Tag Archives: life

Reconsidering Contraception and the Way of Life – July 26, 2017

Contraception was not always as widely accepted as it is now. This is important to remember, especially for those of us born after the so-called sexual revolution, when contraceptives have become nearly ubiquitous, even farcical to the point of absurdity, just ask the Little Sisters of the Poor. However, in the not-so-distant past, in the first part of the 20th century, Christians of all stripes, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants were nearly unanimous in their belief that contraception was a grave sin and against the will of God. When did attitudes change so radically?

Many point to the Lambeth Conference on August 4, 1930 as the first crack in the dam. The Anglican Conference of Bishops passed a controversial resolution to allow for the use of birth control when “there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood.” This declaration was the first of its kind and perhaps the ‘camel’s nose under the tent’ that opened Christians to the practice of contraception. T.S. Eliot noted prophetically in his Thoughts After Lambeth, “The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse.” The Catholic Church was not so patient in her response. Soon after Lambeth, on December 31, 1930, Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Casti Connubii (“of chaste marriage”) reaffirming the historical Church teaching that contraception is a “grave sin.”

The leaders of the birth control movement took offense at the encyclical and derided the Pope. Margaret Sanger, head of the movement and future founder of Planned Parenthood, wrote an article in The Nation on January 27, 1932 mocking Catholic doctrine as “illogical, not in accord with science (sound familiar?), and definitely against social welfare and race improvement.” Race improvement was a euphemism for Sanger’s infamous eugenics ideology. Later in the essay, she accused the Church, by forbidding contraception, of increasing the “number of feeble-minded, insane, criminal, and diseased.” Sanger’s utopian vision harnessed contraception to engineer biological and racial purity. Interestingly, and perhaps to her credit, Sanger did not condone abortion as a form of birth control, calling it “dangerous and vicious.” Latter-day pro-choice and Planned Parenthood disciples have strayed where even she would not go.

In the decades that followed, the outcome of this culture war is plainly obvious with the widespread acceptance and legalization of contraception (and abortion). Yet, the Church has steadfastly remained a “sign of contradiction” (HV, 18) opposing contraception in all its facets as “intrinsically evil.” (CCC 2370) Some may say this is one of the Church’s ‘hard teachings.’ Indeed, this hard teaching has been reflected in the day-to-day, rank-and-file parish level, where many Catholics have accepted and use artificial birth control. This is probably why we do not hear sermons against contraception or have proactive discussions on periodic abstinence and Natural Family Planning. The point, however, is not to mete out judgment in the disconnect between truth and practice.

In an era of same-sex ‘marriage,’ abortion on demand, and gender fluidity, does it even make sense to discuss contraception – ground long ago ceded? As witnessed last century with the unleashing of Pandora’s box of sexual promiscuities and the idolization of sexual pleasure, perhaps it is the right moment to contemplate again the Church’s wisdom on contraception – the place where the “experiment” began. This also gets to the heart of the issue: procreation as the primary end of sexuality and marriage. The “contraceptive mentality” reduces sexuality to sensuality, and the dignity of the human person to an object of pleasure. The ‘unitive without the procreative’ mindset is the underlying zeitgeist of our generation, and the root of many modern social ills.

Even CC recognized the potential burdens of parenthood: “We are deeply touched by the sufferings of those parents who, in extreme want, experience great difficulty in rearing their children.” (CC, 60) No one is suggesting this is an easy, unemotional topic. It is uncomfortable and impractical, the way the world sees, but nonetheless we should reconsider because it is the right thing. Doing the right thing is something we as Catholics should be interested in doing. This means heeding the voice of the Church, and heeding the words of Christ. Jesus said we should strive to enter in through the “narrow gate” for “the way is hard, that leads to life.” Jesus also commands us to take up our cross and follow Him. In the context of marriage, we offer self-sacrificial love for our spouse. The marital vocation is a “work of mutual sanctification.” (GS, 52) It is their way to holiness and to heaven. As part of that, “fidelity and fecundity” are the twofold obligations of their conjugal love. (CCC 2363)

