Does the End Justify the Means? A Quote from “How Far Can We Go?” for Natural Family Planning Awareness Week

In support of the USCCB’s National NFP Awareness Week, I’d like to share this excerpt from a book I co-authored with my dear friend and colleague Leah Perrault titled How Far Can We Go?  A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.

For many people, the Church’s distinction between the moral status of NFP and that of artificial contraception is difficult to understand.  “If Catholics have a good reason to avoid pregnancy,” they wonder, “then why does the Church care whether they use Natural Family Planning or an artificial means, such as the pill or condoms?” . . .

We can start by noting that the question in the previous paragraph presumes that the end justifies the means.  In other words, it works on the assumption that if your goal is a good one, then whatever way you try to achieve that goal is also good.  The funny thing is that neither the Church nor many people in society accept that reasoning for any other question.  We don’t accept it for making money, or for losing weight.  We don’t accept it for winning political office, or for helping the poor.  We don’t even accept it for getting violent criminals off our streets.  According to the moral reasoning used by virtually everyone in society, an act cannot be okay simply because it tries to achieve a goal that is legitimate, or even urgent.

The moral difference between artificial contraception and NFP must lie in how they work, not in what they try to achieve.  The real question is “How does artificial contraception function differently than NFP to achieve the same goal?”  To put it simply, artificial contraception removes the procreative potential from sex.  In doing so, artificial contraception fails to respect the integrity of the persons and their life-giving actions.  Natural Family Panning, which can be used both to avoid and to achieve pregnancy, works by teaching couples to engage in their sexual activity with reference to their fertility and God’s call to parenthood.  When it is used to avoid pregnancy, NFP has the same goal as artificial contraception, but it demands a change in lifestyle.  Artificial contraception, meanwhile, hopes to accomplish the same goal with as little reference, or change, to the rest of one’s life as possible.  One option demands discipline and sacrifice, while the other rejects these attitudes as unnecessarily difficult.  In most other areas of life, such as maintaining a healthy weight, it is easy to see that not doing things (such as eating junk food) when we don’t want their consequences is simply common sense.  The Church reminds us that such logic applies to our sex lives as well.

Perhaps the most concise way to express the difference between NFP and artificial contraception is simply this:  NFP alters one’s lifestyle to accommodate the nature of sex, while artificial contraception alters the nature of sex to accommodate one’s lifestyle (pp. 92-94)

If you liked this post, you might also be interested in:

What Openness to Life Does NOT Mean

Is Sexual Compatibility a Myth? Some Thoughts on Cohabitation

An Interview With the Authors of How Far Can We Go?  A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating

UPDATE:  This post seems to be getting a very regular stream of steady traffic indicative that someone somewhere has linked to it.  Would anyone mind dropping us a line and letting us know just where this link is?  Thanks, Brett.


Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of three (so far) and husband of one. He is the co-author of How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.

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  • Julia Smucker

    This reminds me of a cultural critique I was raising the other day about two major problems with the widespread American definition of rights as basically doing whatever one wants: it’s overindividualized, and it’s disconnected from any sense of responsibility. The context of that conversation was our national addiction to guns, in light of the recent shooting in Colorado, and I was building on someone else’s point that a mass shooting every couple of years is a sin we put up with rather than having to sacrifice any personal autonomy. Without wanting to trivialize that tragedy in any way, I do think a similar principle applies here.

    • Willem S

      Guns are morally neutral–like any other tool that has the potential to harm or kill. Contraception, when used for the purpose for which it was created, is always a vector of evil. Apples and oranges.

      • Julia Smucker

        And what exactly is life-affirming about the purpose for which guns are created? They are made to harm or kill; that is no mere by-product of their existence.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Julia, I understand the point you are making, but it is worth noting that what they are intended to kill is not simply people. I farmer who keeps a .22 to kill varmints attacking his chickens, or a rancher who goes armed to protect himself from wolves is in a very different moral category than someone who goes armed to protect himself from “those people”.

        A gun is not morally neutral, as Willem asserts, but its moral identity is more complex than I think you are acknowledging.

      • brettsalkeld

        On the other hand, the same could be said about condoms/pills. Talking about instruments is one thing and talking about acts is another. I think Willem has also introduced an apples-oranges situation here.

    • Jordan

      Julia [July 22, 2012 1:57 pm]: I was building on someone else’s point that a mass shooting every couple of years is a sin we put up with rather than having to sacrifice any personal autonomy.

      I often think that because I’m gay that the “contraception issue” has absolutely no relevance to my life. After all, I have no desire to (sacramentally) wed or even have heterosexual sex. Why should I care about this? I should, because the so-called freedom of personal autonomy could carry quite dire consequences, such as Julia has noted.

