Contraception, Natural Law, & the Analogy to Nutrition

Contraception, Natural Law, & the Analogy to Nutrition February 21, 2019

This reply to atheist Anthrotheist took place in the combox of my post, Miracles, Materialism, & Premises: Dialogue w Atheist. His words will be in blue. I collected four examples of my use of this analogy in past writings of mine (along with another observation by my friend, Al Kresta). There is considerable repetition, but we know that repetition is a great teaching tool, so I will leave it as it is. At the end I engage in what I thought was a stimulating and interesting exchange about my analogy, with Anthrotheist. I was able to add some further clarifying thoughts. I love it when that happens!

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Can you explain why non-procreative sex (like on birth control) is immoral, while non-nutritional eating (like candy) is not? I say that the focus on sex comes solely from Biblical passages, and the argument of natural procreation is a post-hoc rationalization for that edict.

It’s a very involved argument. I have analyzed it at length on my Life Issues web page (under “Contraception”). But in a nutshell, we think it is immoral because we think that sexuality in its very essence has to be for the primary purpose of procreation, and that one must be open to a possible life being conceived.

This was, incidentally, the first issue I changed my mind about, as I was moving from evangelical Protestant to Catholic in 1990 (see me describe my change of mind at the end of one of my accounts of my conversion process). I was also an extreme sexual liberal before 1981 (age 23). So I moved into a general Christian view of sex at that time, and, nine years later, to a fully Catholic, traditional view.

I have used the analogy to food, myself. Here are four examples:

Contraception has been compared to Roman vomitoriums. This is a more or less perfect analogy, for what do we think of a person who eats merely for the pleasure of it, and disregards nutrition (bulimia, vomitoriums, junk food junkies, etc.)? Likewise, how do we regard a person who goes to the other extreme, and eats for nutrition, with disdain for the pleasure (extreme health food nuts, Scrooge-types)? We intuitively sense a perversion of the natural order and of a rational approach to food and life in general. God gave us taste buds; he also ordered food as a necessary agent of bodily (and even psychological) health. We might call the two elements Function and Feeling . . .

Yet when it comes to sex, we wish to separate the two functions with impunity and utter disregard for the personal and societal consequences. Some Puritans, Victorians, and certain types of truly “repressed” Catholics and certain types of fundamentalist Protestants throughout history have minimized or denigrated the pleasure of sex, thinking it a “dirty,” “shameful” thing, apart from it’s procreative purpose. Some couples never even saw each other unclothed.

This was absurd and wrong, but of course, that is not our problem at all today. Now we have sex at will with no willingness to procreate at all, in many cases. We wink at this perversion, as long as it is confined to marriage. But this profoundly misunderstands the very purpose of marriage. . . .

All we are saying is that they shouldn’t be separated in ways which violate the natural order of nature. Nothing in Catholic teaching forbids sex at times when it is determined that the woman is infertile, or in the case of a post-menopausal woman, or one who cannot bear children at all, or a sterile man. That’s fine, because it doesn’t involve a deliberate decision to ignore fertility and frustrate its natural course.

And:

We can and do take necessary risks with our own lives. It doesn’t follow (by analogy or logic) that we can procreate and bring about another life and then kill him or her, so we can avoid the results of our own actions. If you don’t want a child, don’t have sex. Sex and procreation are intrinsically connected, just as nutrition and taste buds are intrinsically connected and no one tries to separate them. If people eat merely for nutrition without regard to taste, we consider them oddballs. If they eat strictly for taste without regard to nutrition, we call them junk food junkies and generally regard them as deficient in understanding of the function of food.

And:

One analogy I like to use is to eating. Eating has two components: health, and the pleasure of the taste buds and flavor. Most would readily agree that the primary purpose of food is nutritional. But they also acknowledge that the pleasure of taste is also a key component, if not the most deeply essential one.

Now, let’s examine for a moment how people regard eating; how they casually think about it, without thinking too much about it. How do we regard folks who deliberately separate the two functions? How do we regard a guy who only eats terrible-tasting food, like bark or something, and avoids good taste altogether? Well, we think he is very eccentric, and, um, unnatural. Conversely, what do we think of the person who eats only for pleasure: the junk food junkie? We think he or she is very weird, too, and doesn’t “get” it. That’s one example of two things relating to one activity that we assume without thinking ought to go together and not be separated.

It doesn’t mean that we never have a banana split. It means that we know that a human being does not properly only eat banana splits and Butterfinger candy bars and cotton candy at every meal.

And:

We instinctively believe that certain things are unnatural and should not be separated. The example I use is taste buds and nutrition, in conjunction with eating. The “normal” understanding is that food should be enjoyed for its taste and also utilized for nutritional / health purposes. Both are, or should be present. We prove that this is what we believe, without thinking much about it, by our reactions to those who violate it.

