NFP, Contraception, and (oh yes) Transhumanism

NFP, Contraception, and (oh yes) Transhumanism April 15, 2011

I really appreciate the patience and attention to detail both sides are displaying in the comments thread that started about natural law and sexual ethics generally but has turned into a discussion about the moral implications of family planning.

There are a lot of dimensions to this discussion, but, reading through the arguments, I think I end up disagreeing with the other side’s assumptions much earlier than you might expect.  Here’s part of a post by KL:

Since sexual intercourse is sometimes naturally non-procreative — whether because it takes place during the woman’s infertile period or simply because fertilization does not occur — the act is not intrinsically less good because it does not result in a baby. But deliberately preventing conception, whether via barrier or hormonal methods, *is* intrinsically less good, since that directly interferes with natural biological processes and organs that are functioning normally and healthfully

The assumption is that there is something wrong with interfering with the normal, healthy function of my body, but I don’t buy in to that assertion.  My body is a tool, but it may not always be well suited to my needs.  We frequently interfere with the ‘normal’ function of our body frequently, which is a good idea, since our bodies are the shambling products of evolution and have picked up a fair amount of cruft in development to date.  My natural inclinations lead me to sloth, gluttony, and inaccurate estimates of risk.  The fact that they are natural or part of my identity doesn’t force me to give in to them.

And when it comes to the tactics, I don’t see physical attempts to frustrate the body’s natural functioning as all that different from behavioral disciplines. I’m in agreement with Nina who wrote

For me, using NFP is the direct action that avoids conception as much as inserting a diaphragm is an action.Once the couple agrees that the intent is to time their sexual activity in order to avoid conception, they’re taking action. That’s where I think the Church is a little fuzzy. And, as we both agree, NFP requires couples to essentially negate the natural reproductive rhythms of their bodies — mostly the woman, though, which is just another strike against it as anything natural or *more* moral than a diaphragm.

Overriding the body doesn’t have to be anything as dramatic as radical physical intervention to be successful, but all intervention is premised on a rejection of current functioning as unsatisfactory.  Whether you’re using barrier methods or carefully having sex only when you are extraordinarily unlikely to conceive, you’re doing an end run around your body’s natural functioning.  It’s possible to argue that only one of these methods is appropriate/safe/healthy/etc (after all, most of us condone exercise and not steroid use, even if both are directed toward similar goals), but that justification needs to be rooting in something besides the divine right of the body to function unimpeded, since both constitute some kind of disruption.

I’d also add, especially to readers who may have wandered into this dispute from Jen’s blog, that you might want to take a look at another post I wrote earlier this week On Not Respecting Autonomy.”  Almost everyone endorses overriding some demands of the body or even those of our own identity, but we differ strongly on which ones to crush.

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  • KL

    Leah, apologies for hijacking your natural law post with an NFP debate! There are definitely enough of those on the internet as it is, so thanks for putting up with the combox monopolization.You are completely right that just because something is "natural" in some sense doesn't mean it is good. Here I think your point about evolutionary cruft is roughly analogous to a Christian/Catholic understanding of original sin and fallen human nature — both recognize that not everything we experience as "innate" is ideal. (Evolution and original sin need not, of course, be mutually exclusive, but that's a discussion for another day, I think!)Ultimately, I think that acceptance of NFP but not barrier methods will depend on some ideological premises that you will probably take issue with — an intention on God's part regarding the purpose and ends of sexual activity, as understood and interpreted by Catholic scripture, history, and authority. (Specifically, that sex is meant to be a full and free giving of oneself to the other, without reservation, either emotional or physical.) We can talk about that assumption for days, but it's in turn based on deeper premises regarding God and his relationship to human beings, which again are somewhat beyond the scope of the discussion. I hope that, if there is one point to be drawn from my contributions to the conversation, it is that the Catholic Church's stance on morality, particularly sexual morality, is deontological. I agree that any conscious attempt to avoid pregnancy is geared toward the end of, as you put it, "doing an end run around your body's natural functioning." But the means are different, just as the means of lifting weights is different from injecting anabolic steroids, though the end (of bulking up) is the same.

  • As I said in a post on my blog, I have no objection to the Catholic notion that sex has both a unitive and a procreative purpose – but what I do object to is the bizarre and arbitrary notion that both these purposes must be served in every sex act. This is like saying, "The purpose of your eyesight is both to let you take in beautiful sights and also to help you find your way around. Therefore, it's wrong to look at a painting, because you're using your eyes just for pleasure and neglecting the navigational function of your vision." (The "Catholic" solution, one presumes, would be to only look at actual beautiful landscapes and not mere reproductions.)

  • KL

    @Ebonmuse,Quickly, as I'm running out the door — It's not accurate to say simply that sex has both a unitive and procreative purpose, but instead that sex is, by its nature, both unitive and procreative. Eyesight is not intrinsically both beauty-apprehending and navigational — those are simply secondary things you can do when you have the capability of eyesight. The Catholic teaching on sexual activity goes much deeper than that, and has to do with the very ontological nature of sex, which JPII calls "the language of the body." The eyesight analogy fails on this level. There's more to be said on the unitive/procreative aspect separation, but I just wanted to clear that up.