This is not to say that we are obligated to necessarily form very large families beyond our means. We are obligated in our openness to life, but we can regulate births and space children apart by natural means with “virtuous continence.” (CC, 53) Pius VI adjures us that virtuous continence should be used only after prudently reflecting on the moral law and our obligation of openness to having children. Yet, part of our responsible parenthood would factor in difficulties of “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions.” These are potentially “serious reasons” for spacing out pregnancies and limiting the size of families. It is illegitimate to say no to the primary good of marriage (children) for any trivial or selfish reasons. The couple with clearly formed consciences must have the moral judgment that they have serious, grave, or just reasons for delaying or limiting the size of one’s family. The contraceptive mentality of not being open to life for non-grave reasons is morally wrong, even if done through natural means.

One of the main points of Paul VI’s prescient 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae is that contraception is contrary to natural law. The male coming together with the female naturally procreates a child. The natural law purpose then of sexual intercourse is procreation. Any artificial interference, whether through contraception or sterilization, is against natural law, and against the intentions of God as reflected in nature. It breaks the unitive and procreative significance of the marital act, and reduces it to just sensual pleasure; an offense against the dignity of the human person created in the image of God. The conjugal love between a husband and wife is “by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children.” (HV, 9)

The question then is, if we have correct moral consciences and serious, just reasons for limiting the size of our family, how do we go about this in a morally licit way? The first and obvious way, as stated by CC, is abstinence. The next is natural family planning in one form or another. HV states that married couples may control births by taking advantage of the infertile “natural cycles immanent in the reproduction cycle.” (HV, 16) Abstinence and NFP are not “Catholic contraception” because nothing artificial has been introduced into the process to render intercourse infertile. The procreative potential remains intact. As the late moral philosopher Joseph Boyle stated, “Refraining from intercourse is not contraceptive intercourse, since it is not intercourse at all.” By our recourse to abstinence and natural family planning we preserve our inherent human dignity, respect the moral order, and offer humble obedience to our Creator.

HV did put one asterisk in the encyclical regarding contraceptive usage. This is the exception for therapeutic treatment of bodily diseases. The statement reads: “On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.” (HV, 15) Intention is key. One of the footnotes for this paragraph is for a speech Pope Pius XII gave to the Congress of the International Society of Hematology in 1958. In that, he references the “principle of double-acting actions,” or the principle of double-effect. He says, “If the woman takes this medicine, not with the intention of preventing conception, but only by medical indication, as a necessary remedy due to a disease of the uterus or of the organism, it causes an indirect sterilization, which is permitted according to the general principle of double-acting actions.”

In some instances one spouse accepts contraception and the other does not. How does the Church handle this? The Vade Mecum for Confessors (3, 13) addresses this by referencing CC: “Holy Church knows well that not infrequently one of the parties is sinned against rather than sinning, when for a grave cause he or she reluctantly allows the perversion of the right order. In such a case, there is no sin, provided that, mindful of the law of charity, he or she does not neglect to seek to dissuade and to deter the partner from sin.” (CC, 59) Again, as outlined, certain conditions must be met.

One need not look all the way to 20th century magisterium, however, to find Church pronouncements against contraception. In the New Testament, the word pharmakeia (same root word for pharmacy) appears three times, which some scholars have linked to contraception. The ancient Greek word denotes the mixing of “magic potions,” or as the New Testament sometimes translates it, “sorcery.” The meaning is not entirely explicit, and may have multiple levels of meaning. Yet, in the context of the ancient pagan cults, with widespread sexual fertility rites and orgies, it probably refers to contraceptive and abortive practices. The second century physician, Soranos of Ephesus, in his book Gynecology, for example, uses the term to refer to potions for both contraception and abortion. These “magic potions” were likely illicit drugs used in conjunction with pagan sexual rituals to stimulate hallucinations, sterilization, prevent conception, or to end a pregnancy. In the letter to the Galatians, the usage of pharmakeia appears alongside other sexual sins. St. Paul warns that those who practice “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery.. shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal. 5:19-21) In two other references found in Revelation (Rev. 9:21; 21:8), it is similarly condemned.

