Thursday 12 January 2012

Contraception, patriarchs and monks


Contraception and the Roman Catholic hierarchy

was my most commented post ever, and many of the comments were excellent.

One result has been to clarify my thoughts, as follows...


I while back I made the statement that from a Christian perspective men were - as a generalization, or 'ideal type' - supposed to be patriarchs or monks:

From the purely sexual perspective, this implies that most men are called to the sexual life within marriage; and if they are not then they are probably called to a life of monastic (institutional) celibacy.

So that men (in general) either live in their family, or else in the monastery - they do not live alone, therefore they do not practice sex outside marriage - and they do not practice celibacy outside the monastery.


In traditional societies, before about 1800 in Europe, sex within marriage led to large numbers of conceptions - maybe about ten?- of which an average of eight children died before reproducing (very approximate numbers, but the orders of magnitude are about right).

This was one of the greatest sorrows of life - the deaths of so many children, mostly from disease and starvation.


So, the usual situation in traditional societies is to have no contraception (because it hasn't been invented), unrestricted sexual activity, large numbers of children, and large rates of child mortality.

After about 1800, child mortality rates dropped a lot, so that more children survived childhood, and the population grew very quickly.

For the first time in history, it was possible - normal - for almost everybody (even the poorest) to have about ten children and probably more than half of them would survive to adulthood. This was possible because of the rising standard of living, and massive transfers of resources to poor families.

(Contra the story of communism/ socialism, the Industrial Revolution was a massively egalitarian phenomenon - the rich keeping-alive the babies of the poor in unprecedented numbers.) 

As modernity continued, contraception was invented in more versions and with greater availability, and first the upper classes, then the lower classes reduced their family size (until eventually it was less than two).


Anyway, the two basic realities of traditional society - and a society without contraception - are patriarchy with very large families for the majority, and communal celibacy for a minority.

The children of these very large families will nearly all die in traditional societies; but in post-Industrial Revolution societies all children who are born (to anyone) will be kept alive (at first by voluntary charity, nowadays by wholesale confiscation and transfer of resources).


This clarifies the argument concerning contraception.

1. Marriage is not the place for celibacy. As a general rule it is unacceptable.

2. Celibacy is not a solo lifestyle. As a general rule it is unacceptable.


3. Marriage without contraception (and without celibacy) leads to very large families.

What happens to the children?

In modern societies any unrestricted number of children who are born will be kept alive and brought-up at the expense of others - and their children, and so on.

In traditional societies, most or (for the poor) all of the children born will die of starvation, disease and neglect.


If this natural form of non-celibate marriage is pursued without regard for consequences (that is, by a system of ethics which focuses on the correct decision and ignores the consequences of that decision) then under post-industrial revolution conditions nearly all families will have (say) ten children, and these children will be sustained on welfare at the cost of the taxpayers (whether the tax payers like it or not).

(Because it is is now regarded as ethically non-negotiable in the West that all children who are born must be kept alive - and their children - by coercive extraction of resources from the community with no limit or restriction on the numbers of children and no limit or restriction on the volume of coercive resource extraction.)

Since this is obviously a road to chaos and cultural collapse it seems that the RC Church cannot (or is not) ignoring the consequences of 'natural' marriage, perhaps it finds these consequences unacceptable.


This means that Roman Catholic married couples who are required both to avoid reliable contraception and to avoid huge families are being asked to do something generally unacceptable - to combine the disparate paths of marriage and celibacy.

(And it means that many Roman Catholic secular Priests/ Parish Priests - who currently live alone and outwith monastic or other orders - are being required to live a life that, in basic human terms, is generally unacceptable.)

In other words, the ethical problems which swirl around contraception, including the arbitrary division between natural and artificial methods, are a result of compromises. 

The compromises are trying to achieve the end result of moderately sized families, when the natural result of no-contraception and a non-celibate marriage is to have very large numbers of children. 


