Monday, November 24, 2008

An amateur stab at moral reasoning

Today I was asked point-blank whether the use of artificial methods of contraception by married couples is intrinsically evil. For something to be intrinsically evil it must be wrong always and everywhere, regardless of intentions and/or circumstances. It does seem to me that Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae teaches that use of artificial methods of contraception is intrinsically evil because it is a violation of both the natural law, derived from reason, as well as the divine law, derived from revelation, that is, from Scripture and tradition, the constant and unbroken teaching of the church, a teaching that is of apostolic origin.

Working on the assumption that artificial contraception is intrinsically evil, circumstances cannot exempt one from adhering to the binding moral precepts derived from natural and divine law. So, even in cases in which one spouse is infected with HIV, the use of a condom is not morally licit. In cases in which a woman is prescribed birth control pills for therapeutic reasons, abstinence is also the moral answer.

I believe that the application of the principle of double effect has been rejected when some have sought to apply it to cases in which one of the spouses is infected with HIV. It is my understanding that in order for double effect to be legitimately applied, all of the following four conditions must be met:

 the nature of the act is itself good
 the intention is for the good effect and not the bad;
 the good effect outweighs the bad effect in a situation sufficiently grave to merit the risk of yielding the bad effect
 the good effect does not go through the bad effect

This is where another aspect of morality comes into play, namely that which constitutes a grave sin. As it pertains to the church's constant teaching with regard to contraception, it is quite clear that very small minority of Catholics in the U.S., estimated to be somewhere around 3% of couples married in the church, follow the clear and constant, if difficult, teaching of the church. I think this can be largely chalked up to consciences not being properly formed with regard to sexuality in general and marital sexuality in particular. Many couples are told, sometimes even encouraged, by some charged with teaching and pastoring to ignore this teaching. It helps to understand a very crucial distinction; that between sin and wrongdoing. So, while doing something intrinsically evil is always wrong, it is not always sinful. How so?

Looking to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is clearly taught that a grave, or mortal, sin is committed "when there are simultaneously present: grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent" (par. 395). Deliberate consent presupposes full knowledge. So, for most Catholics who ignore what the church teaches regarding contraception, while there is grave matter involved (i.e., that which is intrinsically evil), there is rarely full knowledge and, hence, rarely full consent. As with marriage in general, the fault can be laid largely on the church's inability to clearly and persuasively articulate the truth, but the truth remains the truth regardless of our inability to articulate, understand, or live it, which is why God's mercy, given us in Christ Jesus, as Paul teaches us, is so important. This is not helped by the fact that we live in an over-sexed age in which pregnancy is normally viewed as something that goes wrong when two people engage in sexual intercourse.

While we're on the subject of sexual confusion, Laura Bramon Good has posted Elliot Spitzer Makes a Porno, Part II.


  1. This is not so much about your blog post as it is about Humanae Vitae.

    For purposes of discussion, I believe certain questions should be asked. Please don't take this as confrontational but rather as faith seeking understanding. I admit that I have not read Humanae Vitae.

    With Humanae Vitae, are you and the Catholic church being too moralistic, too legalistic?

    More to the point, is Humanae Vita Pharisaical, in the sense of imposing rules upon people that are impossible for most people to follow?

    With all your logic, are you reaching unreasonable conclusions? As per Giussani, "The reasonable cannot be identified with the 'logical.' Logic is an ideal of coherence; if you posit certain premises and develop them coherently, you will reach a logical outcome. If the premises are wrong, perfect logic will produce an erroneous result." p14, The Religious Sense.

    I suspect that a big part of the problem with Catholic thinking about sex is that it is dualistic. They have divided the the purpose of sex into pro-creation and pleasure. Perhaps this is a false compartmentalization of reality.

    What are the lessons of, and the role of experience, in all this?

  2. I don't take your questions to be confrontational at all. They are the kinds of questions many people have regarding HV

    1) There is a pretty big distinction between moral and moralistic. The church has a duty to teach us what is moral, it is a duty borne of love. We are free to respond or not, out of love. Seeing what the church teaches as something being imposed upon us is not the best way to view things, even if we are obedient to it. All obedience, in Christian terms, is for perfcetion in love. I don't think we should seek to reduce what the church teaches by calling it moralism. By doing so we reduce ourselves and assert ourselves against our humanity.

    2) Living according to what HV teaches is not impossible for most people. It is very possible. Are you not free? I think Is It Possible vol 1 speaks volumes to this issue. Not living in accord with this contributes to the trivialization of sex.

    3) While I think Giussani's approach to this question would probably differ from mine, it is never possible to invoke him against the clear teaching of the church. On the other hand, he teaches us to do the right thing for the right reasons, which requires the proper use of reason, and the proper formation of conscience. If forced to opine, I think he would see living in accord with HV as an authentic and human way of living, a way that acknowledges destiny, a way that recognizes the fact of Christ's Presence. He is big on making judgments on the basis of reason and not feeling.

    I think the most progressive aspect of HV is that sexual relations serve both the unity of the couple as well as the transmission of life. There is no dualism in that, it is very wholistic.

  3. I am trying to tread very lightly here, but questions need to be answered and answered honestly. I would shierk my responsibility to not answer honestly. Moralism does not arise from what is taught, but from how we live it, the reasons we live it, and the reasons we give others for living it. As regards the Pharisees, Jesus never took issue with the overall importance of observing the mitzvot, but how it was lived, the attitude with which it was lived, what one's reasons were for observing the 613 rules.

    We have become scared to speak the truth for fear how people will react. Nonetheless, I am a firm believer that how we say something is as important as what we say, which is why it is important to start from a positive hypothesis.

    We deacons in our diocese were told recently by our bishop, with regard to the church's support for Proposition 8 in California: "We defend out right to speak and defend the truth with love and compassion." I am not worried that something I say or write might cause cognitive dissonance in others, or myself. It is good, as long we engage in the struggle within ourselves and not project it outward on to the church. For me, this is where Giussani, Carrón, and the companionship of CL help me tremendously.

  4. Good answers.

    I will try to continue to understand this stuff. I hope to read HV soon.


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