So, for example, if a person completely separated the pleasure of taste from eating and insisted on eating bark, insects, rotten food (that still held some nutritional value), we would consider that exceedingly strange and odd. Why? Well, it’s because we believe that food ought to be enjoyed while nourishing us. Taste buds have no direct relation to nutrition whatever. They are purely for sensory pleasure, yet everyone believes that the pleasure should not be separated from the nutritional aspects of food.

On the other extreme, we have the junk food junkie. We think a person who eats exclusively Twinkies, chocolate-covered cherries, and cotton candy, or suchlike, is quite bizarre and not even remotely responsible about his or her diet. And that is because we know that food must have nutritional value, which is, in fact, its fundamental purpose, beyond merely enjoying its taste. Both have to be together. The ancient Romans used to visit the vomitorium, in which they would deliberately throw up so that they could eat some more and enjoy the pleasurable sensations of eating. They separated nutrition from food in so doing, much as contraception separates procreation from sexuality.

I think I first heard of this analogy from my friend Al Kresta (the popular talk show host and author), who returned to the Catholic Church shortly after I was received into it (February 1991), and whose conversion story is included with mine and nine others in Surprised by Truth (1994). He stated, in a wonderful talk at my house on 26 April 1992, that I transcribed:

Artificial contraception . . . Dave wanted me to go into that [I had asked a question earlier]. I had a very difficult time seeing it as good logic. The Church insists that the multiple meanings of sexual intercourse always be exercised together. Since one of the meanings is procreation and another is intimacy or the what’s called the “unitive function”, those things can’t be separated from one another licitly. I didn’t like that, because it seemed to me that if intercourse served multiple purposes, then there’s no reason why, at any particular time, one purpose ought to retain priority or even exclusivity in the exercise of that act. They were both good.

I think that the change came when I finally hit upon an analogy; I had to see another human act in which multiple meanings had to be exercised together, and not separately. And I thought of eating food. Food serves multiple purposes: nutrition, secondly, pleasing our senses. God likes tastes; that’s why He gave us taste buds. He wants food to taste good. What do we think of a person who says, “I really like the taste of food, so I’m going to disconnect my eating of food from nutrition, and I’m just gonna taste it.” Well, we call him a glutton; we call him a “junk food junkie.” What do we call a person who says, “I don’t care about what food tastes like; I’m just gonna eat for nutrition’s sake.” We call him a prude or we have some other name for him. We think that they’re lacking in their humanity. That helped me in understanding sexual intercourse.

I think it’s sinful just to eat for the taste, or merely for the nutrition, because you’re denying the pleasure that God intended for you to receive, in eating good food. I say the same thing with sexual intercourse. You’re sinful if you separate the multiple meanings of it. If you procreate simply to make babies, and you don’t enjoy the other person as a person, I think that’s sinful, and I think that if you merely enjoy sexual intimacy and pleasure, and are not open to sharing that with a third life: a potential child, then you’re denying the meaning of sexual expression. That was a continuing realization that the Catholic Church had been there before me. (“Why I Returned to the Catholic Church”

I’ve been considering what you have said about there being a natural order and had a couple thoughts.

My first point is that it has the potential of being an is-ought fallacy. Just because something is a certain way according to its nature does not automatically mean that it should be. This isn’t a sufficient challenge by itself, but it does shift the burden of explanation to the proponents of natural order. What reason is there for strictly adhering to the natural order instead of surpassing it?

My second point is one of degrees and particulars. Take our legs and feet: presumably their natural function is for our ambulation. They clearly aren’t meant for manipulation, like our arms and hands (ever try to write with your toes?). And yet we do use them for manipulation, for example in controlling the pedals of an automobile. Our legs are meant for standing, walking, and running; shouldn’t we use only our hands for driving? My point is that if our legs and feet can have a flexible range of functions, making pedals OK in the natural order, why then wouldn’t that apply to sex? Sure, the vagina’s natural function is procreation and the anus is for defecation, but they are both also capable of producing pleasure. If their natural functions are as flexible as our feet’s, then sex for pleasure (including anal) isn’t actually a violation of the natural order.

Well, there ain’t much of a way for a Christian and atheist to constructively argue about these things. Natural law is far too foreign to atheist thought, so it’s very difficult to even find a common ground to debate. But in any event, I don’t see that you have overcome my analogy, which was:

A) Eating has both a biological / fundamental / essential and pleasurable aspect (nutrition + taste buds and enjoyment of the taste)

B) Sexuality has both a biological / fundamental / essential and pleasurable aspect (procreation / reproduction + nerve endings and sexual pleasure and orgasm)

A2) We think people are weird if they stick exclusively to one or other aspects of eating. Why do we feel that way (or why shouldn’t we, if you disagree)?

