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On Contraception and Ham Sandwiches

May 28, 2012

What is the basis for the Catholic Church’s ban on contraception: arbitrary papal decree or the valid reasoning of Catholic philosophers? Until very recently, I thought I knew the answer to that question; now, I’m not so sure.

On the one hand, a tradition going back to Aquinas defines contraception as a “sin against nature.” If adequately defended, Aquinas’ definition would seem to provide a philosophical basis for the contraception ban. The best attempt of which I am aware to do this is the eloquent, if unpersuasive essay Contraception and Chastity by respected Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. Here is the gist of Anscombe’s argument:

But contraceptive intercourse is faulted . . . because of the kind of intentional action you are doing. The action is not left by you as the kind of act by which life is transmitted, but is purposely rendered infertile, and so changed to another sort of act altogether.

Why, exactly, it is that intercourse ought not be rendered into an infertile act, Anscombe does not explain. Her essay should nevertheless not be judged too harshly: for no one seems to have articulated the Church’s reasoning in this regard.

The merits of Anscombe’s argument aside, it is at least an argument and that, it seems to me, is the right place to start. The alternative would be to characterize the contraception ban as an arbitrary religious prohibition; as the Catholic version of Jewish dietary laws. Not long ago, Rod Dreher framed his opposition to the HHS Mandate in these terms, likening the Church to a small sect of Orthodox Jews who “because of their hard-to-understand (to you, at least) religious rules, have to walk to their synagogue on the Sabbath.” At the time, I was sharply critical of Dreher’s post, which seemed to me a blatant misrepresentation of the Church’s position.

And yet if there was something more to the contraception ban than papal decree, Catholic opponents of the HHS ruling were not saying what that something was, instead devoting all of their energies to insisting on Church’s right to religious liberty. Despite my critique of Dreher, I began to suspect that I was giving the Church credit where it was not due.

Still, I was apparently not alone in believing that what mattered most in the debate over the HHS ruling was not tolerance, but truth. Over at the Front Porch Republic, Patrick J. Deneen made a powerful critique of the Right’s rhetoric of religious liberty. According to Deenan:

The Church does not seek to propound its teachings as a matter of internal belief solely for its faith adherents: it claims that its teachings are true as a matter of human good. The teachings regarding birth control are not simply a peculiar faith tradition that is thought to apply to adherents of Catholicism; it is a teaching that Catholicism hopes and intends to be adopted by all people, regardless of their faith tradition. The strictures concerning birth control are not propounded as a “faith-based” peculiarity applicable only to Catholics, like Jewish dietary laws, but as a considered position concerning the Church’s deepest understanding of the human good – one that can be, and has been, framed in terms that are intended to be accessible and persuasive to non-Catholics.

I was also encouraged when Mark Shea, who has been one of the more strident rhetoricians of religious liberty, had the good sense to acknowledge that, supposing the Church’s reasoning is correct:

. . . framing the whole matter of contraception as *solely* a religious liberty issue overlooks the fact that contraception is *morally* wrong (meaning harmful to human persons, not merely a sort of ritually impure act like eating pork would be for a Jew). In failing to make that case, we run the risk of making opposition to contraception a mere “Catholic thing” instead of showing that it is, in fact, an anti-human thing.

What I didn’t realize until the latest edition of Commonweal arrived at my doorstep last week was that the hierarchy itself seems to be conceding that the contraception ban is not a universal moral norm, but a Catholic cultic one. Why else would Bishop William Lori in his statement at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s hearing liken the refusal of Catholic institutions to cover contraception to a refusal on the part of a Jewish deli to serve ham sandwiches? Patrick J. Deneen and Mark Shea may not think of contraception as the Catholic equivalent of ritual impurity, but Bishop Lori apparently does.

This, as I mentioned, I learned about just days ago in Cathleen Kaveny’s fine article in Commonweal, which asks: “is the ban on contraception just an identity marker?” Until now, I assumed that the answer to be a resounding “no,” but it would seem that one of the most highest ranking members of the American Catholic hierarchy thinks otherwise. Kaveny draws the obvious conclusion:

A hundred years from now, no one will remember the political skirmishes around religious liberty during the 2012 presidential campaign. But some future historians of Catholic moral theology might point to Bishop Lori’s testimony as a turning point, marking the moment when the church’s official teachers began to concede that the prohibition against contraception could plausibly be defended no longer as a matter of a universal moral law, but only as a cultic precept binding on Catholics. Four decades after Humanae vitae, that prohibition looks increasingly like a form of Catholic kashrut.

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