Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Contraception first in a series

Below I am posting an editorial by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon. “The Roots of Roe v. Wade” first appeared in the January/February, 2003 issue of Touchstone.

Over the next few days I will post more on the issue of contraception, and the particular problem we have inherited from the modern corrupt version of Anglicanism, that version we need to repudiate in favor of the real thing. Contraception is one area where we need to ask ourselves, what are we Continuing? This is especially so, inasmuch as any justification for approval of contraception that anyone may think to put forth, cannot be drawn from Scripture and the Tradition of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
-Fr. Robert Hart

The Roots of Roe v. Wade

Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon

During this month, as in every January for the past thirty years, those Americans left with even the meanest vestige of moral instinct will reflect with disgust on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade. Some of these citizens will also comment, as they should, that that 1973 judicial determination was an affront to humanity, a legal travesty, a distortion of the Constitution surpassing in sheer injustice even the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Some, recalling that the Dred Scott ruling itself set the stage for the Civil War, may wonder—if it was true in yesteryear that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”—whether some yet worse retribution will be exacted of our country by a righteous God righteously stirred at the murder of unborn children in their millions. And wonder they should. Still others, more stalwart of heart, will fortify their resolve to toil for the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, whether by constitutional amendment or by wise judicial appointments to restore the Court’s good sense and moral integrity. All such things will sane Americans think, of course, for these are still the right responses to the most extreme miscarriage of justice ever perpetrated by any court in this nation.

It is not to slight the propriety of any of those responses, therefore, that we declare Roe v. Wade to be more a symptom of our crisis than its cause. It appears to us, as it does to William B. Wichterman in a recent essay (“The Culture: ‘Upstream’ from Politics,” in Don Eberly, ed., Building a Healthy Culture), that “the Court was simply joining the cultural revolution already well underway.” Indeed, it is very arguable that Roe v. Wade did rather little to increase the number of legal abortions in this country. Wichtermann himself contends that “the abortion rate probably would have climbed to at least one million per year even without Roe, and more likely higher still.”

By January of 1973, what now goes by the abhorrent euphemism “reproductive freedom” was already a movement robustly on the march, as Gerald N. Rosenberg demonstrated in the study he published eighteen years later, The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring About Social Change? When various state legislatures began removing statutory restrictions against abortion toward the end of the sixties, the frequency of the procedure jumped dramatically. Between 1968 and 1973, eighteen states had loosened their anti-abortion laws. In the large states of New York and California there was almost unlimited legal access to abortion chambers, and over a half-million legal abortions were performed in this country during the twelve months preceding the Supreme Court’s ruling. Indeed, before the first line of Roe was composed, 70 percent of all American citizens lived within two hours’ drive of a state where abortions were legal. The pro-choice lobby was definitely in the ascendant, and, according to a Gallup poll published just seven months before Roe, 64 percent of Americans believed that abortion was a matter to be decided entirely by a woman and her physician. Alas, some of us pro-lifers can still remember that it was ourselves, back in those days, not the pro-choice folks, who were counting on vindication by the Supreme Court.

We are not convinced, therefore, that a judicial reversal of Roe v. Wade, though it remains a favor much to be craved, would necessarily diminish the number of legal abortions performed in this country. More likely, such a development would simply shift the pertinent political agitation back to the state legislatures, where, we suspect, the pro-life cause would lose more battles than its proponents contemplate. Law and politics, we contend, lie downstream from culture, and the current cultural state of our nation, particularly with respect to abortion, seems to us not one whit better than it was during the years leading up to 1973. Between 1967 and 1972, a large number of major national groups and alliances passed various resolutions and endorsements to repeal all legal restrictions on abortion. Among those groups were 21 medical organizations and 28 religious bodies, including the YMCA. The political activities of those organizations were mainly directed, not at the Supreme Court, but at state legislatures, where they won more battles than they lost. There is every reason to believe that this would be the case once again if Roe were overturned.