      Were Paul with us today, I am convinced that he would redouble his call for marital chastity and abstinence for all else. Otherwise he would tacitly affirm radical autonomy and atomization of society. Each day I shake my fist at God for denying me a sexually intimate relationship. What monstrous Father would demand an arbitrary sexual abstinence on a minority of humankind simply by accident of birth? To paraphrase Brett, sexual limits, even the incomprehensible, are placed so that we conform and are conformed to God and not a radical alienated autonomy.

      Restraint in intimacy, no matter how painful this restraint is for some, is necessary so that we may survive and prosper as community. Else, as seen in Colorado last week, the disturbed might embody the depravity that lurks behind radical autonomy: a complete loss of a sense of human dignity.

      • http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com A Sinner

        Indeed, if desire is its own sufficient justification (and all immoral sex acts, as defined by the Church, ultimately boil down to this, ultimately have this sort of “circular” or self-undermining logic regarding their final cause)…then everything collapses. The “unfolding of freedom” as an end in-itself in history winds up just as sheer arbitrariness and solipsism.

        But isn’t that just the point of your statement about God demanding “an arbitrary sexual abstinence on a minority of humankind simply by accident of birth.” In reality, of course, the Church’s teachings do not “target” anyone or any type of person, inasmuch as the deposit of faith has no notion of a category of individual defined by subjective desires like that.

        The Church says “sodomy is sinful” for gays AND straights, and says, “The marital act is the only potentially virtuous outlet for genital pleasure” for straights AND gays (albeit many of the latter will never be comfortable with the idea of a mixed-orientation marriage, and so then it does amount in practice to being “born a eunuch” and thus celibacy.)

        That’s the whole point against atomization, isn’t it? That the Church offers an objective vision for everyone, one final end or set of virtues and goals (albeit, there are a couple of valid paths within that vision for getting there, allowing for different temperaments and vocations). And individual desires don’t somehow change that, as if different individual has a separate nature with a separate fulfillment or end.

        • Jordan

          A Sinner, I only brought up that I am a “person with deep-seated homosexual tendencies” (gay is easier despite the politics. Monosyllabic!) to illustrate that on a flesh/bones level the “male and female he made them” sexual binary scrambles outside of Eden. You’ve summarized TOB. Now what? So what?

          Brett and Kacy are working out the “now/so what?” from a (nominally) heterosexual standpoint. I’m going to shut up and let them continue their excellent train of thought. Just a sec, though: Brett [July 23, 2012 9:40 am] brings up an important point re: providentialists. He notes that for providentalists “the end must be illegitimate rather than that all means to the (legitimate) end are legitimate.” For persons who have little or no intuitive understanding of legitimately ordered sexuality (i.e. “LGBT people”), the end is not legitimate or illegitimate, but simply incomprehensible even though, as you note, the “rules” apply to us also. This absence of knowledge should be acknowledged by Catholics, even if the Church flat ignores the queer perspective simply because we’re ipso facto disordered in sexual thought.

        • http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com A Sinner

          Have I “summarized TOB”?? That’s a very odd accusation, as I am not at all a fan of TOB.

          In fact, it is because of my finding TOB problematic that I’d question whether heterosexuals have “intuitive knowledge” of rightly ordered sexuality, or whether homosexuals lack it. I’m not sure sexuality is any more or less “comprehensible” to anyone when considered from the objective standpoint that the Church’s teachings are framed from (albeit, TOB tries to introduce a rather large dose of subjectivist sentimentalism into the mix).

      • Jimmy Mac

        Jordan: that is quite an assumption on your part that God demands permanent and life-cramping abstinence from you. I know what you have been told and hope that you take a good hard look at the effect this (in my mind) false information has on your life.

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    “We can start by noting that the question in the previous paragraph presumes that the end justifies the means. In other words, it works on the assumption that if your goal is a good one, then whatever way you try to achieve that goal is also good.”

    I don’t think the question in the paragraph is necessarily one about the ends justifying the means, and I think people who use non-Church-sanctioned forms of birth control really do, myself included, consider the means to achieving their end.

    In my own circle of mom friends the issue of birth control comes up frequently. Some questions I’ve heard considered include:

    1. Will it make me feel sick?
    2. Will it mess up my milk supply while I’m breastfeeding my baby?
    3. Will it make me moody?
    4. Will it be comfortable for myself and my husband?
    5. Can it cause me to miscarry if I do get pregnant, or cause birth defects to my child if I get pregnant while taking it.

    So clearly, these women aren’t just willing to accept any form of birth control to fulfill their goal (avoid pregnancy). Many, do in fact have standards by which they base their decision, be those health related or related to their family. It’s a bit disingenuous to assume that because a family is practicing another form of birth control, they automatically believe the end justifies the means.