  • Anonymous

    Ebonmouse, the Catholic Church agrees that the procreative and unitive don't have to be served by each act. Hence NFP.I think this will all be moot in another decade or two as we are able to computerize our bodies and brains to increasingly greater degrees. Fertility will become a matter of flipping a switch. There will probably be an app for that in the not-so-distant future. We'll be able to design our own reproductive cycles at some point, not through chemical and hormonal suppression of ovulation, but through the ability to control our brain messaging.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, I didn't sign that last one — Nina.

  • As a married person who used to be Catholic (and thus, practiced NFP), there is one large part to the NFP equation you should consider: you are only supposed to even consider using NFP if there are "grave" reasons to avoid pregnancy.In other words, the Church specifically speaks out against using NFP with a "contraceptive mindset." I would loosely define such a mindset as "wanting to engage in sexual activity solely for the pleasureful and unitive aspects while avoiding the natural consequences of potential conception."Then they make a rather vague and blanket statement that NFP is acceptable if there are "grave" reasons for avoiding pregnancy such as physical risks, financial constraints, etc. They don't really ever give a simple list of when it's okay and not okay to use a method, though.The conclusion of this, though, is that if you have no "grave" reasons to avoid pregnancy… you're supposed to keep having kids — just have sex whenever you want and don't try to prevent conception via any means (natural or otherwise).Hence the large Catholic family stereotype. I know two families with 11 kids and several more with 5+. I know a family with 5 kids who's been married 7 years. I think I'd want to die.One could steer the conversation in a whole separate direction based on this: is it a good in and of itself to have as many kids as the wife can physically endure and for which you can handle the bill?Wealthy, young couples should have a lot of kids just because they can?The fuzzy edges of prayer come into play, as I've often heard couples say things like, "We just don't think the Lord is calling us to have more kids right now," as well as, "We prayed and just couldn't see the Lord giving any reasons not to have kids, so we just kept having them."From a non-believers perspective, I obviously think this has a lot more to do with what one already feels, then layered over with a blanket of divine communication. In other words, if a couple feels inclined to have children, it will feel like a "call," and if they don't, they'll "hear a word" that the Lord is saying, "Wait." Or, if they don't feel like it but have a spirituality of more rigorous obedience, they'll probably go against their feelings and just have more kids because they think they're obligated to do so.The whole culture of "precious souls" builds into this — to avoid having a kid is preventing a potential soul to spend eternity with god. Couples get [perhaps] guilted into wondering if they have "grave" reasons to prevent this.

  • Hey Leah – I recommend listening to the first 20 minutes of this lecture:

  • @Hendy – This post is related to what you're saying:

  • @KL – There's no rational justification for the distinction you draw. Why are the pleasurable and reproductive aspects of sex both "intrinsic", while the pleasurable and navigational aspects of vision are merely "secondary"? No reason whatsoever, other than the church's arbitrary insistence that this is so.

  • KL

    @Ebonmuse,Yours is, I think, the strongest objection to the Catholic understanding of sexuality. However, the assertion that sex is intrinsically unitive and procreative is not arbitrary, if by arbitrary you mean that it is not based on any rational argument. On the contrary, John Paul II spends hundreds of pages elaborating the reasoning behind it in his Theology of the Body series (which, should you ever have the time or inclination, I highly recommend reading for an exhaustive examination of the subject). However, the reasoning is based on some initial premises, such as the role of Scripture and tradition in discerning and interpreting God's intention for human flourishing, that you will probably reject. I am entirely comfortable with the fact that if you reject those premises, you won't agree with the conclusion. But it's simply untrue that the Catholic teaching on the ontological nature of sexual activity is purely arbitrary.

  • *However, the assertion that sex is intrinsically unitive and procreative is not arbitrary, if by arbitrary you mean that it is not based on any rational argument.*So . . . because Catholics can string together complete sentences in support of something, those sentences therefore become "reasons" and those "reasons" simply must be accepted as in some sense "rational".I have never understood philosophy and, day by day, I am less inclined to ever try.

  • *The whole culture of "precious souls" builds into this — to avoid having a kid is preventing a potential soul to spend eternity with god. Couples get [perhaps] guilted into wondering if they have "grave" reasons to prevent this.*This sort of premises a pretty feeble, powerless god, doesn't it? The idea that the will of god can be frustrated by a millimeter thickness of latex is . . . I dunno. Seems like it would be hard to take a god like that seriously enough to bother worshipping him. He'd be like a Shinto god–just a tiny embodying force of some element of nature, good to appease to avoid misfortune but not really in any sense the Lord of Creation. A god who's will isn't actually enforceable by god himself seems to me to immediately fail like six or eight tests of being, y'know, an actual god.

