Sunday 8 January 2012

Contraception and the Roman Catholic hierarchy


It is understandable that opposition to contraception has become, in the popular mind, the main defining feature of Roman Catholicism, or at least its senior hierarchy.

And it is notable that the RC Church hierarchy has utterly failed to convince its flock to follow this teaching - since the most RC dominated countries of Europe are among those with the lowest fertility (Ireland, Spain, Italy).


To have failed does not, of course, mean that the RC hierarchy were wrong. Indeed, they may have had little choice in the matter since sex-without-conception was the main (ahem) thrust of the culture war when Leftism clashed with institutional religion from the mid-1960s onwards.

But the deep problem of the RC emphasis on no-contraception is that it strikes so many people as senseless - specifically, I mean in breach of common sense.


This is probably because the RC opposition to contraception is not common sense, nor is it core Christian teaching; rather it is a distal, logico-philosophical consequence of some core Christian teachings.

In particular, the opposition is expressed in Thomistic terms of the intrinsic function of sex, as inferred from the complementarity of sexes, that they fit together - plus some scriptural back-up, and therefore the permissible occasions and types of sex.

All this is way too fine-spun and drawn-out for people to comprehend - especially modern people with their short attention span and impatience.


The obvious core basis of RC opposition to contraception is pro-natalism - that marriage should aim to be fertile, that having children is good, that larger families are better (so long as they are self-supporting, at any rate).

Yet, the attempt to yoke contraception to pro-natalism fails - there is no necessary nor observable reason why contraception cannot be linked with pro-natalism - as among the Mormons.

(Mormons are not exactly pro-, but in practice not-against-contraception, and nearly all Mormons use contraception. Yet Mormons, unlike Roman Catholics, have been successful in their pro-natalism, with significantly above-replacement family sizes (greater than 2.1 children per family) and much larger families than RCs especially among the wealthiest and most educated.)


And, indeed, there is something terrifying in the modern world about pro-natalism without contraception - fertility can get terrifyingly out of control.

For tribal hunter-gatherers, living on a hunter gatherer diet, the maximium number of babies a woman can have is probably around  six - because menarche is late and pregnancies are spaced-out by lactation acting as a natural contraceptive (and if this fails the newborn baby will nearly always die, be abandoned or killed - since there is not enough milk for two and the older child is usually privileged).

(Of these six, an average of two survive to reproduce, in the steady population state.)

On a more modern, agriculture based diet, with high levels of fat and protein, menarche is earlier and lactation is no longer a natural contraceptive and women can have a lot more pregnancies going to term - ten births is not unusual, and even more is not uncommon.

Such fertility rates either leads to massive death rates among children (e.g. about eight deaths per family), or else requires rapid economic growth or massive support from outside the family.

This was the norm for pre-industrial revolution societies: the average peasant had near-zero surviving children - regardless of fertility.


Of course, there is an alternative - celibate marriage. That is possible among the most devout of certain populations with high intelligence and conscientiousness; but is not possible for most of the people in the world most of the time. Celibacy must be enforced on them, or it won't happen. And the sanctions must be extreme, encompassing the death of surplus children - otherwise the celibate devout will merely be amplifying the numbers of incontinent apostates, generation upon generation...


So, this is the reality of the Roman Catholic combination of pro-natalism and anti-contraception under modern conditions.

I am not saying that this is an unacceptable reality, because it was the state of affairs for some thousands of years; but I have never seen it honestly set out.


Now, of course, people don't exactly and explicitly realize that this is the reality of Roman Catholic teaching on contraception - but they do sense intuitively, by common sense, that combining pro-natalism with anti-contraception under modern conditions leads to unacceptable outcomes: either ten kids leading to impoverishment plus/ minus life on welfare - or else a life of reluctant monkish celibacy.


So, which is more important? Pro-natalism or anti-contraception?

We can see that modern Roman Catholics have voted with their feet, or rather loins, to abandon both.

My first point is pragmatic (merely) and is that pro-natalism is vastly more important than anti-contraception; and given the perceived conflict between the two, pro-natalism should have been what the RC hierarchy pushed hard, while saying little or nothing about contraception.


My second point is theological/ religious - which is that the Church should take care to be definite about core teaching, and indefinite about derived teachings - since the derived teachings are vulnerable both to logical errors and - more importantly - to the errors of logic.

In my opinion, it is an intrinsic flaw of Western Christendom (including the Roman Catholic Church, and also the Protestant denominations) that they feel compelled to give a philosophical opinion, indeed lay down the law, on all conceivable matters - to create a coherent, internally-non-contradictory and fully-comprehensive intellectual structure.

Yet Christianity is a religion of mystery and incomprehension - right at its core. Philosophy and Law are an optional extra - and should not be allowed to usurp the core mystery. When the specific and the explicit usurp the mystery we have the tail wagging the dog.

