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The Contraception Debate

Louis Dupré has suggested that the hallmark of modernity is the belief that things which can be distinguished logically can exist separately. Several of the contributors to the symposium on contraception suffer from the same weak philosophy of being that gave rise to that belief (“Contraception: A Symposium,” December 1998). They claim that one’s commitment to a certain way of life is not contradicted, much less eroded, by a series of premeditated violations of that very way of life. Even if their claim does not entail a logical contradiction, it is at least a clear indication that contraception has, for them, no troublesome ontological implications.

These contributors view natural law as fundamentally extrinsic to the human person, rather than as an integral part of his being. Of course, this presupposition determines both their selection and their interpretation of evidence. Their conclusion, then, that apparent material contradictions of natural law call its coherence or force into question is unsurprising. As J. Budziszewski points out, they believe that “because they can sever the causal link between sex and procreation, they suppose that they have severed the link between sex and procreation,” or, to be more precise, they suppose that the link exists only accidentally. Such critics often believe that Humanae Vitae reduces the human to the biological-the so-called “naturalistic fallacy.” Yet, as John Paul II has observed, they fail to realize that their criticism is itself based on a prior, unwarranted reduction of the natural to the material-the real naturalistic fallacy.

I am not well versed in Protestant theology, but I would be surprised to discover that the Protestant contributors’ position on contraception owes nothing to their soteriology. Such a connection is certainly present in the work of certain Catholic theologians (in which I am very well versed) who argue that once one has chosen the “fundamental option” for God, even gravely sinful acts do not separate one from sanctifying grace or otherwise erode one’s inclination to virtue.

We should realize, however, that there is probably more at work here than an intellectual error, for things are received in the manner of the receiver. These contributors approach Humanae Vitae already suspicious of natural law, indeed, of reason itself. Moreover, as Eric Chevlen notes, self-interest often interferes with moral reasoning, and if one is already interested in the contraceptive way of life, one may not be open to Humanae Vitae for reasons that have little to do with the strength of its arguments.

Be that as it may, there are far-reaching implications for moral philosophy and theology if these contributors are correct. What ought to concern them is that the theory of human action implied by their position cannot be confined to contraception, for there is no action that cannot be justified if we grant that a principle is somehow compatible with its own violation.

Mitchell Muncy Dallas, TX

Several contributors to the symposium state that there is no scriptural basis for the prohibition against contraception. May I draw their attention to Galatians 5:19-21, a catalogue of sins which St. Paul condemns as “works of the flesh”? Among them in the original Greek is pharmakeia, which is usually translated as “sorcery” but which in the first century a.d. specifically referred to the mixing of potions for illicit purposes, including the prevention of pregnancy. Both potential meanings are to the point. A couple who put a plug on their fertility may be acting out a kind of “sorcery” whose purpose is to gain control over nature by wrongful means. This attitude is at complete variance to that behind Natural Family Planning (NFP), wherein a couple who have reason to space their children accept the gift of sexuality exactly as it is stamped in the human person by God and do not treat their fertility as a problem to be expunged by technology.

George Sim Johnston New York, NY

A little thought about natural law makes clear that there is no other species than man so endowed with the possibilities of its own protection and thoughtful promulgation; no other species that can display such a reverence for life that it can fight against the dying of the light; no other that can so protect its weakest, most vulnerable members. And no other species is so prone to abuse these possibilities for an activity the pleasure of which is fleeting and the position ridiculous.

There is talk of the “unitive” value of infertile copulation. As the female of the species is fertile but ten days out of each twenty-eight, and it is possible to determine the days, why do the other eighteen not suffice? Against which socioeconomic level are family prevention programs aimed? Why does population control sound like a police action? What is this erotic religion that promotes lust and forbids fertility? Have our doctors not enough work that they must treat pregnancy as a disease, a condition to be avoided?

Gabriel Austin New York, NY

In his contribution to the symposium, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput refers to Paul VI as a prophet. I think the archbishop is confused. Likewise, First Things ’ questions and your contributors’ answers show a fundamental misunderstanding of the charism of the papacy and the function of the mystical body.

