As frequent readers will know, I’m often wary of drawing facile antinomies between “Modernity” and “Christianity” but here I will indulge just a little bit.
One frequent theme you will read about in the history of philosophy is Kant’s supposed “Copernician revolution”: capital-T universal “Truth” is not a thing “out there” that objectively exists independently of us and that we grope our way towards; we only experience the “noumenal” through the “phenomenal” and so the only thing we can say about the “noumenal” is, at least, partial; for Kant, this does not plunge us into relativism, since human beings are endowed with reason and are therefore capable of discovering and obeying dictates binding on all rational beings. But to many observers, Kant thus opened the floodgates: if we don’t have access to capital-T objective Truth, and if, at the end of the day, the individual is the final arbiter of what counts as a rational truth thus defined, then there is no obstacle to relativism. And while I think the picture is just a little too neat, it’s hard to look at ensuing history of ideas and not think that–to what, I think, would be Kant’s horror–this story has at least a fair amount of truth to it.
The picture that Christianity gives is quite different. The central claim of Christianity, that which distinguishes it from all other religions, is the Incarnation: that the transcendent ground of all being, truth, goodness and beauty, became a human being for our sakes out of love. In other words, not only does capital-T Truth exist, and not only is it a person and not a concept, but it is the wholly Other who nonetheless communicates Himself–his very Person–to us. And it is precisely because this capital-T Truth is the wholly Other, not of our Universe but transcendent of it, that he can be a Savior to us and of the Universe from every contingency of sin and death.
Capital-T Truth, in other words, comes from “outside”, like a UFO, and comes down to meet us, and relate to us.
There is a both/and, here, of course: we are made in the image and likeness of God; our reason and free will are gifts from God and reflections of, indeed participations in, His divine Glory; faith is not blind submission that muzzles reason, moral conscience, or free will, but a free response of love that enables the Holy Spirit to educate these aspects of our nature (since grace perfects nature).
But, nonetheless, this point cannot be obscured: Truth exists outside us and comes down to meet us, and there is no way to deny this without denying the central claim of Christianity.
I write all this because a columnist named Margery Egan wrote a column on the Church and contraception (and a followup) that, at the very least, one must describe as strikingly uninformed and uncharitable. (Fellow Patheosi Dr Greg Popcak, in the course of a very gracious post, speaks of “willful stupidity.”)
I get “struggling” with Church teachings. I really do. I get incomprehension. I get “But…?” I get laudable concerns for poor families and women’s empowerment (which I obviously share). And while neo-Malthusian myths are deeply misguided and dangerous, I also get that they are very present in the culture and that many who embrace them do so out of a sincere desire to see the good realized in the world.
What I don’t get is–well, first of all, what I don’t get is the lack of any sincere attempt at meeting the threshold of what any civilized person would consider rational debate: refraining from ad hominem attacks and insults; taking other people’s ideas seriously and actually trying to understand them before dismissing them; generally presuming good faith and a modicum of intelligence on the part of one’s debating partner. Obviously this should be extended to all men; let alone an institution with an incredibly rich 2000-year-old intellectual patrimony shaped by some of the greatest minds in all of human history; let alone an institution with which one affiliates and to which one would then, presumably, at least try to relate to with some humility.
But nevermind. What I really don’t get is the spiritual attitude here. I am being honest here, and in a way it pains me to write this, because it used to be my own attitude and in does puzzle me that it now seems so foreign to me.
While in no way abrogating what I have written above about the legitimacy–even necessity–of conscience, reason, and free will, shouldn’t the Christian, at some point, even grudgingly, come to some sort of understanding or realization, that, at the end of the day, the individual is not–cannot be–the final arbiter of Truth, that at some point, human beings realize their proper end when they relate to the wholly Other who comes to meet us, who is Christ, with humility and (gasp!) obedience?
As I have said, the Incarnation is about the wholly Other who comes down to meet us, who communicates Himself to us. But not in any way; He communicates Himself to us through a Body. This is also primordial. It is primordial because it means that Christ becomes fully one of us, and therefore fully communicates Himself to us, at least to the full extent that we are able to receive him. This is primordial because it means that to be a Christian is not just to assent to some fact or doctrine, but to have a personal relationship–by the wholly Other’s grace–, a personal relationship that culminates in a a communion, a (nuptial) union, a joining of the entire self and not just the mind or soul. The wholly Other communicates Himself to us through a Body. The Body on the Cross. The glorious, risen Body of Easter. The Body in the tabernacle. And in the New Testament understanding, in the Roman Catholic understanding (I repeat myself), the wholly Other also communicates Himself to us through a Body which is the Church. This is also what the Incarnation is about. Christ really has a Body, and it is here, you can go touch it, you can abide and live in it.