Politics and law, we said, lie downstream from culture. Therefore, the real and deeper dilemma, the dilemma arguably as disturbing as abortion itself, is cultural. Our current culture, to say it plainly, has largely stopped thinking of children as gifts from God and firstfruits of the future. The dominant mentality today is manifestly what Irving Babbitt (if memory serves) called “presentism.” It is concentrated almost overwhelmingly on the present because men right now are living increasingly without hope, and they are living without hope because they are not providing for the future. Their cultural despondency is, in this sense, justified. Our culture, compulsively and even morbidly preoccupied with the here-and-now, is deliberately moribund, depriving itself of anything to look forward to. This truth is lucidly indicated by the disastrously low birthrates in this country (and in the West generally).

We submit, therefore, that children are now being aborted in the flesh, because they have already been, in large measure, aborted from the mind. We deprive unborn infants of a future because they are inconveniences intruding on our chosen pursuits in the present. Why should we let those infants live, after all, if they are but the by-products of sexual activity, rather than the properly intended purpose of that activity? In short, our current cultural crisis has to do with sex regarded in terms of present “fulfillment” rather than in terms of future family. The progressive severance of sex from the proper structures and duties of family is, moreover, a concern that most religious bodies in this nation have hardly begun to address at a deep level.

The most obvious manifestation of this severance, of course, is homosexuality. We are content here, however, merely to mention that the matter is obvious; we are not disposed to argue much with those who disagree. Indeed, some of us hardly know where to begin a serious moral conversation with individuals incapable of distinguishing between sexual organs and . . . well, other parts of the body.

Another manifestation of the current severance of sexuality from family, we believe, is recourse to artificial contraception. The pill, the patch, and the condom have become—once again to cite Wichtermann—our culture’s “first defense against childbirth,” abortion serving only as a socially distasteful back-up. Pregnancy is now widely regarded as something that married couples are expected to prevent until they, not God, decide that they are ready to have children. Husbands and wives are expected to control, that is, not their sexual behavior, but their incidence of pregnancy. Man, not God, is thereby authorized to decide when and how the creation of human beings takes place. It is no small indication of our cultural decline that we now speak, not of procreation, but of reproduction.

This utterly rebellious attitude, the “contraceptive mentality,” is surely a serious moral failing characteristic of the present culture. The relationship of this “contraceptive culture” to abortion itself lies much deeper than a first comparison of the two things might suggest, nor is there any logic, we think, in opposing the terrible sin of abortion while in other respects promoting the selfishness and materialism that give rise to it.

An illustration of the subterranean tunnel joining the ethics of abortion and contraception was provided in the events leading up to Roe v. Wade. It appears obvious to us that the public support for abortion that led to the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973 was not unrelated to the public rage and outcry that greeted the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. When Pope Paul VI asserted that the primary and formal purpose of human sexual intercourse is the conception of children and, thus, the assembling of a family, he said no more about artificial contraception than the Bible and traditional Christian doctrine would oblige any Christian pastor to say—namely, that a serious moral flaw adheres to any sexual act that is deliberately closed off to God’s using that act for the creation of a human being. It is our persuasion that if Americans were to take seriously the traditional Christian perspective contained in Humanae Vitae, Roe v. Wade would disappear very quickly.

It is our hope, then, that this thirtieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling will be the occasion not only for lamenting the ongoing political climate that permits that odious dictum yet to stand, but also for pondering more deeply the grace and mystery of human sexuality itself, especially the manifest purpose for which God gave it to us. We all know there is a tribunal far higher than our Supreme Court. It is important to recall, in addition, that we too will gather before it, to render an account of our stewardship. The present growing separation of sexuality from the formation of family, we suggest, raises some serious questions about that stewardship.


Brian G. said...

I look forward to Father Hart's pieces on contraception; I am sure they will be characteristicslly insightful. I hope that the issue of "natural family planning," so beloved by RCs in recent decades, will be addressed. I have yet to see how this is morally different from condom use; some Natural Law argument or other is always trotted out, requiring acceptance of a non-scriptural philosophy to make the case. I don't buy it anymore than the substance and accidents explanation of transubstantiation.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Non-conception and contraception are not the same, anymore than contradiction is the same as not speaking. The "safe period" or "rhythm" at least makes use of the natural system that is part of conception. Nonetheless, when the intention is to prevent the conception of children, it becomes a method of birth "control." And, that is often simply an attempt to live by the idea that babies are the enemy of all good, rather than a blessing.

welshmann said...