It trying to be 'as natural as possible' and yet to avoid the consequences of very large families (the consequences either being vast child mortality rates, or - as at present - vast coercive extraction of welfare; the RC Church seems to have reached a compromise between principle and practicality - by advocating 'natural' contraception it is not following strict principles, it is not ignoring consequences. 

Neither is this teaching being strictly honest, in my opinion - because, by pretending to be based on principle,  it is not being clear about the probable consequences of these principles; and yet its teaching does take into account consequences.  

The result is itself a compromise - as is the current Roman Catholic demand for a high degree of celibacy within marriage a compromise - because it is required in order to avoid very large families and to avoid the use of artificial contraception. 

(Which is the only reliable type of contraception) . 


What will happen? On present trends, those religions who pursue principle without regard for consequences will carry the day - because (under modern conditions) these will have very large numbers of children who will all be kept alive and raised at the expense of everybody else. 

The two basic long term possibilities are unrestricted fertility and huge numbers of births or celibacy. Medium sized families require compromise of principles - and the use of contraception: and contraception is contraception - whether it is called 'natural' or artificial it is still contraception, because there is nothing 'natural' about contraception. 



PhilR said...

Pope John Paul II did have a principled stand against *any* form of 'contraceptive mentality' which clearly included natural methods. I can't find the particulars right now but he inveiged againt it more than once.

Bruce Charlton said...

@PhilR - Did JPII make explicit what the consequences would be?

Especially in an era of 'consequentialist' ethics it is necessary to be clear about the consequences - vast families on welfare (until the system collapses). Or was he expecting people to partly-limit their family size by celibacy?

I respect people who stick to principle and state and accept the consequences - but I do not respect it when there is an attempt to ignore or finesse-away the consequences.

PhilR said...

@ Bruce.
On the level of the individual couple and their duty to discern accurately I think JP2 did make things explicit. At the broader political and demographic level that you are discussing I'm not so sure. The discussion linked has relevant (but not precisely apposite) material.

Penda said...

Statement #2 is quite bold, unless I am reading it more broadly than you intend. A move towards more communal living among priests might be good (oratories or communities with a rule for parish priests to live in are already not infrequent in my area). But you seem to be saying something far stronger, which immediately brushes up against my personal experience of the near universal cynicism of my Russian acquaintances towards their priests, who view them as corrupt - which seems to go back centuries. So without support it isn't quite convincing. Do you intend to support it in another post?

Penda said...

Additionally the last section of this post relies on the assumption that avoiding sex/temporary abstinence and contraceptive sex are equivalent - was this argued in the comments to the other post? I couldn't find it there.

I agree that most in the Catholic hierarchy or the lay establishment are unwilling to face facts- there's a constant repetition of being "open to God's plan," which I find too mystic and irrational, compared to the rational, pragmatic Orthodox practice. 'God's plan' isn't that interesting, it's an average of seven successful pregnancies per woman in a modern setting by the last statistic I've seen. But I find the idea that the Church must start getting out the message that you can now use contraception but you should now also aim for 1-2 more children than secularists hopelessly muddled. I don't mean this to be offensive, but it reeks of the worst atheist stereotypes of religion as a parasitic meme.

Anonymous said...

he consequences - vast families on welfare (until the system collapses) AND THEN PEOPLE DIES OF STARVATION.

Fixed for you.

Let's imagine the principle stated by PhilR about being against "contraceptive mentality", whether natural or artificial.

Let's suppose the birthrate is 7 by woman without contraception (in Niger is about that). Let's imagine average life's expectancy is 80 and there is only marriage (I hate to call it "traditional marriage" because it is the only form of marriage). I make some simplifications to ease the calculations (all children are born at the same time, all people dies at the same time).

World population in 2010, 7 billion.

World population in 2090, 24.5 billion.

World population in 2170, 85.75 billion.

World population in 2300, 1.050 TRILLION

World population in 2540, 45 trillion

World population in 2780, 1.65 QUATRILLION

World population in 3040, 70.80 QUATRILLION

In only one millennium (half the time since Our Lord came to Earth), we have reached 70.80 quatrillion. That is, for each human being living today, there will be TEN MILLION people (and if we take one thousand years more things get even worse).