We all struggle with Church teachings. I do. But I prefer to think of these struggles as struggles in a filial relationship with a Mother who, in the end, when all is said and done, is much wiser than I am. I prefer to think of a complete and sincere belief in “everything that the Church teaches” as the line towards which the asymptote of my mind and soul rises, and must rise. I prefer to think of those struggles as steps in my fitful, sinful, two-steps-forward-one-step-back journey towards greater holiness, greater Christlikeness, by the “obedience of faith” that Paul writes about. A difficult journey, but a journey where there is a trust in this wholly Other who comes down to meet me and rescue me from my illusions and my comfortable pieties, who challenges me, who has faith in me and my capacity for moral heroism.
So. When, for example, I read the Church Fathers, and I find out that whenever they mention contraception, they all say the same thing: that it is a sin to refuse God’s gift of life and the procreative purpose of marital sex; that they all reject chemical contraception (effective chemical contraception is very recent, but people have been trying since the dawn of time); that they all say that, if couples really have a very serious reason for not wanting to procreate, they should abstain from sexual relations; at some point I feel that I have a duty to say (and, increasingly, to recognize) that, maybe, just maybe, they weren’t all just a bunch of misogynistic, sexually-repressed Neanderthals; that maybe, just maybe, they might have been possessed of greater reason, faith and holiness than I; that maybe, just maybe, when the Church, which is the Body of Christ, a Body union with which I desperately long for and rejoice in, tells me in an authoritative voice that this is one aspect of God’s creative purpose for sex, at some point, I have to make a good faith (pun half-intended) effort to trust her.
I do think the Church needs to better present its teachings. We get lost between thomisto-aristotelo distinctions between the act of actively contracepting with chemicals and “passively” contracepting through abstinence. In the end, this remains valid, because to totally evacuate the objective character of an act is to say that the ends justify the means.But we really should be talking more about virtue ethics (a recurring theme with me as y’all know). All Christians are called to achieve, or progress towards self-mastery, towards detachment (in the Ignatian sense) from the passions and from everything that could separate us from God. And because we are bodies, detachment includes the disciplining of the body’s appetites. And this means that all Christians are called to chastity, that is to say, both the proper ordering of one’s sexual faculties as well as a degree of mastery over them. (Chastity is connected to the other virtues. I don’t remember which Desert Father wrote (paraphrasing) “It’s impossible to practice chastity on a full stomach,” showing the connection between chastity and the great Christian discipline of fasting and penance, thus between chastity and the other elements of the spirituality of the body, thus between the spirituality of the body and our spiritual journey in general.) Speaking for myself, and without getting into details, I can certainly testify to the fact that it’s very possible to be “in conformity” with Church teaching in terms of acts, while also not being anywhere near what I would call “chaste.” For all Christians, very much including married couples, practicing the virtue of chastity is a lifelong calling, a lifelong journey, an important part of our great vocation to render all things to God.
And all the relevant spiritual writings that I’m aware of speak of periods of continence or abstinence as necessary, or at least laudable, steps on that path. Already in the Old Testament, the ritual law of the Torah prescribes a sort of natural family planning (since after all NFP can be used to increase the odds of conception as well as decrease them): orthodox Jewish couples must not have sex during the woman’s menstrual period or the week thereafter, which of course means that the period when sex resumes coincides with ovulation. Sidenote: NFP advocates often speak of the “honeymoon effect” that can obtain when couples rejoin after this period of abstinence, but the first time I heard about it was from an orthodox rabbi, which tells you something about our catechesis. And orthodox Jews can and do speak of the spiritual and practical benefits of this practice. My strong hunch is that this is, at least, hovering in the back of Paul’s mind when he writes to married couples: “Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Cor 7:5) Following Paul and the broader Biblical tapestry, then, countless Church Fathers and spiritual writers, throughout the ages, recommend some form of practice of periodic mutual separation as one element of the practice of the virtue of chastity within marriage.