    • brettsalkeld

      I only said something about the question in the previous paragraph. I didn’t say anything at all that assumed any family using artificial contraception believes the end justifies the means. Indeed, one could argue precisely in reverse of me, at least theoretically, that NFP should not be used because the means are immoral even while the goal is licit. My point is simply that the (commonly asked) question, “Why does the Church care which means, provided that the end is admissible?” presumes that the end justifies the means. (Indeed, many people assume that the Church doesn’t believe the ends are admissible precisely because it rejects certain means for achieving those ends. This indicates a serious level of moral confusion.)

      If you think that the question in question doesn’t presume that the end justifies the means, you are welcome to make your case. But you’ll have to stick with things I actually wrote.

      • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

        I must say that this reply confuses me, although I’ll readily admit to not being as versed in philosophy, which may account for my lack of comprehension. You say

        “For many people, the Church’s distinction between the moral status of NFP and that of artificial contraception is difficult to understand. “If Catholics have a good reason to avoid pregnancy,” they wonder, “then why does the Church care whether they use Natural Family Planning or an artificial means, such as the pill or condoms?”

        As I read this, I noticed that “people” were asking this particular question, and to my best of knowledge, it would be these “people” who would be making the presumption that the “ends justifies the means.” Presumptions do not stand in isolation from the people making them.

        Now perhaps, I jumped to conclusions when stating that the people asking these questions would be those using ABC. Indeed, the question could be asked by a family who practice NFP, trying to better understand the teaching, or perhaps providentialists.

        This still doesn’t mean that the question somehow “presumes that the ends justifies the means.” Indeed, a person asking this question (because questions do not exist apart from people asking them) could simply wonder why the Church believes NFP is moral and ABC is immoral. The question in question could be asked without any presumption that the ends justifies the means. For the presumption that the ends justifies the means to even make sense, a person must first accept the Church’s natural law reasoning regarding the nature of sex and the problems with separating the unitive and procreative aspects of sex. If a person doesn’t already accept the premise, the question takes on a different meaning.

        • brettsalkeld

          See below, to avoid this ridiculously narrow column.

  • Kurt

    In most other areas of life, such as maintaining a healthy weight, it is easy to see that not doing things (such as eating junk food) when we don’t want their consequences is simply common sense. The Church reminds us that such logic applies to our sex lives as well.

    yet the Church does not condemn diet pills.

    • brettsalkeld

      Which diet pills? How do they work?

      And does the Church condemn “the pill” per se, or does it condemn contracepting? It seems to me that the Church does condemn the immoral things one could do with diet pills.

      • http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com A Sinner

        Certainly, if there was a pill that allowed you to eat as much as you wanted without gaining weight, the Church would condemn the gluttony here as surely as she’d condemn the “vomitoriums” of ancient roman feasts.

      • Kurt

        There are diet pills that allow people to reach their desired weight, a goal that could otherwise be met by not doing things (such as eating junk food). And I think the controversy over the HHS mandate shows that the Church does condemn “the pill” per se not just the “immoral” things one might do with it.

        • brettsalkeld

          Actually, the Church has no problem with using the pill for other things, such as kickstarting menstruation after chemotherapy. A Catholic institution would have no problem covering that in its insurance policy. Of course, some administrators are more suspicious than others about people’s reasons for requiring certain drugs, but that’s another issue entirely.

          I’m gonna need a little more detail on how these diet pills function though. To say that they “allow people to reach their desired weight,” doesn’t tell me enough about their function to know whether they fall under the Church’s condemnation. You have only told me their end, not their means, which is the important point.

        • http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com A Sinner

          If they allow you to “have your cake, and eat it too, and not gain weight!” then the Church would tend to be suspicious. A pill that enables gluttony is not a good thing. A pill which is designed to, essentially, render food purely a drug rather than nutritive…would be evil.

  • brettsalkeld

    @ Kacy

    Well, someone certainly could simply wonder why the Church believes NFP is moral and ABC is immoral, and, of course, many people do wonder that. But the question in question (one which I did not invent, but which is very common in my experience) does not simply ask that. It asks why the Church cares which means are used so long as the ends are legitimate. If this were not a widespread way of (mis)understanding the problem, we could hardly explain the fact that so many people think the Church believes the end of avoiding pregnancy (at least for married people) is, in itself, immoral. I try to answer the question about why NFP is moral and ABC is immoral at the end of the excerpt, but only after deconstructing the way the question is often posed, because that way of posing the question will lead to confusion about what kind of answer is being offered if it is not so deconstructed.

    As to who is asking the question, it could be anyone. Whether you are using NFP, ABC, or you’re an unmarried celibate or a providentialist, if your question is “why does the Church care whether they use Natural Family Planning or an artificial means, such as the pill or condoms, provided they have a good reason to avoid pregnancy?” you are presuming the end justifies the means, at least in your asking of the question. (Indeed, your inclusion of providentialists is interesting, because they have often made precisely the same presumption as anyone else who presumes the end justifies the means except they draw the opposite conclusion; namely, that the end must be illegitimate rather than that all means to the (legitimate) end are legitimate.)

