Friday, August 8, 2008

Hiatus interrupted to bring you this message

Lest you think me crazy, I had several hours in a room and all I had was a computer with internet access. So, after a bit of 'net surfing, reading about the recently concluded Lambeth Conference in The Times of London, and other sources, my thoughts turned again to Humnae Vitae. So {deep breath}, here it goes:

Humane Vitae, the most recent highly authoritative statement by the Holy See regarding human sexuality, is often subjected to ridicule both inside and outside the church. Inside the church, especially among moral theologians, the primary objection to Humane Vitae is to say that by rejecting the report of the majority of the Papal Commission, appointed by John XXII to study the issue in light of the invention of the birth control pill, Paul VI made a power play that amounted to a misguided attempt to keep the church from looking foolish and insensitive, rather than a magisterial statement arising from concerns about truth, authentic morality, and ultimately salvation. This despite what Paul VI wrote in number six of HV. Many of these same theologians often appeal to other developments in doctrine, such as usury (i.e., the lifting of the prohibition of charging interest on loans), slavery, and the death penalty, as precedents for making a change in this teaching. Hence, it is good to look to St. Vincent of Lérins, whose two rules are a good measure by which to judge the development of Christian doctrine. Vincent distinguishes between that which is profectus, or a legitimate development, meaning a better, deeper, more perfect understanding of the faith, of which the development of church teaching on slavery and the death penalty are good representatives, and permutatio, which represents a mutation, perhaps even a mutilation, of the depositium fidei.

It can be taken as fairly axiomatic that the immorality of artificial contraception was believed among Christians always, everywhere, and by all until 1930, when the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion permitted its use under certain circumstances, thus violating the moral axiom that evil may never be done that good may come of it. This is an example of permutatio, a change, not a development, of Christian doctrine. Hence, those who propose a similar change be made by the Catholic Church must demonstrate that it is a legitimate development of doctrine and not a permutation by showing that it was not believed always, everywhere and by all Christians for almost two millennia. To date no case has been made that definitively proves either and that does not also run the risk of ultimately undermining human personhood as it is understood and articulated by the church, which understanding is integral to the Christian faith.

In an essay written while still teaching theology at Oxford, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, demonstrating the direct result of such a permutatio, wrote:
"in a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures" (The Body's Grace).
This is a logical conclusion drawn from the permissibility of contraception. Conversely, in a church that does not accept the legitimacy of contraception, no such fundamentalist posturing is necessary and no non-scriptural theory about complementarity that disregards psychological structures need be devised because the inherent connection between sexual intercourse and procreation is preserved. Whereas, the view that sees contraception as legitimate finalizes the divorce between sexual intercourse and procreation and sees no problem with using human reason to advance medical technology in order to allow people to engage in sex without worrying about pregnancy. Such rejection of so fundamental a truth about the human person indicates an all-too-human tendency to become self-determining, deciding for ourselves what is right and wrong. By so doing we fall again by giving into the same temptation as the woman in the garden, who, after being told by the serpent that by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree "your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad," took a bite (Gen 3,5).

There is one thing about which all sides in this discussion agree, namely, that sexuality gets to heart of what it means to be human. So, to be human, at least in part, is to be sexual, but not the most important part. To be sexual means desiring to have sex. Some people desire it more than others. For example, men generally desire to have sex more than do women and tend be initiators of sex in more often than women. Sexual desire is normal, natural, and good. We are not, after all, gnostics.

In addition to being very much material creatures, we are also rational beings. Our rationality is what allows us to see our bodily urges and desires for what they are and to order them properly. For example, eating is a wonderful and necessary activity. We would die without eating. Yet, we also prefer foods that taste good, which, in many cases, means that we prefer foods that are not nutritious and a lot of them, more than we need. In other words, we can take an activity that is necessary for our survival and turn it in to something that threatens our health and ultimately our survival. Sex is not really all that different. It is a pretty good analogy as long as we keep in mind the logician’s suspicion of analogies, which is that they limp. To say that one thing is like another thing is not to identify or mistake one thing for another thing, the take away being that while two things may be alike in a certain regard they can be very different in another.