Let's get real. This is not sustainable.

You can adjust population through birth (contraception and/or celibacy) and/or through death (starvation and/or disease).

The first way is practiced by modern societies, the second way is practiced by traditional societies.

But you can't eat your cake and have it too.

If you are consequent to the principle stated by PhilR, you have to be aware that you are condemning to death to trillions of people.

I am not the one to judge if this is right or wrong. But you cannot sweep the consequences under the rug. This is dishonest.


Christian said...

I think the correct term is "chastity" and not "celibacy", since married couples are not celibated but are nonetheless called to respect chastity. AFAIK, the catholic answer to your question is: don't have sex with your spouse if you don't have the means to raise many children. All baptized are called to chastity (Cathechism of the Catholic Church 2348). I understand this is not very satisfactory if you're trying to find a way to have a lot of sex with your spouse. But for a Catholic, there is no such way.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Penda - I support the traditional Catholic position that priests ought to be married (when they become priests) or be monks - I disapprove of the Roman innovation of celibate/ non-monk priests!

Yes, I have heard it said that Orthodox priests are more 'corrupt' than RC (e.g. nepotistic) - but they have resisted modernizing innovations better, and anyway the monks (and hieromonk Bishops) usually provide the Orthodox spiritual leadership and teaching.

My plea, in this post, is for realism about consequences. No contraception, on the traditional model = massive child mortality OR massive welfare transfers (or a mixture of the two)


@Imnobody - I'm not sure of your point here - or what you are arguing against.

@Christian - The point I was trying to get across is that the call for universal chastity (on a big scale, for many years) *within marriage* in order to limit fertility is something *new* - in the past people just had the sex, had the babies, and the babies (mostly) died. (And the mothers died too fairly often).

Gabe Ruth said...

First, there's an inconsistency in your argument. If natural contraception is as unreliable as you think, then it doesn't seem to stray too far from the patriarchal ideal after all.

The difficult thing for a modern is distinguishing honest concern for the welfare of your children from selfishness and a desire for comfort when deciding family size. Your criticism of periodic celibacy in marriage is a little short sighted. And your disagreement with the celibate priesthood is not a little presumptuous.

Am I correct in understanding your position as: Christians should have large families, but if survival becomes a concern they should limit family size by any effective means that doesn't impose celibacy?

Craig said...

Do you have a citation for your pre-modern demographics? 80% child mortality is considerably higher than anything else I've heard.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GR - I dont want to repeat myself; but I am merely trying, here, to set out the issues.

In general, I regard celibacy as an ascetic practice (like fasting, vigils etc) which should therefore properly be done under monastic supervision, discipline etc.

Just as monks are only allowed to become solitary hermits after a period of training under supervision, and the gradual and incremental development of the powers of self-discipline, the same should apply to lifelong celibacy.

Because celibacy is spiritually dangerous - it strongly tends (like other advanced spiritual practices) to produce spiritual pride; which is why it ought to be practised only under supervision and discipline until a person is 'ready' to go it alone and resist the temptations of pride - and this takes (apparently) something of the order of ten to twenty years of monastic training.

Therefore it is spiritually *safer* to have mostly married priests administering the sacraments, led by an trained elite of monk-Bishops.

(The Protestant solution is even 'safer' since there are no monks - nobody i.e. trying to become a Saint by ascetical disciplines. But that has its own probems, since the world then lacks the guidance of Saints.)

(It should be understood that in this I am merely 'parroting' what I have gathered/ understand concerning the Eastern Orthodox tradition - I am at so feeble a spiritual level that my personal understandings are not worth mentioning.)

Gabe Ruth said...

Penda, what is the rational, pragmatic practice of the Orthodox church? I haven't seen it discussed yet.