Christianity cannot win battles of law and logic on worldly matters like the precise details of sexual practice - rather the 'answers' to these must emerge (for each person) from the primary recognition of the core mystery.

The core mystery, in this instance, being to do with the mystical unity of Mankind (at the level of souls, a web of salvation) and the special (sacramental) importance of marriage and birth - this was one of the distinctive teachings that set Christianity apart from paganism.


In a wider sense, the modern Christian Church needs desperately to recover its mystical focus, even at the cost of setting aside its focus on specific moral conflicts.

People break the Christian Laws because they cannot understand, cannot feel, the reason for these precise Laws - and without this feeling the Laws seem merely arbitrary.

And sometimes the Laws are - if not arbitrary - then not tightly consequential. Some Christian Laws are the result of a chain of logical reasoning, and only as secure as the process of logic - which is to say not necessarily secure. Natural Law and Revelation trump logic.


I do not, of course, mean that Christianity should go-along with modernity and accept its 'reforms' and constraints - but these should be reacted to simply by getting on with things, and refusing to budge on core issues - without argument and 'rational' discourse, preferably; just a stubborn holding to tradition and ancient wisdom in the face of insatiable desire for change and progress fueled by shallow nihilism.

In other words, we ought to live by the built-in assumption that under modern conditions any proposed change is almost certain to be wrong and harmful and must therefore be resisted for at least a few generations - after which it may cautiously be tried-out. 

In sum, my discomfort and indeed irritation with the Roman Catholic focus on contraception and other issues of precise sexual conduct is part of a conviction that the Christian Church must at this point in history eschew worldliness as much as possible, to develop and emphasize instead the Heavenly, mystical and prayerful, salvific core.


Christ followed the spirit of The Law, even as he broke the letter of specific laws.

Justice is not the outcome of applying specific explicit laws; but the use of specific and explicit laws to attain Justice.

The same applies to specific ethical rules, such as those pertaining to sex within marriage.


Legalistic hyper-correctness is not a solution to laxity; it is indeed merely to substitute one form of sin for another.

The only solution to laxity is sanctity.



dearieme said...

Forgive me if I've told you this before. We had a Jesuit priest to dinner once. I said I could understand why his church made a fuss about abortion and about divorce, but could not understand its comparable fuss about contraception. He replied that it came about because ever since the Reformation they'd been frightened of being outnumbered by Protestants.

PhilR said...

I suspect that most 'pastorally' inclined Roman Catholic priests probably agree with the basic thrust of your point. (And that 'pastorally' doesn't contain a pejorative in this case) In 20 years as a Catholic I have never heard any reference at all to contraception during homilies or in conversation. (I haven't brought the subject up mind...)

stats said...

A great deal of what any Christian Church teaches are "derived". The Trinity, the Assumption, transubstantiation, Theotokos, etc. And I don't understand your claim that the Church's teachings on contraception are not part of the Natural Law.

Bruce Charlton said...

@stats - I take it that Natural Law refers to those things we don't need to be told to do or not to do; because regarding the Natural Law as good is spontaneous, while breaking it produces spontaneous guilt.

P.S - If you are rude to me in a comment, I won't publish it. I make the rules around here!

Bruce Charlton said...

@PhilR - Thanks.

Have the RC priests you encountered been explicitly pro-natalist?

stats said...

"Classical natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature and deduce binding rules of moral behavior"

Plenty of women have abortions every year, and I'm guessing most don't experience spontaneous guilt. Our fallen nature can be easily deceived by our emotions and desires. In our fallen state, deducing the natural law requires some effort.

JP said...

John Derbyshire asserts, and I largely agree:

"It is of course possible for a devout Catholic to be a principled conservative — the founder of National Review was an outstanding example. Today's Catholic hierarchy is, however, overwhelmingly left-wing. Outside the narrow scope of purely doctrinal issues and those issues closely related thereto — abortion and euthanasia, for instance — outside that narrow zone, on all other social and political issues the Church is well out on the political left. On wealth redistribution, on immigration and national sovereignty, on globalization, on welfare, on the death penalty, on Second Amendment rights, the Catholic Church is more liberal than Teddy Kennedy, or Nancy Pelosi, or Joe Biden, to name just three of its congregants. Check out Benedict XVI's 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, where he calls for world government.

An individual Catholic might of course interpret scripture and doctrine differently from the hierarchy, but he is leaning into a headwind when he does so. In fact, he is courting excommunication: This is, after all, a church that emphasizes obedience and authority."

Penda said...

I agree with much of what you say. The Church, especially in America, is currently no pillar of pro-natalism and of patriarchy. Currently the preaching avoids it, and the colleges and the bureaucracy work against it. Several huge obstacles.

