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Humanae Vitae Apologists Still Aren’t Making Sense

September 29, 2012

In my quest to come to terms with Catholic sexual morality, I have poured over countless essays by lay apologists and professional theologians. Like a gambler pumping coins into a slot machine, I read each essay with the hope that maybe—just maybe—this will be the time I hit the jackpot: a clear understanding of the rationale behind Humanae Vitae. So far, no luck.

Part of the challenge is that, with a few notable exceptions (e.g. Christopher West), lay apologists shy away from making full throated defenses of the encyclical. You’ll find plenty of denunciations of the HHS Mandate on the internet, but nary a word on why the Church has drawn such a hard line on this issue. Revealingly, Catholic sexual morality is more often than not treated by religious conservatives as a theological idiosyncracy, rather than a universal moral imperative. (Except in the gay marriage debate, where it is simply assumed to be the foundation of Western civilization.) Thus, for example, Rod Dreher compared Church teaching to Jewish dietary law in his commentary on the HHS Mandate.

While I could certainly comment on the essays I’ve photocopied out of obscure academic journals, for blogging purposes it makes more sense to focus on online content, however scant it may be. Anyhow, the difference between the two mediums, I have found, is more a matter of word count than substantive content. So to illustrate why it is I find “defenses” of Humanae vitae so exasperating, I will take an example from a recent post by Mark Shea, which epitomizes much of the literature out there on Catholic sexual morality in tone and substance. (I am not unsympathetic to Shea’s post, which makes a number of wise and insightful points.) Shea writes:

The artificial virginity of contraceptive sex boils down to the permanent attempt to strip mine the gold of pleasure from the sacramental union of love and fruitfulness, enthrone autonomy and pleasure, and declare love and fruitfulness “optional” rather than what revelation declares them to be: the very heart of reality. It is the attempt to replace love with power.

Everything in these two sentences is either a self-evident statement or an unsupported assertion. As for the latter, Shea simply assumes that contraceptive sex cannot be a union of love. For Shea, true sexual union is by definition open to fruitfulness. Why is this the case? We aren’t told. And yet the logic behind this link is precisely what Humanae Vitae skeptics such as I claim not to understand.

Even supposing Shea were to concede that contraceptive sex can amount to a union of love, all he is left saying is that contraceptive sex separates pleasure and love from fruitfulness—which is by definition true. We don’t gain any new insight. Shea simply redescribes contraceptive sex so as to imbue it with sinister overtones: on the one hand you have a “permanent attempt to strip mine the gold of pleasure”; on the other, the “sacramental union of love and fruitfulness.” While I don’t deny that Shea is a fine prose stylist, what’s missing is a substantive argument. Finally, Shea makes an appeal to revelation, which is a typical last resort for pro-Humanae Vitae apologists. We are to accept the teaching because the Church speaks for Christ. And yet the Church also wants to claim that Humanae Vitae is rooted in natural law, which any rational animal is in theory capable of grasping.

I realize that Shea’s post was not an attempt to provide a sophisticated defense of Humanae Vitae. One ought not give passing remarks the same weight as a doctoral dissertation. With that said, defenses of Humanae Vitae–whether academic or popular–never seem to rise above this level of discourse. What you typically get instead are theologicaly rich rhetorical flourishes, or self-evident statements masquerading as arguments, or reminders of the fact that Catholics are obligated to accept definitive Church teaching, or diatribes about how the hierarchy’s right to believe these things is being crushed by tyrant Obama. All diversions if you ask me.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Gabe Dybing permalink
    October 1, 2012 10:03 am

    Is it wrong for me to say I’m “happy” to see you critiquing this, Josh?

    I don’t have much to add other than this post put me in mind of some comments from a recent visitor to Winona State University – Dan Savage. 🙂 Of course I doubt many of your readers here will accept Savage as any kind of authority – he champions EVERYTHING that Humanae Vitae, apparently, opposes – but he claims that humans have sex about an average of a thousand times (I can’t remember the precise number) for every single live birth. He concludes from this that sex is for pleasure.

