Two Fights to Pick On Homosexuality

I’ve heard two major types of Christian arguments against homosexuality (or, more precisely, against acting on a homosexual orientation).  I find both unpersuasive, and I thought I’d close out this series inspired by Christiopher Yuan by explaining why I don’t buy the arguments and why I think one of them is never worth making to non-Christians.

It is Bad because God forbids it.
God asks people to do a lot of strange things, especially in the Old Testament.  At the most horrifying end of the spectrum is the story of Abraham and Isaac, and over in the less frightening but still perplexing category are Judaism’s arbitrary seeming laws of kashrut (rabbit meat is verboten, and apparently Jews may not drink wine or grape juice that was prepared by non-Jews).

I’ve heard people make arguments that these laws are good in themselves, but most people endorse obedience to God as an end in itself.  If you take a somewhat fideist tack, the more bizarre/horrifying the rule, the more praiseworthy the submission of will.  (This line of thought has some frightening implications which are being discussed by commenters arguing about God’s genocides).

As far as I could tell, this is the type of argument Yuan was making when his visited Yale.  The only proof-texts he cited were from Leviticus, and he didn’t have anything bad to say about homosexuality except that it was counter to God’s will for him.

This may seem obvious, but since plenty of apologists, including Yuan, make this mistake, let me be clear: If your argument is premised solely on God’s preference/command, atheists and other non-Christians will not be persuaded.  The only argument you ought to be making to me is that your god exists.  If you succeed at that, then we’ll talk.

It’s baffling to me that many Christians choose to make arguments about homosexuality, masturbation, contraception, etc their primary mark in the public square.  The arguments aren’t accessible outside their sect’s framework, so us atheists are left unmoved or repulsed.

But there is another strategy…

God forbids it because it is Bad.

This is the natural law/Theology of the Body kind of strategy and its much rarer than the first maneuver, at least in my experience.  I still don’t agree with the premises or the conclusions derived from them (Why is vaginal sex uniquely unitive?  Why is a woman with a hysterectomy allowed to have sex while a woman using a diaphragm is not?), but at least the assumptions are supposed to be accessible to me.

When I hear this kind of argument, I’m willing to listen, but I need to hear that the person making the argument knows something about human sexuality and relationships.  Anyone making a pitch that gay people can’t love each other deeply and selflessly is too out of step with lived experience to get me to budge unless they have a really strong explanation of why my subjective experiences and those of my friends are mistaken.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Jon B.

    Leah:I'd definitely agree that the simple "God says so" is a line of argument that's just silly to employ if you're trying to persuade non-believers. Within a religious context it's different, but Yuan had to know he wasn't simply talking to, say, liberal Christians. A little side note on the natural law line of argument (which I do think is worth pursuing with non-believers; unfortunately, some variants of Christianity are uncomfortable with natural law as some sort of threat to the authority of revelation) – Robby George co-authored an article on the nature of marriage (titled, appropriately, "What is Marriage?") that at least attempts to address the questions you raised re: the importance of the body in having a coherent theory of sexuality.

  • Elizabeth K.

    Jon I agree. And I do think that we hear this argument less frequently because, as you put it, many Christians are uncomfortable with natural law theory. One of the best answers I know, Leah, to your question about the diaphragm v. the hyterectomy comes, actually, from Wendell Berry, who argues for strict NFP not from a religious standpoint (tho he is religious) but from an ecological one.

  • Andy

    The problem with natural law, at least as Catholics present it, is that it will almost always revert back to arguments that God disapproves, because it relies on the existence of souls.Another problem is that natural law, historically, has been a "god of the gaps" fulfillment into why we feel how we do. As biology, and other modern disciplines study these things deeper it leaves natural law behind. For instance, we've observed homosexuality, and same sex coupling and adoption within the animal kingdom. This absolutely destroys the notion that homosexuality is intrinsically unnatural.

  • KL

    Leah, I don't know how rhetorical your parenthetical questions are in the natural law/ToB section above, but some initial (and very surface-level!) responses to them, from a Catholic perspective, are:"Why is vaginal sex uniquely unitive?" Because only vaginal sex is, at least under normal circumstances, potentially procreative. (We'll set aside the exceptions of contact pregnancy for now.) Vaginal sex is the only type of intercourse that leads to conception, and the Catholic Church teaches that the fullness of sexuality is intrinsically both unitive and procreative. While there's some debate in contemporary Catholic circles about what kinds of sexual activity are appropriate within marriage, vaginal intercourse is always privileged because of its potential to bring forth new life. "Why is a woman with a hysterectomy allowed to have sex while a woman using a diaphragm is not?" Quite simply, because the woman with the hysterectomy is not taking deliberate action to make the sexual activity non-procreative. Presumably, she did not desire to have her uterus removed (and, in fact, the Church would condemn hysterectomies for non-medically-necessary reasons), and thus did not intend to make herself sterile. She can morally engage in intercourse, even if she knows conception will not occur, because she is not deliberately circumventing or suppressing any biological processes. The woman with the diaphragm, on the other hand, is preventing the natural processes of intercourse and conception (sperm is deposited in the vagina and proceeds, hospitable environment permitting, through the cervix into the uterus and Fallopian tubes) with the express purpose of preventing conception.

