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

Friday, February 23, 2007

Anti-pansexualism: right for (some of) the wrong reasons

The Ochlophobist ('T.O.' for short) continues his series on "pansexualism" in our culture with Orthodoxy and Contraception, part II. I had already discussed Part I last Monday. I recommend the series to all.

Once again, I largely agree with T.O. about the state of sexuality in our culture and about the great need for Christians to resist and roll back what has occurred. My disagreement is with his view that non-abortifacient contraception, unlike sodomy, is not intrinsically wrong, which is only to be expected given that I am a neoCath who has blogged quite a bit about just this point, especially here. But my demurral is not merely academic. In my view, T.O.'s view on this matter is part of the problem and in no way contributes to the solution.

In my comments on Part I, I briefly explained why I believe that there is no sound theological basis for the distinction T.O. and, it seems, many other Christian thinkers want to draw. Rather than respond to that directly, T.O. gives us in a footnote (!) what he considers reasons grounded in Orthodox theology for refusing to condemn non-abortifacient contraception. Thus:

In Orthodoxy, the telos of a given act (if acts of the will can even be said to have a telos, as some moderns posit) is always to be subject to the telos of the person. Likewise, within Orthodoxy the telos of the person is not determined by the perceived telos of the acts appropriate to that person. Orthodoxy is not bottom up in its anthropology. Thus the logic: sex is meant, finally, for procreation; as a married man I am to have sex; thus my sexual activity is meant, finally, for procreation - does not work in Orthodoxy. Within Orthodoxy the "telos" of the given act is derivative of the telos of the person or persons involved. I am finally meant for salvation. My wife is finally meant for salvation. As two who have become one our marriage is to serve us as we are , finally, being saved. Sex within our marriage is to serve our telos. We are not meant to serve the "telos" of a given act. Thus God's soteriological personalism frees us from natural determinisms. This does not mean that we ignore or reject nature, quite the contrary. God intends to save me as a man, and to save my wife as a woman, and our salvation must be worked out in its proper course. But my sex and what is natural to it is meant to serve me, I am not meant to serve it. Thus, abortion always violates the telos of a person, whereas non-abortifacient birth control does not, if one accepts a modern biology with regard to then what must be the ontological status of sperm and egg (unless one can show that the use of any contraceptive necessarily involves a willful sin such as lust, greed, selfishness, etc. to such a degree that it perverts the goodness of the sexual act, in which case non-abortifacient birth control would violate the telos of the persons involved because it would involve a sinful state contrary to salvation). When someone who accepts modern biology says that non-abortifacient contraception is unnatural, they are referring to the telos of an action, primarily, and not a person, or they refer to a person only in the sense in which their telos is subject to the "telos" of the action.

In context, that seems meant as an alternative to the Catholic doctrine, which T.O. critiques as follows in the main body of the post:

I think that the best arguments against Rome's strict anti-contraception stance have to do with the manner in which Rome arrives at that conclusion. Rome uses a natural theology, via a "theology of the body" or some other such theological mechanism, to arrive at its theology of human sexuality. [I am inclined to think that most of what is called "theology of the body" today is so popular and theologically vague, even imprecise, as to be rendered useless by Orthodox. While JPII's theology of the body in the original texts is not popular (it might even be called esoteric, in the current sense of the word), it remains theologically vague, which is the curse of all personalist theologies which are derivative of Husserl and Scheler. The "theology of the body" is one of these many contemporary theological manifestations of the "Incarnational theology" fetish. If one takes issue with this or that point in such a theology, its proponent will normally suggest that one is "anti-Incarnational." When a Western "Incarnational theology" advocate suggests that an informed Eastern Orthodox believer is anti-Incarnational we have a situation which is rich in humor. Every dogmatic point concerning the Incarnation was made using Greek patristic theological language. The entire project of Eastern Orthodox theology is intended to answer the question, "Who is Jesus Christ?" Do not fret that Orthodox theology is not always in keeping with the latest philosophical/theological fads. In a few more decades it will be the "theology of something else."] In my opinion, these theologies of the body tend to lack a primacy of emphasis on the soteriology of the human person and the teleology of the human person. Theologies of the body do have a focus upon a sort of natural teleology of the body, but that is found to be lacking from an Orthodox perspective. From an Orthodox point of view, what a given act is naturally intended for is not the question. The question is, what is the person intended for? The answer is, theosis. Then with contraception the question becomes, in what way(s) might contraception help or hinder theosis? The answer to this question will not be couched in legal terms, as Orthodox frame it (given a modern biological framework). When it comes to how contraception affects the human spirit, things do tend to get legalistic and even deterministic when a theology of the body is employed. The intuition of this legalism on the part of some Orthodox causes them to reject Rome's teaching regarding contraception wholesale. Which, in the end, is fine and predictable, as Rome's teaching on contraception is not put forth in the theological language which the Orthodox Church speaks.