The Pope is the keeper of the keys. It is not his job to frame an argument; convince the higher clergy and rank-and-file Roman Catholics of its correctness; communicate his message well; ground the message in Scripture; or expand the message beyond a “Catholic issue.”

The fact that First Things accepts the question as framed by society-how well did the Pope deliver his message?-goes a long way to explaining why the Pope’s “opinion” is just one more voice added to the cacophony of Oprah, Al Gore, Howard Stern, and the woman in the next cubicle at the office. When the theologians begin to follow the lead of symposiasts Alicia Mosier and Janet E. Smith, i.e., elucidating the instruction of the one person on earth whose charism is infallibility, then we can speak of prophets. Then the already overburdened gatekeeper can go back to feeding Christ’s sheep.

Kenneth G. Hodge Denver, CO

Humanae Vitae
was a response to a new social and scientific reality. What is truly remarkable about the document is a prophetic truth associated only with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It was in 1968 that Pope Paul VI released this document, long in preparation, foretelling precisely what would follow the instituting of widespread contraceptive techniques and human choices. In 1999, we are no longer reduced to “guessing” whether he was inspired or speaking only as a man:

• adultery has lost its moral significance and become commonplace;

• chastity has become a symbol of unhealthy development;

• contraception in expectation of fornication is taught to children in the schools;

• respect between the sexes has been replaced by mutual exploitation and/or competition;

• marriage has lost its sacramental nature and its enduring promise;

• statistically, divorce is common, teenage pregnancy is widespread, single parent and serially parented families increase, sexual disease is epidemic, intercourse is recreational, abortion is ubiquitous.

No Old Testament prophet was ever more accurate than Pope Paul VI. The definitive scriptural references on this subject are no longer verses referring to human sexuality, but those that speak of a tree being known by the fruit it produces. The prohibitions of Humanae Vitae illustrate the truth so cogently phrased by Ben Franklin: “Vicious actions are not harmful because they are forbidden; they are forbidden because they are harmful.”

Dorothy T. Samuel St. Cloud, MN

All the symposiasts address, in various ways, the meaning of “natural.” Perhaps the most cogent expression of the project of modern science is found in Francis Bacon’s inelegant injunction that “we must put nature to the torture, and make her yield all her secrets.” And, to put what some of the symposiasts have noted in Heidegger’s terms, man has come to think of nature primarily, if not solely, in terms of “standing reserve.” That is, nature is just so much indeterminate “stuff out there” dependent for its determination on the exercise of man’s will. But at present nature is not so much “stuff out there” as “stuff in here”-in the hormones, in the brain, in the genome. As Archbishop Charles J. Chaput so directly puts it: “In vitro fertilization, cloning, genetic manipulation, and embryo experimentation are descendants of contraceptive technology.” These have worked changes “on our own interior human identity.” And of course much more is to come from the boys and girls in the white lab coats.

Whatever one may think of Natural Family Planning, or of periodic restraint under any other name, positive chemico-mechanical restraints on conception-those that, if you will, “violate nature”-open the door to, in C. S. Lewis’ well-known words, “the abolition of man.” Harkening back to Paul Ramsey’s Fabricated Man, we must ask: When, where, along the descending arc of reproductive technology, organ transplantation, and genetic engineering will we have produced a “man” made, not begotten, a “creature” for whom it could not be said that Christ died?

John Lyon Bayfield, WI

There is little question that, on substance, Pope Paul VI was correct in noting what would happen when the “contraceptive mentality” entered a culture’s mores.

But once (within marriage) generosity has been fulfilled in a particular couple (which only they can determine in conscience), need “each and every act of sexual intercourse” be open to the gift of children without destroying the symbolism of the conjugal act as complete self-gift to each other? Cannot sterilization of one of the parties in such a relationship make eminent good sense? Since this couple has generously fulfilled one of those ends of marriage (procreative), is it wrong to exclude the other (unitive)?