The word pharmakeia also appears in the Didache, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. This first century document was possibly a vade mecum, the early Church’s first handbook on morality and fundamental doctrines. In the first part of the document are proposed two ways of living – the way of life and the way of death. The Didache exhorts: “you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not use potions, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.” The focus here again is on sexual immorality. The practice of “magic” and the use of “potions” could have multiple levels of possible meanings, including the occult and illicit drugs. However, in the context of the passage, it more than likely refers to abortifacients and artificial birth control.

Contraception closes off marriage from the divine love it is meant to image and reflect. St. Paul speaks about the love of a husband and wife as a “great mystery” meant to image the love of Christ and the Church. Marital love is also an icon in creation of the eternal exchange of love among the three persons of the Holy Trinity; so that, the very love between the Father and the Son is, in fact, another person, the Holy Spirit. In an analogous way, from the conjugal love between two persons, a husband and wife, comes a third person, a child. Their love is em-bodied literally. Sterilized sex cuts God, the ultimate ‘Giver of Life,’ out of the life-giving equation, so that man becomes by unnatural means the sole-arbiter in generating life or not. This stifles the Trinitarian image of God in creation, as a “communion of persons” in marriage and the family.

Shakespeare wrote “what’s past is prologue.” The past has brought us to this moment, and yet, it need not be our future. It may be difficult, but we should reconsider our comfortable acceptance of contraception and our uncomfortable omissions from being fully pro-life. God entrusted us with the awesome responsibility and role as co-creators with Him in bringing forth new persons. This presupposes our openness to life. The pseudepigraphical and extra-biblical book of Enoch tells the pre-history story of the fall of the angels from heaven, and how they spread sin across the earth, teaching man “charms and spells, and the cutting of roots, and made them acquainted with plants.” That is to say, they taught magic potions and sorcery, and led mankind astray. It is this type of neopaganism that seems to have reemerged again in modern times under the guise of social progress. The civilized, non-Christian experiment is still in its slow-motion collapse. As the faithful of the Church, we should play the part, and be a countercultural sign of contradiction.

The Dignity of the Human Person – January 14, 2017

“When the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life.” (Evangelium Vitae, 21)

It is a perplexing fact of history that one of the world’s most prolific mass murderers, Adolf Hitler, was also a vegetarian who abhorred cruelty to animals. This conundrum was oddly revisited when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) ran a publicity campaign “Holocaust on Your Plate” in 2003 comparing caged farm animals to Jewish prisoners in Nazi death camps. As author Richard Weikart points out, ironically both the Nazis and PETA engaged in the fallacy of anthropomorphism, blurring the distinction between humans and animals. These are extreme examples, but highlight an underlying philosophical confusion in our modern era regarding the dignity of human life. Subsumed in this diminishment of human worth is an implicit denial of personhood.

This misanthropic view is unfortunately on the ascendancy in Western culture. To have a sense of this, one need only look at the recent outpourings of indignation and contempt at the killings of Cecil the lion and Harambe the gorilla. The flipside of overvaluing animal life can often be the devaluing of human life; the outrage over Cecil and Harambe stand in stark contrast to our culture’s complacency regarding abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, suicide and assisted-suicide. This “culture of death” is the negative underbelly of the modernist endeavor: recasting the human being as simply an ordinary animal who no longer merits ontological God-given dignity or teleological God-given purpose. Human life becomes expendable compared to the perceived greater good of the society or state, or the whimsy of the individual. The worth of the human person today has become obscured.

How did we get here?

Conflating the dignity of man and animal is but a symptom of the overall creeping confusion. A dimming appreciation for the specialness of man runs centuries deep, with incremental philosophical subversions to the foundations of true knowledge.

