Catholic Sexuality: Dialogue with an Agnostic

Catholic Sexuality: Dialogue with an Agnostic December 30, 2015

RomeoandJuliet

Romeo and Juliet (1884), by Frank Dicksee (1853-1928) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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Dr. JD Eveland is a very thoughtful and congenial agnostic friend. He responded to my post, Catholic Sexuality: A “Nutshell” Explanation. His words will be in blue.

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You’ve provided a quite detailed and cogent summary of the Catholic position, most of which I was pretty familiar with and, obviously, disagree with in many ways. I do wish that you had perhaps provided a little less dogma and little more actual engagement with the issues that I raised, because even among those who might accept the general principles of the dogma, it frays sufficiently at the edges in application that you’re not going to find a lot of people willing to accept it in toto. People will buy those portions that apply to restricting the behavior of other people, but are much less willing to accept restricting their own behavior, because they see the inherent irrationality of the position.

I understand that we are never going to come to full agreement here, so my aim is not so much to convince you regarding my views as to alert you to some of the kinds of issues with which you have to contend when you go public with this. Again, you’re undoubtedly familiar with these arguments and perhaps already have refutations, so I’ll be brief here.

First, your argument from “natural law” is subject to challenge in many ways, most particularly in terms of its self-referential quality. Most explanations from natural law tend to be post hoc, ergo propter hoc in form. That is, you see something that you like and you reason backwards toward the explanation that says it has to be that way. One might raise the logical observation that the only “unnatural” sex acts are those that in fact can’t really be performed (nasal sex comes to mind). If the so-called “unnatural sex acts” are so “unnatural”, why are they so easy to perform and frequently so pleasurable? What about various non-intercourse sexual activities performed by married people as foreplay, afterplay, or even alternative play? Are these unnatural and therefore forbidden? Natural law is one of those concepts that is almost indefinitely flexible and can be twisted to support just about anything you want to support.

Lots of things that are unnatural or harmful are easy and/or pleasurable to do. I don’t see how this “argument” has any force at all. It’s easy to eat a poisonous mushroom or berry and die. It’s easy to eat a candy bar, but if it’s all we eat, we will soon have problems.

One major problem with your natural law approach is your assumption that the “natural” (or, in effect, only) purpose of sex is procreation. In fact, sex plays a much more complicated role in human behavior, since it also leads to reinforcement of the social group, to bonding and development of trust between individuals, to social consolation and mutual support, to needed rest and relaxation and a general feeling of goodwill, and to the development of human health in general. Each of these purposes is naturally as valid as procreation, yet according your formulation they are illegitimate and therefore forbidden. If sex for these purposes were actually to be foregone, human society would in fact fall apart. Human beings exist on many social levels, and society exists for many purposes other than encouragement of procreation.

I made three distinct secular arguments from natural law: two of them analogical and one that might be said to be a pragmatic argument (avoiding health issues). You have not directly interacted with any of them. All you’ve done is make blanket statements about natural law arguments and said they don’t work, which is not an argument; it’s a bald assertion. You talked about them, and dismissed them with the wave of a hand, but did not debate them. You can do as you wish, but just don’t expect me to be impressed by such a lack of rational argument and interaction.

Second, your restriction of permitted sex to basic intercourse between married people where the possibility of procreation exists cuts off potential access to sex to the vast majority of the population. According to the 2012 census figures, the US had some 247 million people. Of these, 80.4 million (33%) fell into the demographic range of 18-39, or the potentially fertile group, and of these, 33.7 million (14%) were actually married. If we assume conservatively that perhaps half of these married folks are not really in a position to support children or an extended family, particularly an unexpected one, and further allow for those who are physically incapable of having children, then the number of people under your framework actually allowed to have sex would be probably somewhere between 5% and 7% of the total population. Telling 90-95% of the people to forget about having sex is going to be a socially very difficult sell.