Fr. Hart:

It took me a while to compose my post off-line. I did not have the benefit of your subsequent response to the first post. In retrospect, my post may seem like a dismissive response to your response. Definitely unintentional, but
a re-write would have the same potential problem...so here goes......

I come from a Baptist/free church background. When I started poking around the edges of the catholic faith, I really couldn't imagine that I could ever believe in things like Baptismal Regeneration, Real Presence, or Eucharistic Sacrifice...and yet here I am. So with that small history in mind, I should say that I am probably like millions of other “traditional” Christian people who roundly condemn fornication, homosexuality, and abortion, but draw the line at condemning contraception in marriage. That being said, folks like you have persuaded me concerning the Sacraments, so I have to admit to myself the distinct possibility that you are right about contraception as well. I hope your subsequent posts on the subject of contraception will address the following lines of reasoning offered in support of its (supposed) licitness.

Argument #1
“The catholic who opposes contraception on the theory that every sexual act must be open to life is like the backwoods fundamentalist who opposes medical science on the theory that our mortality—including disease and suffering—is God's righteous judgment on our fallen condition, and therefore not to be opposed. What they both miss is the fact that God gave us brains. We know how to prevent pregnancy, and under some circumstances, we should do so, because we can. Pregnancy, like old age, is not a disease, but like old age, pregnancy is the occasion for much disease, suffering, and death. In order to be truly open to life, we should use the God-given gift of medical science to control them both.”

Argument #2
“The rationale against contraception—that procreation is the primary purpose of sex, and therefore having sex while deliberately seeking to avoid conception is inherently irrational and therefore immoral—can be used to condemn sex for anyone who is incapable of conception, such as post-menopausal women, people who are sterile due to disease, even women who are morally certain that they are not currently ovulating. Opponents of so-called 'artificial' contraception who advocate the rhythm method are simply dishonest. They try to distinguish between 'intentional' and 'unintentional' contraception because they refuse to admit the harshness of their own position. If we were analyzing any other moral issue, we would immediately recognize that if X is inherently wrong, then it is wrong to intend X; and if it is wrong to intend X, then it is wrong to intentionally benefit from X, even if we did not intentionally cause X. In modern-speak, the rhythm method is just passive-aggressive birth control. The only consistent anti-contraception position is to oppose sex under any circumstunances unless the partners are morally certain that conception is at least possible. Even catholics will not go that far—because they cannot live up to their own harsh position.”

May God bless your continued ministry.


Fr. Robert Hart said...


Part of what we teach is in the Creed: "I believe One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church..." i.e. the Church with her authority, called also Tradition. At what point in history do any members of the Church first advocate contraception, and on what basis do they single this out, among all of the things that the Church held with a common mind from antiquity, for rejection?

And, is not the desire to control conception due most often to lack of faith that God will provide?

2. The argument concerning those who cannot any longer conceive runs up against biblical precedents, especially Abraham and Sarah, and Zecharias and Elizabeth. Not that God is likely to reproduce miracles like the conceptions of Isaac and John the Baptist; but rather, that the deliberate choice not to conceive is not the same thing. With the examples of these elderly parents in scripture, the place for good conscience is given to marital relations well past the normal age of child bearing.

welshmann said...

Fr. Hart:

You probably know that at one time, Protestants were as likely to disapprove of ABC as their Roman neighbors. I think you are quite right that the birth control culture is fundamentally unbiblical, so I am no champion of ABC. And, as a mere wannabie catholic, I still butt heads with the historic church on a regular basis.

It is easier for me to understand the historic disapproval of ABC as a prohibition on sodomitic practices in general, as opposed to a prohibition that depends upon a presumed sinful state of mind. The arguments from the specific ("Birth control is often indicative of fundamental lack of faith") to the general ("Birth control is always indicative of a fundamental lack of faith and is therefore always sinful") are less persuasive.


Sandra McColl said...

birth control . . . birth control . . . birth control . . . Hmmmmmm. It's all about control. We want to control everything: exactly how many children we have, or don't have, and when; when and how we die; the weather, the economy, how other people behave. I've got it: modern man wants to control everything and everyone except that one thing which he actually has the capacity to control: himself.