    I don’t see what an an acceptance of natural law has to do with the presumption. As far as I can tell, if you say, “Why does the Church care which means (ABC or NFP) are used since the end (avoiding pregnancy) is legitimate?” one is presuming that the end justifies the means. In fact, it strikes me as clearly tautological. What am I missing here?

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    “If Catholics have a good reason to avoid pregnancy…then why does the Church care whether they use Natural Family Planning or an artificial means, such as the pill or condoms?”

    is different than:

    Why does the Church care which means (ABC or NFP) are used since the end (avoiding pregnancy) is legitimate?

    The latter is more precise, and is very much a tautology, but the former is not as precise and seems more prone to the motivations of the individual asking the question. This is why my initial protestations to the question drew from considerations my mom friends used when looking at methods of birth control.

    Clearly, they do not consider all means equal, just as they wouldn’t consider all forms of dieting as good and just. I mention a few of the factors married couples consider when picking a form of birth control, and indeed some of these are moral considerations (Will it cause my body to stop producing milk to feed my baby? and Will it alter my mood in such a way that I mistreat those around me?) Thus a person could ask the first question in a way that is genuinely seeking to understand the moral argument, rather than presuppose the ends justifies the means.

    I used the providentialists as an example precisely because, in my experience, these are the people asking the question in such a way that presupposes the ends justifies the means; albeit they come to different conclusions. They mean the question in this way precisely because they already accept the Church’s argument about dividing the procreative and unitive aspects of sex.

    As it stands, I’m going to assume that you meant the question more specifically than originally stated, and I became overly knit-picky with linguistic ambiguities.

    • brettsalkeld

      I think your final paragraph is a good assessment, especially since I can still see no essential difference between the two statements at the top.

      Of course, I think a person could ask the first question genuinely seeking to understand the moral argument and also be presuming that the end justifies the means. (Perhaps part of the problem is that you are reading “presuming” to mean something more conscious than I intend by it?) I just think they won’t understand the moral argument until it has been pointed out that their way of phrasing the question presumes that the end justifies the means.

      In any case, we are agreed about the providentialists. 😉

      • wj

        This is a fascinating exchange between Brett and Kacy. I wonder if I might take up what I think is her point and ask Brett for a response.

        Suppose that you agree with the general proposition that the end doesn’t justify the means. But then suppose you remain unconvinced that using NFP is qualitatively different than taking a pill that prevents ovulation, or extends the period between cycles of ovulation, or whatever. (For the sake of the hypothetical, let’s assume that the pill in our example will *never* act as an abortifacient after the fact.) Suppose, further, that you reason as follows:
        (1) Both NFP and the Pill are “artificial,” in the sense that both rely upon the scientific knowledge of the fertility cycle and then take action on the basis of that knowledge: NFP by allowing couples to predict and then abstain from intercourse on days when conception might occur; the Pill by altering slightly the woman’s hormonal levels to prevent her from ovulating. (2) Suppose, further, that the couple using the Pill already have, say, two children, and plan to have more; therefore (let me generalize from experience 😉 ) it is not as though the Pill is enabling for them a kind of hedonistic sex-binge–in all probability, they are having sex no more frequently than the couple using NFP.
        (3) Suppose, moreover, that the woman of the couple in question suffers from very painful periods, and the Pill enables her some respite from these periods while she is raising two children and therefore has some medical benefit for her in addition to preventing contraception.
        (4) Suppose, finally, that the NFP couple has sex *only* and *intentionally* on those days when contraception is impossible, such that every time they have sex, they understand themselves as performing an action through which it is *impossible* for conception to occur. (This is actually quite possible with current technology–the LadyComp thermometer, for example.)

        How do you convince the Pill couple that their action is qualitatively different from the NFP couple, such that what they are doing is intrinsically evil where what the NFP couple is doing is morally licit and even admirable? Does the argument still come down to the fact that the *nature* of the act is different, in that the *type* of act performed by the NFP couple is procreative while the *type* of act performed by the Pill couple is not? Is this really persuasive, given our hypotheticals above?

      • brettsalkeld

        wj,
        I’m afraid I don’t have much time to go into your very good questions right now. I’ll let others have a go, and try add my two cents in a couple days. Suffice to say, I will challenge your hypotheticals. 😉

        • http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com A Sinner

          “But then suppose you remain unconvinced that using NFP is qualitatively different than taking a pill that prevents ovulation, or extends the period between cycles of ovulation, or whatever.”

          Well, I’d say, it certainly is qualitatively different at least according to ONE internally consistent logic and set of distinctions/definitions.

          You can question the axioms of that logic or set of distinctions/definitions…but please at least give the Church the benefit of the doubt in terms of INTERNAL consistency.

