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

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Contraception and "natural law"

Lately I've noticed that most of the comboxes to my posts turn into what I can only call online graduate seminars. Perhaps that is why the number of blogs linking to this one trends downward even as the comboxes tend to get more and more involved. I have only myself to blame, of course: I advertise myself as an academic, and the issues I most enjoy tackling can generally be explored only by people of like temperament and preoccupations. And so, I hereby surrender and invite another graduate seminar.

The Catholic blogger "John Cassian," who sometimes comments here, has written an interesting post about moral theologian Germain Grisez's 1964 book Contraception and Natural Law. What interests me about the post is not just that JC makes passing reference to my work. Of more general interest is that the post illustrates how even highly educated, orthodox Catholics like JC, who as such care deeply about moral theology, manage to misunderstand the "state of the question" about Church moral norms on human sexuality in general. Much good would be accomplished if that misunderstanding could be cleared up. I offer a modest contribution.

Grisez's book, which was to be followed by several bigger and more ambitious ones, was published during Vatican II fours years before Humanae Vitae (1968) was issued by Pope Paul VI. I read the book in the mid-70s while still a college student. Now in 1963, Pope Paul had removed the controversial question of contraception from the Council's purview and committed it to a study commission pending a final decision by himself. The general expectation was that the majority of the commission would recommend approving contraception, for married couples and for "serious" reasons, as the Anglican Communion had in 1930. That it did. But most people also expected the Pope to accept that recommendation. He did not. The ensuing outrage and damage in the Church remains very much with us today. I have written about the evolution of the contraception issue before: most recently here and here, but especially here.

At its time of writing, Grisez's account of the state of the question was largely accurate. Here's how JC presents what he learned on that score from Grisez:

The chief difficulty among said problems is my perception that, in the popular Catholic mind at least, the Church's teaching on the intrinsic immorality of contraception has split itself into a seemingly irresolvable dialectic. On the one hand, there are proponents of what I would call a "scientific" natural law theory, who oppose contraception on the grounds that "contraception is immoral because it frustrates the natural purpose of the act." Underlying this theory is a certain version of natural law which assumes that natural law is the "scientific" search within a construct called "human nature" for a set of categorical moral norms ,the violation of which defines the limits of human action. On the other hand, there are those who, rejecting the scientific-natural law theory for various reasons, would propose what I call the psychological-therapeutic model. In this view, contraception is forbidden because non-contraceptive sex leads to the fullest state of emotional and personal well-being. Underlying this argument is the notion that ethical norms are most properly founded upon psychological principles. The deficiencies of this dialectic have become more strongly apparent to me over the summer.

That is essentially the same diagnosis offered by theologian James Arraj in a 1989 book which I have cited before, and which itself cites Grisez. But Arraj's prognosis and prescription were not the same as Grisez's. Seeing no way to synthesize the two poles of the "dialectic," Arraj recommended a decisive theological shift to the "personal" side that would entail abandoning the traditional prohibition on contraception. That's pretty much been the majority view among American Catholic theologians since the 1950s. By contrast, Grisez's positive suggestions contributed to that deeper ecclesial meditation and doctrinal development which HV and, later, John Paul II's "theology of the body" ('TOB' for short) so well exemplified. While I do not agree with some of later arguments that Grisez offered in defense of the traditional teaching, he did the Church a great service by advancing the state of the question in a way that helped to spur the further development of magisterial teaching.

On that score, JC himself recognizes both the need and the real possibility of resolving the "dialectic." He even recognizes that TOB succeeds in doing so, at least in principle. I have no time here to expound TOB, which in any case I have done before; but that does not much matter. The problem is that JC doesn't get quite right just how TOB succeeds in doing so. He gets the problem right, but not the solution. Thus:

More interestingly, [sic] is the recent series of catechetical talks given by John Paul II, popularly referred to as the "Theology of the Body" (TOB), and which have enjoyed a popularity among the faithful, though typically in a more distilled and summarized form as exemplified by the work of Christopher West. I would argue that these talks have been misread in three fundamental ways: the first is by the theological academy, which is not so much of a mis-reading as a non-reading, whereby the content of JPII's message is dismissed as not consonant with the various structures of modern theology. The second misreading of TOB is by the traditionalist camp, whereby the persistent personalist language employed by JPII is taken as evidence that the content is nothing other than existentialist nattering, with the ghost of Heidegger given free reign over Church teaching. The third mis-reading tends to follow the psychological-therapeutic model I discussed above, and Christopher West's work is often the most prominent example of this mis-reading (though to his credit, West often shows a more perceptive reading of JPII, and the conflicts between this more perceptive reading and the popular therapeutic understanding are left unresolved.)