It’s particularly difficult for the young, obviously, who are just coming into sexual awareness. These restrictions may have made sense in a tribal society where the average amount of time between puberty and marriage would be no more than a year or so, but in modern society where that interval has stretched typically up to 10 to 15 years of peak sexual interest and capability, it’s hard to see how they serve any natural function. Some 12-15% of women are naturally infertile in any event, and close to 40% of all conceptions end in miscarriage (God performs more abortions than human beings ever could). And of course older people would be barred from sex as well once their procreative possibilities are exhausted; again, perhaps this made sense when life expectancy was 30-35 years at best, but now when it’s 75-85 years, it’s hard to justify why the consolations of sex ought to be withdrawn for well over half one’s lifetime. There’s nothing “natural” about these kinds of restrictions, and therefore referring to them as deriving from natural law seems both cruel and simply wrong. 

 I didn’t say that procreation was the only purpose (this is not Church teaching), but rather, the deepest and most essential purpose. I asserted that pleasure was a purpose as well:
God created sex for this purpose and also for pleasure, within its proper sphere (marriage between a man and a woman). 
It all has to do with commitment to one person of the opposite sex, in marriage, becoming “one” with them (as the Bible says) for the purpose of procreation and also for pleasure and closeness of the couple.
Also, my analogy to eating presupposes that pleasure must not be separated from nutrition (i.e., procreation by analogy).
You talk about society falling apart. It’s not a hypothetical. It is falling apart now, and it is because of departure from sexual tradition and sense. We know from social scientific data (if you want to talk “scientifically”) that broken or unstable homes are perhaps the leading indicators of both poverty and crime. And we know that sexual promiscuity and practices other than a lifelong commitment to marriage lead to broken homes. We see the results all around us of the sexual revolution. Just look at the inner-cities (I grew up in one: in Detroit). Black illegitimacy is now 80% whereas 50 years ago it was about 25%. Consequently, we have whole generations of young black people growing up in broken homes: usually without a father. White illegitimacy is also much higher than it was. We know that that leads to gangs, crime, drugs, and poverty, and so here it is now. Look at Chicago or any other big city (they are all hellholes in their interior neighborhoods), to see what has happened. Sen. Daniel Moynihan (who had a sociological background) predicted all of this before it happened. This is an indication of natural law (and Christian sexual teaching) being best for human happiness. As human beings depart from it, we see the misery and broken lives all around us.
You misunderstand (and this is very common, so don’t feel alone at all) who can and cannot have sex in the Catholic view. Thus two of your paragraphs consist almost entirely of non sequiturs. One doesn’t have to be fertile every time one has sex. Rather, one is forbidden to engage in sex and thwart fertility while fertile. If there is good reason to not have a child at a particular time, then one merely needs to abstain during fertile periods. I replied in the online version to a similar query as follows:
Q. So what about a married couple that is incapable of having children due to biological reasons? Are they then sinning if they have sex, because your logic follows that they would.
 
A. Since they are incapable of having children, they cannot engage in sexual relations with a contralife will, and cannot seek to prevent a child that might be as a result of their activity, since there is no “might” or potentiality entailed.
 
Thus, in their case, sex is morally equivalent to a fertile couple having sex during the infertile periods. The Church has never taught that a married couple sins by having sex during infertile times or after the woman’s menopause. It’s the contralife will or deliberate separation of sex from procreation that is wrong.

So-called instinctive responses to various kinds of sex are not instinctive at all; they are much more the product of social conditioning. Arguments based on the inherent objectionable nature of beastiality, pedophilia, incest, and even homosexuality are unsustainable, since it’s possible to point to human societies in which each and every one of these behaviors has been at one time or another not merely acceptable but often compulsory. Our current society may have consensus objections to some of these, but they tend to be more of the nature of “Ooh, that’s icky!” than anything substantive. Ickiness as a social standard is hard to justify. In any event, the vast majority of non-procreative sex has nothing to do with these kinds of paraphilias at all, and everyone knows that. Floating these as issues is obviously a red herring.