  • orgostrich

    KL,If the "fullness of sexuality" is both unitive and procreative, then is a woman who has had a hysterectomy incapable of experiencing sex in its complete "fullness?" Leaving aside the moral issue of deliberately preventing pregnancy, is that woman missing something? Is it less unifying? What about post-menopausal women or naturally infertile women?

  • Anonymous

    I'm trying to think of something humankind has less need of than "a coherent theory of sexuality" but I'm not coming up with anything.Seriously. It is so very much a solution in search of a problem.

  • http://thegroomsfamily.wordpress.com Lea

    God is not a utilitarian or a consequentialist, and – whether or not you believe in him – you shouldn't be either. What matters is not actually making babies, but willingness to accept the natural, intimate, and creative connection between sex and babies, and to love any baby that might come of a sexual relationship. A woman who's had a medical hysterectomy or is post-menopausal should be able to experience sex just as fully as a fertile woman if she is just as open as a fertile woman can be to having a child. The fact that she can't physically have one is out of her control, and does not therefore affect the fullness or quality of her sexual life with her spouse. Leah, I wanted to ask – what is your understanding of "loving each other deeply and selflessly"?

  • Anonymous

    *What matters is not actually making babies, but willingness to accept the natural, intimate, and creative connection between sex and babies…*I've found sex with a condom to be quite natural, intimate and creative, thank you.

  • Anonymous

    **What matters is not actually making babies, but willingness to accept the natural, intimate, and creative connection between sex and babies…*Oh and also: Why? Why is such "willingess" necessary? I'm leaving to go to dinner in about 45 minutes with two lesbian women, one of whom just conceived a child using artificial insemination. Any lecturing you'd care to have me do before the entrees arrive, pretentious natural law person?

  • KL

    @Orgostrich,Well, yes and no, depending on how you look at it. In one sense, no, sex that involves a woman who has had a hysterectomy is not "sex as it is meant to be," since I think we can agree that women are not "meant" to be uterus-less. While medical conditions may make surgical intervention necessary, and let me stress that the woman is *not* at moral fault in any way, the conditions under which she has sexual intercourse are not the ideal ones, simply because some evil has occurred that necessitated the removal of one of her organs. In the same way, we might say that someone undergoing dialysis is not experiencing the fullness of the circulatory system (the circulatory system "as it is meant to be," if you will), since the kidneys are not functioning as they would in a healthy person. That does not mean that dialysis is immoral (and it is, in fact, a good!); nevertheless, it is less good in an objective sense than filtering by healthy kidneys would be.That does not, however, mean that sexual intercourse between, say, a post-hysterectomy woman and her husband is any less unitive, even if by necessity it cannot be actually procreative. Lea is correct when, in her second graph above, she points out that the sterile woman can be just as open to having a child as a fertile one. Just because she knows that, biologically, conception is impossible doesn't mean that she would not welcome a child were she actually to conceive one. I know many women, as I am sure you do, who ardently desire a child but will most likely never conceive one, due to medical constraints. So long as the woman in question is not actively preventing conception, we can say that she is treating sex as potentially procreative.Since sexual intercourse is sometimes naturally non-procreative — whether because it takes place during the woman's infertile period or simply because fertilization does not occur — the act is not intrinsically less good because it does not result in a baby. But deliberately preventing conception, whether via barrier or hormonal methods, *is* intrinsically less good, since that directly interferes with natural biological processes and organs that are functioning normally and healthfully.

  • Anonymous

    *But deliberately preventing conception, whether via barrier or hormonal methods, *is* intrinsically less good*No it isn't. Sex without conception is fine. It rocks. Calm down. *since that directly interferes with natural biological processes and organs that are functioning normally and healthfully.*Um, what? It's "natural" that we might conceive, but that doesn't mean it's always "good". I happen to have a kid and not want any more of them. I also happen to find sex fun. So we contracept. It's simple and easy. Relax. Everything will be fine

  • Anonymous

    *But deliberately preventing conception, whether via barrier or hormonal methods, *is* intrinsically less good, since that directly interferes with natural biological processes and organs that are functioning normally and healthfully. *Oh and something else, apropo "organs functioning normally and healthfully":My wife was unable to give birth to our kid via natural delivery. He was too big. Had to have a a C-section after 4 hours pushing.100 years ago, I would not be a father and husband: I would be a widower whose child and wife had died–in agony, I might add–in the course of childbirth.So how about we make the decisions about whether more kids are good or bad, mmmkay Body Theologian?