  • (Sorry to keep serial-posting but…)*Or, if they don't feel like it but have a spirituality of more rigorous obedience, they'll probably go against their feelings and just have more kids because they think they're obligated to do so.*I've never really encountered this: People who don't agree with a teaching but who "go along with it" (different, mind you, from people who disagree with something but are *forced* by law, violence or custom to go along with it). Item #4,396 in my atheist toolbox is that everyone's religious beliefs always seem *suspiciously* well-aligned with all their other beliefs. I can't say I've ever heard of anyone who really believed in a god they didn't agree with. This then is why the language of "submission" and "obedience" to god strikes me as fantastically hollow and self-serving: The people who are propounding it aren't really proposing any sort of "submission" on their own part–they get to do what they pretty wanted to do all along. It's only everyone else who has to do the submitting and sacrificing. Step Three after that is me narrowing my eyes and assuming that the entire situation would make more sense if I just narrowed my eyes a little and ignored all references to god to see that this a person who'd like me to obey *them personally*.

  • Anonymous

    @ebonmouseThe "precious souls" thing sounds more like Mormonism than Catholicism. Or maybe like the "quiver-full" Christians (eg. the Duggars). @KogoI think there are religious people who have large families because of peer pressure, which is a form of going along, I guess. There's a lot of judgement in Catholic circles based on family size. It's the Catholic female version of high school "mean girls" with children replacing good looks and designer labels as status symbols. There can be pressure to have another child to keep up, to maintain one's place in the front pew on Sunday. From there, the rationalizations start to fall into place in a weird kind of reverse self-brainwashing.Catholic teaching on sexual matters in general (on everything) seems to come down to the Church trying to be relevant but trying to maintain control at the same time, and doing it as their control over anything has all but evaporated. Nina

  • Kogo

    *There's a lot of judgement in Catholic circles based on family size.*Really? This despite the 98% of Catholic women who've used birth control at some point? that's *real* birth control, not the "contraception theater" that is NFP).Plus, I don't notice a surfeit of enormous families among the Catholics in my own family or those I know. Maybe there's a few with 3 kids instead of 1 or 2, but it's nothing you'd notice if you weren't looking for it.

  • Anonymous

    This sort of premises a pretty feeble, powerless god, doesn't it? The idea that the will of god can be frustrated by a millimeter thickness of latex is . . . I dunno.Yes! This is where the woowoo rhetoric falls apart. NFP is birth control by it's very definition, but to get around that fact, the Church goes on about how NFP works with God's will, not against it. At the same time, they're quick to tell couples that NFP works as effectively as the pill, so no worries! How does this leave room for God's will? And, if God really acted that way — choosing random couples and decreeing that they shalt now have a child regardless of circumstances/birth control methods/free will, then what difference would any method of birth control make? I don't think God acts that way, though. I think God allows us our free will and He sees us as whole people, not walking turkey basters and incubators. That's why the whole picture matters. That's why intent is so important. We are free beings, we're not pawns in a game, life isn't a test or a trick to see who can make the most right moves and win the prize at the end. God's will is for us to use our free will, not to hand it over to someone else. Nina

  • Kogo

    *And, if God really acted that way — choosing random couples and decreeing that they shalt now have a child regardless of circumstances/birth control methods/free will, then what difference would any method of birth control make?*Verily. We're to believe god can get *virgins* pregnant (and then somehow, for some reason, allow them to give birth without damaging their hymens). But he's completely end-runned by party balloons or a few milligrams of distilled hormones. Quite a comedown for the guy who could *flood the entire world* just a few thousand years ago.

  • Anonymous

    @KogoIn the orthodox, conservative, traditionalist cirlces, yes, women can get ugly about family size. You're right, though. Most Catholics don't have large families these days and most Catholics recognize the irrationality and lack of logic behind NFP. Of course, they're accused of all kinds of things by their supposed sisters in Christ. That's another "bad fruit", to keep it in Christian terms, of NFP. The mindset is that if you used NFP to have 2 or 3 children, your decision was good and holy, but if you used a diaphragm, your decision was obviously all about limiting family size so you can enjoy more material possessions. Nina

  • Kogo

    *…was obviously all about limiting family size so you can enjoy more material possessions.*What exactly is the problem with enjoying material possessions? Linking up "not having lots of children" to "criticizing enjoyment of material possessions" seems like 10 kinds of bass-ackwards to me. Like, what I have too much money so I need to have more children to sop it up, like it's bread for gravy? At most, wouldn't it be better to encourage me to share that with other people–ones not related to me by blood–that need it?Just to shout out to Leah, your whole thing about "Catholics have had 2,000 years to think about these things so don't assume they're ignorant" thing sort of falls down when, upon even the most cursory examination, the answers they've come to after 2,000 are so resoundingly *bad*.

  • Anonymous

    @KogoI was being somewhat facetious, but the point is that the NFP-ers assume NFP in itself renders their personal decision good and holy while those using any other method of birth control could only be making their decisions based on shallow reasons. If Jesus told us we'll know the inherent goodness of a thing by the fruit it bears, well, that's a "bad fruit". That's idolatry. It idolizes NFP in itself. Nina

  • KL

    @Kogo and Nina:The central point to recall here is that the Church does not condemn avoiding pregnancy. Couples' desire to avoid conception can be, and very often is, entirely valid and morally acceptable. The desire for a reliable method of avoiding said pregnancy is likewise licit. However, it is the means by which they go about preventing pregnancy that is the moral sticking point."NFP is birth control by it's very definition, but to get around that fact, the Church goes on about how NFP works with God's will, not against it. At the same time, they're quick to tell couples that NFP works as effectively as the pill, so no worries!"The "God's will" that the Church says couples ought to abide by is not (in this context) conception or lack thereof, but rather the meaning and purpose of sexual activity. NFP works with God's will by respecting God's plan for sex and human biological functioning. I understand that this may seem like splitting hairs, but the shift in premise makes an enormous difference when applying it to the morality of specific actions.