I also have to say, having children at the traditional rate, but depending on the (anti-traditional) welfare state for their survival is absurd for someone who expects that state to collapse any day now.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Craig - No specific citation. Hunter gatherers have about 4-6 children - but there is also usually a lot of infanticide. Agricultural societies have more (depending on average age of marriage).

Some agricultural societies have fertility rates of nearly ten - New England in the 18th century, modern ultra Orthodox Jews, Amish.

Presumably there are also late pregnancy losses, early child deaths happening which are not counted in these stats.

Another way to think of it, is that women have about 20-25 years of fertility. Sex during this time is usually 'continuous' - so fertility depends on spacing. When women are living on hunter gatherer diets (low fat, no concentrated calories - very lean physique) the pregancies space-out by three-four years; but when the women are well-nourished they can have more than one child per year when they are young, declining with age - but easily a child every two years.

The natural fertility level is constrained essentially by the level of nutrition. Roughly ten percent of women are probably 'barren' due to illness or something of that kind.

Anonymous said...


My point is that a principled stand against any (natural or artificial) form of contraceptive mentality (the way PhilR said Pope John Paul II had - but I am not sure) means the death of billions of people. You can't fight Maths.

This fact is overlooked and sugarcoated by a beautiful prose calling about "life is sacred", "don't put limits to life" and so on and so forth.

Like you, "I respect people who stick to principle and state and accept the consequences". I don't respect people who praise the principle while not acknowledging the consequences.


Anonymous said...

My point was also that the massive welfare transfers are not sustainable so, at the end of the day, it boils down to the death of millions of people.

I was arguing against a radical pro-natalist position, which is not the official doctrine of the Catholic Church.


Christian said...

The consequence of the teachings of the Catholic Church is not "the death of billions of people". The Church calls for chastity even for the married couples. In the past, people could ignore the importance of chastity and get away with it. Now, the consequences of this sinful conduct are more obvious. It makes no sense for a Catholic to speculate about the number of children a couple will "naturally" have. If the situation calls for big families, it's a good thing to have many children. If the situation changes, there's nothing wrong to live with your spouse as brother and sister.

Penda said...

@GR, I was being tongue-in-cheek (and evidently failed). It seems to me to be something on which the usual assumptions of Eastern mysticism/tradition v. Western pragmatism are just about completely on their head. That is the Western teaching is stick-in-the-mud traditional and tells us to accept however many children sex produces, and the Eastern approach is more utilitarian and comfortable with modern technologies and norms. I shouldn't have written 'rational.' I am Catholic and agree with you that we can't have our cake and eat it too (uncontracepted huge families and the first world economy/welfare state). Though the Catholic media and apologists seem to imply that.

@Charlton, funny. I think you are minimizing the negatives though. I don't think it's unrelated to the fact that the vast majority of laity in Russia (the peasantry, often identified as the naturally devout class) didn't lift much of a finger when the revolution came. This was pretty fatal, esp. in comparison to Spain. I'll probably regret bringing in history. But it's something I understand intuitively; as a convert without an ounce of mystic sense in me, I have to make do with my reason and visible signs. The celibate priesthood just makes a lot more sense than the alternative in the real world. It's pretty obviously otherworldly, speaking radically simply.

GFC said...

Gabe Ruth - "Penda, what is the rational, pragmatic practice of the Orthodox church? I haven't seen it discussed yet."

I asked that in the last discussion and no one answered it.

Just did a little Googling and came up with this from a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church of America...

... which, once it gets its misstatement of the Catholic view of marriage out of the way, goes on to basically state a position nearly identical to the Catholic position: artificial birth control is illicit. It's an excellent piece, not sure how authoritative it is though since I am not an Orthodox.

As a Christian, you are expected to curb your sexual appetite, just as you are expected to curb your other appetites, like for food, alcoholic drinks and so forth. It's a discipline and certainly a tough one, but one that is expected of Christians. And it is achievable, certainly. Askesis, which is for all the faithful not just religious and clergy, has been almost wholly missing from this discussion.