  • KL

    Anonymous,If you'd like to actually have a discussion about the intrinsic moral value of contraception, I'd love to talk. But simply stating "Sex without conception is fine. It rocks. Calm down." without context or supporting argumentation doesn't really do much to further your point or change minds.Regarding your wife's case: First, I am happy that she and your child are healthy and safe. Neither I nor any mainstream Catholic theologian is opposed to modern medicine, properly applied. And there is no moral objection to using extraordinary means (e.g. surgery) to protect human life, whether of the mother or of the child — or in this case, both — so long as the means themselves are not immoral. I fail to see how this situation conflicts with anything I said above, particularly since this is in fact a case of organs not "functioning normally": your wife was unable, for whatever reason, to deliver your child via the standard biological method. Again, this does not reflect moral culpability on her part, nor was the C-section immoral. But her situation, as you rightly point out, was not ideal, and for most of human history might have been fatal."So how about we make the decisions about whether more kids are good or bad, mmmkay Body Theologian?" Again, I am unsure as to what you are trying to establish. Regardless, though, the Christian position is that all life is sacred and thus an intrinsic good; in that sense, then, every child is a good. That does not mean that we should be irresponsible in bringing children into the world, since that would reflect poorly on our own character as far as stewardship of resources, responsibilities to existing dependents, etc. — but nevertheless, the conception of a child is never, on this view, an evil.

  • thomas tucker

    Anonymous should learn how to discuss without being so snarky.Just my opinion.

  • orgostrich

    KL: "Just because she knows that, biologically, conception is impossible doesn't mean that she would not welcome a child were she actually to conceive one."Couldn't this also be applied to lesbian couples? They know conception is impossible, but some would be open to having a child if some sort of miracle were to happen. In fact, some lesbian couples use in vitro to conceive. What makes this sex act less good/meaningful than that of a heterosexual couple?

  • Patrick

    For the record:Either the enhanced unitive nature of vaginal intercourse with a chance for procreation is an experience-able feature of sex, or else it is not.If it is, then this question is falsifiable.If it is not, then the value of unitive sex is unclear.Also, KL, don't be trite. When you're entire moral theory boils down to "it just is," saying "it just isn't" is an adequate response.

  • http://www.thegroomsfamily.wordpress.com Lea

    @ orgostrich: Lesbians' desire for a child does not change the fact that they are engaging in sex that is by its nature not the kind of sex that can produce a child. A sterile woman engages in sex that, by its nature, CAN produce a child – it's just not likely to produce a child in her particular case.@ Patrick: I am glad you brought up this point, I think it's really important. What does it mean for something to be experience-able? I think one difference between the two camps here is that one of them sees sex largely (though not exclusively) in terms of how it feels physically and emotionally. For the other camp, both objective facts about sex and the knowledge people have about it are just as much part of "sex" as the way it feels. There's no denying that contraception changes the *psychology* of sex, even if it doesn't change the way sex *feels*: mutual willingness to accept responsibility for a child, whether or not one is born, and to regard the sexual partner as the parent of one's child, no longer have to be part of the relationship in which sex takes place (and therefore opens up sex for unmarried people). Is that "experience-able"? Not during the sex act. But over the course of one's life, yes.@ Anonymous: Yeah, the snarkiness is neither warranted nor appreciated. Incidentally, I say that people who contracept have sex that isn't "natural, intimate, and creative": if you'd actually read what I wrote before getting snarky, you'd notice that I was talking about it not being naturalLY, intimateLY, and creativeLY CONNECTED TO CHILDBEARING.

  • Anonymous

    KL @ April 14 4:06 pm: "Why is a woman with a hysterectomy allowed to have sex while a woman using a diaphragm is not?" Quite simply, because the woman with the hysterectomy is not taking deliberate action to make the sexual activity non-procreative.KL @ April 14 5:39 pm: …the sterile woman can be just as open to having a child as a fertile one. Just because she knows that, biologically, conception is impossible doesn't mean that she would not welcome a child were she actually to conceive one.Lea @ April 15 9:51 am: A sterile woman engages in sex that, by its nature, CAN produce a childThis has always been the logical sticking point for me when it comes to Catholics teaching NFP is an approved of method of birth control, but barrier methods are not (arguments against hormonal methods include other factors, so I'm leaving them out deliberately). NFP is taking deliberate action to make the sexual activity non-procreative by pin-pointing the days of a woman's reproductive cycle that she is not likely at all to conceive. In other words, NFP is about saying we want to have sex, but only if we can drastically reduce the chances I will have a child, which is exactly what a diaphragm is all about. A couple relying on a diaphragm is saying we want to have sex, but only if we can drastically reduce the chances we will have a child. Both couples want to enjoy the unitive aspect of sex, or the physical and emotional intimacy, but having a child is a result they are taking deliberate action to avoid. A post-hysterectomy woman may be theoretically open to having a child — although she may also be relieved as all heck that she isn't able to — just ask my mother's generation of Catholic women — but she knows that she will not. Claiming a theoretical "openness" to conception when one knows full well one is physically incapable of it implies intent is the key to sexual morality. A couple using a diaphragm may be just as open to having a child should conception occur in spite of the diaphragm as the sterile woman is in spite of her physical disability or the NFP using couple is in spite of their monitoring and charting method. The intent is exactly the same in each case — to foster a loving, intimate relationship while making decisions about the size of their families based on their personal situations. I think Lea is reaching when she claims sterile women are enjoying sex that can, "by it's nature", result in conception. No. Any sex that can result in conception requires both parties to have fully functional reproductive systems. If you don't have a uterus, you aren't going to carry a child and you know it. You are aware you are engaging in sex that will not produce a child. And THAT brings up an interesting question: a hysterectomy means many things. Many women, especially younger women, retain their ovaries. They still ovulate. But they will never carry a child. What's the morality regarding sex in that case? I myself have had endometrial ablation. I will not carry a child, but I can conceive — may have, for all I know. What does the Catholic Church say about these situations? I am aware I can conceive, but I am also aware that no fertilized egg will ever result in a live birth. Nina