  • Kogo

    *The "God's will" that the Church says couples ought to abide by is not (in this context) conception or lack thereof, but rather the meaning and purpose of sexual activity.*Catholic theology is the land of the non-difference difference, the non-apology apology and the non-explanation explanation.*I understand that this may seem like splitting hairs*Ya think?*but the shift in premise makes an enormous difference when applying it to the morality of specific actions.*No it doesn't.

  • Anonymous

    @KLSo the means justifies the ends? Nina

  • KL

    @Nina,Not quite. In Catholic ethics, both the ends and the means must be morally acceptable for the action as a whole to be acceptable. Breaking it down:A: The end — Avoiding pregnancy (morally acceptable)B: The means — Option 1: Barrier/hormonal methods (morally unacceptable, for reasons discussed above)- Option 2: Abstaining from intercourse (acceptable)A+B1 is acceptable + unacceptable, thus unacceptable in entirety. A+B2 is acceptable + acceptable, thus acceptable in entirety.As a rule, every part of the "equation" in judging the morality of an action (the means and end) must be in itself morally acceptable for the entirety of the action to be licit. If any part of it isn't, whether means or end, it all falls through.Does that make more sense? That's not sarcastic, I just want to make sure I'm being as clear as possible. @Kogo,With all due respect, your problem seems not to be with Catholic theology per se, but rather with the field of ethics in general. Premises, assumptions, means/ends — all count when evaluating ethical systems, whether Catholic or Protestant, secular, atheist, analytic or Continental. If you think that ethics as a discipline is worthless, then you're free to do so, but you'll probably run into some problems when trying to judge the morality/ethics of any action, ever.

  • orgostrich

    Hendy and KL seem to be disagreeing on the Catholic position on when it is OK to even use NFP (only in grave circumstances vs. usually acceptable.) Can someone clarify the official Catholic position?

    • waywardson

      “Grave” reasons comes from a mistranslation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (which banned the pill) from Italian into English. The more recent Vatican translation uses “serious” reasons, “well grounded” reasons, and “acceptable” reasons. The Catechism uses “just” reasons.

      Basically, couples should avoid pregnancy for good reasons out of being responsible parents and not out of selfishness.

  • KL

    @orgostrich,The problem is, the official Catholic position is ambiguous, since it is open to variation of action based on circumstances, and circumstances are by necessity subjective! There is considerable discussion in Catholic circles about what constitutes "grave reason." As I mentioned in the "Two Fights to Pick…" thread, "grave reason" is something of a mistranslation, since the Latin "gravis" is better rendered "serious" or even, in modern idiom, "good." Basically, you need a good reason to avoid pregnancy — but there are tons of good reasons! Furthermore, what may be a "good reason" for one couple may not be for another, since every marriage is different and situated in different circumstances.For an excellent discussion of this topic, see Simcha Fisher's wonderful post, which Lukas linked to above:

  • Anonymous

    Where you and I are always going to disagree is your categorizing NFP as Option 2, KL. :)For me, it's Option 3: Taking action to pinpoint the fertile period of a woman's cycle and choosing to limit intercourse to only the times she is not fertile. That's not really abstaining. Abstaining is not having sex at all until one is ready to have children. Nina

  • Kogo

    *If you think that ethics as a discipline is worthless, then you're free to do so, but you'll probably run into some problems when trying to judge the morality/ethics of any action, ever.*No, I just think your ethics is worthless, that's all.

  • Kogo

    *There is considerable discussion in Catholic circles about what constitutes "grave reason."*So you make up a major philosophical stumbling block for yourselves, then spend a lot of time debating exactly what it means. Fan. Tastic.

  • Anonymous

    If the Church accepts and teaches that there are solid reasons for not having children, and that those reasons are to be determined by the couple, then that really should be the end of the matter. That there is "considerable discussion" about what those reasons may and may not include negates the first premise, that it's allowable and to be determined by the couple. Either it is or it isn't. Either a third party (human being — not God) has a say and Catholics should have to apply to a member of the Church hierarchy for permission to use NFP, or they shouldn't. And any non-member of the hierarchy who attempts to judge another's decision should be held accountable to the Catholic community. Too many self-appointed lay members of the Magesterium these days. Everyone wants to tell everyone else what to do, but has a fit if anyone tells them where they're going wrong. Organized religion is not a good thing. It's mostly about control and abuse. God is not about those things, ever. Nina