The abuse of contraception should not prevent us from questioning one small part of the encyclical-not as to its symbolism but as to its use in a particular marriage.

Peter J. Riga Houston, TX

The one perspective I missed in the symposium (except for the passing dismissal by Harold O. J. Brown of the “population control establishment”) was the view of global environmental and ecological thinkers on the subject of contraception. The clichés of overpopulation and environmental destruction retain their power because they are based not only on establishment perceptions but on widely documented evidence. Only recently, the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in Central America was made much more tragic due to the rampant deforestation due to population pressures in those poor lands. The challenge to social conservatives at this point is still to name one social, political, or cultural problem that is not made worse by the pressure of overpopulation.

The Lord told us to “be fruitful and multiply and exercise dominion over the earth.” I think that we have long since sufficiently fulfilled the first part of that command and now need to exercise some lordship over our perceived need to populate the world with more and more of our offspring. The Darwinians tell us the chief drive of males is to increase at all costs the number of their genetic replicas. Surely Christian faith need not be captured by that particular dogma. We need not deny our biological heritage and evolutionary urges, but neither do we have to canonize them.

(The Rev.) Wayne D. Walther Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church Lockhart, TX

I thought Humanae Vitae ‘s most pivotal insight was missed by most of the contributors to the symposium. In his encyclical Paul VI moved the Catholic Church away from the traditional natural law arguments (contrary to Harold O. J. Brown’s assertion) that were based on an “objective” teleology, i.e., one that emphasizes the causal link between sex and procreation (as suggested by J. Budziszewski) or the natural law arguments by design (as asserted by Eric Chevlen).

Humanae Vitae
(and subsequent interpretations by John Paul II, especially his theology of the body) has taken Catholics and other people of good will in another direction. The encyclical develops the natural law in regard to the meaning of the marital union. It tries to get us to ask: what does the marital union say ? What does contraception say ? How does contraception affect what the marital union says ? Humanae Vitae develops the natural law argument based on a “subjective” teleology.

Janet E. Smith gets it right when she says, “Contraception violates both meanings of the conjugal act. It obviously violates the procreative aspect of sex, but it also impedes the union of spouses.” Humanae Vitae takes a radically new approach to contraception. It emphasizes the meaning of what is said. It goes beyond the results-oriented, “objective” teleology that has proved insufficient to explain human sexuality. It is able, contrary to the opinions of Sarah E. Hinlicky and R. Albert Mohler, Jr., to establish the immorality of contraception independent of whether the contraceptive method has abortifacient effects.

(The Rev.) John R. Waiss Tilden Study Center Los Angeles, CA

I found Sarah E. Hinlicky’s contribution to “Contraception: A Symposium” rather surprising in light of her article “Subversive Virginity” (October 1998). Does self-respect require self-control only for the unmarried? And should we demand self-control of our boyfriends, but not of our husbands? Ms. Hinlicky justly defends chastity for the unmarried, but fails to recognize that married persons can practice this great virtue as well. The subjugation of lovemaking to human reason within a lawful marriage is precisely what elevates human sexuality above the mating of brute beasts.

As for Ms. Hinlicky’s argument that non-abortifacient forms of birth control are not intrinsically evil in light of the fact that many couples employ these methods and suffer no evil results, I can only refer her to the wisdom of Ecclesiasticus 5:4: “Say not: I have sinned, and what harm hath befallen me? For the most High is a patient rewarder.”

Suzanne N. Temple Wolfeboro Falls, NH

Sarah E. Hinlicky states that marriage is in the “pattern of His own Trinitarian love.” This image quickly fades, however, when Ms. Hinlicky makes contraception an option for spouses. Trinitarian love means perfect self-giving among the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. How can couples using contraception emanate Trinitarian love when they are deliberately withholding their fertility from one another? Only married couples who give themselves completely, including their procreative powers, reflect the unifying and life-giving love of the Trinity.