  • KL

    @Nina: "In other words, NFP is about saying we want to have sex, but only if we can drastically reduce the chances I will have a child, which is exactly what a diaphragm is all about. A couple relying on a diaphragm is saying we want to have sex, but only if we can drastically reduce the chances we will have a child. Both couples want to enjoy the unitive aspect of sex, or the physical and emotional intimacy, but having a child is a result they are taking deliberate action to avoid."But the difference is, if having sex will likely result in conceiving a child, the NFP couple doesn't have sex. The diaphragm couple does, but uses barrier methods. The Church recognizes the good of abstaining from something that is desired and is itself a good (e.g. sex), for the sake of a larger good (responsibility regarding conception, in this case). It's the same principle that goes into the Christian tradition of fasting, for example — in which the good of food and nutrition is sacrificed for the sake of prayer or spiritual enrichment. Abstaining (whether from food, sex, etc.) is not an inherently immoral act, so there's no issue with engaging in it to achieve the end of avoiding conception, which is in itself a morally neutral goal. Barrier methods of contraception, on the other hand, are inherently immoral, so they cannot licitly be used to achieve the end of avoiding conception, even if the goal is the same as the NFP couple.Regarding Lea's comment on sex that "by its nature" can result in conception — I believe she means that, in ideal circumstances (that is, the full biological health of both parties), male-female vaginal intercourse can result in conception. That statement is not true for any other form of sexual intercourse, regardless of the health or biological functioning of the parties involved.As far as hysterectomies go, I will admit that I am not familiar with the Church teaching on this specific situation. In fact, there may not even be an "official" position on it. But I suspect, given the knowledge I do have, that the response would be: If a woman is capable of having her eggs fertilized but cannot carry a child to term, resulting in spontaneous miscarriage, this is tragic but not an immoral situation. After all, she is not taking deliberate action to prevent these eggs from implanting, etc. Miscarriage, for obvious reasons, is not a sin — the woman bears no moral culpability for spontaneous biological functions. So even if she has had one or more eggs fertilized and they miscarried, while the situation is regrettable (and potentially tragic), she is doing nothing wrong by engaging in sexual activity that may or may not result in conception.As a side note, though — the Church would also probably say that it would be morally praiseworthy to abstain, given the lack of certainty over whether conception would occur, or even to practice NFP despite the impossibility of carrying a pregnancy to term. Again, this is purely my instinct based on Church teaching, and you've piqued my interest on what the Church does actually say in this situation. If I find more concrete information I will share it here!

  • Anonymous

    KL: But the difference is, if having sex will likely result in conceiving a child, the NFP couple doesn't have sex. Exactly. That's their deliberate effort to avoid pregnancy while still maintaining an active sex life. They will only engage in sex when the odds are overwhelmingly in the favor of non-conception. They're not abstaining from sex at all. They're only abstaining from sex that is likely to result in a child. That's the sticking point — either birth control is okay, or it isn't. If NFP is okay, then there's no logical grounds for excluding barrier methods. Same difference — no sperm swimming around in the vicinity of an egg, but the couple still gets to maintain a fairly regular sex life. If avoiding conception is a morally neutral goal, then the Church has sanctioned the intent to avoid conception. Barrier methods can't be inherently immoral. They're inanimate objects.Qualifying sterile sex with "ideal circumstances" really doesn't change things. If wishes were horses, and all that. If sex between two people who are incapable of conceiving a child is immoral when it comes to gays and lesbians, then it should be so for all people. The logic, again, gets lost in the gray areas and the Church's attempt to have its cake and eat it too. OTOH, once the Church acknowledges the gray, then the door has been opened for a conversation regarding the morality of homosexual sex. The problem with advising a woman who has undergone one or another gynecological procedure to use NFP is that it's unlikely she can. So now she knows she's engaging in activity that very well may produce a human life which must, because of her condition, die. Which takes us one step further down the slope — how is this different than using the pill? Conception is possible, maybe even likely, but implantation is not possible (at least in the hysterectomy situation — implantation is possible with the pill). It just seems to me that the Church ends up tying itself into knots trying to make absolute claims about sexual morality. No birth control at all for anyone is a much more logical statement than anything they're making right now. The arguments for NFP are all ultimately flawed. It is a deliberate attempt to manipulate natural human sexuality to avoid conception. What we know about the biology of desire and attraction tells us, in general, that women are most receptive to sex when they are most fertile. They are least receptive when least fertile. The NFP model requires sex when the woman is least receptive and abstinance when she is most receptive. This is ultimately damaging to the wholeness of the female person (which in turn has to be damaging to the male — what loving, compassionate man wants sex under those circumstances?). Nina

