A Tale of Two Boxes: Contrasting Sexual Ethics

Let’s imagine everyone has two boxes, one in which they place all the sexual acts they believe are wrong, and the other in which they place all the sexual acts they believe are okay. Not only do conservatives and progressives divide acts differently between the two boxes, they also label the two boxes differently. (I’ve already discussed this illustration in posts on political rhetoric regarding gay marriage and evangelical views of rape, but I wanted to set it on its own for those who may want to link to it.)

We could add boxes for the Catholic view, which, rather than simply being based on what God directly commands or forbids, is based on “Natural Law” and holds that sex must be both procreative and unitive (thus marital sex using birth control would go in the “not okay” box because it separates sex from its procreative purpose and rape would go in the “not okay” box because it is not unitive). Furthermore, members of progressive religious schools of thought may subdivide the “consensual” box into what is permitted or not permitted by their religious beliefs. In many ways, then, the illustration above serves as a starting point for discussion, not a be-all end-all.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

    Thank you for getting the Catholic view, at least, right. (I’m not really qualified to speak to the other views, but they also look correct as far as I understand them.) It’s always frustrating to begin every conversation by dismantling straw men.

    The other useful aspect of this post is that it connects the what to the why. That is, Catholics approve/disapprove based on what is the natural good of human relationships; progressives approve/disapprove based on consent or lack thereof. It shows the basis on which an act could be argued to be in one box or the other, and has predictive value for acts not explicitly listed. (E.g., what about the gal who married the Eiffel Tower? Catholic – not natural; progressive – the tower cannot give consent.)

    Thanks for helping keep the debate rational and productive!

    • Alan

      Just a little clarification to your post – Catholics approve/disapprove based on their conception of what is the natural good of human relationships.

      • Rosa

        Thank you! I imagine most married couples think that nonprocreative sex is “unitive”, given the overwhelming number (including Catholics!) who use birth control.

      • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

        @Alan – is that a universal observation about epistemology? Then I agree. We only know what we know, and we all muddle through to the best of our knowledge. It’s why we do research and have arguments: so that we can understand more of the world than we already do.

        But I get the sense that you’re trying to imply a critique. If so, I don’t think there’s a “there” there. The question isn’t about who thinks what is right. The question is simply, what is right? Is the Catholic notion of “natural good” in line with reality? Is the secular notion of “consent” in line with reality? It doesn’t add anything to say, “it’s their conception of natural good” unless you have an actual critique of how that conception is false.

      • Froborr

        @Robert King: How can a conception of what is good or not good be true or false? If I like the taste of brownies better than cupcakes, what empirical data can possibly demonstrate the truth or falsehood of that claim? Likewise, if I think saving lives is better than being truthful, and therefore will lie to save a life, but you think being truthful is better than saving lives, and therefore won’t, what empirical data can possibly demonstrate the truth or falsehood of either claim?

      • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

        @Froborr – Morality, at least from a Catholic point of view, is not an empirical category. If you limit yourself to empirical data, that is, measurable physical phenomenon, then all you can say about the brownie is that it has X effect on your taste buds which has Y effect on your nervous system and causes Z patterns within your brain. The category of “like” is not in it at all.

        Good and bad are moral categories – whether on the almost insignificant level of taste or on the supremely significant levels of truth and life. The big question in philosophy, as I as an amateur understand it, is where the notions of good and bad come from. Deontologists like Kant (and the Calvinist tradition of Christianity) say, good and bad are based on the arbirtrary will of the lawgiver (usually God, but some will include a human legislator). Utilitarians either look to attempts to quantify pleasure or standard of living or some such thing, or simply admit that they consider good and bad to be entirely made-up categories of convenience.