The "who's-more-incarnational-than-whom game"—no matter which side plays it—certainly does merit an ironic smile. Aside from that, it is idle. But I found the same kind of smile crossing my face when I compared the two passages just quoted. "Rome" is faulted for invoking something called "a theology of the body" that focuses too narrowly on the teleology of specific acts as opposed to persons, while at the same time, the one theology mentioned whose author actually called it a "theology of the body," that of Pope John Paul II, is faulted for being a "theologically vague" form of personalism! What we have here are two kinds of fallacy: false dichotomy and damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't. I have found those particular patterns of argument depressingly common among Orthodox, on a variety of topics, when they criticize "Rome." A fertile ground for irony, indeed.

The false dichotomy is that between the moral teleology of acts and the moral teleology of persons. In the teaching of the Catholic Church, the moral significance of acts consists precisely in how they relate, either instrumentally or constitutively, to the good of the acting (and the affected) persons. That holds for "natural law" as well as moral theology; the latter integrates the former without being limited to it. And so the good of the person(s) must always be seen, either immediately or indirectly, in relation to the divine will for us. The biological processes that form part of some such acts, or in some cases naturally flow from them, have no moral significance apart from that context. But they are of course morally significant within said context. Thus Humanae Vitae, which was about birth control (§11-§13; emphasis added, footnotes omitted):

The sexual activity in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is, as the recent Council recalled, "noble and worthy.'' It does not, moreover, cease to be legitimate even when, for reasons independent of their will, it is foreseen to be infertile. For its natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife is not thereby suppressed. The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws. The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.

This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act. The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason.

Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one's partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife. If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will. But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source. "Human life is sacred—all men must recognize that fact," Our predecessor Pope John XXIII recalled. "From its very inception it reveals the creating hand of God."

The above does not invoke the "natural" in isolation from the "personal." It does not even invoke either apart from God, our creator and our ultimate end. It cites the former two in relation to each other, and both together to the third. There is no dichotomy here between the biological and the personal, or between both on the one hand and our relationship with God on the other. So much for the alleged dichotomy.

The "damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't" argument is that Catholic teaching is criticized, in a single paragraph, for being both too narrowly naturalistic and too vaguely personalistic. What T.O. clearly doesn't realize is the key contribution made by John Paul II's theology of the body, which was propounded in a series of audiences consisting largely of a commentary on the original union of man and woman recounted in Genesis and spoke of Christocentrically in Ephesians. By invoking natural-law norms within a biblical personalism, the late pope integrated Catholic sexual teaching into a theology of communion, whereby sex and marriage are seen as the primordial way in which humans image the tri-personal, perichoretic God outwardly and in relation to each other. The whole is both-and, not either-or: both natural law and personalism, and both together in relation to our eternal destiny. I've provided the link for anybody who cares to verify what I've just said by immersing themselves in the "esoteric" text.

Once the fallacious criticisms of Catholic teaching are cleared away, it becomes clear that, on such teaching, contraceptive sex is seen as lustful sex in which people incline to treat each other more as objects than as persons. Precisely by suppressing the procreative in favor of the unitive aspect of conjugal intercourse, by whatever means, one corrupts the unitive. That makes people less and less able to make a gift of themselves sexually in marriage as it is meant by God to be: a mysterion of Christ's relationship with his Bride, the Church.

Paul VI predicted that would happen once the contraceptive mentality set in, and he was absolutely prescient. In the last forty or fifty years, we have all observed the steady coarsening of sexuality throughout our culture. The universal availability of cheap, effective contraception has allowed people to fornicate with less cost than ever, and the effect on women has been even worse than on men. In the course of my baby-boomer lifetime, I have seen women approach if not equal men in their rates of fornication and adultery: not only are men freer than ever to treat women as sexual objects to be used and, if the whim strikes, discarded; more and more women now do the same to men. Based on my personal experience, the anecdotal evidence I've heard, and even the statistical studies I've seen cited, there seems to be little or no difference between the sexual behavior of men and women anymore. As C.S. Lewis once said, traditional Christian morality held that men ought to be as chaste as honest women were always expected to be; but now it seems women are permitted, nay expected, to be as unchaste as men have always striven to be. Sexual equality, indeed. This is the kind of equality that the widespread availability and use of cheap, effective contraception inevitably causes. It is the equality of pansexualism.