  • KL

    @Nina,That's a completely fair point! And there are those within Catholicism (not many, but some) who advocate exactly what you suggest — that if you don't want kids, you shouldn't be having sex at all and/or once you are married, you should be open to however many children God decides to give you, so charting/periodic abstinence is sinful. I happen to disagree with that line of thought (obviously), but there is definitely some weight to the argument and it's worth addressing.Maybe what needs to be added to the equation — as if we needed more pieces! — is, in addition to means and end, mindset. This piece gets brought up a lot in discussion of "contraceptive mentality," but it's a worthwhile question: Is Intending to Not Get Pregnant morally problematic in and of itself? It goes beyond individual evenings (e.g. "Should we have sex tonight?") and encompasses a general approach to sexual activity during any given period of a marriage. Your mindset regarding the possibility of conception will determine whether you have sex, and if so, when and how.Honestly, the question of "What mindset, regardless of the means of avoiding or not avoiding pregnancy, is acceptable for a faithful couple?" is kind of a live debate in lay and academic Catholic circles. And I think there is definitely room for disagreement and discussion. I am not married and not sexually active, so feel free to take the following with a large grain of salt! But for me, personally, I've reached a point where I am comfortable, intellectually and ethically, with the idea that if I have "good reason" to avoid conception (see my post upthread), that mindset is acceptable as an overarching guide for behavior. And on any given, isolated evening, it is neither sinful to engage in unprotected intercourse nor to abstain from intercourse. Since none of those pieces are in themselves morally unacceptable, the entirety (mindset + action + end) is licit as well. As I understand your objection, you'd take issue with separating mindset from action. And I think there's definite room for disagreement there!

  • Kogo

    *And any non-member of the hierarchy who attempts to judge another's decision should be held accountable to the Catholic community.*Why do members of the hierarchy get a pass?Why do Catholics get to dictate to everyone else?

  • Re. what constitutes a "good reason," I read the post on why the Church doesn't make a list. I see the point, but it doesn't help all that much. The USCCB says something similar.A question remains: "Do most couples have serious reasons or not?"Many of those examples are also not "serious reasons" in my opinion; imagine the conversation between any priest you want with the woman who just had lipo who likes to make her fatter friends feel like crap. Do you think he'd say that her vanity counts as a "serious reason" to avoid pregnancy?Or that the emotionally blackmailed wife shouldn't confront her husband somehow rather than simply live in fear of making a "charting mistake" and have that as her "serious reason." That might border on reasons to get out of the marriage, not just to avoid getting pregnant.We keep circling around the fact that "serious reasons" (or as KL put it above, "good reason") may differ for various people. Who decides? Just the couple? Can we decide in any way whether such reasons are really good?What I'm getting at is if some objective observer wouldn't agree that one's reasons were "serious" — who wins? Does it just seem serious to give up visions of flatscreen TVs and trips to Rio? Or is it really so?Thus… I really see no problem actually making a list. This seems like a Fallacy of Gray — since it seems gray, we better not say anything.Clearly we could say something. Just take the financial situation. While we can come up with "gray" examples all day long and then justify why no lists are possible, why not just make a list with the items that are in the black and white regions? [1]For example: take your net income, subtract out regular expenses (home, medical, utilities) and divide by the number of children you have. If the result is < than x, you have a serious reason to avoid a child. If not, you still may, but consult an authority for further discussion.In other words, if a child-less couple wanted to say that their annual income of $1,000,000 was not enough and constituted a serious reason for having a first child… we'd probably all agree they were probably not managing their money properly. Thus, I think it's false to say that just because some situations are hard to make a ruling on, we can say literally nothing.—Footnotes:[1] Heck, if we can't say anything about these situations, shouldn't we protest to the IRS, too? I mean, my income doesn't feel like $xx,xxx and thus I shouldn't really be in the xx% tax bracket!

  • KL

    @Hendy,Certainly, the lipo woman and the trip-to-Rio woman have suspect reasons, and that's why Simcha includes them, since we would probably conclude that they have bad reasons to avoid pregnancy even though their external circumstances may appear identical to that of other couples who really do have good reason. We keep circling around the fact that "serious reasons" (or as KL put it above, "good reason") may differ for various people. Who decides? Just the couple? Can we decide in any way whether such reasons are really good?Ideally, this is a situation in which a couple should engage in prayerful discernment, hopefully with the cooperation of a spiritual adviser such as a trusted priest. The point of saying that "good reasons may differ" is that from an external position, without knowing the persons' interior disposition and the minutiae of their financial, professional, and emotional lives, I am not really in any position to judge. The Church lays out general guidelines and tries to impress upon the laity that deciding whether or not to have a child is a serious matter, but no hierarchical body is going to swoop down on a couple and say, "You only have three children! You are in grave sin! Repent!" Rather, the Church wants couples to know that it's possible to approach childbearing or avoidance of pregnancy with sinful attitudes or actions, though the Magisterium is never going to pass judgment on a specific individual.The moral status of the mindset of a woman who wishes to avoid pregnancy is no one's business but hers, her husband's, and God's (and maybe her confessor/spiritual adviser), and unless we are one of those people, we cannot definitively identify whether she is "sinning" or not. While we can make objective judgments about the morality of specific, concrete actions, we can't do the same for interior states, simply because we do not and cannot ever have sufficient information. This isn't the same as saying nothing. It's saying as much as is possible in a universal context (e.g., childbearing is serious matter; certain acts are not morally acceptable) and recognizing that more individualized judgments cannot, by definition, be made except by those with intimate knowledge of the situation.Even your example above, proposing a standard equation, will ultimately not be terribly helpful when dealing with real-life situations. Take two from Simcha's post:– Woman A grew up deathly poor, and fully expected to die before she hit age 40. Her husband is disabled and often out of work, and sometimes they have to scramble for the rent on their tiny house — but this is routine and tolerable for them, and causes no turmoil. With help from friends and government programs, they are raising happy, healthy children on $25,000 a year.- Woman B grew up wealthy, has always generously endowed Crisis Pregnancy Centers in her town, and always hoped to have a large family of her own. But a catastrophe struck, she went bankrupt, and has to sell everything and move into a tiny house and live on $25,000 a year. They’re still reeling from the shock of what their life has become, and are trying to learn how to accept help, rather than giving it.Under your equation, they are in the same situation. But they are clearly facing different circumstances psychologically, emotionally, and probably spiritually. Granted, you give the option of "consulting an authority" if you feel the equation may not apply to you, but since the equation wasn't that helpful in the first place and most people will fall (or feel like they fall) in the ambiguous area, why not just consult an authority, such as your pastor, to begin with?