  • http://thegroomsfamily.wordpress.com Lea

    Thanks, Nina and KL.@KL: "Claiming a theoretical "openness" to conception when one knows full well one is physically incapable of it implies intent is the key to sexual morality."Yes."A couple using a diaphragm may be just as open to having a child should conception occur in spite of the diaphragm as the sterile woman is in spite of her physical disability or the NFP using couple is in spite of their monitoring and charting method."But the couple using a diaphragm is taking specific action to ensure that a child does not result from their sexual act. The couple using NFP may time their sexual acts to avoid getting pregnant, but does nothing to make sure that the sexual act they are already engaging in does not result in childbearing. Thereby they affirm the connection between sex and childbearing – if you want to have sex, you should be open to creating new life, because that's part of what sex is (and, for the believers among us, of what God designed sex to be); if you are not open to creating new life, you have no business having sex. "[if you've had a hysterectomy] You are aware you are engaging in sex that will not produce a child."That's true. But you are engaging in sex that, were it not for a problem *out of your control*, would result in children. A person who contracepts or engages in homosexual sex, on the other hand, is engaging in sex that either cannot or is unlikely to result in children *due to their own intentions and actions.*

  • http://thegroomsfamily.wordpress.com Lea

    @Nina – we seem to be posting at the same time!I used to think the same way as you do about NFP – that the issue is preventing conception, and either that's OK or it isn't. But I've realized that that's not really the issue. The issue is not whether it's OK to prevent conception, but rather whether it's OK to have sex while preventing the procreative potential of sex – to break the connection between sex and new life (sorry to repeat myself).You are right that a woman using NFP will be having sex when she is least inclined to do so, and vice versa. This is one of the reasons why NFP is not ideal for people whose goal in life is to have as few children as possible, if any. The Catholic Church would suggest that people who have that goal are not living out the full reality of sex and marriage.

  • Anonymous

    @Lea — no wonder it was so hard to get my post through — I was sure I'd double posted it, or something. :)For me, using NFP is the direct action that avoids conception as much as inserting a diaphragm is an action.Once the couple agrees that the intent is to time their sexual activity in order to avoid conception, they're taking action. That's where I think the Church is a little fuzzy. And, as we both agree, NFP requires couples to essentially negate the natural reproductive rhythms of their bodies — mostly the woman, though, which is just another strike against it as anything natural or *more* moral than a diaphragm. Nina

  • KL

    @Nina"…either birth control is okay, or it isn't."I think there is some semantic confusion here (isn't there always?). If "birth control" simply means "avoiding pregnancy" or "exercising responsibility in spacing births," then yes, it's completely acceptable. If "birth control" means "the use of artificial methods, such as barrier or hormonal contraceptives, to prevent fertilization and/or implantation resulting from intercourse," then no, it's not acceptable. And while I think you understood my meaning above, I will clarify: no, I don't think that the existence of the inanimate object we label a "diaphragm" is inherently immoral. However, the *use* of said object, meant to impede the travel of sperm to an egg, is. The morality of sexual activity between same-sex couples is related to that of contracepting heterosexual couples, but the issues at play are not identical. The theology of the body approach doesn't argue simply that homosexual sexual activity is immoral simply because it's sterile, but because human sexuality is meant to be inherently complementary and a union of male and female. We can get into that discussion if you like, but it's distinct from that of using contraception in male-female couples and thus largely irrelevant to the discussion at hand."So now she knows she's engaging in activity that very well may produce a human life which must, because of her condition, die. Which takes us one step further down the slope — how is this different than using the pill?"Again, the difference is in deliberately performing an action to interfere with conception/implantation, versus finding oneself in a situation that, regardless of one's action or lack thereof, will not result in conception/implantation. It's important to understand that the Church's reasoning is not consequentialist but rather deontological. Simply because the result is the same does not mean that the actions involved are morally equivalent. (NB: It's worth noting that I said, as an aside more than anything, that I suspected the Church might say that a woman using NFP under the circumstances in question would be morally praiseworthy, not morally obligatory. If she cannot use NFP due to a lack of biological signs, this would not reflect poorly on her.)Lastly, NFP does not require sex at any time, especially when a woman is not "receptive." Any practitioner will tell you that successful NFP requires communication and honesty regarding each partner's needs and desires. Furthermore, after a period of abstinence, many women find themselves pretty darn receptive when the fertile window has passed and the green light is given, so to speak — natural hormonal peak notwithstanding. And if, during the fertile window, the desire is overwhelming, couples are perfectly free to engage in intercourse! But they do so knowing that they may very well conceive a child as a result. They simply weigh the various goods and drawbacks of the factors involved (sexual gratification vs. possible conception of a child) and make a decision accordingly.A crucial insight here, I think, is that the Church views sexual gratification, in its proper context, as a good but certainly not the highest good. It can and often should be subordinated to other moral responsibilities. And it is certainly not to be pursued to the moral detriment of the parties involved.