        Natural Law theorists (including Catholics) see each thing, and to some extent the universe as a whole, as having an intrinsic principle of unity, of being itself, of being what it is; they call this “Nature”, and define good as fulfilling this intrinsic principle, and bad as opposing or distorting this principle. Until recently, most thinkers believed the nature of a thing to be accessible to reason, largely via the senses, rather in the way that you know you like brownies because you experience how it tastes and that pleases you. It is true that you like brownies: you recognize through your senses the good of them, that they fulfill some good nature in themselves and in you. You also recognize that speaking truly and saving lives are both good things, but that they sometimes come into conflict. A Natural Law theorist then has to ask, how can I best fulfill my nature as a responsible person in relationship with others, with a mind whose nature is to seek truth, in this very difficult situation? There is no rulebook, as deontologists would seek; there is no simple calculation, or mere assertion of the will, as utilitarians would permit. Rather, there is an almost artistic recognition of balance and priority with a deliberate acknowledgment that the future outcome is uncertain.

        This is hardly the easiest or most comforting approach to moral dilemmas; but to my mind at least it best accords with the messiness of the real world.

      • Alan

        Robert – if you think Kant’s categorical imperative is putting the determination of good and bad in the hands of an arbitrary law giver you might want to spend more time studying it.

        And I assume you know you weren’t comprehensive in covering the variety if philosophical approaches to ethics.

    • Michael Busch


      Catholic dogma is based on this idea of “Natural Law”. The actual sexual practices of many Catholics (defined as people who self-identify as members of the Roman Catholic Church) are very different, at least in the US.

    • Alan

      Robert – well, yes I have significant critiques with the Catholic conception of what is the natural good of human relationships. I don’t know that this is the right context to go around in circles when we probably don’t agree on the premises of the discussion – but it should suffice to say that I don’t find the argument leading to the conclusion that the primary good of sexuality is procreation.

      As for whether consent is in line with reality. I would say it certainly is – independent of any other potential moral considerations for sexuality, consent is a necessary component to any moral sexual interaction to avoid violating another’s body.

  • smrnda

    I’d say that as a person who is not religious, I think that the whole idea of ‘good for people’ is part of the progressive thing too, but by making it contingent on consent the idea is that people have a right to make their own choices about what is good for their relationships as opposed to believing that there is some religious dogma that spells it out. I’m all for contraception because many people that I know use it, and it’s been good for their relationships and sex lives. I’d be for fertilization treatments for couples who want to conceive and can’t because I don’t believe that having children is always good for a couple, any more than it’s always good for it to be raining.

    I’m thinking that each box could contain certain other boxes as categories – I know that many Christians do hold to the opinion that rape is worse than consensual non-marital sex, though I think in terms of their understanding of human motivations they don’t really get it, at least that’s better than lumping both in the same box.

  • machintelligence

    Extramarital sex is a complicated issue where three (or possibly more) people have to consent — some of whom may not even be involved in the sex act.

    • Nathaniel

      What the hell are you talking about?

      • machintelligence

        If two couples swap mates, four people have to consent.
        If a couple has an “open ” marriage both consent to extramarital sex but possibly only one is involved in the sex act (unless it is a threesome.)
        If a couple are in a monogamous relationship, one of them having sex with a consenting third party is still wrong (cheating).
        Further permutations are left to the student.

      • Rosie

        Further permutations could fill an entire book; there are as many different ways for a relationship to be “open” as there are people who want to be in “open” relationships.

  • http://madphotog.blogspot.com gustovcarl

    Excellent! Your analysis is, IMO, exactly right. Many people are simply talking past each other. I have been puzzled by arguments of the form, “If we allow this, then we might as well allow that…” and I don’t see how it follows at all.
    Good tool for analysis. Will share this and refer to it often. Thanks!

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    Good point about the Catholic boxes of “Natural Law.” One would also have to include oral sex and mutual masturbation in the “Not Allowed” box, since their argument is that semen must always end up in the vagina. It’s weird how this view can allow for marriage rape (paying the marital debt), but disallow perfectly fine forms of consensual sex. Actually, the old Catholic paradigm made it a sin for a woman to say “No” to her husband with regards to sex. Saying “No” was a mortal sin, on the same level as murder, because the woman was not “paying the marriage debt.” (What a psychologically abusive and coercive doctrine. A married woman MUST have sex when her husband wants it, under the threat of eternal Hell, unless she confesses this “sin” to a celibate male priest.) Post Vatican II Catholicism changed this, but because the idea was never outright rejected, many Catholic traditionalists still old to this idea.

    • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

      Actually, the old Catholic paradigm made it a sin for a woman to say “No” to her husband with regards to sex.

      Documentation, please?

      Culturally speaking, the default may have been “say yes unless there’s good reason otherwise,” but this is a far cry from declaring “no” to be a sin. As far as I’m aware, the Church has always stood for mutuality in such decisions – which is why the Catholic Church pushed to have marriage be a mutually consensual relationship in the first place. (One of the striking things about I Corinthinans 7 is how much emphasis it places on the mutuality of marriage. Later, the virgin martyrs were celebrated – not for their virginity in and of itself, but for their refusal to submit to marriage that they did not consent to.)

      The language of “the marriage debt” was never meant to mean that every time the husband was randy he had a right to rape his wife. Rather, it was meant to say that the spouses bodies belong to each other, and that conjugal relations are the pinacle of giving one’s body to the other. At most, one could say that in marriage consent is assumed unless a spouse indicates otherwise. The concept has been abused in various periods of history, but the official Catholic understanding has always been (to my knowledge) that the decision to engage in conjugal relations – both generally and in each given case – involves the mutual consent of both parties.

      If you have documentation to the contrary, I would be very interested in seeing it.

      • Christine

        It might just be culture, but the current teaching is very much prone to abuse in that direction (so if it’s changed it would have been worse). Basically neither spouse gets to unilaterally say “no” to sex. Of course, neither spouse is supposed to get to unilaterally say “yes” either. It’s not precisely that it’s a sin for a wife to say no, but that’s one very obvious interpretation. I’m sorry, all my documentation for this is paper, from my pre-marital workshops (basically stuff that Catholics do instead of pre-marital counselling). This doesn’t appear to be in the Cathechism, so it may just be one interpretation.

      • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

        I’m not sure what you mean by a “unilateral ‘no’ to sex.” Do you mean one partner has absolute veto (but the other does not)? Do you mean that one partner has to wait for the other’s permission before even seeking or suggesting sex? Do you mean that a partner could say, “No, never”? These seem unreasonable to me.

        Do you mean either partner has absolute veto? That is, either one says “How about it?” and the other says, “Not tonight.” That seems to work, up to a point. If the first replies, “Aw, please?” would that cross the line? If one says, “No, definitely not,” I can see further negotiation/cajoling as out of bounds, but I’d expect the onus to be on the responding spouse.

        A marriage is, in part, a sexual relationship. I figure that, since it takes two to tango, the decision should always have at least some mutuality in it.

      • machintelligence

        Robert King:

        Do you mean that a partner could say, “No, never”?

        Well, yes.
        This reminds me of a joke where the new bride says to her husband while on their honeymoon “Remember when I said I did not approve of premarital sex? Well I didn’t say I approved of postmarital sex either.”

        This actually happened to a relative of mine, 60 odd years ago. He eventually got the marriage annulled.

      • Christine

        What I meant by saying that there was no “unilateral no” allowed was that neither spouse is supposed to just decide, against the wishes of the other spouse, that they don’t want to have sex anymore. The flip side is that neither spouse gets to declare “well we’re having sex, I don’t care what you say”. Basically, all the decisions are supposed to be made mutually, but the way that it is presented is prone to abuse.

        Specifically, they aren’t supposed to say “no, never”, unless their spouse agrees to it. As to how it would be done, that would depend on the couple. The example you give would not, to me, seem to be a good way to fulfill that directive – it’s an absolute veto. What, in theory, is supposed to happen is a discussion (“I’m too tired, how about tomorrow?” “You’ve said that the last three nights running…”) and they come to an agreement. But it would be considered wrong (i.e. sinful) for one spouse to withhold sex due to an argument. Equally it would be considered sinful for one spouse to pressure the other to have sex. (What constitutes pressure vs persuasion or request is going to vary.)

      • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

        @machineintelligence –

        This actually happened to a relative of mine, 60 odd years ago. He eventually got the marriage annulled.

        And properly so. It makes me wonder what the “no never” person was thinking in saying “yes” to marriage in the first place.

        I’ve heard of some Catholics in what are called “Josephite” marriages, in which the partners agree never to actually consumate the marriage; but again, if there’s no mutuality to it, then there’s a serious problem.

      • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

        @Christine -

        It sounds like we’re talking about differences in emphasis. I’ve never gone through Catholic marriage prep, so I don’t know exactly what they say in the documents. I’d be more inclined to say “less than ideal” than “wrong” about witholding sex because of an argument. But then, if I were in an argument with my spouse, I doubt I’d be in all that sexy a mood to begin with.

        I would say that it is wrong (from a Catholic point of view) for one partner to withold his/her body from the other in an absolute or unilateral way. Part of the Catholic idea of marriage is that the two become one, that there is an unconditional (better or worse, sickness or health, etc.) gift of oneself to the other, including the gift of one’s body. This is not only sexual: my physical labor is at the service of my spouse, and I owe it to her to keep myself physically healthy and so on. So there may be very good reasons to never have sex again, but there is no good reason to withdraw the gift of oneself from one’s spouse. In this sense, marital rape is actually seen by Catholics as a violation of the spousal gift because it is refusing to allow one’s body to be a gift to the other, while demanding the other as something owed to one. Again, mutuality is violated.

        I recognize that this is a far cry from how many people view marriage today. I would love to just have everybody, before entering a debate about who should marry or divorce or whatever, just lay on the table their definition of and assumptions about marriage – so at least we know what each other means when we use the word. I think most of our debate these days is just talking past one another, and that doesn’t lead to fruitful progress.

      • machintelligence

        Robert King:

        It makes me wonder what the “no never” person was thinking in saying “yes” to marriage in the first place.

        It makes me wonder too, but they both have been dead for many years, so it is too late to ask. I only found out about it recently.

      • Christine

        I think that your summary sounds pretty similar to what I was trying to say. The original reason I posted was to show how easy it was for the teaching to be taken (in a cultural sense) as saying that “a wife cannot say no if her husband wants sex”. It would especially depend on who wrote the documents which were given out (or gave the speeches). If the information was provided by someone who held to the “men want sex far more often than women do” school of thought, it may well be presented as explaining to women that they can’t just say “no” whenever they don’t want sex, and from there to saying that it’s a sin for women to refuse sex is no small leap.

        I do know specifically that the recommendation when a woman wants to use periodic abstinence to space children and her husband would rather she use the Pill is NOT for her to refuse sex when she’s fertile.

  • Rilian

    Why isn’t heterosexuality on any list?

    • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

      I think because heterosexuality is the baseline. Homosexuality is (to avoid words like “not-normal” or “deviant” which are statistically correct but have lots of cultural baggage) the minority experience.

      • http://thaliasmusingsnovels.com/ Amethyst

        Clever how you avoided those words, yet still passively-aggressively used them. Your comment just wouldn’t have made the same point if you’d left out the parenthetical.

      • Alan

        Blond hair and blue eyes are (to avoid words like “not-normal” or “deviant” which are statistically correct but have lots of cultural baggage) the minority experience.

        High intelligence is (to avoid words like “not-normal” or “deviant” which are statistically correct but have lots of cultural baggage) the minority experience.

        Masters in Philosophy are (to avoid words like “not-normal” or “deviant” which are statistically correct but have lots of cultural baggage) the minority experience.

      • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

        @Alan – exactly my point. I wish we could drop the baggage and use phrases like “deviating from normal” without them implying that there’s something wrong with the deviation. It’s just unusual. And there are lots of situations where diversity is a good thing.