Bruce said...

Many traditional Churches seem to be contracepting themselves into old age and eventual extinction. I don't know about your Church, but mine has the demographics of a nursing home. In a decade, most of our members will be dead.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Sandra McColl wrote:

I've got it: modern man wants to control everything and everyone except that one thing which he actually has the capacity to control: himself.

That's hitting the nail on the head, and as we say here in America, that's hitting one out of the park. Modern man feels bound to resist anything, except temptation, and to rise to anything, but an occasion.

welshmann said...

To all:

My own fundamentalist parents would not talk openly about ABC, except to say this: it is not 100% reliable, so if you absolutely, positively must not conceive (e.g., the doctors say mom will die if she carries a baby to term), don't have sex, period. And if you do have sex, and do use ABC, and you conceive anyway, well then, accept the child as a gift from God and do your best to honor your obligations to that child.

I'll try to discipline myself to respond to Fr. Hart's fair question: when has the church en masse singled out an exception to its general prohibition on ABC? Answer, to my knowledge, never. So ultimatley, from what I've learned about what it is to be a catholic, I will concede that if the church has in fact consistently, universally, condemned this practice, the great likelihood is that the church is right, and I am wrong.

My question then, is whether the modern question of ABC has ever been put to the historic church in a fair way? And if so, have we always heeded the church's answers in the same way?

Has the church historically condemned usery? Surely, she has. Yet who among us doesn't have a credit card or a mortgage? What would the prophets, apostles, and fathers say about the modern corporation, or liability insurance, with their schemes to avoid personal responsibility for egregious wrong? Would they approve? Christians, even whole Christian churches, sue other Christians with abandon; yet the Apostle Paul told us that we should rather sustain the loss than air our dirty laundry before pagan courts. Modern American courts are explicitly atheistic, so there can be no appeal to the English system, where the judge and jury were all presumably baptized Christians.

I anticipate that if anyone comments, they will point out that two wrongs don't make a right, so pointing out the moral failings of the modern Christian community won't justify something that is inherently wicked. I agree.

Again, I say in good faith, I concede that it is distinctly possible that it is I, in my ignorance, who is wagging his finger in the face of the great sages of the faith; in which case, I am truly making a fool of myself. So please, do not take my comments as a retort, or even as debate. You folks have persuaded me before; you may do so again. Pray for me. But I hope as Fr. Hart and others continue to post, you will speak to some of these reservations. I have to think that others besides me are interested in what you--and the larger catholic church--have to say on the matter.


Diane said...

I haven't stopped in for a while and hate to get everyone riled up again, but clearly there is some confusion here.

1. Women can only conceive ONE day out of every 28 days. That fact alone has to show ya'll that God didn't intend for us to have an unmanageable number of children.
2. Avoiding pregnancy while engaging in the marital embrace IS acceptable...and the proof is that God gave us a built-in way to achieve this end...women are both fertile and infertile over the course of 28 days.

Couples just need to make sure that they have serious,non-materialistic and unselfish reasons for avoiding pregnancy, otherwise they sin.

3. Some ask, what's the difference between contracepting and natural family planning? The end result is the same...no conception. I say, there is a BIG difference. Just like someone stealing to provide for their family or someone working to provide for their family...same result, different means.
Contracepting thwarts God's design of our bodies. NFP works with God's design of our bodies. NFP requires communication between husband and wife ('honey, I'm ovulating') and more importantly, it requires sexual restraint. We are all better off by practicing sexual restraint. That's why couples who practice NFP experience less adultery, divorce, etc.
4. Condoms stop a woman from receiving ALL of her husband, specifically, his seed.
5. People who abhor abortion but support contraception within marriage are speaking out of both sides of their mouth. Contraception is the door to abortion. Abortion finishes off what contraception starts. Contraception legitimizes the notion that sex can be completely divorced from possible procreation, thus making it about pleasure only.
Contraception takes away the concern of conceiving a child, which makes sex easier to have and more carefree. This, in turn, makes sex more common and casual, which drives up promiscuity. So, when people want to reduce sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy or abortion by throwing contraception at these problems, they will find that it only drives up care-free sexual activity which makes everything worse.
6. God knew what he was doing when he put the pleasure of marital relations together with the possibility of procreation...we separate the 2 functions from each other (permanently, with contraception) to our detriment. The chance of conception was a check against unbridled sexual activity.

welshmann said...