  • http://thegroomsfamily.wordpress.com Lea

    @Nina: Yes, I also had a hard time getting my post through! :) What you are saying points to an interesting question: why should it matter whether the attempt to prevent pregnancy takes place during a given sexual act, or is built into a couple's lifestyle through the timing of their sexual acts? I think part of the reason it does matter is because the former approach makes sexual discipline unnecessary – it affirms the idea that you should be able to have sex whenever you want to, because you want to, and not deal with the procreative nature and consequences of sex. In this way it fosters the addiction to sex that so many in our society suffer from. The NFP approach, on the other hand, affirms the connection between sex and childbirth – if you don't want one, you can't have the other. It's true that planning not to have sex at certain times constitutes a kind of action; however, it is not the kind of action that gives one a green light to satisfy the urge for sexual gratification, at any time when it arises, while ignoring its unitive aspect.

  • Anonymous

    @KLI think most healthy, mature adults view sexual gratification as a goal unto itself the same way the Catholic Church does. Sexual gratification is good, but is at its best when reserved for a committed relationship (which you, as a Catholic, and I, as a non-Catholic Christian, would both agree means marriage). You and I would probably also agree with the premise that sex unites us with God, that through sex, through trust and intimacy and the possibility of pro-creation we are most reflecting the image of God. An atheist or those of other faith traditions may not agree with that aspect of sexual union, however, which is fine — that doesn't mean they're de facto promiscuous, shallow people by any means.Birth control is just that — controlling births of children, or potential births of children. NFP, a diaphragm, the pill, an IUD, a condom are all methods of birth control. Hormonal birth control brings a different set of physiological processes to the table and I agree that, from a Christian view, they're morally problematic. I don't see this at all with barrier methods. NFP is a barrier of sorts — timing is the barrier rather than latex. Like NFP, using a barrier method is a decision that's made before each instance of sexual intercourse, like NFP, it doesn't change the physiology of the body, and like NFP, it's a temporary method of birth control (if you're a couple at peak fertility, barrier methods aren't good long-term options, statistically speaking). I might not agree with the position that all birth control, NFP included, is immoral, but I can understand the logic. NFP, however, from a Catholic perspective, seems to be built on pretzel logic — as if the Church had to throw the masses a bone, and that's what they came up with (at the time, too, fertility awareness was limited to the rhythm method and not a scientifically and biologically fine-tuned near-100% effective method of birth control).The other problem I have is that the whole absinence/sacrifice side of NFP plays into what I see as the near-idolization of sacrifice in the Church. Sacrifice for sacrifice's sake being holy in itself. That's one of the reasons I left the Church — this idolization of suffering and sacrifice as goals in themselves. Nina

  • Patrick

    So wait… a woman who has been required to get a hysterectomy for medical reasons is still capable of achieving the full value of unitive sex because even though her body isn't strictly capable of procreation, she may be mentally open to the frame of mind that would be involved in procreative sex.Now imagine a couple who are intentionally engaged in the rhythm method because they believe, thanks to criminally poor sex education in their Catholic school, that the rhythm method is a reliable means of preventing pregnancy. They, too, are getting that full unitive value.But… why? The thing that cleared the first couple is explicitly absent in the second couple.

  • http://thegroomsfamily.wordpress.com Lea

    @Nina: Is discipline the same thing as the glorification of sacrifice? If you see them as different, why would you say that NFP is an example of the latter rather than the former? (This is not to deny that Catholics sometimes over-glorify sacrifice, but, not being Catholic, I don't feel qualified to speak to that). @Patrick: Cf. the discussion above with Nina about why timing is different from barriers

  • KL

    @NinaThank you for your thoughtful comments. I am about ready to wrap this up, but a few parting thoughts:- NFP is not a barrier, properly speaking. Barrier methods, by definition, interfere with the proper functioning of biological processes. The proper function of vaginal intercourse is as follows: sperm is deposited in the vagina, then proceeds through the cervix into the uterus and Fallopian tubes. Barriers obstruct this process: condoms prevent deposition of sperm, diaphragms block entrance into the uterus, and so on. NFP, on the other hand, simply abstains from those biological processes altogether. There is no interference with any physical mechanism, unless we are saying that abstinence interferes with natural biological desire — which, we have already agreed, is at least sometimes proper and necessary.- NFP was and is anything but throwing the masses a bone. When Humanae Vitae was promulgated, forbidding artificial birth control but permitting fertility awareness, people were upset. They are still upset, and the vast majority of Catholics do not abide by official Church teaching on birth control. The reasoning of Humanae Vitae, Casti Connubii, etc. is actually impressively coherent; fertility awareness methods were permitted not to give Catholics their own "form" of birth control, but because they were the only known methods of spacing births that respected natural biological processes. The fact that modern medicine has made NFP much more reliable than it was in the 60s is the happy result of increased human knowledge. But it would still be the only acceptable method even if it were much less effective in avoiding conception.- I am deeply sorry that your experience in the Church drive you away from it, and I agree that suffering is often deified in some circles. However, I do believe that there is in fact nobility in sacrifice, provided the sacrifice is proportional to the good sought as a result of said sacrifice (the process of weighing sacrifice and goods is, of course, one that will depend enormously on context and cannot be objectively defined!). However, suffering on the part of oneself or another, devoid of sacrifice, should never be pursued as a goal in itself — I am in full agreement on that score.