        @Amythist – I didn’t mean to be passive-aggressive. But I did bring my linguistic argument into the middle of a moral one, and I should have known better. Sorry.

      • Alan

        Robert – all language has baggage. While there is nothing wrong per se with deviating from norms, you can’t erase the implication of words like ‘normal’ and ‘deviant”. If you were to instead say deviating from the average you probably wouldn’t raise any eyebrows.

  • ScottInOH

    Is there a significant difference between saying something is a sin (or good) because God says so and saying something is a sin (or good) because Natural Law says so. I thought the Church believed that Natural Law was God’s expression of morality. The Church looks to more sources of revelation of God’s will than, say, evangelical Protestants do (the latter usually claim to look only to the Bible; the former believe that is heretical), but it’s all about figuring out what God wants and living accordingly.

    • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

      Not every Natural Law theorist is Catholic, or even religious. On the other side of the coin, the Catholic Church teaches that Natural Law is exactly that which is known without the aid of revelation.

      Now, certainly, the Catholic Church believes that God created the natural world, and therefore the laws that govern the world. So in this sense, you can reduce Natural Law to God Says So. But only in the same way that you reduce gravity or market dynamics or causation to God Says So.

      In other words, the Natural Law is based on things that have a truth readily perceptible by the senses and reason. Catholics believe that these truths are based in God’s own nature, but non-Catholic Natural Law theorists don’t necessarily believe in God at all; they just say, this is the way the world is.

      The other major difference is in the way the world “law” is used. We tend to think of laws about behavior (like morality) as being legislated and dictated to us, often in an arbitrary way. We could drive on either side of the street, but the law says drive on the right (in the U.S.). But the Natural Law is seen as more of a descriptive law, like the law of gravity: how the human person flourishes or fails to flourish by doing various actions or pursuing various goals. The presumed ultimate principle is that it is good for a person to be more fully human (that is, to fulfill his/her nature), and bad for a person to deny or distort or destroy his/her humanity.

      So it’s not so much about “figuring out what God wants” – not in a direct sense, anyway – as it is about figuring out exactly what human nature is, and how to fulfill that in my own life. Does that clarify things at all?

      • Mogg

        A specific question on this in regards to contraception – why is it considered “more fully human” for a married couple to risk pregnancy every time they have sex? Surely anxiety over the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy is destructive, and avoiding sex with your spouse solely because you need to avoid pregnancy and can’t use contraception is also destructive, both the the individuals and the relationship?

        I genuinely do not understand how this particular Catholic doctrine can be considered “good”. Surely a woman is denied aspects of her humanity if she is made (by doctrine rather than her own choice) into a baby production and raising machine without time to develop or use any other aspect of herself.

      • ScottInOH

        Thanks for your response, Robert King.

        You are right that not every Natural Law theorist is a Catholic, but Libby Anne’s original post contrasted the Catholic position that morally acceptable sex is determined by Natural Law with the position that morally acceptable sex is determined by what God says. In practice, I don’t see a big difference, since I understand the Catholic interpretation to be that God reveals himself and his requirements through nature (his creation).

        I also don’t think it’s fair to say that “Natural Law is based on things that have a truth readily perceptible by the senses and reason.” People have widely varied understandings of “how the human person flourishes or fails to flourish by doing various actions or pursuing various goals.” Trying to figure out what Natural Law tells us about how to live is just as dependent on interpretation as trying to figure out what the Bible tells us about how to live. (This is what I understood Alan to mean in his post on 8/21 at 11:08pm.)

      • Christine


        Actually the Catholic Church teaches that periodic abstinence strengthens the relationship, so basically your argument is considered reversed. Or otherwise discounted. I have yet to get word on how 2-month periods of abstinence are good. (For us to not have those would require providentialism, which allegedly isn’t required.)