To all:

Diane's points are well taken, but they could also be adapted to support ABC, i.e., like any other kind of artificial medical device, it is morally licit when it is used to restore the natural state originally intended by God. Hormone therapy is morally licit when used to restore gender-specific traits or functions that have been lost due to disease or injury. Hormone therapy to bring about so-called “gender reassignment” is not licit. Conservative use of drugs or surgery to effect healing in general is likewise licit when less invasive methods are insufficient; drug abuse and unnecessary surgery are sinful. So to hijack Diane's argument, since God made it possible for women to have sex even when they cannot get pregnant, it might be permissible to use ABC to duplicate a woman's naturally infertile state in a fallen world in which that natural state is sometimes obscured.

Of course, a strict anti-contraceptionist could maintain that the mere fact that we can have sex when conception is impossible does not, of itself, prove that God approves of sex under those circumstances. Simply put, just because we can doesn't prove that we should, or that God approves.

Coming from a legalistic-fundamentalist background, I am a little wary of any argument that sounds like “Chewing gum could lead to dancing.” Likewise, “If God had meant for whites and blacks to mix, He would have made them the same color.” Some of what I'm hearing sounds like, “ABC allows people to fornicate without natural consequences, so ABC is wrong.” It just seems like sloppy logic, whereas catholic apologetics otherwise are carefully reasoned.

Of course, that knife cuts both ways. Just because we can use ABC does't prove that we should. But neither can it be said that ABC is always a sin just because the modern atheistic culture of death touts it as a sacrament. I just don't think that we can discern what ought to be from what is.

Temperance does not mean teetotalism; it means moderation. So I am left with my question: should the Christian response to ABC be temperance, or teetotalism?


Bruce said...

On point 2 yes, God didn't make the time at which a woman can conceive random but He did build a fair amount of uncertainty into it. A nursing mother's fertility is an example of this.

Bruce said...

Also, if we're arguing from design, couldn't points 1 and 2 be countered by the observation that God made men want to "make a baby" with their wives every day including the ONE day whether or not you know which day it is?

welshmann said...

To all:

Let me backtrack a bit. Part of the difficulty I have in embracing what others here put forth as the catholic teaching may stem from a failure on my part to define my terms carefully.

Fr. Hart made the observation that non-conception is licit, but contraception is not--perhaps in response to my devil's advocate observation that actions taken in contemplation of non-conception are just dishonest efforts at contraception. If I've understood Fr. Hart, non-conception would be analogous to allowing a terminally ill person to die without invoking useless and perhaps painful heroic medical measures to prevent death; contraception would be analogous to physician-assisted suicide. If the analogy is apt, then I think I've understood Fr. Hart, and I no longer have a substantive issue with the moral distinction between non-conception and contraception.

If I've understood the difference between non-and-con, and if I take as proven that the historic church has always taught that contraception is always sodomitic and therefore always forbidden, we are left with non-conception as a morally licit means of family planning.

What if non-conception techniques are used with contraceptive intent? For example, I assume that a married couple who systematically used NFP to avoid conception entirely throughout their marriage would fall under the church's disapproval as much as the "liberal" couple who makes a "morally informed" choice to use condoms or the Pill. Yes?

Having admitted that I've failed to define my terms carefuly, let me re-define ABC, i.e., artificial birth control. First of all, I was operating under the assumption that the morally objectionable part of ABC is its artificiality. Artificiality as such, though, does not appear to be the problem. Further, the issue is not "birth control" but contraception or "conception prevention". So I have to change my term from ABC to ACP.

But surely, that gets us back to my original question about ACP. Assuming I've understood the difference between non-and-con, and assuming that artificiality is not the moral problem, and further assuming that even non-conception techniques can be used in a sinful way, is it still possible that artificial techniques like condoms(other than abortofacients) can be used as non-conception techniques?

Some of what I've read here suggests that NFP is morally licit precisely because there is at least the possibility of conception. That is, NFP is okay because it doesn't work very well, but ACP is not okay, because it does work? That doesn't seem very logical, or for that matter honest.