At its core, we are in a crisis of epistemology. The great breadth and depth of human knowledge have been sacrificed on the altars of skepticism and materialism. This modern epistemological error revolves around the denial of our true human nature as composite beings, of body and soul. The initial missteps of severing body and soul were philosophical.

Some trace the errors of modern secularism back to William of Ockham in the 14th century, who posited that universal essences, like humanity, are not real, but are only nominal extrapolations in our minds. Ockham theorized there are no universal forms but only individuals. This undermined part of our ability to explain objective reality. If there is no universal human form, or human nature, then we are deprived of fulfilling those ends of our nature and our teleological purpose. Once that is gone, it is not hard to imagine a confusion of personhood and a loss of ethics.

In the Enlightenment era, empiricists, like Locke and Hume, proposed that only the phenomenon of a thing could be known, and not the thing itself. Like Ockham, they rejected abstract knowledge of universals in favor of sense experience only. In other words, they dismissed our intellectual and spiritual knowledge for something akin to that of animals. Kant similarly conceded that we only know “things as known,” as interpreted by the mind, but not “things in themselves.” This “epistemological geocentrism,” as physicist Father Stanley Jaki called it, prevents us from having knowledge of God, the soul, and the full nature of reality.

Perhaps the most damaging blow to our understanding of our composite natures comes from biological materialism, in the form of Darwinism in the 19th century. Darwinian theory made strict biological materialism and scientism the predominant “acceptable” knowledge. No longer was there a need for the special creation of man by God, or the need for an immaterial soul or intellect. Man is just an evolved ape, created through blind forces, genetic mistakes, and the survival of the fittest. The severance of body and soul, begun in the philosophies of the previous centuries, was now complete. As Chesterton noted, “Evolution does not especially deny the existence of God; what it does deny is the existence of man.” Man was no longer a composite spiritual being, but mere physical creature.

This materialist reductionism had major repercussions on the modernist worldview and the dehumanizing of man. When the materialists finally seized power, Communist regimes, from Stalin to Mao to Pol Pot, murdered some 100 million people. Social Darwinism too had seeped into Western thought, sparking talk of people as “fit” and “unfit,” and races as “superior” and “inferior.” This was most pronounced in Nazi Germany, where racist notions were “proven” and “justified” by so-called science. Hitler had fully embraced this idea of evolutionary ethics in his march towards war and genocide.

The evidence of the past century has highlighted the fact that evolutionary ethics is no ethic at all. It undermines our moralistic certainty. Morality becomes very subjective, and in the spirit of the age, relativistic. Material reductionism altered people’s view on the sanctity of human life, by devaluing what it means to be human. The soul became merely an epiphenomenon of matter. In that sense, Christianity is at odds with strict Darwinian materialism, as opposed to the general theory of evolution, with which there is no conflict. This dogmatic materialism denies a priori even the possibility of final causality in man. It falsely stifles the reasonableness of belief in God, our moral compasses, and the knowledge of our selves as spiritual beings.

Sadly, this epistemological reductionism has not only persisted to the present day, but also increased. Although there is some progress against the culture of death, there remains a peculiar amnesia regarding the dignity of man, lingering in our cultural psyche. Not surprisingly, there has also been a concurrent falling away from the faith, as evidenced by record numbers of non-religious and atheists in recent polls (i.e., the “rise of the Nones,” so-called for listing “none” as their religious preference).

How are we as Catholics to respond? To start, we can reaffirm that there are many good, intellectual, and multifaceted reasons to believe. Christianity and belief in God are perfectly reasonable, despite protestations from modern scientific materialists and atheists. Science and theology, faith and reason are not opposed to each other, but are “like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” (Fides et Ratio) In fact, there is available today more cutting-edge scientific data suggesting a Creator than ever before. What better confirmation is there, for example, of Aquinas’ cosmological argument for God as the prime mover than the Big Bang and the latest supporting evidence of cosmic microwave background radiation?