    I recognize that this “evidence” (mostly just an observation) isn’t substantially more convincing than any of the points you’ve made about Shea’s argument, but I would say –

    YEAH, sex is totally for pleasure. My INDIVIDUAL response to this discussion can be summarily stated this way: BUT I WANT TO HAVE SEX. SEX IS SEXY. HAVING A KID RIGHT NOW (OR ANOTHER ONE), THOUGH, IS NOT. I guess I like strip-mining the gold, and if that ain’t love, then, well, who cares?

    • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
      October 2, 2012 10:38 pm

      Hey Gabe!

      If you haven’t yet seen this Bloggingheads exchange between Dan Savage and Ross Douthat, I would definitely recommend checking it out. Savage wins the debate, hands down. That said, I do think a compelling critique can be made of the modern tendency to accept technology (e.g. contraception) as an unequivocal good and to turn sex into consumerism. It’s too bad, in a way, that religious conservatives–preoccupied as they are with iron clad moral laws–aren’t making that critique. Perhaps I will try my hand at it sometime soon.

      As for my readers, having wandered into an ideological no man’s land, I sometimes wonder what sort of bizarre creature would find this blog engaging. Certainly, I haven’t won many friends in conservative Catholic circles.

      Thanks for reading. I’d love to return the favor, assuming you’re still writing fiction.

      • Gabe Dybing permalink
        October 3, 2012 10:55 am

        Well, you can definitely count me in as one of your bizarre creatures. It’s rare that I find bloggers so thoughtful and substantial – not to mention consistent. So many bloggers seem to think that their readers will be interested in a list of links to curiosities they “liked” that day.

        And thanks for the offer to return the reading “favor.” Trust me, I already have my reward. But I’ll keep you in mind on that score.

        And some time ago I caught myself up on your little fracas with the ACS. Trust me, it was great entertainment! And for the record, I wholly agree with you. I haven’t been to one of their conferences since… well, since the one and only one I ever attended at St. Thomas back during the time of Moses. And if the society wants to argue that they aren’t co-opted by the religious right, well then, I’m not sure exactly what it was I was seeing when Mark and Louise Zwick of the Houston Catholic Workers tried to say a few things… Outright hostility from the capitalists in the audience, in my opinion. And again, this was generations ago. I’m only too likely to believe that the current situation is exactly the way you describe, considering the political climate these days.

        Seriously. I learned the other day that the “Church” is taking Kyrie Eleison time to actively pray for the passage of this Minnesotan marriage amendment. First they lose me ideologically. Now, because of a lack of human compassion or “fairness,” they probably have lost me forever.

      • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
        October 3, 2012 5:12 pm

        Thanks for the encouragement. It means a lot!

        From what I’ve observed, there is tension emerging between the Chestertonians and the pro-capitalist EWTN crowd. Thus, for example, when Kevin O’ Brien predicted that Raymond Arroyo would go soft on Romney in an upcoming interview, EWTN viewers went ballistic, threatening the network that, in O’ Brien’s words, “You must choose between airing Kevin O’Brien or airing Raymond Arroyo. You can’t put them both on the air.”

        So Catholic theocons don’t really buy into neocon warmongering and unbridled capitalism. Their big concern is social issues and what they call religious liberty. Catholic neocons care about these things too, but are typically more beholden to Republican orthodoxy than to Catholicism. As Mark Shea has pointed out, these folks insist that a vote for a Republican is a vote against abortion–even when that candidate’s track record provides clear evidence otherwise!

        Despite this tension, the power dynamic is such that neocons hold the reins. (I’m not sure why this is, though money is the obvious suspect.) Hence, O’ Brien responded to criticism from EWTN viewers by taking down the offending post and pledging never to speak ill of ETWN again. Hence, ACS conferences tend to pander to neocons in the audience with lots of rhetoric about the family and the threat of Islam–issues on which the two strands of conservatism have considerable overlap. Finally, as for the Catholic bishops, there is no doubt in my mind that they are in the tank for Romney.

        It’s pretty disheartening.

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