Citing the society here and there that condones bestiality or pedophilia or incest, etc. (the stock secular anthropological approach), is no solid answer. One can find a society somewhere that did any conceivable thing. That doesn’t make it right. All it proves is that mankind is capable of atrocious evil. The ancient Romans put babies out in the cold to die. The Aztecs had human sacrifice. Other societies practiced cannibalism. We Americans slaughtered the Indians and had slavery and treated black people abominably. In India, widows were burned alive. The Nazis exterminated because of ethnicity and ISIS does based on religion. Almost everywhere now preborn babies are ruthlessly slaughtered, and we have had legal partial birth infanticide as well. By your reasoning, we could argue that all these things are fine and dandy because someone somewhere did them.

Regarding homosexuality in particular, you make a number of claims about supposed ill effects. In fact, few of any of these have anything to do with same-sex behavior as such; even if true (which many are not ), they are much more a product of social isolation and oppression brought on by intolerance than consequences of sexuality as such. Sexual response is not voluntary. While you can (at some cost) control your sexual behavior, you cannot control to whom you are attracted or sexually responsive to – imagine what would be involved for you to try to force yourself to be sexually responsive to a man. It’s precisely the same thing for us. I suspect that even you would agree that I know a great deal more about gay sex and gay society in general than you do, and I can tell you that your broad generalizations are simply not true. By persisting in such claims in the face of evidence of their falsity that is increasingly accessible to everyone, you simply damage your own credibility and undermine your own arguments.

If you’re so convinced that homosexual behavior has no adverse health effects, then by all means counter the data that can be brought to bear: a great deal of which I have cited, myselfNo one I have interacted with thus far has ever given any answer to that, except to pretend that it doesn’t exist. But it does exist.

Obviously, there are a lot of other points that could be made, but I’ll stop here. Clearly, the Church’s position on sexuality is on shaky ground, and it would be helpful if the Church could actually engage some of the reasons why it’s shaky rather than simply doubling down on restrictions.

You say the Church should defend its views and interact with critiques. It has done plenty of that, and part of my job is to engage secular critiques, and I have massively done so, myself (including these efforts right now).

I suspect that the degree of frustration that Catholic apologists experience trying to justify their position will soon approach or exceed the degree of frustration that almost everyone would experience if that position were to be actually enforced. The fact that a couple of thousand years of often lethal attempts at enforcement have completely failed to eradicate your objected-to behaviors might at some point be cause for some degree of reevaluation of the position. Even today, it’s estimated that 90-95% of married Catholic women practice birth control of some form or another.

No one said that Catholic sexuality (like the Christian life in general) was easy. But it is ultimately the most fulfilling.  Plenty of secular surveys have verified that married Christian sexuality is the most fulfilling and pleasurable, and that religiously observant couples in this respect are happier than those who are not (including the wildly promiscuous). Ironically, even those who make sexual pleasure their highest goal do not even achieve a lasting happiness of a Christian who follows traditional Christian morals.

Again, my aim is not to be confrontational; simply to raise some issues for your consideration. These issues are substantive, and can’t be simply wished away or dismissed as irrelevant – at least if you are seriously interested in connecting with real people in real situations. Enunciating dogma is one thing; dealing with the implications of that dogma for those living in societies is another.

I’m all for interaction. Thus, I wish you had truly interacted with my arguments: particularly the three natural law ones.

I do thank you for your thoughtfulness and congeniality, despite the fact that we entirely disagree. That’s the beauty of our friendship. If any topic was to hamper the mutual good will, it would be this one, but it hasn’t, and so I respect and admire the fact that we can talk about it. You get your shots in against Christianity, but that’s to be expected. You haven’t classified me as a bigot and evil person simply for having these views. That’s refreshing, so thanks!

As always, thank you for your interest and attention, and good luck with your efforts.

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Of course I don’t think that you are bigoted or evil just because of your views.

Excellent. In our world today, that is so often the knee jerk reaction when people seriously disagree. It’s assumed that mere disagreement must prove ill will, personal opposition, bad motivations, etc. I would argue that that flows from the “subjectivization” of everything and moral relativism, but that is another discussion. When there is no “truth” out there, then all opposition is strictly personal. To oppose an opinion is to oppose a person, whereas classically, the person and his opinions were regarded as separate entities.

As you say, we disagree on a good many issues, although perhaps not quite as many as one might predict. You are a bit slippery at times in debate, sliding around some issues and falling back on what you see as your strong points – but then that’s what any decent debater would do, myself included.