Bridget E. Maher Alexandria, VA

“When I was a Protestant I thought like a Protestant, but when I became a Catholic I gave up Protestant ways.” “Contraception: A Symposium” reasons, so to speak, like a Protestant; by endeavoring to be ecumenical, it fails to be Catholic. The editors’ questions-especially “Was Paul VI right?”- imply that the reader is in a position to judge an article of faith.

As a Lutheran I thought of faith as the centerpiece of my religion: sola scriptura with its extra-biblical simul iustus et peccator. Though I was largely unaware of it, I held myself up as the final arbiter of that faith; it was up to me to decide ultimately what I as an individual believed. My wife says of her own Calvinist days that faith consisted in trying anxiously to persuade herself that she believed exactly the right list of propositions. As Protestants, we both approached the things of faith as outsiders, examining some idea connected to the faith and making some determination whether or not it was true.

In a Catholic way of thinking, the assent precedes the thought, or the assent, as Augustine says, directs the thought. When I was a college student, a priest informed me that coming to the Catholic faith was an all-or-nothing proposition. I did not like his words. I did not like the thought of giving up control over what I believed. Still, twelve years later I found myself standing before the altar of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Scranton, Pa., saying: “I believe everything that the Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” Ironically, what I had seen as a barrier to becoming Catholic, and as a legalistic complication of religion, became a doorway to a life much more profound and lovely than I had expected.

In the Church, the Pope’s words never stand alone, but belong to the fullness of the deposit of faith, things of beauty and mystery, ours to explore and apprehend with all the other wonders of life in paradise. But for now, as long as we approach any element of the faith as something that we have to determine for ourselves, then at some level we will resist the invitation to embrace it for what it truly is: something better than ourselves.

Glen Johnson Scranton, PA

To Repent or Not to Repent

Avery Dulles’ discussion of Pope John Paul’s decision to seek forgiveness for certain actions in the Church’s past (“Should the Church Repent?” December 1998) is filled with his usual precision, care, and love for the Church. I would only suggest that the positive benefits with which he concludes his pre sentation deserve much greater attention than they have thus far received in this debate.

The public acknowledgment by a Pope that certain actions taken in the past by members of the Catholic Church were in error, and caused damage to others which needs to be repented by those members of the Church now living, appears to be largely, if not completely unprecedented. This has led to fears that the Church’s ability to proclaim eternally valid truth will be compromised-when in fact the opposite is more likely.

Rather than diminishing the Church’s reputation, formally rejecting past errors increases it by demonstrating that the Church has the capacity for self-correction. How can the Church claim to speak for eternally valid truth unless it has some means to correct the errors that its less-than-perfect members inevitably introduce into its life from time to time?

The ecumenical impact of the Pope’s initiative is already substantial. The Mennonite-Catholic dialogue, which held its first session in Strasbourg October 14-17, 1998, would probably not have been possible without it, so strongly do twentieth-century Mennonites feel about the persecution of their founders by the Inquisition in the sixteenth century. As the ecumenical movement moves to the truly difficult task of achieving full unity, every Christian community will have to confess painful defects in its past, and surely this initiative by the Bishop of Rome will make it easier for other communions to do likewise.

Ivan J. Kauffman Washington, D.C.

One does not need prophetic gifts to foresee that repeated nostrae culpae on the part of the Catholic Church for sins committed centuries ago will necessarily have the effect of paralyzing church authorities, and actually prevent them from fulfilling their duty as teachers of the faithful to condemn the heresies rampant today.

They can anticipate that any condemnation (or even censure) of contemporary erroneous doctrines will trigger a hullabaloo of protests. The Church will be accused of hypocrisy for condemning the Inquisition and-at the same time-reintroducing its evil practices by the back door. Dissenters will say, “Will it again take the Church centuries to see the sins She is committing today?”