Sexuality is unique because it is a place (using place metaphorically) where our body and our soul do not so much bump into each other (such a bumping would be dualistic) as interlock and overlap (which is holistic). Human sexual desire, if it is fully human, is holistic, which means that it cannot be merely physical. Insofar as sex is sought only as physical gratification, like the scratching of an itch, it is an urge, not a desire. Desire, even more than rationality, is evidence that we are bearers of the imago dei, so much so that it can be said that nothing is more indicative of our transcendence than desire. In fact, desire can be defined as human longing for the transcendent, for what will completely satisfy us. We employ our freedom to achieve this end, which is nothing less than the attainment of satisfaction, which is happiness. Many today see sexual liberation, defined as being freed by the restraints put on sexual expression by the church and society, as the way to human fulfillment, as the way to happiness.

Writing of an encounter he had with the same Dr. Williams, shortly after Williams was named Archbishop of Canterbury, George Wiegel, biographer of Pope John Paul II, writes of speaking with him about John Paul II’s theology of the body. The discussion then progressed, according to Wiegel’s recounting, to talking about
"the difference between ‘sacramental’ and ‘gnostic’ understandings of the human condition. The former insists that the stuff of the world – including maleness, femaleness, and their complementarity — has truths built into it; gnostics say it’s all plastic, all malleable, all changeable. The sacramentalists believe that the extraordinary reveals itself through the ordinary: bread, wine, water, salt, marital love and fidelity; the gnostics say it’s a matter of superior wisdom, available to the enlightened (which can mean, the politically correct)" (Wiegel, "The End of the Anglican Communion," Denver Catholic Register, 7 March 2007).

This brings me to what seems to be the crux of the issue as regards Humane Vitae: the nature of the sex act as it pertains to the human person. In number twelve of the encyclical, Pope Paul identifies two essential qualities of what is called throughout the official English translation of the document "the marriage act," or, in the typical text, which is Latin, "coniugii actus," which literally translates as conjugal act, with conjugal meaning pertaining to the marital state, the unitive and procreative. Pope Paul points out that the "inseparable connection" between these two qualities is "established by God". This divine connection "man on his own initiative may not break" because both qualities are "inherent to the marriage act". It is the unity of these two essential qualities that serves as the cornerstone of John Paul II’s theology of the body.

The divine connection posited in Humane Vitae between these two essential qualities is the pole around which the moral, as opposed to the juridical, debate orbits. On the one hand, it is obvious that a married couple who love each other and who live in mutual fidelity to one another, who even have children and may even desire to have more, can employ artificial contraceptives and engage in sexual intercourse. It is equally obvious that a man and a woman can "hook-up" and engage in so-called unprotected sex that results in pregnancy. In the first case, according to the moral analysis necessitated by Humane Vitae, the act is immoral because the procreative quality is not merely missing, but "the inseparable connection" is deliberately broken on human "initiative". In the second instance the procreative quality is preserved, even if only due to the passion of the moment and the consequent lack of planning, but the unitive element is missing as it is whenever sexual intimacy occurs outside of marriage, thus rendering this act immoral, too.

Both instances show that it is possible to engage in sexual intercourse in the absence of one of these essential qualities. So, the inherent nature of these qualities is not such that sexual intercourse is impossible in the absence of one of them, as the two examples illustrate. This may seem like a "Well, duh" kind of observation, but it goes to various arguments both for and against what is taught in Humane Vitae, based on natural law. It is important to note that coniugii actus is not merely a euphemism for sexual intercourse. In other words, there are many acts of sexual intercourse, both between spouses and people who are not married to each other, which are not, in fact, conjugal acts precisely because they lack one of the two essential qualities identified in Humane Vitae as inherent to acts of sexual intercourse that rise to being conjugal acts, which are moral and, hence, truly human acts. As is the case with moral issues, it is not a question whether or not it can be done, it clearly can, but whether it ought to be done, or not.