          Many times people speak as if the moral distinction between NFP and Contraception is not just one they merely reject the values of, but one that isn’t even INTERNALLY consistent WITH ITSELF according to any possible logic or set of axioms or values.

          This is simply patronizing. It most definitely is consistent internally according to one set of defintions/axioms. Please at least trust that those of us who do accept the distinctions are doing so with an internal consistency.

          You are then free to question the values or axioms that consistency is based on, but please at least extend the courtesy of accepting that there is an at least internal consistency to the distinction as we make it.

          “Both NFP and the Pill are ‘artificial,’ in the sense that both rely upon the scientific knowledge of the fertility cycle and then take action on the basis of that knowledge: NFP by allowing couples to predict and then abstain from intercourse on days when conception might occur; the Pill by altering slightly the woman’s hormonal levels to prevent her from ovulating.”

          Well, “artificial” is a red herring. Coitus interruptus could, by one definition, be called “natural”…but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the sin of contraception.

          Abstinence here is the key.

          “Suppose, further, that the couple using the Pill already have, say, two children, and plan to have more; therefore (let me generalize from experience 😉 ) it is not as though the Pill is enabling for them a kind of hedonistic sex-binge–in all probability, they are having sex no more frequently than the couple using NFP.”

          But “sex binge” was never the problem with contraception either, anymore than “artificial.”

          This is, implicitly, just the sort of “ends justify the means” understanding that Brett pointed out was faulty. The Church’s argument against contraception is NOT that it causes bad ends, but rather that the means, the moral object in-itself, is bad. The argument against it is not a consequentialist one.

          The Church’s argument is not some sort of pleasure-suspicious “You can’t have your cake and eat it too; if you’re going to have sexual pleasure, we want to exact a ‘price’ in the form of forcing you to either have a baby or else limiting you to every-other-day only 2.5 weeks out of the month!!!” That’s not the point at all.

          “Suppose, moreover, that the woman of the couple in question suffers from very painful periods, and the Pill enables her some respite from these periods while she is raising two children and therefore has some medical benefit for her in addition to preventing contraception.”

          Medical uses of the Pill are legitimate if that sincerely is the couple’s only active intent. If sterility follows as a foreseen but unintended side effect of a medical treatment (like, say, in some chemotherapies) then so be it. There’d be nothing wrong there in itself.

          Assuming the couple wasn’t actually just “winking” and taking on unnecessary treatment for the active intent of avoiding pregnancy. So discernment of motive here would be very important for the couple; one might suspect a lot of disingenuity in this regard.

          “Suppose, finally, that the NFP couple has sex *only* and *intentionally* on those days when contraception is impossible, such that every time they have sex, they understand themselves as performing an action through which it is *impossible* for conception to occur.”

          Again, irrelevant. A couple with a hysterectomy knows that conception is practically impossible also. The allowance for NFP or sex among the infertile or post-menopausal is NOT based on some sort of “at least there is a small chance!” argument. That’s a common misunderstanding too, but that is definitely NOT the basis for the Church’s teaching.

          “How do you convince the Pill couple that their action is qualitatively different from the NFP couple, such that what they are doing is intrinsically evil where what the NFP couple is doing is morally licit and even admirable? Does the argument still come down to the fact that the *nature* of the act is different, in that the *type* of act performed by the NFP couple is procreative while the *type* of act performed by the Pill couple is not? Is this really persuasive, given our hypotheticals above?”

          Yes, it is.

          I generally ask people to consider this: the difference between INfertile acts and NON-fertile acts.

          Me sitting here at my computer is a non-fertile act. No conception results, but then it’s not the sort of act that even could lead to a conception, so it’s not “infertile,” merely non-fertile. And it’s not like I made it non-fertile, it just is; typing at a keyboard is not a fertile act.

          So then let’s look at contraceptive sex, whether homosexual or heterosexual. Are these acts non-fertile or infertile? In reality, we have to conclude they are non-fertile, because they are not the sort of act (act of the will, I mean) that is even ordered towards fertility. By nature they exclude it.

          Would you conclude that a gay couple was “infertile” just because their sex never leads to a conception? No. Obviously, they might be perfectly fertile if they were paired with women.

          Likewise, a contracepting couple. If their sex doesn’t lead to conception, would we conclude they were “infertile” (either temporarily or permanently?) No. Because they did something actively to render the act of the sort that isn’t even ordered towards fertility, so we can’t draw any conclusion. To draw a conclusion about fertility (either of a given period during the month, or a permanently) you’d actually have to be preforming penile-vaginal ejaculation without intervention.

          That act might be infertile, either on a given day, or permanently. But “INfertile” implies an ordering towards fertility that non-fertile acts clearly don’t have. The former allows us to say, “Obviously, some unchosen factor is preventing fertility” whether temporary or permanent, foreseen or not (note that foreseeing and taking advantage of is NOT the same as actively causing/choosing). Whereas the latter we cannot reach any such conclusion because the couple is already disordering the act away from fertility.