Alice von Hildebrand New Rochelle, NY

Avery Dulles replies:

The dangers pointed out by Alice von Hildebrand are not imaginary, and are to some degree anticipated in my article. But they are outweighed, I believe, by the manifest benefits of an honest acknowledgment of past failures. Ivan Kauffman, from his ecumenical perspective, exhibits the courage and wisdom of Pope John Paul II’s proposal for a nostra culpa.

Overkill on Abortion?

David Novak accuses Germain Grisez of “overkill” because, in the latest volume of The Way of the Lord Jesus, he calls abortion “in some ways... even worse” than the racist and political genocides of this century (FT, December 1998). But one such way is evident at a glance: the victims of abortion have long since outnumbered those of all other twentieth-century hecatombs put together.

Another way, weightier from the moral viewpoint, is that executioners in the abortion slaughter vastly outnumber executioners in all those other mass murders combined. This means that politically sanctioned abortion has swept a vastly greater number of persons into grave guilt than other government-sponsored slaughters.

Exploring their guilt, we find it deeper in one crucial regard than that of the tools and thralls of ideologies more manifestly political than abortion. Few of those who carried out the murderous agenda of the German, Soviet, and Chinese dictators were professionals, but the abortion executioners are members of professions betrayed by abortion, poisoned at the root by abortion.

One such profession is medicine, which in fact became a profession only when its practitioners began professing an oath to respect life, among other goods. The other is motherhood, sometimes called the oldest profession but surely a vocation that elevates and engrosses the woman who lives it. Mothers of course need no oath to put the life of their children far, far ahead of their own. Abortion defrauds society of heroism that nature herself bestows liberally on otherwise ordinary human beings. Abortion saps what we might think the only superhuman strength society naturally possesses.

Patrick G. D. Riley Wauwatosa, WI

David Novak replies:

The point that Patrick G. D. Riley seems to have missed is that there is a fundamental difference between state-sponsored murder and the refusal of a state to fully protect all human life. In the former case, the moral option is to escape the regime, if possible-or, if not, to contribute to its downfall. In the latter case, the moral option is to work with the political and legal structure to correct the sins of omission. Fortunately, the potential for such rectification is still present in all Western democracies.

Truth in Advertising

Although I have the deepest respect for Richard John Neuhaus’ intelligence, erudition, and good intentions, I must take issue with his comments on the New Oxford Review ad in the November issue of First Things (While We’re At It, December 1998). His apology for that advertisement is misguided and suggestive of a naiveté I find disconcerting. As a subscriber to both First Things and New Oxford Review, I make a point of reading the New Oxford Review ads because I find them entertaining and enjoy their deliberate outrageousness, as Father Neuhaus obviously does not. Even so, I too was taken aback at first by the statements to which he objects so strenuously– ‘liberals... would love to make every woman a whore” and embrace the goal of “Every gal a slut.” However, upon consideration, I decided that this shocking language reflected a reality that needs to be confronted. Father Neuhaus’ pained reaction can even be considered a symptom of the disease the New Oxford Review is attacking in its ad.

The terms “whore” and “slut” are pejorative terms traditionally used to encourage women to live chastely, if not for love of virtue, then for fear of shame. “Slut” implied a slovenly woman of loose morals. A widow with a milkman who took half an hour to make his delivery was in serious danger of being considered a slut by her neighbors. A “whore” sold her body, and even a woman who lived with a man without the benefit of marriage might be considered a “whore” because she was considered to be selling her body for food and shelter. The point the New Oxford Review is making in the ad is that liberals have consistently and successfully pressed for changes in our society that transform conduct that once caused women to be condemned as “whores” and “sluts” into behavior to be accepted and even encouraged as healthy.

Poisonous liberal maxims permeate our culture: “The sexual ‘double standard’ is unfair” is not an exhortation to men to change their ways. “Women must be free to explore their sexuality” offers women unbounded sexual license. “Traditional Christian sexual morality is puritanical and repressed” implies that healthy people will ignore that morality’s dictums. Armed with sex education, contraception, and abortion, liberals have encouraged women not only to be “sluts” and “whores,” but baby-killers as well.

