An Introduction to the Problems of Catholic Sexual Ethics

An Introduction to the Problems of Catholic Sexual Ethics September 14, 2015

Pope Paul VI, author of the encyclical Humanae Vitae. By BastienM [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons:

Due to the length to which my original post grew, I’ve actually decided to divide it up and post it in separate installments. This one covers a lot of introductory ground, and only barely broached some of the more serious problems here; but I hope that if this at least marginally interests you, you’ll stick around for the subsequent parts.

The 1960s were a landmark decade for Catholic sexual ethics—one in which consensus and dissent was forged among and between Catholic theologians; where lines in the sand were drawn, which would have a significant impact on the opinions of laity (as well as the general public) on these issues for decades to come.¹

In the first year of the decade, oral contraceptives became publicly available in the United States for the first time, and a few years later, the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control would be appointed to address its impact, and to help formulate a Catholic theological response. Despite working for three years, however, the recommendations of the Commission—to welcome birth control as “an extension of the already accepted cycle method“²—would ultimately be rejected by Pope Paul VI.

Two years later after this, the world would see the publication of Paul VI’s famous encyclical Humanae vitae, which offered a more conservative vision of Catholic doctrine and permissible practice relating to the “Regulation of Birth,” at several points hearkening back to Pope Pius XI‘s 1930 encyclical Casti connubii (itself framed in critical response to the Anglican Conference at Lambeth of the same year, which gave oblique and limited support for contraception).

Humanae vitae touches on quite a few different aspects of a Catholic theology of sex; and its interpretation (along with other issues) was hotly debated in the decades following this. But in the interest of space—and as a point of entry into one of the more serious problems here—I’d like to start by looking Section 9 of the encyclical, under the heading “Married Love.” Here, the Catholic vision of “true” marriage is presented, one that is

not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being. “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.”

For secularists and many others, there are obviously already some serious problems here; but if you’ll bear with me, what I really want to do here is jump ahead to §10, “Responsible Parenthood.” Here, expanding on the previous section, we read—rather unexpectedly in some senses, as we’ll see—

With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, “responsible parenthood” is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have many children, as well as by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.

One thing interesting to note here is the phrase “additional children” (aliam filium), suggesting that this section is commenting on the state of a couple who has already had at least one child. Yet nothing prior to this in the encyclical elucidates this—with the only relevant prior comment being the “…to bring new life into being” one in §9. This is an unusual omission for something that has rather important implications; but I think that, as the larger context and logic demands, the “additional” children here are children in addition to exactly one child. (That is to say, then, that there’s a presumption here that the ideal Catholic marriage is one that produces at least one child.)

[Edit: in the comment section below, The Eh’theist notes that it’s helpful to reiterate here that a couple who wishes to be married within the Catholic Church—and being evaluated/advised for marriage therein—must assent to their willingness to have children; and that “entering a marriage with the intention to have no children is grounds for an annulment.”]

In any case, we should notice how broad the statement in §10 is. Though it delineates groups who, in their reproductive choices, are (per the Catholic definition) exercising “responsible parenthood,” in so doing it includes virtually every Catholic couple—and indeed every human couple!—who has had at least one child: 1) those who are enthusiastic about having many more children after this; 2) those who might wait for a “certain period of time” before having more children; and 3) those who might not have additional children for an “indefinite period of time” (and presumably “forever” could be included in this).

Now, as seen, this section also hints at situations in which it is ethically permissible (cf. “for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts”) to postpone/forego having more children: including various “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions.” All of these issues are bound up, naturally, in a broader Catholic sexual ethics—one not simply concerned with procreation itself, but with issues of sexual intercourse and other sexual acts, contraception, etc.

Many aspects of Catholic sexual ethics come from a “deontological” ethics: that is, they proceed from an framework where determining the goodness or badness of a particular action is largely based on the adherence to prior moral dictums/absolutes in and of themselves—regardless of the outcome (though it’s often thought that following these dictums will lead to the best outcome anyways). It is not a utilitarian ethics, which is much more oriented toward the outcome itself, with less interest in adherence to any strict rules in the course of attaining this, but much more just the fact that a positive outcome is attained (such that the “end” can be said to have justified the means, when it results in a net positive with regard to health, happiness, etc.)

The idea of “following these dictums will often lead to the best outcome anyways” is extremely important in Catholic sexual ethics, as marriage is not just good in itself, but is also oriented toward the production of children—also an unequivocal good, and indeed thought to be ordained by God, both by divine decree, and through natural order.