  • Anonymous

    Discipline, or willing, freely chosen sacrifice for a greater good is not the same thing as the glorification of suffering or sacrifice. People can glorify discipline, sacrifice or suffering. I think the Church has come dangerously close to openly glorifying sacrifice/suffering as an end in itself and that dangerous mindset has become inextricably meshed with much of Church teaching over the centuries. That mindset is openly prevalent among certain Catholic communities and cultural enclaves. I think we see the mindset at play in the justification of NFP and exclusion of all other methods of birth control. The only difference Catholics can come up with between barrier methods and NFP is that NFP requires discipline and sacrifice, and it's the discipline and sacrifice that make it inherently good. There is no virtue if there is no choice. There is no virtue without free will, and the Church strives to take away choice and take away free will and impose sacrifice — in which case it's not truly a sacrifice anyway. Nina

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    Wow! This comment thread really took off while I was in class today. I'm going to respond to some details and questions in thread, but answering one of the underlying assumptions got long, so I've spun it off into its own post: NFP, Contraception, and (oh yes) Transhumanism.

  • Patrick

    Lea- I followed that portion of the conversation. I'm not sure you get my point.There's a concept in legal analysis called "distinction without a difference." Imagine that Case 1 worked a particular way, and someone is arguing that Case 2 is similar, and therefore should work the same way. Someone who disagrees is going to answer by arguing that Case 2 is not actually similar.Well, sometimes the ways in which people claim that Case 2 is not similar are ways that are not relevant to the issue at hand. For example, pointing out that Case 1 happened on a Monday, but Case 2 happened on a Tuesday, is probably not going to be relevant if the cases are about securities fraud. Securities fraud is the same no matter what day of the week it happens to be.We call these efforts at separating matters "distinctions without a difference."If you want to argue that its the intrinsic nature of the act of sex that determines its morality, then the mental state of the people involved isn't relevant.If you want to argue that its the mental state of the people involved in the act of sex that matters, then the specific act isn't important except possibly as a secondary indicator of mental state.What I'm seeing people argue in this thread is that the act of intentionally trying to separate the procreative and pleasurable aspects of sex is sinful. Well, what follows from that?The couple where the woman has had a medically necessary hysterectomy isn't necessarily ok, but they might be. This is because they might have the right mental state.Now imagine a couple who believe they are using hormonal birth control, but who are instead using sugar pills due to a mistake at the pharmacy. This couple would be violating the rules.Now imagine a couple who uses the rhythm method. This couple went to the same private school as my little brother, and they didn't have the sense to realize that the Health teacher was lying through her teeth when she claimed that the rhythm method was as reliable as hormonal birth control. Their mental state is therefore identical to the couple using the faulty birth control pills. So logically they should be in the same place morally, IF mental state is the issue.Now if mental state is NOT the key matter, then fine. But what is? If its the actual act of having sex even though you know there's no chance of conception, then the woman with the hysterectomy is going to have a problem. If its the act of having sex when there's no chance of conception regardless of your knowledge, then the woman with the hysterectomy is still in trouble, as are couples past menopause.Your distinction needs to make a difference under the explanation you select.

  • Patrick

    Hendy's post in the other thread explains matters for me. The couple using the rhythm method are sinning, and Catholicism is openly pro natalist.I swear I knew that but keep forgetting.

  • KL

    @Patrick,I'm not clear on what you mean by "pro-natalist," but if I am correct in assuming that you mean the Church wants couples to have as many children as possible, the Church would disagree. The phrase "grave reason," regarding the necessary rationale for avoiding pregnancy, is something of a mistranslation. The Latin is gravis, which is literally translated "grave," but is more accurately rendered "serious." Basically, the Church teaches that since children are one of the primary goods of marriage, if you are choosing to avoid having children, you need a good reason.Of course, there are tons of good reasons to avoid having a kid (or more kids). Couples' financial situation, emotional stresses, physical health — all may very well entail "good reason(s)" to avoid getting pregnant. Whether one's situation entails good reason is, however, entirely subjective and depends on the context of the couple in question, so what may be a "good reason" for one couple may not be for another. I'd strongly recommend the link Lukas mentioned in his response to Hendy in the thread you reference (http://simchafisher.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/why-doesnt-the-church-just-make-a-list/ ), which contains an excellent discussion of how differing circumstances may make an enormous difference on the moral status of avoiding pregnancy.