          An analogy might be like “throwing a game” of baseball. Let’s say there is some town baseball league, and the winners get to appear in some parade. The way the tournament works, you also get to pick your first opponent. Well, the Black Sox don’t want to appear in the parade because it will be hot and tiring. Fair enough. Nevertheless, they’re still going to play. However, there is a HUGE difference between “throwing the game” against an opponent, and picking an opponent they know will crush them. In the latter case, their play is still ordered towards winning. They may have no chance, it may literally be zero without a miracle. But the whole concept structuring their actions is regular gameplay, and regular gameplay is ordered towards trying to win. Note that well: one can truly try even in the face of an impossible situation, even when one knowingly chose that impossible situation. On the other hand, if they “throw the game”…the concept of winning is no longer ordering their actions. The choices they are making will no longer be stuctured by that end (however eschatological it may be).

          Likewise, consider the act of “searching” for something. Searching implies trying to find something. Now, you can truly choose to search for something you know you won’t find. “I’m going to go into the woods today to look for a unicorn.” I know they don’t exist, but that is irrelevant, in itself, to the act of searching for one. I can still look behind trees, behind rocks, etc. I know I won’t find one, but my acts can still be structured by the idea of finding one. This is different than just sort of…going out in the woods and wandering around for a few hours with no purposiveness structuring your actions. The latter cannot be called searching for anything.

          Even when we KNOW a purpose cannot be achieved, even deliberately choose a purpose we KNOW will not be achieved (or choose circumstances we know will make it impossible)…that purpose can still, in the abstract, structure our actions. But for it to do so morally, we have to act “as if” it could actually be achieved, even if we know (and even if we know gratefully) that it won’t be. And it is the internal moral structure of acts relative to their rational structuring ends that matters in Catholic morality, not mere external consequences in practice.

  • Kurt

    One might disagree with Melinda Gates, but I don’t think many would doubt her sincererity and thoughtfulness.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2176945/Bill-Gates-Catholic-wife-Melinda-My-agony-brought-believe-contraceptives-sinful–wanting-women-choice.html

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    To follow up on Kurt’s comment about diet pills (of which I don’t know much) what about artificial sweeteners? They allow me, as it were, to have my cake and eat it too: I can drink as much sweet tasting soda as I want without gaining any weight (which would happen if I drank naturally sweetened soda). This may need more careful analysis, but it seems to me that artificial sweeteners separate two aspects of eating: the pleasure and the nutritive. How is this different from separating the two aspects of human sexuality?

    • http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com A Sinner

      A couple points:

      a) the primary purpose of drinking is hydration. Presumably, drinks sweetened with artificial sweetener still hydrate, even if they have no caloric value.

      b) a food or drink sweetened by artificial sweetener presumably still has some nutritional value, at least in the form of calories or else hydration. Artificial sweetener serves as an incentive or enhancement, but the whole act of eating is still nutritive (or act of drinking hydrational) in the end. Artificial sweeteners are, thus, perhaps better compared to foreplay than to a totally sterilized or contraceptive act.

      • Jordan

        Artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium etc.) stimulate the pancreas to secrete insulin. The human body does not know the difference between an artificial sweetener and sugar or high fructose corn syrup. The body is “tricked” into beginning metabolism even though a diet beverage has negligible calories. This is not dissimilar on some level to the way in which chewing gum stimulates digestion even though no food enters the esophagus.

        David is quite correct that the diet beverage consumption versus sugar-sweetened beverage consumption contrast is similar to the contrast between NFP sex versus contraceptive sex. Just as metabolism occurs despite the near absence of calories in a diet beverage, the physical process of sex (i.e. the procreative end and pleasure) occurs during contraceptive sex even though the “risk” of conception is greatly reduced with proper use. From a Catholic perspective, one might say that contraception use erodes the procreative/unitive proper balance just as drinking diet cola might lead to or exacerbate diabetes because human beings have not evolved to consume artificial sweeteners without signaling for metabolism. I am not a doctor, see one.

      • Kurt

        the primary purpose of drinking is hydration. Presumably, drinks sweetened with artificial sweetener still hydrate, even if they have no caloric value.

        Are you telling me that my dehydrating gin is as evil as contraception? Jeez, you’re combining the most unpopular aspects of Catholicism and Methodistry.

        • brettsalkeld

          I think you’re using the term “drinking” equivocally. 😉

        • http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com A Sinner

          Equivocally indeed! Gin presumably has calories, but even if not, alcohol really should probably be seen as falling more under the category of a “medicine” than a food or drink.

        • Kurt

          I consider gin to be my medicine. And it has both a unitive function with my drinking companions and a procreative function as to my insights on world events (in quanity if not quality).