        As for being a baby production and raising machine, the interpretations of why couples may/should abstain is one of the better sources for accusations and name-calling in conservative Catholic circles that you’ll find. Some people complain about couples who use nfp, but with a “contraceptive mentality”. I’ve yet to figure out how this combines with the call for couples to consider their resources and ability to raise more children. (It’s one thing to say that a couple should be open to a potential third child if there’s a mistake in the charting, they hit the jackpot of long-lived sperm, etc, it’s another thing to say that it’s wrong to plan to stop at two and arrange your sex life accordingly).

        As you might be able to tell, I have some issues with the more conservative interpretations of the teachings. I have some, but fewer, issues with the teachings themselves.

      • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

        Mogg, from what I can gather it’s because you’re essentially ‘breaking’ the reproductive system through most means of contraception. NFP is okay because it works with your body, rather than by changing it. Which, come to think of it, is probably why some forms of fertility treatment are okay, as they’re ‘fixing’ something considered to be broken.

      • Mogg

        But surely using a condom as a contraceptive and reducer of disease is about as much ‘breaking’ the body as wearing a raincoat is breaking the body when you wish to avoid getting wet by the rain?

      • Rosie

        Interesting side note: so the Catholic teaching on Natural Law is, “about figuring out exactly what human nature is, and how to fulfill that in my own life.”? The conservative evangelical-type Protestants who raised me consider “human nature”, and in fact maybe all of nature, to be fundamentally broken and bad since the Fall. They would never look to a “natural law” as an expression of God, and they consider “human nature” something only to be overcome by pure spirituality and devotion to God. Though they do concede it’s necessary to keep the body alive despite its evils, though I was never real clear on why.

        I am apparently descended from Puritans, though I doubt they’d admit to that either.

      • Anat

        Jayn, hormonal birth control is based on mimicry of natural states of the body by artificial means. Why is that different than any other use of medication? Is the Catholic Church against dietary supplements too?

      • Christine

        Um, in fairness, I have to agree that the church’s description of what oral contraceptives do to the body is pretty accurate. The nausea & mood swings on the pill (throwing up daily until I both got a new prescription AND started taking the pill in the evening, then just throwing up when I started a new pack, my husband could see a huge improvement when I got off the pill) are significantly worse than either my natural luteal phase (minor nausea, very little in the way of mood swings) or pregnancy nausea (I threw up only once, was mostly just really zoned out).

        But it’s the “by artificial means” that the church objects to. I’ve never really understood the logic – you’re more likely to get pregnant using a condom normally than using the Billings method normally (this may not be true in the US – the “as used” effectiveness was only 89%, I’m not sure if that’s due to more exposure to the QF-type movements, or less science education). So why is nfp considered more “open to life”? (I *think* it might be that if you’re using condoms it’s too easy to say “no, no more babies”, even if you feel a call to one, whereas nfp you have to really mean it, all the time).

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        I want to clarify that most people don’t have such intolerance to oral anticonceptives (in fact I’d never met someone who was even close to how bad they seem to affect you).
        You should really check another type of oral anticonceptives if you ever need to take them.

        I really think many pregnancies would be avoid if people only just took the time to read the full instructions on the box.

        Expressions like “feel the call to” sound like complete christianese and also don’t make any rational sense o me. It’s like the logic people use to give or not give money to certain poor people because some really deserve it and others not so much, they need to “earn” it T_T IT might be just my impression. Also I think having a child should be more opt in than opt out, you should have a child because you really want to not because it’s too complicated to keep abstinence or contraception or NFP or whatever.

      • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

        Anat, I’m no expert on Catholic theology, but I think the point is that it’s only natural for your body to be in that state part of the time. Not that I really care, since I’m nothing resembling a good Catholic.

        Christine: Eep! I thought I had it rough with BCP. In my case I think it mostly aggravated pre-existing conditions, but regardless it screwed up my quality of life badly enough that I’m hesitant to even try NuvaRing or Mirena.