B2) Likewise, why is it that we increasingly don’t do that (think exclusive separation is unnatural and “weird”) when it comes to sexuality? What’s the difference between the two, and how are the two things not analogous?

That is my argument, and in 22 years of expressing it online, I don’t believe anyone (whether a contracepting Protestant or atheist) has ever given a solid, compelling reason for rejecting the analogy. You have at least come up with other interesting analogies, but I don’t see that you have directly overcome or refuted the reasoning used in mine.

Well, if your analogy allows exceptions without being overcome, then it’s no wonder that nobody has ever overthrown it. It does, though, call into question just how useful it is as a logical device for argumentation.

That’s just summary words. You haven’t shown me or anyone else why my analogy doesn’t fly. If you disagree, then you’d have to explain why you think you have refuted it. Many people frown upon analogical arguments. That’s nothing new. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (“Analogy and Analogical Reasoning”) disagrees:

Analogical reasoning is fundamental to human thought . . . Historically, analogical reasoning has played an important, but sometimes mysterious, role in a wide range of problem-solving contexts. The explicit use of analogical arguments, since antiquity, has been a distinctive feature of scientific, philosophical and legal reasoning.

The examples you give, however, are fundamentally different from my analogies, which have to do with the complementarity of biological or essential function and pleasure. It’s more difficult to conceive the word pictures here, but it would be something like using our legs exclusively only for functional things and not fun things or vice versa.

So it would entail a person, for example, refusing to walk to a bathroom or a bank or a grocery store (function / basic ambulatory purpose), and only using their legs for activities that are pure pleasure (e.g., bike-riding or playing basketball or jogging, if they like that). Thus, an example of being weird would be to separate them: a person who only used their legs to ride a bike or play basketball and never any other time (this would be analogous to the contracepting person), or who would refuse to use their legs for a pleasurable activity. Folks would think that was weird, odd, and quite unnatural, and this confirms my analogical argument all the more.

The issue of contraception has an additional important element, in that a potential or actual child is involved. This is why we think it is evil to ignore that and go ahead and solely engage in sex for pleasure. The couple has to be at least open to life. To not do so is to exercise what Catholics call a contralife will: which is the essential wrongness involved.

Pope St. Paul VI explained all this in his famous encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. He predicted dire societal results if his words were not heeded. 51 years later, all of them have now come true (see especially section 17).

So then your beef with the sexual revolution is that it literally inverted what you believe to be the proper order of the natural functions of sex: procreation first, pleasure second.

Not quite. It separates the procreative and unitive (pleasurable) aspects of sex in a way that is sinful, unnatural, and harmful to society. We believe procreation is the essential and primary purpose of sexuality. Pleasure accompanies it and is not to be frowned upon (as long as it is within moral sex), and is technically non-essential; yet it should not be separated from the sexual act; nor should procreation be. They should always be together. We’re not asserting a “procreation-only / joyless sex” view. That’s the caricature and stereotype of Catholic teaching on sex, but it’s inaccurate.

If that is the proper order, then why have there been means and methods of forestalling pregnancy throughout history? Perhaps more relevantly (and to avoid the obvious answer to my first question: “Because there have always been people who do things for the wrong reasons”),

Yes. that’s the answer. You tell me: why are there always people who do bad things?

In part because there will always be disagreement on what is or isn’t bad, and in part because there will always be people who have no interest in eschewing doing bad things.

Christianity offers an answer (original sin, concupiscence [tendency or inclination to sin], and temptation and corruption of various forms).

if reproduction is in fact the primary and fundamental function of sex, then why does the pleasure function exist before and after reproduction is physically possible?

Because God likes sexual pleasure and wants us to have it. At that point, procreation and pleasure can’t be separated (which is the evil), and so it is a non-issue, and sex is purely for pleasure (within the moral framework of marriage: post-menopausal women or infertility of either, etc.).

When I read this, I understood it as: it’s only evil if we separate procreation and pleasure ourselves; if God does it, it’s totally okay. Don’t get me wrong, that totally works from a theistic worldview, but anybody who doesn’t follow that particular creed will never buy into it.

This is the best thing you’ve written so far, and shows me that you are following and understanding Catholic reasoning on this issue, even though you disagree with it; and that’s great. So often, atheists and Christians never even understand each other at all, in many particular issues.

This is the heart of our objection to contraception. Of course, the atheist has no God in his or her framework, but my argument as framed above was essentially a secular one (no Bible passages!) from what we intuitively regard as natural and unnatural. I mentioned God a few times, but those analogies can be reformulated in a way that doesn’t mention God at all, without losing their basic thrust and core ideas.