"The morality of human acts," we read in the Catechism, "depends on the object chosen; the end in view or the intention; the circumstances of the action (CCC 1750). These three together "make up the 'sources,' or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts" (ibid). While intention, along with chosen object, "is an essential element to the moral evaluation of an action," the morality, or goodness, of any human act is never derived on the basis of intention alone. Stated in a more recognizable way, we may never do evil that good may come of it; the end does not justify the means (CCC 1752-1753). The circumstances that pertain to any human action, unlike the object and intention, "are secondary elements of a moral act" (CCC 1754). What can be determined by circumstances are the "increasing or diminishing . . . moral goodness or evil of [a] human act" as well as the acting agent’s culpability in performing the act (ibid). Like intention, circumstances “cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves” (ibid). On a Christian view, morality is objective. Humane Vitae clearly teaches that the deliberate, that is, intentional, separation of the procreative and unitive qualities of the conjugal act make it not a conjugal act at all, but an immoral act.

In number 10, which is entitled Responsible Parenthood, Humanae Vitae teaches that the church, while opposed to artificial contraception, is in favor of birth control. This is an important distinction because what the church teaches is often approached in the following way, even by Catholics: "So, the Catholic church is against birth control." This implies that faithful Catholic couples are obligated to either abstain from sexual intercourse or roll the dice each and every time they engage in it. What Humane Vitae teaches is that it is up to parents to decide, taking into account their "physical, economic, psychological and social conditions," when to have children, how many children to have, and how far apart to space their children. Of course, when getting married receiving "children lovingly from God" is something Catholic couples vow to do because the church, that is, the ekklesia, understands that marriage is ordered, "by its very nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring"(CIC 1055 §1). Hence, marriage itself has unitive and procreative qualities.

"For matrimonial consent to exist, the contracting parties must be at least not ignorant that marriage is a permanent partnership between a man and a woman ordered to the procreation of offspring by means of some sexual cooperation" (CIC 1096 §1). The first recourse that couples have because they are human persons possessed of both reason and will is to "exert control over" our "innate drives and emotions". In other words, the object chosen for serious reasons (i.e., not to have any more children, or no children for a time) can be moral, that is, good. However, by so choosing "due respect" must be given "to moral precepts” (HV 10). Stated more directly, they may not do evil that good may come of it. In other words, they may not choose to employ artificial means to achieve the desired end of not having any more children, or no children for a time. Of course, couples who are unable to have children due to naturally occurring infertility, as opposed to deliberate sterilization, remain free to marry and to engage in intercourse because they are, presumably, not opposed to having children, and are doing nothing to deliberately sever the inherent connection between the unitive and procreative qualities of the conjugal act. A person incapable of having sexual intercourse, as is the case with a man who is impotent, cannot validly enter into the marital state.

"If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained" (HV 16).
Intention also comes into play even when reserving sexual intercourse only to infertile periods for sufficiently "serious" and "well-grounded reasons". However, by making recourse to these periods there is no separation of the unitive from the procreative either deliberate or otherwise. The act remains intact and so is a truly conjugal act.

While we might at times feel differently, immoral sex does not correspond to our hearts because it does not lead us to destiny, the end for which we are created, true happiness, the complete satisfaction of our desire. Denial of self, of selfish desires, along with living in the awareness of destiny, is essential to breaking through the clutter of our present culture, which is sex-soaked to the point of being pornographic, to attain true freedom. At this point reference must be made to what happens when moral norms derived from the divine and natural law are ignored. So, I direct you to Humane Vitae turns 40. Since I broke my self-imposed hiatus, a sure sign of blog addiction, here's a link to In memoriam: Paul VI.

Sorry for the interruption; back to my hiatus.


  1. I note your differentiation of "urge" from "desire." Are these theological jargon? Can you explain the difference?

  2. Not being a theologian, I am unacquainted with such jargon. This is why I love Von Balthasar, he was not, at least not by academic training, a theologian.

    An urge is something physical. For example, I feel horny. This is expressive of nothing but an impulse, it can be purely biological, it may also be driven by psychological factors, even ones of which I am not aware. By contrast, desire, as it relates to sexuality, is when physical longing is in tune with what corresponds to my heart. It is something that happens of which I am aware, not unaware.

    In order to be desire it has to correspond to my heart. Because my desire is for what it is infinite, I cannot completely grasp it. Nonetheless, in order count as desire, it must happen with awareness. So, it is awareness that keeps it from being an urge. If I am just aroused, because there is no awareness, it is an urge that must be subject to self-control, mortification, which, along with awareness, is necessary for true freedom.

    Far from theological jargon, my explanation of the distinction comes right from Giussani's method.