      • Christine

        I completely agree that having children should be opt in! (If you don’t want them, don’t have them. I’ll have them for you!) This is why, like Jayn I’m “nothing resembling a good Catholic”. I don’t actually see the connection between feeling a call (or vocation) to do something and something like the concept of “worthy poor”, aside from the fact that they are both outdated concepts in modern society.

        I agree that not everyone has the same problems with oral contraceptives I do, but my problems were fairly mild among people I know who have problems. I know of at least four friends who take/took them, and only one of my friends was throwing up or having mood swings. Two of them have no problems at all, and the other is fine as long as she switches prescriptions every now and then. It’s just that when she doesn’t she gets severe depression (which would have been manageable if she hadn’t been 0n an academic term the first time it happened). And, just to clarify, of these four friends at least three actually need the Pill, and aren’t just on it for birth control, so it’s not that “well people who have normal hormonal cycles can use it.” As my doctor said, some women just can’t use it. I only tried four different kinds, but the doctor was reluctant to prescribe me anymore, because I had already tried all the ones which were easiest on the body. I’ve been told that other hormonal contraceptives might not give me as many problems, but I’m reluctant to try them, because all other methods are a lot harder to stop if I need to.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        Pretty off-topic but I literally just saw this article about the efficacy of contraception:

      • Pseudonym

        There are also people who suffer awful mood swings and various physical ailments because of their natural hormonal cycles. In a significant number of cases birth control pills can improve their conditions.

  • machintelligence


    The Church looks to more sources of revelation of God’s will than, say, evangelical Protestants do (the latter usually claim to look only to the Bible; the former believe that is heretical), but it’s all about figuring out what God wants and living accordingly.

    At the risk of repeating myself: If you are having or seeking revelations, the voice you hear in your head is your own voice.

  • smrnda

    Natural Law always seemed to be to be an attempt to pretend that you could reach the same conclusions as Church dogma if you just made observations and reasoned from them, but it always seemed to rely heavily on circular reasoning and obfuscating language as a means of hiding the fact that the people behind “Natural Law” theology or philosophy already knew where they stood on issues, and just tried to find a way of creating a justification.

    Natural Law is always promoted as a guide to promoting human flourishing, but it seems to just be a one-size-fits all box that rules out from the start the idea that reproduction isn’t necessarily an issue in everybody’s attempt at flourishing as best they can. I know people for whom having children is pretty necessary for them feeling fulfilled. Other people don’t feel this way. I don’t see that as a problem and I don’t think that I can tell people they should do otherwise in a case like this.

    Not having children has only really been a reliable option for a short time in human history, and it’s throwing off a long history of thinking where it was just assumed that you would have kids if you had sex. I think a lot of the uneasiness people have about it is that it just seems to be a major change, major enough that it completely changes the nature of relationships. I’m the type of person who welcomes and accepts changes, but I do think they can cause uneasiness in people.

    • ScottInOH


      Natural Law always seemed to be to be an attempt to pretend that you could reach the same conclusions as Church dogma if you just made observations and reasoned from them, but it always seemed to rely heavily on circular reasoning and obfuscating language…


      • ScottInOH

        Oops. The “yes” there should be outside the blockquote. Foiled again by the lack of a preview function (and my own ineptitude)…

    • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

      Hm, I always thought of it as a meditation on why so many aspects of morality are so similar despite differences in culture and religion. The apologetic uses of Natural Law are, to my knowledge, relatively recent.

      If it derived from any particular Christian doctrine, I would say the doctrine that God’s love and providence extends to all of creation, rather than just to a particular nation/ethnic group.

      But many, even most, of the historical seeds of Natural Law theory are found in Aristotle and Plato, rather than in any religious text.

      • Alan

        Aristotle’s contribution to Natural Law is more a result of Aquinas interpretation of him than of his words themselves. Cicero is a more appropriate father of natural law – but he didn’t come at either to provide supposed rational justification for church morality or to understand why there are similarities in morality across cultures.

        But the conclusions as to what is the Natural Law that the Catholic Church has reached over time certainly do have a bit of conclusions leading the experiment to them.