Cute!

I agree that it is a great thing that we can civilly discuss what are obviously matters of considerable emotional involvement and affect for both of us.

Amen!

Let me note that I am not “against Christianity” as such. I certainly agree with you that as an institution it has supported much great good, and while it has not infrequently empowered the commission of considerable evil, that evil is not intrinsic to Christianity as such but more to the nature of human organization itself. At their core, most religious beliefs are benevolent or at least benign; it’s only when they start getting elaborated into large-scale systems that they become problematic.

And that explains why we can talk. People who think I am attached to and defend an intrinsically evil system will not have a very high opinion of me. And that will kill true dialogue before it ever begins.

Unfortunately, at the moment I don’t have the time or opportunity to rigorously engage in a debate on natural law. I’m not trying to dismiss anything with a “wave of a hand”; only to say that arguments from natural law can be played out in numerous different ways and lead to numerous different kinds of conclusions. There is seldom any unambiguous or indisputable claim from natural law.

Yet I think they have some strength and that my three arguments all have force. I’d like to see you or anyone actually grapple with them. The fact remains that most human beings regard bestiality as wrong, and do so not based on some elaborate intellectual schema, but intuitively, “naturally” if you will. So what do you say to the person who thinks it is perfectly fine to engage in? What argument do you make, from a non-religious, secular perspective?

And how do you respond to my analogy regarding eating? Does anyone think that people who ate all bark or all cotton candy are altogether normal, in terms of diet? And if taste and nutrition go together, why not also, by analogy, sexual pleasure and procreation? It seems perfectly plausible to me, and this is not an argument from Christianity at all, but rather, from how most of us inherently feel and think about aspects of nature itself.

In fact, most claims of natural law result from a very selective attention to certain aspects of nature and deliberate exclusion of other aspects. I’d love to go into this in more detail at some point and deal with specifics, though I can’t right now.

That’s fine. I have skipped several things in your argument, too, that entail too great of a time commitment and labor. They’re just too ambitious to tackle. 

I will say that one significant problem with reliance on natural law as a source of behavioral prescriptions is what’s called the “ecological fallacy” – namely, the idea that what is true of a collective is also true of all the individual members of that collective. Thus, in general it is true that children raised in loving homes with a mother and a father cooperating effectively usually turn out pretty well; that’s a collective judgment. But to say this does not mean that at the individual level either all homes with mothers and fathers turn out good kids, or that other kinds of parenting arrangements, when properly put together, can’t turn out kids who are just as good.

There are always exceptions to general rules, so I have no problem with that analysis. My point is that the general rules hearken back to natural law, which is the way things “should” be, and hence, the avenue where things pragmatically work out the best, by standards that we can agree on: less poverty and crime, drugs, divorce, dysfunctional families, resultant neuroses and psychoses and various unhealthy behaviors, etc.

I doubt that you would be prepared to claim that children would be better off raised in Dickensian orphanages than raised in loving same-sex parent homes.

Neither is a mother-father situation, so I don’t see the relevance of the comparison to our discussion. I’d say neither is ideal, but that any nuclear family situation, minus abuse, etc., is gonna be, in almost all cases, preferable to an orphanage (esp. a Dickensian one). A child will still be at a disadvantage, not having a parent of one of the genders. A man can never fully be a mother; nor can a woman be a father. And that is the nature of things as well. Gendersmean something. Today, though, the fashionable thing is unisexism: as if there are no differences. This is a denial of reality as well.

And there’s certainly no shortage of research to show that children in such homes are as productive and well-adjusted and happy as children raised in any other environment – occasionally, more so.

I don’t think we’ve had enough experience to make any definite conclusions as of yet, over against traditional families. But I’d be interested in seeing some of these studies.

I’d like to see more evidence before I buy into your proposition that “…married Christian sexuality is the most fulfilling and pleasurable”. But even if that were true in the aggregate, it would be an ecological fallacy to say that it is therefore true for everyone – for example, those who are physically incapable of being sexually responsive to people of opposite gender. There are indeed multiple paths to a satisfying life.