The totally secular version would hold that when we separate the procreative and unitive functions through artificial contraception, it’s unnatural (and by implication and extension, perhaps also wrong). When “nature” or natural physical / biological processes do it (menopause, other forms of infertility), we haven’t deliberately separated them in an attempt to deny any chance of a conception, so it’s not wrong. Our will wasn’t involved. Once again: we see the essential wrong resides in possessing and exercising a contralife will. In a less sophisticated understanding, it’s merely holding that:

1) children are good.

2) [marital] sex is good and wonderful.

3) sex leads to children being conceived, which is a wonderful thing.

4) The more the merrier: just as with most things we like, the more we have (money, good food, friends, etc.), the better.

There was a time when most of mankind thought children were great; therefore lots of them was an even greater thing. Today some of us still think children are great, but for most of even the “pro-children folks,” that only extends to two or three; beyond that is frowned upon and thought to be excessive. And that is a sea change in human thought about children and parenthood. Those with a contraceptive mentality argue that this is a good development. We traditional Catholics think it is tragic and a great loss of understanding and blessing to the world.

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If form fits function, then pleasure comes first in sex because it literally comes first; it also comes last in sex because it literally sticks around to the very end. Procreation comes second because it only shows up later in life and (at least for women) comes to an end before the end of life.

That’s utterly beside the point as we see it: which is about always keeping the two together when they are both possible, and not deliberately separating them. I don’t expect you to grasp all this. It’s very subtle reasoning and quite unknown to non-Catholics and even probably most Catholics. I didn’t get it as an evangelical (it never even crossed my mind for those 13 years, including six married years), but when it was explained fully to me, I did, and it was a key reason I became Catholic, because it was so beautiful and compelling.

As for your analogy, it serves its purpose, but you do recognize that it only points out that we consider those things odd (or weird), not whether they must necessarily be wrong.

Indeed. I have already stated that the argument for natural law or what is natural is one thing, and the argument whether a thing is right or wrong is a separate, more involved argument. I’m using analogies to explain to those who don’t understand Catholic teaching, why we believe as we do regarding sex. The analogies help explain it better than any elaborate chain of reasoning could: because people can relate to them firsthand (everyone eats).

A person on a specialized diet because of a medical condition may never be able to eat for pleasure (at least without risking their health); that is kinda weird, but it is by no means wrong. Same for the healthfood nut, same for people who only have sex for procreation. As a counter to your insistence that such extremes are wrong, it occurs to me that it would be a good thing if everyone became vegetarians rather than eating all that tasty pleasurable meat. We’d be healthier, and it would be more ecologically sustainable.

These special cases do not overcome my general analogy.

Basically, the most your analogy does is outline your displeasure that things that used to be weird aren’t so much any more; but other things that used to be weird becoming normal was actually a good thing in the long run, like women running companies and black people being free, so maybe there isn’t any reason to be alarmed here either.

One either intuitively grasps it or they don’t. In any event, you haven’t overthrown my analogy, as far as I can tell. You’ve tried to chip away at the edges (death by a thousand cuts), but it still stands.

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Ultimately, I believe that I understand the essential argument of not separating the pleasure of sex from reproduction; in the context of an overarching pro-life paradigm, it is quite pleasantly consistent (along with opposition to abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and war, and support of taking care of the poor, infirm, and unfortunate; all of which I recognize as Catholic ideals, and altogether one of the reasons I have engaged so frequently with a Catholic apologist; I have never done so with a Protestant one). For myself, though, I currently feel that quality of life outweighs quantity (in either years or bodies); I also seem to feel that the natural state of the human body, while fascinating, does not have to be the definitive vision of human life.

This is a fascinating comment. I have no particular reply at the moment.

I’m far from being some utopian or post-human advocate, but if medicine could find ways to extend human lifespan beyond its natural limit, or extend our ability to survive environments that we currently cannot, I don’t see those possibilities as intrinsically wrong (possibly, certainly, but not necessarily).

I don’t see that such medical advances are necessarily wrong, either. But they have to be very seriously considered, as to possible adverse outcomes.

To be clear, it isn’t about us becoming somehow better; extending lifespan and reducing disease and infirmity is about allowing us to continue being human, just for longer. In order to accept this possibility of humans exceeding our natural limits, I can’t accept an argument that categorizes any unnatural human activity as being wrong or evil. (Maybe all this is some juvenile science fiction fantasy held over from my youth, I’m not sure yet; but it’s certainly true that science fiction has a long history of becoming science fact.)

You can have the final word!

Fantastic conversation, Dave! And I’m spent. :-) I eagerly anticipate our next opportunity for discourse. Cheers!

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Photo credit: F_A (7-25-10). Tiered chocolate cupcakes with marshmallow frosting and cotton candy [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]

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