    • Thales

      One thought occurs to me about this contraception-artificial sweetners discussion: the artificial sweetner might not be properly analoguous to the sexual act. For the artificial sweetner, it seems that the two aspects that are being separated are “pleasure” and “nutritive”, per David’s comment. But when we consider the morality of the sexual act, the two aspects we are considering are not “pleasure” and “reproductive” — they are “unitive” and “procreative.”

      If we took the two aspects to be “pleasure” and “reproductive” and we compared them to the “pleasure” and “nutritive” of art.sweetners, and if we thought that the separation was morally permissible because there was nothing wrong with eating a completely non-nutritive and tasty sweetner, then that would be an argument for the moral permissibility of orgies and any sexual act and deviancy that is pure pleasure but non-reproductive. But that’s silly — even those arguing in favor of art.contraception recognize that the sexual act is one that is morally degraded when done outside of an exclusive and monogamous couple.

      So the art.sweetner, pleasure/nutritive distinction is not a proper analogy with the art.contraception, unitive/procreative distinction.

    • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

      Artificial sweeteners as additives are no different than other spices — as A Sinner says, they are enhancements to food; so unless you are having entire meals of nothing but artifical sweeteners, I’m not sure they really do separate pleasure from the nutritive. (If someone were deliberately having such meals, that would pretty clearly indicate a problem of some kind.) At the very least, it’s not the use of artificial sweeteners that would do so, but whatever else you are doing. It’s the whole act of eating or drinking that has a rational end, the ingredients only matter to the extent that, in coming together, they are rationally consistent means to that rational end.

      Note also that it doesn’t even matter if eating or drinking directly contribute to the end of nutrition, as long as they are not performed in ways rationally inconsistent with it. You can eat for any end — at least, any reasonable end — you want (celebration, fellowship, etc.) as long as that end doesn’t interfere with the primary point of eating (which is perverse) or simply ignore the biological facts of eating (which is imprudent). Where reason or the Church or both don’t clearly pronounce, there’s even room for gray areas, judgment calls, and disputable lines — that’s why the Church condemned tutiorism — as long as you are being reasonable about it.

      It would also be possible, even if (as seems very definitely not the case) artificial sweeteners were not good to use, that they could be a reasonable step in the right direction — a way to manage one’s vices so that you can move from intemperance (you are freely and deliberately immoderate) to what used to be called incontinence (you are still mired in immoderation despite actively working not to be), which is a positive transition, as long as you don’t give up trying to continue in the right direction. (This is a point the current Pope has actually made about contraception, of course.)

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Brandon,

        perhaps I am putting words in your mouth, but you seem to be arguing that not every act of eating and drinking needs to directed towards the ends of eating and drinking (nutrition and hydration) as long as they are consistent with these ends, which I interpret to mean they do not preclude these ends from happening in other acts of eating and drinking.

        But if I do understand you correctly, how is this different from arguing that individual acts of contraception are consistent with the reproductive ends of sex, so long as they do not preclude these ends (say via sterilization)?

        • http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com A Sinner

          No, that’s not what he’s saying at all as far as I can tell. What he’s saying is simply what Catholic Encyclopedia says in its article on Gluttony:

          “It is incontrovertible that to eat or drink for the mere pleasure of the experience, and for that exclusively, is likewise to commit the sin of gluttony. Such a temper of soul is equivalently the direct and positive shutting out of that reference to our last end which must be found, at least implicitly, in all our actions. AT THE SAME TIME it must be noted that there is no obligation to formerly and explicitly have before one’s mind a motive which will immediately relate our actions to God. It is enough that such an intention should be implied in the apprehension of the thing as lawful with a consequent virtual submission to Almighty God.”

          So, “there is no obligation to formerly and explicitly have before one’s mind a motive which will immediately relate our actions to God.” One’s “intent” in eating does not have to be “nutrition” as long as the nutritive structure of the act is not excluded. But your personal motive may be different (as long as it too is good) than the primary end of the type of moral object you are choosing.

        • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

          Hi, David,

          Sorry to get back so late; I accidentally missed your comment. You’re right that I wasn’t clear. As A Sinner notes, it depends on what you mean by ‘directed’. It’s not necessary to eat only for the sake of nutrition, and it’s not even necessary to eat explicitly or deliberately for the sake of nutrition. In the healthy body of a person of prudent habits, eating will in and of itself always be directed to nutrition and the like (if it fails to achieve the end, it will only be for incidental reasons); it won’t require any deliberation to direct it to that end, and the thought of doing so wouldn’t even have to cross such a person’s mind at all, unless something unusual happens. For that matter, even in unhealthy bodies and imprudent people, eating is in most cases going to be directed to nutrition unless there is direct interference to prevent it from being so. And thus you can, barring unusual circumstances have any ends you please as long as they don’t directly interfere in this way. Deliberately eating something because it will not nourish you is irrational; but as long as you are avoiding that and the context is appropriate, people of good habits can have any ends they please. Particularly in human acts with a large biological component, like eating, drinking, or sex, our moral task is not generally to make things go right but to avoid deliberately making them go wrong. So, to use the old casuistic phrase, these are areas where freedom tends to be in possession — as long as we’re not being perverse or obviously imprudent, we have a huge amount of moral freedom in these areas. (I don’t think sex is an exception to this, despite the fact that it has much larger gray areas.)