Unfortunately I don't understand if you address what I understood to be the core of the matter - is it a sin or not? If it is, how can the Church be silent when people ask? Is it truly too mysterious for mortal minds to understand? Ought it to be 'reclassified' as a venial sin, say on the order of taking the Lord's name in vain? This may be an actual difference between 'mere Christians' and Catholics that we cannot explain away as it goes to some rather core issues.

Christian said...

I'm from Quebec, where we used to have one of the highest birth rate in all history until the 1960s. In my forthy years, I have never heard a priest mentionning anything pro-natalist. It's a complete taboo, even if we have now a very low birth rate (in fact, we're doomed to vanish as a people)­. I guess it's hard to imagine for a non-catholic, but you can't promote the official teachings of the Church anymore. A cardinal was forced to apoligize last year because he said during a press conference that abortion was a "morale crime".

Bonald said...

Hi Bruce,

I'm glad you're thinking about this, because I think we need to have more serious Christians thinking about how sexual morality relates to the birthrate. However, I must take issue on some points.

1)The RC Church is not mindlessly pro-natalist. She explicitly recognizes overpopulation as a reason to limit births. We must only avoid immoral means of acheiving this. Natural family planning isn't perfect (especially giving human errors), but it would be good enough to keep the population from getting out of hand. If everybody aimed at 2 kids, and a few percent slipped and had 3 (while some others would come up short for various reasons), that wouldn't be a problem. Telling couples to abstain from sex half of the time (a couple of weeks around the woman's fertile period) would hardly be an onerous burden, but it would be pretty effective.

2) It's not true that there is some kind of inverse correlation between legalism and spirituality. Many past religions, such as Islam and Judaism, were quite legalistic and notably more devout than modern Christians. In fact, strict taboos often help develop a sense of the sacred and are nearly always found where it is present.

3) Any de-emphasizing of the ban on contraception would be a de facto surrender. We simply cannot allow people to fall into mortal sin without warning. Immortal souls are more important than anything else, even demographics.

4) Mysticism in every time and place has always been the province of a small spiritual elite. I myself am not among the "most devout" and have basically no mystical sense. I think the crisis in the West has to do with the loss of something more humble that used to be quite widespread: a sense of the sacred, i.e. reverence. People--nonmystics mostly--did used to intuitively understand that contraception is wrong because they understood that the conjugal act is sacred, that the act of generating life belongs to God in a special way. People intuitively grasp that sacred things are not to be instrumentalized; one doesn't take them apart so that one can extract the part that gives one profane pleasure while leaving the rest to the side. That is desecration, the taking of something out of the sacred realm. People with a properly reverent attitude would naturally find contraception repugnant. Now, the RC hierarchy does bear some blame for allowing the people's sense of the sacred to erode, particularly because of the demolition job they did on the liturgy.

James Kalb said...

It seems to me that normal common sense should support the idea that sexual intercourse has a nature and function that contraception violates, in the same way that e.g. having dinner with your family has a nature and function that would be violated by chowing down and then going off to the bathroom and inducing vomiting.

It was only in 1930 that the first Christian denomination (the Anglicans) decided that contraception might sometimes be OK. If common sense is what most people think most of the time without prompting, that counts against contraception. What's happened I think is that people have been taught that rationality is simply technological thinking and that's become what they think of as common sense. It's just common sense to engineer the best and least troublesome results in every case. To my mind though that's the same kind of common sense that tells Internet atheists that religionists are simply crazy.

It seems to me that normal common sense would understand human acts that have to do with fundamental human needs and relationships not technologically, by reference to cause and effect in each specific case, but by reference to their general role in human life. The general role of sex in human life, and the weight and orientation of institutions essentially connected to sex (like marriage), depends I think on its general tendency to make babies. The habit of intentionally interfering with that general tendency denatures sex and makes it something to manipulate rather than something that essentially involves giving our all and therefore naturally gives rise to an absolutely fundamental personal connection.

As to the nature of Christianity, it's a religion that says God created the world and its order, found it good, and became incarnate within it. So to be Christian is among other things to accept that the world is charged with meaning and value. That leads me to believe that Christianity should not be spiritualized to the extent of not taking seriously how people live concretely, especially with regard the something as basic as sex.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm from Spain and, in forty years of going to Mass, I have never heard a sermon about contraception.

Having said that, the official doctrine of the Church is well known and universally ignored, even by the most devout Catholics (my parents, for example).

With an important exception: the guys from the Neocatechumenal Way ( I know only one family but they have 11 children. The father told me that, in his house, a washing machine never stops working from the moment they install it to the moment they replace it, LOL.

It pains me to see that many people reject the Catholic Church only because of things like that, which are secondary at best and can change, like Galileo's condemnation.


Proph said...

"People break the Christian Laws because they cannot understand, cannot feel, the reason for these precise Laws - and without this feeling the Laws seem merely arbitrary."

