people reject Catholicism and why so many Catholics lack enthusiasm for their church. The theological arguments are generally ex post facto, and the Protestant Reformation is the paradigm case. If the generality of the Catholic hierarchy and faithful in the fifteenth century had borne effective witness to what the Church actually taught, Martin Luther would not have taken so many people with him into schism and heresy. He might not even have been led to some of the theological conclusions he reached. The life of the Catholic Church in his youth just was sick, crying out for a more evangelical and authentic way of being Christian. But the Church could not bring herself to make necessary reforms until she had hemmorhaged half of the Europe she had retained after the schism with the Orthodox. The questionable orthodoxy, drooping spirituality, sex scandals, ideological divisions, even the bad liturgy in the Church today—at least in the "developed" countries—together constitute the almost the same degree of difficulty that had occasioned the Reformation. When people leave the Church now, it is not usually because they find some technical, theological argument more intellectually cogent than the actual teaching of the Church. It's because Catholicism as they experience it does not transform, or even awaken, their souls.

I have seen this in my own family of origin, but the lesson holds all over. In both the blogosphere and in conversations with sincere, thoughtful people I meet in daily life, the most common objection to Catholicism I encounter is, in effect, that the actual behavior of the Catholic hierarchy and faithful is not a credible witness to Catholicism. I am no longer content to rebut that argument with theological ones of my own, for I myself strengthen it by my own sins and failures. The Pope knows that such is where the chief difficulty lies: he often says, in one way or another, that true holiness is the most effective argument for the truth of the Catholic faith. It must be admitted that the converse also holds: the lack thereof is the most effective argument against the truth of the Catholic faith.

It isn't enough to say, with G.K. Chesterton, that the Church is a hospital for sinners and that the main reason to join her is to get one's sins forgiven. True as that is, it's only the beginning. The Gospel calls for a lot more than that. After all the theological arguments have been bandied about, that's when the case that matters to most people begins to be made.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Chinese schism

Obviously undertaken at the behest of the Chinese government, last week's consecration of two bishops of the "Catholic Patriotic Association" signals the unwavering determination of said government to control the Church in China. The Vatican's diplomatic niceties in recent years, orchestrated by Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, have yielded little but arrests of clergy loyal to Rome and similarly contemptuous treatment for some of the faithful. What we're seeing now is the hardening of schism.

Pope Benedict XVI has expressed his "profound displeasure" and threatened "severe canonical penalties" for clergy involved in this episcopal consecration. By allowing that they may have been acting "under duress," the Pope has left them a bit of wiggle room for getting off the hook. But at this point, such compassionate moves matter little. That's because the extent to which the objects of His Holiness' warning are personally culpable for this outrage is irrelevant.

We have a schism, and those whom the Holy Spirit has called to resist becoming part of it—at potentially great cost to themselves, to be sure—have ignored the call. These men are not Thomas Mores. The excommunications should proceed apace just to make clear to everybody, especially the true Catholic Church in China, that the CPA is not in communion with the Catholic Church and is in fact a government-controlled fraud. The clergy involved can always be forgiven if they repent, by Christ if not by formal papal decree.

This is just the latest chapter in a story that began back in the fourth century. Governments, even Catholic governments, have long tried to control the Church by controlling episcopal appointments. The old name for it is "caesaropapism." The main reason for resisting it hasn't changed either: it is incompatible with the divine constitution and mission of the Church. In this case, it is incompatible with the most elementary right of conscience: that of religious freedom.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Still more Catholic than the Pope

Ecclesiastical politicians have been circulating rumors for months that the Vatican and the schismatically traditionalist Society of St. Pius X are moving toward reconciliation. Pope Benedict certainly desires that, and thanks to its leader, Bishop Fellay, the SSPX's website is a masterwork of irenism. But don't believe the rumors and the PR.

Some earnest talks have occurred, but the bottom line is that the trads reject certain aspects of Vatican II's teaching in the name of traditional Catholicism, even as progs reject certain teachings of traditional Catholicism in the name of Vatican II. If you don't believe me, check out the most recent remarks of an SSPX bishop, Tissier de Mallerais (pictured). And he's moderate compared with his colleague, Bishop Richard Williamson.

These are people who don't consider "more Catholic than the Pope" a joke. They acknowledge it as an honor even as they wish they didn't have to.

History has many ironies in the fire. This one isn't about to be stomped out.

The go-to guys for the clash of civilizations

I know the Vatican doesn't like to talk about a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West. It's so...well, militant, and we're supposed to be nice about other religions now. But a clash is what's been shaping up whether anybody cares to admit it or not; we're being called crusaders whether we so regard ourselves or not. Indeed, the clash went on for a millennium, often militarily, until the Ottomans were forced into retreat after their bloody defeat at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Since then and until quite recently, the West has dominated the Muslim world. But that domination has been dissipating, and the Muslim world is rising up—smarting from the humiliations of recent centuries and eager to restore the glories of old. We had better understand why and do what we must to preserve our freedom.