The only consistent teaching I can imagine thus far is that married people have an obligation to produce children, if they can; chosen, absolute childlessness in marriage is illicit. Any activity designed to join sexuality with knowingly chosen absolute childlessness is illicit. But to me, that still leaves the possibilty that ACP could be used to mimic a couple's naturally occuring infertile state in a reliable way, and if used to time conception, as opposed to prevent conception altogether, would still be licit.

Of course, you might make the argument that artificiality itself presupposes "con" and not mere "non". But that sounds very much like our fundamentalist friend who rejects artificial restorative measures altogether, precisely because they are artificial.


Fr. Robert Hart said...

The intention never to have children could make a marriage altogether invalid (bringing us back to last week's topic). The idea is unquestionably a sin, and the Tradition of the Church, with the witness of Scripture, condemns it.

Some of what I've read here suggests that NFP is morally licit precisely because there is at least the possibility of conception. That is, NFP is okay because it doesn't work very well, but ACP is not okay, because it does work? That doesn't seem very logical, or for that matter honest.

Not really. The point is, rather, that in working with nature one is not working counter to God. The fact that the possibility is there, however remote, at least leaves something up to the Lord, should it please him, to make a child. The other always tries to prevent his work.

Nonetheless, our whole society is sick, and Christians need to think differently in a very radical way. We need to recover the witness of scripture, that the man who fears the Lord is blessed by having his quiver full of children, many children around his table like olive plants.

Even people who want to have children seem, in this day and age, to assign to children the purpose of fulfilling the parent's selfish desires. The children are supposed to be part of what makes the adults feel complete or happy. The idea of having children in order to love them and bring them up in the fear and nurture of the Lord has disappeared. One imagines that within another generation that has this mentality, there will be a period to dispose of unwanted children, those who are felt to be a disappointment, like returning a defective product and getting one's money back.

The Church needs to think exactly counter to the world, contra mundum.

welshmann said...

Fr. Hart:

Since you've posted the second in the series, I suppose that this exchange may be over, but I didn't want to go off topic by posting on the second item in the series, since it has a different emphasis.

I am concerned that maybe some of my questions were more like debate and less like conversation; that was certainly not my intent. Also, I think I heartily agree with what I take to be your larger point: the gospel is so completely alien to what the world knows and understands, we cannot afford to accommodate the world's agenda in any way. Our beliefs about sex and sexuality are fundamentally incompatible with those of the world we live in, and that distinction cannot and must not be glossed over.

I take as proven then, that the historic church has always maintained that intentional contraception--a redundancy, since contraception by definition must be intentional--is a sin. I also take as proven that the distinction you've observed between non-conception and contraception is an important one.

My only remaining hesitation concerns the permissibility of artificial means to accomplish non-conception. Re your response to my earlier comment about the remaining possibility of conception when using NFP:

"Not really. The point is, rather, that in working with nature one is not working counter to God. The fact that the possibility is there, however remote, at least leaves something up to the Lord, should it please him, to make a child. The other always tries to prevent his work."

But it was always up to the Lord anyway, regardless of the measures taken by human beings to prevent conception, because God is always in control. He can, for example, make elderly post-menopausal and even virginal women conceive! So the question is not, whether we must leave some of our family planning up to God. We could never do otherwise. I think the question is, whether the use of AFP is necessarily premised on a sinful state of mind that purports to deny God's control over the matter. I just cannot see how AFP would be different from any other artificial means we might use to manipulate the natural world. Every artifice of man is subject to a sinful use, and it may be that some artifices are expressly forbidden in all cases anyway, but no one seems to be saying that either God by revelation or the church by universal consent has ever actually forbidden AFP as such.

So it's still a sticking point for me, but I think I have at least understood the important non-versus-con distinction.


Fr. Robert Hart said...

Well, of course it is always up to the Lord. But, here we are discussing the heart and intention of man. Herod thought to frustrate the purpose of God, and every such attempt shares the nature of sin and futility. The attitude of the heart matters for us as a moral reality, for those who know that God is all powerful and are glad to know it, and those who want somehow to resist.

Contraception may very well serve as a perfect expression of that desire to resist.

welshmann said...