It goes deeper than this, though. Even if they could not discern the law's basis, this would not be just cause for rebellion -- they would still be obligated to assent to the teachings. Clearly, then, the scope of the rebellion among the laity is broader than this one issue.

In fact, having tried many, many times to explain the natural law basis of the Church's ban on contraception to people (probably on 40-50 different occasions, online and in person), the resentment of the teaching is not that it is irrational. (Superficially that is the claimed objection -- once I explain the teaching, the objection becomes that it is TOO rational). People, at least the ones I've spoken to on the matter, resent it because they feel entitled to participate in the great, dripping cesspool for carnal delights that the modern world provides. They want sex available to them all the time. They want oral sex. They want to be able to masturbate. All without consequence and with the approval of their consciences.

I don't think Catholics should apologize for natural law. Reason is a good, and one liberalism more or less denies. Of course it is vulnerable, but that is no reason to forego its use.

Bruce Charlton said...

Excerpted comment from@ Baduin:

"Arguments used by the Catholic Church to support contraception are extremely unpersuasive - conception is meant to be an integral part of sex, but you are allowed, and even encouraged, to have sex in the period when it is impossible to conceive.

"But, of course, this does not matter at all - because the Church is infallible as regards morals."


"Combining the forbidding of contraceptives with eugenics is one of the only two ways to ensure that the desirable part of population will have more children than the undesirable.

"The other is simpler - to let the poor starve, and when they protest, shoot them."

Gerry T. Neal said...

What was the purpose of inventing contraceptive techniques?

To prevent pregnancy from occurring as a result of sexual intercourse.

That might seem to be merely stating the obvious but lets take it a step further.

What would be the purpose of preventing sexual intercourse from resulting in pregnancy?

So that people can treat sexual intercourse as being merely a means to the end of the satisfaction of their personal desires without the duties and responsibilities that come with having sired and conceived a child.

To do so is to separate sexual intercourse from its primary purpose - the reproduction of human families, societies, and the species itself. Out of this first step, springs everything else in today's culture of death - promiscuity, abortion, infanticide, etc. The more effective contraception became, the louder the demand for abortion became.

Progressives mock the old morality by claiming that it tried to deny or remove enjoyment out of sex. This claim is a lie. The old morality subordinated the pleasure in sex to procreation, not to deny it, but out of the recognition that if it were not so subordinated, men would pursue sex for pleasure at the expense of procreation, and of life itself.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with this post. Contraception has become a de-facto liberal vehicle into turning sex from a holy and reproductive act to a hedonistic, pre-marital recreative one. Back in the 1960's and 1970's many used contraception in the name of "Family Planning" but sooner or later they showed their true intentions. The countries with the highest fertility in Europe are not so because the natives with contraception are reproducing but because the less liberal immigrants are.

Anonymous said...

Don't Italy, Spain and Ireland have secular governments? The public arena is more secular than Catholic.

Anonymous said...


I am surprised by your claim that the Catholic Church's teaching about contraception is "too" rational. I don't mind to accept it on the grounds that the Church is infallible and we have it to accept it as a mystery (although it seems to me that dogmas are for more important matters but anyway, who am I to judge?). This is fair enough.

But it does not seem rational to me. (By contrast, monogamy, fidelity and chastity in marriage seem rational to me - and of course rejection of abortion).

Maybe I am really dense but, like Baduin above, I don't get the theological difference between natural means of contraception (which the Church approves) and artificial means of contraception (which the Church rejects).

It seems to me that the natural things are not necessarily the moral ones (this is the naturalistic fallacy). And the Church approves the use of artificial resources for everything except contraception.

Having said that. I am aware that I can be wrong. Do you have a link to your explanation why the Church's teaching on contraception is rational? I'm willing to be convinced by a good argument. (This is only a theoretical discussion. Even if I am not convinced, I have the duty of obeying the Church)


Anonymous said...

Great answers everybody. Interesting answers Proph, Bonald and Jim Kalb.

Bruce Charlton said...

The comment that is closest to my understanding is: " I don't get the theological difference between natural means of contraception (which the Church approves) and artificial means of contraception (which the Church rejects). "

There *isn't* a real difference between natural and artificial contraception, and this gets us to the crux of the matter.

It is the intent of sex that is surely the crux, and the idea that every sexual act should be linked with an intent at conception and the possibility of conception leads to absurdity (or else extremely unconvincing logical hi-jinks).

This is just not an area for precise teaching. It is - for me - like transubstantiation: attempting a degree of doctrinal precision that is unnecessary, unhelpful, and indeed counter-productive.

The proper clear and simple way of dealing with these matters is to accept that there is a mystery and that greater personal holiness will reveal the truth.

There is a mystery in the sacrament of marriage, and attempts to make it more precise than it wants to be are potentially destructive.

