Contraception and Signs of Contradiction: Part I

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Contraception as Apparent Moral Good.  Most persons who use contraception conceive of it as a moral good.  They see an unruly, pullulating nature directed toward nothing other than its own continuance all about them; and in their sexual desires and fertility they find, unsurprisingly, an image of this endless profusion.  In response, they believe that the use of contraceptive technologies makes possible the near mastery of the human intellect over the otherwise undirected, at times dangerous, abundance of their inner natural world.  By suppressing fertility for much of their lives, and having children only at those moments they think most propitious, they hope to attain several goods that they believe to be both individually attractive and publically beneficial:

a) one can wait to have children until the most convenient moment, so that one’s career or economic well-being can be on a good footing, and that one’s career can be minimally sidetracked;

b) one can have just one or two children, so that the promise of sufficient time to dedicate oneself to one’s spouse and one’s children and the prospect of being able to provide for their every material want to great advantage seems most likely to be manageable;

c) planned parenthood in general provides numerous public benefits: a decrease in illegitimacy and abortion; allowance for later marriages and a consequent increase in fidelity and a decrease in divorce;

d) finally, in a world swelling with huge masses of humanity, a mastered and limited fertility can allow one to have a child or two without contributing to the long-prophesized fear of overpopulation.

These views are so common as to be practically universal; they are the common sense of our day and the guiding principles of much of our public policy in America and in the West as a whole.  To call any of them into question seems absurd.  To doubt the goodness of these things, more specifically, seems outright threatening.

Persons who use contraception believe themselves to be experiencing its goodness in every way: in the freedom felt in the very absence of a daily grind of daunting responsibilities for other lives; in the sigh of relief breathed as one loses a job or fails to earn what one had expected.  They see stories of child abuse or neglect on the news, or hear their friends’ tales of divorce, and reaffirm that children will have to wait until they are emotionally ready for that unique, privileged, and immense job.  They look to it as a moment to be prepared for, a singular episode to be lived through.  Moreover, they look at the images of urban slums abroad and at the high rise projects uptown; they see the very density of traffic on their own suburban roads, and they cannot help but wonder whether the blessing of each new child born—so palpable a joy in the singular—is not contributing to great social and material harm in the aggregate.

The Fragility of the Catholic Consensus.  One may hardly be surprised, then, that the Catholic teaching on the evil of contraception has, for forty years, met with visceral scorn and vitriolic contempt everywhere outside its parishes.  Nor need one be surprised that, in its parishes, such teaching has not infrequently been met with silence and evasion not just by lay Catholics but by priests.  For decades, a contract has been tacitly maintained between pulpit and pew: we will not preach against the secret practices of the bedroom, if you do not speak of them with casual acceptance.  One may contracept, so long as one remains too embarrassed or well-mannered to speak about it.

These last months have brought the silent shame and embarrassing teaching to the center of our public life in a way few of us could have anticipated.  The Obama administration has disrupted the shrouded-in-silence status quo of American Catholics as part of a larger political strategy further to fragment what remains of the Catholic vote.  It has thus rendered that quiet bargain so long ago struck in the old churches of Somerville and the parishes of Peoria uncomfortably visible and, consequently, simply unsustainable.

Catholic Bishops, drawing evidently on the same prudential wisdom that led to decades of silent impasse and families of one or two children becoming the norm in their churches, attempted to make the federal mandate regarding contraception, sterilization, and abortafacients a question of simple religious liberty.  Patrick Deneen and others have pointed out the lack of wisdom in attempting to frame the argument in the terms of liberal democracy, precisely because the spirit of liberalism is ultimately, if subtly, totalitarian in character.  The positive freedom to have equal access to something almost inevitably trumps the negative freedom not to violate one’s conscience.

But is it not rather the case that the Bishops had no choice but to argue for their Church’s religious freedom simply because most Catholics already accept as a fact of life and even as a moral good the practices of contraception that have become widespread in America over the last several decades?  Did they not, importantly, already have a case study in the fragility of their hold on the Catholic laity?

For, the liturgical and devotional changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council just a few years before Paul VI’s promulgation of Humane Vitae (1968) revealed how fragile Catholic culture and practice in America really was.  Thinking they needed only to modernize to make Catholicism the American religion, drawing Protestants into its fold, the Bishops changed with confident authority the daily lives of their long-standing and previously docile flock.  But the effect was swift, drastic, and unanticipated.  The seminaries emptied; so, also, if more slowly, did the pews.  An outward structure of massive strength and size turned out to be less like the dome of St. Peter’s and more like a fabergé egg.

What resulted from the changes of the Council was not a Church reborn, dynamic with the new life and priesthood of the laity, or a Church aggrandized, gaining in ubiquity through modernization, ecumenical outreach, and the reconversion of “our separated Protestant brothers and sisters.”  Rather, churches were trashed, liturgies bowdlerized, and those not already deeply entrenched in the habits of devotion saw that the Church seemed to offer little that was not available elsewhere in the West’s secular, therapeutic culture; what little it did have to offer rang with just that slight and unattractive dissonance of the anachronistic—unattractive in consequence, and certainly not an entirely other way of being in the world.  Not, not certainly, a sign of contradiction in an age of unbelief, greed, acquisitiveness, and libertinism.

The Bishops had learned their lesson.  The pews may still be half-full today, but they would be mostly empty tomorrow if the Church were to couch its objection to the Obama mandate in terms that draw attention to the particularities of Catholic moral teaching rather than appeal to the liberal truisms of American religious liberty.