Chemical contraception without a genuine medical need, then, is to be rejected, not only because of the nature of the act (more on which below) but also because it represents an essential “short-circuiting” or (this is a loaded and imperfect word but I’ll use it) “cheating” on the path of chastity. Marriage is in many ways a great tumbler where two people are thrown against each other ceaselessly and thereby sand off each other’s rough edges. Women have natural biological rhythms. Men are, at least not a few of them (myself very much included) disordered bundles of disordered urges and wants, sexual bulimics. Could it be that perhaps putting those two things together was a way for God to give us a path, a valuable spiritual resource, for growing together in chastity, in practicing this symphony of love through periods of separation and reunion? The liturgical calendar has for 2000 years commended to us as a fruitful spiritual practice periods of fasting followed by periods of feasting; is it really so crazy to suppose that this could be true of sex as well?
But really, the Catholic faith is a fractal. Contraception-qua-contraception cannot be disconnected from a discussion of marriage in general, which cannot be disconnected from a discussion of human nature in general, which cannot be disconnected from a discussion of the divine nature. At the end of the day, do we genuinely believe in the venerable doctrine that each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God? Do we believe that each and every human being, in other words, really is of infinite value, really is, at least in part, a fount of infinite beauty, goodness, and joy, that each and every human being is a true miracle, destined for the infinite bliss of the beatific vision, destined to be an eternal brother or sister in the communion of saints? Do we believe that God’s Creation is “good” even “very good”? Do we believe in the “gift of life” not as a buzzphrase but as a true and joyful mystery, and do we genuinely contemplate this mystery? If so, then, can we look at the summons to “be fruitful and multiply” as anything but astonishingly joyful “good news”? And would we not, then, very naturally look at birth control, or any sense of neo-Malthusianism, as, in some sense, not even wrong, but utterly bizarre and inconceivable, like someone saying if you just superglue your hands to your face you will make a million dollars?
If we do really and earnestly believe in the gift of life, then, we do understand why there’s a real difference between chemical contraception (without a real medical need) and NFP or other abstinence-based methods, the one that works by frustrating God’s design versus the one that works with the grain of God’s design, which is that it’s impossible for the do the former act without, in some sense, giving the middle finger to God, without (pace invincible ignorance) essentially saying “You know what, you designed our bodies with deep wisdom, but it’s just too inconvenient for me to accept this.”
I mean, I guess I should own up to my biases. For as long as I remember, I’ve always wanted to have eleventy children, and as a kid I always imagined my future self, in that naive way of course, as a bearded paterfamilias gently smiling upon a loud, running-around, boisterous brood. I understand the celibate vocation. I also get that some people don’t want kids (Josephite marriage!). What I genuinely do not understand is people who get married, want kids, but, you know, only one or two. I think at some level there’s a part of my mind that can’t not boggle at that.
And now, I also understand that we live in a complex and fallen world, which is why, as the Holy Father recently reminded us, the Church also calls for the need to exercise “responsible parenting.” I think the answer to poor families with “too many” children is policies and practices that fight child poverty rather than saying “those children should never have been born.” But, of course, to countless actually-existing families, that’s cold comfort. Indeed, given the Paris real estate prices and my occupation is the as-everyone-knows fantastically-lucrative field of writing stuff on the interwebz, for all that I ardently desire a large family I can’t say that I also haven’t contemplated the prospect without any “Gulp!” moments. And I do recognize the need to be pastoral on this, like on everything else. (Although, as Dr Greg points out, people like Margery Egan might think about the fact that they make it harder for the Church to be pastoral on this issue.) But all of these true and important aspects don’t overshadow, I believe, what I wrote above: the necessity of the deep understanding and faith in the gift of life, in the gift of the adventure of marriage and of (serial) procreation as one of its greatest gifts and joys, in the gift of the obedience of faith, even (as is always the Christian and Catholic way) in and through necessary sacrifices.
In her second column, Ms Eagan thanks faithful Catholics who offered gentle correction to her, recommending books and other resources. Still, she writes: “I probably won’t feel better, or happier, either — or change my mind.”
To “change one’s mind”, literally speaking, in Greek, is metanoia. That is also the essence of Christ’s message, as recorded in the Gospels. Metanoia–the total change of mind, heart, spirit, even body, that is provoked by this encounter with the wholly Other, a change which cannot happen without some letting-go, some letting of the initiative to this wholly Other who comes from beyond the horizon to meet us, unite in love with us, and save us from every power and principality.