Maybe this is why the Mormons seem to be the only ones to have achieved a practical answer? For Mormons the married couple are the 'unit of salvation' (at least, of the highest salvation) - devout Mormon couples pray together for personal revelation with respect to many detailed matters of this kind. That is a pointer to the proper Christian approach to such questions.

Thursday said...

If common sense is what most people think most of the time without prompting, that counts against contraception.

Nah, this is an outright falsehood. It's only been one religion in one part of the world that has been against contraception.

There *isn't* a real difference between natural and artificial contraception

Right, technique is technique and the Catholic church opened that barn door long ago.

Gyan said...

I am afraid you are being typically modern or post-modern in being concerned with Utility or Expedience rather than Truth.

Have you read Elizabeth Anscombe on contraception?

Gyan said...

" the idea that every sexual act should be linked with an intent at conception and the possibility of conception leads to absurdity"

But who holds that conception must be intended at each intercourse?. The best attitude is to forget about conception and children.
It is as Hindus say, Action is in our Hands, Fruit is in His (and don't worry about it).

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - well, you know... I think it is one of the primary 'modern' acts to try and regulate all minutiae of human behaviour with precise Laws based on rationality. This perspective implicitly claims to have captured and considered all relevant human experience - yet logic is intrinsically incapable of this.

I may have read Anscombe on this topic - I did look through some of her essays once - but I would regard her as a prime example of what is wrong with the Roman Catholic approach to such matters.

The problems can be seen in the fact that they induce a really tremendous distortion in doctrine and teaching, since precise instructions come into conflict with actuality and lead to great tensions - the core message is lost, the essence of Christianity is neglected - as when the RC Church is clear and inflexible on anti-contraception

- but avoids such clarity in being pro-natalist - presumably because pro-natalism means giving higher status to the married and fertile, lower status to the unmarried and infertile. In other words pro-natalism within marriage is anti-Leftist, non-PC.


(I feel this distortion is perhaps related to having celibate priests, which are *in general* (with exceptions) a bad idea (celibate monks yes, absolutely - but priests no, unless the priests are also monks). Celibate men should not be solo, as a rule - but need a monastic structure and discipline.)

Gyan said...

"as when the RC Church is clear and inflexible on anti-contraception

- but avoids such clarity in being pro-natalist - presumably because pro-natalism means giving higher status to the married and fertile, lower status to the unmarried and infertile. "
So RCC is pro-natalist for status reasons and not reasons for faith and truth?

I don't believe in the status theories of behaviour. To me, they don't even make evolutionary sense. And to say that RCC engages in status competition is to disavow any faith in RCC. Then the question arises, what would one believe in?

If one disavows faith in Reason, then one is not in harmony with the Western Tradition.

James Kalb said...

"There *isn't* a real difference between natural and artificial contraception."

If "natural contraception" means not having sexual intercourse part of the month, the point seems to be that there is no difference between not doing something and doing something to prevent the thing from taking effect.

On that view there's no difference between failing to give money to a charity and diverting the charity's funds. Does that make sense? How about fasting on the one hand and gorging and purging on the other (assuming a good medical fix for various subsidiary consequences of the latter)?

It seems to me we can't think about and evaluate our own actions without making that kind of distinction. The "no difference" view strikes me as the view of a natural scientist looking at life from the outside, as a single seamless network of cause and effect, and not the view of a human being living a life among other human beings doing the same.

"It's only been one religion in one part of the world that has been against contraception."

Contraception is disfavored in Islam and traditional Judaism:

I'd add that what counts as common sense depends on fundamental understandings--what people think the world at bottom is really all about. The history of contraception in Christianity suggests that on a Christian understanding queasiness about contraception is commonsensical. The examples of Islam and Judaism (and possibly the contrast with say Buddhism) suggests that situation arises out of the concept of a creator God who finds his creation good.

Felix said...

In Australia, the Catholic Church doesn't mention contraception. No approval, no condemnation. And, of course, any liberal priest would tell people that they must make up their own minds (sorry, "follow their consciences").

An intelligent friend of mine has been an intelligent pro-life activist for many years. Recently started to sound like Paul VI, saying that the reason for the abortion culture is that sex has been divorced from the idea of reproduction.

And this leads to the explosion in pornography, as well as to the tsunami of abortions.

GFC said...

For a blog that gives pride of place to Orthodox views, that view has been conspicuously absent from the discussion?

Proph said...


I will try to post a defense on the Church's teaching on contraception on my own blog later today; the issues are really too detailed to get into in a combox discussion!

Baduin said...

There are two problems:

1st) The arguments used against contraception are not persuasive, because they are made ex post. The ban on contraception came first, the rational arguments were made up later.
"[8] Juda, therefore said to Onan his son: Go in to thy brother's wife and marry her, that thou mayst raise seed to thy brother. [9] He knowing that the children should not be his, when he went in to his brother's wife, spilled his seed upon the ground, lest children should be born in his brother's name. [10] And therefore the Lord slew him, because he did a detestable thing."