However, it is my belief that TOB can be read in a manner more closely tied to JPII's original intent. Such a reading would approach the talks on their own terms, namely as a catechesis explaining the true shape of the goods known through human relations. When seen in the light of a virtue ethics such as Macintyre's or Grisez's, where moral actions are the means by which human goods are freely realized within the community (i.e. Church), then the substance of TOB becomes yet another expression of that constant and unbroken ethic which the Church has proposed from Her founding. In such a reading, the constant reference to the origin of Creation found in TOB becomes a method for revealing the full and supernatural end towards which all human actions must be directed.

JC is right about how both progs and trads dislike TOB. Progs dislike it because it doesn't jettison either the natural-law tradition in general or the traditional prohibition on contraception in particular. Trads dislike it because, situating the natural-law tradition in the context of biblical personalism, TOB seems too new and woolly-minded to them; it just isn't, well, neo-scholastic enough for them. I have even encountered a few well-educated bloggers who criticize TOB for being both naturalistic and personalistic, a juxtaposition which I account as a virtue. But JC is wrong to imagine that TOB needs to be "seen in the light of a virtue ethics such as MacIntyre's and Grisez's." The specific developments of virtue ethics offered by MacIntyre and Grisez are controversial in themselves and differ in important respects even from each other. Having hashed out a lot of this stuff while a graduate student myself in the 1980s, I concluded that, as philosophical opinions which can in no way bind the Church, proposals in contemporary virtue ethics are altogether insufficient for contextualizing TOB and thus improving its reception among theologians.

That's not to say there's no place for virtue ethics in Catholic moral theology. Quite the contrary: St. Thomas Aquinas himself tied the Church's teaching about sexual morality to Aristotelian "virtue ethics," and sound, contemporary moral theologians such as Servais Pinckaers, OP do the same. On such an account, what's "unnatural" and thus morally objectionable about any form of intentionally sterile sex is that it's incompatible with the virtue of chastity—the virtue by which certain of our "concupiscible appetites" are ordered to interpersonal goods. Thus, like sodomy and other sexual sins, contraception is a sin of lust. That is why Paul VI's warning about the social effects of widespread contraception was and remains so relevant. Although said effects are not what make contraception intrinsically evil, they serve as irrefutable evidence of the sort of evil that contraception exemplifies: a vice that spreads and manifests itself more generally, like a bit of poison that spoils a whole pond.

That is not an instance of the sort of "scientific" natural-law theorizing to which Grisez, JC, and so many others have rightly objected. Such theory falls victim to the Humean objection that one cannot, logically, derive an "ought" from an "is"—unless of course the "is" statement is itself a moral truth of the sort one seeks to establish, in which case the argument is at best an enthymeme and at worst downright circular. Absent a fairly rich and personalistic theism, in which the union of man and woman is seen as instituted by God for cooperation with him in bringing forth life, one cannot demonstrate the intrinsic evil of contraception merely by pointing out that such an activity runs counter to the ordinary "course of nature." For the human race itself, as understood by the Church, is not the sort of thing one finds just in the course of nature; and unless informed by a true moral anthropology, one must admit that any behavior which a certain percentage of human beings can be counted on to exhibit—such as violence, overeating, or sodomy—belongs to "the course of nature." So, while "nature" in the sense of Mother Nature must obviously be involved in moral anthropology, a lot more than that must be taken into account to extract much of moral or spiritual significance.

TOB is a brilliant resource for understanding the positive spiritual and social goods of which the vice of lust is a perversion. Its author recognized that contraception, like most other sexual sins, objectifies the other when the real point of sexuality is personal intercommunion and new life through complete, mutual self-donation. From that point of view, it is sexual "virtue ethics" that need to be contextualized for Catholics by TOB, not vice-versa. I hope JC comes to see that. Once he and many like him do, TOB will get the full reception it deserves.
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