Also vitally important in Catholic sexual ethics (and Catholic ethics in general) is the concept of natural law. The most important stop on a historical tour of Catholic natural law theory would be Thomas Aquinas, whose thought here was at least partially built on ancient Greek teleological ideas: that every event or action has a sort of logical/intended outcome—an end that we can rightly call the “purpose” for which this is undertaken or occurs. The relevance of this idea for Catholic moral theology is in the understanding that “natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God has given this light or law at the creation.”³

In combination, we can then locate much of the substance of the Catholic objection to the use of contraception. Although it has at least one other ancillary purpose, too, the natural “end” for which sexual intercourse is a sort of mechanism for attaining in the first place is the conception and begetting of children. Not only is this end a (divinely-decreed) good, but God has in a sense “sanctified” the sexual process, as well, in that its “proper use” is a matter of (revealed) divine law. Therefore, any human action which deviates from this, such that it ends up preventing this end from being attained—like the use of birth control—is not only a violation of natural order, but divine law, as well. (And here, there are no exceptions made—even if, say, the use of contraception would prevent some other negative situation pertaining to the birth of the potential child, like it being born into severe poverty, etc.—as this would be at least an implicit suggestion that God does not govern or did not institute natural order towards its or our ultimate best interests, inexplicable though these ways may be to human logic.)

This covers much of the broader approach to Catholic sexual ethics, but what exactly of the specific issue of Catholic couples having children, outlined in Humanae vitae §10 and elsewhere?

Indeed, there is a directive to procreate here. As outmoded as this may seem to those who don’t already sympathize with this (myself included) though, there’s another sense in which this teaching is not quite as draconian as it may seem, sensitive as it is to a couple’s “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions” that might be a basis for indeed “morally” delaying childbearing—which, in the way that it’s formulated (as discussed above), actually leaves wiggle room so that a couple might only be encouraged to have a single child.

That being said, there are some seriously problematic notions here. Besides some more general problems with the (at least implicit) suggestion that a marriage/union in which a conscious choice is made to avoid having children (when, say, they are otherwise in good a position to do so) is somehow less complete than one that is oriented toward this, there’s also the issue of how the former might be determined in the first place—that a couple really is avoiding bringing a child/children into the world when they are otherwise able to. That is, how exactly does one assess the stability or instability of their “conditions”? What other kinds of reluctance toward having children would fall into this category of acceptable abstention? (Surely if one is not financially able to have a child, this would be okay; but what if a woman just doesn’t want to endure the pain of pregnancy and childbirth, or if she’s concerned some of the lasting physiological effects of pregnancy/childbirth?)

This is only the beginning of the problems, though; and my next post will be getting further into this problem of childbearing, as well as other more serious problems with contraception and its accepted “alternatives” in Catholicism.

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[1] At the epicenter of this debate was Humanae vitaeCharles Currana Catholic priest/theologian—and the Catholic University of America. The 1969 volume Contraception: Authority and Dissent, which Curran edited, outlines much of the early critical reaction to Humanae vitae. (Cf. also the volume Dissent in and for the Church: Theologians and Humanae Vitae, as well as The Responsibility of Dissent: the Church and Academic Freedom.)  Conversely, two of the main figureheads of the other side, defending the Church’s position on contraception, were John C. Ford and ‎Germain Grisez: the architects of the minority report of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, and editors of the volume The Teaching of “Humanae vitae”: A Defense.

As for the broader impact of these debates: whether or not we might be more cautious in our assessment here, Charles Curran notes

Andrew Greeley pointed out in 1976 that the issuance of Humanae vitae had caused a great exodus from the Catholic Church in the United States. Sunday mass attendance dropped from 66 to 55 percent. One quarter of Catholics under thirty who attended Catholic colleges have left the church since 1965. Greeley considered and rejected the possibility that the reforms of Vatican II were behind this decline, or that it would have occurred anyway. (Loyal Dissent: Memoir of a Catholic Theologian, 53)

(The source is Greeley’s Catholic Schools in a Declining Church.)

[2] I’m (lazily) quoting Wikipedia here. The actual report suggests “The true opposition is not to be sought between some material conformity to the physiological processes of nature and some artificial intervention. For it is natural to man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given by physical nature.”

[3] CCC §1955. See John Cooper, “Aristotle on Natural Teleology,” etc.

[4] Cf. Constanzo, “Papal Magisterium, Natural Law, and Humanae Vitae

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