  • KL

    @Patrick,Also, this has probably been said a million times before, but NFP is not synonymous with the rhythm method. NFP refers to a any number of fertility-awareness methods (such as the sympto-thermal method, the Billings Ovulation method, the Creighton model, etc.), which are used by Catholics and non-Catholics alike very successfully. Modern methods of fertility monitoring have made it possible to avoid pregnancy with a success rate that is, in fact, comparable to that of hormonal contraceptives. See, for instance, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1755469 . There's lots more information in the references section of the wiki article, too — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fertility_awareness .

  • http://thegroomsfamily.wordpress.com Lea

    @Patrick,I'm not sure I understand your criticism of my response. The mental state in which people have sex is what's important in determining whether a particular act of sex is sinful. If a couple uses NFP because they think it can help prevent pregnancy (which it does – cf. KL's post above; when used correctly, it's just as effective as the pill when used correctly; and yes, NFP is NOT the rhythm method – which is only effective for women with highly regular periods), there is nothing sinful about that. As KL and I were trying to explain above in the discussion with Nina, the problem is not with couples not wanting to get pregnant at a particular time. The problem is with couples wanting to engage in sex acts while denying those acts their creative power. If you engage in a sex act when you are not fertile, *you* don't deny the sex act its power.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06277513602373430937 Rek

    @LeaThat distinction makes absolutely no sense to me, as Patrick's argument about distinction without difference still seems to hold. You are pointing out distinctions (e.g. that NFP is not the exact same physical activity as putting on a condom or swallowing a birth control pill) but are not explaining how the distinctions actually pertain to the matter at hand–the morality of contraception, of which NFP is one form.If it is morally permissible to act to prevent pregnancy by NFP without denying the sex act its power, as you put it, what is the problem with other forms of contraception? If the mental state is the issue, then what is the relevant difference in the mental state of a couple using NFP from that of a couple using any other contraceptive method? With regards to the sex act, both hypothetical couples have the exact same goal–enjoyment of sex without getting pregnant. Why is there any reason to believe that the NFP couple would be any more open to having a child nonetheless conceived than a couple using any other contraception? How is the activity of the one couple any less unitive or procreative than that of the NFP couple?

  • Anonymous

    @LeaYou can't advertise NFP as being as effective as the pill and, at the same time, claim using NFP means the couple doesn't deny the creative power of sex. You're playing mind games. Your Church has developed a birth control method that's theoretically 99+% effective at preventing pregnancy, at circumventing conception, so that couples can still have sex regularly. Actively using science to pinpoint fertility so that you can excise that period from your sex life with the intent of getting to enjoy only the unitive aspects of sex is doing nothing but denying the creative power of sex. That's what it does. NFP acts to sever the ties between the unitive and procreative aspects of sex so that couples can pick and choose which aspects they'll enjoy when it suits them. It's not having sex when you know you're not fertile that's the issue. It's actively choosing to only have sex when you know, with the help of science, that you are not fertile that's the issue. That's an act of will. Sin involves acts of will. Nina

  • Patrick

    KL- Thanks for the link, but I've actually already read it from one of the many other times I've seen it posted.It does not impress me.I am an attorney. I am familiar with the various merits and demerits of precision versus vagueness in drafting rules or normative statements. There are positives and negatives to both. In very short, a precise list might be problematic if you can't fit everything on the list, if individual circumstances vary widely. But it also provides accurate advice in those circumstances it covers. A vague series of guidelines that rely on individual application can be tailored to the circumstances of each case, but they leave a lot more room for bias. And of course there are gradients between the two extremes.The criticism being leveled at Catholicism on this point is that there is a moral rule out there, but it doesn't seem to have any effect on, well, on nearly anyone. Everyone seems to either ignore the rule entirely because its really not pushed much in first world countries where the populace has a history of telling nosy clerics to go soak their heads, or else everyone seems to come up with their own "special circumstances" that justify taking action to avoid pregnancy… and then eliding from there into just plain using contraception like we know everyone else.That's basically the criticism you should expect when you have a vaguely stated set of principles with no actual guidelines for application being applied by a bunch of self interested parties who really, really want to reach a particular outcome.The link discusses all of the counter arguments, which is fine for someone who's never heard of them.But there are two things it doesn't do. It doesn't actually address the pros and cons and weigh them against each other. And it doesn't acknowledge the possibility of increasing clarity partially while not actually creating a Giant List, nor does it explain why, on the continuum between specificity and generality, the status quo is preferable.Which means it isn't particularly useful to me. It doesn't answer any question I actually have. I live in a country with millions upon millions of people who belong to a religion that says its morally… lesser, lets say, to try to avoid pregnancy once you're married. And yet those members of that religion tend to have 2.6 children and a golden retriever. This is at least a prima facie case for there being a problem (as the dogma sees it) within this community, and answering why nothing is to be done with a black and white dichotomy between Giant Lists and the status quo isn't an answer.


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