  • @KL:1) my equation is plenty helpful; it just doesn't have a defined monetary value for a cutoff yet2) you keep presenting clearly borderline cases to insist that the gray situations exist. I've clearly admitted this myself.Replace $25,000 with something else and keep increasing it until everyone agrees that it's enough, and add the rule to the next edition of the Catechism.3) your examples (I should say Simcha's) tend to focus on snapshots in time.Fast forward wealthy woman 5-10 years into the future. Assuming she's still young enough, should she have learned how to live on $X/year well enough to have another child or not?We can also conduct thought experiments where we replace child-having/avoiding with any sin. If I had the same change of scenery, I'd probably be less culpable for being an all around asshole when I went to confess such things. But in 5 years, should I still be less culpable for taking out my financial situation on others?I think we'd agree that I shouldn't.Thus, a specific number should still be helpful for woman B, as there probably is some number where we could agree that if you can't live on such an amount well, you might want to consider buying less crap or doing less stuff.I'm not suggesting I have anything to do with setting those limits, but I'm suggesting that such limits definitely could be set.Make sense?

  • KL

    @Hendy,I definitely see your point. But I'm uncomfortable with the type of equation you propose, mostly because it is purely financial, and there are far more factors that play into readiness for children than purely monetary ones. I'm not convinced that simply meeting a certain income level can or should be a good indicator of readiness to welcome and care for a child. I think you recognize this, given your comments about 5-10 years down the line (her financial situation may be the same but her interior disposition shouldn't be — which indicates that ability to have a child is about more than just money). On a purely practical level, it would be impossible to set a numerical level for income without turning it into an equation worthy of the worst aspects of the IRS. Are we dealing with a woman in a remote village of Nicaragua, a suburb of Los Angeles, Uptown Manhattan, Des Moines Iowa, urban Sweden? All of these women will have radically different costs of living. Some will have support in the form of family and friends nearby to help with childcare, others will not. Some are single and need to pay for daycare. Some want to provide their kids with early childhood education; heck, some want to send them to college (incidentally, are either of these things necessary? If so, we need to include them in everybody's equation. If not, they shouldn't be included at all). Some have to pay for medical expenses out of pocket — what types of medical care are we including in the equation (vaccinations? Annual check-ups? Glasses? Teeth cleanings — once or twice yearly? Optional flu shots? Antihistamines for seasonal allergies)?Considering whether or not one is in a position to have a child should not involve gathering W-2s, receipts, and medical records, doing extensive research on projected costs for various child-related goods and services, and attempting to plug all those numbers into what would have to be a series of forms and ledgers. And that's only for a Western, post-industrial society in which all of those resources are even available. Also, I am deeply skeptical about the possibility of determining a level that "everyone agrees is enough." A cursory look at the US minimum wage, which is in theory supposed to be "enough to live on," versus the actual cost of living, is painful. I'm not in principle opposed to what you suggest — it has the potential to make things clearer. However, I think that in practice it would only serve to cause further confusion (and considerable stress, as Tax Day ably demonstrates!).

  • Anonymous

    But Hendy, the problem with human beings creating rules for this stuff is that the people-rules take away free will. If you want a religion with extreme rules, try Islam. They'll give you rules and they'll send someone to set you straight if you break them. Christianity doesn't work without free will. From a Christian perspective, there's no point to God without free will. If you or someone else personally need to set specific parameters within the Church's own teachings, you're free to do so. I sometimes think the biggest mistake God ever made was not making "Thou shalt mind thine own business" the 11th Commandment. :)The problem with organizations and hierarchies is that rules-thinking begins to seep in. One group thinks the rules are too personally invasive, another group thinks they're not invasive enough. And the rules become goals into themselves, or become idolized. The rules start to equal God. Some days I feel bad for God. He gives us everything and it's just never good enough for some people. Look at this crazy-awesome, complex, gorgeous, rich, diverse, ever-evolving world we get to play in — the best we can come up with is making piddling, petty little rules over who should have how many children when? That's it? That's the best we can do? Sheesh.Nina