A good explanation can be found eg in Eliade

Mircea Eliade, Spirit, Light and Seed
Mircea Eliade, Mephistopheles and Androgyne

According to him, in Middle Easter (and also in the Indian and even Chinese civilisations) the Divine power or Spirit (Breath) at work in creation was viewed as a special kind of light, or perhaps luminous fluid (in Byzantium it was named the Uncreated Light, equivalent to the Uncreated Energies of God).

In the undifferentiated thought of the era, this power was contained/represented/symbolized/transmitted/hypostasised by the virile seed.

Therefore, spilling the seed was equivalent to deliberately misusing and profaning the creative power of God. It was also persistently reported that some Gnostic rituals, which aimed at freeing the Divine Luminous Fluid or Spirit contained in the universe, consisted in the spilling of seed, as by Onan. When the woman was inseminated, the Divine Light continued to be imprisoned in the matter; but when the seed was spilled, it was freed.

Similar kind of thinking caused the Chinese Taoists to develop techniques of sexual intercourse without ejaculation. Similar idea lead in this case to opposite behaviour, since their intention was opposite: not freeing the Spirit and destroying the material world - as in case of Gnostics, but rather strengthening and elevating the material body, up to alchemical immortality.

Therefore, the mystical tradition is unanimous and clear in this aspect. It is the rational thought which is unpersuasive and dubious.

Baduin said...

2) Although the rational arguments are lacking, it is entirely obvious that the prohibition of contraception is absolutely necessary. Contraception has two extremely damaging aspects:
- it leads to the separation of sexual congress from marriage and procreation - not Factual, in the rational way, but Symbolic. In other words, sexual act without contraception, although factually it not always can lead to conception, symbolically is always connected with it. On the other hand, a sexual act using contraception (and especially using such devices as condoms, which necessarily involve "spilling the seed upon the ground" ie the sin of Onan), is symbolically separated from conception and marriage. It becomes simply a pleasant diversion, not fundamentally different from other forms of recreation, as dance, music, or sport. Any limitation on it becomes a simple matter of senseless oppression and is going to be rejected.

The human society is, however, symbolic in nature. This symbolic separation has, therefore, absolutely practical results: the destruction of marriage and fertility observed since the wide availability of contraception.

3) Secondly, contraception - and especially in connection with pro-natalist policies, such as those of France, has usually one result: the top of society has few children, and the subclass a lot of children. It is true that some Catholic groups have many children, but such groups are ipso facto excluded from the elite: for modern elites high fertility is practically impossible, except for the absolute top of society (Saudi Kings and millionaires), where it is possible, but simply unthinkable. And, anyway, no elite woman would agree to such a thing.

4) Therefore, it is not that Rationalism did forbid contraception which used to be allowed earlier; rather, Catholic Church, after accepting rationalism, tried to and failed to find persuasive rational arguments to retain the idea which prevailed up to this time.

Thursday said...

Here is Anscombe on contraception:

Her line of reasoning actually leads her to the conclusion that sex within marriage within contraception is a worse sin than adultery. Which is bonkers.

Bruce Charlton said...

Jim Kalb Comment (which got lost)

"Conception is meant to be an integral part of sex."

Is Baduin saying (or saying that Catholics say) that sex isn't
sex unless it results in conception? That's treating it as a
technique, and Catholic thought, common sense, and the outlook of
normal human beings all say it can't be understood that way.

Compare a sexual connection to a friendship--not a perfect
analogy but maybe it'll help somewhat. Friends stand by each
other when they have practical problems. If you intentionally
take out the practical aspect, for example if you intend never to
do anything for the guy, it's not a friendship. On the other hand
if the practical aspect isn't called on in a particular case, or
by chance it's never called on, it can still be a friendship.

The point: sex like friendship isn't a technique for bringing
about some result. It's not a technique at all. That doesn't mean
that it doesn't have a natural function that gives it its
position and weight in human life, and it doesn't mean that you
can never bollix it up by denying or interfering with the natural
function in some way."

Bruce Charlton said...

Contra-ception presumably means anything which reduces the probability of conception.


Whether this 'anything' is effective or not, whether it is natural or technical.

If it is *intended* to reduce the probability of conception it is a contraceptive.

and THAT is why it is *nonsense* to be anti-contraception.

That does not of course mean that anything is permitted.

It is a unilateral statement that attempts to enforce anti-contraception lead to absurdity or arbitrary-ness.

James Kalb said...

Baduin's position seems odd to me. He says there's no rational argument against contraception, and even if there were it wouldn't matter because the arguments came after the prohibition, but forbidding it is nonetheless absolutely necessary.