One gets the sense that for many modern Christians, sexuality gets put in an exempted category because it's too hard to treat it as we treat other drives in our sex-drenched society. In any case, I am not convinced of the spiritual benefit of wild speculation in population dynamics as a substitute for personal Christian discipline with regard to sex.

tenkev said...

The solution to the apparent dilemma is obvious and already happening. People are getting married later and later in life. A woman's fertility period only lasts so long. Ten kids is only possible if you getting married very young or if you are unusually fertile.

A woman getting married in her late 20s is not going to be able to have that many kids even if she does not practice contraception.

tenkev said...

Just to follow up on my previous point. In America the average age at first marriage for women is 26.5 for women. In Niger it is 17.6. So if the average woman in Niger has 7 kids without contraception (as a previous poster has stated) then how many fewer children would a woman have who gets married at 26.5? I'd say a woman who gets married at that age is only likely to have 3 or 4 kids before they become infertile.

This is not to mention the fact that in a truly Christian society a large portion of the population would live celibate lives as nuns, priests, monks, consecrated virgins, etc.

Penda said...

GFC makes a very good point here. Askesis is an important part of the discussion, and the answer.

buckyinky said...

Dr. Charlton is addressing the consequences at the macro level. It seems relevant then to ask the question, what percentage of families who are living on the state's dime because their families are too large for self-sustaining, are doing so as the result of their decision to follow the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception? The assumption seems to be made that everyone in the world is a faithful, practicing Catholic, and the greatest motivation behind the large number of children who are required to live by the welfare state is the desire to be faithful to Catholic teaching.

This is clearly not the case, however. Most cases of individuals on welfare involve a violation of clear and basic Catholic teaching, whether it be adultery, general fornication, disregard of the virtue of charity, etc. The large numbers of children living on welfare are not the result of their parents' desire to live faithfully by the Catholic guidelines on contraception, but are in fact not infrequently the result of an individual's desire to milk more money from the state.

We have yet to see anything close to a society that purposely and consciously submits itself to the Catholic teaching on contraception while also submitting itself to other fundamental Catholic teachings such as love of both God and neighbor and conscious resignation to God's will. To speculate on the consequences of a society's living in accordance with this one matter of Church teaching without also considering the other teachings is to leave out very important factors which would most certainly have a huge bearing on the consequences.

Bruce Charlton said...

I am worried that this comment fest is getting too bad tempered and nasty in a way that is promoting inter-denominational Christian dissent - which I certainly don't want to do.

I shall probably be deleting some comments soon.

On the whole, I regret having raised this question and shall probably not do so again - or else I shall keep comments closed.

GFC said...

Prof. Charlton,

I apologize for any swipes at the Orthodox. I take solace only in at least having learned some on the Orthodox position (which I think is sensible) as a result. It wasn't my intention to insult, though obviously that is what happened!

Mea Culpa!

(no need to publish this if you don't want to, I can't email you from here so this will do as a note)

buckyinky said...

I've enjoyed the discussion on this matter but appreciate Dr. Charlton's desire not to kindle needless animosity between Christians. Reviewing my latest comment, I think my tone was terse when I should probably have considered my choice of words a little better. While the questions I raise are sincere, I didn't intend to be combative and apologize for how I phrased my comment.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for the above comments - but of course I am responsible for what gets posted on this blog and I started the whole conversation!

It is a tricky business to retain Christian unity yet try to navigate a path within the denominations.

Clearly most devout people are strong advocates of their specific denomination; I am not like that myself, I don't think, partly because the effect of schism was to diminish all churches but also spread the good stuff across several churches - and partly because it is a long time since Anglicans have felt that their church had an essence which could be defended (not since the Book of Common Prayer ceased to be the unifying feature).

Most orthodox Anglicans spend most of their time attacking their church hierarchy and its teaching! - and we fully expect the whole thing to collapse at any moment (if indeed this has not already happened).

Thursday said...

I thought I would summarize

1. People refrain from sex entirely or until they are too old to have many children or after they have a certain number of children.