      • naked anthropologist

        I never really saw natural law as a meditation but more a guideline. Unlike a hard set of rules that could provoke theological and practical problems, natural law is adaptable to both time and culture. It’s very subjective, and therefore has a certain element of flexibility that (some) other ideological systems lack. It’s not so much that lots and lots of things in common “morally” ( concept in and of itself that is highly subjective and prone to temporal and cultural changes) but rather the ideological system of natural law can be fitted just enough to be assimilated irregardless of culture. What is considered to be natural or flourishing or perfection is extremely individualized – not just from culture to culture, but also differs from within cultures: between age grades, genders, biological sexes, subcultures, groups or factions from within those subcultures, and so on and so on. Ergo, if one is Catholic then Natural is highly adaptive to one’s own situation and interpretation of the universe. If one is not, then it no more defines morality than if one is a Nuer than Kwoth exchange defines morality.

  • ScottInOH

    @Rosie, 8/23, 10:50am

    That is actually an important theological difference between Catholicism and most versions of Protestantism. The Catholic Church does indeed teach that it is heretical to believe that human nature is broken (just as they teach is it heretical to believe that the Bible is the only source of God’s teaching or that the Bible should be read literally).

    In practice, I’m not sure the difference amounts to much, since Catholics teach that so much of what actual humans do is against that perfect nature.

    • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

      Depends on what you mean by “broken”.

      The phrases I’ve heard from historical Lutherans and Calvinists are “totally depraved” and “completely corrupt.” They see the “break” as a total destruction of any good in the human being, any possibility of knowing truth or loving good or doing right.

      Catholics speak of the “stain” of Original Sin. The intellect is “darkened” but not destroyed; we are burdened with “concupiscence” (which is a $5 word for “desire”) but are not utterly evil; we can never do enough to “make up for” the damage done to our relationship with God, but that doesn’t imply that the good we attempt to do is utterly worthless.

      So it is not heretical (in the Catholic Church) to believe that humanity is broken. It is heretical to believe that human nature is utterly destroyed or corrupted beyond any possibility of good.

      • Steve

        But as Scott said, it’s a distinction that doesn’t really matter much. It may be interesting for ivory tower “scholars”, but in practice both hate being human and both result in anti-human actions, rules and laws

      • machintelligence

        Robert King:
        You might like this quote from John Stuart Mill (On Liberty 1859)

        It is so, on the Calvinistic theory. According to that, the one great offence of man is Self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable, is comprised in Obedience. You have no choice; thus you must do, and no otherwise; “whatever is not a duty is a sin.” Human nature being radically corrupt, there is no redemption for any one until human nature is killed within him. To one holding this theory of life, crushing out any of the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities, is no evil: man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them. That is the theory of Calvinism; and it is held, in a mitigated form, by many who do not consider themselves Calvinists; the mitigation consisting in giving a less ascetic interpretation to the alleged will of God; asserting it to be his will that mankind should gratify some of their inclinations; of course not in the manner they themselves prefer, but in the way of obedience, that is, in a way prescribed to them by authority; and, therefore, by the necessary conditions of the case, the same for all.

        I might also note that Islam means surrender (to the will of God).
        This is a common and persistent meme.

  • smrnda

    As a nonbeliever, the Catholic perspective on human nature, while I don’t agree with it, seems considerably more rational than the Protestant vision. If people are really so bad, why are they so mundane and normal most of the time? What I get when I ask that question is the person then argues that actions that seem mundane and ordinary are really horribly evil if we look at the ‘heart motives’ or ‘inner thoughts’ and that when people try to be good, it’s actually bad because it’s done for the wrong reasons. To me, that’s an awful lot of mental gymnastics. I’m not sure how hard-core some Protestants are, and to believe something that ridiculous would be difficult, and I think it’s the type of thing one would affirm on a Sunday if asked the question but which can’t actually form the foundation of one’s thoughts during the week.

  • wendy