If forbidding it is absolutely necessary, isn't that a rational argument against it? It seems to me he's confusing rationality with technological means/ends rationality. His comments on symbolism bear that out. If man is symbolic, why doesn't that affect what's good for him to do?

My own view is that I'm a human being, and a social animal, and if some attitude toward something is absolutely necessary for the well-being of human beings and society then it's rational for me to adopt that attitude. Doing so realizes my nature as a human and social being, and it's rational for an agent to act in ways that realize his nature.

I go into the issue of loyalty and its rationality here:

I assume loyalty includes dealing with things in ways that promote social well-being.

I'd add that moral reasoning usually follows moral perception. People didn't decide murder was bad because they reasoned their way to the conclusion.


"[Anscombe's] line of reasoning actually leads her to the conclusion that sex within marriage within contraception is a worse sin than adultery. Which is bonkers."

It's an interesting claim and now it's made I can understand why someone would make it. I can also understand why someone who takes the point of view of educated present-day secular Westerners for granted as simple common sense would find it incomprehensible.

Bruce Charlton said...


(I am not defending Baduin - indeed I'm not sure what s/he is saying).

But wrt GEM Anscombe - she was of course a highly-rated professional philosopher, and undoubtedly had an extremely high IQ; but having met her, albeit briefly -

- I didn't get any glimmer of *wisdom* from her - she seemed a fairly typical Clever Silly in her character, although not her specific beliefs.

Thursday said...

I can also understand why someone who takes the point of view of educated present-day secular Westerners for granted as simple common sense would find it incomprehensible.

I don't think you can't fob this one off on educated Westerners. I think most people throughout all of history would find Anscombe's claim crazy.

In general, the Catholic Church's proto-modern emphasis on reason has been one of its greatest strengths in confronting modernity, but also one of its greatest weaknesses.

Thursday said...

The idea that one isn't using a technique or that one isn't taking very definite positive action when using NFP seems strained.

Baduin said...

I try to say that the rational arguments against contraception (but allowing natural contraception) are unpersuasive - that is, nobody can be persuaded by them. They can be used by people who ALREADY accept the conclusion. That is, they are an apology, not the result of an independent philosophical investigation, which they pretend to be.

The rational argument is an argument from the first principles. In such an argument, the result of the reasoning must be shown to proceed from a number of commonly accepted premises.

The problem is, the actual Greek philosophers such as Aristotle used the rational arguments NOT to decide what is good or bad, but to research the first principles. If the logical reasoning from the accepted first principles agrees with the accepted social rules, the first principles are selected correctly; if not, not.

This way of reasoning CANNOT be reversed and used to deduct the proper conduct from the first principles - which is what the Catholic philosophers, and the Western civilisation in general are trying to do today. (And which is the cause of their rejection of reality; Anscombe is the leading example of that rejection). It is so for three reasons:

1) There is no reason why all good, in particular morality and law, can be reduced to literal and mechanical rules of behaviour, and those rules can be reduced to a few first principles. In fact, since the reality is infinitely complex, and the rules are infinitely simple, there is a very good reason why it cannot and shouldn't be so reduced.

2) Rational arguments work only on those who agree with the selected principles. In origin, the rational arguments were a way to research the principles. As soon as one turn this around, the principles become arbitrary, and therefore can persuade no one.

3) Rational arguments have no strength to change behaviour. Even if someone cannot refute them logically, they have no power behind them, and will not cause them to change their behaviour. It is the difference between knowing about something and knowing something: having heard the description of elephant and seeing the elephant. In particular, the nature of any Good is such that those who KNOW this good will desire it; and those who KNOW (Greek - gnosis) the absolute Good will desire it absolutely and above all. However, knowing ABOUT some good does not cause one to desire it, at most - it can cause one to wish one desired it.

One can come to know something only through experience, natural or mystical. Experience allows one to accumulate the greater number of facts and principles, and only this can form the basis for the later rational reasoning.

Baduin said...

I tried to show the original mythical/mystical reasons for the prohibition of contraception. Those reasons were persuasive as long as the view of reality was less differentiated (see Voegelin, also Ricoeur and Barfield - this is a development of Hegel's dialectic). As long as the material and spiritual realities were thought to be either identical or hypostatic, (Spirit-Breath, Sin-Stain, Seed-Light etc) such thinking had power. With the process of differentiation, they became entirely separate and unconnected, and such arguments became ancient and quaint superstitions.

After the differentiation, only a new, also more differentiated view of spiritual reality can work, at least for the elite. Failing that, only terror and violence. Like Lovecraft says, "The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.". The process of differentiation cannot be reversed.

Secondly, I tried to show that the experience of 1968 teaches that contraception is usually deadly. After accepting that datum, it is indeed possible to reason from it that contraception should be forbidden. However, one need to accept the experience first, and even then, the reasoning will persuade nobody.