          The most obvious analogy for this particular point (although there are important differences in other ways) is actually reasoning. Reasoning’s natural end is truth. Everything reason does has to be consistent with truth, or it’s gone off the rails, morally speaking. But the flip side of this is that reason can do anything that is not inconsistent with truth, assuming, of course, that it’s appropriate in context, etc. This is why fiction storytelling can be a perfectly moral activity; its direct end is not truth, but as long as it has truth as an indirect end, it is to that extent something reason can morally do — even though these sorts of indirect links to the end do open up space for gray areas, judgment calls, doubtful cases, and so forth. That was mostly what I was trying to say, unclearly, here. My comment was intended to be a stage-by-stage thing:

          Stage 1: Almost certainly, artificial sweeteners are definitely OK, given that using themselves is not actually inconsistent with nourishing oneself by eating.
          Stage 2: Even if we considered them more of a gray area than they probably are, there’s a lot of freedom here that would likely allow them sometimes.
          Stage 3: Even if they definitely turn out to be wrong, they could still be a way to move from intemperance to incontinence, and thus ways of morally improving, given those particular circumstances.

  • pierrecorneille

    In other words, it works on the assumption that if your goal is a good one, then whatever way you try to achieve that goal is also good. The funny thing is that neither the Church nor many people in society accept that reasoning for any other question. We don’t accept it for making money, or for losing weight.

    I’m not so sure people reject the ends justifies the means trope as categorically as you suggest here. I think many people in theory, and most people in practice, accept that the ends justify some means that otherwise would be undesirable or even unjustifiable. Society, for example, usually accepts through its criminal law that the means of depriving certain people of their liberty is justified at least in part by the ends of, say, making people feel safer. There are, of course, other reasons used to justify the taking of liberty, including retribution and some people explicitly would say some means–like the death penalty–are out of bounds even if they make people feel safer.

    I think you have a point in that if people object to prohibitions against ABC, they may be invoking an ends-justifies-the-means trope when the very issue open for debate is the acceptability of a certain means for a desired end. But I don’t think establishing that they are invoking an ends-justifies-the-means trope gets you all the way to where you want to go.

    Of course, you go on to explain the Church’s position on why NFP is a just means and why ABC is unjust. But there does seem to be a leap between pointing out ends-justifies-the-means reasoning with your ultimate conclusion that one means is just. It’s almost as if the justness of NFP is the real point you’re trying to make and the claim about an implicit ends-justifies-the-means assumption is meant more as one way to oversimplify what is a more nuanced dynamic.

    • brettsalkeld

      I think I am in basic agreement with your assessment. The basic point of invoking the trope was simply to point out that it is often invoked as a way to short-circuit the discussion. I’m basically trying to clear away the brush before building the house. Admittedly, in this short passage, I’ve really only framed the house.

      • pierrecorneille

        I should have acknowledged in my comment that of course, what you printed here was only an excerpt and not the entire book. At any rate, thanks for your response.

  • Thales

    I’ve been thinking about my comment above (about how the artificial sweetner analogy doesn’t work when talking about artificial contraception), and it made me think that maybe a reason the analogy doesn’t work is that artificial contraception doesn’t create a simple divide between the unitive and procreative. What I’m getting at is the question whether it is true to say that, in a contraceptive sexual act, the *unitive* aspect is undermined (as well as the procreative, obviously). Is it fair to say that the unitive purpose of the sexual act is fundamentally undermined with art.contraception? It seems to me that it is. It’s easier to see that sexual union with a condom is not fully “unitive”, but I believe that it would be fair to say that sexual union with the Pill might similarly be not fully “unitive.” This understanding would also give a reason for distinguishing between non-art.contr. sexual unions involving a woman who is infertile (either because of her cycle or because of age/sickness) and art.contr. sexual unions: the former would be “unitive” and not the latter.

    Now the hard question: what do I mean by “unitive” here? I’m not completely sure, but I wonder whether the answer would involve these considerations: the fact that the sexual act is a mutual and complete self-giving of two persons and the fact that the unitive aspect is essentially tied up with that notion — and that means that the complete gift of self is undermined when a part of that person (ie, fertility) is withheld.

    I’m no expert and haven’t read nearly enough on this topic, and so these are just thoughts and ideas boucing around in my head.