Christianity was built upon revelation, of course, but also upon reason. Jesus had commanded us to love God with “all your mind.” (Mt. 22:37) The intellectual tradition of the West, and its empirical science, is, after all, borne out of Christian civilization. The contention with modern secularism only arises with the materialist denial of God and the soul. It is a denial of our composite being. Atheism suffers from an epistemological defect of rejecting personhood. As Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum states, “It is the mind, or reason, . . . which renders a human being human, and distinguishes him essentially from the brute.” We should embrace the idea of personhood and the philosophy of personalism as part of our worldview and ethic, and as a bulwark against dehumanizing philosophies.

One of the greatest proponents of the modern philosophy of personalism was Pope John Paul II. Pope John Paul, then Karol Wojtyla, witnessed these dehumanizing forces of materialism firsthand in Poland, initially under Nazi occupation, and later under Soviet Communism. He was in the epicenter for both of these totalitarian outbursts, and observed what he called the “pulverization” of the human person. It was in reaction to these impersonalist philosophies and the subsequent political tyrannies that he helped lead a new philosophical movement and moral theology focused on the absolute dignity of the human person.

Wojtyla advocated for “Thomistic personalism,” a modern philosophy focused on the transcendent dignity of each person. His particular personalism was grounded in Thomas Aquinas’ classical metaphysics, and the cosmological view of man that we are set apart from the rest of creation by our rational nature and intellect.

Wojtyla sought to go beyond this, however, to explain the “totality of the person.” He recognized the great importance of the interior perspective to human experience. This interior perspective he referred to as “subjectivity,” experienced in each person’s consciousness, where no two are alike. Each person, then, is utterly unrepeatable, irreplaceable, incommunicable, and irreducible.

Pope John Paul spoke of this in practical terms, in his “personalist principle,” that the human being should always be treated as an end in itself, and never subordinated to another as a means to an end. Internalizing this principle would inevitably produce concrete practical applications, such as standing against slavery and human trafficking. But, it could also help turn the societal tide against normalizing this culture of death, with its impersonalist impulses, as recently witnessed in the Netherlands, euthanizing a man for being an alcoholic, or with Peter Singer, a utilitarian ethicist from Princeton, advocating for ending the lives of severely disabled infants.

As Catholics, we must always advocate for the inviolable dignity of the human person. This, of course, goes all the way back to Genesis when “God created man in His own image.” (Gen. 1:27) The magisterium echoes this by calling each of us “a sign of the living God, an icon of Jesus Christ.” (EV, 84) We have an interior transcendence in common with our Creator. Humans are relational and social beings, made in conformity to God, a trinity of intra-relational Persons.

As the image of God, there is a specialness to man. It sets us apart from the rest of creation. We alone can say “I.” No other animal, as wonderful as they are, can utter such a thing. They are bound by instinct. Even in the higher primates, as with the fascinating case of Koko the signing gorilla, the disparity remains immense. In the words of Pope John Paul, “an ontological leap” has to be made to span the “great gulf” that separates person from non-person. Man alone is capable of rational and abstract thought, free will, self-consciousness, moral action, complex language and speech, technological progress, higher purpose, altruism, love, creativity, prayer and worship. Man is different in degree and in kind, because God makes each person from the infiniteness of Himself. (CCC 2258)

In the New Testament, Jesus gives us the heart of personalism with His commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” For, as He later reveals, “as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” By embracing this notion of personalism in our lives, we liberate ourselves from our own egoism and coldness towards our neighbor. We see the face of God in each other. This is our vaccination against dehumanizing a person, and adopting a culture of life. It stands against the slide of centuries towards extreme skepticism and materialism, and calls us to draw again from a more complete knowledge. Materialism is only partially true. It denies the higher nature of our spiritual selves. By recognizing the image of God in each other we see the universal ontological value of each person, even down to the seemingly lowliest and weakest among us. It is for us to contemplate (and act upon), in light of Christ’s sacrifice, “how precious man is in God’s eyes and how priceless the value of his life” with “the almost divine dignity of every human being.” (EV, 25)