Perhaps providentially, the candidacy of Sen. Rick Santorum—through some sly journalists’ questions apropos of nothing and Santorum’s own compulsion to chomp at any rhetorical bait—did not allow this framing of the Obama mandate as a question of religious liberty entirely to take hold.  The Church was able to make its argument on liberal grounds and gain something of a hearing in that regard.  But the presence of Santorum and all he made visible—by his very presence, not to mention his outspoken and not always fortunate language—made it evident that something more, and something other, was at stake.

Unhappily, this has been most obvious in the manner in which journalists hostile to the Church have been able to keep the discussion of these matters from being neatly restricted to the trope of religious liberty.  What has not, on the whole, resulted is a forthright defense of Church moral teaching that compels Catholics to affirm what they believe or that takes on the common sense of a culture that views contraception as a personal convenience and a moral good.  More priests than ever before have in fact undertaken just this affirmation, and many lay Catholics have tried to make such a case, and to do so with unapologetic reasoning, but it has not penetrated into the dominant locations of debate; it probably cannot do so, unless the Church in its clerisy and episcopacy speaks with a more unified and definitive voice.  This will be hard to do; it is hard to be a sign of contradiction in a world where persons believe that their everyday practices and the ends they are already pursuing are demonstrably authentic goods.

The Order and Goodness of Creation.  But is it not just this common sense certitude in the authentic moral goodness of contraception what the Church does indeed contradict not just in its specific moral teachings on marriage and the bearing of children, but in its entire philosophy of nature, its entire understanding of the character, conditions, and purpose of creation?

The conception of nature that most modern persons intuitively accept is that first advocated by Thomas Hobbes.  Though many later things have nuanced our common sense about nature, it remains essentially Hobbesian.  The English philosopher writes, in the early pages of his Leviathan,

That when a thing lies still, unless somewhat else stir it, it will lie still for ever, is a truth that no man doubts of. But that when a thing is in motion, it will eternally be in motion, unless somewhat else stay it, though the reason be the same (namely, that nothing can change itself), is not so easily assented to. For men measure, not only other men, but all other things, by themselves: and because they find themselves subject after motion to pain and lassitude, think everything else grows weary of motion, and seeks repose of its own accord; little considering whether it be not some other motion wherein that desire of rest they find in themselves consisteth. From hence it is that the schools say, heavy bodies fall downwards out of an appetite to rest, and to conserve their nature in that place which is most proper for them; ascribing appetite, and knowledge of what is good for their conservation (which is more than man has), to things inanimate, absurdly.

When a body is once in motion, it moveth (unless something else hinder it) eternally; and whatsoever hindreth it, cannot in an instant, but in time, and by degrees, quite extinguish it:

We see that nature is already in motion, and we imagine that the whole natural world will go on and on, without limit or purpose, changing, growing, toiling beyond profusion, unless something interrupt its movement.  We find this incessant movement in ourselves as well: a tendency toward growth and expansion, an endless appetite, which we must discipline, suppress, or master—sometimes by our reason, but often by the external contrivances of our reason.  The cosmos just keeps on turning, unless someone stick a mop handle in the spokes; and we just go on breeding and devouring, unless we can disrupt the fertility of our own inner world.

We would all accept as a matter of course that a physical body in motion tends to stay in motion, just as Hobbes says; abstractly speaking, an unspecified “physical body” has no natural conditions or particular purpose.  But the Catholic philosophy of nature does not think this conclusion answers any significant question on the nature of nature.  Have any of us, it asks, actually ever encountered pure and simple a body?

Pure matter may be in itself indeterminate, infinitely subject to continuous motion and infinite mutability.  But once matter has been formed into this or that particular nature, one of the attributes it evidently gains thereby is an ordination to an end: no sooner does something come to exist as some thing than it has also an aim at which it is directed, a purpose its very being sets it on the path to fulfilling.  I can imagine my body, carried up into outer space and set adrift.  It may well move in a straight line, forward, forever.  But my body, as part of my self, is naturally intended not to live in the waste and void of space but on the solid ground of the good earth.  And there, my self finds its movement internally limited, ordered to particular goods by its very nature.  That nature would be so violated, were it set adrift in the void, that it would soon die.

The orderliness and self-limitation of nature is a reality we encounter every day.  So universal an experience is it that we ought to question why our common sense speaks to us of a Hobbesian endlessness of motion rather than of an orderly, purposeful, and definitively finite nature: a nature that involves our reason as a part of itself, but which is not dependent on that reason for most of its operations.  We see this orderliness and, by definition, because we cannot help but perceive it, we find the entire world consummately intelligible.  The stability and predictability of all things in nature seeking their ends we see as a sign of their truth.  And when we see the fluent and articulate speech of nature’s truth, its participation in the language of Truth Itself, we know it for the created expression of a creating voice; we thus come to know the world also as Good.

Catholicism teaches us that the way to be in a world instinct with purpose and intelligibility is to perceive it as true and good, and this means to accept it and our place within it as a gift.  All things seek their individual goods, and their individual goods cooperate in an immanent universal good, the order of creation.  Our reason, a part of this order, has a designated role to play, and the whole moral mystery of human life in this world is to discover the character of that role.  That mystery is itself a gift, though it also should feel like a great burden.  The burden is justly eased as soon as we see that the intelligible order of nature helps to direct our reason with a very light yoke.  It is, however, unjustly eased when we use seek technological or ideological substitutions for it.

To be concluded tomorrow . . .

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