The living Western scholar best suited to that task is Bernard Lewis, several of whose articles and one of whose books I've read. Unfortunately for us, if not for him, he is approaching 90. His long and illustrious scholarly career has taught him enough to enable him to support the American invasion of Iraq in 2003; it has also enabled him to teach us why the clash of civilizations is unavoidable. In this matter he is of one mind with another of my favorite scholars, Jacques Ellul, who died in the 1990s. Here's how Ellul is quoted by one of my favorite Catholic intellectuals, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus:
"It is most important to grasp," wrote Ellul, "that the jihad is an institution in itself; that is to say, an organic piece of Muslim society. . . . The world, as Bat Ye’or brilliantly shows, is divided into two regions: the dar al-Islam and the dar al-harb, the ‘domain of Islam’ and ‘the domain of war.’ The world is no longer divided into nations, peoples, and tribes. Rather, they are all located en bloc in the world of war, where war is the only possible relationship with the outside world. The earth belongs to Allah and all its inhabitants must acknowledge this reality; to achieve this goal there is but one method: war." The Koran allows that there are times when war is not advisable, and a momentary pause is called for. "But that," writes Ellul, "changes nothing: war remains an institution, which means that it must resume as soon as circumstances permit."
Ellul and Lewis both understand very well that the conquest of the dar al-harb is irreformable Islamic doctrine. Given Muslim beliefs about the origin of the Qu'ran and the example of Muhammad, such doctrine cannot be mitigated, relativized, or swept under the rug as so many churches have done with key doctrines of Christianity. The clash of civilizations is here to stay.

Get used to it.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Liberalism and the seven deadly sins

While I can't possibly do justice here to his coruscating piece, consider this excerpt from Dr. Robert Godwin's post today at One Cosmos:

...ideas have consequences, bad ideas as much as good ones. And toxic ideas that are hatched in the high country of the mind have a way of flowing downhill, trickling into the rivers, streams and creeks below. So one of the central psycho-spiritual “mind parasites” that infected all of the water in the 1960’s was the idea that our outward, civilized personalities are inauthentic. Rather, the “real you” is that repressed id, your undisguised animal drives and passions: “If it feels good, do it.” “Love the one you’re with.” “Do your thing.” Why don't we do it in the road?" “It’s my life, and I’ll do what I want.” "Looking out for number one." (There were so many others, but I can’t think of them at the moment. However, the lesson was obvious to all who heard it: express yourself and let your freak-flag fly!)

I think you can see just how pervasive this attitude has become. It gets to the heart of the “culture war,” one side celebrating “authenticity” and its close cousin, "attitude,” the other side wishing to preserve traditional standards of excellence and decency. In fact, this is where it is almost impossible to even have a meaningful conversations with someone who has been contaminated by the toxic water of the vulgar Freudians: So what if Janet Jackson exposed her breast on national TV! She was just expressing herself! So what if Bill Clinton was serviced by an intern in the oval office! At least he’s not a hypocrite!

Here we truly do see a monstrous moral inversion at the heart of the left, in which our animal nature is exalted above our higher human strivings, while the realm of the truly human is devalued and denigrated as hypocrisy. This, by the way, is why there is so much cursing on the left. It seems like a small thing, but it’s not. On most any left-wing blog, you will see that they can rarely express themselves without cursing, as profanity is a sort of “stamp of authenticity.”

I've long wondered why I can't seem to read Daily Kos, even to gather fodder. Now I know.

Read it all.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Feast of St. Joseph the Worker

For reasons it would take to long to explain, St. Joseph is not only very important to me personally but, I believe, ought to be treated as such by Christians in general. Those of us who find ordinary life more of a distraction than a divinely bestowed challenge will know what I mean.

I discussed him on his previous feastday, March 19. Go here for an account of this particular feast.

Doctrinal development or doctrinal negation?

One of the most popular arguments of "recovering" Catholics is that the Church, which claims to teach infallibly the "faith once delivered to the saints," has so changed some key doctrines as to negate them and thus undercut her claim to infallibility. "Progressive" Catholics, while often unwilling to go that far, are also prone to argue that doctrinal change in the past has been of such a kind as to supply ample precedent for the changes they want to see today. For the sake of the Church's credibility, I believe it's very important to rebut both arguments.

I've been doing so for months at Pontifications. If this is the sort of thing that interests you, go to my latest article on the subject. It contains, besides a reply to the latest challenge from the blogosphere, links to all my previous articles on the topic.