It’s a generalization (always admitting exceptions), but a real thing. I have seen many such studies through the years. Here are a few I just looked up [one /two / three] .

I certainly agree that there are some highly dysfunctional parts of society today, and some communities where dysfunctional social relationships are predominant. But this is the product of an enormous number of social, political, and economic factors interacting, not just increased social tolerance for different varieties of sexuality.

I didn’t say that there were not other causes for poverty, crime, etc. Of course there are (I majored in sociology!). What I wrote was: “broken or unstable homes are perhaps the leading indicators of both poverty and crime.” That doesn’t rule out other causes as well. But what I wrote is true. There is a strong correlation. And that correlation is consistent with both natural law and Christian teaching.

Obviously, you know better than to seriously think that I believe that cannibalism, burning babies alive, or genocide are “…fine and dandy because someone somewhere did them.” Implying that I do think so simply undermines your credibility.

. . . except that I made no such implication. This was an instance of my oft-used technique of reductio ad absurdum. Of course you don’t believe those things. But they follow from the argument you made, that (paraphrasing) “societies can be found that do all these [sexual] things, therefore they are right.” Thus, the argument has force, because absurd results (that you yourself disagree with) follow from the principle you set up. Therefore, you ought to reject the principle or premise. That’s how reductios work, as you must know. They are based on the opponents [reluctantly, or implied by reactive behavior] agreeing (not disagreeing!) that absurd results follow from their premisesYou argued:
Arguments based on the inherent objectionable nature of beastiality, pedophilia, incest, and even homosexuality are unsustainable, since it’s possible to point to human societies in which each and every one of these behaviors has been at one time or another not merely acceptable but often compulsory. 
I replied:
Citing the society here and there that condones bestiality or pedophilia or incest, etc. (the stock secular anthropological approach), is no solid answer. One can find a society somewhere that did any conceivable thing. That doesn’t make it right. [examples given of atrocious practices]. . . By your reasoning, we could argue that all these things are fine and dandy because someone somewhere did them.
The way the reductio works is to argue that “by your reasoning” bad things x, y, z follow. Thus, you are forced to modify your reasoning. This anthropological approach to sexuality is a very weak argument, in my opinion.

These are no more acceptable in terms of humanist ethics than they are in terms of religious ethics, although for perhaps somewhat different reasons. Trying to equate these to things like contraception and alternative sexual behaviors is simply unsustainable; there are entirely different orders of magnitude of interpersonal evil involved.

I was making a general point through the method of the reductio: denying that because behaviors exist in some society, that therefore we can’t maintain that they are objectively wrong. This is, I submit, self-evidently false. And I say that my examples (that have offended you in your misunderstanding of my argument) proved that. 

Rhetorical overkill doesn’t do either of us any good. I admit to a degree of this myself in terms of characterizing Catholic sexual morality as perhaps somewhat more extreme in terms of restriction than it is usually understood to be. I’ll try to keep the rhetoric knob turned down in volume if you will.

Sure, but I deny that this was an example of that. Reductio ad absurdum is not rhetorical overkill. The examples were directly relevant to the force of the logical pressure put upon you by the argument. It’s a massively misunderstood form of argument (I’ve probably had to explain it at least ten times since arriving at Patheos in August), but that makes it no less compelling, once understood. Arguments from analogy (that I also love and frequently use) are also misunderstood almost as often, to my eternal frustration, as are sarcasm and parody. The upshot is that I don’t get to have much fun in dialogue. :-) 

I’d love to see some of these issues aired publicly, and I certainly have no problem attaching my name to my views. I’m as publicly “out” as anyone can be who isn’t a full-time activist, which I have no interest in being. I would just hope that we can really engage with each other’s arguments, not just shout talking points past each other.

Me, too. This will be a posted dialogue. And then if we keep going I’ll make further dialogues. It’s a great discussion, and a rare example of a civil one on these topics.

As always, thanks for the conversation!

My pleasure. Thank you. Off to hear Beethoven’s 9th by the fire. Have you ever seen a movie called Copying Beethoven? It’s great. We saw it last night for the second time.

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