  • @KL: good points. I was purely talking about the financial aspect, as it's easier to address than the other areas that the Church mentions. I think we're on the same page. I was just trying to give an example.@Nina: Sure. I don't honestly care. I'm fully free-willed as a non-believer, too, and feel quite free indeed to decide on whether I'm going to add to my two children or not.I guess my point is that the Church has come out and made blanket statements about what is and isn't permissible… and then doesn't actually spell out what is and isn't permissible. Yet it does try to meddle and enforce them when it can. As I pointed out, if you want to partake in its ceremonies, it's going to make you answer various questions and promise to do various things. People disregard this stuff, but it's not for lack of trying on the Church's part.Put another way, if you were consciously practicing NFP with a "contraceptive mindset" and told a priest this before or at communion time next Sunday, do you think he'd advise you to receive communion or not?And if you said you had no intention of changing your behaviors? Would you even still be a Catholic, since that entails accepting all of the Church's teachings?So the problem isn't that we're making up rules on behalf of the Church; the rules already exist and the Church just doesn't see if you're following them or not. I'm suggesting rules that make heuristic decisions in place of a priest. If you don't want to do that, just play along and imagine various scenarios in which a priest might say that x,y, and z reasons don't constitute "serious" ones. I don't see difference in trying to list rules that make the same judgments that a priest would make.Does that make sense? I think you're rebelling against the idea of text on paper making the call vs. a priest. If the rules and a priest made the same decision 100% of the time, you should have no objection to the rule just because it's impersonal.And if you would advise every couple who's unsure about their "serious reason" to talk to a priest rather than rely on their own intuitions or interpretation of what they think "god is telling them" (lest they hear their own selfishness as god's voice), then there's even less of a reason to complain about rules since you'd be indirectly advising them to hear a "ruling" from a priest on their situation anyway.

  • Anonymous

    But the Church doesn't "make rules". For all its many, many, many sins, that's not one of them — or didn't used to be. It's hard to tell what's "the Church" and what's some bored fool with a blog these days. There are a lot of people speaking as if they are the Magesterium who get it wrong almost all the time. Just don't tell them that. :/The Church sets the standard, if you will, or interprets God's standard for moral thought. There is plenty of room (or used to be before the internet turned everyone into the Pope) for thoughtful (prayerful, if you're Christian) consideration when it comes to applying moral thought, moral teaching to your personal situation. And that's as it should be. You may or may not wish to involve another party in the decision making process, but it's not required. And confession is personal and private, too. When you combine autonomy, privacy, and free will with God, it all works as it should. It's just when you start comparing Catholic A to Catholic B and judging that you get in trouble. For me, that scenario is what the Church has turned into in recent years and I find it intolerable. However, most Catholics sort through things pretty comfortably and many of them disregard all kinds of rules quoite happily. And the Church is more than happy to take their money every Sunday, or cash the big fat tuition checks their parents write every semester. It works best on an institutional level when everyone minds their own business, too. Nina

  • @Nina.Huh. Works for me. If you want to leave it at, "The Church sets the standard…for moral thought" and then we leave it up to everyone as to what "moral thought" is — that's fine with me.I agree that it probably does "all works as it should" — everyone feels good, gets what they want, and gets the comfort that they are doing god's will for their lives.We also completely agree that the money hungry are happy to take advantage of the resultant ride on cloud nine and empty your pockets as you autonomously follow god's-will-as-determined-by-you.

  • I really don't think we need to get all upset about this. I guess I'm trying to provoke a thought experiment but don't perceive that others are able to attempt it.The point is that if a couple sought guidance from several priests and they all told them individually that their answers were not good ones, would that count for anything?And, if it would, would you agree, then, that some standard, somewhere, concretely exists that rebuts the couple's "good reasons"?And, if so, couldn't it be said that the rules actually do exist, it's just that they aren't stated?Put one last way, would trying to be anymore specific at all help couples make better decisions or not at all?I hear you (Nina) about the Church not making rules for every single sin — but it certainly has plenty of them. Why is this one particularly encouraged to sit in the "vague" bucket while others are spelled out quite concretely?

  • Anonymous

    Hendy, no. Being anymore specific wouldn't help couples make better decisions. It might cause them to make worse decisions, if anything. Which is probably why the Church shies away from local priests telling specific couples they must have children (which is what a list of rigid specifics would boil down to). Can you imagine the lawsuits? A woman dies from a pregnancy her doctor told her she shouldn't attempt, or a family becomes homeless because they can't keep up with costs, and they can now document the fact the Church told them they had to have children or they'd go to hell? The Church isn't going to put themselves on the line like that. Cyncial, perhaps, but true. Nina

  • Kogo

    *The point is that if a couple sought guidance from several priests and they all told them individually that their answers were not good ones, would that count for anything?*No. Why would priests know anything about the wisdom of having or not having children?

