The (Faulty) Logic of the Contraception Ban
I think a lot of Catholics can follow the argument that contraceptive use is an occasion of sin, or even that it reflects a kind of “social sin” (to borrow the jargon of progressive Catholicism for a moment), but then still have trouble getting all the way to the logic of the absolute ban, or grasping the distinction between barrier methods and fertility charting as means of regulating family size. Which is why, more than in other instances, the Church’s leadership tends to fall back on the arguments from tradition and authority: You rarely hear Catholic bishops saying of abortion, “we won’t change the teaching because we can’t change the teaching,” but you’re more likely to hear that argument when the subject turns to birth control, because (I suspect) they’re less confident about the other arguments at their disposal.
If Douthat has reservations about the ban on contraception, he is at least in agreement with the Church on gay marriage, against which he has written eloquently, if unconvincingly in recent months. What Douthat forgets is that the same faulty logic underpinning the ban on contraception also underpins the Church’s ban on gay marriage. The Church rests its case against both on Aristotelian teleology, according to which the “final cause” of human sexuality is procreation. Procreation is, according to this view, what nature is trying to accomplish through sexual activity, and it is therefore “unnatural” to frustrate such an end through contraception, gay sex, masturbation, and the like. (Natural family planning somehow counts as an exception.) Supposing, however, that the Aristotelian premise is false, sex between a gay couple can be deemed no more “unnatural” than sex between a straight couple using contraception.
But is it false? For most of us, the question never really arises, since, beginning with Descartes, modern science and philosophy has rejected Aristotle — particularly his notion of formal and final causes. At the same time, as Alasdair MacIntyre has shown, modern philosophy fails to establish any secure basis for morality and is thus vulnerable to the argument that our moral beliefs are merely rationalizations for self-interest or subjective preference. So perhaps there is something to Aristotle after all.
Yet even if we accept the Aristotelian framework, the Church’s position on contraception remains problematic. The Church assumes that biology alone determines the final cause of sex, as though its final cause couldn’t possibly be redirected in order to better suit human needs. Notice, however, that unless the Church wants to treat sex is a unique case, it follows that genetically modified food and financial innovation are likewise absolute evils, since they too involve redirecting final causes. Clearly, the Church’s instincts are right about contraception: as with stock market derivatives or plant breeding, contraception involves a dramatic human intervention in natural processes, the effects of which are unpredictable and potentially disastrous. At the same time, insisting that natural phenomena have fixed essences and final causes that must not be tampered with closes off any possibility of genuine progress.
We must somehow find a middle road between a mindless embrace of progress and a dogmatic insistence that essences are unchanging.
Despite the consensus among so-called conservatives, the argument against homosexuality is actually much weaker than the argument against contraception. This is because homosexuality does not so much interfere with nature — which, as stated above, raises legitimate concerns — as use it in an abnormal way. In order to oppose homosexuality, one would have to insist that the final cause of sex is inviolable and absolute. But this is absurd. The “final cause” of a basketball is, teleologically speaking, to be dribbled, passed, and — if all goes well — shot through a hoop. But supposing I stuff it under my shirt to feign pregnancy or use it as the head of a dummy or make one half of it into a fruit bowl, have I thereby “misused” the basketball? Clearly not. Rather, basketballs exist to serve human purposes and not vice versa. (Of course, it is possible to misuse a basketball by, say, tossing it through my neighbor’s bedroom window.) As with basketballs, so with the body.
Whatever its limitations, the Catholic argument is at least coherent, which is more than can be said of the conservative and Protestant arguments (e.g. “marriage is between a man and a woman because marriage is between a man and a woman”). There just isn’t a good reason to single out homosexuals as unworthy of a marriage ideal that has, in so many other respects, been liberalized and modernized.