Surely it must be evident how far our culture has come along the road to total sexual license. Virgins must defend their virginity against accusations of being sexual freaks. The assumption is that healthy adolescents and adults will be sexually active. Homosexuals ask why they should be chaste when no one else is expected to be. These are the fruits of the liberal agenda. People must be free to make their own choices, according to their own lights, and the rest of us are to be understanding and not “judgmental,” much less condemnatory. So much so that the very use of the terms “slut” and “whore,” even in a hyperbolic advertisement, is “mean-spirited, malicious,” and “violative of good taste.”

Richard John Neuhaus is free to dislike the New Oxford Review ad as a matter of taste. He is free to find it crude, overblown, and unfunny. But to accuse it of being “seriously false” is to fail to come to terms with the very real truth behind its hyperbole and, innocently or not, to pander to liberal sensibilities.

Cherie J. Guelker Arnold, MO

I hope that your publicly proclaimed distaste for the New Oxford Review ad that appeared in the November 1998 issue does not mean that you intend to censor or ban the journal’s future ads. I cannot believe that you or anyone else reads these ads as the literal truth about anything in the modern Catholic Church. Your picking out for particular damnation of two sentences from the ad as untrue would imply that all the other sentences were literally true. Is there no place for hyperbole in advertising copy? I was led to subscribe to the New Oxford Review by the wit and hyperbole of the ads, which I thought was amusing. I still find them so. Truth through exaggeration is a time-hallowed rhetorical device.

Leland D. Peterson Norfolk, VA

In Defense of Muriel Spark

The Public Square, my favorite feature in my favorite magazine, cries out for a cultural correction (December 1998). That no one will wonder in thirty or three hundred years what Muriel Spark might have said about anything is a poor forecast. If there is still a remnant of serious readers three hundred years from now, Spark’s novels will be read and studied with the same diligence given to the works of her contemporary peers-Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, et al. Her comment about the Pope (“He’s a Pole first, a Pope second, and maybe a Christian third”) was self-evidently silly and deserved, at most, a clever correction. But the correction need not have damned her as “a minor celebrity,” nor did it deserve such a sweeping generalization based upon a single sentence. Her marvelous fictions are brilliant, witty, intelligent, and profound.

Joseph Schwartz Milwaukee, WI

Christianity in Japan

Thanks for the brief item on Japan’s economy, religion, and culture (While We’re at It, November 1998). As an academic specializing in contemporary Japan (law and constitutional politics), and as a member of a partly Christian (Catholic) Japanese family for close to forty years, perhaps I might add a few facts and comments for perspective.

Richard John Neuhaus notes the paucity of Christians despite “missionary endeavors for half a millennium.” That might mislead. From about a.d. 1500, the missionary efforts of Jesuits and others were quite successful, but for reasons of international and domestic politics, the Tokugawa dynasty (c. 1600-1868) opted to methodically wipe out Christianity. In modern times, full religious freedom came to Japan only with the 1947 Constitution. The number of Christians remains small, but Christian schools (kindergarten through university) and leaders are disproportionately influential and Christian churches are a well-established part of the present scene. Happily, Christianity is not identified with any one or two social and economic classes. In families with both Christian and Buddhist members, relations are harmonious as long as mutual respect is shown to honor major customs, as at death.

Lawrence W. Beer Professor Emeritus Lafayette College Boulder, CO

Too Long in the Ivory Tower?

Perhaps Richard John Neuhaus has been in the New York ivory tower too long and could benefit from a stint in a parish ministry. I was disappointed at the ease with which he dismissed the problem of consumerism in the December 1998 While We’re At It. I constantly see people who are struggling under the burden of consumer debt because they have fallen prey to the “evil of consumerism.” What a far cry that is from the warnings of Jesus in Matthew 6 regarding treasure in this world vs. treasure in Heaven. The problem is very real, Father Neuhaus. Don’t dismiss it too easily.

(The Rev.) Donald Gerig Huron Hills Baptist Church Ann Arbor, MI