The problem would probably not be quite so bad if the only available contraceptives were "barrier"—condoms, diaphragms, IUDs, and whatnot—rather than abortifacient. But it would still be more than bad enough. The problem less the technology than the principle. Thus John Paul II (Evangelium Vitae §13):

In order to facilitate the spread of abortion, enormous sums of money have been invested and continue to be invested in the production of pharmaceutical products which make it possible to kill the fetus in the mother's womb without recourse to medical assistance. On this point, scientific research itself seems to be almost exclusively preoccupied with developing products which are ever more simple and effective in suppressing life and which at the same time are capable of removing abortion from any kind of control or social responsibility.

It is frequently asserted that contraception, if made safe and available to all, is the most effective remedy against abortion. The Catholic Church is then accused of actually promoting abortion, because she obstinately continues to teach the moral unlawfulness of contraception. When looked at carefully, this objection is clearly unfounded. It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation of abortion. But the negative values inherent in the "contraceptive mentality"-which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act-are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived. Indeed, the pro- abortion culture is especially strong precisely where the Church's teaching on contraception is rejected. Certainly, from the moral point of view contraception and abortion arespecifically different evils: the former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment "You shall not kill".

But despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree. It is true that in many cases contraception and even abortion are practised under the pressure of real- life difficulties, which nonetheless can never exonerate from striving to observe God's law fully. Still, in very many other instances such practices are rooted in a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfilment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception.

Suppressing the procreative in favor of the unitive corrupts the latter and thus makes us readier to kill for our pleasures. That is why the much-loved distinction between abortifacient and non-abortifacient contraception is useless, and worse than useless, as a way of combatting pansexualism. Although the former is wrong for an additional reason, both are also wrong for the same reason.

For those who don't want to wade through papal writings any further, I close with a neat summation by Catholic philosopher J. Budziszewski:

The greatest obstacle to the communication of Paul VI’s message is that the spirit of the age has burdened most people with a false picture of nature. Their eyes dazzled by what technology can do, when they gaze upon human nature they see not a Design, but a canvass for their own designs. Because they can sever the causal link between sex and procreation, they suppose they have severed the link between sex and procreation. This helps to explain why, despite having been vindicated by the passage of time, the Pope’s warnings about the moral and social consequences of contraception have been so roundly ignored.

First the encyclical admonishes that artificial contraception will make it easier for people to rationalize sexual immorality. When modern people hear this they are dumbfounded. If there is artificial contraception, how could any sex be immoral? The pill changed human nature, don’t you see? For old nature the old rules were necessary; for new nature we have new ones. If the new ones too should prove confining, we’ll change our nature again, just as we did before. It is the same sort of reasoning that leads some people to propose making future astronauts like tadpoles because on long space journeys they won’t need legs.

The Pope’s second warning is that husbands who become accustomed to artificial contraception will "lose respect" for their wives; finding it unnecessary to heed the cadences of feminine fertility, they will disregard the cadences of feminine feelings too, finally demanding that their wives be ready for sex at all times. Of course the Pope was right, but this is turning out to be one of those cases where the new rules too prove confining and we must "change" human nature yet again. Why can’t a woman be more like a man? With the woman’s version of Viagra, maybe she can.

Paul VI’s third admonition was that once people view artificial contraception as morally indifferent, it will become an instrument of state policy; governments will interfere in the mission which God has given intimately and exclusively to spouses. And so, of course, they have. The difficulty is that in order to object to the interference, one must believe in the mission. Anyone who regards artificial contraception as morally indifferent has already rejected the mission. But not to worry: Once women become more like men, fertility rates will fall so rapidly that not even the most obtrusive commissar will think the growth of population a threat.

The nature of a thing, said Thomas Aquinas, is a purpose implanted in it by the Divine Art, that it be moved to a determinate end. Human nature is not an object to be manipulated, but a creation to be honored: not just a collection of processes, but an embodiment of purposes. The teleological link between sex and procreation persists even after the causal link is broken, for in the long run, to demand the gift of conjugal love without its accompanying fertility is to demand the impossible. The end of saying "I will give myself to spouse but not to children" is to say "I will give myself to no one; I belong to myself." Deliberate sterility insults the past and destroys the future; it makes us like the animals, who have neither history nor hope.
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