OBJECTION: Telling people to not have sex while young will not, in general, work.
SUMMARY: This is so unlikely to succeed that it is not a serious option.

2. People have sex but with no contraception.

OBJECTION: Too many children will be born and will have to die.
SUMMARY: The result of this is repugnant.

2. People use natural family planning.

OBJECTION: It is unreliable.
COUNTEROBJECTION: If used rigorously it is reliable enough it will only result in a few extra pregnancies.
OBJECTION: To work properly, it requires levels of discipline and intelligence greater than are available in the greater population.
OBJECTION: The differences between natural family planning and artificial contraception are not clear.
SUMMARY: The result of this will not likely be much different than Number 2.

3. People have sex, but use contraception.

OBJECTION: This violates the function of the act.
COUNTEROBJECTION: The difference between this and natural family planning is not clear.
OBJECTION: This causes society not to not reproduce.
Natural family planning does so as well, with possibly an even worse differential between the more and the less intelligent.
OBJECTION: This encourages a sexual free for all and such other bad things as widespread abortion.
COUNTEROBJECTION: The other options are either impractical or have even more repugnant consequences.


It does seem like we are in a pickle. I myself would say that contraception is the least bad option, but I won't insist on the point here.

Gabe Ruth said...

Well that's big of you. It's a pretty good summary though.

tenkev said...

If you believe that a devout and wealthy society is impossible, as Thursday has claimed, then the purported consequences would be a good thing. No?

Also, it seems everyone is taking for granted a main plank in this argument that has not been demonstrated to be true: that higher population will inevitably bring us back into a Malthusian trap type economy. This is a very common idea; but, that does not mean it is true. The fact that the original escape from Malthus's trap happened before contraception, abortion, and late marriage became common would seem to be one data point against it. If we were able to escape the Malthusian trap during eras of high population growth and growth (both population and income per capita) continued to increase during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, why must it be true that continued (or renewed) population growth will bring widespread starvation?

Julian Simon's ideas about this have not been refuted. He did win the wager with Paul Ehrlich. As Simon put it, human beings are the ultimate resource and there is no reason to suspect that technological improvements would not continue to outpace population growth.

tenkev said...

Also, this quote Matthew chapter 6 seems to be applicable to this discussion.

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, whay you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. ARe not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. The do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, "What are we to eat?" or "What are we to drink?" or "What are we to wear?" All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.

JP said...

Because it is is now regarded as ethically non-negotiable in the West that all children who are born must be kept alive - and their children - by coercive extraction of resources from the community with no limit or restriction on the numbers of children and no limit or restriction on the volume of coercive resource extraction.)

Since this is obviously a road to chaos and cultural collapse it seems that the RC Church cannot (or is not) ignoring the consequences of 'natural' marriage, perhaps it finds these consequences unacceptable.

It is not clear to me that the RCC opposes unlimited coercive resource extraction, and therefore they are fine with the consequences of 'natural' marriage.

Thursday said...

Julian Simon's ideas about this have not been refuted.

I find it extremely interesting that supposed traditionalists would invoke the work a techno-utopian as an authority. Not that he is necessarily wrong, but he's not necessarily right either. All I can say is that Malthus will inevitably be right at some point.

Columnist said...

There is another tension within Christian morality. The tension between Chastity and Love.

Christianity commands having a large family, but forbids wars of conquest. This explains the confusion of the Western Civilization; constantly following a cycle of expansion and guilt. Christianity is inherently unstable.

Christian monogamy means that conquered people are wiped out. Not only men, but also women and children are killed.

So basically all pathologies of the West, both the atrocities AND the guilt about it, are inherited from Christianity.

Islam is at least consistent, although eventually it will turn on itself.

Or are Traditional Christians honest and see the conquest and forced conversion of e.g. South America as a good thing?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Columnist - strange set of ideas. Presumably this comes from some kind of tradition or source?

Columnist said...

I was raised in the Vatican II Church, and then researched other religions.