This reasoning is based on the principle that LIFE is GOOD. However, the mere fact that contraception is accepted shows that this principle is rejected and replaced by the principle that PLEASURE is GOOD.

Anonymous said...

"I'm guessing most [women] don't experience spontaneous guilt [about having an abortion]."

This isn't my experience. Every women I've known who's had an abortion (maybe, four) has felt guilt. Not usually crippling guilt, but one case, it has been crippling.

Beyond my own anecdotal experience, I don't think any normal person can examine the basic physical facts of abortion without feeling at least some disquiet, but this isn't at all true of contraception.


Bruce Charlton said...

@Baduin - thanks for those comments. I found the point about the proper direction of reasoning wrt first principles very suggestive.

James Kalb said...

It seems to me that if the effects of accepting contraception are experienced as bad then it's likely that contraception itself will come to be experienced as bad and arguments articulating what's wrong with it will seem more to the point.

It also seems to me that arguments are not simply rationalizations of what's already felt and believed in all its aspects and details. They change how we understand our situation and how it presents itself to us. As a day to day matter they mostly operate at the margins, but over time they can have enormous effect.

I think that's especially true with issues like the relative appeal of PLEASURE IS GOOD and LIFE IS GOOD as general guiding principles. We're drawn toward both I think, but we develop a habit of choosing one or the other and as we do so the corresponding vision of life comes more and more into focus as common-sense moral reality. It seems to me that process is affected by how the choices presented to us are lit, and the arguments we hear and repeat to ourselves affect the lighting.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JK - I certainly agree that finely-nuanced discussions carry zero weight - and that contraception will probably eventually come to be regarded as bad.

But that does not mean that it *is* necessarily bad, let alone a mortal sin. (or, if it is a mortal sin, the sin will include all 'natural' forms of contraception.)

Nonetheless, it is much more important - now and indeed at any time - that marriage and family be regarded as Good.

I think the complexities and contradictions of contraception can and should be pretty much ignored by the central authorities (aside from ruling out certain methods), and delegated to personal revelation.

Of course, effective and convenient contraception is a very recent invention - and there is a sense in which humans are clearly unequipped to deal with it.

Because it is so recent, it is hard to know what would have happened in previous societies had these methods been available - but when modern contraception arrived it was slap bang in the middle of the collapse of Western Christianity, which muddied the picture.

What is amazing is the rapidity with which the complex of ideas which includes pro-contraception is eliminating itself, voluntarily and then by policy.

The world is being re-populated with the offspring of patriachal religions (who won't use contraception) and those too feckless to use contraception - the US Mormons being the exception to this pattern, they are just about the only 'middle ground'.

So maybe all this debate will be swept away by tidal population changes...

Anonymous said...

So maybe all this debate will be swept away by tidal population changes...

Somebody on the Internet said that ours was a time where mankind is trying to evolve a breed of people resistant to birth control.

It makes sense. You can conceive birth control as an evolutionary pressure. The mutation of human beings that proves resistant to birth control will rule the Earth, the same way a breed of bacteria resistant to antibiotics ends up replacing normal bacteria in a dish plate where an antibiotic is present.

But I am not sure Muslims will be the ones. Their birth control rates are in spectacular decline. Iran and Argelia are already below replacement level.


Bruce Charlton said...

@Imnobody - I think you may be the victim of a cherry-picked 'meme' of a type much beloved by PC:

These are demographic projections for Muslim absolute numbers and percentages of world population.

Having looked at the first graph, would you care to modify your earlier statement?

I think we ought to recognize that the broad trend in the world for the past century and still continuing is towards Islamic domination. This is so obvious that it takes great ingenuity to miss - the graph should start at a mere 4 percent of world population c 1900 (according to Samuel Huntington in Clash of Civilizations): from 1 in 25 people 110 years ago, to 1 in 5 now, and 1 in 4 people by the next generation.

Columnist said...

Again, a powerful statement. An honest, positive command to have children, is more effective than a dishonest, negative command not to use birth control.
Incidentally, Muslims have a positive command to become more numerous than others.

Jake Freivald said...

Many commenters above say that they have never heard a sermon preached about contraception. More's the pity. We need to hear that it's wrong so that we can act as though it's wrong, which will help us believe that it's wrong, which will help us understand why it's wrong.

Didn't St. Augustine say that we believe first and then gain understanding? I didn't know, when I got married, why contraception was a big deal. I have nine children now, and I understand better than I ever did. It's still hard to explain, but it's true: contraception is wrong. Sex has a purpose -- multiple purposes, really -- and if you want to thwart one of them, you may as well say that you want the sun to give off light but no heat.

This article is wrong-headed. Many of the responses, such as from Mr. Kalb, are much more on the mark.