  • @Nina: fair enough. So you literally think there's nothing more the Church could say to help couples with this decision? Even specifying that one should avoid purely selfish reasons, purely career-based motives, revulsion toward poop, an obsession with peace and quiet in the house, etc.?None of that would help even in attempting to frame a proper vision of one's disposition?@Kogo: I never said they did — but the advice above is to consult with a priest/confessor… so I went with it :)It seems like there's something odd going on here that I can't put my finger on with respect to the hesitancy about making any additional rules.

  • @Nina: I don't want a Church Taliban — I'd prefer it it just dissolved and went away. I'm simply extending what it already says and asking why it doesn't say more.Clearly they don't really care much who shows up — there are plenty of people who completely disregard all kinds of explicit and implicit teachings and receive communion on Sundays.So for the Church to tell you under what circumstances you can avoid pregnancies by tracking natural signs of fertility… I still don't get why they couldn't be more explicit.And if the materialism/selfishness thing is covered, I don't think the linked post about "Why the Church doens't make a List" makes sense, since some of those cases are probably covered elsewhere but the cases are treated like they're not.Put another way — we keep discussing who would be repressed by more rules than they prefer. How many do you think suffer form the other side, tending toward scruples? Those who have been issued vague statements about what their attitude is supposed to be in the bedroom and then never know if they're really following the rules or not?

  • Patrick

    Nina- what? Srsly?Its not just people with mental problems who would be aided by more precision. Just imagine someone who1. Is Catholic.2. Is making the wrong decision about child bearing.3. But has rationalized that they are making the right decision by inflating their personal concerns into greater importance than they really have.4. And wouldn't do that if there were more clear advice available to them.Its not hard to imagine people like that at all. The generally small size of Catholic families in the US is a prima facie argument that many such people exist.You don't have to be crazy to be helped by better advice.

  • @Nina: Well, as a former Catholic, I used to struggle with scrupulosity and don't think of it as a mental disorder. I just used to over-analyze things and worry about not having been contrite, specific, or prepared enough at confession and then would wonder if I was really absolved.Talking to people afterward or even going back into the priest and being humbled as I told him my worries and having him reassure that Christ's mercy forgave everything I brought with me was sufficient.It helped just to have a simple, clear-cut reassurance. And sometimes, just telling myself that the rule was, "As long as I didn't intentionally omit it and it wasn't mortal, it's forgiven" was extremely helpful. I still think my desire was pure — to be right with the Lord and free of sin — but I applied it in a legalistic manner and would overanalyze myself and then not even be able remember the exact circumstances as I was in confession.Also, for what it's worth, this would come and go. Sometimes it was very easy for me to be more or less "free" and autonomous about this and just "let it go" and other times it really wasn't. I really did need someone to help me and just tell me what was what.

  • @Nina: Wow! More god seems to have led to more judgment. I'm just trying to to understand what the real objections are. You have decided to degrade into attacks on my reasons for leaving the Church, and what I interpret to be an insinuation that I'm probably less happy for doing so.No, I think a list could help. Consider the Catechism and all the encyclicals ever written. Don't those add to the amount of materials that exist which stipulate rules (or call them vague guidelines) for how to be properly Catholic? No one complains about these. If voluminous publications that add more detail to the body of Christian knowledge, doctrine, and moral code is bothersome, why don't people petition to have all official teachings condensed into a pamphlet and then burn everything else? Heck, most don't even read them. But they're there if you want them.Do you find further details and developments in the theological world equally troublesome? More rules about what one can and cannot think about Jesus, the trinity, his mission, and which atonement theory accurately describes what he did for humans and sin? If not, why not?I also suggested that in one instance of scrupulosity in my own personal life it was helpful to have some clear cut assistance. Never did I extend this to insistence on every rule spelled out in complete detail. I'm simply trying to use an example to break you free from the insistence that nothing whatsoever could even possibly add to the beauty that exists in the current nebulous statements that exist — you have not even once conceded that it could even possibly help to have more specific guidelines.Your insistence on this is puzzling, hence I keep trying to understand suggest thought experiments to see what you will say about them.Lastly, I left the Catholic church because I don't think it's true. I has nothing to do with rules, "busybodies," "JPII Catholics," or how I should be having sex. I want to believe what is true and were I convinced that the Catholic Church was true, I'd stay there regardless of the conduct of other participants. I'm essentially an atheist or close to it. I am one because in my study, it's been the most defensible position I have found with respect to what is true when it comes to the question of god(s). And I'll stay an atheist as long as I don't believe; the number of assholes who also happen to be atheists doesn't influence that.

  • @Nina: manipulate? What, exactly, do you think a thought experiment is? It's just an exercise in testing what one says via hypotheticals in order to see if the premises behind the stance hold up. That's all.I think I'm about done here…- You address the question of rules as if there is an objective answer, and only now resort to subjective distaste as your reason late in the game- You spent an immense amount of time and energy (as did I) discussion what the Catholic church says and only now say that you're not the person to askThat's a little frustrating.Out of curiosity why would you begin with the clause, "…is making me feel sick now after watching the documentary…" and then join it to another, "I hope you find answers from… a fully vested Catholic," and connect the two with the word "so"?What do the two have in common? You hope I find answers from a group that sickens you?Why do any of us discuss these things on blogs? I like thinking and discussing, that's why. And like doing so with peers vs. priests.